Communicative Standpoints in Representing Prometheus

face of a prisoner

Second-personal communication of suffering in fifth-century Athenian tragedy became third-personal in literary works competing for attention in early nineteenth-century England. Fifth-century Athenian tragedy, above all Prometheus Bound, broke civic silence about punishment and forced Athenians to see and hear punished figures. Prometheus Bound attracted considerable literary attention in early nineteenth-century England. The Cenci, Prometheus Unbound, and Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus were important early nineteenth-century adaptations of Prometheus Bound’s themes. In contrast to Prometheus Bound, those adaptations predominately present suffering from a third-personal standpoint.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the most perceptive early nineteenth-century English poets, clearly recognized a new sense of communicative community. Writing about 1819 and anticipating post-modernism by more than century and a half, Shelley declared:

Nothing exists but as it is perceived. … the existence of distinct individual minds … is likewise found to be a delusion. The words I, you, they, are not signs of any actual difference subsisting between the assemblage of thoughts thus indicated, but are merely marks employed to denote the different modifications of the one mind. … The words I and you and they are grammatical devices invented simply for arrangement and totally devoid of the intense and exclusive sense usually attributed to them.^ ^ ^

The Earth, in Prometheus Unbound’s concluding vision of the renewed universe, declares:

Man, oh, not men! a chain of linked thought,
Of love and might to be divided not, …
Man, one harmonious soul of many a soul,
Whose nature is its own divine control^

The public constituted as readers of a widely circulated text might be understood as equal parts of one mind.^ I, you, and they among a text’s public have no distinct sense. The stones walls surrounding one reader, or the chains binding another, don’t matter. This understanding of the public isn’t a metaphysical universal. It’s an understanding of the public intrinsic to intense competition for readers’ attention.

Differences in the structure of symbolic competition best explain general shifts in communicative standpoint. Consider Lucian of Samosata. He was a rhetorician in the Mediterranean region about 1850 years ago. Like Shelley, Lucian competed for attention. For Lucian, this competition was probably weighted more toward oral than textual performance. In Lucian’s dialogue “Prometheus on Caucasus,” Prometheus’s first two speaking turns are second-personal claims to recognize his suffering:

hear me, Hephaestus! Hermes! I suffer injustice: have compassion on my woes!

O Cronus, and Iapetus, and Mother Earth! Behold the sufferings of the innocent!^

In his next speaking turn, Lucian’s Prometheus abruptly shifts to the style of a skilled forensic debater. All the rest of Prometheus’s many words in Lucian’s dialogue are in that style. Providing others with displays of rhetorical skill was Lucian’s primary public work. Prometheus’s second-personal claims of suffering in Lucian’s work function only as a parodic allusion to the lost world of the ancient Greek Prometheus Bound.

A similar textual shift exists in Shelley’s translation of Prometheus Bound. Shelley made that translation in 1817. It is telling context: The Cenci, Prometheus Unbound, and Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus were all written from late 1816 through 1819. In a key imaginative representation of second-personal address in the Greek text of Prometheus Bound, the character who actually carried out the authoritative order to enchain Prometheus declared, “Only this man himself {Prometheus} could blame me.” Shelley translated that line, “For this work no one can justly blame me.”^ Shifting from “this man” to “no one” shifts from second-personal to third-personal communicative accountability. That shift is much more general than this specific textual instance.

A general shift from second-personal to third-personal standpoints can be discerned in comparing the fifth-century Athenian tragedy Prometheus Bound to the early-nineteenth-century English masterpieces The Cenci, Prometheus Unbound, and Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Communication with prisoners similarly shifted from extensive second-personal communication with prisoners prior to the nineteenth century to prisoners subsequently engaging predominately in third-personal communication with the outside world. That shift in communicative standpoint lessens accountability for prisoners’ sufferings.

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