Exercise 1.6: The contemporary abyss

Brief: Read Simon Morley's essay 'Staring into the Contemporary Abyss'. Then choose any body of work (photographic project, cinema, literature, or any other medium) and explain how it relates to the sublime. 

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Whilst I was reading Morley's essay, I was reminded of Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein. Having been inspired by both the Romantic and Gothic movements, her novel was first published in France in 1822. It told the story of a young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, whose experiments led to the creation of a monster. We feel pleasure in the fact that such an experiment could save us all from death, but also the ethical dilemma that digging up dead bodies and bringing them back to life just doesn't seem right. 

In fact, Shelley uses the word 'sublime' several times in her novel, such as:

These sublime and magnificent scenes afforded me the greatest consolation that I was capable of receiving (Shelley, 1822: 289)


When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. (Shelley, 1822: 735) 

The name 'Frankenstein' conjures up images of a green-skinned giant with stitched limbs and metal bolts protruding through it's neck. However, this is a common misconception. Frankenstein is the creature's creator. The monster is nameless. The very fact that it has no name amplifies the sheer terror and dread. The fear of the unknown. Even Shelley's decision to publish the first edition anonymously adds to the sense of dread.Morley referred to this as the negative-sublime. A name-less and faceless creature has been roaming the wilderness. Wild, and untamed, it hunts its master, in order to avenge its isolation. 

Just as Morely referred to extreme events in nature as being evocative of the sublime, Victor Frankenstein was captivated by the awe and wonder of the thunder and lightning during a storm. It would be the flash of inspiration that he needed to attempt to resurrect his deceased mother. Morley's 'abyss' could be akin to the bottomless chasm of death that we are all faced with. Furthermore, the very fact that nature can be manipulated and that Victor Frankenstein can play God, by creating life, is in itself, sublime. The reader becomes aware that all it wants is to be loved - it is the very absence of this love that exacerbates the sublimity of the narrative. 

Consumed by both fear and hatred, Victor Frankenstein believes that his only option is to destroy the very thing that he has been desperate to achieve. It would mean he would be unable to bring his mother back to life. The fact that the creature is manmade, suggests a technological sublime. The young scientist almost effortlessly appeared to accomplish something which no other has been able to achieve. To resurrect the dead. 

Ever since Shelley's novel, Frankenstein has been reinvented and resurrected in many different forms, for example in films and paintings. Even the name 'Frankenstein' has been associated with genetically modified crops - which have filled people with a sense of terror and dread.


Shelley, M. (1822) Frankenstein.