National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science, No. 60: We Are Prometheans, Not Dionysians

It has taken over a year of these weekly installments to lay a proper groundwork for the important, veritably-revolutionary notion I introduced last week: the core identity defining our homosexual tribe is, in terms of archetypes taken from Greek mythology, not Dionysian in nature, but Promethean. This has important implications for every gay person.

Dionysus was the god whose archetype represents pleasure-seeking hedonistic excess. Prometheus was the Titan who stole fire from Mt. Olympus and gave it to man, who also provided man with the “arts of civilization,” science, mathematics, agriculture, writing and medicine. In fact, in some ancient mythological accounts, he is attributed with the very creation of the human race.

In the post-Stonewall gay movement, Dionysian anarcho-hedonism came to define gays and our culture. As set against the Greek archetype of the god Apollo, who represented authoritative order and structure of the dominant, conformist culture, Dionysus was touted as the anti-culture. Dionysus marked the rebellion against the status quo that acted out in the form of “sexual freedom” and the radically-excessive, impersonal, addictive sex that came to dominate urban gay subcultures.

We know how this came to drive the post-Stonewall movement into the ground, resulting in over 400,000 self-inflicted deaths from AIDS. While Dionysus persists to this day as the dominant paradigm defining the gay community, among other things enabled by those who profit from it, this identity did not arise from within our tribe. As I have documented, it was imposed by, and imported from, the right wing “sex, drugs and rock and roll” so-called “counterculture” that arose in the 1960s.

Gays are not naturally Dionysian, but succumb to such tendencies when pressures arise from dominating cultural influences. In the U.S., self-centered, pleasure-seeking Dionysian “rebellion” has increasingly dominated the entire cultural landscape of individual lives since the rise of “consumerism” in the 1950s. It’s led to today’s serious epidemic of Internet-fueled sex addiction (Chris Lee’s article, “The Sex Addiction Epidemic” in this week’s Newsweek), akin to what urban gays experienced so intensely in the 1970s, with the consequential “emotional curtains” that such addictions draw down within victims, causing “intimacy disorders,” crippling abilities to relate in loving ways to others.

The prevailing straight Apollonian-archetype male-chauvinist, patriarchal over-culture, and Dionysian rebellion under-culture are flip sides of the same coin. This was the view of the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He posed the double-sided notion of the Apollonian-Dionysian struggle in his book, “The Birth of Tragedy” (1872), claiming that human “existential being” is defined by this tension.

But this doesn’t apply to the natural disposition of gays, whose distinguishing characteristics suggest a “third way.” Nietzsche and major currents of modern culture fail to acknowledge this, although ironically it has played a massive role in the development of civilization and notions underlying the American experience.

Prometheus is the mythical figure whose archetype has been compared to that of Jesus of Nazareth in the Biblical tradition. He sacrificed himself in order to serve humankind, to provide it with fire (the spark inflaming the human spirit), science, the arts and learning. Hungarian scholar Carl Kerenyi, in his 1946 book, “Prometheus: Archetypal Image of Human Existence” (part of a series published by the Princeton University Press), claims the Prometheus-Jesus correlation breaks down because Prometheus was a god and not also “fully man.” But that seems a flimsy deference to religious authority, because the myths of ancient Greek gods were allegories co-mingled with oral histories in which gods were more properly glorified legends and heroes.

The sensibilities unique to gay people I’ve explored in this series include a heightened empathy, an alternative sensual perspective and a constructive non-conformity. As our early pioneer Andre Gide wrote in his Socratic dialogues on the purposefulness and natural basis for same-sex erotic attraction called “Corydon” (1920), because we gays question nature from a different viewpoint, nature gives us different answers.

The “different viewpoint and different answers” define us. They have compelled us toward a form of constructive non-conformity that has stood for eons against Apollonian male-dominated culture, which at its core is territorial and brutal in its treatment of women and children as chattel and slaves in the maintenance and expansion of territories.

By putting fire (the spirit of human empowerment), science and art into the hands of humanity, in general, and not restricting it to the province of the dominant Zeus-like males, the Promethean interrupts male-dominated culture on behalf of a more egalitarian, compassionate culture. He and she are revolutionaries interceding on behalf of the oppressed to move humanity forward through enlightenment.

The great heroes of our long history, from the psalmist, tyrant-slayer, lover of Jonathan and king, David of the Old Testament, to the fathers of progressive western thought and morals, Socrates and Plato, and key founders and defenders of the American republic, Hamilton, Lincoln, Whitman and Eleanor Roosevelt, all reflect this powerful archetype.

We are Promethean nation builders, not Dionysian hedonists.