Myth under construction

by Carmel McCallum-Barry

University College Cork

'Myth establishes people, places and identifies them and gives them some sort of conceptual place. Indeed the whole of Greek Mythology may be viewed as an enormous text in dialogue with that other text, the world in which we live.'[1]

The 19th century saw the growth (or even invention) of national identities all over Europe and liberated peoples looked for a common cultural tradition to express their new sense of community. The mechanism by which this was most frequently achieved, `Invented Tradition'[2], drew heavily on myth.

I propose to examine the Prometheus myth within this context to show how it fulfils the function of myth as definition of identity both for a national group, and on an interlinked level, for individuals. It is especially significant for the individual creative artist (in this paper that is Victor Hugo) as a way of identifying his place in the world at large.

The myth of Prometheus as it appears in our earliest sources, Hesiod and Aeschylus (with which I am chiefly concerned), defines human identity. It associates mankind with a rebellious Titan who steals fire from the gods and is punished for his theft by the ruling deity; it also establishes man in his place (i.e. on earth), where he must struggle to survive. Prometheus' gift of fire is part of the conceptual framework of the progress of mankind, enabling technology, learning and everything that `civilisation' implies.

The myth was constantly reworked throughout antiquity and after, it proved extremely flexible and adaptable due to its inherently ambiguous content, apparent in the Hesiod and Aeschylus versions.[3] In Hesiod Prometheus is especially associated with the Fall of man, which means the loss of divine society, submission to the divine by the necessity for sacrifice, and a life which entails mortality, work, pain and family.(!) In Aeschylus' play the emphasis is on different consequences of Prometheus' actions, namely his own punishment, nailed to the rocks of the Caucasus, and the fact that through him man obtains all the benefits of civilisation. (These two aspects had of course a very powerful resonance in later interpretations, one didn't have to be a church father to read a Christian meaning into Prometheus' suffering for mankind.)

So we have apparently contradictory elements contained in the one myth, to be emphasised or ignored according to the poetic agenda, for the paradoxical hero is on the one hand clearly responsible for man's loss of the Golden Age and association with god, and on the other is regarded as the benefactor of mankind, since the potential for human progress is due to his gifts. This very ambiguity is, I believe, the reason for the constant appeal of the story through the centuries.

The function of myth and of mythmaking is essentially the same at any time, and we continue today in the tradition of constructing myths for ourselves, whether we call them propaganda, advertising or historiography. With this in mind I would like to examine how the myth of Prometheus was used in 19th century France as a means of defining identity both for the nation as a whole and for individuals whose Promethean essence encapsulated the spirit of the time.

For this discussion one further aspect of the myth, that of Prometheus as a creator, either of mankind or of Pandora, must be taken into consideration Although this feature does not appear until the end of the 4th century[4] it became an integral part of the postclassical tradition and of the reception of the myth by artists and thinkers of the Romantic Movement. As the political innovators sought release from tyranny in government, so the creative artist sought release from the tyranny of literary form, both kinds of revolutionary being equally Promethean. So the myth continued to fulfil its function of self-definition for man, charting his place in the world, his aspirations and the obstacles in the way of his attaining perfection.

The theme of Prometheus with its combination of creativeness and revolt was the natural expression of the Romantic ego, but though many literary works dealt with the myth, only one contemporary figure, Napoleon, was perceived as Prometheus. In his case the equation became a commonplace, since he satisfied the first condition of an epic hero, containing in himself a whole generation.[5] The myth or legend of Napoleon was and continues to be one of the most striking symbols of French national and individual identity, and Napoleon too was regarded with ambivalence. Under the Empire he was the son of the Revolution, carrying the revolutionary principles beyond the frontiers of France to all mankind; when defeated he became the homme fatal who had brought misfortune to himself and to his people. His double edged contribution to the nation underlines the parallel with Prometheus.

Napoleon's aesthetic mistake was to make himself Emperor and thereby betray the Revolution. This made him more of an oppressor than a benefactor of mankind; symptoms of the general disappointment are evident in the Romantic poets, Beethoven even rededicated the Eroica 'To the memory of a great man'. Not until his exile and death on St. Helena, did this fallen Titan once more become Prometheus in a way much more acceptable to the Romantic imagination. Wordsworth and Heine saw him expiating his offences in exile, Byron was sympathetic, and in France his longstanding opponent Chateaubriand admitted 'Napoleon has made his peace with me on St. Helena'.
After Waterloo Frenchmen had an urgent need to reinstate the Napoleonic myth and redefine their national identity. Though they had been defeated and humiliated they could at least look back with pride at the glorious victories of their armies in the past, and Napoleon could be remembered as being responsible for the civilising of France into the modern world. But now their Prometheus was fettered to a rock on the wild outer edges of the world, while the vulture (identified with England of course) gnawed at his entrails. This persona of the suffering hero was a much more satisfactory one and Napoleon, by being exiled, again became respectable for the liberal consciousness.

So although the Promethean ethos and its symbols were pervasive in Romantic thinking throughout Europe, in France it is clear that they were mediated principally by the person of Napoleon. A survey of epic poems produced in France from 1800-1850[6] shows firstly how imperative was the search for national identity by way of myth (out of over 200 titles more than half are concerned with victorious national heroes such as Clovis, Charlemagne, Joan of Arc); it shows secondly that Napoleon more than any other suited French ideas about themselves, as he tops the list with 15 mentions, beating Joan of Arc by one point.

The fallen emperor was therefore commonly perceived as representative of France herself and simultaneously as Prometheus; this conjunction was further explored and elaborated in the poetry of Victor Hugo because the myth clearly struck some deep chord within him. He was born in 1802, and so grew up with an awareness of Napoleon's campaigns, not least because his father was a general in the revolutionary armies. He was not at first a partisan of Napoleon, and in the earliest poems we see the Promethean imagery centred on the poet himself as a creative artist Soon however his handling of the Prometheus myth became inseparable from his handling of the variant Napoleon = Prometheus, for the events of the preceding years, once written about or otherwise interpreted had themselves become another myth. By the middle of the century these three sublime egos had become one.

Hugo is primarily a poet, despite the vast tomes of prose works, and his most serious ideas find their expression in poetry. His complex view of the Prometheus myth is, as mentioned above, closely linked to his perception of himself as a creative artist. Four aspects of the myth are of particular significance in his work and except for the notion of Prometheus as a creator these are the features that are familiar from the works of Hesiod and Aeschylus:

  1. Prometheus as the benefactor of mankind, which for Romantic thought means stress on his role as a creator and initiator in the cultural sphere.
  2. His resistance to tyranny.
  3. His punishment and suffering for this resistance, nailed to a rock on the lonely edge of the world.
  4. His intellectual gifts: Prometheus has a special knowledge, which enables him to continue his defiance of the tyrant.

Hugo's perception of the poet as a Promethean figure is already evident in his earliest collection of poems, Odes et Ballades, published in 1828, with composition dates of individual poems given by the author. The earliest, entitled Genius is dedicated to his boyhood hero Chateaubriand who had been in exile under the Empire; in it key words and ideas both reflect the ancient versions of the myth, and make clear that right from the start of his literary life Hugo imagines a divine flame immanent in genius, and associates this (creative) genius with persecution. 'Unhappiness for the child of earth who carries a gleam of the divine spirit in his solitary soul....envy battens on his noble life, like the eternal vulture...and punishes this new Prometheus for having stolen fire from heaven' (Le Génie, O.B. IV, 6. 1820)[7].

In the following year he applies the same ideas to himself in The Poet in the Revolutions (O.B.I, 1. 1821). Significantly placed at the beginning of the collection it sets out his vision of the poet's role in phrases which will be echoed later in poems with more specifically Promethean subject matter. 'The poet, faithful to the oppressed, celebrates, imitates the heroes...I aspire to glory...the eagle the child of the storm, can only reach the sun through the clouds.' Clearly Hugo is convinced that the poet can benefit his fellow men, and this feeling is reinforced a few years later by the final poem in Book III, which he presents as an apologia for his work so far. 'I leafed through the pages of the history of an entire people, opened the foul chasm of revolutions,....for one who wishes to make a world first needs a chaos. Genius needs a people that its flame (can) animate and illuminate' (O.B. III, 8. 1828). The young Hugo is preoccupied, even obsessed, with his identity and his mission as a poet, and he sees both in strongly Promethean terms

At the same time however events on the world stage focused his attention on the Promethean figure of the times, by now a fallen Titan. At the outset Hugo shares the general disapproval of Napoleon, using him as an example of the results of excessive pride and thirst for war. In a poem dated 1822 called Buonaparte, the very spelling of the name at once signals his rejection of the outsider, the non-French Corsican, and by dwelling on the chaos and bloodshed for which the despot was responsible Hugo also rejects Napoleon as a hero, he is in fact a 'false god'. Though the attitude is hostile, nevertheless the Corsican's fate does suggest to him some features familiar from the Prometheus myth. 'They threw this supreme prisoner/ out on a rock, himself the debris/ of some ancient world overwhelmed.' (O.B. I, 11.)

Though Hugo did not significantly change his attitude to Napoleon for several years, the imagery connected with him still exerted a powerful pull. Like many others with ambivalent feelings he was strongly affected by an account of the emperor's last years on St. Helena written by one of his companions there.[8] In The Two Islands (Les Deux Iles, O.B. III, 6.) Hugo reflects on the twofold nature of Napoleon's career and bases his poem on this very feature. The two islands are Corsica and St. Helena; 'their giant heads, bare rocks with volcanic rumblings below, dominate the waves in two different where Bonaparte was born, the other where Napoleon died.' The antitheses proliferate; he was a dreamer as a youth, pensive at the end of his life; he reached above the skies to the regions where no storms reach, only to fall, struck by thunderbolts. (The language here recalls that of The Poet in the Revolutions mentioned above where the poet sees himself as the child of the storm who rises above the clouds) The kings who defeated Napoleon punished their tyrant, 'They exposed him, alive, on a solitary rock/And the captive giant was brought to earth'. The poem continues to emphasise the ambiguous nature of this phenomenon; 'see what a double aspect his life offers to different ages...his name demands two stories...awakens a double echo at the ends of the world.' Through this somewhat forced antithetical reading of Napoleon's life Hugo also underlines for his audience and for himself the basic contradictions of the Prometheus myth itself.

The poem ends with a startling image describing the giant's fall which is like a bomb tracing its arc in the sky before falling to destroy the city streets; long after its fall one can still see the smoking mouth of the crater where it broke up and died 'spewing up death from its entrails'. It is interesting that this description is evocative of the closing scene of the Prometheus Bound (1080-93), and that Hugo, like Aeschylus was strongly criticised for his strange use of language and grotesque imagery (one member of the Académie Française called him the `Attila of the French language').[9] I hope to show in the next part of this paper how Hugo, starting off with innate Promethean leanings, gradually in his poetic treatment took over the national Prometheus for himself; here perhaps we can see him on his way, taking over the role of Aeschylus as a preliminary move.

By this time (1825) Napoleon had regained much of his lost ground in the popular imagination as the restored monarchy, inglorious and ineffective, had done little to improve conditions that for many were worse than before the Revolution. Napoleon therefore became a focus for social discontent and was regarded by the populace as a kind of revolutionary Messiah.[10] In The Two Islands Hugo does not commit himself, but he eventually aligned himself with supporters of the dead Emperor in 1827 with what Robb calls 'a giant leap to the left'.[11] Over the next fifteen years or so Hugo fought the good fight artistically and politically, becoming a national figure as popular as Napoleon himself.

The association of the two was sealed in 1840 with a group of poems on Napoleon which includes a celebration of the return of his ashes from St. Helena.[12] The first part of the poem contains an imaginative, even visionary look at the Emperor himself, whom the poet addresses directly as 'holy like Charlemagne, great like Caesar'(p. 590). After the great battle, when the giants were crushed, Paris collapsed in the noise and the smoke, and Napoleon saw in his dreams the spectre of a far off rock. Hugo then deals with rock of exile itself, the parallels with the Prometheus myth are quite precise. 'England sets about devouring this great man in full daylight;/And the world sees again this homeric spectacle;/The chain, the rock, the Titan and the vulture!'(p.590). We can compare Hesiod Works and Days 522-525; 'He bound the wily Prometheus with inescapable fetters..sent a winged eagle at him, it ate his immortal liver which grew again each night', and also Aeschylus Prometheus Bound 1021-25; 'The winged hound of Zeus, coming to feast all day, without invitation.' The rather anomalous `homeric spectacle' can be explained by the fact that it fits metrically into Hugo's poetic line whereas `Aeschylean' would not .

Such correspondences between the fate of Napoleon and the fate of Prometheus were now fixed in Hugo's imaginative lexicon, as was that between creative artist and creative Titan. He has not yet explored the other two aspects of the myth mentioned earlier, Prometheus' resistance to tyranny and his special knowledge, for in 1840 these ingredients necessary to complete Hugo's Prometheus, were not yet available. In the 1840's he was busy in public life and politics, being made a member of the Académie Française, and acting as a People's Representative in the Revolution of 1848, which ended with the election of Louis-Napoleon as President. Hugo had many social contacts in common with Louis-Napoleon, in the previous year he had even asked for him to be recalled from exile, so he felt that he had helped to bring him to power. Like the Prometheus of Aeschylus he was disappointed in his ruler (Prometheus Bound 204-233).

The régime introduced more and more repressive measures, which Hugo and his circle consistently opposed. His son and son-in-law were jailed for publishing material denouncing Louis-Napoleon in their newspaper, while Hugo himself enjoyed his finest hour as an orator. 'Does Augustus have to be followed by Augustulus? Just because we have had Napoleon le Grand must we have Napoleon le Petit?' Many thought he had gone completely mad, but according to his biographer 'he had in fact reached the last stages of a `conversion'...shedding the final layer of royalist prejudice.'[13] The coup d'état of 1851 which made the President into the Emperor Napoleon III forced Hugo first into hiding and then into exile. He settled in Jersey in 1852 and three years later in Guernsey.

Robb calls the exile a 'rebirth in writing'[14] but in fact as far as this paper is concerned it completes Hugo's life in myth, for in the poetry which he published during the following decade it is clear that Hugo regarded himself as playing a Promethean role. He had resisted the tyrant (Napoleon III being at hand to take part of Zeus), and had been punished, fastened to a lonely rock; there is no doubt that he saw his exile in such terms. 'I am on a rock that dark waters surround/ ...solitude around me'[15] In 1853 Hugo published a series of vituperative poems against the ruler, aimed at the cowed populace, actually doing a service to his fellow Frenchmen by showing that the tyrant could be castigated. His estimation of his services was not misplaced; Les Châtiments had the distinction of being the most popular forbidden poetry book in France alongside Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal.

Our poet is now established in his own mind as a benefactor to mankind and a resister of tyranny, outlawed on a lonely rock, but his special knowledge remains still to be demonstrated. In 1853 a friend introduced him to the occult and spirit world and he started to hold séances and table turning sessions in his house on Jersey. The messages from beyond were very satisfactory and suited the direction in which his mind was already moving, in fact the basis of the poems of exile is a much more visionary view of both man and the poet.

Book VI of Les Contemplations (1856, see n. 14 below) is entitled `On the Edge of the Infinite', a title significant in the light of his spiritual interests at the time. The second poem, `Ibo', is glossed as a reference to Job xxxviii where God says to the waters `et non ibis amplius'. Hugo was constantly inspired by his biblical reading, most of all by the Books of the Prophets and Revelations, his `Ibo' is a consciously defiant challenge to (divine) authority; 'I will go...I am a bird that soars, my flight is sure....I wish to know'(pp.279-80). His advice for mankind is that 'Man, in these troubled times must act like Prometheus and like Adam, he must steal the eternal fire from heaven and rob god (voler dieu)'. The stanzas which follow emphasise that the battleground for the poet, as for the Prometheus of Hesiod and Aeschylus, is that of knowledge. 'Man needs a law to be his light and his virtue. Everywhere is ignorance and misery!..The people must wrench themselves from the harsh decree, and in time the great martyr must learn the great secret!'(pp.280-1). It is quite clear from this belligerent manifesto that Hugo considers himself to be the new Prometheus, ready to do battle in order to pass on the celestial knowledge to mankind. 'I will go through the flames and the waves, I will go to read the great Bible... if the thunder barks, I will roar'(p.282).

The issue of knowledge and the poet/Prometheus as the means of mankind's enlightenment figure largely in the last two poems I shall consider. They form part of La Légende des Siècles, a vast series of poems calling up the history of the human sprit in a kind of visionary patchwork, in which Hugo's view of himself as Prometheus is both obvious and important.[16] The final section of the work, Dieu, is bizarre in its conception; the poet appears to be cruising in the ether, surveying the Universe, where he is addressed by eight birds which represent different views of the divine. Hugo's ideas on the tyranny of organised religion of whatever type, and on the mission of the poet to bring hope and light to oppressed humanity are contained in Le Vautour (The Vulture, with a subtitle, `Paganism'). The bird tells the poet that he was the one who ate Prometheus, but was enchanted by Orpheus, and so Prometheus was freed. The fact that a poet, not Hercules the muscleman, releases Prometheus is Hugo's own myth, for him the poets, prophets, artists and visionaries are the true benefactors and freedom fighters for mankind. Prometheus then taught the Vulture about the way that the Universe is organised. Venus, Hecate and Fate dominate men, titans and gods.[17] The gods of Olympus laugh at the miseries of created things; Jupiter is a tyrant, Venus a courtesan, the others are characterised as murderers, assassins and killers of varying kinds, and man lives in a dark, hopeless world[18]

Prometheus had wanted to release man from this darkness, 'to work, to teach, to civilise and to make of this world a living, radiant sphere to set man on his way to the sky'. Prometheus was punished, his efforts annulled, but there is some hope, for the Vulture has learned from Orpheus that the flame, once taken from heaven, is present somewhere on earth for man to discover.[19] Just as Hesiod's account of human life on earth, man must work and struggle to find it and make progress in civilisation.

The last poem to be considered, Le Satyre, also contains significant issues of Hugo's philosophy of the world of men and gods which find expression in terms of the Prometheus myth. An old satyr has been causing disturbances in the forest, molesting water nymphs (he is also a thief!), so Hercules is sent to drag him before Jupiter. The scene is set in a bright Olympus which has a powerful, dark side to it, for in a corner are the bones of the defeated Titans, 'There lived Force and Violence'.[20] The satyr sings for the gods of how the world came into being, eventually he mentions man, for whom his sympathy is clear, 'He begins in wisdom and finishes in madness,....give him back his golden age!'. He turns aside from the gods to exhort and encourage wretched mortals; ' Man, made for the holy revolt, who knows if one day will see you steal light from the sublime Unknown..... will see the worm of earth (earthworm?) open his wings in heaven!'[21]

I have reproduced here these extraordinary phrases with their wild metaphors because this disturbing vision contains ideas that pervade the Prometheus myth from its earliest appearances. I mean in particular the feeling that what remains of man's former association with the gods, his only share in the divine, is intelligence and the hard won knowledge that it may bring. This notion is implicit in Hesiod (and in Genesis), obvious in Aeschylus and Plato, all of whom might agree with Victor Hugo that the work of the great leader of humanity is to elicit and nurture knowledge. Hugo's handling of the Prometheus theme shows that it is useless to impose chronology on myth, for him, myth has only one time - the present as he is living it. 'There comes a time when a man feels himself too small to speak in his own name. He then creates a figure in which he personifies himself'[22]

Hugo has been in the process of constructing a new myth, a new Prometheus, he has made the mythemes or plot units of the well known story `match' first the legend of the national hero, Napoleon, and then his own life in a national context. A phrase intended to sum up deconstructionist theories on literature[23] can be fitly adapted (deconstructed?) to describe the process we witness in his poetry:

The poet makes the myth
and the myth makes the poet.

[1] Ken Dowden, The uses of Greek Mythology (London 1992) p. 74.
[2] T. Ranger and E. Hobsbawm edd. The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge 1983) pp. 263-307.
[3] Hesiod, Theogony 507-617, Works & Days, 47-105. Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, passim.
[4] Erinna, Greek Anth. VI, Ep.352. Menander Frag.535K
[5] Edgar Quinet, Preface to Promethée (Paris 1835)
[6] H.J. Hunt, The Epic in Nineteenth-Century France (Oxford 1941) pp.408-419.
[7] Victor Hugo, Odes et Ballades (Paris 1880) p.165. In the absence of an English translation of the poems, I have translated the relevant passages as accurately as possible,
[8] Comte de Las Cases, Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène (Paris 1957)
[9] Graham Robb, Victor Hugo. (London 1997), p.225 `....guilty of inelegant metaphors, odd word combinations, repetition, ambiguity, peculiar expressions'. Compare Aristophanes, Frogs, 836-9,922-944.
[10] Robb, p.125-6.
[11] Robb p. 125.
[12] Victor Hugo, La Légende des Siècles. (Paris 1967) XLVIII The Return of the Emperor.
[13] Robb, p. 290ff.
[14] Robb, p. 318.
[15] Victor Hugo, Contemplations. (Paris 1995) V, 3.p.236.
[16] Victor Hugo, La Légende des Siècles (Paris 1950)
[17] La Légende des Siècles, p1039.
[18] La Légende des Siècles, pp.1042-44.
[19] La Légende des Siècles, pp.1046-7.
[20] La Légende des Siècles, p.114. Cf Aeschylus Prometheus Bound ll 1-87.
[21] La Légende des Siècles, pp.426-7.
[22] Victor Hugo, Actes et Paroles (Paris 1875) I, 1516-7.
[23] ``The reader makes the text and the text makes the reader''. A. Bennett, N. Royle, Literature, Criticism and Theory.(London 1995) p.16.
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