3000 years of Western history explained

Introducing 'Prometheus and the Primitive'

“There are two paths. From earliest times, two technologies and stances have set themselves up in opposition…: one is the (Promethean) stance and technology that drove the discovery of firemaking, tools, and weapons, and the other is what we call ‘religion.’” In this 1938 essay, Döblin clarifies the world-view that has underlain his writings over the previous three decades.



Döblin’s 1938 essay Prometheus and the Primitive lays out a powerful and trenchant overview of three thousand years of Western history, and thereby clarifies the world view that has underlain his writings over the previous decades.

The past eighty years have only strengthened the case Döblin presents here: Promethean hubris…  individual isolation… rapacious power of ruthless elites … pseudo-spirituality… meaningless diversions…

Prometheus, the “fore-thinker” created humans from clay, and then stole fire from the gods. As punishment he was chained to a rock, where an eagle daily tore out his (ever-renewing) liver. He’s the classical champion of rationality and human striving, always at the risk of hubristic overreach. (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was subtitled ‘The Modern Prometheus’.)

Döblin’s dystopia of the 27th century, Mountains Oceans Giants (1924), lays out a horrendous prospect of Prometheanism gone rampant. (You can download the ‘Iceland’ and ‘Greenland‘ chapters of that book.)

The essay is quite long, but hardly a word is wasted. I’ve highlighted particularly striking quotes, so you can run your eyes quickly over the text before sitting down with a coffee to read it through.


For the adventurous reader, here are a couple of suggestions for further reading:

1.       An essay by Carl Jung titled ‘Wotan’, published in the Neue Schweizer Rundschau (Zurich) in March, 1936 is thought-provoking, and later proved controversial: he was accused of supporting Nazism, whereas he is unsure (in 1936) what direction the demonic energies being unleashed in Germany might ultimately take (though he remarks that “Germany is a land of spiritual catastrophes”). He identified these demonic energies as the reawakening of the long-quiescent archetypal Germanic wanderer-god Wotan, who delights in stirring up strife. There’s a translation (with striking illustrations) at http://www.philosopher.eu/others-writings/essay-on-wotan-w-nietzsche-c-g-jung. (I’ve not come across evidence that Döblin ever met or corresponded with Jung.)

2.       Günther Anders (originally Günther Stern) was one of a ‘Philosophical Group’ that met in Berlin in the late 1920s; Döblin was also a member. Anders, who was Walter Benjamin’s cousin, was married to Hannah Arendt until 1937, and like Döblin was an exile in Hollywood, where he worked a s a studio labourer, was a remarkable thinker; he developed an anthropology of technology and post-humanism which is only starting to be available in English. A translation of ‘On Promethean Shame’, a chapter in his major work Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (The Obsolescence of Humanity), was first published in 2016 in Prometheanism: Technology, Digital Technology and Human Obsolescence by Christopher John Müller (ISBN 978-1-78348-239-9). There’s an interview with Müller at  https://rhystranter.com/2016/10/26/christopher-john-muller-gunther-anders-prometheanism and a discussion of Promethean Shame at https://hauskeller.blogspot.ch/2013/09/gunther-anders-on-promethean-shame-part.html .


Finally, a couple of personal reflections that seem (to me, who spent two lengthy careers in environments of bureaucratic rationality) somewhat relevant to the points Döblin is making in the essay.


In 2014, while I was translating ‘Prometheus and the Primitive’, I read a fascinating piece in the London Review of Books called Ghosts of the Tsunami’, by Richard Lloyd Parry. The tsunami, of course, revealed the impotence of the highest of high Promethean technology at Fukushima, in the face of a powerful assault by Nature.

Parry begins:

“I met a priest in the north of Japan who exorcised the spirits of people who had drowned in the tsunami. The ghosts did not appear in large numbers until later in the year, but Reverend Kaneda’s first case of possession came to him after less than a fortnight.”

He notes, in a sombre sober tone, some of the countless reported hauntings, and goes on:

“The Japanese rank among the most ungodly people in the world. It took a catastrophe for me to understand how misleading this self-assessment is. It is true that the organised religions, Buddhism and Shinto, have little influence on private or national life. But over the centuries both have been pressed into the service of the true faith of Japan: the cult of the ancestors. …

“The tsunami did appalling violence to the religion of the ancestors. Along with walls, roofs and people, the water carried away household altars, memorial tablets and family photographs. Cemetery vaults were ripped open and the bones of the dead scattered. Temples were destroyed, along with memorial books listing the names of ancestors over generations. …

“When people die violently or prematurely, in anger or anguish, they are at risk of becoming gaki, ‘hungry ghosts’, who wander between worlds, propagating curses and mischief. There are rituals for placating unhappy spirits, but in the aftermath of the disaster few families were in a position to perform them. And then there were those ancestors whose descendants were entirely wiped out by the wave. Their comfort in the afterlife depended entirely on the reverence of living families, which had been permanently and irrevocably cut off: their situation was as helpless as that of orphaned children.”

I urge you to read the whole piece.

In western cultures, especially it seems the Anglo-Saxon, the family has weakened almost beyond repair. I feel fortunate to have spent nearly half my life in the Far East, with a large family of Chinese in-laws.

When my father-in-law passed away recently, on the first day of the Year of the Dog, the family at once came together to organise the household altar and the funeral. Relatives came, and sat well into the night reminiscing about the deceased and suggesting anecdotes for my wife’s funeral oration. The funeral itself, in an enormous factory-like complex with hundreds of halls, was moving in ways that surprised me. Notably, instead of the discomfort one usually feels at a western funeral, here was participation in a collective event: everyone helped to dress the open coffin with bright silks, paper ‘money’, a new suit and pair of shoes, items of origami, to speed the passing soul. And next day more shared ceremony, as the urn of ashes was interred in the prepared burial plot.

Some days after the urn-burial, a heavy glass dish fell from a cupboard as my wife opened it, and shattered on the floor. Drat, we said, an accident, sweep it up.

In the afternoon of the same day, a heavy glass steamer lid slipped as I was putting it away, and shattered on the floor. Hm, we said. Twice on the same day. The only two heavy glass items in our kitchen. We seldom have breakages in the kitchen. What does this mean?

Family and friends helped us ponder, and came up with the answer. When something shatters in China, you have to say 碎碎平安! Suisui pingan! “Let every fragment bring peace!” But ‘sui’= ‘fragment’ (it’s the ‘suey’ of ‘chop suey’) is a homophone of 岁’sui’ = ‘year (of life)’. So ‘suisui pingan’ also means ‘many years of peaceful life’ – It was a message from father-in-law.

But me, I’m not at all superstitious, really…

You can read Prometheus and the Primitive here!