Saturday, June 18, 2016

Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound; Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound


Opening Passages: From Prometheus Bound:

Now we have come to the plain at the end of the earth,
the Scythian tract, and an untrodden wilderness.
And you, Hephaistos, must turn your mind to the orders
the father gave you,--to discipline and pin down
this outlaw here upon the lofty ragged rocks
in unbreakable bonds of adamantine chains.
It was your flower, the gleam of civilising fire,
he stole and handed it over to mortals. Therefore
he must pay the price of such a sin to the gods,
that he may be taught to bend to the dictatorship
of Zeus, and give up his ideas of helping men.

And from Prometheus Unbound:

Monarch of Gods and Daemons, and all Spirits
But One, who throng those bright and rolling worlds
Which Thou and I alone of living things
Behold with sleepless eyes! regard this Earth
Made multitudinous with thy slaves, whom thou
Requitest for knee-worship, prayer, and praise,
And toil, and hecatombs of broken hearts,
With fear and self-contempt and barren hope.

Summary: Prometheus was a Titan, an elder god, but in the great Titanomachy between the Titans and Zeus, Prometheus supported Zeus, and in part by the aid of Prometheus's flawless foresight, Zeus conquered and became king of the gods. New regimes wipe away the works of the old. And one of the works of the old regime was an animal, cave-dwelling and lowly, peopling the earth. Zeus ordered their destruction, that a new race might be raised to walk the earth as a sign of the power of the gods, but Prometheus instead stole the heavenly fire from the workshop of Hephaistos and brought it down to them. With the divine gift of fire came all the arts that build cities and make them thrive. And with it he brought hope, which covered up one kind of knowledge that they had before, knowledge of the day they would die.

It is a great temptation in reading Prometheus Bound to sympathize with Prometheus. The introduction to the work in the Heritage Press edition I was reading, by Rex Warner, sums it up with the question, "What, if anything, has Prometheus done wrong?" Of course, we are inclined to think in those terms because Prometheus was our champion; we were the animals he saved from destruction, we were the animals to which he gave a shard of divinity. But right there we see the problem. There is actually never, at any point, any question of what Prometheus did wrong. The human race was slated by the gods to end and be replaced. And Prometheus defied the gods by stealing for us something that belonged to the gods themselves, and he gave it to us, a people who had no right to it and could never deserve it, and made us complicit in the defiance of the gods, so that the whole of human life, every flame and every craft, was a sign of rebellion against the authority of Zeus.

Because of this, Zeus orders Hephaistos to bind Prometheus. Hephaistos is reluctant to do so against a brother-god, but he is made to do so by the Kratos (Authority) and the Bia (Coercive Power) of Zeus. (In my translation, Kratos is translated as Power and Bia as Violence, in keeping with the translator's tendency to play up the notion of Zeus as arbitrary dictator, for he, too, has a natural human bias in favor of Prometheus.)

It is interesting that Prometheus frees mankind by hiding from us our death-days, because Prometheus even in punishment defies Zeus by hiding from Zeus the day of Zeus's overthrow. Prometheus is the son of Themis, the order of things, identified by Aeschylus with Gaia, the earth that endures, and his mother had told him a secret: One of the women with whom Zeus would mate would bear a son who was greater than his father, as Zeus was greater than his father, and by the hand of that son Zeus would fall as Chronos fell to Zeus, or Ouranos to Chronos. It is fated that if Zeus does not avoid that union, he will fall. It is perhaps not so surprising that Zeus is so harsh in his punishment: his new regime has been betrayed by one of its allies, and that treacherous ally knows of a secret flaw that will destroy it all. But Prometheus will not tell the secret as long as he is bound; and Zeus cannot unbind him as if the authority of Zeus could be blackmailed or as if the laws of the gods were subject to any kind of negotiation.

It is an apparently insuperable impasse. And that, of course, is the point. We know that some things will have to happen. Zeus will one day give clemency to the less belligerent Titans. Heracles will one day free Prometheus, as Prometheus sees. Zeus will give his blessing to the human use of fire. And it all must be occur by deadline, so that Zeus will not beget a son more powerful than himself. Aeschylus is not a modern writer; he is not so shortsighted that he does not realize the overthrow of Zeus would be the overthrow of everything. The regime of the gods is, after all, the regime of all Greek civilization. The problem must be solved. But it is an impressively knotted problem: the source of civilization and the power without which it cannot exist are in conflict, and as the clock ticks down the doom of the latter draws closer, unless some reconciliation can be found.

In Aeschylus' play, Kratos comments that "there is no one except Zeus who has freedom". Shelley's poem is devoted to the utter repudiation of such an idea. The story of Prometheus is always and ever a depiction of humanity. One of the things Aeschylus does very well is to interlink the gift of fire and the arts and crafts of civilized life. The fire of Aeschylus is outward-facing; it is the power to form cities, the thing by which we have achievements that are divine and yet somehow at the same time a thing we do not have full power to control. But Shelley's Promethean gift, while covering the same ground, is all inward-facing. It is the power of reason and will not to be enslaved. Aeschylus' Prometheus is our benefactor; but Shelley's Prometheus is our exemplar, the liberator of Heaven's slaves. And given that, it is inevitable that Shelley will let Zeus fall. The power of Zeus cannot coerce the mind, and because Prometheus knows the secret, all of that power cannot give him victory. Zeus will be defeated and Prometheus unvanquished:

Ay, do thy worst. Thou art omnipotent.
O'er all things but thyself I gave thee power,
And my own will.

This is not to say there is no nuance. Shelley is entirely in the Prometheus camp, and his Zeus is nothing but an oppressor and tyrant. But while Shelley's Prometheus might shout out defiances like that above in a moment of grief, it is not his considered thought. As he says, "I wish no living thing to suffer pain." He is "firm, not proud". It is Zeus's own tyrannical mind that will lead to his destruction, during which he will wish for the mercy of Prometheus. And after his fall there will be no tyrants to succeed him.

And that is our victory, as well: the mind of man is "unextinguished fire". Shelley explicitly and deliberately develops his imagery and narrative in terms of the internal operations of the mind; we are Prometheus, in a sense, and thus his victory is the template for our our own heroisms.

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

The difficulty that all of this faces is that there is nothing in this that is really a story. Despite all the beautiful pomp of word and declamation, Prometheus literally conquers by not doing anything. Zeus just gets pushed off the stage at the appropriate moment without much ado, and, God no longer in heaven, all's well with the world. Aeschylus' play has very little actual plot, but the overall narrative suggested in it, both background and foreshadow, is a truly epic story. But Shelley's poem is not a play, and it suggests no grand story. It could hardly do so: it is about what happens in a mind that refuses to bend. And, of course, the story of what happens in a mind that refuses to bend is -- that it refuses to bend, and that's it.

I am not fond of assimilating poem and poet too easily, but it does remind me of the Romantics themselves, or at least Shelley's little group. They all talked like Titans, but they were mostly just a group that talked about their Titanic selves; the victories over convention to which they looked were things that they expected to fall out inevitably from their refusal to comply with convention. Zeus will just fall on his own, any day now. Although perhaps that is not entirely fair. After all, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, written a few years earlier, is subtitled "The Modern Prometheus" and it is perhaps with Mary's novel, rather than Aeschylus' play, that Percy's poem should really be compared. That would actually make a very interesting study in itself.

There is much that is excellent in Shelley's poem, though. I think the interaction between Prometheus and his wife Asia is excellently done. It is quite subtle -- they are often not together in the poem and they do not spend much time talking at each other -- but it suggests a very great depth, and the poem does much better giving us the suggestion of something epic through their relationship than it does with Prometheus' victory over Zeus.

Favorite Passages: From Prometheus Bound:

Now it is fact, and no longer in words
that the earth is convulsed.
Out of the deep the roaring of thunder
rolls past, and flickering fire of the lightning
flashes out, and the whirlwinds
roll up the dust, and the blasts of all storms
leap at each other,
a war of the winds,
and the air and the sea are confounded.
These, most clearly, are strokes from Zeus
coming upon me to cause me fear.
O my glorious mother, O Heaven
with circle of light that is common to everyone,
you see me and see this injustice.

From Prometheus Unbound:

From all the blasts of heaven thou hast descended:
Yes, like a spirit, like a thought, which makes
Unwonted tears throng to the horny eyes,
And beatings haunt the desolated heart,
Which should have learnt repose: thou hast descended
Cradled in tempests; thou dost wake, O Spring!
O child of many winds! As suddenly
Thou comest as the memory of a dream,
Which now is sad because it hath been sweet;
Like genius, or like joy which riseth up
As from the earth, clothing with golden clouds
The desert of our life.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended, both, although you will need to be in a patient mood to get the most out of Shelley.

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