Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Frankenstein: A Genius Creation?

Was Frankenstein (and by implication all path-breaking fiction) created by someone who was intrinsically a genius?

A couple of years ago I was invited to attend an interdisciplinary workshop, ‘Milieus of Creativity’ - part of the Knowledge and Space series - in Heidelberg (on the basis that I’d edited a book on the Geographies of Science Fiction). An interesting debate developed about the nature of genius and creativity with some social psychologists arguing that the notion of creativity should be limited to purely path-breaking developments which they felt could only be achieved through the innate qualities of a genius mind – in other words, you’re either born with an intrinsic ability to be truly creative or not. Countering them was Barney Warf (a geographer from Kansas) and myself. Our argument was that genius could not be reduced to some teleological inevitability, the result of some inborn biological make-up and fate, but rather all creativity was the product of contingent and relational processes and that talent has to be nurtured and harnessed. I thought it might be worth repeating the opening section, which was published recently and which briefly looks at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and seeing what people thought.

Writing fiction is a creative act. It involves the production of a narrative that tells a story. And while much fiction is derivative of stories that have preceded it, and much of it is clichéd, shallow and uninspired, there is a steady stream of new works that continue to push boundaries with respect to style, substance and foci. These are stories that are creative in ways that extend beyond simply making something. Rather than being citational, imitative and stereotypical (where the plotlines and characters are similar to much that had preceded), they are genuine attempts to challenge conventional tropes and styles, and also to say something meaningful about the world (rather than simply entertain). They are works that are insightful, surprising, educational, interesting, exciting, enlightening; they interpolate (fill in holes) and extrapolate (make fragments into a whole); and they might be intertextual, but in knowing, clever, witty and meaningful ways. They make us look at the world afresh with new perspectives.

Such creative acts, I would argue, do not arise out of nowhere, some innate product of a novelist’s biological make-up (and thus measureable in some reductionist way through psychological testing). Instead, their creativity is a product of their skills and talents coupled with their embeddedness in networks of people, things and places. These networks profoundly shape their fiction. Writers learn the various aspects of how to write – literacy, grammar and punctuation, composition, observation and translation (taking knowledge of the world and converting it into a narrative), imagination and speculation, to critically engage with philosophy, ideology, and aspects of the human condition, and so on. Whilst some might possess a great talent for these skills, these supposed ‘gifts’ are nurtured, shaped and encouraged by diverse factors such as schooling, tutoring in literary theory and praxis, exposure to other writers’ work, encouragement and critical feedback from peers, and so on. And while some writers might claim to have had no formal training in creative writing, their abilities to craft a story has nonetheless been nurtured in informal ways. Nobody sits down to write a fully formed writer. And a writer’s stories derive their inspiration, focus and politics from their life experiences and their engagements with people and places.

To take the novel, Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley and published 1818. It is a profoundly creative and imaginative work that Malmgrem (1991) argues provided the genesis for the genre of science fiction. Shelley’s ability to write the story and the story itself did not arise from nowhere, the product of an innately talented mind. Rather the book was a product of Shelley’s schooling, her engagements with other fiction, her friendships and discussions with the literary set who formed her circle of friends (Lord Byron, Dr John Polidori, Percy Shelley), her travels around Europe and her reading of the cultural landscape (Frankenstein was written in Geneva with the Alps and locales such as Chillon Castle providing inspiration), and her knowledge and understanding of the radical changes that were occurring around her with respect to the age of Enlightenment, the start of the industrial revolution, the development of rationale scientific practice, and a growing sense of how science could advance society and the future could be extrapolated from the present. Indeed, Shelley herself acknowledges in the introduction to the 1831 edition that the idea for the novel arose out of a challenge to write a ghost story after she and her friends had read Fantasmagoriana, ou Recueil d'histoires d'apparitions de spectres, revenants, fantômes, etc. (1812), a French translation of a German book of ghost stories. There then followed a set of conversations about the scientific work of Erasmus Darwin and Luigi Galvani which provided the scientific underpinnings for the story. At later stages various drafts would have been read by friends, editors and so on, with edits then being applied to the text. Frankenstein was then the product of a complex engagement between Shelley and the world at a particular time and place.

To return to the original question - was Frankenstein (the original science fiction novel) created by someone who was intrinsically a genius?

Is there such a thing as true genius?

The full version of this piece can be found in Kitchin, R. (2009) Looking at the present through the future: Science fiction and contingent and recursive, creative geographies. In Funke, J and Meusburger, P. (eds) Mileaus of Creativity. Springer: Dordrecht

1 comment:

Dorte H said...

Ah, this is where I got to yesterday when my internet connection failed me! I wrote something along the lines that I agreed with you in this nature/nurture discussion. I have always thought intelligence is such a fascinating theme, but I am not quite certain I have made up my mind what a genious is.