Today, a prophetic nightmare disturbs our sleep.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
is a painting you've surely seen. It's not easy to
forget. A woman in white lies on a divan in front
of dark red drapes. Her head and arms are thrown
back in tormented sleep. A ghastly demon sits on
her chest leering at the viewer.
You saw the picture in ads for an offbeat,
surrealistic movie called Gothic. It
was about Shelley and Lord Byron in Switzerland.
The movie imagined how Mary Shelley might have
written the book Frankenstein. I liked
the poster far more than I liked the movie. I
wonder if the advertising people knew the strange
ways that painting touched Mary Shelley's life.
The artist was Henry Fuseli, a Swiss who moved to
London in 1779. His last Swiss painting showed
soldiers swearing an oath on their swords --
typical 18th-century art about revolution. It was
workmanlike stuff, but Fuseli's mind was elsewhere.
He wanted his paintings to be revolution, not just
to glorify it.
England gave him the elbow room Switzerland had
denied him. He painted The Nightmare
soon after he got there. He was among the first who
took up such themes of Gothic intensity in art and
literature. He began changing revolution by the
sword into a revolution of the human psyche. He
anticipated Shelley and Byron.
Fuseli was soon part of a group of London
intellectuals. At the center of the group was Mary
Wollstonecraft, the author of modern feminism. She
too walked the late-18th-century road away from
political change to a revolution of creative
In 1792 Henry Fuseli and Mary Wollstonecraft
tangled in a very strange affair. She turned the
white heat of her platonic love on him. Fuseli was
drawn in for a time. Then Mary went to his wife
with a bizarre proposition. Since her love was
innocent, shouldn't the three of them live
together? With that, Fuseli had to end their odd
Mary Wollstonecraft went on to marry someone else.
Then she died giving birth to the girl who would
become Mary Shelley. Nineteen years later, back in
Fuseli's Switzerland, Mary Shelley wrote
Frankenstein as an exercise in Gothic
style. The day of Gothic novels was past by then,
but Frankenstein became the most
famous Gothic novel of them all.
So that odd movie poster summons up the people who
set a new agenda for inventive minds, 200 years
ago. Fuseli told us we must find our revolution in
the Gothic inner reaches of our minds. And Mary
Shelley called up the Gothic nightmare one last
time with her man-made nightmare -- with the
monster that's given us all bad dreams ever since.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Le Bris, M., Romantics and Romanticism.
New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.,
Wardle, R.M., Mary Wollstonecraft.
Lawrence, KA: University of Kansas Press, 1951.
Bindman, D., Blake as an Artist. New
York: E.P. Dutton, 1977.
The Dismission of Adam and Eve from
Paradise, Henry Fuseli, 1796-99
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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