Maybe … there is always another story / better unsaid, grim or flat or predatory.
In 2011, a team of American researchers used astronomical data to solve a literary-historical puzzle: the date when Mary Shelley came up with the idea for her gothic masterpiece Frankenstein.* Cross-checking journals and autobiography against the historical phases of the Moon, the scholars were able to pinpoint not only the day but the exact hour at which the novel’s plot was hatched, 200 years ago, in the month of June, 1816.
Frankenstein is a tale of obsession, creation and responsibility, which is why the author’s introduction gives a detailed account of how it was first conceived. The story she tells has become part of the novel’s mythology: while staying in a rented house on the outskirts of Geneva, the Shelleys were regular guests of Lord Byron at Villa Diodati, in nearby Cologny. One evening Byron proposed to his guests that each of them write a ghost story. Mary cast about for a plot until an idea finally came to her in a “waking dream” following a late-night discussion at Byron’s villa some days later. Crucially, the author describes her bedroom at the moment she opened her eyes in alarm.
The idea so possessed my mind that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still: the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps were beyond.**
Given the phases of the Moon during the week in question, and factoring in the 15° incline of the hillside at Montalègre, the site of the Shelley house, the authors of “The Moon and the Origins of Frankenstein” conclude that Mary could only have seen the moonlight she describes on June 16th, 1816, between the hours of 2 and 3 in the morning.
Frankenstein’s 200th anniversary is inspiring events and commemorations of all kinds, from the latest cinematic rehash Victor Frankenstein (“You know this story,” says the voice-over), to last May’s grandiose Royal Ballet production, to various academic conferences, including the symposium “Frankenstein’s Shadow” held in Geneva this June. As for myself, I wondered what kind of commemorations were in store for the bicentennial hour of the novel’s inspiration, at the very place and time of its creation?
On June 15th, 2016, I boarded a plane for Geneva. My friend Géraldine met me at the airport and was keen to join in on the excursion. Late that evening storm cells moved into Geneva from the southwest, and by midnight there was lightning when we set out for Cologny. At 1 am the rain was coming down hard. Next to Villa Diodati, where a hillside park lends fine views of the city, the lake, and the Jura mountains, the usual tourists and groups of teenagers were missing. A single lighted window could be seen at the Villa, but the surrounding area was deserted.
Cologny today is one of the world’s most exclusive addresses, but fields and vineyards still recall its old village character. We were surprised by cows among the trees as we headed down the hill to the site of the Shelley house. A lone window was lit at the property next door. Only the lower level of the Shelley house still remains; Mary’s former bedroom would be located within the dark void described by the building’s rectangular footprint, a space in tumult now, raked by sheets of rain and buffeting wind.
We stayed until the historic hour, intent on the returning occasion, but feeling the familiar sense of a commemoration’s fastidious uselessness. This one was more elusive than most. After all, we were marking the moment of a passing fancy that might have come to nothing; the author’s first response to her idea, she says, was to try to put it out of her mind. And yet, that moment of inspiration — including the will to erase it — was significant enough that Mary incorporated it into the novel, when Victor, strangely enough, takes a nap immediately after his creature first opens its eyes and begins to stir. This somewhat implausible sequence of events seems dictated by the author’s need to restage the scene of her inspiration at Montalègre, including the Moon at the window.
I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds… (106).
The author’s memory of “the closed shutters with the moonlight struggling through” becomes in this scene a light that “forced its way through the window shutters.” Even the creature’s own account of his coming to consciousness in the amazing Chapter 11 includes descriptions of a violent, piercing light:
By degrees, I remember, a stronger light pressed upon my nerves, so that I was obliged to shut my eyes. Darkness then came over me and troubled me, but hardly had I felt this when, by opening my eyes, as I now suppose, the light poured in upon me again (148).
Few stories have had to endure as many faithless and inept adaptations as Mary Shelley’s philosophical tale. And yet, the scene of the author’s inspiration suggests that Mary herself was the first to repeat, adapt and retranslate her story, “rehashing” it, so to speak. But what story would that be?
In the case study of one of his most famous patients, the Wolf Man, Freud narrows in on a crucial transformative event in the patient’s life. “The date of this transformation can be stated with certainty,” Freud says, “… But the event which makes this division possible was not an external trauma, but a dream.” Citing this passage, Jean Laplanche exclaims, “What a strange history of events, in which one of the turning-points is a purely internal event!”*** Without discounting that “moments in time, situated and dated, constitute essential reference points” in a person’s life story, Laplanche’s exclamation emphasizes how mental events, understood psychoanalytically, constitute an object of inquiry quite distinct from that of historical research. “What he is aiming at,” Laplanche says of Freud’s work, “is a kind of history of the unconscious, or rather of its genesis; a history with discontinuities, in which the moments of burial and resurgence are the most important of all; a history, it might be said, of repression.”
Such a “history of repression” breaks radically with literal-minded attempts to reconstruct life-events in that the defining occurrences in a patient’s psychological history are always caught up in a dynamic process of interpretation. What the patient is compelled to interpret, or “translate,” in Laplanche’s terminology, are the formative experiences of their early life in which he or she was the receiver of strange, unbidden messages from an adult caregiver: messages that were traumatic because enigmatic, and enigmatic because sexual and deriving from the adult’s unconscious. There need not be physical abuse for such events to be traumatic, though the subject’s affective impression can be one of unwanted seduction or forced entry; as Laplanche says, the subject’s compulsive rememoration “has its origin in the forcible entry of the other and in the need to bind this forcible entry: the other (der Andere) of the enigmatic message in infancy, and then that internal ‘other thing’ (das Andere) that is the unconscious” (166).
Biographers have plenty of material in Mary Shelley’s biography with which to interpret the haunting and traumatic features of her Frankenstein. But limiting ourselves to the story’s inception, one notes an insistence on themes of violent intrusion suggestive of Laplanche’s general theory of seduction. The Moon seems to serve as metaphorical displacement of this violence, “struggling through” the shutters in Mary’s bedroom, and in the analogous scene from the novel, “forc[ing] its way through the window shutters.” The authors of “The Moon and the Origins of Frankenstein” are alert to these parallels but they do not notice that Shelley’s descriptions here combine the mental tableau of the monster’s creation with the attempt to erase that frightful picture; as she said of the moment of inspiration, she “wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around.” Those “realities” are the specific details of the moonlit room at Montalègre which persist as if immune to time: many years later, the author says, “I see them still.”
To adopt a formula of John Fletcher’s, Shelley’s moonlit room is “a scene played out with all the immediacy of a present event.”**** As a “scene,” however, it is far from static; rather, following Laplanche, it includes both “genesis” and “burial,” “resurgence” and “repression,” composed as it is of troubling signs in conflict, and translated as best as the dreamer can, such as the “inarticulate sounds” muttered by the creature at Victor’s bedside, or the enigmatic meaning of his monstrous countenance as “a grin wrinkled his cheeks” (106).
Frankenstein’s countless adaptations testify to the story’s rich allegorical suggestiveness and its almost unique status as touchstone of our cultural modernity. But narrative adaptations no doubt tap into what was already “translated” by the author at the outset. What drives the need to commemorate, adapt and “rehash” the story may be a compulsion to retranslate that which remains opaque in Shelley’s most stirring passages and so to return to the original place and time of her patchwork creation.
* Donald W. Olson et al., “The Moon and the Origins of Frankenstein,” Sky and Telescope, November 2011: 69-74.
** Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Penguin, 1985), 59.
*** Jean Laplanche, “Interpretation between Determinism and Hermeneutics,” in Essays on Otherness, John Fletcher, trans. (London: Routledge, 1999), 150.
**** John Fletcher, Freud and the Scene of Trauma (New York: Fordham, 2013).