by Jarrod Tallman
In his essay “Prometheus in The Underworld,” Camus asks the question, What does Prometheus mean to man today? Written in 1946, at the end of World War II, on the declining cusp of the Modern era, Camus glosses over the more obvious connection that positions the “God-defying rebel” as a model culminating with the then contemporary man. Instead, Camus suggests that Prometheus’s “long stubbornness has more meaning for us than his revolt against the gods” (Lyrical, 142). What is this stubbornness?
World War II revealed the gruesome magnitude of human suffering endured around the world. How could art continue to be made in the name of beauty amidst such suffering? “Prometheus was the hero who loved men enough to give them fire and liberty, technology and art” (Lyrical, 138-9), but liberty became a luxury with so much suffering, and the practical value of Prometheus’s gift of fire took precedence. “Today mankind needs and cares only for technology. We rebel through our machines, holding art and what art implies as an obstacle and a symbol of slavery” (Lyrical, 139). This statement appears to be the way in which Camus views the general response to the historical imperative. Although, it should be clear that Camus doesn’t disagree with the primacy of the need to help those who are suffering, it might be noted that the plural “we” is perhaps more of a term that implicitly links Camus to “mankind” rather than an indicator of his own feelings regarding the value of Prometheus’s gifts of technology and art. This is made more clear in the following two sentences, when Camus begins to share his sympathies with Prometheus: “But what characterizes Prometheus is that he cannot separate machines from art. He believes that both souls and bodies can be freed at the same time” (Lyrical, 139). It is in the remainder of this paragraph and the next that we get a sense of the deep sadness Camus feels about the loss of beauty and the then necessary societal move away from an art that feeds the soul. Camus also begins to reveal an unsettling feeling about the uncompromising fervor in which this abandonment of beauty occurs. “Indeed, if Prometheus were to reappear, modern man would treat him as the gods did long ago; they would nail him to a rock in the name of the very humanism he was the first to symbolize” (Lyrical, 132). Camus knows what must be done, he has been doing it, profoundly committed to the revolution during the war and forever concerned with easing the suffering of fellow humans; but in a collective period of darkness he feels a painful nostalgia for the light of beauty: “Does this nostalgia still mean something to some men” (Lyrical, 139)?
The metaphor for an art that feeds the soul then shifts from Prometheus’s liberty to one of olive branches, grapes and heather. “And we too, for all our youthful blood, sunk as we are in this terrible old age of this last century, sometimes miss the grass that has always grown, the olive leaf that we’ll no longer go to look at just to see it, and the grapes of liberty” (Lyrical, 140). But Camus is not just reminiscing about the good ole days. Nor is he criticizing the priority of putting one’s energy into feeding the bodies of those who are hungry. But he is genuinely concerned with what he foresees as an ever-increasing distance between humanity and a necessary soul-feeding art. “History is a sterile earth where heather does not grow. Yet men today have chosen history, and they neither could nor should turn away from it. But instead of mastering it, they agree a little more each day to be its slave” (Lyrical, 140). It seems that for Camus, this act of bending to the historical imperative marks a regression of humanity, a transgression against Prometheus. The wretched humans that the titan loved so much have turned their backs on him, they have chosen instead to work in cahoots with Zeus’s servants: Force and Violence.
But again, Camus does not reject the need for Prometheus’s fire, for technology, for feeding the bodies of the suffering. “Attica, liberty, and grape-gathering, the bread of the soul, must come later. What can we do about this but cry to ourselves: ‘They will never exist any more, or they will exist for others’ and do what must be done so that others at least do not go begging. We who feel this so painfully, and yet who try to accept it without bitterness, are we lagging behind, or are we forging ahead, and will we have the strength to make the heather grow again” (Lyrical, 140-1)? Camus is certainly saddened by the disappearing importance of beauty, deeply concerned about whether it will be temporary or permanent. And it is to Prometheus that Camus turns for the answer: “‘I promise you, O mortals, both improvement and repair, if you are skillful, virtuous and strong enough to achieve them with your own hands.’ If, then, it is true that salvation lies in our own hands, I will answer Yes to the question of the century…” (Lyrical, 141). And it is in this answer that Camus seems to find the strength, the stubbornness to continue, like his hero, bearing the torment in the name of love and humanity. Camus writes: “And Hermes mocks the hero: “I am amazed that, being a God, you did not foresee the torment you are suffering.” “I did see it,” replies the rebel.”
The aesthetic and political pulls on Camus are far more nuanced than this short essay can reveal, but what we get here is a deep and personal insight into an attempt to reconcile a conflict between them. There is little doubt that––in 1946, at least––his reverence for an art that feeds the soul and his loving commitment to humankind were as deep and borderless as the oceans he so often longed for.