The Promethean Gift and the Elemental Context of Culture

Larry Allums, Ph.D.

The New York Times reported the other day that almost a month after the terrorist attacks of September 11, a twisted steel girder was pulled out of the WTC ruins still glowing as vividly as if it had just been pulled from a smelting furnace. When I read that, I was immediately transported in memory to the sheerest edge of a volcanic crater in Nicaragua, from which vantage point I could see, far below me, and far below wheeling flocks of brilliant green tropical birds, the red-orange glow of the active volcano’s heart, rumbling distantly and smoking as though it were temporarily restraining itself for its own inscrutable reasons. It was alive, pulsing, and I found that I could hardly turn my back, lest that be the moment the molten rock was waiting for, when I was looking the other way, off guard. The Times article left me with the impression that in some sense the WTC towers, exploding in flame and collapsing as a result of the steel’s reaction to the intense heat of the burning jet fuel, had returned to a kind of original, subterranean state, in a strange reunion with the molten interior of the earth-a reminder that gravity wants to pull everyone and everything to the primeval fire of its exact center.

In the early 1600’s, the British poet John Donne wrote, in a poem titled “An Anatomy of the World”:

…the new philosophy calls all in doubt;
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and the earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;

Donne was writing of the impact on culture of the new science of his age, and in particular the new astronomy (Galileo’s dates are 1564-1642), which had disproved the popular notion that the earth was surrounded by fire and situated at the center of a concentric universe. In calling all in doubt, the new science heralded an old world gone-“crumbled out again to his atomies,” its elements-and a new world come, in which all was uncertain and had to be rethought, re-imagined. We have heard suggestions since September 11th that something similar is happening to us now. Here is Frank Rich in the New York Timeson September 15, in a piece titled “The Day Before Tuesday”:

The “fat, daydreaming America” is a thing of the past. “…we have lost our untroubled freedom of movement that we consider a birthright. We have lost our illusion of impregnability. But beneath those visceral imperatives an entire culture has been transformed. This week’s nightmare, it’s now clear, has awakened us from a frivolous if not decadent decade-long dream, even as it dumps us into an uncertain future we had never bargained for…. The dream was simple-that we could have it all without having to pay any price, and that national suffering of almost any kind could be domesticated into an experience of virtual terror akin to a theme park ride.” It has been noted often enough that the images we saw in excessive repetition-but that we see no more-were too identical to what we had seen in the movies to sink in as something real, as if their cinematic predecessors were like prophetic dreams we had just waken from.

A month later, Rich seems to have gotten at something most of us still feel very strongly: that the way we regard the world-the way we have our being in it-is changed in the most basic ways. Whether natural or manmade, crisis of sufficient magnitude does this-thrusts us back to a primal place, a pre-cultural state of thought if not of being. Like the crack in the dome of science fiction’s terra-formed worlds, the huge fissure of crisis exposes the fragility of culture and threatens to reclaim culture for nature, to return us to a shocking, perhaps deadly awareness of our environment. The new threat is fundamental in ways against which our daily sophistications are alarmingly inadequate, truly as if the world is “crumbled out again to his atomies.”

Recall the movie Jaws, whose theme music, by the way, was used for a video of the WTC catastrophe packaged for sale just days after the event. Beneath an apparent calm, all that is potentially sinister about the world we inhabit is now suspected. We cannot breathe in the most reassuring, memory-inducing odor-Johnson and Johnson baby powder-without wondering whether the sweetness masks some deadly bacteria; nor can we drink the seemingly purest water, consume food grown from the seemingly most fertile ground (where anthrax exists naturally), without pausing. Our terror, now, is terror of the most basic things, far beyond concerns of the stock market and the sports leagues. We find that we cannot automatically regard the elements anymore as congenial and life sustaining. In short, we find ourselves suddenly living elementally, conscious as never before of the elements as those vital, uncomplicated substances for which there are no replacements and from which there is no evasion or escape. Greenpeace and the Sierra Club have been telling us a version of this for decades, but it was to protect us from ourselves, not from outsiders.

Whether this elemental awareness is a permanent condition is a question yet to be answered. We have been told to go back to our lives, to resume normal routines. But if you have flown, gone to a courthouse (as I did Monday), entered a post office (as I did today), drunk from a public water fountain, you know that resuming normalcy is easier talked about than done. We seem to be living in a kind of cultural hiatus, waiting for hard evidence that we can pick up where we left off. We would be happy to do so, but this is different than Love Canal or the Excedrin scare that gave us the child-proof plastic container, different even from the Cuban missile crisis or Chernobyl. In dimly formed thoughts and words, we are beginning to wonder whether what is required of us-what the new imperative is-is nothing less than a re-imagination of culture itself. And if this is true, if what we face is really a “clash of civilizations,” as we have heard, then perhaps, while negotiations continue on the highest political levels, military counterattacks proceed against a shadowy foe, and domestic security is screwed ever tighter, we might with benefit begin this re-imagining in the context of our ancient myths, the old stories that rise up out of the elements to tell us the truth about our relation to the natural order and to each other. Nature and culture intertwined. Perhaps it is out of such a re-imagining that the “terrible beauty” of W.B. Yeats’ poem, which Louise Cowan spoke about three weeks ago, can be born in our understanding. Tonight I want to remind us of fire.

Anyone “attuned” to nature untouched by culture immediately recognizes that the first attribute of the elements is ambiguity. Water, earth, air, fire: none is uniform in the face it presents to us; each reminds us in the simplest ways of the range and limits of human experience-of abundant life and of certain death. The sentimentalist sees the elements as essentially passive; the most devoted city dweller longs at times for nature, by which he means its advertised serenity. But none of the elements is passive; in fact, it is nature’s own excesses, even without man’s “smudge or smell,” to use Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words, that strike fear into the heart, as if too much of any of the elements is evidence of a kind of elemental competitiveness in creation-a tendency toward a remembered, “default-position” chaos (Chaos is actually a character in Milton’s Paradise Lost, whom Satan encounters on his journey from Hell to Eden; Chaos complains about all the recent creation-work God has done because it diminishes his domain, and Satan says that he can have Hell back once earth becoming the dwelling-place of all the fallen angels). Earth brings forth its fruit, but it also cracks open or tumbles violently down; water generates life, but in its floods takes that life back; the clearest air, the gentlest breeze can stir itself mysteriously into the tornado or hurricane; the absent fire can suddenly appear as a relentless, purifying destroyer, as in nature’s electric current, or the invisible fire can suddenly burst into terrifying view, as in the up-boiling force of the volcano’s eruption. Harnessed and domesticated, the elements allow us an easy belief in the naturalness of culture; when they break out of our control, they show their fiercest, truest face and remind us that culture comes late, is tentative.

Fire is the most ambiguous of the four elements. Its uniqueness among them resides in its absence from nature’s serenity: the bubbling brook, the wafting breeze, the fertile earth. Where is fire? We have intimations of it in the heat of the sun, but it directly erupts from the bowels of the earth or comes from Zeus’ bolt, the gift of his uncles, the Titans, when he freed them from beneath the earth upon assuming his Olympian reign. When fire makes its sudden appearance in nature, it is in violence, with often deadly consequences. This is perhaps why the ancient myths of the West depict fire as coming to man late, as it were, appearing as a gift or happy discovery, unlike the other elements, which are there already in some form docile, given over to man’s proper dominion. Fire is different; in any form it is dangerous and must be handled with care, tamed and domesticated from the beginning, and even then it is a risk. We don’t get out of town, return to nature, in order to enjoy the fire as we do water, earth, and air. Flammable things must be labeled so; we teach our children to beware the flame, handle it with care. Fire is the black sheep of the elements.

The ambiguities of fire are abundantly evident in the Bible. Fire appears first in Genesis 3, when, after the act of disobedience in the garden, God “drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.” Here, fire is prohibitive, denying the gift of immortality to man whom God, in his continuing love, would not have suffer forever in his fallen state. And yet, in the first elemental crisis, the great cleansing flood concludes with Noah’s finding favor in God’s eyes through fire: “And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord, and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled a sweet savour, and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done” (Gen 8.20-1). And it is supposed by many Biblical scholars that this same “sweet savour” is what allowed Abel’s sacrifice to be accepted above Cain’s, which, if true, reveals the double-ness of fire, the cause both of finding favor in God’s eyes and inciting envy in the breast of the less-favored.

The Old Testament abounds with stories of fire. Samson’s revenge on the Philistines for taking his wife is accomplished through his tying jackals tail to tail-three hundred of them-fastening a torch between each pair of tails, and setting the jackals loose in the Philistines’ standing corn (Judges 15). The power of the one true God is invoked in the form of fire from heaven by the prophet Elijah in his lone challenge to the 450 prophets of Baal that they call on their god to light the unlit altar fires. When they fail, and Elijah drenches his altar three times with water and prays, then “the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench” (1 Kings 18.17-46). And we might recall the marvelous story in Daniel 3 of the three young compatriots of Daniel-Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego-who dare defy King Nebuchadnezzar’s command to fall down and worship his 90-foot-high golden image, and for their defiance are thrown bound into a fiery furnace. Yet to Nebuchadnezzar’s amazement and trepidation, the flames do not touch the three youth; on the contrary, as the king says, “Was it not three men whom we threw bound into the fire? Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.”

It is also from the Old Testament that our first images of a fiery hell and the Apocalypse as a conflagration come. In his promise of a new Jerusalem, Isaiah warns that the way to the restoration of the covenant is through fire: “For see, the Lord is coming in fire, with his chariots like a whirlwind, to strike home with his furious anger and with the flaming fire of his reproof. The Lord will judge by fire, with fire he will test all living men, and many will be slain by the Lord” (66.15-16). “…all mankind shall come to bow down before me, says the Lord; and they shall come out and see the dead bodies of those who have rebelled against me; their worm shall not die nor their fire be quenched, and they shall be abhorred by all mankind” (66.23-4).

In his description of the fate of the wicked, Jesus will quote Isaiah when he speaks of those “cast into hell fire, where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9). His telling in Luke 16 of Lazarus and the rich man, who is denied a drop of water in the torment of the flame, is a terrifying story of the way God uses fire, and likewise John the Prophet in Revelation describes the Apocalypse-the end of the world-in terms of fire: “When the thousand years are over, Satan will be let loose from his dungeon; and he will come out to seduce the nations in the four quarters of the earth and to muster them for battle, yea, the hosts of Gog and Magog, countless as the sands of the sea. So they marched over the breadth of the land and laid siege to the camp of God’s people and the city that he loves. But fire came down on them from heaven and consumed them; and the Devil, their seducer, was flung into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been flung, there to be tormented day and night forever” (Rev 20.7-10).

In the Biblical tradition, then, fire is present as an instrument of judgment, a refining element by which one’s faithfulness or unfaithfulness to God is tested and proven. The image of the refining fire is extended to Purgatory as well, wherein the dross of man’s sinfulness is purged away before he enters the blessedness of Paradise, where the heat of fire is transformed into the light of love. At the top of Dante’s Mount Purgatory, the souls destined for heaven must abide for a time in a wall of flame before they are allowed into the terrestrial paradise, a return to the Garden of Eden before they mount to the stars.

When we turn to the ancient stories of the Greeks, however, we find another conception of fire. In the Bible, we do not find the civilizational imperative that is present in nascent form in the Greeks and in its full manifestation in the Romans and that requires a different view of man’s relation to the natural order. The ancient Greek story is first presented in the various myths of the Titan Prometheus, best known for his theft of fire from Olympos and his gift of it to man, whom he pitied. Prometheus is alone among the old, pre-Olympian gods as the advocate and champion of the human race, and in some stories he is actually the creator of man.

Hesiod and Aeschylus both tell of Prometheus. According to Hesiod, he is the first trickster, the deceiver par excellence and the underminer of Zeus’ authority. Prometheus’ first deception, according to Hesiod, comes in “a test when gods and mortals divided up an ox.” Prometheus tricks Zeus into choosing what only seems to be the better portion-the white bones of the ox “hidden in shining fat”-and gives the truly nourishing portions to poor man. However, Zeus is not really deceived, but, in Hesiod’s version, “saw the trick, and in his heart made plans to punish mortal men in future days.”

In this first trickery, Prometheus reveals his sympathy and his allegiance, but man pays an early price for this rebellion against authority, for, as Hesiod writes, “from that time [Zeus] bore the trick in mind, and would not give, to wretched men who live on earth, the power of fire, which never wearies. The brave son of Iapetos [Prometheus] deceived him, and he stole the ray, far-seeing, of unwearied fire, hid in the hollow fennel stalk, and Zeus who thunders in the heavens ate his heart and raged within to see the ray of fire far-seeing, among men.”

Prometheus means “the foresighted” or “the provident,” and it is in his theft of fire that Prometheus proves the meaning of his name. At the beginning of Aeschylus’ drama Prometheus Bound, in which Zeus’ purposes are more inscrutable than in Hesiod’s work, the Titan god has already practiced his deceptions and is bound to the mountain top and staked through the chest with an “adamantine wedge.” As he begins his suffering, he tells the compassionate chorus why Zeus tortures him: “On succeeding to his father’s throne, at once he appointed various rights to various gods, giving to each his set place and authority. Of wretched humans he took no account, resolved to annihilate them and create another race. This purpose there was no one to oppose but I: I dared. I saved the human race from being ground to dust, from total death.” When the chorus asks if he’s not holding back part of the story, he replies: “Yes: I caused men no longer to foresee their death…. I planted firmly in their hearts blind hopefulness.” The chorus responds: “Your gift brought them great blessing.” And Prometheus continues: “I did more than that: I gave them fire.” The chorus is shocked at the audacity of it: “What? Men, whose life is but a day, possess already the hot radiance of fire?” And Prometheus: “They do; and with it they shall master many crafts.”

This account of the theft and gift of fire bears a thematic resemblance to the story of Adam and Eve’s transgression in the garden, although, as Donald Cowan has written in a book to which I shall return, “the Prometheus story is less about forbidden knowledge than about the origins of human culture” (Unbinding Prometheus 155). The chorus in Aeschylus’ play is astounded at Prometheus’ daring theft because it goes against a decree of God, whom the chorus assumes knows what is good and what bad, appropriate and inappropriate. Prometheus, however, professes to have an omniscience, or at least an optimism about men, that Zeus lacks; at any rate, this myth holds that we are here today, not annihilated, because of Prometheus’ compassion and foresight, which he gives to man, at least partially or potentially, in the form of “blind hopefulness” in the face of death.

Thus fire and this hopefulness are bound up together-the fire is not only a real instrument of use for mankind but a symbol of his coming aspirations and his “mastery of many crafts.” In short, the Prometheus account indicates that culture itself is impossible without fire, and not only that, but that the very concept of civilization leaps out of the flame conferred upon man against the will of God. A bit later, Prometheus, still pinned to the rock, elaborates on his benevolent treachery and the extensions and implications of his gift to mortals: “I gave them mind and reason,” he says. They had eyes, but saw not, ears, but heard not. They didn’t know carpentry, had no houses, lived in holes like swarms of ants. “Their every act was without knowledge, till I came.” I taught them number, writing, agriculture, how to harness the wild beasts, shipbuilding, navigation, medicine, modes of prophecy. In short, he says, “here’s the whole truth in one word: All human skill and science [all techne] was Prometheus’ gift.” But the cost to him for this grand transgression is great: “Such tools and skills I found for men; myself, poor wretch, lack even one trick to free me from this agony.”

Simply to say, then, that Prometheus gave fire to man is not sufficient to describe the significance of the gift. All things that separate man from nature, from the elements, come from Prometheus’ fire, both what it is in nature and what it symbolizes. But from what source on Olympos did this fire come? There are two possibilities: from the hearth kept by the domestic goddess Hestia, whose work calls the gods continuously back into community, and from the fire used by the blacksmith god Hephaestus, whose craft builds the Olympian palaces but also the chariots and implements of war, most notably the shield of Achilleus. Perhaps Prometheus stole from both, and there are two kinds of fire: the fire on the hearth, and the fire in the heart, the first associated with culture and the second with civilization.

In his Fragments of a Poetics of Fire, Gaston Bachelard speaks of “the experience of fire” and associates this element with the “two poles of imagination,” which he designates as “fire and warmth,” and also associates with animus and anima, thus with masculine and feminine. He says that fire’s natural impulse is to verticality, but that it has a horizontal phase as well. This is what Bachelard writes:

The experience of fire may call our attention in this way to the many experiences of duration, following the ebb and flow, the very surge of life. Horizontal calm in a fire’s temporal life is but rarely known. Fire in its inner life is always rising, only horizontal once it has fallen off into feminine warmth and immobility.

By studying the two poles of imagination, fire and warmth, through the dialectics of anima and animus, we will discover the internal contradictions which mark the psychology of fire. To arrive at a complete psychology will require of us that we live at both poles of our androgynous being, able thus to experience fire both as violence and reassurance, sometimes as the image of love, sometimes as the image of anger. (xiii)

Fire as nurturing warmth most directly suggests the enterprises of culture, whereas fire as a rising, searching, vertical force we associate with the expansive thrust of civilization. William Faulkner beautifully depicts the former manifestation of fire in his novel Go Down, Moses, in which the fire on the hearth, continually burning at varying intensities, is a central symbol in the relationship between nature and culture. In the novel’s final chapter, Faulkner describes the fire on the brick hearth of an old Negro woman as the “ancient symbol of human coherence and solidarity.” Or in Shakespeare’s sonnet 73, the narrator in old age describes his enduring love, now drawing to an close, as “the glowing of such fire that on the ashes of his youth doth lie, /as the deathbed whereon it must expire, /consumed with that which it was nourished by.” Or the image in Homer’s Odyssey, at the end of book 5, of Odysseus burrowing under the leaves and soil to recover from his narrow escape at sea, a strategy of preservation and renewal that is likened to a man’s saving the “seed of fire” for future use by burying a “burning log in a black ash heap.”

None of the other elements contains what Bachelard calls the “internal contradictions” associated with fire. Its nurturing, life-giving properties-fire as warmth, the fire stolen from Hestia’s hearth-is an unqualified good for mankind. It is in its other guise-fire as fire, fire from Hephaestus’ forge-that gives us pause.

Negatively, one might conclude that the history of Hephaestean fire, once in human hands, is a continuous record of refinements in its destructive potential, from the traditional burning of the conquered village to the invention of gunpowder to the scientific manipulation of matter called nuclear fission. Positively, one might say that this civilizational fire contains the spark, the dangerous energy, of creativity and aspiration; it is a connecting force among peoples, accelerating their motion and thus their interaction, and moving rapidly toward its most recent manifestation in what we have been calling globalization.

In spite of appearances, there is something in the Hephaestean fire like or akin to eros, to desire. In his novel Lick Creek, which is about electric power coming to the Allegheny Mountains, Brad Kessler writes of the mythic roots of electricity: “Amber stones are yellow and translucent and look somewhat like old teeth. They are the fossilized resin from an extinct variety of pine. The ancient Greeks realized that amber, when rubbed, drew small objects to itself like paper, silk, or hair. They stuck amber on the bobbins of their spinning wheels and fashioned jewelry of it from their lovers and wives. Amber routes spread from the Baltic to the Mediterranean and Africa. In some measure it was desire-or even love-that moved amber from one end of the known earth to the other. The Greeks called amber and its powers of attractionelecktron. It is the root of the English word electricity.”

In his revelatory and even prophetic book Unbinding Prometheus, Donald Cowan goes further in connecting the culmination of the Promethean fire, both scientifically and symbolically, to our present age, following the industrial age: the age of technology, which he equates with “the second most important gift of Prometheus to the human race-the first being ‘blind hopes’ that enabled mortals to focus less on their inevitable death than on how they would use their lives” (151). Dr. Cowan points out that when Prometheus claims to have taught all arts to mankind, “techne is the word he uses, technique, as we call it, the art of making things: the how of doing anything well, according to its purpose” (151-2). A definition of technology might begin, he suggests, with Prometheus’ “grand desire for the betterment of man, noting the necessity of ingenious apparatus to accomplish this end. There seems to be in technology an implicit aspiration to spread its benefits to all…. In such a way equality is fostered…” (153). But, Dr. Cowan warns, as “the dominant economic mode” of the age, representing “a new era for human culture, one that…is inevitable in the course of Christianity,” technology “brings not peace but a sword, requiring choice” (154).

The choice, he says, lies between two myths corresponding to two ways of perceiving the world: the Faustian myth of mastery for self-gratification vs. the Promethean myth of fulfillment, of looking ahead with the provident eye for which Prometheus was known. Here is Dr. Cowan again: “Imagination is the instrument through which new scientific information enters the world. This is that Promethean fire that generated all the arts-a gift from the abode of the gods, an opening into a realm beyond the reservoirs of knowledge, beyond the range of reason. If used merely as inventiveness reined in by self-interest, as the Faustian myth would have it, the technological imagination returns the tawdry gifts deserved. But if applied in self-forgetfulness, in simple acceptance of what is to come and acknowledgement of the good in the work to be done, the technological imagination looks forward to a reconciliation between Zeus and Prometheus, opening its fires of prophecy and rewarding mankind with intuitions of hope” (158).

Dr. Cowan concludes this essay with something of a prophecy: The “divine fire” of imagination “casts its shadow,” he says, and there “is a darkness shadowing technology; there are dark times coming. The transition from one major epoch to another is not to be accomplished handily. But our response to all the ensuing problems must not be to turn against the light-for it is by means of the poetic and technological illumination that human life has been lifted from its enslavement to matter and directed toward the liberty for which it seems destined” (168).

In his introduction, entitled “Between Two Ages,” Dr. Cowan had predicted that in the coming age, the “new society will be governed by the poetic imagination sustained by technology” (11). The human race seems presently moving toward an “age of equilibrium,” which will come only with difficulty if the “present inequities” of the world are insufficiently addressed. “Unfortunately,” he says, “the reluctance of the world’s well-to-do communities and the impatience of its developing segments are already establishing a dangerous instability at many levels of society. Later on, when a potentially violent situation is triggered, it could set off explosive reactions in many areas at once, initiating a general conflagration of great magnitude.” We survived the burning cities and disrupted college campuses of 1967, he says, but “from the clairvoyance afforded by the disruptions came the uncomfortable premonition that some thirty years from then the social scene would contain imbalances interlocked enough for one misadventure to cause a general catastrophe. That time is now approaching” (14).

Dr. Cowan is by no means dire or tragic in his vision, but perhaps he justly calls us to consider whether, in the long process of succeeding so admirably with Prometheus’ gift, somewhere along the way we lost the Titan god’s foresighted, provident way of seeing the gift’s diffusion into the world. Perhaps we have become more like his brother Epimetheus, whose name means “the heedless” or “he who only learns from the event.” As Lewis Lapham writes in his essay in the most recent Harper’s magazine, perhaps “we didn’t see the planes coming because we didn’t think we had to look.” If the era of technology’s most destructive fires began with Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, perhaps the “terrible beauty” of September 11th-with its fire stolen from us, the original recipients of Prometheus’ theft-signaled the beginning of that era’s end.

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