While re-reading Frankenstein the uncomfortable thought kept recurring that our tendency to save lives leads to undiscovered fears. I’m not suggesting that we should just let people die, but even from my own experience of doctors, the sense of personal agency has become somewhat eroded. You go to the doctor and s/he tells you, “You should have this done.” I’m still too busy trying to figure out what this box that’s attached to my TV should be called, so how am I qualified to assess a professional opinion about my health? We mend bodies with plastic and metals and chemicals. Some modifications, like fillings and glasses, seem no brainers. But what about plastic tubes and computers to regulate body functions? They’re all good, but have we thought this through, I can hear Mary Shelley asking.
Religion, which is now also eroding, was a traditional way of coping with the fact of our own mortality. Everyone dies. From the beginning of the world, with the possible exception of Elijah—and even he had to come back—everyone has died. Religion traditionally said that it wasn’t the last word. The body wears out, and in a materialist world there’s nothing that can be left. Technology can prolong life, but some may not want it to be prolonged beyond a certain point. I’m not being morbid; I just don’t like arguing with what can’t be changed. Religion, it’s easy to forget, is about finding peace. Some people misunderstand that, for sure, but that doesn’t change the facts.
Did Prometheus overstep his bounds? Mary Shelley seemed to think so. In her recollections the story was intended to scare, not to predict. Victor Frankenstein creates the monster simply because he can. He does it alone, without thinking through the consequences even with a convenient Igor. Religion has often been cast as that annoying, moralizing sibling to science. (Philosophy could well join the ranks too, as some prefer it to religious thinking.) Without that sibling, however, how can we make informed decisions? Science, by its very definition, can’t tell us what should be done. The only values it knows are quantifiers. We live in a piecemeal world where some parts have been removed while others have been added. We don’t know if this is right or wrong since religion is one of the pieces excised without being replaced. Prometheus, ironically, translates to “forethought.” The problem with Frankenstein is precisely that Prometheus is missing.
Part prequel and part religious odyssey, Prometheus both treads familiar ground and explores new territory. In keeping with my invariable sense of timing (I saw none of the Alien trilogy in theaters), I waited until well after the fact to see the movie. I had heard Prometheus called a prequel, but even if I hadn’t some of the Ridley Scottish touches might’ve given it away: a large ship bound for a distant planet, evidence of unexpected inhabitants—yes, they knew about the “engineers” (we could call them “watchers”) but not the proto-Aliens they were breeding. We even have the android that understands science’s need to be greater than that of human need. Déjà vu. Still, there’s something very different here—direct discussion of religion and how faith plays into the work of scientists. Elizabeth Shaw, the sole survivor, wears a cross as she tries to work out what her father’s teaching about religion might mean. The cross isn’t hidden in the background—it is brought out into the open and discussed.
If you haven’t seen the movie, the premise is that ancient artifacts (including the ubiquitous Sumerian, Egyptian, and Mayan templates) added to a new discovery in Scotland, demonstrate that a race of giants have been inviting us to their planet for thousands of years. In fact, they had engineered us. (Ironically, the biologist who espouses Darwin is among the first to die.) Peter Wayland, industrialist billionaire who doesn’t want to die, funds a trip to meet these engineers. The engineers, save one, died long ago. Apparently of some plague (cue the aliens!) that were created to destroy humans. They were about ready to send the nasty beasties to earth when they were overcome, with only a single survivor. No coincidence that this planet was reached on Christmas day. It becomes clear to Dr. Shaw that these engineers were intent on destroying the human race they created. And still, she slips her cross back on before facing the engineers of life and death. This was Noah without all the water (and much better writers).
Of course we think we know the rest of the story. Sigourney Weaver bravely led us through three alien attacks before sacrificing herself in a New Testament kind of ending. But what about Elizabeth Shaw? She who bore and aborted the mother of aliens in a very maculate conception? She is off to a prequel’s prequel to find out why these engineers wanted to destroy us. Rumor tells of Prometheus 2, and I wonder if we will get to meet our maker’s makers. Although Scott is an atheist, he brings us Moses later this year, and has already given us Mary and Jesus wrapped up into one with Ripley and her spiritual mother, a sci-fi St Anne, in Elizabeth Shaw. After all Elizabeth was cousin to Mary, and now that the question of faith has been openly discussed, it will have to be more fully addressed. Among the unanswered questions is whether I be able to make it to the theater on time to see this one, or will two years vanish before I find the time to address the eternal questions that Ridley Scott always seems to pose.
“[A] sight to be endured with one’s mind closed to thoughts of the sterile and hideous world we are letting our technicians make,” is how Rachel Carson described the indiscriminate use of herbicides fifty years ago. Silent Spring, although clearly dated, remains a chilling book for a number of reasons. One of the most obvious is that although the book is half-a-century old, the breakdown of some of our toxins released into the environment before it was written is still not complete. And perhaps more frightening still is the fact that we continue to stumble forward without giving enough thought to where our actions against our planet might lead. The quote above presses urgently at the heart of the matter: those with the destructive interests are almost always those who set the agenda. As Carson noted fifty years ago, the right of the nature lover to enjoy an unspoiled part of nature is just as valid as the right of the greedy to rape the landscape for “resources.” But we all know who eventually gets their way.
On a finite planet with finite resources, one of those that cannot be replaced is the beauty that nature has spent billions of years evolving us to appreciate. Desire for beauty reaches down to our most primal and basic levels. In the United States how many people drive hundreds or thousands of miles just to see Yellowstone every year? And yet, last time I was there I spied an empty can carelessly tossed into one of the stunning blue hot pools that require a delicate balance of nature to maintain. Those who appreciate the glory must always be those who pay the price. The fancy name for this is aesthetics, and some writers have suggested that the violation of beauty is a deeply disturbing problem on a philosophical or theological level. The basics are easily comprehended: we mar the planet at the cost of not only our own, but of every future generation.
Silent Spring warned those empowered to make laws that a dangerous road had already been selected. The radioactive fallout from bombs detonated to indicate national superiority continues to render some locations uninhabitable, and all of us carry traces of toxins that others have spread in our bodies. Humans, as Prometheus represents, have the ability of forethought. It is not always easy; in fact, it is often very hard. Somewhere back in a cave somewhere, long, long ago, even before our species emerged, future humans realized how. We teach. We teach our young of the dangers we’ve discovered, and instruct them to avoid them. As society evolved, money—the ultimate poison—crept into the environment and education became devalued. Even now, higher education—established for the joy of learning—has become economically driven job training. And people we’ve never met, and companies we’ve never heard of, pay off those who make laws, and another piece of our pristine environment disappears. Silent Spring remains in print, but how can we convince the disinterested to read it?
Stewing in the heat of the wave washing over much of the east, my thoughts sometimes turn to the cool, refreshing flood of Genesis. I’ve been Tweeting the Bible for some months now, and I am in the midst of the stories of the flood. Noting the many contradictions and discrepancies, it is a wonder to me how many of the religious are able to overlook or harmonize infelicities for the sake of a consistent faith. Most famously the story states that Noah took one pair of the clean animals, but also seven pairs of clean animals. The rain came down forty days. Or was it 150? One of the reasons that people continue to believe this story may be its specificity. No approximations or guesses, the numbers are precise, as if written down by an eyewitness at the scene. In actual fact, the story is among the oldest of recorded civilization and has its origins at least as far back as ancient Sumer. For as long as people told stories about the gods, they told stories about world-wide floods.
As a species that is able to think ahead, we have long been concerned with the fate that might befall us. Consider the amount of hype about the end of the world that has accompanied the random calendrical dates we’ve assigned to the cosmos: the world has been expected to end nearly every year since 2000, and that is only the most recent incarnation of this foreboding. If there are gods out there, they must have it in for us. The very fact of our being human seems to anger the deities. Even after God promises the world will never again be destroyed, he adds a caveat—not by flood, anyway. By the time we reach the letters near the end of the Christian Scriptures the future torment has turned to fire. There’s always something out there looming on the horizon.
“Prometheus teacher in every art brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends,” so reads the quote from Aeschylus behind Paul Manship’s statue of Prometheus. Prometheus was the Greek god (Titan, actually) favorably disposed toward humanity. His name means “forethought.” When humanity cowered and shivered in the dark, Prometheus brought the light and warmth of fire. It is easy to suppose the Greeks to have been more enlightened than earlier or contemporary civilizations, but Prometheus had offended Zeus and was subject to eternal torment for his thoughtful gift. Perhaps it is just the divine way—gods are jealous of us although they hold all the power. As I continue to tweet the good news of an angry god, I am starting to understand the power deities will always have over their vulnerable creatures.
Over the past few months I’ve discovered Jasper Fforde. While my leisure reading tends toward heavier material, Fforde has an amazing sense of wit that makes his writing nearly irresistible. I recently read The Big Over Easy, a gritty detective novel about the case of Humpty Dumpty. Throughout the story nursery rhymes are presented in literal and improbable ways, juxtaposed with the daily life of a down-on-his-luck cop. The reason that I mention the book on this blog, however, has to do with the character of Prometheus (some mythological characters also make their way into the story). Having taught Classical Mythology over the past two years, I’ve had occasion to read quite a bit about Prometheus. He is one of the more intriguing mythological characters posited by the Greeks. The creator of humans, Prometheus has a soft spot for our development that angers the other gods, jealous as they are of their privileged places.
In The Big Over Easy, Prometheus is explaining to the protagonist and his family why he thought it was worth having his liver pecked out daily in order to give humanity fire. He then tells them that he also gave people the fear of death. When asked why, he declares that the fear of death makes mortals appreciate life. There are the negative side effects such as war, hate, and intolerance, but Prometheus maintains, “I’ve seen the alternative. Eternal slavery under the gods.” Greek creation myths leave no doubt on this point; people were created to serve the gods. If we challenge that decree that we simply inherited, we are guilty of hubris, stepping over that line that separates them from us. Gods appreciate no such challenges.
It is ironic that nations based on the ideal of freedom so readily bind themselves to the strictures of the divine. The latest aggressions in which our nation has involved itself purported to be in the cause of “liberty,” “freedom,” and “democracy.” These sentiments were uttered by politicians who believe such principles ought to be bound by archaic instructions handed down through a mythological lawgiver. Our freedom ought to be circumscribed by mythology. The irony is so thick here that it is difficult to believe anyone can take such rhetoric seriously. Perhaps Prometheus brought us fire in vain. Not to worry, however. Jasper Fforde is an author of fiction only, and the arbitrary storms of Zeus no longer strike us when the gods are angry. Unless, of course, you have forgotten Hurricane Irene. Old myths never die, and, like bad eggs, once encountered they are not easily forgotten.