| PROMETHEUS: A SYMPOSIUM |

UNBINDING MYTH WITH LITERATURE IN SHELLEY, FLAUBERT, AND DU BOIS


By Brian Britt

***

The Montréal Review, May 2024


The 2023 blockbuster film Oppenheimer opens with this caption: “Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.”  The film, based on a biography entitled The American Prometheus, depicts the nuclear scientist as a tragic hero in the mold of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound. Modern retellings of the Prometheus myth may have their true beginning in Milton’s Paradise Lost, whose Satan has long been compared to the Prometheus of Aeschylus.1 If Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820) drew inspiration from Milton’s Satan to become an exemplary Romantic retelling of the myth, it was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus (1818) that initiated the modern criticism of Prometheus. In this short essay I survey criticism of the Prometheus myth in the work of Mary Shelley and W.E.B. Du Bois.2  These criticisms lead to general questions about the enduring power of myth.  In his study of modern mythology, Roland Barthes argues that myth “transforms history into nature” and thereby produces “depoliticized speech.”3 What cultural work does the myth of Prometheus do, and what does this work suggest about other myths? 

Myth emerged as a major category of culture in nineteenth century thought, and in the twentieth the power of myth drew the attention of thinkers like Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes.  In “Critique of Violence” (1921) Benjamin described “mythic violence” as a key to the legitimacy of state law and violence.4  In “Myth Today” (1957), Roland Barthes argues that myth “transforms history into nature” and thereby produces “depoliticized speech.”  Neither Benjamin nor Barthes thinks myth can be secularized or disenchanted; rather, they argue that myth is a fundamental element of cultural traditions that adapts to modernity.  Not to recognize the power of myth is to misunderstand the political power of modern myth.  Beyond this recognition, both thinkers suggest ways to critique the political power of modern myth.  I have addressed Benjamin’s theory of myth elsewhere, and here I briefly discuss Barthes’s general critique of myth along with the particular critique of the Prometheus myth in Shelley and Du Bois.  

Barthes on Myth and Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet

In “Myth Today,” Barthes argues that literature could provide a means to counteract the political uses of myth in modern culture.  In a structuralist vein, he argues that myth builds on the binary of signifier and signified in language.  Just as language combines signifier and signified to form a sign, myth combines the sign of language with a new signifier to form the sign of myth.5 And just as the sign of language becomes conventional, the sign of myth seems natural, taken for granted.  As such, the contents of myth, their ideology, are also taken for granted and depoliticized. 

What can challenge this power of myth?  Barthes suggests using literature to expose the workings of myth:  “[T]he best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn, and to produce an artificial myth: and this reconstituted myth will in fact be a mythology.  Since myth robs language of something, why not rob myth?  All that is needed is to use it as the departure point for a third semiological chain, to take its signification as the first term of a second myth.”6  The example Barthes offers for this literary act of theft is Gustave Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet (1881, unfinished), a satire of two buffoons who pursue a series of popular nineteenth-century trends in agriculture, natural science, literature, politics, religion, and education.  For Barthes, the novel constitutes a “second-order myth” revealing “Flaubert’s gaze on the myth which Bouvard and Pecuchet had built for themselves.”7  Space does not allow a longer description of Barthes’s use of the novel, but for present purposes it bears noting that the target of Flaubert’s attention is the vainglory of modern myths of science and technology, a concern also of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Shelley and Prometheus

There is no question that Frankenstein associates the myth of Prometheus with the title character’s experiment in creating life.  But if Aeschylus’s protagonist is tragic and heroic, Shelley’s is arguably too enthralled to the myth to gain insight even after his complete downfall.  After admitting his failure, Victor clings to his Promethean hope for scientific glory.  He tells his interlocutor: “Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently 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.”8  Even at his lowest point, Frankenstein seems unable to shake the grip of the Prometheus myth.

In her Preface, Shelley implicitly extends the Prometheus myth to literary creation: “I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper.”9  This association of science with literature there and throughout the novel suggests a critique of the use of myth in Romanticism generally.  The commitment to the glory of science and literature seems unshakable, and it is also tied to the act of creation itself.  Barbara Johnson writes, “Frankenstein combines a monstrous answer to two of the most fundamental questions one can ask: Where do babies come from? and Where do stories come from?”10 And for the daughter of Mary Wollestonecraft, this obsession is also gendered.  While the men of the novel pursue Promethean glory, the women around them die with chilling regularity.11  Read as a feminist critique of the Romantic obsession with human creative power, Frankenstein appears more interested in unbinding the Prometheus myth than simply retelling it.

Du Bois and the Prometheus Myth: Recoding

Distinct approaches to the myth of Prometheus appear in the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, particularly in his late work Darkwater (1920)According to Jared Hickman, author of Black Prometheus, Du Bois makes “Prometheus the exemplary icon of what he describes as a ‘new religion of whiteness.’ The central tenet of this religion is the blasphemous exaltation of the white race into ‘super-men and world-mastering demi-gods,’ an unholy gesture embodied here for Du Bois in the heady quest of Prometheus.”12  Du Bois makes several uses of the Prometheus myth, including direct allusions to Frankenstein.  I include two examples that suggest original ways to challenge the myth’s hold on modern life, particularly in terms of antiblack racism. 

Image 1 (from Hughey, “Prometheus as Racial Allegory,” 109)

The first is a cartoon from The Crisis, a journal edited by Du Bois, called “Black Prometheus Bound” (See Image 1).  While truth stares fiercely at an American eagle/Uncle Sam, vultures named for the states of Missouri, Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, and Arkansas, attack a black male body in the foreground while another hangs from the talons of Alabama flying in the background.  In the caption, Truth tells Uncle Sam they are “vultures, gorging themselves on human hearts which dare to aspire Up from Slavery to that fire of freedom, which the Souls of Black Folk brought down from heaven!”  This Black Prometheus, with reference to Du Bois’s foundational 1903 The Souls of Black Folk, faces racist torture for bringing the “fire of freedom” from heaven.  

Du Bois also imagines a white Prometheus, undone by his own racism: 

Why will this Soul of White Folk, — this modern Prometheus, — hang bound by his own binding, tethered by a fable of the past? I hear his mighty cry reverberating through the world, “I am white!” Well and good, O Prometheus, divine thief! Is not the world wide enough for two colors, for many little shinings of the sun? Why, then, devour your own vitals if I answer even as proudly, “I am black!” (1920 :52).

In contrast to the Black Prometheus tortured for bringing freedom, this Prometheus suffers from the hubris of his own racism.  The inversion of The Souls of Black Folk, together with the likely allusion to the subtitle of Shelley’s novel (“The Modern Prometheus”), gives this image a particularly sardonic edge.  White people here are “divine thieves” who cannot see the humanity of Black people.13  In this way and several others, Du Bois appropriated and re-coded the Prometheus myth in original, anti-racist ways.14

Unbinding Prometheus

One might expect the continued grip of the Prometheus myth to moderate the failures and excesses of human uses of technology, but as the film Oppenheimer shows, the myth depends on the failure to abandon the pride and danger it purportedly warns against.  The story seems powerless to limit the acceleration of climate change and militarization; in fact, the myth may actually enable the kinds of excesses it warns against.  As Claude Levi-Strauss showed, myths express (and arguably perpetuate) cultural contradictions.15    

The three responses to myth presented here share the assumption that even an ancient myth like the story of Prometheus can stubbornly survive in modern culture.  Barthes’s suggestion that literature can loosen the power of myth depends on the ability of literature to become a second-order myth that unmasks the structure of myth itself.  Like the critical reading of Frankenstein, this method depends on the interpretive and analytical skills of the reader.  But a critical reading of Frankenstein, like the uses of Prometheus by Du Bois, may also perform the kind of literary operation theorized by Barthes:  In reframing the myth, perhaps Shelley and Du Bois also recode and unbind its cultural grip.  

Image 2 (from Hughey, “Prometheus as Racial Allegory,” 120)

A final image illustrating the challenge and promise of such unbinding comes from a postcard of the Prometheus statue at New York’s Rockefeller Center sent by an anonymous admirer to Du Bois in 1955 (see Image 2).  Opposite the image of the statue set amid brightly colored international flags and umbrellas, the author writes the following birthday tribute:  “You are indeed an American Prometheus who has stolen the fire from those on high in order to light up the world with the celestial fire of free thought.”  Here Du Bois, critic of the Prometheus myth, comes to embody it; like J. Robert Oppenheimer, he is the “American Prometheus.”  Or is it possible, following Barthes, to read this postcard as a second-order myth, playfully exposing the cultural power of myth itself?16 

Brian Britt is a professor of religion and culture at Virginia Tech.

1 Werblowsky, R. J. Zwi, Lucifer and Prometheus: A Study of Milton's Satan. The International Library of Psychology. Analytical Psychology, 11. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1952, 47.

2 My reading of Shelley’s novel aligns with Sophia Scarfe’s “Franken-Mythbusters” in this collection.

3 Barthes, “Myth Today,” in Mythologies, trans. Annett Lavers (New York: Noonday Press, 1989), 129, 142.

4 Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” translated by Edmund Jephcott, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 1 (Cambridge: Harvard University Pres, 1996), 248-9 [236-52].

5 Barthes, “Myth Today,” 113-15.  Barthes illustrates with the following diagram:


6 Barthes, “Myth Today,” 135.

7 Barthes, “Myth Today,” 136.

8 Shelley, Frankenstein (New York: Signet, 1965), 206.

9 Shelley, Frankenstein, xii.

10 B. Johnson, “My Monster/Myself,” in A Life With Mary Shelley (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020), 23 [15-26].

11 I thank Sophia Scarfe for this observation.

12 Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Howe), 31, 35;  Hickman, Black Prometheus: Race and Radicalism in the Age of Atlantic Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 18.

13 Matthew W. Hughey, “Prometheus as Racial Allegory: The Sociological Poetics of W. E. B. Du Bois,” JAAS 25 (2021): 112 [102-123].

14 Hughey identifies six distinct uses of the Prometheus myth in Du Bois’s work (“Prometheus as Racial Allegory,” 106).

15 Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth” in The Journal of American Folklore 68 (1955): 428-444.

16 This question reflects Sam Beckenhauer’s observation in “Prometheanism, Obsolescence, and the Politics of Conspiracy Theory” that “engagement with contemporary forms of prometheanism and their meaning may offer a diagnostic of our present.”


| PROMETHEUS: A SYMPOSIUM |

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