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The myth of Prometheus and the origin of human creativity

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« J’entrai dans un atelier où je vis des ouvriers qui modelaient en glaise un animal énorme de la forme d’un lama, mais qui paraissait devoir être muni de grandes ailes. Ce monstre était comme traversé d’un jet de feu qui l’animait peu à peu, de sorte qu’il se tordait, pénétré par mille filets pourprés, formant les veines et les artères et fécondant pour ainsi dire l’inerte matière, qui se revêtait d’une végétation instantanée d’appendices fibreux d’ailerons et de touffes laineuses. Je m’arrêtai à contempler ce chef-d’œuvre, où l’on semblait avoir surpris les secrets de la création divine. “C’est que nous avons ici, me dit-on, le feu primitif qui anima les premiers êtres… Jadis il s’élançait jusqu’à la surface de la terre, mais les sources se sont taries.» (1)

Gérard de Nerval, Aurelia

 

In Hesiod’s Theogony, we learn of the great schism between man and the gods, which has made us their tributaries ever since. One day in Mekone a dispute broke out over which parts of a sacrificial ox should be offered to gods, and which ones should be reserved for men. The Titan Prometheus, who created man and protected him against the hatred of Zeus, played a costly trick on the latter. He quartered a bull and hid his bones under a thick layer of fat while using the animal’s less appealing stomach skin to conceal the juicy meat. When confronted with a choice, Zeus got carried away by the visually attractive appearance of fat only to discover later the meagre booty hidden underneath. Furious at being tricked, he punished Prometheus and removed fire from humans in retribution for their offence. The Titan begged Athena to let him stealthily enter Olympus, which she granted. Once there, he stole a piece of glowing coal from the Sun’s chariot and placed it on a giant fennel stalk, by which he managed to restore fire to humankind. An enraged Zeus chained Prometheus to the top of a mountain and sent an eagle to feast on his liver every day, which then grew back every night. Such a renewable banqueting experience was supposed to last forever. However, one day Heracles broke the spell by killing the eagle.

José Clemente Orozco, “Prometheus”. Mural, mixed technique, 1930. Frary Hall of Pomona College, Claremont, California, USA.

 

Mircea Eliade and the first fire

 

The fire theft fable is symbolically dense and helps illustrate our delicate relationship with the gods. In his book Myth and Reality (2) and The Sacred and the Profane (3), Mircea Eliade discussed myths as repositories that preserve a highly coded version of the exchanges we keep with the realm of the sacred. Building and updating such a sophisticated register during religious rituals would require, in his view, to step out of our chronological time and adopt a “sacred timeline” as reference.  When doing so, the mythical past no longer remains fixed in history. Still, it can be invoked and mobilized during specific periods of religious activity to reset the clock and return to the beginning of times. According to this interpretation, myths are a fluid set of paradigms that need to be recurrently lived and experienced. For example, a momentary suspension of time and its resetting is achieved in many societies’ New Year’s rites, which echo the cosmogonic act of creation. Rituals would be an index to which successive generations can refer to while following their ancestors’ blueprints. Mythical cycles would thus fix in amber, once and for all, the first brushstroke that painted the cosmos and defined how we come to terms with it. 

However, with the change to monotheism, Eliade argues that man started reviewing history under a new light. The abolition of time would no longer be brought about by cyclic resetting rituals but merely by deferring it to a remote time-point in an unforeseeable future, as in the Judeo-Christian tradition. If history is irreversibly linear, then we no longer have the luxury of periodically assisting at the rebirth of our world: we must face the fact that we will live it through its end. As Christiane Barth discusses in her article on Eliade (4), our only freedom would precisely lie in making history by making ourselves. Here we find a seductive idea of the origin of human creativity: the creative man is the historical man, anchored not in a sacred timeline, but in our most immediate and profane one. Myths embody a multiplicity of notions that we can hardly grasp entirely at once, hence the need to substitute them for a sign. By receiving the gift of fire- a foundational myth that recurrently appears in many cultures and which is often associated with the transfer of wisdom (5,6)- humans acquire consciousness and begin to interrogate their world. It is not surprising then, that this image representing the triumph of logos-the enthronization of reason as the key to man’s emancipation-, was particularly appreciated during the Illustration in the XVIIIth century (7).

Fire, providing warmth and light and enabling metallurgy and cooking, allows man to transgress boundaries and dispute a place in the realm of gods. The Promethean myth- a parable of human entrepreneurship-stresses how we tend to think of ourselves as pure and limitless possibility. We quench our demiurgic appetite by creating a world tailored to our vision. At the same time, this story admonishes us against making excessive claims based on the attributes with which we were graciously endowed. The parable of man’s fall from grace illustrates how close to the primaeval clay we still are and tinges with nostalgia our efforts to make the world less contingent by restoring the unspoilt order that once prevailed. For Eliade, this infatuation with reestablishing the initial perfection nests in many myths of the world’s annual renewal. Often, those narratives prefigure a new order but require that the vestiges of the old cycle die out before the new cosmogony can emerge. However, that mandate remains elusive, as imperfect architects that we are. In a beautifully deterministic turn, our triumphs and failures are somewhat Mendelian traits that ultimately can be traced back to our lineage, where thoughtful Prometheus and his impulsive sibling Epimetheus seem to thrive equally.

 

Mimesis: a cul-de-sac?

 

When did we start to think of ourselves as creative beings? We may feel that we have always enjoyed that coveted status. However, this conquest might be more recent than we think. The ancient Greek understood the creative act in a broad sense, including all means by which man is capable of operating with reality in this world. The concept of techne, therefore, included both art and technology, without introducing a sharp distinction between them. To a good approximation, we will use here the term “art” as a proxy for techne.

Hubertus Kohle (8) explains that Aristotle conceived Nature as an extensive repertoire of all imaginable possibilities, a set encompassing all possible combinations. Any radically new insight into the world outside of the frameset by Nature was simply inconceivable. All artistic expression was therefore bound to adhere to the models given by Nature, and could at best, seek to complete it by extracting its essential core. Nature and art were structurally identical: the intrinsic characteristics of one realm could be transposed to the other. We are left with the breadcrumbs: we can only pick up where nature leaves off, and we can carry out that mission by closely following its prescription (mimesis).

The concept of imitatio or mimesis is bound to the universal Ideal, from which our world is just an imperfect realization, a corrupt material incarnation. Art is never a pure construct of the subject, but always an echo or reflection of an absolute idea that already exists in Nature. Man’s works, therefore, only served to fulfil Nature’s predetermined goals.

Aristotle’s claim that art should simply follow nature provides a fatal blow to the demiurgic ambition of man. Ironically enough, this quasi-divine dream would appear to constitute its very fabric, because it was created as an image of God, the ultimate creator. Hans Blumenberg invites us on a promenade along which we discover how the complete transposition between art and nature reigned supreme until the Renaissance when its foundations began to crumble in a process that would be only completed during the XIXth century. 

Hans Blumenberg (9) traces the first crack in the identity between art and nature back to the Middle Ages. He shows that scholastic thinkers could not reconcile the perfect interchangeability of art and Nature with the idea of an omnipotent God. How could one possibly conceive of a God who had already exhausted his creative powers and populated our world with everything that could be imagined? If his ability to create is infinite, one could a priori think that the realm of Being should exceed what Nature offers. Of course, it was not up to man to accomplish this daunting task; adding new forms and shapes to this world was still strictly celestial business. Nevertheless, according to Blumenberg, here we could already see the seeds of the future revolt against Nature as the sole productive principle (natura naturans).

In the second station of our trip, Blumenberg takes us to the year 1450. In the second chapter of the dialogue On Mind, Nicholas of Cusa stages a provocative exchange between a spoon-carver and two philosophers. “A spoon has no other exemplar except our mind’s idea of the spoon, I do not imitate the visible form of any natural object”, proudly says the craftsman. A simple spoon carved in wood had no equivalent in nature and represented something absolutely new. With this funny gag, Nicholas of Cusa tries to tell us that nature is no longer the authoritative model to follow, raising the possibility of authentic human production that is not based on the imitation principle. The new homo naturans that emerges from Renaissance humanism justifies his worth by what he does and what he knows to do. Humanity begins to shift the focus from the contemplation of nature as the mystery of an inscrutable divine plan to include its own subjective experience as a legitimate source of inspiration.

Blumenberg points out that it is an artisan, not an artist, who gives the first blow. Could we perhaps see in this allusion to technology- our preoccupation with objects and their use- a possibility for man to acquire a god-like metaphysical status, something for which he was always longing? Because the realm of Being was strictly limited to what was given by Nature, mankind was denied of any ontological claim over the products of creativity. For Blumenberg, to create is to be divine. Therefore, the elevation of the creative act to the level of divinity would satisfy man’s demiurgic dreams. 

Perhaps, as Anna Wertz (9) concludes in her introductory essay to Blumenberg’s work, being creative points to a fatal contradiction. We escape from known models in an attempt to avoid imitation. At the same time, we inevitably resent that our creations bear some resemblance with what already exists.

 

References

 

[1] I went into a workshop where I saw workers modelling in clay a huge animal in the shape of a llama, but it looked as if it was to be fitted with large wings. The monster was animated by a jet of fire which slowly moved through it, so that it twisted, penetrated by a thousand crimson nets, forming veins and arteries and fecundating the inert matter, so to speak, which was covered with vegetation made of fibrous appendages of fins and woolly tufts. I paused to contemplate this masterpiece, where it seemed as if the secrets of divine creation had been overheard. “What we have here,” I was told, “is the primitive fire that animated the first beings… It once rose to the surface of the earth, but the springs have dried up since then.”

[2] Mircea Eliade, Myth and reality, in World Perspectives, Volume Thirty-one, Edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen, Harper & Row Publishers, New York and Evanston, 1963.

[3] Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: the nature of religion, A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., New York, 1959.

[4] Barth, C. (2013). In illo tempore, at the center of the world: Mircea Eliade and religious studies’ concepts of sacred time and space. Historical Social Research, 38(3), 59-75. https://doi.org/10.12759/hsr.38.2013.3.59-75 

[5] The Sioux, Menomonis, Foxes, and several other Indian tribes inhabiting the valley of the Mississippi, have a tradition of a great flood in which all inhabitants of the earth, except one man and one woman, were drowned. The solitary survivors escaped by taking refuge on a high mountain. Seeing that in their forlorn plight they had need of fire, the Master of Life sent a white raven to carry it to them. But the raven stopped by the way to devour carrion and allowed the fire to go out. He then returned to heaven to get more. But the Great Spirit drove him away and punished him by making him black instead of white. Then the Great Spirit sent the erbette, a little grey bird, as his messenger to carry fire to the man and woman. The bird did as he was bidden and returned to report to the Great Spirit, who rewarded him by giving him two little black bars on each side of his eyes. Hence the Indians regard the bird with great respect; they never kill it themselves, and they forbid their children to shoot it. Moreover, they imitate the bird by painting two little black bars on each side of their own eyes. 

James George Frazer, Myths of the origin of fire, page 150. McMillan and Co., Ltd, St Martin’s Street, London, 1930.

[6] They say that in those times, before the Jesuits, most animals had powers. In the beginning, no one had the fire to cook food. And everything was eaten raw. The only one who knew about the fire was Inambú, the partridge, who carried it around on his back (that’s why the partridge still has ashes on its back). Then Kurúru Túnpa, who was a toad, decided to get the fire. He had to get into the water and cross the river because the partridge lived on the other side. He went over to chat with him and carelessly stole an ember that he put into his mouth. I don’t know how he didn’t burn himself! But he was a powerful, sacred being, and kuimbáe, very macho. He was like a king, like a god who had power. So Kurúru Túnpawent back into the water with the ember in his mouth-which didn’t go out-, crossed the river again and came this way. And since then we have been in the habit of eating cooked food. The toad still eats embers. If you go at night and throw an ember at it, it eats it. (“Dicen que en aquellos tiempos, antes de los jesuitas, la mayoría de los animales tenía poderes. Al principio, nadie tenía fuego con qué cocer, con qué asar la comida. Y todo se comía crudo. La única que conocía el fuego era Inambú, la perdiz, que lo llevaba a cuestas de un lado para el otro (por eso la perdiz tiene, todavía, cenizas en el lomo). Entonces Kurúru Túnpa, que era un sapo, decidió conseguir el fuego. Tuvo que meterse en el agua y cruzar el río, porque la perdiz vivía del otro lado. Se acercó a charlar con ella y en un descuido le robó una brasa que se metió dentro de la boca. ¡No sé cómo habrá sido que no se quemó! Pero él era un ser poderoso, sagrado, y kuimbáe, bien macho. Era como un rey, como un dios que tenía poder. Así que Kurúru Túnpa se metió otra vez en el agua con la brasa en la boca-que no se apagó-, cruzó otra vez el río y llegó para este lado. Y desde entonces está en nosotros la costumbre de comer cocido. Todavía el sapo come brasas. Si usted anda de noche y le tira una brasa, se la come.”)

Translated from the Spanish: Rubén Pérez Bugallo, Mitos Chiriguanos. El mundo de los Túnpa, en Biblioteca de Cultura Popular, Ediciones del Sol, Buenos Aires, 2007.

[7] Who helped me/Against the Titans’ insolence?/Who rescued me from certain death,/From slavery?/Didst thou not do all this thyself,/My sacred glowing heart?/And glowedst, young and good,/Deceived with grateful thanks/To yonder slumbering one? (“Wer half mir/Wider der Titanen Übermut?/Wer rettete vom Tode mich,/Von Sklaverei?/Hast du nicht alles selbst vollendet,/Heilig glühend Herz?/Und glühtest jung und gut,/Betrogen,/Rettungsdank/Dem Schlafenden da droben?“ )

Here sit I, forming mortals/After my image;/A race resembling me,/To suffer, to weep,/To enjoy, to be glad,/And thee to scorn,/As I! (“Hier sitz’ ich, forme Menschen/Nach meinem Bilde,/Ein Geschlecht, das mir gleich sei,/Zu leiden,/zu weinen,/Zu genießen und zu freuen sich,/Und dein nicht zu achten,/Wie ich!“)

Fragments from Prometheus’ Ode (Prometheus’ monologue to Zeus in his workshop, Act III of Prometheus, unfinished play (1773-1774), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in “Der ewige Brunnen-Ein Hausbuch deutscher Dichtung“. Verlag C.H. Beck München, 2015.

[8] Kohle, Hubertus (1989): Ut pictura poesis non erit. Denis Diderots Kunstbegriff. Studien zur Kunstgeschichte, Bd. 52. Hildesheim, New York: Olms.

[9] Blumenberg, H., & Wertz, A. (2000). “Imitation of nature”: Toward a prehistory of the idea of the creative being. Qui Parle, 12(1), 17-54. Retrieved  from www.jstor.org/stable/20686110

 

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