The end begins with a voice.—A voice and nothing more.1
Victor Frankenstein is dead. The strident, self-exculpating, and melodramatic voice that dominates the novel is in fact the voice of one who is already dead. “And where does he now exist?” (167), Walton asks.2
Where indeed? The creature is also gone, although his demise remains promised and presumed rather than witnessed and remembered. His voice and Frankenstein’s are voices without places and without bodies except in the mediated form of the memories that Robert Walton commits to letters to his sister. For all we know, Walton too has passed away, leaving behind a written reliquary that speaks autonomously for him, and for those whose lives and deaths he recalls, whether he is dead or alive. That the novel’s narrative is utterly careless of whether Walton tracks the creature into the “darkness and distance,” or, leaving the creature to kill himself, he returns to England and reunites with his beloved sister, is the most definitive sign that his words live on without being, strictly speaking, alive or answerable to life. Frankenstein
helps us imagine two forms of possible closure but refuses both. Toward the end of the novel, prior to the point that Walton abandons writing letters that are addressed and dated, he confesses to Margaret Seville that he “cannot forbear recording” his story, even though he knows that “these papers may never reach you” (213). But by the conclusion of that tale, when Walton gazes blankly out at “the wasteland” (221) into which the creature has flung himself, nothing of that pathos or regret remains to haunt his compulsion to write. The novel’s last two sentences, which are barely enough to close the frame around the creature’s apologia pro vita sua
, feel dispossessed and affectless, so that the narrative doesn’t end as much as cease functioning. This indifference both to the fate of the writer of the letters and of the letters themselves is telling in a novel that is a story principally about
life, which is to say about the discovery of the origins of life, the invention and administration of what Foucault would call “a technology of power centered on life,”3
not to say the sovereign determination of life monstrously unworthy of life. We could say that Frankenstein
is the tale of the paroxysm of the biopolitical, its plot a macabre story of two creatures, one human, the other not, each of whom license “life-affirming killing.”4
stake that Walton has in telling the story of the “communication” of life (to recall Shelley’s remarks in her 1831 Introduction ), as a set of remains Frankenstein
is “a living-dead machine,” as Jacques Derrida says, “sur-viving, the body of a thing buried in a library, in cellars, urns, drowned in the world-wide waves of the Web, etc., but a dead thing that resuscitates each time a breath of living reading, each time the breath of the other or the other breath, … makes it live again by animating it.”5
Derrida has Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe
in mind but the philosopher’s gothic rhetoric makes Frankenstein
seem more eerily apposite. Indeed, read through Shelley’s novel, Derrida’s remarks from The Beast and the Sovereign
come across as oddly–ironically?–reliant on figures of vitality (“a breath of living reading,” “making live”) when figures more compellingly at odds with the primacy of the organic (“a living-dead machine”) seem truer to the radical, Benjaminian impetus of his concept of survival as survivance
In any case, Frankenstein
makes Frankenstein’s of us all, if not by making life out of assembled lifeless remains, as the natural philosopher is said to do, then, with each reading of the narrative, quickening what is “neither life nor death pure and simple.”7
The novel is, in other words, not only Walton’s epistolary recollections of the lives and deaths of Frankenstein and his creature but a figure for and a theory of that which survives
Walton, beyond his life and beyond life—a world without us, without those who say that they are human and alive.
Survival and the living-on or survivance
of words—last words in particular, and the lastness of words, spoken and unspoken—is the question that will preoccupy me here. It is a question to which Shelley certainly returns.8
In 1826 Shelley possesses the authorial confidence both to sign her name to The Last Man
and to inhabit her own story as its frame narrator; but that shift should not obscure how, in 1818, Shelley’s nominal anonymity rhymes with the ways that she puts a certain impersonality to work in her novel: the detachment of writer from novel reproduces the complex fission of voice and body, gesture and meaning, world and human, within the narrative, as we shall see. The letters making up Shelley’s first novel are addressed to one woman (rather than anticipatorily received, as in The Last Man
, by two, Mary Shelley and the Cumaean Sibyl) but that implied audience only serves to throw into relief that they are not marked, finally, as retrieved by anyone. Notwithstanding the fact that they share initials, Margaret Seville is no “Mary Shelley,” since, unlike in The Last Man
, she is barred from inhabiting a framing space of her own. She is a ghostly premonition of the auto-fictional role that Shelley herself will assume in the later novel, but her virtual and voiceless presence within the narrative, far from being meliorative because locating the novel in the web of human things, only underlines the text’s complicated refusal of refuge in the social. To be sure, the elemental addressee of the letters remains “the big Other, the Symbolic Order itself, which receives [them] … the moment the sender externalizes his message,” as Žižek says,9
but that reading does little to mitigate the narrative effect of the novel’s blunt indifference to whether Walton’s recollections are ever taken up by the fictional world in which they are set. The last thing that Walton exclaims to his sister, before ceding the narrative to Frankenstein’s monologue, is that he looks forward to picking up the “manuscript” “in some future day!” (63), identifying himself not as author but as reader of the words
that he writes, as if he were principally a character in his own text. Of that happy hereafter, brother and sister together taking “the greatest pleasure” (63) in reading the story, we hear nothing further. Walton opens the frame of the novel with this hopeful scene of domestic aesthetic bliss but does not dare or care to close it unequivocally. The point is that nothing definitive becomes
of the letters or, for that matter, of Walton or his sister. Their fate remains unknown; for his part, Walton eventually abandons anything resembling a salutation or a valediction, and he concludes his last letter with unexpectedly becalmed and wide-eyed sentences that are much closer to a “blank opening unto futurity” (to recall a phrase from Tres Pyle)10
than anything approaching a good-bye, much less finale. After having said farewell no less than three times, the creature’s lamentations and recriminations conclude, offering Walton a chance to speak up once more. But rather than excoriating his reviled guest or expressing satisfaction in seeing him off to die, the narrative yields to quite another kind of speech, as if the novel had, at the very last moment, found a voice and omnisciently taken over for Walton. Walton’s unhoused gaze and voice float away from the ship, turned as they are impassively toward the “darkness and distance” (221), while his vessel and body head toward home in England. In that strange depersonalizing moment of Gelassenheit
, absent the drama and melodrama of the preceding pages, we approach “the experience without poetry,” as Rei Terada says, “that Keats was able to know at the end of his life.”11
The ending leaves the letters simply there
, suspended in an inoperative space, not so much en route
as in-between, neither having arrived nor not arrived, “borne”—metaphorically, if not literally—“away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance” (221), to recall the novel’s spacy final words. The point is that Shelley asks us to read the letters as unread, which is to say, without knowing if they were either sent or received and without knowing if the addressor lives or dies. Frankenstein
’s detachment from itself, the way in which it stalls its own uptake, or rather invites readers to take it up as
stalled (a phenomenon that I elsewhere call “scarcity”),12
makes it function like a Rückenfigur
, a compositional strategy common to certain canonical Romantic paintings whose organizing human figure is facing away, directing the gaze of the viewer, as if wanting to share the visual field, while also isolated and aloof from her. But this is a strange quarantine, for without any confirmation of the fate of the letters, we become the default recipients, anonymously transformed into addressees like inquisitive but accidental readers of a post-card that is endlessly passing through the mails without ever arriving at its destination. In this way, the novel is both encrypted and transparent, undeliverable and deliverable, an assemblage of words and voices that obey the skewed logic of the supplement. At the moment we take up the letters, and only then, we become their fitting recipient, but we take them up not knowing whether anyone else in the novel’s world has.
Once Frankenstein’s death ensures that he can say nothing else, Walton hears the creature speak and indeed, after a telling moment of confusion, unable to determine at first if what he hears is a voice, and unable to locate that voice in a body, speak eloquently, passionately. Letting Frankenstein’s voice die is what makes the creature’s reported voice live. The creature appears to grasp that he is living under the aegis of that implacable biopolitical calculus: “He is dead who called me into being” (216),
he declares, standing before Frankenstein’s corpse, meaning not only that the one who gave him life is now gone but also that his creator’s demise hails him into a new, hitherto unheard of existence, one that flickers into life before quickly being subsumed by the plot that requires him to die because he is deemed and deems himself to be abhorrent, unworthy of life. A certain narrative logic in the novel makes it impossible to imagine Frankenstein and the creature speaking together in Walton’s presence or, for that matter, in anyone’s presence: within earshot of the captain, their voices must follow each other not only in time (first Frankenstein’s last words to Walton, then, and only then, the creature’s words) but also in space (first Frankenstein speaks in Walton’s cabin, and then, once dead, the creature is “permitted” to speak in the same space, in the company of his creator’s corpse but not of his creator). At any point in the novel do we ever hear of Frankenstein and the creature in a conversation that is heard by a third? No; their conversations are theirs and theirs alone. Frankenstein can fearfully imagine
such a colloquy taking place, as when, for a hallucinatory moment, he fears that Mr. Kirwin, the local magistrate, is about to usher the creature into his Irish jail-cell, where, presumably, he would get an earful about Frankenstein’s offences (185–6). But that is precisely not what happens. In a novel that brims with improbabilities, it is telling that this is the scene that feels so preposterous. The absurdity of that feared encounter only serves to underline the novel’s refusal to have conversations between Frankenstein and the creature take place in the presence of any auditor—except, of course, the reader, who, strictly speaking, doesn’t over-hear the two men either except via the figurative translation of writing into speech. Shared spoken words are the pact that irrevocably joins the creature and Frankenstein together, while safely quarantining them from the rest of the novel’s world.
On deck, at midnight, after the death of Frankenstein, Walton hears sounds that will resolve into the voice of the creature. Never before in the narrative have we heard the creature say anything that hadn’t first been remembered, reported, and reworded by his creator. We pass from one vocal imaginary to another in the novel’s narrative. Shelley sharpens the nowness of this break in the text by narrowing the delay between the events that are unfolding and Walton’s record of them. “I am interrupted,” he writes, moving suddenly into the present tense, disturbing the narrative with a disturbance, namely the noises coming from the direction of Frankenstein’s corpse.
What do these sounds portend? It is midnight; the breeze blows fairly, and the watch on deck scarcely stir. Again there is a sound as of a human voice, but hoarser; it comes from the cabin where the remains of Frankenstein still lie. I must arise, and examine. Good night, my sister. (217)
Hailed by sounds that bear the likeness of a human voice, Walton bids Margaret farewell for the last time in the novel. Social graces like opening and closing salutations will subsequently evaporate as the creature’s speech, new to Walton and new to us, surges into the foreground and impairs his correspondence with Margaret, separating him from his relationship to her in decisive ways from which he neither recovers nor shows any interest in recovering. When he writes, “Good night, my sister,” he is also saying
goodbye to goodbyes. He continues to write, of course, but most of his remaining remarks, culminating in the strange last two sentences of the novel, feel less and less addressed, as if the monstrous intrusion of “a sound as of a human voice” disrupts his own voice, impeding it from continuing to sound sociably human.
At first, if only for a moment, Walton does not hear a voice or a semblance of a voice but “sounds” emanating from “the cabin where the remains of Frankenstein still lie,” not phōnē
, something closer to the barking and braying of animals, those soulless creatures who, Aristotle claimed, and Descartes reiterated, vocalize without intent or imagination.13
Still, these noises emanating from the vicinity of Frankenstein’s corpse are not heard as mere animal bellowing (I am here reproducing the assinanities of an abiding philosophical tradition for which non-human animals reflexively cry in pain but do not possess a voice or express ideas14
) but vocalizations on the very threshold of intentionality and meaningfulness. These sounds “portend,” as Walton says, and what they foretell, what they give voice to, is the becoming-voice of a voice; in the first instance, they do not mean something but instead bear the promise, the sound, of meaningfulness. That is what makes them “a sound
as of a human voice.” These sounds do not only augur a particular event or signal a warning about, for example, the presence of the creature on Walton’s ship, of whose voice, initially “suffocated” but then full-throated, Walton will indeed hear plenty in a moment; they also perform portentousness—that is, they refer, mark, substitute, repeat, and temporalize the capacity to refer, to mark, to substitute, to repeat, and to temporalize, as if spoken language speaks first of itself, allegorizing itself, and thus beginning in sound where it has already begun. Auspicious sounds are irreducible to noises; they perhaps resemble “the voice … like a stream” heard in Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence”; even and especially if the boundaries between distinct words disappear (“nor word from word could I divide”), the speaker in Wordsworth’s poem still hears what Simon Jarvis calls “the intonation contour” or “the leech-gatherer’s prosody,” that is, the sound that a voice as
voice makes, even if the individual words or, for that matter, the particular language being spoken, is indiscernible—the sound, for example, that a sea-captain might hear through a cabin door without being able to pick out words ...