Contemporary Concerns: Indrani Chakraborty

Dr. Jekyll: The Transhumanist in the Victorian England
                                                                       -Indrani Chakraborty

Indrani Chakraborty
The Artificial Intelligence architect Joseph Weizenbaum in his 1976 book Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation made a critical distinction between deciding and choosing. Deciding is a computational activity, programmed within the matrix of predetermined variables. Choice, however, is the product of specific vantage points, subject specific, rather than objectively calculative. The paper intends to explore the role of artificial enhancing of the fundamental mechanics in human psyche that control and influence human choice with special reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Fin de Siècle speculative fiction The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). The argument seeks to view Dr. Jekyll as a Transhumanist who within a regressive society attempts to modify his mind that was conditioned by the norms and codes of his time. Arguments concerning bioethics are the crucial philosophical space that charged the fundamental idea of success in the experiment done by Dr. Jekyll. Spending time with a friend and visibly enjoying the company was considered naïve and unacceptable for the personal code of conduct that was imbibed by the Victorian gentlemen. It was the high time when a scientist would attempt to subvert the programming of his mindscape. The paper also aims to understand the relevance of ethics and responsibility in an engineered alternative, and whether it leads to a dislocation from social environment and/or cognitive capacities.

Keywords: Artificial Intelligence, Bioethics, Boredom, Evil, Transhumanist.

There is a fundamental reasoning that bridges a late 19th Century text with a futuristic worldview as advanced as Transhumanism. Referring to certain Transhumanst technologies, the paper intends to explore the role of artificial enhancing of the fundamental mechanics in human psyche that control and influence human choice with special reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Fin de Siècle speculative fiction The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). The argument seeks to view Dr. Jekyll as a Transhumanist who within a regressive society attempts to modify his mind that was conditioned by the norms and codes of his time. The paper also aims to understand the relevance of ethics and responsibility in an engineered alternative.

Before going into the intricacies of the payoffs and the handicaps that technological advancement provided Dr. Jekyll, who desperately wanted to reprogram his indoctrinated ideologies, we need to understand first, what made him think that the idea of a masked existence was necessary in the first place. Technically speaking, the experiment was unsuccessful. Not because it endangered Jekyll by the threat of losing his long-preserved public image, that was simply an unfortunate anomaly, rather because it did not serve the fundamental purpose, to annihilate boredom once and for all. The aim of the paper is to understand whether such biological engineering designed to function according to its fundamental programming can be applied to alleviate the greatest challenge of human action as well as leisure -- boredom.

Before exploring the intricacies of the character of Dr. Jekyll as an individual, we need to understand his situatedness as man of his time. If we take the example of people around Jekyll, we will see that his subject-position was not very different from his compatriots. One of his friends, Mr. Utterson, a reputed lawyer imposed similar code of conduct for his private pleasures:
He was austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages; and though he enjoyed the theatre, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years. (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 3)
Unlike the loner Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Utterson had a very good friend, Mr. Richard Enfield. They heartily enjoyed each other’s company:
[...] the two men put the greatest store by these excursions, counted them the chief jewel of each week, and not only set aside occasions of pleasure, but even resisted the calls of business, that they might enjoy them uninterrupted.(TSCJH 3)
What is remarkable is their choice of appearance while enjoying these harmless joys of life:
It was reported by those who encountered them in their Sunday walks, that they said nothing, looked singularly dull, and would hail with obvious relief the appearance of a friend. (TSCJH 3)
Even spending time with a friend and visibly enjoying the company was too naïve and unacceptable for the personal code of conduct that was indoctrinated by the Victorian gentlemen. The opening sentence of the text describing Utterson, “a man of rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment” (TSCJH 3) was the norm. Any aberration was considered a sacrilege. People were trapped in their self-projected halo of social acceptability, the recluse of false identity. The shards of individual response were cast into mass mimicry, resulting into a collapse of individuality. There was Dr. Jekyll everywhere, suffocated in the falsehood of correctness and propriety, desperate to live differently but neither having the courage not the individuality to respond as a free agent. Therefore, the unsure Jekyll fails to create a true Hyde. Instead, what he creates is neither Jekyll nor Hyde, but someone in between. Enfield’s description of Hyde is relevant to understand this premise:
There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. (TSCJH 7)
Hyde’s deformity was his stunted manifestation as an unconscionable libertine. If a single speck of Jekyll is left behind unnoticed, the magnitude of Hyde is immediately distorted.
The contamination of Jekyll into Hyde occurs due to Jekyll’s imperfect perception of himself. In order to perceive Hyde in his full potentiality towards liberation without inhibition, Jekyll must acknowledge the fact that Hyde is already there; the potion does not create him. The experiment simply provides Jekyll a new face to operate in disguise.  The real problem arises when Jekyll’s confident assurance given to Mr. Utterson, “The moment I choose, I can be rid of Mr. Hyde” (TSCJH 15) – is thwarted. Jekyll discovers that the choice actually rests in the hand of Hyde, as comparatively, Hyde is the truer self between them.
The image of Hyde seems livelier because it expresses individuality and spontaneity, exactly the two traits that were feared and avoided in the society that championed propriety and code of conduct. The chasm between appearance and reality was so deeply rooted in the psyche of gentlemen like Jekyll that the sense of evil within kept them at peace, but the possibility of its visible manifestation through the countenance of a person shook them to the core with fear and anxiety:
[…] all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil. (TSCJH 45)
Hyde was “pure evil” because he did not have the façade of gentlemanly appearance that Jekyll sports, otherwise there is absolutely no difference between them. However, Jekyll is quite insistent on the duality of human nature. His observation and conclusion regarding the existence of two contrary selves within a person shed new light on his perspective on the nature of his moral conflict:
Though so profound a double-dealer, I was in no sense a hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I laboured, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering […] With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two. (TSCJH 42)
A frank and sad discovery it was indeed. This had been always the problem with tragic heroes, the good and the bad are equally strong within. Macbeth was not a hypocrite, nor is Jekyll; both are torn with the presence of contrary drives in their psyche. The tragedy however, does not occur because of Jekyll’s hamartia, an error of judgment in choosing sides, rather, the tragic folly happens because he instead of trying to bring integrity between his two contrary drives, he struggled to deepen and widen the rift. The reason behind his desperation to differentiate Jekyll from Hyde was his fanatical urgency towards social acceptance:
 […] indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life. Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame. (TSCJH 42)
This part of understanding shakes the very foundation of Jekyll’s notion of evil. Jekyll, like Mr. Utterson and hundreds of gentlemen of his time used to “wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public” resulting into a “profound duplicity of life”. Jekyll states that the irregularities that he was guilty of, was nothing of grave seriousness, yet he carried them with a morbid sense of shame because of “the high views that I had set” made them look dreadful in the Victorian paradigm. This takes him towards a very profound understanding:
It was thus rather the exacting nature of my aspirations than any particular degradation in my faults that made me what I was and, with even a deeper trench than in the majority of men, severed in me those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man’s dual nature. (TSCJH 42)
Here we might refer to a very relevant observation made by Bertrand Russell in his classic study Marriage and Morals (1929):
The glutton, the voluptuary, and the ascetic are all self-absorbed persons whose horizon is limited by their own desires, either by way of satisfaction or by way of renunciation. A man who is healthy in mind and body will not have his interests thus concentrated upon himself. He will look out upon the world and find in it objects that seem to him worthy of his attention. Absorption in self is not, as some have supposed, the natural condition of unregenerate man. It is a disease brought on, almost always, by some thwarting of natural impulses. (187)
“Natural impulses” were considered highly unnatural in the Victorian code of acceptability. Therefore asceticism and gluttony - two basically inauthentic selves originated out of an improper understanding of selfhood surfaced hand in hand fundamentally same and non essentially opposite.
Jekyll knows that there wouldn’t be any Hyde if there was not a Jekyll who conjured up his own frame of reference for good and evil with the parameter of second hand ideas of accumulated moral values. A social domain where simple daily pleasures like enjoying a glass of wine, watching theatres, making friends from different social rungs is seen as immoral and inadvisable, the consequence is naturally grim. In a regressive society where boredom is considered a virtue, the difference between proper pleasure and dangerous liberties cannot be demarcated. It is quite interesting to note in this context that Stevenson never specifies what exactly the “pure evil” deeds were that Hyde commits. Whether Hyde’s taste run to child prostitutes, homosexuality, or opium dens is never mentioned. Keeping in mind the typical moral affectation of Jekyll, Hyde could be simply a theatre, vintage liquor or cocaine addict. The two crimes that he committed are unprovoked, with apparently no reason except a wild rush of intoxicated frenzy, very common in drug addicts.
Dr. Jekyll considers his experiment as a failure as he lost control over the transformation process. Hyde could take over Jekyll any time, without the aid of the concoction. He claims it was because the stock of ingredients from which Dr. Jekyll had been preparing the potion ran low, and subsequent batches prepared by Dr. Jekyll from renewed stocks failed to produce the metamorphosis. Dr. Jekyll speculated that the one essential ingredient that made the original potion work (a salt) must have itself been contaminated. After sending Poole to one chemist after another to purchase the salt that was running low only to find it wouldn't work, he assumed that subsequent supplies all lacked the essential ingredient that made the potion successful for his experiments. His ability to change back from Mr. Hyde into Dr. Jekyll had slowly vanished in consequence. At this point he would become Hyde involuntarily in his sleep. Terrified, Dr. Jekyll resolved to cease taking the potion. But the resolve did not last long. One night “in an hour of moral weakness” (TSCJH 49) he swallowed the potion, and eventually, “My devil had been long caged, he came out roaring” (TSCJH 49). Hyde rushed out and violently killed Sir Danvers Carew. This was the incident that made Jekyll take the decision that he would stop to surrender at Hyde’s temptations. He states that he was horrified at Hyde’s devilish violence, and decided to put an end to it, but this was not Hyde’s first night out. The “pure evil” in Hyde must have manifested in many other previous nights. The only difference between those evil and this one was the chance of getting Jekyll’s identity detected. Hyde, for the first time committed a crime for which he is legally punishable. Therefore, the exact angle of Jekyll’s horror was not a moral repulsion, rather the fear of gallows. As he states:
It was not only a crime; it had been a tragic folly. I think I was glad to know it; I think I was glad to have my better impulses thus buttressed and guarded by the terrors of the scaffold. Jekyll was now my city of refuge; let but Hyde peep out an instant, and the hands of all men would be raised to take and slay him.” (TSCJH 50)
Jekyll explains that “the terrors of the scaffold” was part of his better impulses. He found assurance in the fact that whenever Hyde surfaced, he would be under prosecution and thus Hyde was safely chained forever. However, this assumption proved to be incorrect as Hyde resurfaced involuntarily, when Jekyll was expecting him the least. One day at a park, Jekyll considered how good a person that he had become as a result of his deeds (in comparison to others), believing himself redeemed. However, before he completed his line of thought, he looked down at his hands and realized that he had suddenly transformed once again into Mr. Hyde. This was the first time that an involuntary metamorphosis had happened in waking hours. If this part of Jekyll’s experience is examined closely, very interesting perspectives appear:
I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the chops of memory [emphasis mine]; the spiritual side a little, drowsed, promising subsequent penitence, but not yet moved to begin. After all, I reflected, I was like my neighbours; and then I smiled, comparing myself with other men, comparing my active goodwill with the lazy cruelty of their neglect. (TSCJH 51)
From this loose narration of his state, the fact becomes clear that inside Jekyll, even at the time of exercising “active goodwill,” the animal within him licks the “chops of memory,” which implies quite lucidly that in spite of Jekyll’s claim that he becomes possessed by Hyde, in reality they are not separated by a potion, they exist simultaneously, the potion is only a shape-shifter, not a soul-changer. And in this juncture, comes the very important question, exactly what made Jekyll commit suicide, moral pang or social panic?
Hyde was created so that Jekyll can enjoy pleasures those are beyond any permissible limit, he wanted liberation, in other words, an escape from boredom. The experiment was considered a failure by him because the boredom remained. Hyde was the emblem of disquiet as Jekyll did not know what exactly could make him happy. If there is no real rift between Jekyll and Hyde, then there is no real crisis of choice. But Jekyll thinks otherwise:
Yes, I preferred the elderly and discontented doctor, surrounded by friends and cherishing honest hopes; and bade a resolute farewell to the liberty, the comparative youth, the light step, leaping impulses and secret pleasures, that I had enjoyed in the disguise of Hyde. I made this choice perhaps with some unconscious reservation, for I neither gave up the house in Soho, nor destroyed the clothes of Edward Hyde, which still lay ready in my cabinet. For two months, however, I was true to my determination; for two months I led a life of such severity as I had never before attained to, and enjoyed the compensations of an approving conscience. (TSCJH 49)
Jekyll could not enjoy being Hyde, as he thought himself to be primarily Jekyll, and he had no idea who this Jekyll actually was supposed to be. Hyde represented “liberty, the comparative youth, the light step, leaping impulses and secret pleasures” – clearly more attractive than “the elderly and discontented doctor, surrounded by friends and cherishing honest hopes” – the ideal of Victorian respectability, an image of self, twice removed from reality, not even an idea, but a frame of reference, superficial and second-hand. However, the badge of social honour was so deeply imprinted in the soul of these unfortunate people like Dr. Jekyll that there was no possibility of striking a balance between Jekyll and Hyde. If Jekyll had the good sense of disregarding social gaze and allow himself the basic human pleasures, his lethal boredom at being “the elderly and discontented doctor” would not have aroused in the first place. Jekyll was not an authentic self, he was a mélange of what people call good, similarly, Hyde was also a mélange of what people call bad, yet, Hyde was truer than Jekyll because Hyde was closer to the persona that Jekyll really was. And it was the reason that made Jekyll speak so warmly about Hyde:
Jekyll had more than a father’s interest; Hyde had more than a son’s indifference. (TSCJH 48)
Jekyll was caring and protective to Hyde, his prodigal self, safeguarded from the entire world under the façade of his respectability. Hyde became a threat for him only when the fear of the gallows came up:
Will Hyde die upon the scaffold? Or will he find courage to release himself at the last moment? God knows; I am careless; this is my true hour of death and what is to follow concerns another than myself.” Here then, as I lay down the pen and proceed to seal up my confession, I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end. (TSCJH 54)
And in this emptiness, which is not even identifiable because it is heavily burdened with the desperation to get rid of it, the dazed subject, Dr. Jekyll decides to annihilate his boredom by what he thought was the source of his boredom – conscience, whereas the real source was pretence. Jekyll did not create Hyde; he simply unleashed himself through Hyde. Nevertheless, his Hyde was also a false existence, as Jekyll, being habituated to live up to his own image, failed to know his true wishes. How can he conceive a true Hyde when he himself wasn’t a soul of genuine wills?  Struggling to evade boredom, the subject can only have essential desperation, never an existential choice, as boredom undermines authenticity. Jekyll couldn't be an individual, so his doppelganger Hyde became merely a stereotypical villain. We do not find Hyde fulfilling any particular wish, or catch him committing a crime which was worth the pain, we only see him doing some meaningless, accidental harms to others which endangered both Jekyll and Hyde. The innate triviality in Hyde’s disposition infers a deeper truth. Though Dr. Jekyll thought that he suffered from the unfulfilled wishes and primarily needed a Hyde to make his wishes come true, he actually suffered from a scarcity of wishes. This inability to sincerely want something, an absence of genuine wishes, is a state devoid of joy and sorrow. It is the bland space known as boredom. Searching external stimuli to annihilate boredom exacerbates the situation, as, even if we find stimuli from the outer world, we fail to receive and transmit its sense. Jekyll wasn't prepared at all to encounter Hyde’s freedom. He was as confused as his Hyde. He misunderstood himself so he missed his Hyde. Consequently, as Hyde, the epitome of free-will, Jekyll’s Hyde was inefficient, and as an individual, Jekyll’s Hyde was incomplete. So after a certain period, like others, Jekyll also found Hyde's hairy skin a hideous scar.
Jekyll invented a potion that annihilates boredom by making every sort of pleasure accessible. Why, therefore, Hyde is so imprudent and tactless to destroy his cover up by killing people when he could simply enjoy secret pleasures and infinite youth? The only explanation seems to be the presence of the true Jekyll, not the sinner, but the sufferer, inside Hyde. Jekyll, the seeker of happiness was misguided in understanding his true nature. He was not the Jekyll that people thought him to be, but he was not the Hyde either that he thought himself to be. He was a common human being essentially striving for wrong priorities in a confounded state of boredom.  The saddest quotient of the text is not the suicide of a frightened scientist at the face of gallows, rather his complete failure in understanding the volatility of the entire non-philosophical construct of the remedy of boredom that left him till his last days as “that unhappy Henry Jekyll”.
In the present context, the engineering that Dr. Hyde performed is similar to a Transhumanist technology known as Gene Therapy or RNA Interference. Gene therapy is a technology that replaces bad genes with good genes, and RNA interference can selectively exclude gene expression. Together they provide us an unprecedented ability to manipulate our own genetic code. In the case of Dr. Jekyll it was a manipulation of his own mindscape. Let us now consider the relevance of the experiment in our time, a paradigm completely different from that of Dr. Jekyll, a time which could be described as the time of public display of happiness. Through various social media like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and the likes, we have a paradigm shift in the idea of the commonplace. There is revolutionary move in the basic perception of privacy and social acceptability. A commoner can have 1000 followers, 2500 friends - in short, one need not be a celebrity anymore to watch the news of his/her marriage anniversary displayed globally in neon signs. This is the time when people announce their marriage, divorce, protest and suicide online. If it’s Christmas, happy faces all over, if it’s 9th September, sad faces – there is naturally a peer- pressure to appear happy and sad, time to time. It is therefore natural that we schedule various plans to take photos for uploading, we marry, go for honeymoon, there’s Name day, a weekend trip – all splattered over our public timeline. The gap between the public and the private is no longer held sacred; rather there is a restless urge to appear publicly happy in private pleasures. The scenario is not much different essentially. In the late 19th Century propriety was in the air, so private pleasures were deemed evil, now happiness is in the air, privacy is deemed outdated. Sadness is synonymous with depression, because in spite of the social interconnectedness and the pleasures of every kind of entertainment that technology provided us, the primal accomplice of human existence remains unscathed – boredom.

The solution is still out of humanity’s reach as we don’t know the problem. Technologies like Mind Uploading, Autonomous Self Replicating Robotics or Gene Therapy – these are tools to improve human condition, to make our existence bearable. But since like Dr. Jekyll we still do not know the difference between appearance and reality, we are also trapped in our self-projected halo of social acceptability, the recluse of false identity. Like the people of the Late 19th Century, the shards of our individual response are cast into mass mimicry, resulting into a collapse of individuality. That is the reason why on the New Year’s Eve we feel empty in spite of having 2000 virtual friends. The most painful discovery for Jekyll was the fact that there was no Jekyll at all; it was always Hyde who wore the mask of Jekyll. The experiment simply activated the built-in biological mapping. With more advanced tools in our hands, with more futuristic gadgets someday we might be able to replace boredom from our system more successfully than Dr. Jekyll. The problem is what is the emotion that replaces boredom? 2000 friends, 15000 followers or simply a game called Blue Whale? As Fransis Fukuyama, a prominent bioconservative and member of the President’s Council, observed:

            Nobody knows what technological possibilities will emerge for human self-modification. But we can already see the stirrings of Promethean desires in how we prescribe drugs to alter the behavior and personalities of our children. The environmental movement has taught us humility and respect for the integrity of nonhuman nature. We need a similar humility concerning our human nature. (2009)

Our own inclinations and our humility, as suggested by Fukuyama would frame the final matrix of Transhumanism to see for us whether people like Fukuyama are voicing technological alarmism or are indeed identifying some serious threat to the human condition.

Works Cited
Fukuyama, Francis. “Special Report: Transhumanism”. October 23. 2009. Web.5 February. 2018. <>
Russel, Bertrand. Marriage and Morals. London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1976. Print.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. London: Wordsworth Classics, 1999. Print.

No comments :

Post a Comment

We welcome your comments related to the article and the topic being discussed. We expect the comments to be courteous, and respectful of the author and other commenters. Setu reserves the right to moderate, remove or reject comments that contain foul language, insult, hatred, personal information or indicate bad intention. The views expressed in comments reflect those of the commenter, not the official views of the Setu editorial board. प्रकाशित रचना से सम्बंधित शालीन सम्वाद का स्वागत है।