Grieved to the Heart

Old Toy Makers. Photographic Print. Library of Congress, 1915.

Do creators have obligations to their creations? Do poets, for example, have any duty to the poems they have written; or, do composers owe anything to their compositions? After Emily Dickinson’s death, her sister, having received no guidance from Emily concerning her poems’ disposition, determined to have them published. Emily had stored them in a locked chest. Should the poet, herself, have worked to get the poems published when she was living?

When he composed his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven was deaf. He, of course, had heard the whole composition, entirely and flawlessly performed, in his head. Was he under any obligation to share the work with others? And if so, did the responsibility to do so derive from the music or its potential listeners? Can we make sense of the idea that the music demanded performance, that is, that Beethoven, once he composed the Ninth Symphony owed it the right to public performance? Do creations have feelings to which their creators should be sensitive?

We need not limit our inquiry to artistic creations or objects of imagination. Does a toy-maker owe anything to the toys made? What about cabinet-makers or jewelers? Keep in mind that the question concerns the creator and object, not the creator and object’s beneficiary. 

In Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein, in a thrilling scene, the creature confronts his creator, Viktor Frankenstein, precisely because he believes that Viktor, as his maker, has a duty to him. Their different perspectives are telling. Before creating the monster, Viktor imagines that his new species will bless him as its creator. He thinks nothing about what he might owe his creation. The monster’s perspective is quite different. In the two-year separation of Viktor and the creature, the sensitive beast has experienced severe mistreatment by humans. He understands that their behavior originates in their disgust at his appearance and their overwhelming fear of him. Although the monster has become accustomed to this response by people, he doesn’t expect it from Viktor.

“All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us.”

Mary Shelley. Frankenstein (Dover Thrift Editions) (p. 40).

Ties, only dissoluble by annihilation! The connections between them and their concomitant obligations will end only when one of them dies, so the monster argues. And while the creature has no desire to harm Viktor, he cautions him, when Viktor disgusted with the monster, attacks him. He warns Viktor.

“Be calm! I intreat you to hear me, before you give vent to your hatred on my devoted head. Have I not suffered enough, that you seek to increase my misery? Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.” 

Mary Shelley. Frankenstein (Dover Thrift Editions) (p. 40).

It’s hard for me to read this and not recall Job’s argument with God. Like the monster, Job finds himself in a miserable condition, treated poorly by everyone, even by his wife. And, like the monster, Job understands his situation is not of his own making. At one point, Job’s wife sees her husband scraping himself with a potsherd and sitting in a pile of ashes. Showing him, as Viktor shows the monster, no compassion, she tells him: “Do you still cling to your innocence? Curse God and die.” [Job 2:9. The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter.] Like Shelley’s creature, Job feels that his creator owes him something, at least an explanation. 

As a teen, I would sometimes, when arguing with my mother, remind her that I didn’t ask to be born. It was my way of off-loading my misbehavior and issues to her. I was defending myself by claiming that I didn’t make this mess. You did. And it’s your responsibility to clean it up. It also contained more than a hint of “you owe me” in it.

There is another even more remarkable parallel between Shelley’s Frankenstein and something in the Bible. It occurs in Genesis. God creates humans, and they, being humans, miss the mark. Like Viktor’s creature and Job, humans did not ask to be made. So one might ask, in the absence of pride, and with all humility, does God owe humans anything. Like Viktor, God becomes disgusted with his creation. Again, like Viktor, he wants to destroy what he has made. Unlike Viktor, God has the power to do it.

And the LORD saw that the evil of the human creature was great on the earth and that every scheme of his heart’s devising was only perpetually evil. And the LORD regretted having made the human on earth and was grieved to the heart. And the LORD said, “I will wipe out the human race I created from the face of the earth, from human to cattle to crawling thing to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I have made them.”

GEN. 6:5-7. ROBERT ALTER. THE FIVE BOOKS OF MOSES: A TRANSLATION WITH COMMENTARY.

Now, reconsider the opening question: Do creators have obligations to their creations? God ultimately decides not to wipe out all of the human race, nor all his animal creation. He keeps a remnant. Why he did so is a fascinating question.

I have written poems and short stories that feel like children to me. It’s hard to give up on them once I’ve made them. I work and re-work pieces endlessly. It’s weird, maybe, but I feel like I owe it to them. To them, mind you—not me or any potential readers. It’s almost as if they want to be read or heard and only in their best form.

One of my favorite prayers—which is taken directly from the Bible—occurs at the end of the morning prayer service in the custom I follow. God is speaking to us. He says, “To your old age I am [with you]; to your hoary years I will sustain you; I have made you, and I will carry you; I will sustain you and deliver you.” [Chabad Siddur, p. 82]

For me, there’s a lot of comfort in that.

All the best,
Gershon

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham holds an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics). His writing has appeared in Big Muddy, Gravel, Image, Jewish Literary Journal, Poetica, The Rappahannock Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, and others. His short story “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) earned “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition.

3 thoughts

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      Liked by 1 person

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