A modern Prometheus 

The dreadful fate of Nick Berg

Like many Americans, last week I found myself in that discomforting position of wanting to look at violence ... and not wanting to look. While members of the U.S. Congress reluctantly looked at nearly 2,000 images of sexual humiliation and torture of Iraqi prisoners, many of the rest of us scoured the Internet to see video of the beheading of young Nick Berg.

As soon as I saw it, I wished I had not. I lost my equilibrium for the next few days. Of course, the act's horror far exceeds that of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, but both spectacles share the effect of radically reversing what we want to believe about human nature. Berg's execution and the sadistic treatment of prisoners cause us to gasp. In that instant, when the breath is taken from us, we are reminded of our own mortality. Our own sense of aliveness suddenly deepens.

As humans, we alone can make this choice to kill and torture. Numerous scholars -- from Georges Bataille to Wolfgang Giegerich and Rene Girard -- have made the point that human and animal sacrifice is the foundation of religion and culture, that its radical constellation of the sense of choice throws us out of pure biological identity into self-consciousness, which distinguishes us from other living creatures.

Sacrifice, profane as it is, is linked in this view to the sacred, the way man is related to the gods. One may not, in this view, have a sense of the sacred without accounting in some way for sacrifice. The most common means in Western culture is the continual remembering of the passion of Christ, which ideally dissolves the need for literal sacrifice in modern life.

If we forget the relationship of violence and sacrifice to the sacred, we are doomed to find some way to soak the ground with blood in cruel and literal ways. Thus radical Islam's jihad and our own violent enterprises, like the Iraq invasion, undertaken at any cost -- including the sacrifice of young Americans and thousands of Iraqis.

How do we end the bloodletting? By recovering our sense of the sacred, the mythological. In researching Berg's story, I was startled by a superficially trivial detail -- the name of his company, Prometheus Methods Tower Service. Perhaps you recall Prometheus from your own education in mythology.

Prometheus assisted Zeus in overthrowing Kronos, but he never had much respect for Zeus, feeling that he and the other gods lacked compassion for one another and for human beings. Indeed, Zeus had decided to let humans perish. He thought the gifts of knowledge would only make us miserable. Prometheus defied Zeus and gave us fire, which in turn inspired the creation of culture. Prometheus also gave us woodworking, numbers, the alphabet, carriages, saddles, ships, healing drugs, mining, art and ... animal sacrifice.

Nick Berg was a Promethean man. Under great inspiration, he went to Iraq to participate in the rebuilding of that country. Berg, according to friends, loved everything about communications towers -- erecting them, scaling them, repairing them -- and there were none in Iraq. So, like Prometheus, he wanted to bring a new technology to Iraq. And like Prometheus, he was fearless. Puer-like, he freely walked about Baghdad and hung out in cafes where no other Americans went, even though he was continually cautioned against it. Indeed, he was detained by Iraqi police and defied U.S. authorities by refusing to return home when they offered him a ticket.

When Zeus learned that Prometheus had defied him, he arranged to have the man who gave animal sacrifice to humans shackled to a crag in the Caucasus Mountains. Every day at dawn, an eagle came to devour his liver. Every night, the wound healed, and the process continued daily for 14 generations. Further, Zeus took his anger out on mankind by sending us Pandora and her box of evils to counteract the gifts Prometheus gave us.

Berg's grotesque decapitation recalls Prometheus' fate. And the myth itself reminds us that we had best be prepared for tremendous sacrifice when we undertake the exportation of our ideals to the rest of the world. The risk is that evil will inevitably be cultivated and compounded as those ideals are advanced -- in grimly literal human sacrifice and torture. Prometheus reminds us of the inevitability of sacrifice, but also provides a caution of how disproportionate it can become when hubris or ungrounded idealism eclipse consciousness.

Atlantans have an extraordinary opportunity next month to learn more about the way mythology can illuminate contemporary life. This is the first of a few columns to introduce the Mythic Journeys Conference, to be held June 2-6 at the downtown Hyatt Regency hotel. The event will feature speakers who employ myth in psychology, literature, business, science and the arts. James Hillman, the most seminal thinker in mythology and psychology, is among the participants. For information, call 404-832-4127 or log onto www.mythicjourneys.org.

The conference is also hosting an art exhibit, Ancient Spirit, Modern Voice, through June 12 at the Defoor Centre (1710 Defoor Ave., 404-591-3809).

Cliff Bostock is in private practice. Reach him at 404-525-4774 or at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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