The Frankenstein of 1790 and Other Lost Chapters of Revolutionary France by Julia V. Douthwaite (University of Chicago Press, 2012.)

Julia V. Douthwaite’s The Frankenstein of 1790 and Other Lost Chapters from Revolutionary France is an intriguing contribution to historical and literary scholarship on the era of the French Revolution. The book is fairly wide-ranging, exploring in its four major chapters various aspects of the history of the Revolution and how they were portrayed in the literature of the time as well as more recent works. It is an enticing combination of detailed historical research and healthy theoretical ambition, which should make it engaging at worst and unusually useful at best for a wide range of scholars in the humanities and social sciences.

As an example of the book’s attention to detail, its title is drawn from the recognition by Douthwaite of the significance of an obscure 1790 novel, Le Miroir des événemens actuels (The looking glass of actuality) by François-Félix Nogaret. Despite the fact that this book features a fictional inventor and automaton-builder with a name that is a slight elaboration on Frankenstein, apparently no previous scholar has noted its potential importance for studies of Mary Shelley’s classic. As an example of Douthwaite’s attempts to connect her research to broader theoretical issues and matters of contemporary import, she notes (p. 19) that later literary interpretations of the Women’s March on Versailles cast the Revolution in terms analogous to Becker’s causa sui project, which Becker identified as characteristic of the modern world and about which he became increasingly critical.

In other words, according to Douthwaite, writers and contemporary scholars came to view the Revolution as a paradigmatic case of the modern urge to become the father of oneself, the post-Enlightenment notion of the liberated genius freely and heroically acting on the world, despite the fact that the Revolution’s material origin may have been in less weighty matters of economic necessity.

The connection between these two ideas from Douthwaite’s book – the Revolution-era prevalence of “automaton fiction,” such as the Frankenstein predecessor, and the interpretation of the Revolution as a causa sui project – is stronger and more fitting than it might first appear. Indeed, Douthwaite devotes much of the core chapter of her book, “The Frankenstein of the French Revolution,” to the intricacies of this connection. Stories of automatons in pre- and Revolutionary-era France were largely celebratory, marveling at the ability of the human intellect to successfully “play God” and manufacture near-sentient beings. Yet, as Douthwaite traces, by the Romantic era and the stories of Shelley and E.T.A. Hoffman this genre’s primary function was to undermine hubris: modern horror was largely born with the use of the uncanny automaton in allegories problematizing unchecked rationality and God-like individuation. In a similar fashion, the French Revolution – which began as a potentially liberatory causa sui project, the symbolic values of which infuse all our democratic ideals today – transformed into a nightmarish cautionary tale and Reign of Terror. In a manner reminiscent not only of Becker but of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Douthwaite’s scholarship encourages us to reconsider the scientific/political potential and the terroristic violence that are the hallmarks of the last two centuries. These hallmarks seem to be fused in the modern causa sui project, unmoored as it is from traditional and religious boundaries.

It is worth noting that Becker himself seemed to link the idea (if not the actual event) of the French Revolution to many of the same themes unearthed by Douthwaite’s research on automaton fiction. In Escape from Evil (1975; p. 71), Becker names the French Revolution as an early blow in the long struggle against traditional structures of class-based domination. On the same page, he invokes Rank’s idea of psycho-historical stages, pointing out that with the Reformation and the Revolution came the era of psychological man: “…a new Faustian pursuit of…secular-humanist immortality based on the gifts of the individual.” In Becker’s estimation, whether this kind of secular immortality project is sustainable is far from clear. Thus, for both Becker and Douthwaite, stories of inventions and revolutions gone awry are part and parcel of the modern era, when individuals fight for freedom and personal immortality, and often breed violence, terror, or further inequality in the attempt.

Daniel Sullivan received his Master’s degree in Psychology in 2010 from the U of Kansas, where he is currently a doctoral candidate. He will be taking an Assistant Professor position at the U of Arizona in Fall 2013.

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Becker on Otto Rank

"Rank's thought always spanned several fields of knowledge: when he talked about, say, anthropological data and you expected anthropological insight, you got something else, something more. Living as we do in an era of hyperspecialization we have lost the expectation of this kind of delight: the experts give us manageable thrills—if they thrill us at all."

From the preface to Denial of Death

more on Otto Rank here