Hedonism and the Hobbesian: the dichotomy of the creator in a European literary State of Nature
“Our lives are a working out of the process of creation”, wrote St. Augustine. “All our ambitions and intelligence are beside that great elemental point.” Creation, therefore, is the human privilege, the cynosure of the most fundamental process born from millennia of human instinct to survive – to preserve oneself by extending one’s creation into a future populated by the produce of countless others’ identical compulsions. This intrinsically human desire to ‘create’ remains constant despite the undulating nature of society and institution, but it is by no means uninhibited.
This essay aims to address the dichotomy faced by the ‘creator’ in the European novel – a collision between the fundamental desire to strive for immortality by projecting a shadow of oneself through time, or to adopt a hedonistic disregard for convention born from a failure (or unwillingness) to achieve the aforementioned compulsion. The absence of the former is something of an anthropological phenomenon, as it seems to defy what Augustine refers to as the ‘great elemental point’. For those for whom this is the case, it seems to stand in defiance of the necessary intent propagated by generations of habit, and potentially throws the objective of one’s own existence into confused futility. So, what is the result of the abandonment of this ‘elemental point’? Hobbes writes that “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war” (Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. XIII, 84). We can interpret the term ‘war’ as referring to something other than overt physical conflict, however. It is instead a war of the self, where battles to claim self-actualisation supplement the ongoing solipsistic struggle to justify one’s own existence. In this, what Hobbes calls the state of ‘ bellum omnium contra omnes ’ (‘war of all against all’), any individual is at liberty to do whatever they wish in order to preserve his own existence. This is the state of nature, an arena of life in which consideration for any except oneself is disregarded in favour of pursuing a course of personal survival, and a life which is (according to Hobbes) “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” - represented as such in notable literary examples (as will be examined). The transition from the individual that is pregnant with the potential to ‘create’ to that which lacks the power is fascinating, and will be examined in accordance with the significance it lends to the next potential stage of development. In order to escape the brutality and isolation of such a solipsistic existence, the failed creator strives to facilitate the development of an identity by pursuing immediate satisfaction and emotive stimulation – a form of hedonism born out of necessity to assign a purpose to a life that is existentially nullified by the absence of the ability to create a projection of oneself to cast into the unseen future. The line of reasoning therefore is thus: that the primary function of a sentient individual is to extend their existence by creating something in which they are able to perceive an element of themselves. In losing the impulsion to create, or by failing to create that which satisfies the aforementioned desire, said individual loses sight of the ‘great elemental point’, the ‘common power’ which Hobbes claims is necessary to prevent a descent into a state of nature. Once one becomes engaged in this position of simplistic meaningless futility, an attempt to escape may be sought by adhering to essentially hedonistic principles and thus allocating the acquisition of pleasure as the means to assign value and significance to one’s own existence.
The validity of the theory detailed above will be explored by attempting to apply it to the literary contexts provided by Shelley’s Frankenstein and Kosztolányi’s Skylark. In Frankenstein we bear witness to the narratives of both Victor and his creation, each of which can be considered in varying degrees to adhere to the principle of a fundamentally three-stage development with regard to existential realisation and fulfilment. With regard to Victor, it is apparent that his urge to ‘create’ is one most singular in nature – rather than a biological desire to produce his own offspring, he nurtures an urge to surpass his peers in a direction which he is dedicated to as a result of a fascination for creation: “I… continually sought the attainment of one object of pursuit and was solely wrapped up in this” (Shelley, Frankenstein, 49). He was seeking a new degree of creation, one which would eclipse the significance of all those which preceded it “since the creation of the world” (Shelley, 50), and therefore ensure a form of immortality through the continuation of the self in one’s enduring efforts. Instead of a child that would be a direct biological rendering of himself, Victor seeks to give life to a rendering of man and subsequently emulate the efforts of the divine by nullifying the boundaries of mortality: “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world” (Shelley, 51).
Victor seems to recognise the necessity to adhere to an ‘elemental point’ by reverting to a level from which he can expect to receive recognition and adoration from those he succeeds in creating: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me” (Shelley, 51). Can we perceive this as a form of paternal instinct, or is it altogether more aspiring than that? The urge to create is evident in Victor, but to a degree which certainly distinguishes him from others. His aspiration is altogether more divine – to give ‘birth’ to a new and perfectly original species for whom it would be natural to essentially worship him as their creator. The impulsion is perhaps to recognise at this point that Victor surpasses his biological urges to nurture an actual child, but this is difficult to do when he himself draws the parallel between his aim and that which is a more simplistic version of the intrinsic notion that one is able to seek self-actualisation from one’s creation: “No father could claim the gratitude of their child so completely as I should deserve theirs” (Shelley, 52). It is difficult then to ignore the fact that Victor clearly possesses the universal desire to produce offspring, but it must also be recognised that he far surpasses the anthropological ambitions of those who are not isolated from ‘normal’ society by a single-minded interest in a unique branch of natural science that would be considered perverse by contemporary institution. His will to create is evidently present, despite the unnatural nature of the enterprise through which he seeks to realise his intrinsic yet fatally maligned desires. His deviation from the natural method of germinating the ‘elemental point’ is undoubtedly a bold and unique one, but one nevertheless recognisable as a perversion of that which is suspected to be inherent within the human compulsion. His creation, however, is fatally flawed by dint of its deviation from the natural into the realm of the entirely profane, and as such Victor is cast into a state of nature of his own devising in which he is not only existentially haunted by his failure to successfully create a pleasing projection of the self, but also physically haunted by the animate structure of his catastrophic failure to attempt to do so. The ‘common power’ described as a necessity by Hobbes – namely the desire to seek fulfilment through creation – is now something that Victor Frankenstein is actively seeking to reject. The potential for fulfilling the ‘elemental point’ had been his sustenance, and he is lost without it: “I felt the bitterness of disappointment; dreams that had been my food and pleasant rest for so long a space were now become a hell to me; and the change was so rapid, the overthrow so complete!” (Shelley, 56). Despite the fulfilment of his creative urge, the failure of the enterprise is, in his eyes, so great as to warrant a rejection of the decidedly animated consequence.
- Quote paper
- Harry Taylor (Author), 2011, Hedonism and the Hobbesian: the dichotomy of the creator in a European literary State of Nature, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/207920