For years, the haunting specter of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster disturbed readers’ sleep and terrorized moviegoers. Then director Mel Brooks and actor Peter Boyle turned him into a lovable yet clumsy klutz in Young Frankenstein. I’m not sure that Mary Shelley would have been entirely pleased. She wasn’t writing comedy. Shelley was instead imagining whether a “universal life force” exists that makes us capable of creating new human life. And since the arts get there first (I’ll explain this in a moment), Frankenstein plays a part in why Easter has lost some of its luster.
The former Mary Wollstonecroft Godwin met Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1812 when she visited her father at his bookshop. Percy’s life was a piece of work. Unhappily married to his ailing wife Harriet, he was a poet and into “free love” as was Mary. Percy and Mary discovered a kinship for literature, philosophy and sex. It came as no surprise when they took off for France in the summer of 1814 leaving Shelley’s frail wife behind. He never saw her again and she eventually committed suicide in 1816. Percy and Mary were married in December of that year.
It was during their time in France, between 1814 and 1816, that Percy Shelley introduced Mary to the idea that altered the course of her life: the existence of a “universal life force.” The idea however didn’t originate with Shelley. He got it from his doctor who got it from Darwin. Erasmus Darwin, that is.
Erasmus Darwin (1731-1803) was the grandfather of Charles and author of Zoonomia, published between 1794 and 1796. His book promoted an evolutionary hypothesis that attempted to show how life was generated by a “universal life force” already present in nature. Darwin saw no need for a supernatural element. He went so far as to suggest that religious beliefs prevented people from courageously tapping into this life force.
His writing would influence a generation of English intellectuals including Hume, Coleridge, Gibbon, Woodsworth, Keats, Hegel, John Stuart Mill, George Lewes and the great English surgeon William Lawrence who had a patient named Percy Shelley. Darwin was serious about his theory. He told Lawrence who told Shelley who told his wife Mary that patients were subjected to electrical shocks in order to tap this “universal life force” that Darwin was convinced was in all living creatures.
Mary Shelley acknowledged to have written her famous novel Frankenstein while pondering Darwin’s ideas. She was part of a nineteenth century movement of philosophers, writers and artists who believed “God had become the unknowable, His voice inaudible against the din of machines.”1 This group took their cues from Auguste Comte (1798-1857) who believed it made perfectly good sense for medieval men and women to explain life in terms of religion. Humanity however had entered a phase in which it made more sense to see the universe as a machine governed by unseen forces. Comte believed science would eventually make us “the lords of creation.”2 Mary Shelley harbored doubts about this sweeping vision. She feared science had run amuck. Yet she wasn’t afraid to contemplate electrical currents – as opposed to an eternal creator – generating human life.
Sometimes people say something so exceedingly outrageous – to paraphrase George Orwell – that only an intellectual would be daft enough to fall for it. Darwin’s ideas about electrical shocks and a “universal life force” owe some of their success to writers like Shelley and books like Frankenstein, which widen our imagination regarding life’s origins. When in 1953 two scientists passed an artificial lightning bolt through a sealed flask and formed the kind of amino acids necessary to build proteins, it was hailed as a significant step toward discovering the life force. In less than two centuries, how we imagine “new life” went from heavenly hosts to battery posts to lightning bolts. And with each step, Easter’s wattage dimmed.
The original Easter electrified people because of the conviction that God generated new life from the dead. History tells us the early church was charged up and went around telling everyone He is risen! Admit it – that sounds a bit dorky today, proof that Mary Shelley and Erasmus Darwin still speak to us from the grave. Yet many believe that Christ also still speaks to us, yet not from the grave. His death and resurrection provide proof that he lives. This means the Easter event points to an eternal creator rather than electrical currents as the source and regenerator of human life.
1 A.N. Wilson, God’s Funeral: A Biography of Faith and Doubt in Western Civilization (New York: Ballantine, 1999), p.12
2 Ibid. pp.39-52