Prometeo Desencadenado: The Afterlife of Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound in the Americas
In commemoration of the bicentenary of Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820), this comparative essay focuses on the reception of the lyrical drama as a revolutionary manifesto in Spanish-American nations. Fittingly, the drama’s publication in the early nineteenth century coincided not only with Rafael del Riego’s republican revolt in Spain but also with the independence movements throughout Latin America more generally.
The essay begins with an overview of Prometheus Unbound’s short-lived yet influential reception history in Hispanophone culture, before tracking particular readings of the play in local journalism and literature. I focus my reading primarily on Alejo Carpentier’s Los pasos perdidos [The Lost Steps] (1950), a major twentieth-century novel whose network of references and allusions to Shelley’s play provides one of the most earnest artistic engagements with the drama ever produced. I ultimately suggest that as an endorsement of non-violent revolution and social equality, Prometheus Unbound has been indelibly inscribed into the radical political and literary history of Spanish-American nations.
Given that Shelley did not expect Prometheus Unbound to be a popular work in English, its brief circulation and reception history in Hispanophone cultures is perhaps unsurprising.
Prometheus Unbound was not fully translated into the Spanish language until 1994, when Hiperion Press in Spain published a bilingual edition with a translation by Alejandro Valero. The drama had hitherto appeared in translation in both Spain and Spanish America only in parts: as an array of fragments that existed as separate “poems” featured in anthologies. Excerpts of it had also been used as epigraphs or cited in works by authors such as Miguel de Unamuno, who considered Shelley to be a “marvelous” writer (González and Rodríguez 101).
As Beatriz Gonzalez and Santiago Rodríguez point out, Shelley’s reception in Spain has suffered from various gaps of omission. This is owing largely to the country’s complicated history. During the nineteenth century, for instance, Shelley was occluded from the “conservative attitudes” of the reign of Ferdinand VII (1784–1833), when several liberal, progressive authors, including Jose de Espronceda, were exiled from Spain—a time period that also coincided with the Spanish American Independence movements. It was not until the fin-de-siècle that [Shelley] is first mentioned in Spain. His name reappeared during the 1920s only to disappear soon thereafter with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936 and the ensuing fascist state created under Francisco Franco. The name of Shelley and his work began reappearing in the 1970s and has continued to gain traction ever since; the recent translation of Prometheus Unbound is a good case in point (97).
In the two centuries since Prometheus Unbound’s publication, versions of it—as either a reference or part-translation in Spanish America—have taken on varying titles: Prometeo (Prometheus), Prometeo Desencadenado (Prometheus Unchained), Prometeo Liberado (Prometheus Liberated), Prometeo Desatado (the closest version one comes to “unbound” in Spanish), and Prometeo Libertado (an orthographical variation of Prometheus Liberated).
Valero’s translation of the play features paratextual materials in Spanish, including a translation of Shelley’s Preface and Mary Shelley’s “Note” from her publication of Prometheus Unbound in 1839. The volume’s back cover, which functions as a preface to the collection, highlights the drama as “perhaps [Shelley’s] most ambitious work.” It traces some biographical information on Shelley and the play’s composition history prior to offering a synopsis that makes the case for the drama as a text of resistance (Figure 1):
‘Grounded in Greek myth that [Shelley] interprets and reimagines according to his own style, [the play] brings fundamental problems into relief such as the struggle between good and evil and the origin and destiny of the human species who, alongside the natural world, resists oppression and destruction in the struggle for liberty. The poem ends with a great song of hope in the wake of love’s triumph as the law of the world. ’ In his editorial notes, Valero remarks how, in contrast to Aeschylus’s version of the myth, Shelley focused his adaptation on the moral and psychological aspects that enable Prometheus’s liberation (215). For Valero, the play’s portrayal of a new political reality culminates in a celebratory chant of freedom:
The new world created by Prometheus’s liberation. The ancient world passes away and nature celebrates with joy the new state of things. The main actors in [the final] act are time and space. What has been born, more than a new man, is a new perception of the world as seen by man, because nothing exists outside of human perception.
el nuevo mundo creado tras la liberación de Prometeo. El mundo antiguo fenece y la naturaleza celebra con regocijo el nuevo estado de cosas. Los actores principales de este acto son el tiempo y el espacio. Lo que ha nacido, más que un nuevo hombre, es una nueva percepción del mundo tal como lo ve el hombre, porque nada existe fuera de la percepción humana. (220)
Valero’s reading of the play as a reimagined classical myth in which love and human sympathy triumph over corrupt and despotic forces captures the general manner in which Prometheus Unbound has been received in Spanish America. An article from December 16, 1922, which appeared on the fifth page of El Universal, an early twentieth-century radical newspaper from Caracas, further supports this appeal (Figures 2 and 3):
The article, “The Poet Shelley—with Byron and Keats—Prometheus Unbound—A narrow and gloomy valley” [ “El Poeta Shelley—Con Byron y Keats,—El “Prometeo Libertado.” —Un valle estrecho y sombrío” ], was published in commemoration of the centenary of Shelley’s death (1922). Written by Edouard Herriot, who eventually became prime minister of France, the text presents his radical political interests in Shelley and was fittingly published in the aftermath of World War I.
In addition to summarizing all four acts, Herriot lauds the play’s poetic ideals as both “current” and “eternal.” After citing the final lines uttered by Demogorgon in Act IV, he praises the play’s “luxuries of lyricism,” its ideas of passive resistance, and the “necessary agony” suffered by Prometheus. In the final paragraph, Herriot states: ‘I gladly read [Prometheus Unbound] again in these troublesome times. I have placed it among my beloved books, very close to Plato. Shelley is the poet of democracy, of reason, of intellectual beauty; [he is] the adversary of tyranny, the enthusiastic chanter of liberty. I love everything about its classic purity; the poetry that flows through all its parts, the immense love of nature that resounds in each of its stanzas, [and] the ineffable music of its verse. During the war’s tragic hours, I would hear [the play’s] words of hope, which sang in the wind of the battle. May [Shelley’s] memory rise again today among the lands of the free in order to inspire respect for life, the love of Reason and of Peace! After all, [Shelley] was the one who said: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”’ Employing his own poetic liberties and invoking Shelley’s famous description of poets as “unacknowledged legislators,” Herriot’s synopsis mirrors the earlier sentiments of W.B. Yeats, who famously said at the turn of the twentieth century that Prometheus Unbound is among the “sacred books of the world” (Early Essays 70). Like Valero, Herriot acknowledges the drama’s timeless connections between poetry, politics, and popular reform.
This seemingly uncritical treatment of Shelley’s poetry and politics turns strikingly more nuanced in Carpentier’s reading of the play in Los pasos perdidos. Although Carpentier was born in Switzerland to French and Russian parents and was educated throughout Europe, he grew up in Cuba and identified as Cuban. He spent much of his life fascinated by music, becoming a musicologist and studying musical traditions of the Caribbean and South America. Carpentier fled Cuba in 1945 because of the threat his left-wing politics posed to Fulgencio Batista’s regime. While in exile he wrote the partly autobiographical work, Los pasos perdidos, which was published in Venezuela thirty-one years after Herriot’s article. A novel with Shelleyan, Conradian, and Proustian resonances, it tells the story of an unnamed, spiritually-exhausted protagonist and narrator whose Prufrockian malaise puts him at odds with the modern world. The narrative’s idealization of the origins of the human species is pit starkly against the “missteps” of human progress—as seen in the novel’s contrast between the native customs of a South American primitive oral society and the contemporary world of European languages, literature, philosophy, and cultures. A musicologist in search of native musical instruments, the narrator travels from New York City through the Andes Mountains into the heart of the South American jungle where his arduous physical journey toward the center of the continent also represents a journey back in time. From the contemporary urban landscape into farmlands, primitive villages, and stone-age-like encampments, he discovers an Edenic oasis and refuge from modern civilization.
Throughout its pages, Carpentier integrates the plot, mystical settings, and idealistic aims of Prometheus Unbound into its narrative space. Like the lyrical drama, the novel portrays the reversal of historical time.
Yet this modern adaptation of Shelley’s work, which is set in a South American jungle instead of the Indian Caucasus, offers a more ambivalent take than Valero’s or Herriot’s. The novel critiques the structure and aims of Prometheus Unbound, as the integration of the play becomes an experiment that ultimately fails. Carpentier’s empiricist approach for thinking through Shelley’s radical imperatives brings to light the incompatibility between the demands for real-world change and the conceptual blueprints for revolution that Shelley presumably left under-theorized.
Prometheus Unbound is undoubtedly the most significant source text for Los pasos perdidos, and its assimilation in the novel occurs in multiple ways. Carpentier introduces Shelley’s text early in the book when the narrator sees a copy of the lyrical drama in a New York City bookshop, which made him “forget the world of books” altogether (12).
This influential moment cues the reader to the currency of Prometheus Unbound as the novel’s major touchstone, while prompting the narrator to recall his own musical adaptation of Shelley’s drama. He has, in fact, composed “a prelude and the first draft of the opening scenes” of an “ambitious cantata on Prometheus Unbound,” a choral composition that emulates the style of the hymnic fourth act of Shelley’s play (19). The novel further resembles its predecessor text through its plot structure as a quest romance, its emphasis on social revolution, and its panoply of images and poetic descriptions.
The novel’s treatment of free love is also definitively Shelleyan. While married to Ruth, an American woman, the narrator has sought out a French lover named Mouche, with whom he travels to South America. When he grows tired of her during their journey, increasingly identifiying Mouche with Western bourgeois culture, he trades her for Rosario, a native woman and kindred spirit. These polyamorous behavioral patterns are reminiscent of Shelley’s own pursuits of love and depictions in such poems as Epipsychidion. For the narrator, Rosario transcends the taints of European modernity and colonialism and is the closest he comes to discovering his soulmate, his epipsyche: “several races had met in this [ideal] woman”; she is “an amalgam of related peoples” as an interracial and multi-ethnic ideal (81–2). “Through her lips the plants began to speak and describe their own powers,” which is suggestive of the animistic and anthropomorphic features of Shelley’s play (83). Carpentier even includes a moment of homoerotic tension when Mouche unsuccessfully attempts a pass at Rosario. This moment echoes the homoerotic scene between the daughters of Ocean at the beginning of Act II, as Carpentier meticulously aligns the plot and characters of each work.
In terms of setting, the urban landscapes of New York City and the guerilla-torn South American city parallel the unredeemed Earth of Prometheus Unbound’s first act. These correspondences make evident that, for the narrator, both European metropoles and colonial peripheries have become contaminated and corrupted. Several lines from Act I, including those from Prometheus’s opening monologue, appear throughout this early part of the novel; the second chapter even begins with the first fury’s initial line, “Ha! I scent life,” which signals a point of transition for the Titan who, despite being persecuted and tormented by the goddesses, refuses to despair. When the narrator visits what scholars agree is Caracas, he experiences his own form of encounter with the taunting furies: the outbreak of a violent revolution and guerilla warfare in which snipers detain him against his will. In Caracas, even nature appears to be up in arms: “For hundreds of years a struggle had been going on with roots that pushed up the sidewalks and cracked the walls” (38). The scene recalls the tension that verges on stalemate between Prometheus and Jupiter, especially when the narrator comments on the fraught South American history of the twentieth century where one finds the “movement of Socialists against Conservatives, of Communists against Catholics . . . [and] one lives with Rousseau and the Inquisition, with the Immaculate Conception and Das Kapital” (50–1). The echoes from the first act of Prometheus Unbound are further reinforced when the narrator passes a shop with a “mysterious sign,” “[el] Rastro de Zoroastro,” a rhymed Spanish phrase meaning the trail (or trace) of Zoroaster (42). The sign brings to mind Shelley’s own reference to Zoroaster in Act I, which reveals the play’s interest in critiquing institutionalized religions and dualistic structures.
Through a series of trials, the narrator also undertakes a quest romance into the heart of a jungle untainted by European civilization and colonization. The expedition echoes not only Prometheus’s mental transformation in Act I but also Asia’s quests in Act II: her physical journey into the underworld and the figurative voyage into the depths and discovery of her own psyche. Although both texts take place in different epochs and different parts of the globe, the characters in Los pasos perdidos encounter settings familiar to any reader of Prometheus Unbound: frozen landscapes, ravines, volcanoes, and a “multitude of peaks and abysses” (78). Like Asia at the beginning of Act II, scene five, who appears on a cloud atop a mountain ready to redeem the earth with love alongside Prometheus, the narrator also finds himself positioned above the clouds just prior to his new life in the jungle beside his own ideal love, Rosario.
To engage Shelley’s work even further, Carpentier employs a style of imagery as if taken directly from the play’s experimental fourth act. Describing what he calls the “dance of the trees,” the narrator notes “the rhythm that begins in the leaves, a restless, ascending rhythm—with the surge and breaking of the waves, with gentle pauses, rests—which suddenly becomes a storm of rejoicing. There is nothing more beautiful than a bamboo thicket dancing in the breeze” (211). In Act IV, the Chorus of Unseen Spirits decree how:
Bright clouds float in heaven,Dew-stars gleam on earth,Waves assemble on ocean,They are gathered and drivenBy the storm of delight, by the panic of glee!They shake with emotion,They dance in their mirth.(lines 40–46)
Later, the chorus rejoices to “weave the dance on the floor of the breeze, / [and] Pierce with song heaven's silent light” (70–71).
Beyond embedding these ecstatic images into his poetical prose, Carpentier links the journey through space (to the center of the continent) to an expedition back in time. Upon his arrival at the secluded village, he remarks how he has retrogressed several millennia: ‘the 58 centuries separating the fourth chapter of Genesis from the current year back there could be spanned in one hundred and eighty minutes . . . [we flew] over cities that today, at this very time, belonged to the Middle Ages, the Conquest, the Colony, or the Romantic era” (233–34).’ For the narrator, the gap he once understood between the past and present has collapsed, as the self-sustaining community he has reached seemingly exists outside of history. Carpentier pits the Edenic surroundings of “acá” (here) against the “allá” (back there) of everyday modern life in New York and Caracas. The native village has bypassed the ravages of time and “progress” altogether; it is a “world compact, complete . . . a hidden nation, a map in code, a vast vegetable kingdom with few entrances” (126). Surrounded by native life and customs, the narrator experiences “the years . . . melt away, vanish, in the dizzying backward flight of time . . . We are in the Paleolithic age” (177–79). This part of the narrative is no doubt an adaptation of the final lines of the second act, in which Prometheus’s and Asia’s feats have reset history and have hence returned the world back to its origins:
We have passed Age's icy caves,And Manhood's dark and tossing waves,And Youth's smooth ocean, smiling to betray:Beyond the glassy gulfs we fleeOf shadow-peopled Infancy,Through Death and Birth, to a diviner day(II.v.98–103)
It is no coincidence that, in the midst of living in the native community, the narrator mentions his “old plan” of working on Prometheus Unbound, as he delights in being part of a primitive oral society that is centered on community, memory, and literature. He learns “that the Indians had preserved the memory of a confused epic . . . of a Carib migration . . . [through which] the amazing unity of myths was borne out . . . the poem lived in the memory of the generations of the jungle” (210). The passage recalls Shelley’s own heterogeneous and eclectic myth of global aspiration. A play that symbolically unites the West (Prometheus) and East (Asia), Prometheus Unbound is itself a “confused epic” that bridges numerous traditions, faiths, and cultures.
This ostensibly uncritical homage to Shelley’s drama starts to dwindle, however, toward the end of the novel. While enjoying his new jungle life and using language and imagery inspired by the Shelleyan imagination, the narrator appears to lose touch with the actual details of the play. As he recounts, Prometheus Unbound for him ‘conveyed a sense of resurrection, an emergence from darkness . . . Certain verses I recalled would have fitted in admirably with my desire to work on a text made of simple and direct words: ‘Ah me! Alas, pain, pain, pain ever, for ever!’—‘No change, no pause, no hope! Yet I endure.’ And then those choruses of mountains, springs, storms, elements by which I was surrounded and I felt. That voice of the Earth, at once Mother, clay, womb, like the Mothers of Gods who still reign in the jungle. And those hounds of hell who break into the drama and howl with the accent of maenads rather than furies. ‘Ha! I scent life!’ ‘Let me but look into his eyes!’” (166, emphasis added)’ Notwithstanding the narrator’s (and Carpentier’s) palpable admiration for the drama, any careful reader of Shelley’s play will detect the blatant misreading. Most obviously, the language of Prometheus Unbound is neither simple nor direct. Nor are the furies represented in Act I as agents of Dionysus. In an unusual manner, the above lines interweave the fantastical aspects of Shelley’s drama with the narrator’s inaccurate recollection of it.
Yet these are not careless mistakes on Carpentier’s part. The mischaracterization of Shelley’s work arrives at a fitting point in the novel when the narrator stops idealizing the South American natives and landscape. This transformation is signaled most pointedly and symbolically by the appearance of a copy of Homer’s The Odyssey. Snapping out of Shelleyan fantasy, the narrator regains his “modern” consciousness. “But no,” he confesses, “it was absurd to excite my imagination with [the cantata] when I did not have Shelley’s poem there, and never would” (218). At this climactic juncture, rather than resuming that “misbegotten Prelude to Prometheus Unbound,” he decides instead to compose a cantata on The Odyssey (218). That is, the spell cast by Shelley’s poetry is broken, as the turn to Homeric epic foreshadows not only the end of the narrator’s sojourn in paradise but also his imminent return home to New York.
It is appropriate at this point in the novel that—as in the case with the regeneration of the earth in Prometheus Unbound—veils and masks suddenly “fall.” Let us recall that, at the end of Act III, the Spirit of the Hour declares:
The painted veil, by those who were, called life,Which mimicked, as with colours idly spread,All men believed or hoped, is torn aside;The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remainsSceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but manEqual, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the kingOver himself;(III.iv.190–97, emphasis added)
When the characters in the play report that masks and veils have fallen, they mean that the regenerated earth has shed the unnatural distortions caused by tyranny and corruption—allowing thus a view of things as they really are. In Los pasos perdidos, however, Carpentier transforms the ends of the Shelleyan trope. Rather than highlighting the illusions generated by a tainted world, the fallen veils seemingly betray the pitfalls of Shelley’s play. This can be detected when, feeling like an intruder, the narrator suspects he “had torn the veil” of the primitive society (203). While he understands that he has reached a “primordial sense of beauty . . . in such remoteness” (163)—a landscape “unshaken since prehistoric times” (165)—Carpentier, unlike Shelley, ceases to depict nature as idealized. In the jungle, beauty stands beside coarseness: a “slimy tangle of snakes,” “rampant fauna,” and “primeval slime” (160–61). The narrator experiences “a kind of disorientation, and dizziness of the eyes . . . a [feeling] of being completely lost” within such a wilderness (161). This passage is reminiscent of the dizzying and intoxicating haze that overwhelms Asia during her descent toward Demogorgon, especially with echoes of the “Life of Life” hymn from the second act’s fifth scene. But, unlike Asia, who releases Demogorgon through her proto-psychoanalytic introspection, the narrator believes himself to be an interloper in the prelapsarian landscape: “We were intruders, ignorant outlanders . . . in a city born in the dawn of History” (179). He unmasks, as it were, the Shelleyan fantasy and reconsiders the value of returning to one’s alleged origins: “If we go back a little farther, we will come to the terrible loneliness of the Creator, the . . . sadness of the times without incense or songs of praise, when the earth was without order and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep” (187). Surviving in this “prenatal world” becomes impossible, as the narrator is incapable of reconciling the disjunction between the primitive and modern worlds (206).
The narrator’s retreat from the South American cradle of civilization, then, abruptly brings Carpentier’s Shelleyan experiment to its end. Despite the jungle’s allure of art, poetry, seclusion, and exile, as well as his “irresistible” desire to finish his Shelleyan cantata, he remembers the lack of paper and other modern tools that have deterred him from figuratively turning back those “58 centuries” (206). Like Prometheus, he recants, retracting his original desires of remaining in paradise. Unlike Prometheus, though, he ultimately decides to return allá to New York City. When the narrator boards a plane that arrived in search of him, he abandons Rosario and the Shelleyan imagination alike. Carpentier magnifies the tension at this moment by drawing one final time upon Shelley’s poetry. During takeoff, the narrator discovers “an opalescent mist . . . [that] cut us off from everything . . . a fleecy bank of clouds” (238–39).
Though the narrator later tries to reverse his own “lost steps” by returning to the South American jungle, the rising tide of the Amazon blocks his entryway.
Having retraced and allegedly rediscovered the “lost steps” of the human community, the narrator willfully lets them go again. In so doing, he reveals not only the irreducible gap created by time and error but also the incapacity for art—especially in this case, Romantic literary writing—to heal such wounds and fractures. In his tribute to and admiration for Shelley’s lyrical drama, Carpentier’s profound engagement with the text also brings the pitfalls of the utopian drama into relief. For, at least through the novel’s depiction of the modern era of bourgeois capitalism, there exists neither a redeeming Demogorgon nor a cosmic celebration of perpetual harmony. The secluded and intimate South American jungle is not, after all, like Asia's and Prometheus's cave of artistic cultivation, which sustains the renovated universe. According to Carpentier’s conclusion, this alternate prelapsarian South American space must remain elusive: contained instead in hearts of darkness, chasms and caves of wonder, obscure volumes, and even unfinished cantatas.