National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 59: Life, Liberation and Happiness, Pt. 4 – Prometheus Unbound

Launching this series in October 2010, I explained that my title, “Gay Science,” came not only because it was apt in its own right, but also because it referred to a work of the same name by the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Gay Science,” written in 1882. Nietzsche, I wrote, had his “Gay Science,” of which I am no fan, and I have mine.

The world view presented by Nietzsche proved to be wildly influential for more than a century, advocating a form of anti-conformity which placed the core of human identity on a “will to power” that is manifested in “supermen” who demolish the burdens of forced mediocrity and slavery to convention.

Sadly, his “superman” concept gave rise to notions like the Nazi’s claim to an Aryan “super race,” and the convenient, completely false identification of the Jewish people as its oppressors. Later in the last century, Nietzschean philosophy fed the rise of the anarcho-hedonist so-called “counterculture,” breaking the bonds of convention in the same paradigmatic manner through a modified form. (Appreciating the common roots of Nazism and the counterculture helps unravel the history of the 20th century, and in particular, what happened to the gay movement in the 1970s.)

Nietzsche posited a world where man’s existential condition was caught between two opposites, using archetypes taken from Greek and Roman mythology. On the one side is the archetype of Apollo, of the state, its laws and their call to duty. On the other side is Dionysus, the lure of the individual to abandon duty in his pursuit of self-serving pleasure.

In my previous installment, I wrote that in Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, “Death in Venice,” the protagonist Aschenbach’s obsession with beauty is caught in this Nietzschean vice between Apollonian and Dionysian polarities, and it does him in.

As I pointed out in my 1971 Berkeley Barb essay, “Death in Venice, Plague of Silence,” the way out of the vice for both Aschenbach and the object of his obsession, young Tadzio, was “the creation of a new language…a language of liberation.”

But what exactly is that “new language” that shatters the suffocating vice of Nietzsche’s system? Nietzsche proposed shattering it by a force of individual will, by angry imposition of an ultimate selfishness.

There is a “third way,” alluded to in everything I have written in this series about nature’s role for homosexuals in the creative order. It embodies all the attributes I have derived from the homosexual experience, outside of sexuality per se, such as a gay “sensibility,” including a heightened empathy, an alternative sensual perspective, and a constructive non-conformity.

In the context of Greek mythological archetypes, it is identified with the mythological role of Prometheus.

Prometheus! Who would have thought of him in association with homosexual identity?

That’s the nature of our gay revolution, to call into being something new, a new idea, and thereby to redefine ourselves and, thus, the world around us.

The myth of Prometheus fits. He was the Titan deity who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals, a great champion of mankind that the fifth-century B.C.playwright Aeschylus, who in his “Prometheus Bound” credits him with also providing mankind the arts of civilization, including science, math, agriculture, writing and medicine. His gift of divine fire symbolizes the spirit of creativity and constructive revolution, of humanity’s liberation to reach its full potential.

Zeus punished Prometheus for what he did for man by tying him to a rock and having an eagle eat away at his gut every night, only to be regenerated and repeated daily. That, symbolically, corresponds to the emotional and social alienation such champions often experience, including resentment and repression by the defenders of the power structures of the status quo. Prometheus’ punishment reflects the oppression of gay people, whose unique gifts deployed to the liberation of women and children from brutal male supremacy, to the betterment of all mankind, commonly bring hostility against us.

But, for the happy ending, Prometheus is ultimately freed by Hercules, the demigod who, on behalf of humanity, fully appreciates Prometheus’ great gifts.

(In art, Prometheus is best known as the gilded bronze statue in the sunken plaza at the Rockefeller Center in New York, the 1934 work of Paul Manship. On the granite wall behind the breathtaking image, called the fourth most popular sculpture in the U.S., is an inscription from Aeschylus: “Prometheus, teacher of every art, brought fire that had proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.”)

So, the alternative to Apollonian conventionality, including tyranny, is not Dionysian hedonism, but Promethian creative innovation and human liberation. That would be us.

The post-Stonewall gay movement’s descent into Dionysian anarcho-hedonism did not reflect us. Instead, by recognizing and pursuing our core Promethian-like identity, we are empowered to unlock in others their Promethian potentials. Indeed, doing thus is the “pursuit of happiness.”