Updated: Sep 2, 2020
By John Scarborough
A recent issue of The New Yorker published a few very short pieces by Franz Kafka, originally published under the title, “The Rescue Will Begin in Its Own Time”. Kafka was born in 1883 to an Ashkenazi Jewish family living in Prague, which today is the capital of the Czech Republic. He was trained as a lawyer; until he came down with TB in 1917 he was employed as a claims investigator for an insurance company. He died of TB seven years later, in 1924, at the age of 40. His best-known longer works include The Metamorphosis, The Trial, and The Castle.
According to the first legend concerning Prometheus: legends concerning Prometheus., for betraying the gods to mankind Prometheus was shackled to a peak in the Caucasus, and the gods sent eagles that ate at his liver as it kept growing back.
Here’s the first of those very short pieces. It starts out a little oddly; and it ends just as oddly:
A legend is an attempt to explain the inexplicable; emerging as it does from a basis of truth, it is bound to end in the inexplicable.
We have four legends concerning Prometheus.
According to the first of them, for betraying the gods to mankind he was shackled to a peak in the Caucasus, and the gods sent eagles that ate at his liver as it kept growing back.
According to the second, the pain of the jabbing beaks drove Prometheus ever deeper into the rocks until he became one with them.
According to the third, his betrayal was forgotten in the course of millennia: the gods forgot, the eagles forgot, he himself forgot.
According to the fourth, everyone grew tired of the procedure, which had lost its raison d’être. The gods grew tired, the eagles, too. Even the wound grew tired and closed.
The real riddle was the mountains.
That’s the story. Kafka didn’t make up the myth of Prometheus. He’s reduced it to its bare bones, which on a good day makes things easier to understand. Zeus hid fire from humans, for they were at risk of misusing it. Prometheus tricked the gods and got it back. But no one is above the law. Zeus had Prometheus chained to a rockface in the Caucasus, perhaps in Armenia or Azerbaijan, or Georgia, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. I guess he’s still there, though the eagles have returned to riding thermals above the mountains, and his wound has healed.
We recognize ourselves in the theft of fire from the gods. The rest of the story is rather unsettling and uncertain. Kafka says the real riddle is not the origin of life, nor human shortsightedness, nor how to get politicians to wear facemasks, but the mountains. Even after everyone has forgotten Prometheus’ defiance and punishment, the fact is, he – and we – are still tied to the mountains, to the Earth, from which we all have come, on which we all depend.