Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Prometheus Unleashed

"Man, who wert once a despot and a slave;
A dupe and a deceiver; a decay;
A traveller from the cradle to the grave
Through the dim night of this immortal day:"

I once used to thrill to these lines; indeed, I was once awe-struck by Shelley's 'Prometheus Unbound', from which these lines have been quoted.

Notice the use of the past tense: man is no longer a dupe and a deceiver: he has achieved moral perfection by means of Prometheus.

The moral is that man, suitably emancipated from the tyranny of religion and custom, will one day arrive at perfection. This was a dangerous doctrine whose danger became manifest only in the twentieth century.

Even today, while the pursuit of The New Man has largely been abandoned outside Cuba and North Korea, the Perfect Institution is still reverentially sought. Man (and woman) this time will achieve perfection in the Perfectly Democratic Society. Indeed, such Societies already exist; it is not mere Utopianism.

It has been only sixty-five years since the most terrible war in history was fought (one in which religion as Shelley knew it played no role), and only twenty since the end of the quest for the New Man with all its attendant horrors on all sides.

Can anybody really believe that western civilisation has achieved Shelley's vision of a sanitized human nature? No more repugnant a spectacle than the west has ever presented itself to the human gaze.

"...Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends." Thus we see Shelley celebrate his ideal in the introduction. This gives me the shivers: here we have a portrait of a semi-divine character filled with limitless energy working towards man's salvation.

Doesn't that accurately describe those westerners who would 'make the world a better place'?

"We owe the great writers of the golden age of our literature to that fervid awakening of the public mind which shook to dust the oldest and most oppressive form of the Christian religion. We owe Milton to the progress and development of the same spirit: the sacred Milton was, let it ever be remembered, a republican and a bold inquirer into morals and religion. The great writers of our own age are, we have reason to suppose, the companions and forerunners of some unimagined change in our social condition or the opinions which cement it. The cloud of mind is discharging its collected lightning, and the equilibrium between institutions and opinions is now restoring or is about to be restored.*"

Good God! If only he could have foreseen the horrors that were to come from these 'institutions and opinions'. Recently, more than a million people have been wiped off the face of this earth by a benign force determined to improve a Middle Eastern society. And we have neocons like Amartya Sen, recently seen in Bangladesh hobnobbing with an indicted murderess, proclaiming that we are all ready and willing and waiting to embrace democracy: through suffering and mistakes (like those million deaths) we shall aspire towards a higher order, the Perfect Man.

*Indeed, Milton was probably the first neocon, the first proponent of the universality of democracy. He said: "Surrounded by congregated multitudes, I now imagine that . . . I behold the nations of the earth recovering that liberty which they so long had lost; and that the people of this island are . . . disseminating the blessings of civilization and freedom among cities, kingdoms and nations."

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