1. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

    September 28, 2019 by Chris Motley

    In 1791 Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, a politician and diplomat, delivered his Rapport sur l’instruction publique to the French National Assembly, in which he argued that women should only receive a domestic education. This report comes on the heels of the French Revolution, a period in which the nature of freedom, equality, and society was on virtually everyone’s minds. 

    Mary Wollstonecraft had already entered the fray with her response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, a treatise denouncing what he deemed a brash overthrow of a legitimate government. Wollstonecraft’s response, A Vindication of the Rights of Man, is a rousing defense of the democratic spirit, rooted in an ever-expanding notion of justice. Her response to Talleyrand-Périgord, which she titled A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, continues her critique, while articulating the scope and stakes of democratic revolution. 

    It is a remarkable document. She lays bare the hypocrisy of male-dominated society-making, and she highlights the attitudes and behaviors that comprise what we now call toxic masculinity. It is eminently quotable, with statements coming like mic-drops one after another. Though she is rightfully critiqued for not going quite far enough in articulating a vision of full equality of women, her assessments of a male-dominated world are withering.

    She opens the treatise by putting everything on the table, a move that seems welcome, perhaps necessary, during the tumult of our moment:  

     

    In the present state of society, it appears necessary to 

    go back to first principles in search of the most simple 

    truths, and to dispute with some prevailing prejudice 

    every inch of ground. To clear my way, I must be 

    allowed to ask some plain questions, and the answers 

    will probably appear as unequivocal as the axioms on 

    which reasoning is built; though, when entangled 

    with various motives of action, they are formally 

    contradicted, either by the words or conduct of men.

     

    We are witnessing today on the public stage the presentation of basic principles, in the form of ideas, proposals, challenges, or even accusations of misconduct, which aim to assert and remedy the plain and clear inequality that women face. We are also witnessing, therefore, the immediate and thoughtless backlash from powerful (and frankly repugnant) men, who will invent every reason to thwart justice. In so doing they play their hand; they convey that they are more interested in authority than democracy. Wollstonecraft is well aware of this move:

    Men, in general, seem to employ their reason to justify prejudices, which they have imbibed, they cannot trace how, rather than to root them out. The mind must be strong that resolutely forms its own principles; for a kind of intellectual cowardice prevails which makes many men shrink from the task, or only do it by halves. Yet the imperfect conclusions thus drawn, are frequently very plausible, because they are built on partial experience, on just, though narrow, views.

    […]

    To account for, and excuse the tyranny of man, many ingenious arguments have been brought forward to prove, that the two sexes, in the acquirement of virtue, ought to aim at attaining a very different character: or, to speak explicitly, women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name of virtue. 

    Wollstonecraft points to the anti-intellectual defense of injustice (and indeed tyranny and barbarism) on the part of men, which, she notes at length, can explain much of the formation of civilizations throughout human history. Even though (perhaps also because) she is witnessing the dramatic rise of democracy across continents, she reminds her audience that certain ideas that seem plausible and democratic can in fact be rooted in deeper prejudices. It takes strength of will to maintain a free and principled mind. She writes, speaking to us today, “The mind will ever be unstable that has only prejudices to rest on, and the current will run with destructive fury when there are no barriers to break its force.” She points to an idea that every citizen of a democracy must consider. While policy points are debated in public, one must continually explore one’s own mind, to (re)consider “every inch of ground.” 

    What does this have to do with the topic of family? First of all, of course we have built this particular series around the Wollstonecraft-Godwin-Shelley powerhouse of a family. But taken on its own A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, while it addresses family life specifically, also conveys a general commitment to democratic activity and progress. To attack authoritarian thought and behavior (which we should still call “intellectual cowardice”) and to promote social equality clearly has stakes for the private sphere. In the age of male backlash – the “Manosphere,” the Incel Movement, Gamergate, our current president and his supporters – in which seemingly ordinary men (and boys) with lives and families traffic in hate, the commitment to democracy over authority is playing out at home as well as in halls of government. Wollstonecraft here provides a model of courage, forthrightness, and a granular attention to detail that can inform our thoughts and actions today.


  2. Selected Poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley

    September 21, 2019 by Chris Motley

    If you have been to high school, chances are you have seen “Ozymandias,” by far Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most famous poem. Though it opens the Mouse Books collection of his verse, I include it here:

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    There is plenty here that speaks to our age, especially the folly of kingly vanity and the inevitable march of Nature herself. Indeed have we not reached a point where we struggle to view even our greatest creations and not also see the “colossal wreck” that our worldbuilding will eventually yield? 

    Shelley was a central figure to that movement within European literature we call Romanticism. The two aspects of “Ozymandias” that I pointed out above also happened to be core tenets of this artistic milieu. First, Shelley is drawing from the democratic fervor of his moment, which was espoused gallantly by both his deceased mother-in-law Mary Wollstonecraft and his father-in-law, the philosopher William Godwin. Second, the Romantic poets offer a response to the Enlightenment of the generation previous, emphasizing as it did rationality over all. The Romantics, on the other hand, pursued the sublimity of nature, often in its most extreme locales. These aspects go hand-in-hand. One should not return from the sublimity of nature feeling like he is larger than life, a la Ozymandias. Rather, if we were to have a raw and authentic and encounter with deeper reality, we would see our machinations and schemes as very small indeed. 

    Shelley’s path to membership in the Wollstonecraft-Godwin clan was not exactly rosy, as he abandoned his pregnant first wife Harriet Westbrook to run away with Mary, who was sixteen at the time. But the partnership they formed, influenced already by their illustrious elders, would shape some of the most important literature to emerge from Great Britain. 

    His poetry is exemplary of the Romantic spirit, conveying awe for the natural world, sentiments of intense love, and a firm devotion to freedom both social and personal. The Mouse Books collection of his writings also contains the preface to the first edition, written by Mary Shelley herself, which serves both as an ode to his life and a critical companion to his work. 

    I personally enjoy Shelley and the Romantics, mostly because I am aware of their situation in the development of English poetry. The Enlightenment jettisoned a religious explanation of the world, and so the Romantics attempted to jettison a wholly rational explanation, in the process coming closer to a psycho-spiritual engagement with the beauty and terror of nature and our comparatively small place in it. This encounter with sublimity yielded verse that was impassioned and free (within its technical constraints). These poems, and the lives of their creators, often transpiring on the fringes of acceptable society, would inspire many writers in America, in the 19th century and well beyond. 


  3. Selected Poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley

    by Chris Motley

    If you have been to high school, chances are you have seen “Ozymandias,” by far Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most famous poem. Though it opens the Mouse Books collection of his verse, I include it here:

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    There is plenty here that speaks to our age, especially the folly of kingly vanity and the inevitable march of Nature herself. Indeed have we not reached a point where we struggle to view even our greatest creations and not also see the “colossal wreck” that our worldbuilding will eventually yield? 

    Shelley was a central figure to that movement within European literature we call Romanticism. The two aspects of “Ozymandias” that I pointed out above also happened to be core tenets of this artistic milieu. First, Shelley is drawing from the democratic fervor of his moment, which was espoused gallantly by both his deceased mother-in-law Mary Wollstonecraft and his father-in-law, the philosopher William Godwin. Second, the Romantic poets offer a response to the Enlightenment of the generation previous, emphasizing as it did rationality over all. The Romantics, on the other hand, pursued the sublimity of nature, often in its most extreme locales. These aspects go hand-in-hand. One should not return from the sublimity of nature feeling like he is larger than life, a la Ozymandias. Rather, if we were to have a raw and authentic and encounter with deeper reality, we would see our machinations and schemes as very small indeed. 

    Shelley’s path to membership in the Wollstonecraft-Godwin clan was not exactly rosy, as he abandoned his pregnant first wife Harriet Westbrook to run away with Mary, who was sixteen at the time. But the partnership they formed, influenced already by their illustrious elders, would shape some of the most important literature to emerge from Great Britain. 

    His poetry is exemplary of the Romantic spirit, conveying awe for the natural world, sentiments of intense love, and a firm devotion to freedom both social and personal. The Mouse Books collection of his writings also contains the preface to the first edition, written by Mary Shelley herself, which serves both as an ode to his life and a critical companion to his work. 

    I personally enjoy Shelley and the Romantics, mostly because I am aware of their situation in the development of English poetry. The Enlightenment jettisoned a religious explanation of the world, and so the Romantics attempted to jettison a wholly rational explanation, in the process coming closer to a psycho-spiritual engagement with the beauty and terror of nature and our comparatively small place in it. This encounter with sublimity yielded verse that was impassioned and free (within its technical constraints). These poems, and the lives of their creators, often transpiring on the fringes of acceptable society, would inspire many writers in America, in the 19th century and well beyond. 


  4. Frankenstein

    September 14, 2019 by Chris Motley

    I continue to ruefully shake my head at our puerile imagination of the myth of Frankenstein, who, let’s admit it, we thought was the monster and not in fact his creator, Victor Frankenstein. He (this pronoun is important, as we will see) is a fixture of Halloween, inspiring terror insomuch as he is a lurching, moaning giant bent on strangling the next child he sees. This kind of terror is a reduction of the real terror of Mary Shelley’s novel, a terror that strikes at the heart of what it means to be a human being.

    The novel speaks to us in our time in one clear and oft-discussed way. Namely, it is a parable of the dangers of technological over-reach. In the early parts of the novel, Victor’s academic pursuits are inextricable from his broader ambition. When he discovers the secret for animating dead flesh, he is giddy because he will be accomplishing something new and unprecedented, which will shape the future. His ambition can be captured by a line from Jurassic Park, a clear re-write of Frankenstein, when the theorist Ian Malcolm declares, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” In our cultural moment we are dealing with this idea from a number of angles, mostly around the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics. 

    But the real terror of Shelley’s novel runs even deeper than the trope of science and tech run amok. Victor Frankenstein does not create a robot or a piece of technology more broadly. He creates a human being. His response to this creation is one of terror, and his terror should terrify us: 

    How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

    When I teach the novel, I have my students take note of how Victor refers to his creation. In this passage he is a “wretch.” In others he is a “creature,” a “demon,” a “monster.” But when we eventually hear from Victor’s creation, we immediately realize that he is anything but a monster, at least in the sense that he is regarded above. He is a “he,” in need of what any other person needs: acceptance, companionship, the chance to grow. But the creature (my students settled on this term – after all, we are all creatures in a literal sense) murders several people throughout the story, acts which are monstrous. Still, those actions are not the original source of Victor’s repulsion. The original source, as the passage above reveals, is the creature’s physical appearance. Indeed, the creature tells of how, again and again, people flee from the sight of him. He is rejected, isolated, wanted for dead, for no other reason (at first) than that he looks scary. He attributes his murderousness to this rejection (and therefore not to any innate monstrousness), inviting a chicken-egg scenario for my students to ponder.

    This is where the theme of family hits home. The  novel is indeed about a horrible monster: Victor Frankenstein. His rejection of his own creation should invite us to think about all the real human beings we reject because they appear to us as monstrous in one way or another (this novel certainly should inspire thoughts about contemporary racism and bigotry). Indeed, in what ways have we rejected our own kin? Could this rejection in fact be the original source of human violence, and could it be that our preoccupation with individual “monsters” who hurt others is only perpetuating the cycle that we initiated? These questions for me constitute the real relevance of Shelley’s masterful novel. 


  5. On Family

    September 7, 2019 by Chris Motley

    We live in a time when we can fruitfully ask the question, What is a family? Anyone who seriously wants to answer that question must rather quickly expand the scope beyond blood relationships and even by-marriage relationships and adoptions. Indeed, how often do we say, “You’re like a [brother/sister/mother/father] to me”? 

    Truth be told, this series on family was originally designed to feature blood relatives, and in some cases by-marriage relatives. The goal is to demonstrate what kind of creative, intellectual, spiritual, and moral power can emerge from a single household or small clan. A number of examples come to mind, such as the Brontës, the Van Goghs, the Adams, and Henry and William James. But we should avoid one dangerous idea here, namely the idea that the talent and genius that we see from these relatives is somehow due to their genetics, the fact that they share some “genius” DNA. You know that that’s not how it works.    

    We envision the family theme extending to multiple series, but we knew we had to begin with a blockbuster. The Godwin-Wollstonecraft-Shelley connection is about as interesting as it gets. William Godwin, whose work is not featured here, was a literary and philosophical player in his time. Coming on the heels of democratic revolutions in America and France, he continued to espouse democratic freedom in all its implications, especially in Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. His wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, would change the discussion about women’s relationship to democracy in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, a central text to any feminism course today. Godwin loved Wollstonecraft and admired her work, as his memoir published after her death demonstrates. Wollstonecraft died shortly after the birth of her daughter Mary, who would marry Percy Shelley (who was already visiting Godwin as a mentee) at age sixteen. She would publish Frankenstein four years later (after losing a child prematurely and giving birth to another, all while enduring Shelley’s sexual libertinism). This monumental book reflects her relationships and experiences, in its commentary on human nature, science, and society. We see in both the Godwin-Wollstonecraft marriage and the Shelleys that literary and philosophical creativity flowed in both directions. 

    But we should be particularly drawn to the women in this story. Today we are finally having a real discussion about what extra barriers that women must overcome in order to achieve intellectual and creative pursuits. In this case here we have evidence of household environments in which quiet study was the priority. Still, we can use our imagination to encounter the extra prejudices that Wollstonecraft faced, for example, and the personal tragedies that befell Mary Shelley in her early life, the nightmares that birthed Frankenstein, and the frequent assumptions that Percy in fact wrote the novel. In both cases – Vindication and Frankenstein – we have work that is wholly original and enduring, despite so many odds. The existence of these texts alone is an inspiration. To read them with an eye toward the relationships that produced them only inspires further.