Frankenstein's Scientific Chaoskampf

Jason Josephson-Storm convincingly argues in his recent book The Myth of Disenchantment, that contrary to the popular narrative of us living in secular age in which the common imagination has no room for anything spiritual, magical, or mythological we still very much live in an enchanted age.[1] We never became disenchanted because the so-called disenchanters, the founders of the modern sciences, were themselves caught up in the esotericism and occultism common in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In short, magicians never went away they just put on lab coats. Of course the forgoing summary is crude and there is much more nuance to Josephson-Storm’s argument. However, the aim of the following is not to provide an analysis of his thesis.

Instead, I would like to take this idea of Josephson-Storm’s that modernity, specifically modern science, is still rooted in myth and get at the founding myth of modern science’s progeny and master: modern technology. In so doing, I hope to call into question for both the lay person and the pastor the technophilia—the unquestioning love and adoption of technology—that is as prevalent in our churches as it is in the broader culture. As will hopefully become clearer as I proceed, Christians need to be more critical of their engagement and use of technology because the fundamental cosmogony (how the world came to be) and ontology (the understanding of the nature of the world) of technology is at odds with the cosmogony and ontology of Christianity. In order to begin the exploration of the mythos behind technology, I will discuss the presence of a myth other than that of Prometheus or Icarus in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Shelley wrote her magnum opus during the dawn of the modern sciences, and one of the reasons why her work has had such staying power even now 200 years on is that she recognized the ancient desires driving the development of the new sciences. The Promethean interpretation of Frankenstein is one of the most common interpretations undoubtedly because of the work’s subtitle: Or the Modern Prometheus. Such an interpretations run something like the following. Victor Frankenstein is a new Prometheus. He steals something, in his case the power over life and death, from the gods that should only belong to them. Also like Prometheus, he creates a new race of beings. Finally, he is punished for his offense against the gods. Likewise, it is easy to see Frankenstein as a modern Icarus—someone who is overcome by the joy found in his newly obtained powers, reaches beyond his grasp, and faces disaster because of his hubris.

As venerable as these interpretations are—before Shelley, Immanuel Kant used “Modern Prometheus” to refer to Benjamin Franklin—they only get at questions of the proper use and misuse of technology.[2] Moreover, they assume that there is nothing wrong with the modern scientific project and that there are only bad applications. The Promethean and Icarian interpretations do not get at why Frankenstein would think that he could and should become master of life and death. However, there is a third myth that is more subtly woven into Shelley’s narrative.

The third myth is what is known as the Chaoskampf (struggle with chaos), a motif found in nearly every ancient mythology. The Chaoskampf tells how a culture’s hero god, usually a weather god for what were mainly agrarian societies, defeats primordial chaos and subsequently creates something out of the chaotic substance. On such an understanding of creation, the world is fundamentally chaotic, since it is created out of chaos, and the creative process is inherently violent, since created beings are brought about by the forceful and repeated subjugation of chaos.

One example of the Chaoskampf from antiquity is the Baʿal Cycle which tells of how Ba’al (lord) Hadad, the Ugaritic equivalent of Zeus, came to rule the Canaanite pantheon.[3] The narrative starts with El, the father of the gods, asking Kothar wa-Kha to build Yamm, the sea an ancient metaphor for chaos, a palace in order to appease Yamm. Before Yamm can be appeased he demands to be made lord of the gods and that Baʿal be handed over to be his slave. Fearing Yamm and his monsters, the gods acquiesce. Upon hearing this Ba’al rushes into battle with Yamm. Taking in both hands two magical clubs made for him by Kothar, Baʿal “strikes the pate of Prince [Yamm], between the eyes . . . Yamm collapses, he falls to the ground; his joints bend, his frame breaks. Baal would rend, would smash Yamm, would annihilate Judge Nahar.” However, Yamm is spared through the intercession of Ashtoreth and is confined to the sea. Following Yamm’s defeat, “a silver and gold house, a house of most pure lapis lazuli” is built for Ba’al that covers “A thousand fields.”

However, Baʿal’s victory is not absolute. Yamm is not totally defeated and returns to threaten Baʿal and the latter’s established order. For order to be protected and not collapse back into undifferentiated chaos, Yamm must be defeated again and again. Thus, creation is never secure, and there is an eternal struggle between chaos and order. Here it will be helpful to note another shade of meaning for “chaos.” In addition to chaos as primal undifferentiated and potentially hostile substance, what can be called cosmogenic chaos, there is also chaos as a threat to order, what is called “kratogenic chaos.” While there is debate over to what extent each understanding of chaos is present in ancient near eastern myths, they are both indeed present.[4]

For the ancients, chaos is simultaneously the very basic stuff of creation to be put to use by the hero and a threat to the order created by the hero. To put it into more modern scientific terms: chaos is both the original starting point of reality in the Big Bang and entropy, which is ever increasing and may one-day lead to the Big Crunch—the collapsing of the universe back to a singularity. Given this description of the creation of the world coming from Chaoskampf, it is not a stretch to say that the ancient mythologists held to an ontology of chaos. More specifically, their ontology is a kind of monism that holds that all beings are at their core made from the same initially undifferentiated and unintelligible substance, and these beings are threatened by a collapse back to the primordial source. Differentiated, that is to say ordered, beings come into existence and remain in existence through the imposition of structure onto the primordial substance.

The kampf in Frankenstein is not, as the popular interpretation goes, between Frankenstein and his creation, but between Frankenstein and nature. The young doctor does not pursue his studies of natural philosophy apathetically. His discovery of power over life and death and the creation of his monster are not the result of naïve curiosity. Instead, they are the culmination of Frankenstein contending with nature.

According to what he tells Captain Walton, Frankenstein’s childhood was Edenic. Beloved by his parents and raised in a comfortable upper class household with his dear cousin and younger siblings, Frankenstein knew no suffering or pain. All of that changed when his mother died of scarlet fever prior to his departure for the University of Ingolstadt. Chaos had intruded into his life.

When he arrives at the university, Frankenstein meets M. Waldman who tells him that modern scientists, “have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of the heaven.”[5] Frankenstein departs “highly pleased with the professor and his lecture” to do battle with chaos just like the others in his hero-god lineage.[6] He “pursue[s] nature to her hiding places,” but he does not strike out with the clubs of Baʿal. Instead, he deploys the apparatus of modern science and technology to “penetrate into the recesses of nature, and shew how she works.”[7]

This endeavor is hard on Frankenstein. He is not a white-collared career researcher with funding from the NIH or DARPA working nine-to-five in a tidy lab. As Frankenstein tells the ship captain, “After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life,” but his struggle was not over.[8] Buoyed by his will to create, Frankenstein carries on despite the fact that his “cheek had grown pale with study, and [his] person had become emaciated with confinement” and he at times failed.[9] The horrific nature of his struggle causes Frankenstein to tremble and his “eyes to swim with the remembrance of how he was cut off from the rest of humanity in his laboratory” and how “The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased.”[10] Eventually this takes a toll on his health and he is afflicted by a fever and nervous anxiety. Nevertheless, he succeeds in subjugating nature and creating something living from it.

However, just as the struggle of Ba’al did not result in the complete defeat of chaos, so too Frankenstein’s victory is not absolute. In an ironic twist, the result of Frankenstein’s labors b­­­­ecomes an embodiment of chaos. As a harbinger of death, the creature threatens Frankenstein with the one thing he fears most and serves as a reminder that Frankenstein’s mastery of the world is tentative at best. Like Ba’al, who had to contend with Yamm again, Frankenstein must fight his progeny in order to stave off death, the collapse back to disorder.

Thus, Frankenstein engages in a Chaoskampf of his own. The monster would not have been created if Frankenstein did not engage in a struggle with the forces of nature. This struggle, like those found in mythology, culminated in the hero god of that age—the weather god for an agrarian society and the modern scientist for our industrial society—subjugating the chaotic force, which for Frankenstein was the power of life and death itself. Only then, once the power in nature has been tamped down is something, in this case the monster, able to be created. Furthermore, the struggle must perpetually continue for order to be maintained.

Here we arrive at one of the other great ironies, of which there are many, in Frankenstein’s story. Before M. Waldman launches into his speech lauding the modern scientist, he disabuses Frankenstein of his love of the alchemists, particularly Albertus Magnus, also known as St. Albert the Great. While St. Albert’s greatest scientific accomplishment was the discovery of arsenic, he is better known for his commentaries on Aristotle and best known as Thomas Aquinas’ teacher. Drunk on the potential of modern science as described by M. Waldman, Frankenstein rejects St. Albert. In so doing, Frankenstein is rejecting what he thinks is the old, outdated, and wrong understanding of world—the medieval Christian Aristotelian understanding of nature as created and ordered towards a telos—and embracing a new way of seeing and engaging with the world. However, the supposedly new vision Frankenstein is adopting is ironically far older and every bit as religious as the worldview he is rejecting. All that there is is nothing more than raw material for Frankenstein and the other techno-gods to conquer and shape to their wills. After all, as M. Waldman tells Frankenstein, scientific engagement with nature is about acquiring “new and unlimited powers.”[11]

More philosophically-inclined readers will have by now noticed a similarity between Frankenstein’s pagan understanding of the world and what Martin Heidegger called the enframing. As he argues in “The Question Concerning Technology,” The enframing restricts our vision to only seeing things as “standing-reserve” waiting to be put to our use by our techno-logic, what Heidegger calls “challenging forth.” Standing-reserve and challenging forth stand in contrast to seeing a thing in all its thingness and working with it, not coercing it. In order to help elucidate this point, Heidegger contrasts a hydroelectric dam with a water wheel.[12]

In the former, the river is subjugated to the human will as it is captured and forced through the dam. In the latter, the miller sticks the wheel out into the river tapping a portion of the river’s power but allowing the rest to flow freely and be itself. With the dam the river is seen merely as a source of power and the rest drops from view, while with the wheel the beautiful, ecological, and other aspects of the river can still be seen and appreciated. Another example would be the difference between an Appalachian mountain as merely a source of coal waiting to have its top removed versus a home for people and animals that has some coal. Still another example can be found in Frankenstein. As Frankenstein says:

Winter, spring, and summer passed away during my labours; but I did not watch the blossom of the expanding leaves—sights which before always yielded me supreme delight, so deeply was I engrossed in my occupation. The leaves of that year had withered before my work drew near to a close. [13]

The beauty and delightfulness of nature drop from Frankenstein’s view and consideration because he is caught up in the enframing of standing-reserve or power.

The danger of the Chaoskampf worldview or the enframing is not simply that we will stop appreciating nature’s beauty. Nor is it that we will stop using nature to contemplate its Creator. Nor is it even that we will cause grave ecological damage. The great danger is that real violence, not just mythical abstract ontological violence, can spring forth from the view that the world is nothing more than chaos awaiting an imposition of order. The reason being that people are a part of the world, and being such, they do not escape the enframing.

When the enframing is turned onto humans, we become nothing more than chaotic material to be subdued and shaped into whatever the new gods of our technological age will. Hence all the efforts put into organizing and engineering, socially and medically, people that have arisen in the last two centuries. The goal of all such projects is to bring forth and utilize whatever the modern Baʿals deem useful. As evidenced by Frankenstein’s monster, Frankenstein himself valued masculinity, physical size and strength, and rational intelligence. Frankenstein did not value femininity, emotional maturity, or prudence. Likewise, as evidenced by their so-called “cure” for Down Syndrome, Iceland values what they believe to be genetic purity.[14]

Here at the end I do not want to leave us without any hope for technological advancement that is not violent, nor do I want to be misconstrued as a neo-Luddite. As St. Augustine constantly reminds us in his theology, we must turn to the Christian doctrine of creation. For it is in the peculiarly Christian understanding of creation ex nihilo by a Triune God that we can understand creation as good and participating in divine being which as St. John tells us is Love. In Genesis, contrary to its ancient near eastern counterparts, there is a lack of both chaos and kampf. Instead, there is peaceful creation out of nothing other than the excess of the internal, eternal love of the Holy Trinity. If there is going to be advancement that is not rooted in violence but in love, such advancement must begin “In the beginning” (Gen 1:1).

Editorial Note: This essay is adapted from a Harold O.J. Brown Award for Student Scholarship winning essay that will appear next year (2019) in Trinity Journal.

Editorial Statement: CLJ will explore the latest developments in the relationship between science and religion throughout September 2018. Special emphasis will be put upon exploring the demise of the conflictual model of science and religion. Our series is a celebration of the McGrath Institute’s Science & Religion Initiative winning an Expanded Reason Award from the Ratzinger Foundation and the University Francisco de Vitoria (Madrid, Spain). Posts in the series will be collected here (click link) as they are published. 

[1] Jason Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment (Chicago: UCP, 2017).

[2] “From the Prometheus of modern times, Herr Franklin, who sought to disarm the thunder, to that man who sought to extinguish the fire in Vulcan’s workshop, all such endeavours [sic] are proofs of the boldness of man, allied with a capacity which stands in a very modest relationship to it, and ultimately they lead him to the humbling reminder, which is where he ought properly to start, that he is never anything more than a human being.” Immanuel Kant, “On the Causes of Earthquakes on the Occasion of the Calamity that Befell the Western Countries of Europe towards the End of Last Year,” trans. Olaf Reinhardt in Natural Science, ed. Eric Watkins (Cambridge: CUP, 2015), 373.

[3]H.L. Ginsberg, “Poems about Baal and Anath,” in in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament ed. James B. Pritchard (Princeton: PUP, 1950), 129-142.

[4] Karen Sonik, “From Hesiod’s Abyss to Ovid’s rudis indigestaque moles: Chaos and Cosmos in the Babylonian ‘Epic of Creation,’” in Creation and Chaos: A Reconsideration of Hermann Gunkel’s Chaoskampf Hypothesis, ed. JoAnn Scurlock and Richard H. Beal (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 1-25,

[5] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, (Seattle: Amazon, 2017), 40.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. 40, 48

[8] Ibid., 45

[9] Ibid., 47

[10] Ibid., 47-48

[11] Ibid., 39-40.

[12] Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 299, 301.

[13] Shelley, 49.

[14] Julian Quinones and Arijeta Lajka, “‘What Kind of Society do You Want to Live in?’: Inside the Country where Down Syndrome is Disappearing,” CBS NEWS, August 15, 2017, accessed February 27, 2018.

Featured Image: Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from The Bride of Frankenstein as Frankenstein's monster; Source: Wikimedia Commons, No Known Copyright Restrictions.


Benjamin Parks

Benjamin Parks is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Assistant Professor of Medical Ethics at Mercy College of Ohio. He is exceedingly fond of cats.

Read more by Benjamin Parks