Monday, July 01, 2013

Prometheus Shrugged, or, Ayn Rand re-writes ancient Greek myths

Ayn Rand's apartment building
The Murray Park - much more
affordable than I would have guessed.
One of these days I'm going to see
if I can get a peek inside - maybe
pretend I'm looking to move there.
I realize that Ayn Rand did not have the advantage of the Internet at her fingertips. The concept for the Intergalactic Computer Network wasn't even dreamed up until 1963 and Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957. But Rand lived nine blocks away from the main branch of the New York Public Library (a 13 minute walk according to Google maps) so is it really too much to ask her to do a little research? If she had she wouldn't have gotten the Prometheus myth so incredibly wrong.

This is from part 2 chapter 5 of Atlas Shrugged, where d'Anconia is comparing John Galt to Prometheus:
John Galt is Prometheus who changed his mind. After centuries of being torn by vultures in payment for having brought to men the fire of the gods, he broke his chains - and he withdrew his fire - until the day when men withdraw their vultures.

Except for the part about Prometheus being chained for bringing men fire, every single aspect of this description of Prometheus' predicament is wrong. Since I do have the Internets at my fingertips, I'll let Wikipedia explain it:
In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a Titan, culture hero, and trickster figure who is credited with the creation of man from clay, and who defies the gods and gifts humanity with fire (theft of fire), an act that enabled progress and civilization. He is known for his intelligence and as a champion of humanity. 
The punishment of Prometheus as a consequence of the theft is a major theme of his mythology, and is a popular subject of both ancient and modern art. Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, sentenced the Titan to eternal torment for his transgression. The immortal Prometheus was bound to a rock, where each day an eagle, the emblem of Zeus, was sent to feed on his liver, which would then grow back to be eaten again the next day. In some stories, Prometheus is freed at last by the hero Heracles (Hercules).
But is it really carelessness? Rand was aware of the Prometheus myth since at least 1937 because her novel Anthem includes a character who calls himself Prometheus.

Clearly "men" don't have the option of withdrawing "their" "vultures" no matter what Prometheus does - the eagle belongs to Zeus, and the only way Prometheus was freed (in some stories) is by Heracles - who was the son of Zeus.

For the record, Rand also got the Atlas myth wrong too. Atlas is described as "the giant who holds the world on his shoulders" in Atlas Shrugged when in fact, as Wiki says:
A common misconception today is that Atlas was forced to hold the Earth on his shoulders, but Classical art shows Atlas holding the celestial spheres, not a globe; the solidity of the marble globe born by the renowned Farnese Atlas may have aided the conflation, reinforced in the 16th century by the developing usage of atlas to describe a corpus of terrestrial maps.
Since the fire belongs to the gods, which makes it their property, and Prometheus stole it from them, doesn't that make Prometheus a looter who deserves to be punished, according to Rand's philosophy?

But the most mind-boggling aspect of Rand's retelling of this myth isn't even that she gets it wrong. It's that her version of the myth is completely illogical. Because the way Rand re-tells it, Prometheus gives the fire to men, and then men punish Prometheus - the god who created them - for giving them fire!

The incoherence of Rand's Prometheus story is a microcosm of the incoherence that is rampant throughout Atlas Shrugged. The incoherence results from Rand having no comprehension of how governments work, how economies work, or the cause and effect of human behaviors.