The Creature and Society, Transcribed and edited by Robert Ziller

SUSAN: What would Shakespeare have done with Frankenstein? As a character.

JILL: He would've made Frankenstein royalty. A lot of Shakespeare's kings are really no less monstrous than Frankenstein. Leontes, for example, or Lear --

ROBERT: Or he might've made Frankenstein an actor who is so exhausted by his own personhood that he decides to become a monster.

JILL: I'd like to know what Frankenstein would've done with Shakespeare...?

SUSAN: There were only two kinds of creatures in Frankenstein's world: women and enemies, and --

ROBERT: So essentially Frankenstein was a proto-feminist, then?

JILL: You are Frankenstein, Robert.

SUSAN: What does the Frankenstein story tell us? For one thing that once someone is dead, you should let them stay dead. Imagine being freed from earthly existence and inhabiting the warm ubiquitous glow of the afterlife; suddenly some mad scientist back on earth puts your brain into a corpse, gives it a jolt of electricity, and all of a sudden your soul is sucked out of the afterlife and plugged into this earthly body. But now you have no spirit with which to relate to the world. And probably no real mind, so you're just --

JILL: I think the problem with Dr. Frankenstein -- the monster's creator -- was that he had no appreciation of Frankenstein the monster _as a person_; he was interested in the monster just insofar as he embodied a scientific experiment. Dr. Frankenstein was a lot like a behaviorist; an early B.F. Skinner, only considerably more original than Skinner.

ROBERT: Wait a minute, Jill; how could Dr. Frankenstein have related to his creation as a person? He wasn't a person, he was a monster.

JILL: Well, what exactly makes a person?

ROBERT: Come on!

JILL: No, really. If you say for example that someone's gay because he has such-and-such condition in his hypothalamus, someone's violent because of such-and-such chromosomes, someone drinks lots of alcohol because they have such-and-such chemical imbalance, well then...where is there room left for a person?

SUSAN: Can I interrupt? I want to steer this away from becoming an unentertaining philosophical debate.

ROBERT: Just one more note on that, please. What did Frankenstein want? He wanted a room with no fire in it, enough food to eat, and a mate. That was the full extent of his ambition. That hardly seems very human to me.

JILL: Well, what you've just described are the goals of most ordinary people. We decorate those three main goals -- food, shelter, sensuality -- with all sorts of rituals, but really that's what our lives boil down to.

SUSAN: Let me broach this idea: Could Frankenstein ever have been integrated into society? What would happen if he were created today? Certainly we're much closer to being able to animate dead matter today than we were a hundred years ago.

JILL: Well I think American society has developed extraordinarily sophisticated techniques for modifying deviant personalities. In some cases it works backwards; social pressures instead of imposing uniformity on a divergent person end up pushing him or her further away from the norm, and that often leads to criminality.

SUSAN: As does forced uniformity, though often in different ways.

JILL: I think if Frankenstein were alive today, he might be turned into a "normal" individual. You could see him eating a banana split at the ice cream parlor, or wearing Nikes; you could see him working at a bookstore, or --

ROBERT: Or teaching at a university, or singing in a choir. Frankenstein could be a celebrity, like on MTV --

JILL: No, Frankenstein's personality is too strong, he wouldn't make a good celebrity. Celebrities obliterate their real personalities in order to adapt to current fashions; once they learn a particular vogue way of acting and looking, society embraces them, revels in them overnight, then spits them away. And most celebrities can only mold themselves to one single fashion; once they come to be associated with that one...context, they seem out of place in any other context. And anyway, how many times can you transform yourself without becoming vacuous? So most celebrities only remain hip for several years. Then after that they're worse than obsolete; they're embarrassing. They're contemptible. The society that cherished them for becoming mindless instruments of titillation now hates them for having had such low standards. Society will never forgive them. And in their own souls, they can never escape the fact that they were once in the Partridge Family, or on Gilligan's Island, or whatever.

ROBERT: But there are also people who become celebrities just because they have such charming personalities, because they're --

JILL: Oh, they're even worse off! Their personalities become public property and their status as private individuals is wrecked.

SUSAN: Taking your reasoning through a slightly different turn, Jill, I think some people might see all celebrities as Frankensteins; manufactured creatures.

ROBERT: But speaking of Frankenstein not being able to be a celebrity, in the past decade or so we've seen several movies dealing with Frankenstein.

JILL: Well but that's not to say that Frankenstein is in fact a celebrity; he's just a role that anyone can fill so long as she or he adheres to the basic Frankensteinian guidelines on monsterhood. Anyone can be Frankenstein in this society, just like anyone can -- theoretically -- be President.

SUSAN: You said "she or he." Let's talk about Frankenstein's bride. Was the monster couple capable of having a family?

ROBERT: And if so, what church would they have joined? What would their politics have been? Could Frankenstein himself have become President?

SUSAN: I thought the '80 and '84 elections answered that...

JILL: Well, again, I think if Frankenstein were alive today we'd be hard pressed to distinguish him -- at least on the surface -- from an ordinary man.

SUSAN: So you're saying, Jill, that like Dr. Frankenstein who just wasn't interested in what you called the personhood of his monster and therefore totally ignored him, contemporary society essentially does the same thing to its individuals by forcing them to obey some picture of the model citizen?

JILL: More or less; I don't think --

ROBERT: That notion's belied by the fact that our society has such admiration for true individuals, such as Frank Zappa, Henry David Thoreau, Ross Perot, --

JILL: Well on what grounds do you consider them true individuals? It seems to me they're just magnifications of features of our social consciousness which may not be obvious, but which are nevertheless very in keeping with our national character. When you get real individuals, like Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Polly Baker, these people are hounded by government agents, periodically imprisoned -- as was Thoreau. Essentially their lives are spent at war with their society.

ROBERT: But those people were genuine threats to the social order -- for good or for bad. How do you think Frankenstein would threaten us?

JILL: He'd threaten us in our self-identity. He'd show us that we're just as monstrous as any of the horror-movie monsters we've imagined.

ROBERT: Isn't it just extraordinary that human beings actually spend time sitting around worrying about their own status as beings? Why is this so important to us? Would a true monster go through this ontological insecurity?

JILL: I think the Frankenstein story tells us this: Lighten up; take it easy; live and let live; the world is full of evil, so stay away from it as much as possible. Aside from that, just relax and enjoy life.

ROBERT: That is a such a shallow hedonistic interpretation! How can you think that?

SUSAN: Before we go any further, I'd like to thank you both; we are out of time.

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