Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Icarus, Prometheus & Satan

The tales of forbidden knowledge are often the most poignant, and the most costly, of all human myths. Some brave souls might assert that all quest stories are basically tales of forbidden knowledge, but that's just not true - some things are hidden, some things are guarded, but there are very few things which have big fiery markings or divine pronouncements around them, saying "Thou shalt not pass!" "Thou shalt not taste!" or the equivalent.

And once in a while, there is transgression. (Often, linked with tragedy.)

Transgression in mythology comes in three flavours: dumb, daft and diabolical. Hence the three in my title. We'll take the cases one by one, as the Sinn Fein man said to the Kalashnikov dealer.

Dumb. "Do not turn around or else..." applied to Orpheus as well as Lot's wife. The reasons were probably metaphysical, but the results were disastrous. Icarus however did not have the excuse of things being too metaphysical - he was told by his father in no uncertain terms, "Fly too high and your wings will MELT. So don't do something which you will regret." Of course, flight brings its own arrogance (cf Bellerophon, Pegasus, destination: Olympus). So young Ikaros decides to be a high-flyer, goes so high that the naked sun melts the resin/wax that holds his feathers together, and... the rest is captured by that cynical chronicler of the human condition, Pieter Breughel. There's a nice page here, cunningly labelled 'Art Poems'. Have a look. Bonus: the first poem is W H Auden's take on it - and his poet's ear is always painfully exact. Read it and weep, or not.

Daft. Daft is a bit better. Daft is what people used to call 'touched in the head' when they were being polite. Now they call it ADD, ADHD, or some other incomprehensible acronym. It all boils down to 'behaviour which the subject thinks is appropriate which nobody else seems grateful for'. Shelley's Prometheus is a near-divine grandness of a Titan, nobility and all. His name means 'forethought'. In a fit of glorious altruism, so that Man might have a chance of survival, he steals the gift of fire from Zeus (whose very name means 'The God', Sanskrit Dyaus, Latin Deus). Some claim the real gift was that of brewing - flame, song, ethanol and knowledge are one cluster of magical nouns in the language of myth. The punishment is swift and severe. Prometheus is staked out in the Caucasus, his titanic frame pinned by unbreakable chains. The eagle of Zeus (yes, the same one we have all over our IP materials) will come to rip out the immortal's liver every morning. It will grow back again by night.

Diabolical. Ah, an innocent circumlocution, as so many of his titles are. "He who casts against" is what diabolos means. He never has a real name - he is Lightbringer, Adversary, Accuser. His crime, for which he lost his name and his rank, is that of insurrection. Specifically, the sin of casting himself in the role of God, by reason of his personal glory, power and capacity for interaction - and then inciting a third of the stars of heaven to follow him. He was the anointed guardian of the places of the holy fire, and betrayed that trust by attempting to appropriate them all. He gambled big, for the highest of stakes, and lost. Neil Gaiman, as usual, has the most interesting takes on these things: Murder Mysteries is one of them, as is his work in the Sandman cycle as far as it relates to the Lightbringer. Again, note the burning, the tragedy... and read Milton's Paradise Lost.

So what is the difference between these three? Icarus falls because he is overcome by his partial ascension and can't stop himself - he is almost purely a victim of inexperience and atmosphere. Prometheus falls in perfect knowledge that he does this out of altruism, and that some day, a son of Man (who is also son of God) will come to free him. And the last one falls in the perfect knowledge that it is better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven - but oh, how bitter the taste of brimstone.

Three kinds of tragedy: the tragedy of folly, the tragedy of altruism, and the tragedy of excellence. Which is your flavour of choice?


In closing, three views, snapshots from each text: I present these as a service to those who can't be bothered to surf further.


View One: Auden, of Icarus - from Museé des Beaux Arts

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


View Two: Shelley, of Prometheus - from Prometheus Unbound

All things are still: alas! how heavily
This quiet morning weighs upon my heart;
Though I should dream I could even sleep with grief
If slumber were denied not. I would fain
Be what it is my destiny to be,
The saviour and the strength of suffering man,
Or sink into the original gulf of things:
There is no agony, and no solace left;
Earth can console, Heaven can torment no more.


View Three: Milton, of Satan - from Paradise Lost

The mind is its own place, and in itself 
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven. 
What matter where, if I be still the same, 
And what I should be, all but less than he 
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least 
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built 
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: 
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice, 
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell: 
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.



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