Creativity, The Father, and the Dark Roots of Guilt
Why does our creativity frighten us, why do we surround it with taboos and prohibitions and tell so many stories about its dark and threatening side?
In Mary Shelley’s prophetic novel Frankenstein (1816), on the very night that he creates his famous pseudo-human “monster,” the protagonist has a remarkable dream about his fiancée.
“I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her, but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms. . .
More than one hundred years later, in Fritz Lang’s classic film, Metropolis (1927), the young hero Freder also has a striking dream. He has fallen sick after witnessing the transformation of his beloved and kindly Maria, who has become a vampish, highly sexed creature, seemingly intimate with his father, the ruler of Metropolis. (Actually, Freder really sees, without realizing it, “the false Maria,” a robot given the shape of his beloved by the nefarious Dr. Rotwang. Nonetheless, based on what he thinks he sees, he suffers a terrible nightmare). A stone figure of death from the cathedral becomes animated and with three great strokes of the scythe seems to perform on Freder a definitive emasculation.
Both texts, Shelley’s and Lang’s, artfully associate creativity — and in particular the creation of pseudo-human forms — with sexual guilt. Sexuality is tacitly recognized as one of the mainsprings of human creativity: out of this dark-bright river of impulse come songs, statues, stories—and children. In the western tradition, the primary creative act is assigned to the male God, Jahweh, and all our secondary creation both imitates and challenges the master Artificer. In fact, our creativity spins off (as Shaw’s play Back to Methuselah shows) from Jahweh’s moral imperatives, since we have chosen the wisdom of the serpent and have consequently been banished forever from Eden.
Frankenstein’s dream illustrates how the circumvention of sexual creation evokes our guilt about the suppressed goddess, (in Genesis, Eve, the ally of the serpent, is one version of the ancient creative mother of many cultures). Once upon a time the mother was the creative principle; now the father reigns. And if the mother is not a child-producer, if her son has taken over her creative power, might she not be a sexually worthy partner? Lang’s film raises the Oedipal question in a striking way. Rotwang and Freder’s father were rivals for the love of the long deceased Hel. Bereft of the primal female, they accept the mechanisms of Moloch and to protect it conspire to create the false Maria, who rather than being a potential helpmate, is a threatening seductress, the dark side of the good mother they have superseded. (Towards the end of the film, the Metropolis society breaks down, the dark river erupts, and the city has to right the balance, purging by fire its illusory evil feminine and accepting the positive female in a new marriage of opposites). Both stories link the idea of mechanical and biological creation with images of guilt and death, and also with the incest taboo, an ingenuity that touches some profound matters.
Another famous text, from yet another genre, is equally instructive. Karel Capek’s robot play Rossum’s Universal Robots (1921), dramatizes the destruction of humanity and its replacement by mechanical-chemical similitudes. Old Rossum (the Czech word refers to “reason”) is the father-creator, founder of the firm. Harry Domin, the general manager of RUR, is a prisoner of old Rossum’s one-sidedness. He quickly “falls” for Helena, a visitor to the island factory, and it is she who, out of her “perverse humanity,” urges one of the scientists to give the robots something like souls, and then destroys the formula that created them. As the robots multiply, the human birth rate declines, and when all the humans but one perish, murdered by their creations, two of the conquering robots fall in love and are designated as “the new Adam and Eve.”
Once again, “normal” marriage resulting in child-producing sexuality is seen as threatened by human creativity. If we make something remarkable we will surely pay a price; we may lose touch with our biological drives; or they may be diverted into strange or forbidden channels. Our significant creations, our most miraculous inventions, are sacred objects in which “magic” is wrought and something beautiful appears from our minds and hands, but for the artist the price may be high.
So much is true on the personal level. I believe, however, that the cultural problem raised by the works I have mentioned goes even deeper, and that it touches the very roots of our Judaic-Christian beliefs about the creator and his creation. In fact, the chief point of these stories is to expose the terrible ambiguities involved in our human drive to “sub-create” after the manner of Yahweh-Elohim.
In this connection I would like to deal with two predicted nightmares of the 21st century. The first of these concerns the fear that artificial intelligence will prove intractable to human control, that our “thinking machines” will make our own human rationality irrelevant or impotent. The second (and related) fear concerns our increasing power to manipulate life through biotechnology: do we have the right to intervene in nature and modify its basic forms? Will such intervention lead to disaster?
I believe that, shaped as we are by the Biblical myths of creation, we live in terror of our own godlike powers. In Milton’s Paradise Lost appear the lines spoken by Adam (and used by Mary Shelley as an epigraph to Frankenstein):
Did I request Thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solict Thee
From darkness to promote me?
As suffering beings we are fully aware of the ambiguities of existence, thus we are able to empathize with our own creations and to imagine them to be as discontented with their state as we are with ours. But we have a double perspective on such matters; as creatures we protest the inadequacies of creation; as creators we suffer uncertainties impossible in the transcendent deity in whose image we claim to be made.
Our stories of human creation reflect this double perspective and instability. It appears in the myth of the Golem, an important part of Jewish tradition, one that may have influenced Mary Shelley’s image of the Frankenstein monster. The word golem means “embryonic” or “amorphous.” As Adam was made of clay (adamah= red earth) so the golem is a human creation, shaped in human form from mud and activated by magic letters of the Hebrew alphabet. But the most famous story of the golem, that of Rabbi Loew of 16th century Prague, suggests discontent and rebellion in the creature and fear in its human creators. The story, recounted by Jakob Grimm, was retold twice in German films of the earlier twentieth century, and influenced James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein film.
Another creation story, familiar in the middle ages, is that of the homunculus. This is a laboratory creature, a miniature human, made in a chemical process, without uterine birth, from urine, sperm and blood. The alchemists sought the homunculus in the transforming process of the cauldron or test-tube. Significantly, this figure appears in Goethe’s Faust in the witches’ sabbath or Walpurgisnacht scene. With the homunculus, creation may be understood as a quest for phallic power, but, by placing it in connection with the sabbath, Goethe associates it with the ancient threatening feminine, rooted in paganism and goddess-worship. Once again, in the connection between masculine creativity and the repressed feminine, there is a suggestion of guilt and darkness, a taste of the forbidden
Our western creation stories, which at first focus on the nature of the creation, eventually stress the importance of the character and intentions of the human creator. The long tradition of the magus, the magician with power over nature, begins to link with the creation story and to crystallize the motivation behind the creative impulse. In the Renaissance we have on the one hand, Shakespeare’s Prospero, who practices white magic, controls nature spirits for specific purposes, but does not violate the order of the chain of being. Marlowe’s Faustus, on the other hand, bargains with the dark powers and seeks pleasure and power. After Goethe’s retelling and expansion of the story, it was possible to see the obsessed creator Frankenstein in terms of a more general western drive to control and manipulate nature. As Spengler noted, the western impulse is essentially Faustian, that is, limitless in its aspirations, seeking change and discovery almost at all costs. Mary Shelley’s genius was to transform the old magus, the Promethean rebel of the Romantics into the scientist. Her new magus became the creator who would bend nature to his demands. She does not balk at the dark truth that human invention and progress often bear the guilt of challenging the Father, that the human creator constantly endures the nightmare of losing control over the created thing.
As Robert Plank has observed, while creation meant only the forging of individual one-of-kind entities, of craft-made automata, the danger remained limited. But not many decades after Mary Shelley’s book appeared, the industrial revolution was in full swing. The robots imagined by Bulwer-Lytton in The Coming Race (1871 ) and by Capek were not at all singular but rather mass-made intelligent creatures whose chief limitation was their own inability to reproduce. Yet as the Czech play shows and as modern genetics demonstrates, there is no such absolute safeguard; when robots appear in the form of androids or pseudo-humans (which is how Capek describes them) the boundaries of the human dissolve and we are forced to confront our shadow brothers and sisters.
In the view of some observers (e.g. Joshua Rifkin in his 1998 book, The Biotech Revolution, and Freeman Dyson in his 1997 speculative prognosis, Imaginary Worlds), problems raised by the genetic and computer revolutions will be central to 21st century concerns. Yet the issue is an intractable one because its roots are so deeply buried in the mythical programming of western society. We have longed dreamed of animated creations and of robotic intelligences; now we are about to be confronted by the reality.
Most of our fears about human similitudes and errant creations probably derive from our Book of Genesis, and from the notion of the Father-creator, the transcendant Jahweh-Elohim, it fosters . (I could show, but I have no space to do so, that Genesis 1, for example, provides us not just with a story but with an anatomy of all human creation , as we understand it). Secularization and enlightenment by no means override such primary texts and we must take them into account when measuring the power of collective fears. Other cultural traditions have fostered ideas of an eternally existing universe; they have also retained a sense of the power of the feminine, the earth, and of natural processes in their accounts of the origin of things. We, on the other hand, are associated with the hubris of putting ourselves above the universal processes. We want to be like gods; yet we have been exiled from paradisal bliss and live in a world where our natural drives are understood to be in conflict with the laws of creation. This tension is no doubt itself creative, but it assures that guilt will haunt all of our achievements, especially in relation to any activity perceived as a rivalry with the Father-creator.
In 1906, when Ernst Jentsch conceived of the notion of the “uncanny” (unheimlich), he specifically referred to the unsettling “doubt of an animation of an apparently living being, and . . . doubt whether a lifeless object is not perhaps animated. . .” The progress of science has guaranteed that such fears will continue to haunt us. What may rescue us in the long run is the continuing erosion of the patriarchal notions we have internalized from the Genesis story. New Age thinking, goddess worship and the promotion of paganism and the “new polytheism,” these all have their superficial sides, but in so far as they are portents of a change in historical consciousness, they may help us banish our fears of the uncanny, at least in so far as such fears are conditioned by our unconscious allegiance to our central western creation story. In particular, the widening of sexual boundaries and the re-establishing of the sacrality and terror of sexual communion in a polytheistic context may help defuse the tensions surrounding our creative impulses. Our association of creativity with guilt and death derives from our fear of breaking ancient sexual boundaries and taboos. If we see our creativity as part of the continuous unfolding of the universe itself and not as a mirror of the primal act of a deity whose laws we have transgressed, the moral problems associated with our new inventions may disappear. In this connection, we might integrate the Christian idea of considering the good of others with the Taoist notion of the sacrality of the whole living world. We could become what Frankenstein wanted to be but could not be: “benefactors of mankind.” Freed from the fanaticism and myopia induced by trying to live up to the dictates of a deity operating above nature, one who judges us according to rigorous (and ultimately irrational) tribal canons, we could escape from the hidden tensions of creativity and develop a newly focused sensitivity to the effect of our inventions on nature and humanity.
As for the rather chilling idea that the compelling notions of Genesis 1-3 resonate far beyond the historically and culturally articulated Judaic-Christian program, that they reflect something deep and perennial in human nature– in that case, I fear, our uncanny sense of our own powers of creation — our fear of robots, clones and artifical intelligences — may be with us for a long time to come.
(This piece first appeared as an article in Confluences, a journal of ideas edited by Dr. Robert Richard in Montreal, April-May, 1999. This is a slightly revised version)