Saturday, July 31, 2010

The N-Spot: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus

In her provocative anti-war tract Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf again and again invokes a horrific wartime newspaper photograph, manipulating (to good purpose, mind you) the delicate sensibilities of her readership. However, as she reminds us, the figure responsible for the pictured atrocities—this shadowy, gargantuan figure we might call ‘Tyrant’ or ‘Dictator’—cannot be wholly disavowed by members of ‘respectable society.’ The ‘Tyrant’ is not entirely other to those capable of ‘identifying’ him, as such. Indeed, for Woolf the photograph itself “suggests a connection…that the public and private worlds are inseparably connected; that the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other…It suggests that we cannot dissociate ourselves from that figure but are ourselves that figure.” The division of parts, the distinction between the oppressor and the oppressed, the good and the bad cop, dissolves under pressure; such lucid myths cannot hold.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus seems to me to provocatively prefigure this sentiment. For, despite your—or my—expectations, Shelley’s Frankenstein is no drive-in monster movie. Dismiss visions of rectangular greenish skulls, inconvenient steel bolts, and incomprehensible low-throated grunts. There is a dash of suspense here; a spine-shiver or three there; but the tale is horrifying more pointedly in the way that campfire stories chill the childlike sense of wonder we persistently retain. In fact, the story evidently originated in a scene rather like that, around the eerie glow of the campfire, though I suppose most of us cannot boast winning three-legged races or battles for the top bunk against Percy Shelley or Lord Byron.

The body count is relatively high for such a highbrow novel, but the chief terror of this novel is its indictment of an ambitious, seemingly charmed intellectual who presumes to play god. Frankenstein (Victor, the creator; the monster has no name) believes he has discovered an antidote to the usual cycles of life—birth and death—or at least unearthed paths that obviate the conventional route humans trek along. When the creature that emerges from his unethical (or at least blasphemous, if you go in for that sort of thing—and I don’t) experimentation turns out to be visually repulsive, Frankenstein abandons him to the cruelties of the human world and subsequently expects his own life to resume its usual motions. Indeed, it is this conflict that tends to be left unmentioned when people speak of Frankenstein—or at the least, it was a tension in the novel that I was more or less unprepared for (particularly seeing as I consider myself a fairly well-informed ‘literary’ type).

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Aural-gasm: Scissor Sisters, "Night Work"

I’m less of a music snob than you likely believe me to be; in fact, if you’d asked me two months ago, I probably would have confused the Scissor Sisters with Le Tigre or some other hazily riot grrl band. On a whim I grabbed their first two albums, which quickly became my personal soundtrack as I danced around my apartment, packed it up, moved to my new one, stomped through the streets of Cambridge, sat in coffeeshops around Harvard Square tapping my foot wildly, &co&co. It was as if I’d returned to my old haunt—The Wave, in Norfolk, and found myself woozy and suddenly dancing on stage. Fortunately, the sheer fun of listening to the band dispelled the melancholy of homesickness, and I eagerly anticipated their new one—enter Night Work. Whether you’ve never heard of them—or you have—or you hate them—or you hate music on principle—you should feel obligated to allow this album at least two listens, and come to the revelation that no other album will as perfectly slide into the discomforting heat and ennui of this summer.

Imagine your favorite dance-band revisiting Footloose, Dirty Dancing, and Flashdance, tossing in a stash of poppers and meth, twisting it with a healthy dose of anonymous semen, and finally emerging from that skeezy back-alley to keep on dancing. This is, without question, a rather naughty album; one to dance to, certainly, but more importantly, one to fuck to. It’s got the energy and the Velveeta-drip of the 80s but brings with it the tainted despair of our post-romance, post-social, post-internet age. The album runneth over with runaways, hookers, “sexual gladiators” (as Ian McKellen so wisely says on the album’s final track), tweakers, dirty dancers, terrifyingly deluded stalkers, and lovers who will almost certainly never see one another again (or if they do, say on the T for instance, they’ll studiously avoid one another’s eyes and continue to cruise the other passengers).