As someone whose knowledge of the Greek myths leans perhaps a little too heavily on Clash of the Titans (the Ray Harryhausen version, of course), E.V. Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey, and a long ago reading of Robert Graves’ books on the subject, I confess to having a somewhat incomplete grasp of those foundational narratives of gods and men.
Take Prometheus, for instance. He was the titan who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humans. As a result, we built civilisations, while Prometheus, for his trouble, was chained to a rock and had his liver ripped out by an eagle every day, day after day, over and over again.
The power of this myth is such that, unlike (say) the one in which Zeus transforms himself into a big bird so he could rape a girl, it can easily be re-contextualized even for a contemporary, Darwinian reading. After all, was not fire important to cavemen? Without fire, how could our ancestors have stayed warm, cooked animal flesh, or reduced their enemies’ villages to smoldering embers?
And yet, having finally got around to reading Prometheus Bound I discovered that this is only one variant of the story, and that according to Aeschylus (or whoever wrote the play, there being some debate on that score) fire was actually the second thing Prometheus gave mankind. His main sin was to liberate we mortals from foreknowledge of our own dooms — replacing it with “blind hope”.
It’s the “blind” part of this version of the story which I find most interesting. In our culture, we are raised to believe that hope is always positive. Every cloud has a silver lining; it is always darkest just before dawn; etc. Hope is recommended to us by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13, between faith and love. When the cancer patient survives, it is because he did not give up hope. Hope must die last, and to lose hope is a terrible thing.
Against this, Aeschylus offers a more ambiguous assessment. Hope is based on ignorance of something inevitable, which is hidden from us. It is based on nothing and we are probably wrong to hope much of the time.
As someone who grew up marinated in the cultural Calvinism of post-industrial Scotland, followed by a further 10 years stewing in the fatalism of post-Soviet Russia, I not only found myself agreeing with Aeschylus, but even flattered myself that Prometheus had skipped over me when it came to dishing out the blind hope.
But then I remembered that time a TV producer pitched a travel show in which I would be a combination of Dog the Bounty Hunter and Doctor Who, on a motorbike, and that we would make millions on the residuals and DVD sales. Had the programme been commissioned, I would have gone to war with the producer over the concept, but… just think of the residuals. Blind hope kicked in and I spent quite a lot of time on treatments and a test reel before I saw, and then accepted, my doom.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I find Aeschylus’ take on Prometheus to be a handy tool for cutting through all manner of confusing situations to reach the frequently un-mysterious core of a great deal of human behaviour: blind hope.
Consider Ukraine, for instance. Recently they elected as president a light entertainer whose only previous experience of politics was playing a president on a TV show. For those of us with no skin in the game it is obvious that Volodymir Zelensky is doomed, that Putin will eat him alive (though not before tormenting him first), and that the leaders of the US and EU will shake their fists and emit word-clouds of condemnatory verbiage — but fundamentally they will do nothing very much as his doom reveals itself and then consumes him. Yet, such is the power of blind hope, that a majority of Ukrainians voted for him, making him the third would-be political saviour they have elected in less than 15 years.
Then there’s climate change. Remove blind hope, and what do we have left? It is obvious that, all treaties and declarations notwithstanding, it is vanishingly unlikely that we will be able to do much about it. Poor nations want what rich nations already have, while the inhabitants of rich nations, although willing to make a few tweaks here and there, want to maintain their lifestyles.
If we gazed upon our doom with clear vision, we might come to the conclusion that a better strategy would be to prepare and adapt. But politicians, instead, invite Greta Thunberg to tea, who for all her urgency, still holds out the promise offered by all truly effective apocalyptic prophets: that it is not too late to repent, to change our ways, and be saved.
And what about all those prime ministerial or presidential candidates who insist on running even when they have no name recognition, and nobody cares, and it is obvious, even to their mothers, that their campaigns are doomed? They are not all angling for jobs in some future administration; that would be to attribute too much foresight and clarity of vision to our political class. No, some wait in blind hope that they will pull a Trump, that their campaigns will catch fire, and that they might yet overcome the odds, amaze everyone, win power and save us.
And that brings me to Brexit, where Aeschylus has been especially helpful when it comes to piercing through the surface shenanigans of our political class to perceive what is actually going on. Consider, for instance, the bizarre behaviour of the obviously doomed Theresa May, the likes of which has never been seen in our lifetimes. Having, in her brilliance, contrived a path to Brexit by which means everybody could feel they had lost, her persistence in the face of overwhelming rejection was often put down to a sense of duty, or epic levels of stubbornness.
I don’t deny that both of these traits played a part, but fueling them was a hope, entirely blind, that one last plea to the people, or plea to her “friends and partners” in the EU, or appeal to her party, or appeal to the other party, or appeal to the attorney general to change his advice, or reworking of the verbiage in the nonbinding bit, would somehow redeem her premiership and get the withdrawal bill over the line, when no such thing was possible. This is why, I think, despite her cosmic failure, she remained a strangely sympathetic figure: there was something so profoundly, tragically human in this desperate clinging to blind hope. There but for the grace of God, etc.
It also explains why hardcore Brexiteers and Remainers alike kept voting it down despite having entirely different goals; it wasn’t just that they thought the deal was a dismal failure (which they undoubtedly did), it was that it wasn’t what they wanted, and both sides persisted in the blind hope that they could still have it all their own way.
And even now, as the government stumbles at the exit, and Labour writhes in confusion and torment, and the Lib Dems imagine their moment has come, and the SNP plots how it can leave the UK and stay in the EU at the same time, and the Guardian peddles Remainer porn, and Farage prepares to split the vote and risk losing the thing he wants most, and everybody remains bitterly divided — still everybody thinks they can have it all their own way.
Could there even be a whiff of Freud’s “narcissism of small differences” to all this? I especially wonder if it doesn’t add a little something extra to the antipathy felt by the SNP in particular for “Tory Brexiteers”. Until recently, they had the monopoly on blind hope, in that they stood for a leap into the dark, which would obviously be followed by disruption and upheaval, but which they represented as a scenario with nothing but upsides.
Now they have rivals to the south, offering a competing version of liberation from the constraints of a different, larger political entity. Certainly the question of Scottish independence has become infinitely messier, in every respect, for both sides: time to dial up the blind hope.
So many; I had not thought blind hope had undone so many. But wait: didn’t Prometheus claim he wanted to help us? I’m starting to understand why Zeus chained him to that rock.