by Hans Ragas
No more than a year after World War II, Camus wonders in his essay “Prometheus in the Underworld” what Prometheus can still mean to man. These centuries have seen man struggle more and more with himself. Lost, without bearing, he looks around and finds himself bereft of moral landmarks to sail by. By itself, this condition is as old as mankind itself, but the change is its settings. In these modern times, man has created an industrial world for himself, but instead of mastering it, in his fear and trepidation he loses himself deeper and deeper in the technological labyrinth of his own device.
[PitU p138] “to the man deprived of food and warmth, liberty is merely a luxury that can wait,” Camus writes, but that at the same time urges us to keep the values of liberty and art alive. “If [man] is hungry for bread and heather, and if it is true that bread is the more necessary, let us learn how to keep the memory of heather alive.” [PitU, p142]
Compare this to the moment Sisyphus – Camus’ absurd hero, and a very Promethean character himself in his scorn for the Gods and bringing gifts to mankind *) – watches the rock tumble down the slope again. That moment Sisyphus is lucid, that moment “he is superior to his fate.” [TMoS, p121] Thus man, carrying the myth in his mind, toiling away at his repetitive task, day after day, can achieve lucidity.
What does Prometheus mean to man today? What we truly ask is what man means to man today. For Prometheus is man; man’s story coming from man’s mind. Let artists, writers and philosophers keep the Promethean myth alive, let man keep man’s mind alive for the moment that the basic necessities of his body have been satisfied, so that he can rise above the walls of the labyrinth, no longer slavishly following the tyrant of Technology he himself created, now looking out over and beyond the walls, towards the sun rising once more in his mind.
*) The Myth of Sisyphus, p119, “[Sisyphus] is accused of a certain levity in regard to the gods. He stole their secrets. Gina, the daughter of Æsopus, was carried off by Jupiter. The father was shocked by that disappearance and complained to Sisyphus. He, who knew of the abduction, offered to tell about it on condition that Æsopus would give water to the citadel of Corinth. To the celestial thunderbolts he preferred the benediction of water. He was punished for this in the underworld.“