Dr. Benjamin Bagocius teaches literature and seminar at Bard High School Early College in Cleveland.
The soul is the wildest place within us. It’s inhuman.
By inhuman, I don’t mean inhumane. The soul is the most humane part of our humanity, for the soul cherishes all of who we are, including imaginings and aches that we refuse to love, let alone acknowledge, dismissing them as perverse or unacceptable. Our soul proclaims human hungers we are not well practiced in handling, strapped as we are to conveyer-belt seals of approval.
Do I do outgoing-personality right? Check.
Bring up the right topics? Check.
Cheer for the right sports? Check.
Does this rightness do my soul right? Hmm.
Boxed up and shipped out, we go to work and get paid to squeeze our enormity into respectable categories. To soul, however, these categories don’t mean much. That’s why most things soulful make little to no money.
The soul works, but not in the office. It has a job few see, so it seems like no job at all. Its job is to coax us to love the parts of ourselves too vast to fit on the conveyer belt, the parts of ourselves that fall off, left behind in the dirt.
This part, lying in the dirt, is 99.99 percent of who we are.
While we fret and fight over the .01 percent, the soul lives in the rich dirt. It works in the gutter.
Spirituality scholar Thomas Moore says the soul has “a taste for the perverse.” By perverse, Moore does not mean smut, filth, or evil. By “perverse,” Moore means dimensions of our humanity that we may have been taught to regard as dirty, embarrassing, or otherwise undesirable and unworthy of attention because they cannot sit still on the conveyer belt.
The perverse, in Moore’s view, may actually be beauty that has gotten trampled into the dirt for generations by herds of people clamoring to ride the conveyer belt. We thus misperceive beauty as dirty because we have covered it with mud on our way to board the belt.
Two-hundred years ago, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein introduced the disaster of misinterpreting the aches of soul as horrifying. The soul can horrify, Shelley thought, because it communicates truths that put a glitch in who social engineering has manufactured us to be.
According to Frankenstein, Shelley’s contemporaries lived the disaster of misperceiving soul as ugliness every day. They died from this misdiagnosis. This pattern continues today.
Shelley wrote Frankenstein, I believe, to correct this pattern and save lives. She is still the go-to doctor. She wrote Frankenstein as a prescription, to get us to stop seeing our souls as sickness and to see them instead as saviours.
Our souls deliver us back to the immensity of who we are.
A tale of monsters and murder, Frankenstein is a horror novel. Victor Frankenstein, the ambitious young scientist, aims to create a beautiful new life form. But the form he creates — whom I call the Creation — turns out to be what he perceives as a glitch, a perverted form resembling nothing like what Frankenstein had envisioned. Frankenstein calls his Creation “monster,” “abhorred wretch,” and “evil fiend.” As if strapped to a conveyer belt, Frankenstein spends his life moving in one direction: running away from his Creation in shame and embarrassment for having created something so beyond imaginable categories — so perverse.
In the meantime, the Creation mourns the abandonment from Frankenstein, his father figure. After undergoing years of abuse and neglect by his father/creator, the Creation turns violent and seeks revenge on Frankenstein by threatening to destroy parts of Frankenstein’s life that he holds dear.
The horror Shelley narrates is deeper than monsters and murder. The horror is the waste of spending your life, as Frankenstein does, running away from rather than learning to befriend — even to love — your demons.
Yet the novel’s horror lies deeper still. The demons you have spent your life running from are not even demons. They are messengers, like the Creation, who would resurrect you from the death of conveyer-belt life and deliver you back to your immensity.
Human immensity is the truest horror. When we acknowledge it, we must rethink our life. We’d have to jump from the conveyer belt — into soul. This plunge into one’s self might as well be a 500-meter springboard drop.
But horrors never cease in this novel. The deepest level of horror is that many of us die never realizing we were running from a message that would release us into our enormity. The rhinestones of the conveyer-belt are that alluring.
Shelley calls the Creation a “daemon.” A “daemon” is not a demon, as in evil. A daemon is a spirit whose message is neither good nor bad, but otherworldly.
Otherworldly messages can seem terrifying — even ugly like the Creation — because they do not line up with the status quo of who we must become in a world regulated by small ideas about success and achievement, marriage and reproduction, empty glamour of instagram and self-marketing.
The Creation is ugly not because he is ugly, but because he is otherworldly. He communicates truths to Frankenstein that scare him. Frankenstein is scared to face that he is vaster than small categories he lives — which is to say, dies — by.
The Creation — or daemon — emerges from Frankenstein’s labours and imaginative work. As such, the daemon is a part of Frankenstein. The Creation — like the soul — might indeed be the deepest, truest part of Frankenstein. When the Creation comes to life, his first response is to reach out to Frankenstein in a gesture of bonding. The Creation attempts to tell Frankenstein something: the Creation’s “jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds.” The Creation speaks a message Frankenstein cannot decipher because he has never heard anything like the grammar of soul before.
Frankenstein speaks the language of science, education, and achievement fluently. He knows the periodic table backward and forward. But he does not know soul’s language. The Creation is urging Frankenstein to hear his soul’s deepest aches.
Shelley does not announce what Frankenstein’s deepest ache is. The language of soul is the language of mystery, not explanation.
But Frankenstein’s soul — his Creation — might be telling him that his yearnings have something to do with a hunger for bonds. The Creation is reaching out to him, after all.
Frankenstein is largely bond-less in the novel. His mother dies when he is a young man, and he never has an opportunity to work through grief. Frankenstein has been assigned to marry his cousin Elizabeth, although his erotic heart pines for his best friend Henry Clerval. Frankenstein’s father shows no interest in his son’s inner life, mocks his imaginative pursuits, and sends him away to college, where he becomes even more alone.
At college, Frankenstein locks himself in a laboratory and labors to create a new life form. The problem is, he does this work alone. He has no one to check or guide him, or to prepare him for what kind of “new life” he might discover.
When the Creation’s eyes suddenly blink open and look at Frankenstein, Frankenstein is unprepared for the immensity of the ultimate bonding moment: your own soul looking right at you.
Frankenstein is unpracticed in bonding with humans, let alone with his soul. This encounter with immensity is too much for him. “I escaped,” Frankenstein tells us, “and rushed down the stairs.”
Frankenstein — like many of us — runs from the strange grammar of his soul instead of laboring to decipher it.
Frankenstein is always running away and locking himself up in a room, alone, away from the Creation. He’s locking his soul out. In refusing to learn the language of the Creation, he refuses his soul.
He’s afraid of the monster, the Creation.
He’s afraid of creation, the otherworldly superabundant force he has the potential to become.
Which is to say, he’s afraid of his soul.
The novel would have very different content if it were to narrate Frankenstein spilling his grief to a listener about his lost mother, instead of locking himself up in a laboratory. The novel would take a different direction if Frankenstein were to tell his father and Elizabeth that his heart goes pitter-patter for his best friend Henry Clerval. Perhaps the pages of the novel should be filled with Frankenstein explaining how he has felt abandoned by his own father, which could be why he so easily abandons his Creation.
But to form these needs into language would be to speak the language of perversity to those on the conveyer belt. Men are to be emotionless, heterosexual, and independent, not grieving faggots who need mommy and daddy. To recognize these truths would be an abomination.
To face these yearnings would be to look into the eyes of monstrosity.
So Frankenstein doesn’t look. The story is this: Frankenstein runs from the daemon. The daemon finds him. Frankenstein runs again. The daemon finds him again. Frankenstein runs. The daemon finds.
You cannot outrun your soul. Wherever you are, there your soul is. You feel your self as so immense it could fall off the conveyer belt. And falling is terrifying.
What is there beyond the conveyer belt? The plunge. Your soul.
It’s funny that the vastest part of ourselves is so quiet. No one else hears your soul’s roar but you. The Creation, as Frankenstien’s soul, uses the word “listen” more than anyone else in the novel. The soul aches to be heard. “Listen to me,” “hear me,” “still canst thou listen to me?” the daemon pleads to Frankenstein.
Interestingly, the Creation is no longer muttering. He has learned the language Frankenstein understands. The soul’s ache for a relationship with us is so great it learns our language though we refuse to learn its.
Our soul is that hungry to bond with us, though we run, run, and run.
At one point, atop icy Mont Blonc, Frankenstein half-heartedly listens to the Creation’s longings. But the frozen landscape reveals how open Frankenstein is to changing: not at all. The glacial scene mirrors Frankenstein’s heart, frozen and impenetrable. He hears the Creation’s aches, but does not absorb them. As soon as he can, Frankenstein runs away again and dismisses the Creation’s needs.
Shelley beats it into us: the horror of life is not a fantasy story about monsters, but the real-life tragedy of refusing your own soul and misnaming it monstrous in ignorance and fear.
When we deprive the soul of attention, condemning its oddities as perverse and monstrous, the soul takes extreme measures to get us to submit to the mystery of who we are.
Running from his daemon, Frankenstein’s life gets smaller each day. The Creation literally kills off Frankenstein’s beloveds — brother, fiance, and friend — reducing Frankenstein’s life to isolation.
We usually think of getting in touch with our soul as insular, contained to self-exploration. But Shelley shows there are graver consequences to refusing to pause with the “inarticulate sounds” of soul. When we renounce the language of our soul, our relationships with others suffer.
When our relationships suffer, we ourselves become smaller and smaller, shrunk to a shivering bundle of anxiety like Frankenstein. We live a life on the run. As such, it’s not even our life anymore. We’re said to live in a liberal democracy. But soulless, we live under the Tyranny of Fear of Who We Are.
We become Frankenstein.
Spending our lives running from who we are is exhausting, but also oddly comforting. When we run from our demons — or rather, from our inner boundlessness — we have a predictable direction: away, away, away.
When we face our soul and learn its strange language, the soul gives our lives a detour. Like Frankenstein, we might be asked to linger within the unspeakable language of grief as we mourn lost mothers. We might have to learn the almost unimaginable language of telling our fathers we want to sex Henry instead of Elizabeth. We might have to reprogram ourselves to care for unexpected dependents even when we would rather run. Instead of running, we might have to dwell with the commotion in our hearts.
Running is easier.
It’s also disastrous.
Like Frankenstein, we call the soul ugly, the conveyer belt beautiful. When we let the conveyer belt move us away from our souls, it feels good, because soul appears smaller in the distance.
Until it catches up with us, as the Creation always does. The soul, like the Creation, announces its presence by hurting us into listening to its ache: our soul wants to be loved for what it is. More than this, our soul wants us to love even what we regard as our undesirable aches.
When we love something, doesn’t it fail to be ugly? The object of love takes on beauty.
What if the Creation is not ugly, but the most beautiful character in the novel? What if the ugliness ascribed to the Creation is better ascribed to ideologies that keep us on the conveyer belt, training us to be unable to pause with strange but necessary truths? What if ugliness is the half lives we live strapped to the conveyer belt?
By the end of the novel, Frankenstein dies refusing his daemon — his soul.
And the soul becomes lost and bereft. The Creation becomes “lost in darkness and distance.” The soul, that quiet creature reaching out its hands to you its whole life long, seeks its homecoming in you. Where does the soul go if you close your doors on it forever? Is the ether a maelstrom of our homeless souls?
Stepping off the conveyer belt is terrifying. You unclutch the packaged goods of social category that proved to others you were human. But others suffer in the rat race of proving, as you do.
Perhaps one starts the plunge by dangling one’s legs over the edge, testing out this otherworldly space. Perhaps one sits like that for awhile.