From Prometheus to Epimetheus: The Rise and Fall of the Modern Age

Those of you who have migrated to The Chrysalis from the old Dark Age Blog will recognise the theme of this post. It seems necessary to revisit that theme briefly once again before moving on.

In The Dark Age Blog, we noted how eras are book-ended by certain mythic characters and names in the form of, first, the hero, but then later as anti-hero. There is a reversal of fortunes in which the older symbol or honoured name is emptied of meaning and value, (the process resembling Nietzsche’s succinct description of nihilism: “all higher values devalue themselves”). In tracing the course of the High Middle Ages, for example, we noted the hero in the form of Parsifal (early 13th century), the fool who becomes a knight, as the heroic figure standing at the beginning of that Era, and then the exhaustion of that type in the anti-hero Don Quixote (early 17th century), the knight who becomes a fool once more — the aristocratic type as buffoon. Cervantes mocking of Don Quixote and the chivalric “Quest” as a mere matter of tilting at windmills parallels the rise of a new historical type — the Bourgeois as the modern, practical, matter-of-fact man. The names Parsifal and Don Quixote really serve to book end the rise and fall of the High Middle Ages.

And so it is also with the Modern Era. At the beginning of the Age stands the figure of Prometheus, whose name means “forethought” or foresight. Prometheus is the proud, cunning, and rebellious Titan who stole the divine fire (self-consciousness) from the gods and gave it to humans, and who was then punished for the crime by Zeus, who had him chained to a rock where his liver was eaten out daily by an eagle. Early Renaissance humanism is fully in the spirit of Prometheus, and “Promethean Man” has often been used as a term of description for the exemplary type of modern human being — the “knowing” and self-conscious Man of Reason (Cartesian cogito).

Prometheus Bound

Often overlooked, though, is the brother of Prometheus. He is called Epimetheus, and his name means “afterthought” or hindsight. By describing these two as “brothers”, the myth tells us that they are two aspects of one and the same process in terms of “fore” and “aft”. While Promethean consciousness is progressive or “foreward-looking”, Epimethean consciousness (which represents reversal) is retrospective consciousness and even regret. We have already moved into the stage represented by Epimethean consciousness, for this is the real meaning of “the post-modern condition”. The man or woman of the post-modern type is Epimethean Man. And as with the end of the High Middle Ages, Epimethean Man represents the anti-hero who negates and empties the heroic-type of Promethean Man of significance and value even though they are brothers. Epimethean Man, though, is a dead end — a transitional figure just as Don Quixote was a transitional figure, being both post- and yet pre- something else.

Epimetheus and Pandora, as Adam and Eve

This binding and loosening, or genesis and nihilism, is like the breath — inspiration and expiration — and is completely necessary. So, even nihilism serves a purpose. In the case of the Modern Era now passing away, its values were simply not congruent with the emergence of a planetary consciousness. I know that many people believe that “globalisation” is simply the expansion of the Modern Era to encompass the globe, but this is not so. This is false consciousness. It is more the case that the planetary era, this new era, is penetrating the old era — the Modern Era — and is dissolving it from within. This process is generating great anxiety and Angst in those formed by the era, and leads to reactionary politics and distorted expressions of “survivalism”.

This process, which we have described as “dehiscence”, has both negative and positive features. It is found in the art of Pablo Picasso, (which might be described as “integralism” better than as cubism). It is also found in the emergence of “World Music” which is the playful experimental search for a common, mutually intelligible and global idiom of artistic expression — a new or transformed modus. Here, I’m thinking of the wonderful Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Qawwali is Sufi devotional music. But in the voice and presentation of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan this is devotional music the likes of which you’ve likely never heard. It does rock the kasbbah (especially his last live recording before he died, the appropriately titled Swan Song) and it is powerfully delivered.

These examples demonstrate the principle common to all new historical epochs. It is the artist (not the priest, the scientist, or the politician) that leads into the new era because it is primarily the artist that gives expression to the new emergent principle of self-realisation — the mutation in the consciousness structure. This is, for example, completely true of the Renaissance period in European history, grounded in the emergence of perspective space and the new consciousness of space. This space-bias represented in perspective perception has been the orientation of the Modern mind until… well… Now. Very great art is less about self-expression than it is about self-realisation, or more specifically, the emergent expression of a new faculty of consciousness or power of perception. The artist, here, is simply agent, and the real measure of the great artist is not “invention”, per se, but his or her mastery of the materials through which the new mutation in consciousness enters into our physical reality.

In early modern terms, this process of the new consciousness realisation climaxed in the figure of Leonardo da Vinci, who is often considered the quintessential “Renaissance Man”. Da Vinci, however, was preceded by a few generations before him, generations of artists that struggled to give expression to the new emerging consciousness structure we now call “the mental-rational” or perspectivist consciousness of primarily space-perception. What Newton said of himself, (that if he saw further, it was because he “stood on the shoulders of giants” before him), could be said of da Vinci as well. The new consciousness structure that was only vaguely experienced and struggled with by earlier Renaissance artists, becomes in da Vinci self-awareness and self-realised consciousness structure. Hello World!

Likewise, Picasso had his precursors who also struggled with the frustrating limitations of perspectivism, as you will learn in history of Late Modern art. This agonising frustration with the limitations of the media and a constricting conventional perspectivism also indicates the emergence of a new consciousness mutation (as described, for example, by Jean Gebser in his Ever-Present Origin). And, as Gebser (who personally knew Picasso) pointed out, Picasso’s art is not essentially about space but about time, which is why it strikes the modern spatially-oriented, perspectivising perception as being somewhat confusing and dissonant. The plastic arts, however, are not likely to be the preferred medium for the self-realisation of the new consciousness structure. The new “integral” structure, which is largely time-oriented, is more likely to become articulated through, and find its voice in, music and film, where the sense of time and timing, rhythm and harmony, is more pronounced. And, like everything else, there will be heroic, artistic struggles that will result in better (faithful) and worse (distorted) or abortive efforts. This is the new consciousness structure itself attempting to come to self-realisation and awareness, and seeking its own route to expression, manifestation, and self-realisation within the physical system of spacetime.  In a sense, it is a Titan or god as the Greeks experienced this, for the consciousness structure is not personal nor a personal possession. It employs the person for its own self-realisation and self-manifestation.

(But more on that later).

The significance of this can’t be overlooked, either, for it is the artist who is becoming the new “entrepreneur” and who displaces the bourgeois-type of market-oriented entrepreneur or “go-between” (as the word means). The mastery of technology (media) will be the work of the artist and not of the “practical” man of money and markets. As ever, the new consciousness structure will rely primarily on the artist for its realisation. So, we will have to examine this theme of artist as entrepreneur, or the “go-between” who serves as the midwife of the new consciousness structure and the new era that attends its self-manifestation and self-revelation (and which will be experienced as apocalyptic in the sense of “unveiling”).

3 responses to “From Prometheus to Epimetheus: The Rise and Fall of the Modern Age”

  1. amothman says :

    Hello Scott
    I enjoyed every line you wrote. The artist in you who is writing his tale of self-realisation.I agree fully that the artist will lead the emergent march.Rumi was and still is the artist who expresses the process of self-realisation elegantly divorced from time and space.Detachment and attachment.Departing the small i to enter the realm of the large I.From Cain to Abel.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Detachment and attachment.

      Yes, indeed. Thanks. It occurs to me that this is a very good interpretation of loosening and binding.

    • Scott Preston says :

      The undercurrents in the global dialogue today are often very subtle compared to the noisiness of “mainstream” news and of mass propaganda. Nietzsche was very influenced not just by Buddhism and Christianity, but by Islam also (through Rumi and Hafiz), which comes through in his philosophy. Rumi is still the most popular poet in the US, by last account. And I already mentioned World Music as very much part of the “hidden” undercurrent of the global conversation amongst peoples (I mentioned, for example, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, although there are many others).

      In other words, the global conversation is the real and is only an “undercurrent” because it is being obscured by so much unreality of fake news, mass propaganda, commercialised speech (advertising), and everything that constitutes the “Bubble of Reality”, which is the unreal. The real work of constructing the new planetary consciousness is going on “beneath” this hullaballoo of verbiage that is called “mainstream”, and it is largely being led by artists — poets, musicians, film-makers, etc. And it is hidden only because the mainstream doesn’t even see it happening.

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