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Passions of Prometheus
Promethean artby Arthur Paul Patterson

I DON’T THINK that it is inconsequential that my heroes are men…. It is not because women are not as passionate, creative, or in any way undeserving that they don’t make my short list of heroes. Rather, it is because I share with most men an inclination toward "Prometheanism". I don’t know why it is not as prevalent in most women. Perhaps it is the hard wiring of centuries of birthing and caring for life (if I am allowed that stereotypical explanation). I do not think it is because women are morally superior to men, only that they are not as inclined toward Prometheus. I should condition that by saying “at least not yet”; the more women take on male-oriented perspectives, the more they tend to contract patriarchal viruses.

Men, and animus-directed (masculine-acting) women, have a tendency to follow the “thief of fire” Prometheus. By that I mean that we, like the Titan of old, are impatient with any limitations. We feel that the universe is withholding from us something we deserve, and that the only way to get fire is to steal it. Once we are intoxicated by the quest, we will stop at nothing, even the prospect of our own destruction, to get what we want. Above all, we see our pursuit of forbidden fire as wholly virtuous and inoculated from criticism. The Promethean fever causes us to be dangerously out of touch with reality through the misuse of imagination and creativity. Mary Shelley was prophetically astute in portraying a male scientist as her modern Prometheus. Male scientists have nearly destroyed our world through their theoretical imagination rooted in the penetration of the mystery of nature, all the while posturing as benefactors of humanity.

Walton's Arctic Quest

Robert Walton, the proto-Prometheus in Mary Shelley’s novel, loved the sea. From the time he sat in his Uncle Tom’s library reading tales of discovery, through the exhilaration of his first boat trip with a few friends on a native river, to his successful first stint on a Greenway whaling vessel, Walton dreamt of becoming a famous explorer. He would benefit humankind through bringing the mysteries of the Arctic to the light of scientific reason. It was his hope that, in the land of the midnight sun, he would discover the source of magnetism and the Northwest Passage. He was convinced that these treasures would be his reward for persistence and willing suffering.

As his ambition grew, his goal became an Arctic grail quest; his scientific voyage became a spiritual pilgrimage by which he sought to transform the mundane into the miraculous. Robert Walton, the sea-captain transmuted into Sir Walton, the discoverer’s version of a Knight Templar fighting for human dominance against the elements.

Margaret Saville, Robert’s cultured and married sister, was a surrogate parent and moral guide to him along with Uncle Thomas. Her name means Pearl or Jewel (Margaret) - and town (Saville). This, along with the fact that her initials are M.S. like Mary Shelley’s, strikes me as Mary’s endorsement of her perspective, which her 1818 preface she [actually Percy Shelley] defines as an exhibition of amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue. Margaret Saville represents civility, community and kindness coupled with deep love and concern. This is not to say that Margaret is indulgent; the letters begin with a struggle between her and Robert over the wisdom of the voyage. Margaret takes her dead father's place in attempting to dissuade Robert from becoming an explorer. Combining domestic kindness with the authority of the father, she draws out much nervous and defensive chatter from Walton. He is anything but community oriented or respectful of his father's wishes. Walton, as his name suggests, is a "walled-town", or resistant to differences.

Robert’s Promethean qualities are revealed letter by letter. At first his main intention is to assure his sister that he is in control, he is concerned with the safety of his ship and the crew, and that he is thoroughly prepared and deserving of a successful voyage. To assure his sister of the relative safety of the voyage he presents the farthest Arctic as a sailor’s Shangri-La [paradise], a temperate zone near the polar ice cap.

I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight. There, Margaret, the sun is for ever visible its broad disc just skirting the horizon, and diffusing a perpetual splendour. There- for with your leave, my sister, I will put some trust in preceding navigators- there snow and frost are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe.

He prefers masculine fantasy to the practical, cautious voice of his sister.

There are cracks in his self confidence, as he readily admits. He believes himself to have no friend and that there are no candidates for a relationship with him among his surly crew. He notes that there is one man, his first mate, with character, kindness, and sacrificial values but that he is, nevertheless, an untutored boor of little refinement. The first mate is too different from Walton to establish relationship. Walton says,

What a noble fellow! you will exclaim. He is so; but then he is wholly uneducated; he is a silent as a Turk, and a kind of ignorant carelessness attends him, which, while it renders his conduct more astonishing, detracts from the interest and sympathy which otherwise he would command.

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