Prometheus Unbound Shelleys unread revol (1)

Atilla Orel (The University of Sydney) [email protected]
Title: Prometheus Unbound: Shelley’s Unread Revolution
Delivered at the Romantic Studies Association of Australia’s Postgraduate Symposium: Reflections
on Revolution and Romanticism, November 25 2011.
Shelley's vegetarianism was a lifelong commitment that has been consistently mocked,
misunderstood or underrated - where it hasn't been wholly ignored - by the majority of his critics
and biographers, when it must be considered as a central, organising principle within his body of
work and his intellectual and philosophical system.
I don't seek here to over-privilege biographical reading, my claims are textually based, in that I argue
that Shelley's statements are routinely misinterpreted against their obvious, literal meanings. But
biography has played a fundamental and deeply problematic role in the development of Shelley
criticism. The earliest biographies of Shelley, written by close friends, characterise his vegetarianism
as part of a general, deeply neurotic approach to food. For instance, Hogg characterises Shelley as
someone whose serious, incessant intellectual activity resulted in him regularly forgetting to eat.
This is a characterisation that conspicuously polarises ostensibly serious thought with thoughts
about food - Hogg's characterisation suggests that food simply wasn't important to Shelley and that
he rarely thought about it; this despite the fact that Shelley was an ethical vegetarian consistently
from 1812 until his death and this commitment is abundantly evident throughout his body of work.
The other friend and biographer to set the standard for reading Shelley's diet was Thomas Love
Peacock who had no respect for Shelley's vegetarianism, proudly documenting one instance in which
he refused to cater to Shelley's beliefs and forced him to eat meat during a protracted boating
excursion. Peacock published at least three successful works of satire which ridiculed vegetarians,
characterising them as both quixotic and hypocritical. Shortly after Shelley's death, Peacock
republished a short satirical piece called "Dinner by the Amateurs of Vegetable Diet" in which he
represents vegetarians as credulous, incompetent, lacking in basic social skills, avaricious, heretical
and sickly.
On this occasion the piece was published in The Medical Adviser and Guide to Health and Long Life
with the following editorial preface, written by Alex Burnett, M.D.:
The late Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote against animal diet a paper the most absurd and
irrational: a parody of which will be found at the end of the following humorous article
handed to us by a correspondent... As the article treats of vegetable diet in the way it ought
to be treated, we will offer no further arguments against it: and we hope that those disciples
of Mr. Shelley... will take our correspondent's satire as it is meant, namely, to laugh them
out of their folly, and thereby add a few years to their lives.
'Absurd' is a word that resurfaces in the work of Shelley's most renowned Biographer, Richard
Holmes, who takes Shelley's vegetarian writing as an indication of (and I quote) "how he had been
thrown off course... and turned in a restless, absurd circle of self-doubt and uncertainty". William St
Clair manages to persuade himself that Shelley's vegetarianism was simply a consequence of a short
attention span combined with a simpleton's attraction to the novelty of the latest fads. St Clair
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The catalogue of causes picked up and thrown down continued to grow... For a while in 1813
freedom of opinion absorbed his attention. In 1814 it was natural food and natural love... It
was plain that Shelley for all his talents was also a spoiled man of aristocratic tastes who
treated people and ideas like an endless supply of colourful toys.
I will confine myself to the observation that this is a gross and reprehensible misrepresentation
incorporating obvious factual errors. Freedom of opinion was a lifelong commitment of Shelley's and
his vegetarianism lasted the duration of his adult life. Both of these causes are extensively and
consistently documented in Shelley's published work and in his letters. In seeking to perpetuate the
image of Shelley, the absurd neurotic, William St Clair betrays the ignorance of his own narrow mind
when he writes:
Every month brought new evidence of Shelley's unpredictable nature. He refused to take
butter on his muffins or to wear woolly socks.
This behaviour can only be considered unpredictable if we ignore Shelley's published writing arguing
against the exploitation of domesticated animals. Today we would call this kind of unpredictable
behaviour 'veganism.' Holmes and St Clair, Burnett and Peacock, although separated by one
hundred and seventy years, demonstrate the same problematic mode of misreading Shelley's work.
By responding to Shelley's vegetarian writing as medical (dietary) advice, it has been a long-standing
convention to dismiss Shelley's arguments as (to quote Holmes again) the "subordination of political
and philosophical questions to those of speculative 'dietetics'."
Such judgments can only be made through conspicuously selective readings of Shelley's texts,
specifically, readings that take issue with Shelley's as a nutritionist while completely ignoring his
ethics and politics. For Shelley, the imperative to abstain from eating flesh is absolutely not
motivated by self-centred desires for physical health and well-being, it is the praxis, the logical
corollary, of the rejection of cruelty, violence and exploitation. It is impossible to miss this unless we
choose to do so. There is certainly nothing ambiguous or contradictory about Shelley's language, of
which I will limit myself to one example, taken from the same prose piece in which Shelley first uses
the myth of Prometheus:
Let the advocate of animal food force himself to a decisive experiment on its fitness, and, as
Plutarch recommends, tear a living lamb with his teeth, and plunging his head into its vitals,
slake his thirst with the steaming blood; when fresh from the deed of horror, let him revert
to the irresistable instincts of nature that would rise in judgment against it and say, Nature
formed me for such work as this. Then, and only then, would he be consistent. (300)
For people unfamiliar with Shelley's work, he penned two vegetarian pamphlets in which his
vegetarian thesis is transparently clear. I will summarise this position briefly - While Shelley
considers the killing of animals to be immoral in and of itself he also argues that the social and
cultural sanctioning of this killing, in the form of flesh consumption, of the unnecessary cruelty,
violence and exploitation that flesh consumption perpetuates on such a massive scale, inures us to
cruelty, violence and exploitation. Consequently, despite the wide range of prohibitions in law, both
secular and religious, we routinely employ our apparently dietary values against each other in the
form of social inequality, warfare, enslavement, murder, and so on.
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Those familiar with Prometheus Unbound will immediately recognise the foremost concerns of that
work in the summary I have just delivered. Despite this, Shelley criticism repeatedly fails to engage
with Prometheus Unbound as an expression of Shelley's ethical vegetarianism, even though Shelley's
only other use of the Prometheus Myth occurs in his vegetarian pamphlet, "A Vindication of Natural
Diet". According to that interpretation, we should read the myth of Prometheus as an allegory for
the introduction of meat into the diet of humankind, a change which produced catastrophic
consequences. Shelley copied his interpretation of the myth directly from John Frank Newton's book
The Return to Nature, a book of vegetarian advocacy, and the very book that inspired Shelley's
conversion in 1812.
Like Shelley, Newton is repeatedly characterised by biographers (in fact, the same biographers I've
already mentioned) as a crank, a crack-pot, and a laughing stock. St Clair says of Newton and his
The Aeolian strings of their minds could be made to vibrate by any passing breeze, and they
could not tell a good argument from a bad one.
This characterisation is identical to that put forth in Peacock's nineteenth-century satires which
lampooned Newton. I am not the first to suggest that far too much authority has been invested in
Peacock and Hogg as biographers, based upon their first-hand experiences with Shelley, although I
might be on more original ground when I suggest that their work has been instrumental in making
the truly revolutionary ideas of Prometheus Unbound unreadable by predisposing us to read his
vegetarian arguments as neurotic 'dietary' proscriptions rather than commentaries on immoral
violence against animals and other marginal groups.
I've selected the following critical responses as representative of this general trend:
(Zillman) in 1813 he made use of [the Prometheus myth] in a manner strangely different
from that to be found in Prometheus Unbound.
(Bush) No one could predict Prometheus Unbound from Shelley's interpretation, borrowed
from [Newton] of the myth of Prometheus as an allegory of the evils that cooking animal
food brought upon mankind.
I will turn now to my own reading of Prometheus Unbound in order to demonstrate how it can and
should be read as consistent with Shelley's vegetarian philosophy. Because of the limited time
available to us here I will focus on one particular scene, indeed, one particular moment, but as I will
argue, this is the definitive, pivotal moment in the drama despite the fact that it occurs in the first of
the four acts. Before I do this, I will briefly summarise the play for those who are not familiar with it.
For challenging the authority of Jupiter, the titan Prometheus is pinned to the Caucasus in a brutal
manner reminiscent of the crucifixion. Like an animal, Prometheus becomes the target of violent
consumption. Each day a vulture is sent to feast upon his heart, each night, his heart regenerates so
that the torture can begin anew - this process endures for three thousand years. The perpetual
misery drives Prometheus to pronounce a vicious, hate-filled curse upon Jupiter. Time and continued
suffering, however, teach Prometheus a significant lesson, and he chooses to recall the curse he
uttered. This act sets in motion a chain of events which leads to Jupiter being deposed by a
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mysterious - seemingly omnipotent - figure called Demogorgon, and to the establishment of a new,
Utopian (or Promethean) universe.
That's a very basic summary but it will have to do. :)
The moment I concern myself with here is the moment in which Prometheus recants his curse. After
three thousand years of suffering he has forgotten his hateful words and asks to hear them once
more. The curse he utters calls for Jupiter to sink to even deeper levels of depravity, to exceed the
utmost extremes of violent tyranny imaginable, to then perceive himself clearly for the first time, and
to self-destruct in abject horror at that perception. It is here that we reach the most significant
moment in Shelley's drama - Prometheus cannot reconcile the hateful prophecy he uttered long ago
with his sense of self, upon hearing it he responds:
It doth repent me: words are quick and vain;
Grief for awhile is blind, and so was mine.
I wish no living thing to suffer pain. (303-05)
These are the words that initiate the Promethean revolution that ultimately redeems the violent and
senselessly self-destructing Universe of Jupiter. Unless we fail to read the literal meaning of this last
line we must reach certain conclusions. Firstly, if no living thing (a crucial word) should suffer pain - a
line that recalls Bentham's historic speech to parliament on animal rights - then the enslaving and
slaughter of animals is unacceptable. Secondly, we become responsible for removing ourselves from
cycles of violence by refusing to repay our enemies with suffering in kind. And thirdly, those who
participate in hateful behaviour, in violence, in tyranny, deserve only pity because to hate, to enact
evil, is to suffer evil. Prometheus has learned this from three thousand years of matching Jupiter's
violent hatred with his own, which is, in Young's words, "to be a partner in evil. It is to chain his soul
to the forces of death and destruction." (99) In Prometheus' words, "He who is evil can receive no
good" because "[e]vil minds change good to their own nature." (381-2) This is a psychological
incarnation of violent consumption - of an animal diet. Prometheus' renunciation allows him to
transcend the multiple paradigms of violent being, to escape the insatiable, self-perpetuating hunger
for violence which is precisely what the Furies represent. As he makes plain to the Furies that come
to torment him:
I weigh not what ye do, but what ye suffer,
Being evil. Cruel was the Power which called
You, or aught else so wretched, into light. (480-82)
This is the transformation of perception and emotion that results in the freeing of Prometheus and
the deposing of Jupiter - but Jupiter is not deposed by Prometheus, who will no longer enact
violence even against his greatest enemy. Jupiter falls to a mysterious, formless, seemingly
inexplicable entity named Demogorgon. In order to argue legitimately for the importance of
Shelley's vegetarian philosophy in reading Prometheus Unbound, Demogorgon must be accounted
The dominant interpretation of Demogorgon, argued by Earl Wasserman and characteristic of the
majority of subsequent critical readings of Prometheus Unbound, positions Demogorgon as the
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figure of Necessity, eternity, or the law of historical inevitability, as Young puts it, an "amoral force
that exists outside of man". As I will show, this is a reading as inconsistent with Prometheus Unbound
as it is inconsistent with Shelley's doctrine of necessity, most articulately expressed in the poem
'Mont Blanc.' According to Shelley, necessity dwells irrevocably apart from human experience and
human conception, it is remote and inaccessible. Shelley uses the image of the remote summit of
Mont Blanc to convey this message; we know the summit exists but in Shelley's time we cannot set
foot in that place, we can never bear witness even our own inherently limited perception of that
reality. The essential moral of 'Mont Blanc' is predicated on this, as Shelley uses the poem to argue
that - because we can never comprehend that ultimate power, or first cause - any philosophy or
religion which purports to do so is automatically in error, and where such a system is imposed
coercively, either legislatively or violently upon free will, it is the essence of evil. This is the most
fundamental of Shelley's principles.
Now let's consider Shelley's presentation of Demogorgon:
I see a mighty Darkness
Filling the seat of power; and rays of gloom
Dart round, as light from the meridian sun,
Ungazed upon and shapeless -- neither limb,
Nor form, nor outline; yet we feel it is
A living Spirit.
To give Necessity a living form, even a form that is composed of shadow, would be inconsistent with
Shelley's most deeply held convictions. To go further than this, to give necessity a voice and an
opinion would be an instance of the very cardinal sin that Shelley unequivocally rejects in 'Mont
Blanc' as he rejects it elsewhere in his characteristic insistence on the priority of scepticism as a
moral entitlement - and imperative - of free will. Elsewhere in his writing Shelley has stated very
plainly that Necessity cannot be the same power as mind. Yet Demogorgon has a mind and a voice,
indeed it speaks at great length.
Furthermore, Demogorgon dissociates itself from Necessity quite clearly. Its words to Asia which
incidentally establish the next stage in the development of the Promethean revolution are as
If the Abysm
Could vomit forth its secrets: -- but a voice
Is wanting, the deep truth is imageless;
For what would it avail to bid thee gaze
On the revolving world? what to bid speak
Fate, Time, Occasion, Chance and Change? To these
all things are subject but eternal Love.
What are Fate, Time, Occasion, Chance and Change but the components of Necessity? Demogorgon,
by voicing the unalterably voiceless nature of Necessity obviously cannot be Necessity. And - while
this might seem to be labouring the point a little - while the deep truth is imageless, we can see
Demogorgon's presence filling the seat of power, the rays of gloom darting around present us with
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an image, however mediated or obscured it may be. Necessity is imperceptible, this is in no way the
same as the perception of shadow, of darkness, or even absence. Furthermore, Demogorgon's
location within the Underworld where Asia and Panthea make an arduous journey to confront its
presence also seems to be at odds with Shelley's notion of necessity. Why the underworld? Why the
Hellish imagery of fire and fumes?
My own interpretation of the Demogorgon figure draws upon the only other instance in Prometheus
Unbound which presents us with a description that matches Panthea's vision of this mysterious
entity. In the very instant that Prometheus transcends the cycle of violence and hatred, Jupiter sends
the Furies to torment him - a futile quest, as Prometheus has learned the transcendent lesson of
Love and the bloody brutality of the Furies can only provoke him to pity.
Shelley characterises the Furies as malevolent, psychotic hunters, they have a supernatural
sensitivity to and lusting for the scent of life and blood, and an aesthetic drawn directly from
Shelley's descriptions of a flesh-eating sensibility, an erotics of death and decay. "The hope of
torturing him smells like a heap / Of corpses to a death-bird after battle." (I. 339-40) They refer to
themselves as the Hounds of Hell, the ministers of pain and fear, and clinging crime:
and as lean dogs pursue
Through wood and lake some struck and sobbing fawn,
We track all things that weep, and bleed, and live,
When the great King betrays them to our will. (I. 454-57)
The Furies are the primary weapon of Jupiter's reign of terror, they are the epitome of his power,
much more so than his devastating lightning, because they couple the physical elements of violence
with equally brutal psychological and emotional equivalents. Feeders upon fear, hatred and misery,
the Furies relate their own history as synonymous with the history of human violence, they are only
able to manifest within the terrestrial world in tandem with violent atrocity and misery, moments
such as the crucifixion or the terror that followed the French Revolution - in red gulfs of war, faminewasted cities, in places "[w]here blood with gold is bought and sold" (531). The Furies epitomise the
erotics of indiscriminate, violent consumption, they bring to awful life the words from Shelley's
Refutation of Deism:
A beautiful antelope panting under the fangs of a tiger, a defenceless ox, groaning beneath
the butcher's axe, is a spectacle that instantly awakens compassion in a virtuous and
unvitiated breast. Many there are, however, sufficiently hardened to the rebukes of justice
and the precepts of humanity, as to regard the deliberate butchery of thousands of their
species, as a theme of exultation and a source of honour, and to consider any failure in these
remorseless enterprises as a defect in the system of things. (119)
But to return to the identity of Demogorgon, in Act I the Furies give us a very suggestive description
of their own nature:
The beauty of delight makes lovers glad,
Gazing on one another: so are we.
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So from our victim's destined agony
The shade which is our form invests us round,
Else are we shapeless as our mother Night. (465-72)
I want to suggest that it is no coincidence that the Furies become formless shadow without
participating victims to feed their substance with negative emotion (a process which is clearly a
metaphor for the human practice of violent flesh consumption). It is no coincidence given that
Demogorgon is located in just such a form within the underworld, the home of the Furies, upon the
throne of power, and given that the song that leads Asia and Panthea to Demogorgon begins
immediately after the Furies have been vanquished by Prometheus' compassion.
Demogorgon, in resembling so closely the Furies in their potential state of nonexistence, represents
the negation of Jupiter's power as it is derived from reciprocities of violence, fear and hatred.
Demogorgon is the vacuum, the absence of reciprocal sustenance that results in insatiable evil
violently consuming itself - this is the nature of Jupiter's downfall. To read Demogorgon as an amoral
force, as Necessity, reduces the drama of Prometheus Unbound to nonsense - it suspends narrative
logic, and cannot account for the timing of Jupiter's defeat or for Demogorgon's direct connection to
redemptive Love.
There is further circumstantial evidence for such a reading in - of all places - Thomas Love Peacock's
Rododaphne where Demogorgon is described as "the principle of vegetable life." One of Shelley's
more recent biographers, James Bieri, also notes that Shelley may have given Newton - his
vegetarian inspiration - the nickname "Demogorgon."
Far from a neurotic and medically ignorant example of trend-setting, Shelley's ethical vegetarianism
is indispensible to an informed understanding of his work. It is the logical and necessary consquence
of a carefully considered concept of Love, in Shelley's words "the bond and the sanction which
connects not only man with man, but with everything that exists."