FRIGHTFriday: Art and Science of Hope and Fear
The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) has teamed up with the Ashmolean Museum for FRIGHTFriday, a special late night opening of the museum to explore the art and science of Hope and Fear. We hear from some of the academics involved in the exhibition to understand more about their projects.
Dr Andrew Papanikitas
What do the gothic blockbusters of the 19th century teach us about the history of medicine?
When I think of gothic horror, I think of three novels of the 19th Century. Each has been a ‘shilling shocker’ or a ‘penny dreadful’ of its time. Each has captured the imagination of playwrights, moviemakers, comic book artists. Each has the science and practice of medicine as an explicit component of the narrative.
I refer to Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (published in 1818 and revised in 1834), The strange tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1887), and of course Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897). In briefly discussing these three works, I will think about the medical doctor as a maker of monsters, the doctor as a monster and the doctor as a hunter and slayer of monsters.
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched, and then, on the working of some powerful machine, show signs of life…” (Mary Shelley)
Victor Frankenstein is portrayed as a brilliant young scholar of the University of Ingolstadt at the turn of the nineteenth century. He excels at chemistry for two years, and stays on to study anatomy and physiology. He seeks the recipe for life itself, by investigating the processes of death, and creates a man from collected body-parts. Though the parts were selected to be perfect the whole turns out to be hideous, and the creator abandons him in fear and disgust.
Because of his appearance and lack of material possessions, the monster offspring is excluded from human society. Lonely and miserable (teaching himself to read and self-educated in human emotion by studies of Goethe, Plutarch and Milton), he turns to his creator, and failing to persuade him to provide a female counterpart, eventually murders his brother, his friend Cleval, and his bride Elizabeth. Frankenstein pursues him to the Arctic to destroy him, but dies in pursuit, after relating his story to Walton, an English explorer.
Frankenstein plays with metaphorical fire and is punished — implicit in the subtitle of the novel, ‘The modern Prometheus.’ His methods tap into the fear of anatomical dissection, and the ways in which medical techniques were seen as tampering with the forces of nature. Frankenstein abandons old knowledge in favour of new science and this ends in tragedy. His monster is intelligent and capable of emotion, even pity. Book reviews at the time questioned whether it had a soul or should be thought of as an animal.
“The gnome’s name is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; I believe you will find he is likewise willing to answer to the name of Low or Stevenson.” (RL Stevenson)
Dr Jekyll is a busy London physician conscious of the mixed good and evil in his own nature, decides that the cares and worries of contemporary life are too burdensome, formulating a drug that will clothe his good and evil impulses in separate identities. He effectively strips himself of all conscience and care for others, naming his evil alter-ego Edward Hyde. Whereas the noble Dr Jekyll gets the best out of all he meets, Mr. Hyde elicits fear and disgust to the extent that he appears deformed. Hyde gradually becomes the dominant personality, until he commits a horrible murder, in which he takes delight. The old man turns out to be a prominent politician, and Hyde becomes a wanted man. Jekyll is glad of the death sentence preventing him from further abusing the drug. However the balance of his ‘soul’ is gone and he begins to change spontaneously, whereupon he can only remain Jekyll by use of the drug. When his supply runs out, on the point of arrest and discovery, he kills himself.
Robert Louis Stevenson had great respect for doctors but had also studied in Edinburgh where the medical students were, ‘the quietest in the debating society’ and ‘the loudest in the street.’ He was also very familiar with the stories of grave robbing for dissection and the idea that a pillar of society might also have activities classified as criminal. The doctor is the monster for Stevenson because he is the most respectable of us — any of us can be his gothic gnome.
“…a series of crimes which appear to have originated form the same source… and… created as much repugnance in people everywhere as the notorious murders of Jack the Ripper…” (Bram Stoker)
Dracula is told through the diaries of a young solicitor, Jonathan Harker, his fiancee Mina, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Dr John Seward, the superintendent of a large lunatic asylum at Purfleet in Essex. It begins with Harker’s journey to Count Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, in connection with his purchase of Carfax, an ancient estate adjoining Dr Seward’s asylum. Harker discovers a ruined chapel, where he finds 50 great wooden boxes filled with earth dug from the graveyard of the Draculas, in one of which the vampire is lying, gorged with blood. These boxes are shipped from Varna to Whitby and thence to Carfax. Dracula disembarks at Whitby in the shape of a wolf, having dispatched the ship’s crew en-route, and proceeds to vampirize Lucy, despite multiple blood transfusions and occult precautions. Tide is turned with the arrival of Professor Abraham Van Helsing, Seward’s old teacher (and notable neurologist). Van Helsing treats the count as a serial killer, profiling in in a manner that might be recognised by forensic psychiatrists today, and even describing his likely brain-anatomy.
“The criminal always works at one crime -that is the true criminal who seems predestinate to crime, and who will of none other. He is clever and cunning and resourceful; but he be not of man-stature as to brain…The Count is criminal and of criminal type.”
Dracula is followed by Van Helsing and the others back to Transylvania where the Count is beheaded and staked through the heart, whereupon his body crumbles to dust.
The three novels chart an extraordinary journey as alchemy gives way to medical science and medicine becomes a tool with which society makes its fears and prejudices scientific. All the novels are epistolary in some way -they are narrated through letters and diaries from multiple viewpoints. Be warned, in these three novels the monsters embody aspects of our humanity, in all three they live among us and all three stories have elements recognisable in our culture today.
Dr Andrew Papanikitas is a NIHR Academic Clinical Lecturer in General Practice, currently collaborating on a TORCH Knowledge-Exchange project.
Professor Simon Palfrey
Demonsland: a collaborative artistic project inspired by Spenser’s Faerie Queene.
What might it mean for a poem to come true? If a life, if history itself, were modelled upon a poem? Perhaps all our hopes and dreams would be granted. Or perhaps our darkest fears would find uncanny realisation.
Demons land: a poem come true is an installation that employs film, paintings, sculptures, music, and text to tell the imaginary history of an island in which a poem comes terribly to life. That poem is Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, perhaps the single greatest poetic work of the English Renaissance.
Our story begins like this: in the early 1800s a man called the Collector arrived in a woebegone island, festering with bone-idle settlers and recalcitrant savages. He knew what was needed. A world as ordered and ideal as The Faerie Queene’s endless repeating, endlessly rhyming stanzas. The Collector would build the perfect society in the image of a perfect young man and woman. The boy called Red would become Holiness, the girl called Brit would become Chastity. Together they would create a world of Justice and Love.
If only it were so simple.
The Collector’s dream failed: not because his world failed to be like the poem; but because both the poem and the land were other than he thought. They had indigenous energies, lives, untapped implications that his discipline hadn’t imagined.
200 years earlier, Spenser had nourished similar dreams. He wrote The Faerie Queene when he was helping establish the Elizabethan plantation in Ireland. He was one of the new English, taking the lands of the Irish, resolved to reform their religion and subdue their culture. But the indigenous population were crafty and resistant. Violence stained the soil. Spenser no doubt felt deeply implicated in these troubles. But he also saw a solution — to engineer a genocidal famine, and from that parched ground construct a reformed world.
It never quite happened — neither the reform, nor the genocide — but the suffering continued apace. The Irish burnt down Spenser’s house. His poem was left unfinished, or rumoured burnt with his daughter in the fire. Spenser fled to London, a broken man, and died a few weeks later on a freezing January day in 1599.
Whichever way you look, a pitiful story.
But the poem survives, an epic attempt to at once reflect and repair the errors of history. In other words, The Faerie Queene writes the future as much as the past.
This suggests the imaginative premise of our project: that subsequent global history, a repeating mission of conquest, education, and colonization, has been a tale of this poem coming differently, imperfectly to life. It has long been understood that The Faerie Queene, in its claim to change or to model lives, is an exemplary Christian humanist poem. In our project, it becomes the text of the unfinished modern world.
This is where Demons Land too finds its dark shadow — as an allegory of Britain’s most notorious colony, the prison island called Van Diemens Land.
And the story continues. The poem is coming true now, today, even as we breathe.
Demons Land is a collaboration between Simon Palfrey (writer), Tom de Freston (artist), Mark Jones (filmmaker), Luke Lewis (composer), and Stephanie Greer (actress). However, part of the fiction is that the exhibition is curated by a contemporary woman called Ola. She discovers the Collector’s paintings, sketches, and fragments of text in the attic of her ancestral home. She realizes that they tell the secret history of an island beneath the visible world.
She decides to tell the story in an exhibition. At its centre would be a film, made entirely by Ola, in which she plays all the roles herself. The result is a project of both historical and personal discovery.
Where have we been, and where might we be going?
The very first public showing of the work-in-progress is at the Ashmolean’s FrightFriday evening. The materials will be finished by May 2017, when the inaugural full exhibition will take place in the gardens and temples of Stowe National Trust — a place also created in the image of Spenser’s poem, as an act of political critique and fantastic idealism. Like the poem that inspires it, our exhibition will then go travelling.
Demons Land: a poem come true is funded by both TORCH and the AHRC.
Simon Palfrey is Professor of English Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford University
Dr Catherine Redford
‘Imagining Apocalypse’: looking at nineteeth-century depictions of apocalypse.
It cannot be that I shall never behold a fellow being more! — never! — never! — not in the course of years! — Shall I wake, and speak to none, pass the interminable hours, my soul, islanded in the world, a solitary point, surrounded by vacuum? Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826)
In today’s world — with turbulent global politics, a widespread fear of terrorism, and the threat of climate change — we can be forgiven for feeling rather vulnerable. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ so-called ‘Doomsday Clock’ currently points to three minutes to midnight, indicating that the probability of global catastrophe is very high, and earlier this year Stephen Hawking suggested that the human race faces ‘one of its most dangerous centuries’ to date.
Yet this preoccupation with apocalypse is far from a modern concern. In the early nineteenth century, the recent events of the French Revolution, a volcanic eruption that caused widespread darkness, and contemporary scientific theories about the cooling of the earth came together to prompt remarkably similar anxieties. Of course, the concept of apocalypse goes back much further than this, but it was in the early 1800s that people started to envisage a secular apocalypse — removed from religious teachings about the end of the world — and imagined what it would be like to be the last person left on earth following a global catastrophe such as a pandemic or the death of the sun.
My research looks at how writers in the early nineteenth century responded to the concept of the Last Man on earth in prose, poetry, and drama. Between 1816 and the end of the 1830s, numerous responses to this theme were published, and the sheer number of supposedly ‘last’ men populating the imagined post-apocalyptic landscape of the future actually came to be a bit of a joke.
The ‘Imagining Apocalypse: The Last Man’ project is the result of a collaboration between myself, Emily Knight from Romanticism and Eighteenth-Century Studies Oxford (RECSO), and James Olden and Klara Kofen from the Waste Paper Opera company.
Actors will perform a number of extracts from Romantic ‘Last Man’ texts in the Ashmolean as part of its FRIGHTFriday event, bringing the dark and often desperate words of the Last Man on earth to life. The first of these texts will be Lord Byron’s bleak poem ‘Darkness’ (1816), in which all life on earth slowly dies out following the extinction of the sun. This will be followed by an extract from Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man (1826), which sees one man, Lionel Verney, survive a global plague and wander across Europe desperately seeking others who have escaped the terrible pandemic. Another extract is taken from George Dibdin Pitt’s play The Last Man, or the Miser of Eltham Green, which was first performed in 1833 and tells the story of an old man who, having outlived all of his friends, has a recurring nightmare that he is the Last Man on earth.
The event will conclude with the performance of a short operatic scene by William H. Callcott, based on Thomas Campbell’s poem ‘The Last Man’ (1823), which I discovered while researching the history of the Last Man theme. First staged in 1826 to rave reviews, this haunting piece has not been performed in public since the 1830s. James Olden’s new arrangement of the score allows another generation to appreciate the opera, and we encounter a Last Man who, surrounded by skeletons in a dying world, remains stoically resigned to his fate.
While the threats that humanity faces change across the centuries, one thing is clear: our fear of apocalypse — and fascination with those who may survive a global catastrophe — endures.
Dr Catherine Redford is a Career Development Fellow in English at Hertford College, Oxford.
Written by Simon Palfrey, Andrew Papanikitas & Catherine Redford
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