October 31, 2018


Is Frankenstein's Monster the Golem's Son?: A Jewish literary mystery for Halloween ( Ed Simon, October 31, 2018, The Tablet)

The golem endures as a uniquely Jewish vision; a mighty, earthen homunculus who warns us about the dangers of artificial creation. Scholar Lewis Glinert writes that if "there is such a thing as a specifically modern myth, then the myth of the Golem must surely rank as one of the most powerful." Explaining this narrative of an "artificial man, blessed with supernatural powers, that runs out of our control" requires us also to recognize the 250th anniversary of the most famous manifestation of Rabbi Loew's creature, albeit one shorn of his Hebrew origins, save for perhaps his superficially Jewish-sounding name.

Mary Shelley's gothic masterpiece Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus was written in 1816 at the age of 19, after a night of ghost stories traded between her future husband the poet Percy Shelley, the notorious Romantic poet Lord Byron, and the inventor of the modern vampire tale, John William Polidori, as they warmed themselves by the fireplace of Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva on a cold summer night. "Frightful must it be," the author later wrote, as "would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world." Since Frankenstein's initial print run of 500, Shelley's monster has become a convenient symbol for scientific and technological hubris. Glinert has opined that Frankenstein enjoys a "status which appears to literary criticism as an anomaly, a scandal: it is a modern myth."

Literary critic Northrop Frye notes that a variation of the word "golem" appears millennia ago in Psalm 139, where it connotes that which is formless (or has yet to be formed). Peter Conrad describes this use of "golem" to denote "a shapeless form, a gobbet of chaos," and explains that in that context, the psalm writer has David reflecting "on the wonders of his making, which happened 'in the lowest part of the earth' where he was 'covered' by God." One hears intimations of Frankenstein's observation that all of us "are unfashioned creatures, but half made up." Such correspondences can also be seen in the Talmud, where at Tractate Sanhedrin 38b, Adam is referred to as "golem," drawing out the implications of a dangerous creation all the more literally.

Serendipitously, just listened to Titus Techera on the ACF Movie Podcast discussing Ex Machina, which explores many of the same themes. Lost in our fascination with the impossibility of Creating perfectly is that last implicit recognition that God too failed.

Posted by at October 31, 2018 3:41 PM