By Daniel Weidner


The Montréal Review, May 2024

Conflagration (2017, Oil pastel on paper) by Susan Weaver

On October second 1945, Bertold Brecht jots down an idea into his notebook:

Consider a PROMETHEUS. The gods are ignorant and malicious, cunning in extorting sacrifices, living off the fat of the land. Prometheus invents fire and criminally hands it over to the gods. They capture and bind him so that he cannot hand over his fire to humans. He does not learn of this fire for a long time, then he sees red conflagrations on the horizon: the gods have used it to plunder the humans. The gods appear only as a chorus.1

Only a month after the end of the war, stunned by the horrific extent of the mass crimes perpetrated by totalitarian regimes and still dumfounded by the invention of the nuclear bomb, Brecht draws on the mythical figure of Prometheus to describe a situation of total doom. The invention of fire, which should have fostered human culture and its progress, is hindered or perverted by the rulers from its outset, history becomes myth again or rather: it turns out to have never transgressed myth in the first place. As in Theodor W. Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectics of Enlightenment, written in the same year, Enlightenment turns back into myth.

However, this turn might still be too schematic. We might ask if it is really the same Prometheus that returns here, or if the Promethean figure presented here is not itself a modern invention. In other words, is there really a continuity of mythic figures that never actually left the human scene, or does modernity rather face the return of the repressed which has changed its shape and meaning in that return? Is the mythical past an origin or a construction? After the catastrophe or the break of civilization, we might infer that modernity can neither be thought completely apart from its mythical past, nor can it simply be identified with it.

To articulate this dilemma, I suggest that we turn to Hans Blumenberg’s theory of myth, which seeks neither to strictly distinguish between myth and modernity nor to simply identify  them.2 His magisterial Work on Myth also displaces the question of construction versus origin, insisting that by its very nature, myth tends to proliferate into different versions, rewritings, new takes. Albeit myth deals with origins and suggests an original version, this suggestion is never fulfilled but rather drives that very proliferation. According to Blumenberg, however, this process is not merely the result of the imaginative creativity of myth, but arises from certain needs and pressures. Blumenberg conceptualizes this process as “work” with strong Freudian undertones: a process that is similar to the work of mourning or the working through that analysis performs: a piecemeal, arduous, enduring, at times devious and potentially endless process. Myth is thus conceived as something that both works upon and is worked upon: The work of myth allows humans to cope with limits and situations they cannot fully control, and the work of myth constantly adapts the means by which the former work was achieved. 3Thus, the answer that a myth once gave, perhaps by simply inventing a name for the unknown, is continued in the process of its reception, which relates new and further stories about this name or rewrites and adapts the myth in question. As with Freud, this work has an economic, a topical, and a dynamic moment: It involves the free play of the imagination while also requiring a certain amount of psychic and affective energy; it has a specific place since it happens rather through images and narratives than through concepts, and it is antagonistic in that mythical images, once established, cannot simply be discarded but have to replaced by a “counter-occupation”, namely a different myth.

Interestingly, Work on Myth is to a great extent a work on Prometheus.4 For Blumenberg the Prometheus myth is paradigmatic for several reasons. For one thing, it concerns the practice of sacrifice – a practice that is modeled as “the invention of Symbolism” and thus essential for the work mentioned – the Prometheus myth deals directly with the relation between gods and men. In offering the gods only skin and bones, that is those pieces that look deceptively delectable but are in fact unpalatable, Prometheus unevenly divvies up his sacrifice, a fact which suggests/demonstrates how the myth already works on this relation. The further detail that Zeus is aware of this deception but still accepts it points to the difficult question of the gods’ foreknowledge as well as to their fairness, a fact that is further worked out in Prometheus’ gruesome punishment at the Caucasus, a punishment that is eternal according to some while others claim it is transitory – a perfect example of how aporetic questions are answered with the proliferation of different versions.

But there is also a more contemporary and maybe a more contingent reason why Prometheus is so important for Blumenberg. Work on Myth is to a great extent a text about one particular instance of the myth’s reception in history, a moment when it became the myth of modernity both in the sense of a myth that still exists under modern conditions and a myth that renders modernity as an image. It is, in relation to the ‘original’ Greek story, a belated moment, but this is the very nature of the work on myth: that it produces mythical meaning also retrospectively. We find exactly such a moment in a poem that the young Johann Wolfgang Goethe wrote in the 1770s, the hymn Prometheus which begins as follows:

Cover Your heavens, Zeus,
With cloud vapor
And try Your strike, as a boy 
Beheading thistles,
Against oaken tree and mountain height;
You still must leave me
My Earth standing 
And my hut which You did not build,
And my hearth, home's glowing
Fire which You begrudge me.5

Goethe fashions Prometheus as an obstinate rebel, rising up against a weak and impotent authority that an autonomous humankind has no use for. The poem itself is an act of self-assertion in the form of an accusation: the ‘earth’ as the human realm stands on its own, without any reference to the heavens. And the pagan setting only thinly veils a different question that preoccupied the late 18th century: Zeus stands for the Christian God whom the generation of the early romantics such as Goethe tended to turn their back on. As a matter of fact, the reception of the poem underlines precisely this interpretation: Written without the intention of being published, Goethe’s poem originally circulated confidentially among friends. Rumor has it that Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi passed the poem on to an older Gotthold Ephraim Lessing who upon reading it confessed to being a long-time pantheist – and this is just one example of how rumors, allegations, and suggestions continue the work of myth of the poem. More generally, the poem generates a broad discourse about the relation of modernity towards its pagan and its Christian past, a relation that has obviously become so complex that it can no longer be summed up in a single concept – as reason, or autonomy – but has to be represented by an image, or a name: Prometheus.

This name as well as the poem is a myth of modernity to the extent that it is ambivalent, more ambivalent than the initial gesture of rebellion suggests. It is telling that the poem is a byproduct of a drama conceived but not finished by Goethe during this time, a drama in which Prometheus is actually the son of Zeus. A rebellion against the father however, is always ambivalent, as the last stanza of the poem makes clear:

Here I sit, fashioning men
In my own image,
A race after my likeness,
A race that will suffer and weep,
And rejoice and delight with heads held high
And heed Your will no more
Than I!6

At first glance, this stanza even strengthens the gesture of rebellion. Drawing on the Ovidian tradition of Prometheus as the creator of man, Goethe gives the Prometheus myth a poetological turn: The poem describes the artist who creates man according to his likeness. This second creation, however, does not merely turn away and ignore the gods, it also imitates them. The declaration of autonomy thus becomes an act of what Blumenberg calls “self-assertion” – not just a declaration of independence, but a declaration that is asserted against something else – we need only remember the dynamic and antagonistic nature of the work of myth – namely an instance that actually or just phantasmatically calls this independence into question. 

In the poem, this ambivalence is underlined by a double, if not triple irony. In relation to the mythical pretext, it is remarkable that Goethe singles out a very special and particular moment of the myth, the very act of rebellion – but we, the readers, are familiar with the myth and know the outcome of this rebellion, namely the fact that Prometheus will be punished, that he might continue to assert himself against Zeus, but he will nevertheless have to suffer. Our admiration, optimism and self-consciousness might thus quickly turn into misery and pity. Secondly, the last stanza underlines the fundamental performative paradox of the poem that Prometheus’ declaration of autonomy takes on an emphatic and emotional tone. That “I don’t care about you” is stated vigorously even though no answer is heard – or maybe even because of the fact that no answer is heard. The entire poem seems to perform a drama about paternal ambivalence, and the Freudian wisdom that the dead father is more powerful than the living one constantly lingers in the background. Thirdly, and more speculatively, this ambivalence can also be traced to the poetological realm: If this is a poem about artistic creation, and if the artist asserts his independence and originality – who actually is the ‘father’ he reproaches for being impotent? Might Goethe’s poem about a pagan rebel be an address to John Milton whose Satan is the first archrebel? Or, in a further turn, might the reference to Milton be an assertion against another artistic ‘father’, namely against Shakespeare to whom Goethe ascribes the power to create figures that are as real as life? In any case, the claim of artistic independence can be, according to Harold Bloom, an expression of the anxiety of influence – another ambivalence that produces new meaning and new myth.

It is this working that rendered Prometheus a powerful myth in the 19th century, a time in which it most often appeared as a symbol of progress: The novelist Friedrich Spielhagen, for instance, wanted Goethe’s poem “written on the forehead of every locomotive thundering over sky-high bridges and through tunnels, black as the Erebus”, and the Danish critic Georg Brandes considered it the greatest “revolutionary poem” ever written: “It is eternal. Each line is formed once and for all, standing as with flame lettering in the night sky of humanity.” Here the poem itself becomes mythical, albeit in a certainly uncanny way since we already see the flames at the sky. Others like Mary Shelley would be much more aware of the ambivalences and the potential violence inscribed in the act of male autonomous creative force. And still others continue to discuss the strange blending of paganism and Christianity, of polytheism and monotheism taken up in the poem and epitomized by another apocryphal saying from the young Goethe, namely “Nemo contra deum nisi deus ipse” (No one against god but god himself).7 This statement obviously expresses the paradoxes of self-assertion – but how should we read it? Is it actually a Christological proclamation, as Carl Schmitt suggests, that pits the son against the father? Or is a rather a gnostic idea that a different god would save man from his evil creator? Once again, this quote seems to condense the conceptual dilemma that a monotheistic God could have a counter position at all while a polytheistic God has always more than one position around himself. Myth, here and maybe in every case, at least in the realm of Christian or Postchristian cultures would always be both, it would work by a combining, blending, hybridizing pagan and Christian moments. And it is in fact this difference, among others, that keeps the myth alive in the sense that it allows for continuous and conflicting reinterpretations.

Working on myth is thus always also working on modernity: the attempt to ‘understand’ modernity by picturing it as an image or giving it a name. This is no easy task, as the work of myth and the work on myth performed earlier. It is strenuous, indirect, antagonistic, and risky in itself, since myth is never merely neutral material, but a conduit transporting forces that could lead to unforeseen consequences. The image could stare back at us and the name might act in startling, unpredictable ways. If we recall Brecht’s note about “considering a Prometheus” from the very beginning, it is important to bear in mind that what he considers is a play that was never really worked out. It is not a mere comparison or a simple idea but a performance that Brecht has in mind: Prometheus will actually appear on stage, and it is important that he appears ‘in person’, for everything revolves around him, he is still in the center, even if the roles of gods and men are inverted, and even if the entire setting is defamiliarized by the Chorus. Moreover, the fire that was represented by the engine in Spielhagen and already turned into a warning sign that in Brandes would actually appear on the ‘horizon’ here, a term that denotes both what we can see in the distance and on the ‘stage horizon’, the backdrop that limits the actual stage. The idea of setting the stage on ablaze powerfully reveals the potentials and difficulties of the myth of modernity: of the work on myth to represent an epoch that is all too difficult to grasp any other way than indirectly.

Daniel Weidner teaches German and Comparative Literature at the Free University of Berlin and has been a visiting professor in Giessen, Basel, Stanford, and Chicago.

1 Bertolt Brecht: Arbeitsjournal Bd. 2, 1942-1955, ed. by Werner Hecht, Suhrkamp 1973, p. 758.

2 See Hans Blumenberg: Work on Myth, translated by Robert M. Wallace, Random House 1983.

3 See Blumenberg: Work on myth, esp. Chapter II.4

4 Part II, IV and V are devoted to Prometheus, part IV to Goethe’s Prometheus in particular.

5 Goethe: Prometheus, in Nathan Haskell Dole, ed. (1839). The Works of J. W. von Goethe. Vol. 9, pp. 210–212, here p. 210.

6 Goethe: Prometheus, 212.

7 This is also the title of Bumenberg: Work on Myth, part IV.



By Brian Britt


By Lord Byron


By Janell Watson


By Lee Vinsel


By Zhange Ni


Samuel Beckenhauer



The Montréal Review © All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911