• Passions of Prometheus

by Arthur Paul Patterson

I DON’T THINK that it is inconsequential that my heroes are men.... It is not because women are not as passionate, creative, or in any way undeserving that they don’t make my short list of heroes. Rather, it is because I share with most men an inclination toward "Prometheanism". I don’t know why it is not as prevalent in most women. Perhaps it is the hard wiring of centuries of birthing and caring for life (if I am allowed that stereotypical explanation). I do not think it is because women are morally superior to men, only that they are not as inclined toward Prometheus. I should condition that by saying “at least not yet”; the more women take on male-oriented perspectives, the more they tend to contract patriarchal viruses.

defiant of limits

image by Alex Iby

Men, and animus-directed (masculine-acting) women, have a tendency to follow the “thief of fire” Prometheus. By that I mean that we, like the Titan of old, are impatient with any limitations. We feel that the universe is withholding from us something we deserve, and that the only way to get fire is to steal it. Once we are intoxicated by the quest, we will stop at nothing, even the prospect of our own destruction, to get what we want. Above all, we see our pursuit of forbidden fire as wholly virtuous and inoculated from criticism. The Promethean fever causes us to be dangerously out of touch with reality through the misuse of imagination and creativity. Mary Shelley was prophetically astute in portraying a male scientist as her modern Prometheus. Male scientists have nearly destroyed our world through their theoretical imagination rooted in the penetration of the mystery of nature, all the while posturing as benefactors of humanity.

Walton's Arctic Quest

Robert Walton, the proto-Prometheus in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, loved the sea. From the time he sat in his Uncle Tom’s library reading tales of discovery, through the exhilaration of his first boat trip with a few friends on a native river, to his successful first stint on a Greenway whaling vessel, Walton dreamt of becoming a famous explorer. He would benefit humankind through bringing the mysteries of the Arctic to the light of scientific reason. It was his hope that, in the land of the midnight sun, he would discover the source of magnetism and the Northwest Passage. He was convinced that these treasures would be his reward for persistence and willing suffering.

As his ambition grew, his goal became an Arctic grail quest; his scientific voyage became a spiritual pilgrimage by which he sought to transform the mundane into the miraculous. Robert Walton, the sea-captain transmuted into Sir Walton, the discoverer’s version of a Knight Templar fighting for human dominance against the elements.

Margaret Saville, Robert’s cultured and married sister, was a surrogate parent and moral guide to him along with Uncle Thomas. Her name means Pearl or Jewel (Margaret) - and town (Saville). This, along with the fact that her initials are M.S. like Mary Shelley’s, strikes me as Mary’s endorsement of her perspective, which her 1818 preface she [actually Percy Shelley] defines as an exhibition of amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue. Margaret Saville represents civility, community and kindness coupled with deep love and concern. This is not to say that Margaret is indulgent; the letters begin with a struggle between her and Robert over the wisdom of the voyage. Margaret takes her dead father's place in attempting to dissuade Robert from becoming an explorer. Combining domestic kindness with the authority of the father, she draws out much nervous and defensive chatter from Walton. He is anything but community oriented or respectful of his father's wishes. Walton, as his name suggests, is a "walled-town", or resistant to differences.

What is at work in the souls of men and women that makes Prometheans of most of us?

Robert’s Promethean qualities are revealed letter by letter. At first his main intention is to assure his sister that he is in control, he is concerned with the safety of his ship and the crew, and that he is thoroughly prepared and deserving of a successful voyage. To assure his sister of the relative safety of the voyage he presents the farthest Arctic as a sailor’s Shangri-La [paradise], a temperate zone near the polar ice cap.

"I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight. There, Margaret, the sun is for ever visible, its broad disc just skirting the horizon, and diffusing a perpetual splendour. There—for with your leave, my sister, I will put some trust in preceding navigators—there snow and frost are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe."

He prefers masculine fantasy to the practical, cautious voice of his sister.

There are cracks in his self confidence, as he readily admits. He believes himself to have no friend and that there are no candidates for a relationship with him among his surly crew. He notes that there is one man, his first mate, with character, kindness, and sacrificial values but that he is, nevertheless, an untutored boor of little refinement. The first mate is too different from Walton to establish relationship. Walton says,

"What a noble fellow! you will exclaim. He is so; but then he is wholly uneducated; he is a silent as a Turk, and a kind of ignorant carelessness attends him, which, while it renders his conduct more astonishing, detracts from the interest and sympathy which otherwise he would command."

Statue of Prometheus

Image by David Nieto

Walton Discovers Victor Frankenstein

Fate has it that Robert does meet someone who provides the sort of friendship that he desires. Someone who attracts Robert's sympathy, who is scientifically educated, eloquent, sophisticated, and who is, by no means, silent. Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton cross Arctic paths. Robert all but falls in love with Victor. He admits that he would like to "possess" him as his friend. Such will never be the case, since friendship would require relationship to another, something which Victor and Robert, as dedicated Prometheans, have never learned. Nonetheless, Walton is overwhelmed with Victor's refinement, with his noble suffering, verbal eloquence and total dedication to his task. In effect, Walton has discovered his idealized self in Victor Frankenstein.

In the last few letters, Frankenstein mentors Robert in the ways of Prometheus. He seems at first to be warning him of the dangerous consequences of unbridled passions; but, in the end, does so with such ambivalence that the Promethean way becomes even more attractive to Walton. Victor’s final words to his comrade breathe ambiguity,

"Seek happiness in tranquillity, and avoid ambition, even if it be the only apparent innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed."

Not only does Victor encourage Walton to follow his own urge to stretch the limits of his crew, and himself, but he refuses, even in death, to release his own project. Victor subjects his newly acquired acquaintance to more danger, and elicits a vow from Robert that he would kill the creature. Frankenstein intended that Walton would continue his mission of destruction, even after his death. He is asking Walton to collude in an immortality project that isn’t even his own. Walton is now in the position of his crew, who also have been asked to give their lives for the obsession of Captain Walton. The crew, as collective as they are, have the wisdom to refuse. Upon the threat of mutiny, reluctantly, and with learning very little about what is at work in his soul, Robert returns home to his sister.

What is at work in the souls of men and women that makes Prometheans of most of us? Isn’t that the question Walton is asking when he describes own self-ignorance?

"There is something at work in my soul which I do not understand. I am practically industrious- painstaking;- a workman who executes with perseverance and labour:- but besides this, there is a love for the marvelous, a belief in the marvelous, intertwined in all my projects, which hurries me out of the common pathways of men, even to the wild sea and unvisited regions I am about to explore."

Because he is more like us, less of a titan than Victor, Robert is a good example of how men can get ensnared in Prometheanism. He still has some desire to communicate to his sister, some relationship with the feminine, and is far more aware of his flaws than the intoxicated scientist from Geneva. Looking at Walton, with a side glance at Victor, I detect the following connections between Robert and modern men.

Image by Josh Rocklage

Misuse of Imagination

Walton’s “can do” machismo is rooted in his fantasy of limitlessness. “I can do anything I put my mind to,” seems to say it well. Mary Shelley’s dad, William Godwin, said it eloquently, “There is nothing that the human mind can conceive that it can not execute.” Prometheans think that by sheer will power they can conquer their own ignorance and pride and perform tasks that are beyond their competence. There is nothing more threatening to them than impotence. Since they fear castration and weakness, they imagine themselves heroes.

On the mundane level, if men can’t put up a drape, fix something mechanically wrong with our car or computer, then we assume there is something deeply wrong with us or perverse in the world. The Prometheus in us tells us that we can drywall, run a marathon, fix plumbing, or write an “out of this world” book, find the Northwest Passage or create a human life....

Focused on the Ideal Not the Real

Prometheans express bravado about what they can do as long as they keep focused on the ideal and are dissociated from the material world. Walton’s reliance on the Arctic Shangri-La mythology, which was proposed by the Royal Navy at the time, is an example of refusing to look at the evidence. Imagine the shock as he found himself walled in by ice that threatened to crush his ship. Frankenstein is enamoured by the theoretical. In his mind, he was creating a long-lived beautiful creatures who would be eternally grateful for their parentage. Talk about an idealistic parent.

Prometheans can talk about the way to do things and what might be the best solution to a complex problem with confidence, as long as they don’t have to apply their knowledge. Once their ideals fall into reality, the birdhouse they were going to build looks like a Homer Simpson Special, a funny, ill-constructed mockery of their intentions. The grand novel resembles a primary school essay that doesn’t hang together very well, and is filled with banality - "and then.. and then.. and then...."

Implicate Others in their Schemes

Walton is not safety conscious. He risked the lives of his crew. In one of his later letters to Margaret he has to admit, "Yet it is terrible to reflect that the lives of all these men are endangered because of me. If we are lost, my mad schemes are the cause." However late, Robert's realization is superior to that of Victor who completely exonerates himself. "During these last days I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blamable." If I consider myself a great mechanic and fix your car's brakes without knowing exactly how to do it, without checking with those who do, I put your life at risk because of my inflated ego. If I fiddle with the intricacies of the operating system of your computer without accuracy and understanding, I place your hard drive in jeopardy. If I set myself up as a spiritual director or counselor and try to guide you by the seat of my pants through self conceit, I have done irreparable spiritual harm to you and myself. Even in the not so significant decisions, when motivated by an overstretched self-opinion of greatness, we harm others around us, through our imagination. We let people down, disgrace ourselves, and ruin the environment. Walton and Frankenstein disregarded the safety of their friends and family to innocently pursue their ideals. Everyone suffered....

Limited Self-Realization

As much as Walton mourns what has happened to Frankenstein, he is still willing to repeat the pattern that resulted in so much death and destruction. He is willing to turn back albeit very reluctantly and forced to do so by his mutinous crew. Victor is on the verge of regret when he warns Walton but his consciousness is quickly snatched back when he encourages Robert and his crew to live as he did. It wasn’t the wrongness of the task, the inability to accept human limitation. No, Frankenstein believed, it was a lack of willfulness in himself. He says maybe someone else will be able to achieve what he couldn’t. The shame from past Promethean endeavours propels us into a new cycle of inflation-deflation. Still believing it is just a matter of will or more effort, we pick up and try again. “This time it will work, I know it!” We try again, with the same spirit, the same character but a slightly different set of circumstances. We practice serial monogamy with our projects, forever trying to “steal” fire. We honestly feel we can light up our world by our will and know how.

It is so easy to be tricked into repeating the pattern. Do we have to succeed? Do we have to stand out, be different and exceptional or is it ok to be the limited people we are, standing together and content to learn from our differences and the inadequacies of our lives? Do you love monsters, be they projects that aren’t up to our expectations, children and parents who are not perfect, friends with irritating foibles, and leaders who tilt us toward Prometheus? These are the questions that will allow us to check whether we are still infected with the fire-stealing disease.
Broken Imagination

Image by Artem Maltsev

Relational Narcissism

We have seen how there is no holding back for men with a dream. The novel also reveals how Creature and Creator unbridle each other in the literal sense of killing each other's mates. Nothing can come between them in their relationship, least of all a woman. This could lead to the idea that the “sameness" shared between the Prometheans (like Walton and Victor, Victor and Clerval, or the Monster and Victor) is homosexual. They are attracted to other men but not relationally. Prometheans merely use others as a means of loving themselves and becoming entirely self sufficient. They do not love another but love themselves through another. Herein lies the root of many men's relational problems. The way that they love is often selfish.

If anyone, especially women, try to reality check our dreams, they are considered the Enemy. In reality, they are merely an enemy of our isolationism and inflation. Other men are a threat because we have turned them into competitors. We hate having a so-called friend stand over us and correct our mistakes, making what we find so hard, look easy. On the other hand, we love to play the peacock with the skills we have. We consider the less skilled, less than ourselves. Walton and Frankenstein are both elitist and prefer only the company of Prometheans of the same refinement.
It is difficult to find a friend in the midst of elitism. Only those exactly like us, (or the way we would like to see ourselves) or fondly wanting to be like us, are worthy of our company. We barely see the weakness in ourselves and yet are finely attuned to the inadequacy of others. Imagine being married to, or even to be the sister of, a Promethean male, to be taken in by the dreamscape of idealistic fantasies. To be considered a possession or reflection of them. In short to be used. To watch as their high-minded projects end in ruin. To be beguiled by sympathy of such a noble creature who is doomed to a cycle of inflation and deflation. And yet, to love so selfish a creature. Would a Margaret, or a Mary be able to contain a man’s desire for stolen fire?

Mary Shelley didn’t provide healing for her modern Prometheus, even though she alluded to a perspective which would ameliorate the effects of “fire intoxication.” Her subtle message is that an appreciation of the moral guidance of the feminine, is a significant part of the answer. The qualities of earth relatedness versus heavenly preoccupations, the acceptance of death and limitations versus immortality through a project, and the ability to look past outward appearances are necessary for sympathy and community. Most of all, the solution is rooted in the willingness to love each other in the context of community or family. She warned us that this was the purpose of her book, back in the preface, exhibition of amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue.

Erotic Love is Selfish

If love is the cure, what kind of love is it? Surely, Prometheans have love and passion - apparently to destructive excess. What Prometheans need is to allow themselves to be loved and guided by a complementary Other. I didn’t say “Mother” I said “Other”. That would imply that there is a sense of separation and equality in the relationship. Fusion will not cure; in fact, it is part of the problem....

There are two basic kinds of love that we bring into marriage and relationships: Eros and Agape. Erotic love is the passion for possession of another or abandonment of the self to another. In Erotic love inequality is assumed; one or the other partner collapses into the psyche of the other...

If you are contained by another, you are expressing the abandoning aspects of Erotic love. If you desire control over another you are expressing the possessing aspect of Erotic love. It is interesting that Erotic love is usually expressed in a dialectic way, where one time you are wanting to possess; and another time, you are wanting to be possessed. The first stance leads to a willfulness and violent aggression whereas the second expression of Erotic love tends toward passivity and weakness. Erotic love in both its extremes is an expression of Prometheanism.
Imagine the possibilities if the Creator and the Creature had a separate existence of mutual respect.

Imagine the Possibilities

Remember, however, that this sort of love can be applied to either our tasks or another person in our life but in the end is purely self-centered. This is the love Mary saw modeled by Percy Shelley. It is the kind of love where very virile men declare how they possess their women and their projects when things are going well, and yet, when abandoned they become whimpering children in need of a mother.

Mary Shelley advocated another model of love . . . “agapic” . . . the love between two equal but complementary partners, dedicated to working out their psychological growth through an appreciation of difference. This is the model that she hoped for, never experienced, and eventually, saw as not possible as long as we are Promethean in attitude. Her final statement on a lifetime battle with Prometheus is her 1826 novel, The Last Man which reveals that she is pessimistic about the possibility of Agape challenging Eros as a form of love that will sustain our families and the human family at large.

Imagine the possibilities if agapic love dominated in Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, or in our relationships for that matter. What if the Creator and the Creature had a separate existence of mutual respect; if we treated our children as equals who were Other than us; if women and men supported, corrected, and most of all, respected one another. Would our projects really lose their quality or become better? Would we become domestic drones or valued parts of a community? All we need to give up is our willfulness and our weaknesses, our obsession with self-sufficiency, and the belief that we have been cheated by our Creator. Perhaps then we could come to terms with our monsters, with our failures, and our limits.

The one word completely missing in Frankenstein, and unfortunately also in our lives as well, is the word - forgiveness. Forgiveness is only a reality when there is the acknowledgement of having wronged another. Our task, therefore, is to differentiate from each other, so that we can truly love each other. The nasty part of agapic love is the horrible decree that we must love and take responsibility for our monsters. We must learn to love our children and our projects.