Prometheus and the Primitive


What is Nature?

She presents herself as Nature writ large, in the myriad starry worlds. On our Earth she brings forth crystals, animals, plants, people. She shows herself in the changing seasons, she is thunderstorms, heat, cold. We experience her in the simplicity of slow silent fecundity, in gentle never-ending growth, in the transience of life with its youth and age and in great catastrophes, in earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions.

She does not dwell in any single presence, finds no sufficiency in any one of her creations. She surges through Time, ever developing and thereby swiftly or slowly subverting herself. Time is her element par excellence, she is inconceivable without Time and without the change inherent in it, the constant unfurling and discarding, dissolving and reconstructing.

Does this have a purpose? It is very human to ask such a question. Clearly it is replete with meaning, rather: meanings.

She possesses multifariousness, innumerable facets, and at the same time boundless monotony. What appears to us as death and fills us with gloomy fears is for her a matter of course. She brings forth colour, music, beauty. At every stage she is excitable, strews charms about, from which answers and actions ensue.

This makes her accessible to numbers, so accessible that she seems always to be calculating, soaked to the very core in numbers. But on the other hand this seems no different than when you make a poem and structure it according to the meter as an Alexandrine, a tercet, a sonnet, or when you group flowers according to their stamens.

She seems mercilessly hard, consistency and logic are among her defining features. She pursues the sins of the fathers unto the third and fourth generations, only then to vary on a whim, to play and make anything possible. She does not deny causality, but this betrays little about her.

Does she not stand there like a solid inapproachable statue of stone? But nothing about her, to the attentive mind, lies beyond the inkling of a feeling. And exhilaration and ecstasy break out among animals and men.

It is one of the most curious acts of Nature, from which she never shrinks: the creation of entities that separate from her and place themselves in opposition to her. In particular Man, who whether he will or no must acknowledge himself an entity of Nature, falls into a tormented ambiguity. He experiences himself with a body, an organism that links him to the animals, undergoes the changes common to all natural bodies, is afflicted with birth, growth and metabolism and faces the prospect of certain death–but at the same time Man regards this entity, which heaps so many pains and joys upon him, with a mistrustful and alienated eye. He cannot and will not identify himself entirely with this entity of Nature. He experiences himself as a solitary being. He believes himself, at least in part, to be free from Nature, he confronts her, and considers this the true human species.

And so a foundational fact is experienced, with which all philosophy occupies itself and for which it has developed various formulations. The intimation of bereavement–separation, dissolution, elimination–dwells deep within every living thing. This feeling is always mingled to some degree with an existential sense of well-being. The closer the individual to the general forces of Nature–in the realm of crystals or plants–the weaker this feeling is likely to be. But we slide from a passive and questioning acquiescence in our isolation into an active relationship with it. The notorious confrontation of Man against Nature arises, the poor questioner has in the end concealed his face behind a ruler’s pride. But in the depths, unaltered, that primal feeling still lurks. Of course when unease now arises, it serves only as an irritant.

Now we gain an insight into the meaning and nature of technology. No doubt: a man and his group want to defend themselves. But technology is more than utility. And then, what is utility? Useful for whom, at whose service? It is at the service of a profound necessity, of the isolation into which we have stepped and its overcoming. Objectively, in our feeding and our breathing, our so-called metabolism, we return always to the “Earth” into which we shall sink in the end; corresponding to this is an inner attitude: that we live weighed down by a primal isolation and individuation, and are driven to overcome it (spiritual metabolism, spiritual respiration).

Technology is not just a battle against Nature, it also bridges the way out of individuation.

We may say: Nature, which has fragmented itself into these individuals, creative Nature, seeks to merge itself again with the fragmented world. And this is the innermost meaning of technology: not to subdue Nature, but to draw near to her again. It is not outrageous to assert: whatever Man can designate as creative Nature (primal being) has given to each of her progeny a whiff of a notion of this origin and at the same time an urge to turn back. The will to this kind of return is no foreign body in Man, but an urge out of his isolation, which is fragmentation, into wholeness.

Inward technology and outward technology

And now for the first time we utter the word “primitive.” There are two paths. From earliest times, two technologies and stances have set themselves up in opposition, arising from the ground we have just described: one is the stance and technology that drove the discovery of firemaking, tools, and weapons, and the other is what we call “religion.”

The historical continuum to which the technology and stance of firemaking, tools, and weapons led, we shall call the Promethean, or the continuum of outward technology. The historical continuum which, using other methods, concerns itself with primal existence and the primal condition, we call the Primitive, or the continuum of inward technology. “Primitive” denotes the mystical continuum pure and simple because of its orientation towards the primal condition that preceded individuation. The practices and measures we call religion seek to connect the individual with primal existence and the primal condition–the firemaker’s technology has nothing to do with it.

The firemaker is Prometheus. It is he who aggressively and wilfully rends and treads down and circumvents the questioning and suffering primal sense of the individual. He acts. He spreads himself powerfully out through Nature, senses the mysterious underworld but lets it be. For him it must end in hubris and tragedy. Thereafter those on whom the spirit of Prometheus falls no longer grant to the mystical stance the character of a serious autonomous praxis and technology, they no longer recognise any primal being or primal condition, they deal only in discrete objects as isolated as themselves, with which they establish external correspondences and which they value according to their utility.

But “primitive” mystical persons do not circumvent and suppress this primal sense. The primal sense is the fire, the flame that lights them. Consciousness of the primal situation remains alive in them. They do not relinquish a connection with the variously named and even personified powers of Nature and primal being. It remains the centre of their thoughts, the actual object of their dealings. They develop practices to strengthen this connection and, at least temporarily and under specific circumstances, to re-establish it. They acknowledge their dependence on this side formally and at all times, and expect guidance from it.

So we find in human history two movements which start from the crisis of individuation and develop practices to overcome it: the older, still familiar one, which later weakened to “religion”; and the newer one that strides along the road of discovery, constructs mighty edifices, and drives human isolation on towards a total confrontation with Nature.

The first to utter the word “primitive” with an undertone of sympathetic rejection and defiance was Prometheus. “Primitive” was what he called the being who knew not the making of fire. Primitive is the abandoned origin. When the twirling and rubbing of two sticks or the fire-saw first produces a flame at the hands of a human pursuing his innate urge to build and seek, then a flame is lit in his brain as well, surprise and pride are there, and it is a beginning and has a voracious character. There are ages in which the explorer merely exploits and safeguards his spoils, but curiosity urges him on. Nature, in which up to this point he was part of a continuum, he sees now for the first time as she shrinks back before him. When a human with a growing consciousness and an enquiring technical urge hastens after her, he is really chasing a fugitive spirit. But for a long time yet he does not sense this, for in his pride of discovery, in his curiosity and fever of exploration, the main elements of the Promethean have entered his blood. Humans in general will follow this path, they will become significant, and distance themselves ever farther from the exit that then becomes “Nature”–apparently distance themselves, for Nature is incalculable, and plays games. Driven by the Promethean spirit, the early nomads, gatherers and hunters, farmers and herders will come ever more strongly to rely upon themselves alone, to live from products they themselves have fashioned, to reshape the Earth to their requirements. They will exterminate unfriendly beasts, screen themselves from the elements, cling together ever more closely in social groups, and at last succeed in introducing biological changes in themselves and their groups which may one day break through the boundaries of our species. Then the Promethean urge will be consummated, and yet this achievement will not, as some fear, cause the Earth to perish. For Prometheus is not alone, after a while he will be summoned yet again to the system, to the great system.

We live in the age of Promethean hegemony. We have retreated, hemmed ourselves in, to a technical utilitarian way of living, feeling, and thinking. Our thoughts and concepts are now merely hammer and tongs or entire machines. But it remains a fact that the Promethean urge does not make world history all by itself, but against and with–with what? With the whole other multidimensional Nature. If History were nothing more than the onward march of a Promethean spirit it would be a straight line, transparent and easily described. But it is not. Our encapsulation in the Promethean urge, in the tyrannical dominion it exercises especially over the white race, has led to us calling the little torch that flickers there “Light,” while the vast expansive brightness for which every laudatory word is too feeble we call “Darkness.”

Western civilisation is replete with the savage, we may say often barbaric, progress of the Promethean urge–it is the path of civilisation–and with other movements countering, harmonising, interlacing with it.

Prometheus in the Bible

Out of earliest occidental history emerged the powerful work that is even today read everywhere, that exerts effects by which we recognise that it contains things that still speak to us. This is the Bible.

Its very first page announces the Promethean claim in a programmatic way. From nothing less than his God will Mankind accept dominion over Nature. The whole inventory of his inheritance is listed, the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, cattle, the Earth and every creeping thing upon it. But what is demanded of the warden of such a grandly bestowed dominion is not, you notice, very agreeable to Man, and at first he makes no attempt to take it on. Man is relocated–why only after this prelude?–to a pleasant spot: he lives in a wonderful garden where he is on first-name terms with God, he lives amicably and not at all domineeringly together with all the animals. (Here, moreover, is where Mankind becomes Man and Woman, where they live together in innocence and are not ashamed in each other’s eyes.) Dramatically, tragically, this blessed primal condition, the very model of a primitive existence closed in on itself, suffers dissolution. A “sin” is laid between the later and the earlier condition. Through a “sin,” Mankind is driven all of a sudden into the quite undesirable condition of a Prometheus.

(The story is obviously the product of a male mind: in the beginning Man is created, he is Mankind, the Woman merely a piece of him; unlike every other creature she certainly does not come directly from the Creator’s hand. And it is fitting that already we hear the familiar ascetic note: the Woman is stigmatised as seductress, on whom is pinned the blame for every evil. Let us concede: they are strange, these Prometheus figures from the beginning of the Bible. And the sense of bitterness so predominates that we do not even notice what is being said: that everything, in all its immensity, is represented as the outcome of folly instigated by female wiles!)

Later this scene appears again, sketched more boldly. There is mention of giants, of the children of God who came unto the daughters of men, and here, really, a “new, world-dominating species” is named: they are called tyrants, mighty of the earth, men of renown. Now we see what’s what.

And then, the third time–you can’t escape it–we learn fully what these mighty men actually achieve, a tower in Babel, and see who it is before our eyes. They were, we are told, one people, with one language, the Lord himself was curious and came down to see this tower being built by men, his creations, and again God is allowed to decide on annihilation, because he rightly sees: they will never desist from anything they set their hands to. Then they must stop building the city, become scattered across many lands and speak many languages. Quite clearly, though devoid of amorous adventures, this is the third Original Sin. Until today they have never stopped building. For after the threefold report the actual history of a single people begins, and you see constant detailed accounts of the same thing we have just looked at in summary, and it all looks like evidence for it. Prometheus, who feels uneasy in his skin. (We shall see that this ancient people, the Hebrews, had another powerful “mythical” back story and pursued Prometheanism only weakly, but they understood humanity and placed the report of Creation and Original Sin as a warning at the start of their history.)

And so at the very moment of leaving the primitive primal home, we have the whole calamity of our permanent condition and the West: forced to work, and condemned to die. Now there is no more talk of Man’s descent from God. The cold, shattering word is: Thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return. This is a turnaround. From its first appearance in the Bible, Promethean pride speaks of itself in a depressed and troubled tone, and mourns a primitive primal condition represented as “Paradise.” Here is the old, old feeling of separation that we spoke of. Despite his pride, he knows how things stand with him and what Paradise is, but in the end shrugs his shoulders and lets Cherubim with fiery swords set up camp at its gate.

There is no lack of clarity here as to the goal of human desire. Man wants the Last Thing: not to die, and wants to know Good and Evil. But Man lets his God speak scornfully and dismissively: “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life…”

And so White Western Man draws himself up in a sorrowful yearning posture. Will he strive to regain the primitive state full of mysteries? No. It is enough for him to dream of it, as of Paradise. He remains fully occupied in fighting, oppressing, and gathering riches. All he does in respect of the murky sense of suffering and sin that he still feels is to make a compromise with his God, who promises him much if he will obey the commandments, pray, and sacrifice in the prescribed manner.

As it began with the backwards look (meaning: into the depths beneath him), so it goes on; Man relapses into primitivity, the Primitive appears as Baal, Astarte, golden calf, local deity, something else, and moral deviations appear as well. These early Western people, as the document regretfully confirms, succumb to the temptations of animal and vegetable deities, give themselves to cults where grieving about individuation is almost unknown. People plunge into deeper historical strata, immerse themselves through these deities once more in a certain primitive condition, at least temporarily.

Those peoples who practised cults in and beyond the domestic hearth were interestingly, in a strictly craftsmanlike sense, the superiors of the ancient Hebrews, but nonetheless not so conscious of the Promethean, that is to say the technical will. The ancient Hebrews are the first Western people, in that they consciously developed and formulated the Promethean will. They project this will onto the primal power itself: “God” is unique, an agglomeration of powers, a monarch, and his priests and prophets viciously persecute whole generations who deviate into idol-worship.

But despite this they neither practised the Promethean will nor made it their spiritual centre. The ancient Hebrews held fast to, and were held fast by, the primeval, magical ritual of prayer and offerings, and so had the second technology and stance and the door leading to the primal condition. They tended knowledge and preserved practices by which helpless isolated beings concern themselves with the great primal One. Thus this young Western people has a double face. And this is somewhat typical: even where Prometheanism thrusts ahead with full force, it drags remnants of its mirror-image along with it.

Hellas-Rome and the shift to inward technology

A look at the Greeks, another people of the White race, a very this-worldly tribe. The Prometheus myth arose among this luminous people. No gloomy sublime reports, celebrated in bitter earnest, of a primal creator and original sin. There is a world of gods, but this heaven mirrors an autonomous human aristocracy. How accessible to joyfulness, even irony, it all is. The Hellenes, builders of strong city-states, ruling over huge numbers of slaves, are not inclined to ponder overmuch on the terrible and tragic human condition–although they know it well, although pessimism and laments are threaded throughout their culture. There is talk of a dark past, of battles with giants, the horrific Atrides, the dismal Fates who sit over the gods are there, the figure of the Sphinx–but these are distant and remain dark, and there is no yearning for it, or for a primitive dreamland. Here Prometheus is completely victorious, and when Zeus, the chief god, seizes him and chains him to a rock, he has to use force and violence to fetter the primal monsters.

After the Bible, with its glorious foregrounded figure of Man the Master and the yearning that breaks through for the primitivity of Paradise and the earth-deities–after the proud Hellenes, poised in a tragic stance, making only a timid dismissive gesture towards the other world, and reflecting their own magnificence in a heaven full of gods–after these come the Romans, of whom some, including Horace and Tacitus and the Bucolics, sigh for simple and primal conditions. But we will not speak of such literary yearnings, rather of the vehement, catastrophic eruption that led to the birth of Christianity.

How mightily did the Promethean spirit reveal itself in Roman state-building, in the army, in law, general civilisation, organisation, and endless political expansion. And precisely now the serious fallback, the counter-movement, Christianity, induced by the radicality with which the Roman principle was pursued. Christianity appears as if pressed from one of the many subjugated and soon landless peoples. At first it drifted like a little cloud from nowhere across a couple of Roman towns. People fled from the almost seamless consolidation of the state into the individual, the private, and yearned for a “primitive” condition. This was the truest, most genuine mystical movement. Roman soldiers and citizens saw themselves confronted by an utterly abhorrent phenomenon, by a will to escape from their civilisation into a primal condition. The individual, robbed of his former means of existence, was in these provinces all alone, thrown back on himself, driven into himself. In helplessness he “came to himself,” and he produced the slogan–a fantastic assertion in the Roman Imperium: the individual is the child of God. Here is the birth of the individual out of a bankrupt politics. This “Christianity” was obviously not “of this world.” It was unpolitical, anti-political. In the eyes of the victorious humanity of this age, the Roman, on whom all custom, peace and order rested, it was mere chaos and anarchy.

Christianity was premised on the unbearability of the general human situation, fixed and trapped in its Promethean rut. In an over-large society with all its civilised trimmings, whole masses of people found no place and no satisfaction. In this crisis they sought a region where the rough Roman soldier could not follow: their inwardness. Nietzsche’s story of a simple slave uprising is not false, but foregrounded, without depth. Since a horizontal attachment to society was not achieved, and in the long run was not possible, masses of people sank vertically into “religions.” This is the refreshing and completion of Mankind by the re-emerging “religious side.”

In its “paradisiacally” simple, peacefully happy ground state, early Christianity reveals its primitivity. The adherents are poor. Their thoughts constantly reveal the impact of the primitive; it’s all about the beginning and the end of the world, the millennial kingdom. It is only natural that, in opposition to Rome, religions in Asia Minor and North Africa, autonomously developed and from the same continuum, should attach themselves to it. You are in a state of purest primitivity, awaiting Paradise. But quite soon, because Paradise does not come, other tones blend in. The individual again senses suffering, ever more as time goes on, but is now also sinful, guilty. It begins with ascetic practices, and slides into a particular kind of religious technology. The ascetic impulse presses on until–it doesn’t take long–one’s own flesh and the whole of Nature is viewed as sinful and anti-human.

And here we are, sailing in the finest Promethean current! Man against Nature! (This development was already prefigured and prepared: the awaited Paradise would not be found in the Garden of Eden, but in the Hereafter.) Through its hostility to Nature, the whole of later Christianity landed up in a remarkable, ever-changing, playful proximity, a dangerous proximity, to its old enemy Prometheanism, whose Roman form it had sought to destroy. Each side has a canny understanding of the other. Compromises follow, on the basis of “hostility to Nature.” Now, moreover, you can rule, take part in politics. This is the Christian settlement seen from the Promethean side. Thus did Christians gain access to working in the mortal world.

Of course, developments on the other side lie much nearer to Christianity, on the side that appeared with the assimilation of cults from Asia Minor. Here you work with, not against, Nature. You accommodate to “heathenism.” Christianity, as it becomes Catholicism, seeks accommodation also in a direction that corresponds to its essence. It draws closer to its origins. It gathers a mass of primitivities about it.

Onset of a new Prometheanism

Hellas-Rome succumbed to the aggressive primitivism of young Christianity, the West lay to this side for a thousand years, but the battle was not over, the position reached was not stable.

Christianity, come to offer the individual a mysterious access to Primal Being, had as Catholicism given in too readily to its dual inclination and was crumbling: its inclination to hostility towards Nature and to politics and the governance of this world, and its inclination towards local myths, ancient magic. The reins hung loose. People grew stale. They no longer represented the urge towards the Primal World from which they came.

In the first half of the second millennium after Christ’s birth, a Promethean wave of enormous breadth and impact set itself in motion. This is the age of the discoverers of the Earth and the heavens; but “discover” also means “conquer” and “subjugate.”

The West that we see and live in today emerged at this time. Early on (to provide a test of how close we are to that time), Leonardo da Vinci employed exact quantitative methods, he studied music and physics, occupied himself with problems of flight and ballistics. He is heir to the great discoverer of fire, his true son. He builds machines with the aid of algebra and geometry, and at the end of the 15th century demands the experiment. He is the source of the saying: “The earth is a machine and so is Man.” Descartes, the originator of French thought, agrees with Leonardo. He says: “The body of a living man differs from that of a dead man to the same extent that a watch or other automaton (i.e. a machine that moves of itself) does when it is wound up and possesses the physical principle for the motion for which it was constructed.” The English chime boldly in, and Hobbes imagines the state and society as “a single great machine whose nature can only be understood when the state is dismembered conceptually into its elements, which spring from human nature.” Hobbes too uses the example of the watch or complex machine.

After the Renaissance and Luther, the age of secularization. The religious continuum driven to the wall. Remnants stand like islands in the flood.

The continual force of a great, ubiquitous spiritual-material current. From time to time it appears to recede, then regains its vigour and there come whirlpools and underminings. The French Revolution, after the Enlightenment’s preparatory work, draws a line in October 1793 between it and earlier ages, it breaks with the Christian calendar, time is reckoned from the autumnal equinox, human reason is installed on the now vacant throne of God, and festivals are instituted for secular “virtues,” work, revolution.

Now the scenery is dominated by interweavings, of which there are many examples. The movement that now rules absorbs for its technical practical progress images and motives from the other continuum, it “secularises” them. And this means: the accommodation reached by the Church and especially by Catholicism is lured into a secular, Promethean framework outside the Church. “Human rights” now step forward as political ideals, quite differently from their original conception. Mysticism is not left on the shelf, rather efforts are made to incorporate it practically. This modern inclination plans a kind of church outside the Church.

Here is the reason for the irresistible social movements of recent centuries, which appear to revolve around self-evident and necessary changes in relations between rulers and ruled, as if on the one side we have property and satiation, and on the other side hunger and envy. The fury of the actual struggle, however, is fuelled from elsewhere.

An optimistic mood reigns over the path of progress. No trace can be detected of the great sorrow that accompanied the first Promethean steps. No one looks into the dark abyss in which the human ego lies, stretching out its arms, lamenting. The slogan of the age seems to be “Hope and Blindness.”

Where do we stand now?

We saw how various were the heads on the bodies that formed the Promethean impulse among the Hebrews, Greeks and Romans. But when this impulse re-awoke at the end of the Middle Ages, what had it become? What did it get up to now?

This time it extends its victory march to north and west, reaches from the Mediterranean into the interior of Europe. And now it assumes a strange, de-sensed character, even though it busies itself only with visible, palpable, and ponderable Nature. And see: it sets out to master the multiplicity and manifold nature of these phenomena, and allows their tactility, visibility, audibility to disappear. You cannot argue without further ado that this comes with the times, it’s a Prometheanism arising from a Christian camp in a Christianising age. All by itself, lacking contact with any ascetic power, this tremendous urge for mastery assumes features that appear ascetic (the counterpart to the Christian inclination to appear Promethean and engage in politics); all by itself, from its own being, the urge for mastery over Nature develops its own asceticism, a denial of the world. It dissolves all qualities into quantities. Abstract numbers rule. It leads to mere forces, relations, dynamisms. How clear it is that what is at work here is not the whole man, but a monomaniacal brain and the urge to mastery. He makes the world “manageable.” He wants to hold it in his fist. So a fantastical image arises. As in a Buddhist meditation, colour, tone, and form disappear trait by trait, you sink into ever profounder deafness, blindness. The person who manifests here is a pure action-being, and the Promethean impulse–enormous paradox–brings forth amid the riches of a world grown wide a skeletal, even shadowy, nihilistically frozen person. (What a contrast between this modern Prometheanism and the joyous world-acceptance of the Greeks.)

And now to the deformities of humans and societies that this being has wrought.

The construction of a sense of mastery belongs to the essence of modern Promethean power, directed not only over elements, plants, and animals, but especially over people, and all under the same sign. This power works against Nature in that it ignores and destroys the inborn urge of people to form a society. Ever and again in these times, new groups and individuals spring up to enjoy the lust for power over people. This subjugation and slavery, and not the subjugation of Nature, is the main point. The breeding, specialisation, and objectification of humans is pursued proudly and deliberately. It is not “man” or “the human race,” humankind as a whole that is led in this way towards the noble magnificent Promethean flame, only small closed groups of aristocrats and despots; larger groups are forced towards the fire to serve it; whole populations are sacrificed in war and serfdom and thrown into the fire to fuel it with their lives.

Societies led in this manner may be great and admirable in their organisation, in the clarity of their statehood. They may provide welfare for their people, because they want to shape them to the ruling will. But there is welfare and welfare, human relations and human relations. And you can guess the kind of human relations that underlie these societies and with what means they are produced: outward relations in the service of the will to mastery, and the regulation of such relations through decrees and laws, control by armies and police.

The absolute state and mysticism

So it comes to the dismantling of natural Humanity, and its replacement. The main form of human connectedness then becomes “collectivism,” i.e. the agglomeration of masses, by chance or intention, into organisations. What is desired is human anonymity and anaesthesia; what is pursued is repression, trivialisation, and contempt for the person, for the I, for the inward, for thinking. (You do not notice that you are trying to magic away a primal phenomenon–the one we spoke of at the start, our primal individuation which no act of state can touch.)

So you begin to make human relationships harder, on the premise that the only thing that matters is “the public.” In the great ages of mysticism the only thing that matters is in fact the mystical “public”–God, the primal condition–because from this there follows a self-evidently experienced, deeply satisfying, and uplifting regulation of individual life. This imitates the Promethean power; the ape of religion believes he can make similar prescriptions. But policemen masked in religiosity are still around. The natural exchange of views is hampered, silence is demanded, with cynical disregard for what one “thinks.” (The mystical age valued “thinking” differently, recognising it as the fundamental power.)

State authority grown “absolute” ushers in an age of stunted humanity. Other, likewise Promethean, images of the state in periods of civilization merely wanted to regulate and govern natural relationships; the “absolute” state must abhor and suppress these relationships just as its absolute science drives out colour and sounds in favour of quantities. But what happens to mankind now? The image of power, because it cannot permit the honest and free association of people, but rather must encourage suspicion, places society in a condition of true suffering, in a kind of war-footing of all against all, and this is the opposite of the “paradisiacal” life of the mystical continuum.

The preferred approach is to treat the masses like an army, a battle-ready instrumental mass. People are enormously dependent and at the same time impoverished, more so than in the time of the Caesars because the public is now so much more extensive. Such societies are under powerful inward stresses, they incline either to collapse or to war.

Now something emerges that is of particular interest to us, because it touches on the mystical continuum: some space is left for other human concerns. The colossus of such a collective organisation feels that he has feet of clay and needs support. He does not give up his principle, but makes use of another as well. The colossus strives to achieve cohesion among his coerced fragments through inward stimuli and anaesthesia. So as surrogates of spiritual connectedness we have mass rallies, uniforms, fireworks, games. They both dazzle and intimidate the disintegration-prone fragments. Feelings of power are excited in the fragments, and this is the start of a particular form of human crippling: attention is diverted away from a person’s nature and his lamentable condition to make him what for other reasons he is already inclined to become–a being of violence in the image of this apparatus, just as the degenerative mystical continuum lets him become an animal or plant. Hordes of petty tyrants run about, miserable people in the toga of a Caesar, a repulsive masked ball. Now they only catch glimpses of their selves, no longer have access to their inward resources, to their actual scope. It externalises and coarsens. Here we see the barbarism resulting from a degenerate Promethean impulse.

Statehood does not stand still at this point. It tries to seize actual ideas. To external coercion and dazzlement it adds inward coercion. It breaks in on the mystical continuum.

Two things stand against the absolute state. Firstly, in the Promethean space there always exists a generalised, free-floating mysticism seeking a point of attachment, and secondly, in the West one finds a particular kind of pseudo-mysticism, a glorification of secularism. You speak (we use a German example, but what we describe goes beyond Germany) of a special Indo-Germanic piety, you declare yourselves a holy nation, you oppress alien or recalcitrant elements. What a fantasy you offer, to help the neo-Promethean image hiding in this stadium full of ecstasy and uproar to attain glory and majesty. What a mass of cajoling speculations, exploiting of literature, plundering of fables, myths. Magnificent proud Promethean power parading in a tawdry burlesque. The smell of the times sweats from the pores of these fantasies and speculations, they mirror the dreariness, confusion, and urge to expansion of this age, they lead to no primal ground, no yearning and no feeling leads them there, they look to no future, they stand firmly anchored in their time.

Did Nietzsche partake of the fantasies that parade around now, the fanaticism of “blood,” nation, and race? He offered many sacrifices to the Prometheus of these days, especially in his doctrine of the Will to Power and the Superman. But he always kept in view the picture of a great, creative, and magical Nature. He who thought of higher human beings had no shadow of a notion to serve today’s technical-industrial, outwardly pompous, inwardly ruinous coercive state, with its degenerate, excessively Promethean impulse lacking any regulating balance.

This mass of brain-flowers with its mythic posturing. Everything brought forth in icy coldness, revealing the cold, ascetic will to power. How can mysticism arise out of this artificially attenuated, dessicated humanity? The ground for this, in such an age, can exist only where the technical and expansionist urge has not been able to rage excessively, where it can still arouse protest: among its sacrificial victims, the suffering, the oppressed, the denigrated and displaced, who for a long time seek via Socialism an entryway to the old rubble-filled shaft.

Let us look more closely at the kind of “mysticism” that serves the coercive state in our time, that it sets before its subjects in order to provide itself with a security it can never attain; this mysticism is an expansive scientism, stemming from Darwin. You are presented with a zoological nationalism. Degenerate mysticism and degenerate Prometheanism touch and encounter each other here, to their astonishment; neither knows anything of the primal ground and the tragic primal human urge to go “back!”–but both throw themselves at this singular view of Nature, at blood and beast, the mystic for ecstasy, the heirs of Prometheus only because they need legitimation. The claim to divine right, the elite claim of a modern “people” and the same claim of ancient mystical peoples resemble one another, but only outwardly. Today’s states base the claim solely on an overweening growth of the Will to Power; boundlessness is the essence of the Promethean impulse. This pseudo-mysticism bears no relation to primitivity, and especially not to authenticity, you don’t even believe in it yourself, it’s all cleverly concocted and written-down fantasies promulgated by paid hacks and interested parties. These bloodless learned scribblings rave, their bombastic rhetoric especially loves the word “blood.” An agitator says for example: “The Christianity and humanism now vanishing into the ether ignore the stream of blood-red real life that courses through the veins of every genuine people and every culture.” The barriers to thought appear clearly in the following sentence by the same author: “The conflict between blood and environment, blood and blood, is the final epiphany accessible to us.” They have made a very great stride into self-awareness recently, those who proclaim that the classical German materialists, Voigt, Moleschott, Büchner, latterly even Ernst Häckel, belong to their camp.

There is no way at all to create a mystical foundation out of the images, healthy or sick, created by Prometheanism, but the inclination to do so reveals a weakening and degeneration of its power.

And it is so. And now we close these fragmentary remarks. Two things remain for the future: to reset this power whose grasp is now awry, whose pivot is the domination of Nature by Man; and to accommodate to the mystical realm. But a sudden reversal could also occur in the other continuum.


Alfred Döblin

Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) was a prolific writer whose œuvre spans more than half a century and a wide variety of literary movements and styles. One of the most important figures of German literary modernism, he is much less known to the reading public than his contemporaries Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, or Franz Kafka. English readers know him, if at all, for only one work: his big city novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). His complete works include a dozen epic novels ranging from 18th century China (The Three Leaps of Wang Lun, 1915) to the distant future (Berge Meere und Giganten (Mountains Seas and Giants), 1924) to the European conquest of South America (Amazonas, 1938). He also wrote several dramas, radio plays, and screenplays; a travelogue; philosophical treatises; and many essays on politics, religion, art, and society. Döblin was in exile from the Nazis between 1933 and 1945--first in France, from which he had to flee in 1940, and then in the USA.

His writing is characterized by an innovative use of montage and perspectival play, as well as what he dubbed in 1913 a "fantasy of fact" ("Tatsachenphantasie"), an interdisciplinary poetics that draws on modern discourses ranging from the psychiatric to the anthropological to the theological, in order to "register and articulate sensory experience and to open up [his] prose to new areas of knowledge." In a 1967 essay, Günter Grass declared: "Without the Futurist elements of Döblin's work from Wang Lun to Berlin Alexanderplatz, my prose is inconceivable." Döblin was also an influence on writers such as W.G. Sebald and Bertolt Brecht; as Brecht wrote in 1943, "I learned more about the essence of the epic from Döblin than from anyone else. His epic writing and even his theory about the epic strongly influenced my own dramatic art."

Chris Godwin

Chris Godwin's translation of Döblin's first epic novel, The Three Leaps of Wang Lun, was published in 1991 by the Chinese University Press, Hong Kong; a new edition is forthcoming from New York Review Books in January 2015. He has just completed and is seeking a publisher for the first translation into English of Döblin's South American epic Amazonas Trilogy, written during the author's Parisian exile in the mid-1930s. He is now retired, having worked as a civil servant in Hong Kong and as the Beijing representative of the UK Research Councils.

Prometheus and the Primitive. Copyright (c) Estate of Alfred Döblin, 1938. English translation copyright (c) Chris Godwin, 2014.