Talking in class yesterday about the shift in literature from the ideals of the Enlightenment to the ideals of the Romantic period, I was reminded of the parallel progression that occurred in Western classical music. We can tend to think of classical music and just sort of lump together all the big names (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart) and say that that‘s classical music. And we wouldn’t be wrong; just like we can list off Dafoe and Shelly and say that that‘s English literature. But we wouldn’t get the whole picture. We wouldn’t begin to appreciate the distinctions between worldviews of people from different historical eras, and how those worldviews uniquely influenced the way that authors wrote and musicians composed. Mozart was a Classical (big C) composer, so his music is much more rigid and strict and concerned with proper form and balance and symmetry, because those are ideals of the Enlightenment. And yes, it is beautiful and majestic of course, but it is nothing like Beethoven’s music from the Romantic period, which gushes and soars and has contrast and is concerned especially with feelings and passion. So visual art, literature, music, etc. are all influenced by the philosophical ideas that dominated the eras in which those works were created.
It’s almost comical to observe the contrast between the style in which Frankenstein is written and the style in which Robinson Crusoe is written. Victor is no doubt a Beethoven, whereas Robinson is definitely a Mozart. Victor’s self-narration is dramatic; it heaves, breathlessly, overcome with passion. The opening sentence declares that no one could possibly understand the emotions he is feeling, and then compares those emotions to a hurricane. The whole passage is just exhausting! Life and death! Light and dark! Fathers and sons! Failure! Success! Horror! Regret! Loathing! Eagerness! Like, calm down, Victor. Crusoe, on the other hand, is calm, concise, clinical, confident, and his narration is driven in all things by a sense of victory. The way he tells his story is orderly; it trots along neatly and steadily. And yet, the stories themselves of both books are inherently exciting. Robinson Crusoe is a story of a shipwrecked survivor grappling with nature in solitude on an island! Frankenstein is about a mad scientist who sews a monster together from corpses and then brings him to life! It’s the style in which they’re written that provides the contrast.
It’s interesting to me that both stories, in different ways, deal with man’s mastery of nature. Crusoe is humming along, encounters a cave that he needs to be bigger, and spends the rest of the day exulting in man’s ability to use tools to shape nature to suit his needs. Ya know, it’s like Descartes’s Discourse on Method in 1636, in which he explains how technology is the answer and how man can become masters of the material world. Unlimited progress! We just use our reason and logic! Victor Frankenstein’s scientific purposes too are a sort of mastery of nature. Human nature, perhaps—the ability to create life, to shape a human being. He uses his reason, his logic, his science, his technology, and finally realizes that he’s created a monster. So perhaps Frankenstein is kind of speaking out against Enlightenment ideals? Like, guys, maybe we should slow down and think about this first. Just cause we have all this science and stuff doesn’t mean we should use it, cause we might accidentally do some bad things—like make a monster.