The Ecphorizer

Anti-Prometheus in the Writings of Edward Abbey
JoAnn Malina

Issue #03 (November 1981)


Prometheus was, in Greek myth, the hero who brought fire to humanity, turning us from cold, hungry, sniveling little beasts into creatures with the power to challenge the gods themselves. He was exquisitely punished, of course, but what was done could not be undone by any measure of divine wrath. The legend appeared at a time when we needed distance from and power over the natural world, when we had so little of either. Prometheus also appears in American folklore; Ayn Rand, for instance, [quoteright'/>is quite taken with the image of the larger than life hero who brings gifts of knowledge and excellence to mankind and who suffers for it. We usually think of such people as bringing us scientific and technological knowledge for the overcoming of nature.

Another character familiar to Americans is the Mountain Man. Real men like John Muir, James Beckworth, and Davy Crockett have become legendary beings. Like Prometheus they are heroic, self-sufficient, sure of their place in the world. They differ in their general avoidance of human society unless it impinges upon them, preferring the mountains, forest or desert to the streets and dwellings of their fellows.

The latter type of man populates the writings of Edward Abbey: novelist, essayist, and lover of the desert, particularly of the American Southwest -- most specifically of the Four Corners, where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona come together. The salient characteristics of this land are heat and aridity; also silence, clear air and a stark beauty for those who can love sand-scoured cliff and sun-bleached stone and all the strange, dangerous creatures who live there. As it lies in the middle of nowhere, man has generally left it alone, save for a few half-hearted national monuments such as The Arches (where Abbey was once a park ranger).

It had been left alone, that is, until recently. It is presently being strip-mined and built up with power plants to light the distant cities of Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix. Its rivers, especially the Colorado, are being dammed and redammed to provide more power and water to people who insist on living on a land that cannot support them. Ever larger portions of this fragile wilderness are being wrung of their resources so farmers may plant unadapted crops and office workers nay sprint from air-conditioned office to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned house. And so the water tables drop and are invaded by salt, states (and now countries) fight over the waters of the Rockies and the Sierras, and the air darkens over the Four Corners.

In the preceding paragraph, I sound like Abbey the essayist. In books such as Desert Solitude, The Journey Home, and Abbey's Road, he describes the strange beauties of his country and the predaticxis of humans who come not to participate in its mysteries but to bring to it the very brutality and vulgarity they have fled.

What happens when Mountain Man's beck is to the wall comes cut most clearly in Abbey's fiction, especially The Monkey Wrench Gang, where four people of diverse backgrounds and no special claim to heroism defend the wilderness in a direct way: turning down billboards (metal ones require acetylene torches), wrecking coal trains, pouring Karo syrup into the oil-drained engine blocks of bulldozers, dynamiting bridges, and locking ahead to the big one: the removal of the Glen Canyon Dam. One in particular, George Hayduke, is my image of Anti -Prometheus: a loutish, sexist, beer-guzzling, burned-out Vietnam veteran who, like Mountain Man, is short of temper and of the gentler emotions and yet has something like love for the land, who knows that "someone has to do it."

I am a soft city person, who lives where I do because someone early in the century turned the Hetch Hetchy Valley into a slime-lined reservoir. Why do I cheer this man on as he destroys the mechanisms that permit me to live? I really don't want to go back to the Midwest. Neither do I want to see every river in California turned into a concrete ditch. Not for their sake simply, but for my own.

Both the types described at the beginning of this essay are paradigms for inner human experiences: the story of Prometheus is the story of the acquisition of consciousness, the divine spark that does indeed make us more like the gods than the animals. Mountain Man is a variant of the hermit -- who is ourselves in tune with the inner world which sustains us as individuals, rather than as members of a community or species -- expressed as a rapport with nature instead of a religious quest.

Now, Mountain Man has become Anti-Prometheus and come down from the mountains to tell us we are destroying the earth we need to survive, as we are destroying our ties to the the inner sources that give life meaning. In this form, he seems to be a figure that has evolved as humanity has developed the power to do real damage to the natural world; though that is nothing new, we have been wiping out species at least since the end of the Ice Age. It would seem that the idea that the raising of a mighty dam is a despoliation rather than an heroic feat must be a new one in human history, though as I write that the Tower of Babel springs to mind. I think Anti-Prometheus has appeared in this form at this time in history to remind us that we are creatures of earth as well as of air, and that we are sawing off the limb on which we dangle over the precipice -- individually and spiritually as well as collectively and physically. Most hopefully, he (who is, remember, an aspect of ourselves) has pressed our own tools, chainsaw and dynamite, into the service of those who say that this will not be allowed to happen.

Not all of Abbey's work revolves around this theme. Black Sun is a love story, warmed by sex and with the wilderness playing a hackground but crucial role. Many of the essays are comic (he seems to love to destroy luxurious American cars by forcing them to traverse roadless deserts) or informative. But it is all infused with this desire to find somewhere in the bleak and lonely landscape something that is missing, but for which there is inarguably a place, inside himself. It is this that keeps me returning to his work, with pleasure and gratitude. 


Contributor Profile

JoAnn Malina

She was a former officer and newsletter staffer in San Francisco Regional Mensa. She was well-known for her columns about the behavior of Mensans. An escapee from Chicago, she has worked as a career programmer at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.




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