But there are reasons to be online and good stuff to read, watch and listen to. For example, if you haven’t watched and listened to the Steve Jobs commencement speech video yet, get with it. How many videos do I watch online a year? Fewer than a dozen, I assure you, but this one is top of my recommendation list.
Getting back to books, though, here’s what absorbed me for an hour or two the other day:
Mary Wollstonecraft and Percy Bysshe Shelley married in 1816 after his first wife, Harriet, died a suicide by drowning. Percy and Harriet had been estranged for two years prior to her death, but Harriet’s suicide took place only after her husband had run away with the 17-year-old Mary.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is famous as the author of classic horror novel, Frankenstein, which appeared in 1818, subtitled The Modern Prometheus. In this story, faithful to the original, young Frankenstein steals not mere fire as in the Greek myth but life itself, cobbling together a monster from purloined body parts stolen from morgues and graveyards and bringing his creation to life with “galvanism” (which Webster’s defines as “a direct current of electricity esp. when produced by chemical action”). Everyone knows what became of Frankenstein’s monster. Here is the story as given in The Reader’s Encyclopedia, by William Rose Benet:
Longing for sympathy and shunned by everyone, the creature ultimately turns to evil and brings dreadful retribution on the student for usurping the Creator’s prerogative, finally destroying him.
But then in 1820 came Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, a drama in which Prometheus is released from the mountain where he was chained by Zeus as a punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to human beings. Reunited with his true love, he is vindicated in having gone against Zeus, and a new Golden Age ensues. Down with the gods, up with the humans! seemed to be Shelley’s message. Quite a different message from that of the myth and of Mary’s story.
Following their marriage, Mary and Percy Shelley lost three infant children before having a daughter who survived. Mary suffered, understandably, from depression. Percy sought consolation with other women. The bloom was off the rose. Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned (an accident, apparently, rather than a suicide) in 1822 while still a young man. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley lived on until 1851.
What would either of them make of today’s experimentation with cloning and genetic engineering? In hindsight, what fate would they think Prometheus deserved? Did Mary come to wish Percy had felt himself more bound (to her), not quite so free to overthrow convention and tradition, once the shoe was on the other foot and the consequences come home to roost?
So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein—more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.