- Editor’s ForewordA Year of Frankenstein
No silence so deep as this place with its cargo of newly dead. Only the slow drip of water over stone. . . . He ties each knot down until the edges are apposed. Not too tightly. These are the most meticulous sutures of his life.—Richard Selzer, “Imelda”
Last week I read Richard Selzer’s story “Imelda” with a group of second-year medical students. We talked about the strangeness of a central sequence in which the narrator, a physician, remembers an event that happened when he was a medical student: he describes his mentor, a plastic surgeon, going down to the basement morgue in a Honduran hospital late at night and, by lamplight, completing cleft-lip repair on the corpse of young Imelda, who had died on the operating table. The surgeon is obsessive, the work illicit, the result beautiful. And the narrator admits that he was not himself present for his story’s central event. The scene he describes is one he can only imagine. So why does the author have him imagine it so differently from the rest of the story, like a scene from gothic horror?
In class we talked about how the narrator—describing events distorted by both a novice’s limited vision and the filter of nostalgia—should not be trusted. One of the students pointed out that the surgeon’s secret work had, from the narrator’s point of view, been a kind of revivification, with Imelda “extracted from the shadows, suspended above and beyond all of us like a resurrection.”1 That’s when the surgeon’s name—Dr. Franciscus—came into focus, in his ambitious misguided medical student’s vision of him, suturing the dead in a gloomy morgue straight out of a black and white 1931 movie, and I thought, oh. Here he is again. Another Frankenstein.
This has been a year of Frankensteins. As the bicentennial of the first publication of Mary Shelley’s novel draws to an end, Victor and [End Page 261] the monster seem to be everywhere. It almost goes without saying that we should claim enough, now, and turn to new things in 2019. Surely we’ve said all we can about Frankenstein for now? Yet it seems there’s always more the story has to say about us. Over the course of this year I’ve learned to stop worrying and enjoy how the world seems to have rearranged itself into configurations of Frankenstein. That’s because I’ve found a useful word for the scarily profligate meaning-making that Shelley’s myth seems to trigger: apophenia.
Apophenia is considered a symptom of psychosis, the perception of significant connections among unrelated entities, finding patterns where none exist. The term was introduced by the German psychiatrist Klaus Conrad in a study of schizophrenia.2 It can refer to paranoid conspiracy theories or to drug-induced apprehensions of mystical universal coherence. It reads regular experience as if authored with the intent to convey meaning.
As the erroneous identification of non-existent connections, apopheny is contrasted with a form more familiar in literary studies: epiphany, understood as the sudden recognition of connections that really are—and have been—there. But to make a confident distinction between healthy epiphany and pathological apopheny we have to trust that some connections are really there while others are illusory, and that the difference between the two is verifiable. Who says? On what grounds? Evidence comes in many forms, and what else are art, poetry, literature but the illumination of patterns through the process of making connections, both intratextual and extratextual, rather than just finding them?
The real problem in Frankenstein is of course not that Victor’s biotech innovation was effective but that he thought he could control it, just as Zeus imagined he could control humans, and how Prometheus duped him, taught humans his tricks, survived Zeus’s tortures, and left us with fire and science and stories. Zeus and Victor were wrong. From Frankenstein’s account, we deduce that the monster tried to connect: “He muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did...