National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science, No. 61: The Case for the Gay Promethean Archetype

The novel discovery made over the course of these installments is that the archetype identifying the proper role of gay people in history smashes modern culture’s straight-jacketed, commonly-accepted dualism of Apollonian (law abiding) versus Dionysian (law breaking) with a “third way.”

The “third way” is Promethean, the notion of those with heightened empathy and compassion for humanity, passionately driven by an alternative perspective about the prevailing order of things, and engaged in a constructive non-conformity, defying the existing order on behalf of mankind.

Those characteristics define Prometheus, the Titan god of ancient Greek mythology, who stole fire from Olympus to give it and much more to mankind, and they also define, as I have articulated in these chapters, the core characteristics of historic gay identity and personality.

It is delightfully astonishing that the rediscovery of Promethean gay identity, after thousands of years, comes now, in the wake of the Stonewall reawakening of the full potential of gay persons in the shaping of culture.

This is lawful, after all. The last time gays played the kind of open role in a society as we are claiming now was in ancient Greece. In those days, the Promethean connection to gay sensibility did not need to be explicitly tied to same-sex erotic attraction, because the latter was such an accepted factor in the social norms of the time.

Still, the Promethean was understood to suffer for his and her gifts to mankind. In the myth, Prometheus is punished by Zeus (the archetypical figure symbolizing straight-male dominant society) for his work on behalf of mankind by being tied to a rock where an eagle, the symbol of Zeus’ authority, came to eat out his liver every day.

The notion of having one’s liver torn out, and regrown, on a daily basis, corresponds to the tolls, emotional and otherwise, so many of us pay for being gay.
So, after 3,000 years, gay people are poised for the first time to regain the mantle of the Promethean archetype, and by so doing, shedding the erroneous and destructive Dionysian (pleasure-seeking “outlaw”) archetype heaped upon us by straight male-dominated culture.

Many gays seek to shift their archetypical identity away from Dionysian, especially given the cataclysm of sexual excesses that led to AIDS, by pursuing the Apollonian archetype – that is, seeking to conform and assimilate within the cultural parameters of violent straight-male dominated society.

But that assumes the straightjacket of a social Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy advanced by Nietzsche, Freud and gay philosophers Michel Foucault and Arthur Evans (“The God of Ecstasy: Sex-Roles and the Madness of Dionysos,” 1988).

Now, however, we can see ourselves as constructively non-conformist, as Prometheans with our own distinct, important identity in the wider social order, neither Apollonian nor Dionysian.

What are some implications?

For one, we must reconsider our history in ways I’ve proposed in this series. Instead of looking for explicit same-sex activity to cite evidences of us, we instead look for evidences of Promethean impulses and behavior, knowing that opportunities for same-sex activity have been overwhelmingly repressed, or expressed only in licentious forms, for eons. It means reinventing our gay history in this way, starting by eliminating entirely “post-Stonewall reductionism” from scholarship.

For another, we can define our sensible creative proclivities in terms of the Promethean archetype, on the one hand, and define the Promethean archetype on the basis of our sensible creative proclivities, on the other.

For example, the ancient Prometheus’ gift to mankind of fire represents not only invention and civilization, but the animating spark that inflames human souls (in some myths, in fact, Prometheus actually created mankind). Every act that fuels and enlarges the fire animating human souls, then, is Promethean.

There is nothing that gay people are inclined to do more than fuel fires of human souls! Offering encouragement, selfless generosity, optimism through tears, gifts of beauty, song, comedy, camp and laughter as well as science, medicine, art and design, these are core characteristics of our tribe, and they’re all Promethean.

The fabulous production number that honored the great Broadway vocalist Barbara Cook Sunday night at the Kennedy Center Honors, replete with an abundance of magnificent divas and dancing boys, captured the very epitome of Broadway, and was, I thought to myself, so totally Promethean!

The hallmark of Promethean nature is a dedication to excellence and achievement that everyone on that stage demonstrated. When we embrace our true Promethean identity, we don’t just do good deeds, we aspire to them, and are driven to pursue them.

Not that we don’t seek reciprocal romance. But nature uses same-sex erotic attraction as a social glue, binding persons of the same sex, often not reciprocally, alas, but to make a better, more humane society, overall. We are naturally inclined to provide a kind of love that is too often not returned in kind. Thus, our livers are eaten out daily.

Such may be our destiny, but remember also that Prometheus was eventually freed by a handsome young god-man Hercules.