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Posts tagged ‘Enlightenment’

The Monster’s Doctor

Mary Shelley’s horror story, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, is a classic examination of the ‘science vs. religion’ debate. Written during the Industrial Revolution, Doctor Victor Frankenstein is so taken by the technological achievements of the time he forgets the soul of his creation; his Monster, and ultimately loses all he loves as a result.

Scientists conducting electrical experiments at the time certainly provided much of the inspiration for Shelley’s maniacal doctor, but one man is cited as a possible model for the theme of her novel.

1673 – 1734

Johann Conrad Dippel was born in Castle Frankenstein in south central Germany in the region of Hesse. As was the custom of the day, he acquried Franckensteinensis or Franckensteina-Strataemontanus as a surname and became forever linked to the place of his birth. He received a Master in Theology in 1693 at the University of Giessen where he also studied philosophy and alchemy and gained a prominent position among Europe’s intellectual elite.

Influenced by the Age of Reason while remaining a fervently religious man, Dippel authored several controversal theological papers under his nom de guerre; Christianus Democritus, a name that represented the duality of his views. In them he called for the demise of the traditional church organization and a rejection of the Bible as the literal word of God in favor of a more personal approach to faith. They were widely circulated throughout Europe and earned him both praise and criticism. One enthusiastic follower, Emanuel Swedenborg, later criticized him as a cultish opportunist who was “bound to no principles, but was in general opposed to all, whoever they may be, of whatever principle or faith…becoming angry with any one for contradicting him.” Swedenborg also accused Dippel of being the ‘most vile devil…who attempted wicked things.’ This opinion was surely based upon his suspected experiments in alchemy. In his Maladies and Remedies of the Life of the Flesh, Dippel announced his discovery of the ‘Elixir of Life’, as well as, a method to exorcise demons through potions produced from the boiled bones and flesh of animals. Even more alarming to the public were rumors of his attempts at ‘soul-tranference’ on human cadavers, where he was viewed as playing God on desecrated corpses.

In the end, it was reported by his contemporaries that after having been thoroughly trashed by the religious leaders of the day Dippel gave up his faith altogether, directing all his energy to his experiments in alchemy. He never backed down from his arguments or the experiments that he felt supported them and may have even actively encouraged rumors that he was in league with the Devil, having sold his soul to become a dark sorcerer.

So, in the end, Mary Shelley may have used this real-life ‘mad scientist’ as inspiration but the moral lesson she provided her Doctor Frankenstein was lost on Johann Conrad Dippel.


Russia: Uncensored

Russian writers, the great storytellers of the “Golden Age” of literature (18th & 19th century), were masters of observation. Their world was changing; rapidly and permanently. Western influence introduced to them during times of war provided them freedom of thought for the first time in their long history as a monarchy. In a matter of a few years the Russian intelligentsia absorbed the knowledge of over three hundred years of Enlightenment thought, innovations, and art. They became the catalyst for conversations on the rights of man and the role of church and state in the lives of their citizens. Suddenly, a feudal society’s eyes popped open from a deep sleep and they realized their dreams of freedom were real and within reach. It was a dyamic time, and a confusing one.

The great Russian writers of the “Golden Age”. Top row (from left): Leo Tolstoy, Dmitry Grigorovich, Bottom row (from left): Ivan Goncharov, Ivan Turgenev, Alexander Druzhinin, and Alexander Ostrovsky

Because of their late arrival the Russian people were in a position to expand their knowledge base exponentially and soon conversations heard in the salons and receiving rooms of St. Petersburg, the cultural capital of Russia at the time, had become passionate with talk of the “rights of man”. Influence the church and state had over the middle class decreased and, as it did, their power went with it. The common man gained the ability to ask his own questions and decide his own beliefs for the first time in Russian history, and as they sipped their vodka they began to speak of revolution. They began to seek their freedom.

And a few wrote.

Government censors, focused solely on traditional news sources, weren’t quick enough to pick up the messages behind the storylines and this gave writers of fiction a way to move the conversations they were having privately forward into the mainstream. As a result, Russian literature stands to this day as some of the most important to our society, regardless of where your origins lie. By examining the human condition with compelling narratives these great Russian writers succeeded in questioning the way we live our lives. Questions that are still with us today.

In this Age of Information we’re facing another sweeping change to our culture, and this time its on a world-wide scale. The struggle governments are facing around the world are proof the status quo is changing once again. Think Arab Spring or the recent struggles in India and Turkey. It’s the same story but now a new element has been added; Globalization.

As a way to improve my own writing I’m reading and learning about these great Russian writers. The characters, plots, rhythms, styles and themes of Tolstoy, Checkov, Doestoevsky, Pushkin, and others. A side effect of this is a sideways glance into my own world through their eyes.

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