Tag Archives: oppression

“Prometheus Unbound” by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Part 2 – Opening Soliloquy

Painting by Christian Griepenkerl

Painting by Christian Griepenkerl

The play begins with a soliloquy in which Prometheus, bound to the rock, speaks out against God as the oppressor of humanity.

Monarch of Gods and Dæmons, and all Spirits
But One, who throng those bright and rolling worlds
Which Thou and I alone of living things
Behold with sleepless eyes! regard this Earth
Made multitudinous with thy slaves, whom thou
Requitest for knee-worship, prayer, and praise,
And toil, and hecatombs of broken hearts,
With fear and self-contempt and barren hope.
Whilst me, who am thy foe, eyeless in hate,
Hast thou made reign and triumph, to thy scorn,
O’er mine own misery and thy vain revenge.
Three thousand years of sleep-unsheltered hours,
And moments aye divided by keen pangs
Till they seemed years, torture and solitude,
Scorn and despair, — these are mine empire: —
More glorious far than that which thou surveyest
From thine unenvied throne, O Mighty God!
Almighty, had I deigned to share the shame
Of thine ill tyranny, and hung not here
Nailed to this wall of eagle-baffling mountain,
Black, wintry, dead, unmeasured; without herb,
Insect, or beast, or shape or sound of life.
Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, for ever!

(Act I: Lines 1 – 24)

Prometheus is immediately established as the archetype of rebellion, defiant and opposing the force of tyranny which is represented by God. What I find most interesting about this passage is how Prometheus compares and contrasts with Christ. Both figures are bound: Christ to the cross and Prometheus to the rock. The difference is in how each figure reacts. Christ, while questioning God’s motivation, is accepting of his fate. This is not the case with Prometheus. Prometheus, like Satan, refuses to accept God’s will. He is filled with self-righteous indignation and believes that he is justified in his actions.

The next part of this soliloquy which is worth pointing out is Prometheus’ description of his imprisonment and torture.

The crawling glaciers pierce me with the spears
Of their moon-freezing crystals, the bright chains
Eat with their burning cold into my bones.
Heaven’s wingèd hound, polluting from thy lips
His beak in poison not his own, tears up [1.35]
My heart; and shapeless sights come wandering by,
The ghastly people of the realm of dream,
Mocking me: and the Earthquake-fiends are charged
To wrench the rivets from my quivering wounds
When the rocks split and close again behind: [1.40]
While from their loud abysses howling throng
The genii of the storm, urging the rage
Of whirlwind, and afflict me with keen hail.

(Act I: Lines 31 – 43)

Here we have images of captivity connected with ice. I see the ice as representing a several things. First, it symbolizes the cold, harsh judgment of God. Secondly, it symbolizes memory, clear, yet hard and painful. The coldness of the ice burns, implying that memory as well as God’s judgment both cause internal pain and turmoil. Finally, the imagery connects the text to Dante. In The Inferno, the 9th circle of Hell is the area in which sinners are imprisoned within an icy lake. It is worth noting that Judas is trapped in the 9th ring.

Toward the end of his soliloquy, Prometheus, ever defiant, emphasizes that his wisdom stems from his rejection of God and the suffering which he endured as a result.

How will thy soul, cloven to its depth with terror,
Gape like a hell within! I speak in grief,
Not exultation, for I hate no more,
As then ere misery made me wise.

(Act I: Lines 55 – 58)

This for me embodies the romantic ideal. Emotion is what makes us human and divine. And pain and suffering are powerful emotions which are often fuel for creative and artistic expression. Hence, Prometheus serves as a symbol for humanity’s creative and artistic spirit, which is often contradictory to the tyrannical forces of social mores which seek to instill conformity and compliance.

Thanks for stopping by, and I will post more on this great dramatic work soon.

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“Prometheus Unbound” by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Part 1 – Overview

PrometheusUnbound

By the time I was halfway through reading this again (I had read it a couple times in college), I realized that there was no way I could just write a single post about this work. It is just too complex. So, I am going to write a short series of posts on it. This is the first and I will update it with links to the subsequent posts after I get them written.

In his preface to the play, Shelley states that he drew inspiration from the lost drama of the same name by Aeschylus. Shelley uses the Prometheus myth to represent Satan as opposition to tyranny (symbolized by God/Jupiter) and as the champion of humankind.

The only imaginary being, resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest. The character of Satan engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs, and to excuse the former because the latter exceed all measure. In the minds of those who consider that magnificent fiction with a religious feeling it engenders something worse. But Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.

Throughout the play, Shelley asserts that love is the ultimate human emotion which will ultimately lead to the defeat of fear, tyranny, and oppression. Love is the energy which permeates everything in the world, and the highest goal of art is the expression of this universal love which will ultimately deliver humanity to freedom.

Shelley, in his preface, seems as defiant as Prometheus and Satan. He asserts that he would rather burn in Hell than bow artistically to Christian law.

For my part I had rather be damned with Plato and Lord Bacon than go to Heaven with Paley and Malthus. But it is a mistake to suppose that I dedicate my poetical compositions solely to the direct enforcement of reform, or that I consider them in any degree as containing a reasoned system on the theory of human life. Didactic poetry is my abhorrence; nothing can be equally well expressed in prose that is not tedious and supererogatory in verse. My purpose has hitherto been simply to familiarize the highly refined imagination of the more select classes of poetical readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence; aware that, until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness.

In my subsequent post, I will look closer at specific passages which in my opinion represent some of the key issues in this drama. As I mentioned, this is a very dense and complex work, and I will not be able to cover everything, but I will do my best to hit some of the main aspects.

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“London” by William Blake

LondonBlake

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

This poem is a strong criticism against government and corporations. In the first two lines, Blake describes the London streets and the Thames as both being “charter’d.” It’s not clear whether this is a political or a business charter. What is clear is that he feels all of London is owned and controlled, and that humans are suffering as a result. My personal feeling is that Blake was referring to both the government and the corporations, both of which held an oppressive hold on the citizens during that period.

In the second stanza, we have the image of “mind-forg’d manacles.” For me, this is the most powerful metaphor in the poem. On one hand, it symbolizes the mental oppression inflicted upon individuals by a repressive society, where a person’s creativity and intellectual freedom are restricted. But I also see this as self-inflicted bondage, too. We are all slaves to our own thoughts, fears, and obsessions. It is most often our own thoughts that keep us trapped in our misery. If we could just free our minds from fear and resentment, we would find the freedom and courage to become fully enlightened individuals.

The final stanza was the most challenging for me. After reading it several times and thinking about it, I believe that Blake is describing poor, young women who are forced into a life of prostitution, likely because they had sex out of wedlock and got pregnant, which would be the “youthful Harlots curse.” I suspect that these women were often visited by married men, who would then contract venereal infections, such as syphilis, which they passed on to their unsuspecting wives. As a result, the marriage bed becomes a coffin; sex ultimately leads to death.

This is an extremely dark and viscerally wrenching poem. There is no glimmer of hope in here. In fact, even God appears weary and sick. At the top of the illustration, God is being led through the London streets by a boy. God appears hunched, ailing, about to die. Essentially, government and industrial society is not only killing humanity, but is also destroying the Divine spirit.

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“The Wolf and the Lamb: The Rhetoric of Oppression” by Umberto Eco

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

I read this essay yesterday and it took a day to digest this fully, even though the impact of it was immediate. In this piece, Eco explores how rhetoric is used to justify tyranny and the oppression of others by leaders and governments. He backs up his arguments by examining speeches and documents from various sources to demonstrate how the various techniques are employed.

Eco defines rhetoric as “a technique of persuasion, and persuasion is not a bad thing, even though, reprehensibly, you can persuade someone to act against his own interests.” (Turning Back the Clock: p. 45) He then presents Phaedrus’s fable of the wolf and the lamb as the classic example of the rhetoric of oppression. In the fable, the wolf and the lamb meet at a stream to drink. The wolf wants to eat the lamb and goes through a series of arguments with the lamb until the wolf can justify his attack on the lamb.

Eco points out that these arguments become more effective when they are aligned with a shared public opinion. As an example, he uses a passage from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf in which he argues against the inferiority of other races, specifically blacks. The quote, while disturbing and lengthy, is worth including since it demonstrates how logic can be used in an attempt to promote ideas that are clearly deranged and racist.

From time to time our illustrated papers publish, for the edification of the German philistine, the news that in some quarter or other of the globe, and for the first time there, a Negro has become a lawyer, a teacher, a pastor, even a grand opera tenor or something of that kind. While the bourgeois blockhead stares with amazed admiration at the notice that tells him how marvelous are the achievements of our modern educational system, the more cunning Jew sees in this fact evidence in support of the theory with which he wants to infect the public, namely that all men are equal. It does not dawn on the dull bourgeois mind that the published fact is a sin against reason itself, that it is an act of criminal insanity to train a being anthropoid only by birth until the pretense can be made that the being has been turned into a lawyer—while millions who belong to the most civilized races have to remain in positions unworthy of their cultural level. The bourgeois mind does not realize that it is a sin against the will of the eternal Creator to allow hundreds of thousands of highly gifted people to remain floundering in the swamp of proletarian misery while Hottentots and Zulus are drilled to fill positions in the intellectual professions. For here we have the product only of a drilling technique, just as in the case of a performing dog. If the same amount of care and effort were applied among intelligent races, each individual would become a thousand times more capable in such matters… It is indeed intolerable to think that year after year hundreds of thousands of young people without a vestige of talent are deemed worthy of a higher education, while other hundreds of thousands who possess hugh natural gifts have to go without any sort of higher schooling at all. The practical loss to the nation is incalculable.

(ibid: pp. 48 – 49)

Eco asserts that one of the most effective forms of oppressive rhetoric is to employ the conspiracy argument, positing the idea that there is a plot by another person or country that threatens one’s safety.

In general, in order to maintain popular support for their decisions, dictatorships point the finger at a country, group, race, or secret society that is plotting against the people under the dictator. All forms of populism, even contemporary ones, try to obtain consensus by talking of a threat from abroad, or from internal groups.

(ibid: p. 52)

I have seen firsthand just how effective this rhetorical tool is. In the United States, the threat of terrorist attacks against American targets has led to the loss of individual freedoms and the implementation of oppressive laws such as the Patriot Act. It is also used profusely by media groups such as FOX News or MSNBC to polarize support for a particular political side. For example, if we consider something like the controversial Keystone Pipeline, FOX News would claim that liberals have fabricated evidence of climate change to push through their agenda which could have a negative impact on jobs in this country. Conversely, MSNBC would assert that right-wing legislators are being paid off by the oil lobby and seek to benefit financially at the expense of everyone else. Without taking sides here, we can see that both sides are using the same type of rhetoric, each claiming a conspiratorial plan by the other side.

Toward the end of the essay, Eco cites a speech by Pericles included in the writings of Thucydides where Pericles justifies an Athenian assault against a neighboring city state because it is their right.

This is another figure, perhaps the shrewdest, of the rhetoric of oppression: we have the right to impose our might on others because we embody the best form of government in existence.

(ibid: p. 62)

I cannot recall the number of times I have hear it said that we are invading a country to free the citizens from a dictator or to install or protect democracy. This argument strike deep in every American because we are conditioned to believe that democracy is the best form of government. And why wouldn’t people in every country want to share in the freedom afforded by a democratic country? But if we think about it, we must accept that this is only rhetoric used to persuade us to accept the decisions made by leaders. It is a way for leaders to justify their actions so that the majority of citizens will acquiesce. As Eco points out, it is a shrewd form of the rhetoric of oppression.

There are other examples in this essay that are worth reading and considering. I strongly encourage you to buy a copy of Turning Back the Clock and read this essay in its entirety. It is powerful and sobering, and after reading it, you will notice just how insidious this form of rhetoric is.

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