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.
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.
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."
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.