Darkness Visible

As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames
No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe...

-- John Milton, Paradise Lost

The creature in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a far cry from the lumbering oaf portrayed by Boris Karloff in the movies.  Assembled from charnel-house parts and then abandoned to wander the desolate highlands, the unnamed creature in Shelley's gothic horror tale decides to curl up with a good book -- and not just any book.  He tackles Milton’s Paradise Lost and is struck by the unhappy contrast between Adam’s lot and his own.  God has made Adam in his own image, a perfect creature who enjoys the special care of his Creator.  Victor Frankenstein had dreamed that “a new species would bless me as its creator and source.”  Yet he flees in terror and disgust at the quickening of the “demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life.”  Notwithstanding his hideous appearance, the creature recognizes, as Frankenstein does not, that he also has been formed in the image of his creator.

Frankenstein is one of a number of notable literary works written before the era of Freud and Jung in which a psychological double or "shadow" self is created to embody the dark forces of the unconscious.  In Goethe’s Faust, published ten years before Shelley’s work, the protagonist laments: “Two souls, alas, reside within my breast/And each withdraws from and repels its brother.”  By contract, Victor Frankenstein and his creation are one soul in two bodies: he is all ego, his creature all id.   Frankenstein has been driven to the point of obsession by his desire to learn the secrets of heaven and earth, but he is wholly unprepared to deal with the consequences once his ambitions are realized.  His creature is compelled to act on every impulse that Frankenstein denies in himself. The more strongly his creator identifies with his “enlightened” self and rejects his misbegotten progeny, the more he condemns the creature to rage in darkness. 

Robert Jay Lifton found that doctors assigned to the Nazi death camps commonly developed a second self that enabled them to adapt to conditions of psychological extremity, a phenomenon he called “doubling.”  These were not separate personalities as such but nearly autonomous selves that embodied opposing tendencies of a single personality.  Thus, a physician sworn to uphold the Hippocratic oath could adopt an “Auschwitz” self whose job was to kill his patients even as he  continued to regard himself as a good doctor and family man.  Just as Jewish “special squads” were forced to operate the gas chambers and ovens to assuage the consciences of their oppressors, so the Nazi doctors were able to delegate certain distasteful tasks to their murderous alter egos in order to escape the burden of guilt.  In his studies of the divided self in literature and folklore, Otto Rank, an associate of Freud, noted that guilt “forces the hero no longer to accept the responsibility for certain actions of his ego, but to place it upon another ego, a double, who is either personified by the devil himself or is created by making a diabolical pact.”

To tame this devil, one must make friends with him, for there is no other path to the integration of self.  "I am thy creature," cries Frankenstein's orphaned child, "and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me….I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous."

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein – Or, The Modern Prometheus
Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors

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