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NatureInterface > No.05 > P090-091 [Japanese]

The Interface between Literature and Science 2) -- Kenji Kazama



The Interface between Literature and Science

Scary is an Automaton: 2


Kenji Kazama

Kenji Kazama, critic and translator, was born in Tokyo in 1953. He graduated from the Faculty of Humanities, Musashi University. After withdrawal from the editorial department of Hayakawa Publishing Corporation, he has introduced and translated fantasy literature and British and American postmodern novels. He is also a part-time lecturer at Tokyo Metropolitan University. His "Collected Horror Fictions NOTE. PERHAPS Collected Horror Stories?" received the 51st Mystery Writers of Japan Award for criticism. "Dancing Literature" (Juyukokuminsha), "Stephen King" (Chikuma Shobo Publishing Co., Ltd.), " Alternative Fictions NOTE. PERHAPS Alternative Fiction?" (rose des vents - suiseisha) and "Junk Fiction World" (Shinshokan Co., Ltd.) are among his other writings. He is the translator of "Live Girls" by Ray Garton (Bungei Shnju Ltd.), "A Smart Cunt: A Novella" by Irvine Welsh (Aoyama Publishing Co., Ltd.) and "Wizard and Glass" by Stephen King (Kadokawa Shoten Publishing Co., Ltd.) among others.


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As is widely known, the monster in the immortal work by Mary W. Shelley, "Frankenstein" (1918), is an automaton ム not a mechanical man but an android. Talking about automata calls to mind E. T. A. Hoffmann's novelette "The Sand-Man" (1816) in which Olympia, a beautiful doll girl, is depicted. However, I dare to refer to "Frankenstein" as a work which mythicized two abhorrent ideas: people' s praise of science and technology, and the threat posed to humanity by science and technology.

Nevertheless, the monster that Dr. Frankenstein created by digging tombs and connecting working parts of corpses is a product of occultism rather than technology, even though the electrochemical reaction described by L. Calvani and the evolution theory of Erasmus Darwin are often mentioned. Frankenstein's monster is similar to a Golem, a mud doll of 16th century Hebrew legend, or to a homunculus, the name given by the alchemist Paracelsus to an organism g rowing in a test tube. It is because of the size of the monster that this android of Frankenstein came to function as a metaphor for the threat of technology in Western Europe throughout the 19th century.

The images of Frankenstein's monster are different in James Whale's 1931 movie "Frankenstein" from those in the novel. Most people imagine the monster as a ferocious shambling simpleton with a jutting forehead, wounds on his face, wide eyes, a big mouth and bolts sticking out of his neck. However, the monster in the original novel is not particularly ugly (except that his face looks yellow) and is relatively clear-headed. Nevertheless, he is extraordinarily large. His sheer size creates threat and hatred.

The enormousness of the monster, of course, derives from the sublime, a concept of beauty that was new at the time. In his writing " A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful" (1756), Edmund Burke defined beauty as some thing tiny and feminine that brings contentment to people's hearts, while the sublime is something gigantic and manly that causes awe. This idea spread rapidly, especially among Romanticists.

At the same time, however, the largeness of the android functioned as a metaphor for a technology that was growing too fast after the Industrial Revolution.

Depictions of people working in large buildings or factories or standing beside huge machines were popular at the end of the 18th century and in the early 19th century. George Robertson, James Neasmith, Joseph Right and John Farguson Wier , for example, are well known artists of such paintings. They draw huge engines, meters, hammers and furnaces, and emphasized the dignified appearance of various machines, while including only very small human figures beside them.

These drawings would seem to indicate that people worship machines of overwhelming scale and are proud of the infinite possibilities of technology. However, in some paintings, humanity seems to be dwarfed by the huge machines, controlled by technology and threatened by the fact that people are forced by machines to work as slaves. In other words, the image of an enormous machine represents not only admiration for humans, who created a scientific civilization capable of conquering mother nature, but also people' s fear that humans may be controlled by their own creations and reduced to a helpless existence. Such ambivalence toward technology after the Industrial Revolution contributed to the elevation of Frankenstein's monster to mythic status.

The Great Exhibition of London, which took place in 1851, provides an interesting example of the relationship between human and machine which illustrates people' s complex range of emotions from worship to threat. This was the "expanding man," a mannequin-like doll contrived by Lord Dunin and consisting of tubes and thousands of sliding metal plates. This figure could be easily enlarged or reduced from human to giant size and could also form any type of human figure.

Although the expanding man was originally created as a model for painters and tailors, it came to be regarded as one of the great accomplishments of 19th century technology, as was the Crystal Palace, where the Great Exhibition was held. The expanding man was described as a beautiful mechanical work, and was even compared to Greek gods and sculpture. It w as also one of various entries in the Great Exhibition that was awarded a medal by the referee board. This episode accurately demonstrates the thoughts of people of that time who were interested in the questions posed by the relationship between ever-enlarging machines and the size of humans.

Another work which depicts the enormousness of technology, and the threat and tragedy of automata is the short story "The Bell Tower" (1855) by Herman Melville, an American author best known for his "Moby Dick." The story is set in Italy in the Renaissance. The hero is Bannadonna, a genius at mechanics and architecture who tries to construct an epochal building: a bell tower and clock tower combined. This bell tower is to be so tall that it makes people think of the tower of Babel. The bell to toll the time is gigantic and some workers flee out of fear. Bannadonna, who is indomitable and becomes cruel in his struggle to complete his creation, kills horrified workers. Nevertheless, he is not charged with murder because his unprecedented project, an enormous product of technology, is regarded as a victory of humans over nature. Even more amazing than the high tower and huge bell are the bell ringers: 12 mechanical girls. But tragedy occurs when Bannadonna climbs the tower alone to improve his meticulously devised automata and make them more elaborate.

"The Bell Tower," with its huge soaring tower and bell, is a work with much sexual symbolism, which is not discussed here. Rather, I prefer to focus on the products of technology (the enormousness of the tower and bell), and on the fact that the 12 automata are girls. This implies a masculine technology controlling and enslaving women. This is made explicit in the story through the domino costumes of the automata. "Domino" is the masculine form of "dominus" (sovereign) and in slang refers to blacks (i.e., slaves). At the same time, "domino" also means "an overwhelming blow," and Bannadonna is killed by a hammer held by an automaton of his own creation. "The Bell Tower" is an excellent work depicting, with erotic images, human arrogance over God (nature), both the worship and the threat of technology, and the retaliatory rebellion of creations against their creator, that is, the dread of technology out of control. "The Bell Tower" can be considered a work which connects "Frankenstein" with "Tomorrow's Eve" (1886) by Villiers de L' Isle-Adam, both of which feature automata.

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