Cave of Demogorgon

The Cave of Demogorgon

One must shed the bad taste of wanting to agree with many. “Good” is no longer good when one’s neighbor mouths it. And how should there be a “common good”! This term contradicts itself: whatever can be common always has little value. In the end it must be as it is and always has been: great things remain for the great, abysses for the profound, nuances and shudders for the refined, and, in brief, all that is rare for the rare.

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, “The Free Spirit” (43)

An important thought occurred to me yesterday regarding the genealogy of Demogorgon. I have spent a great deal of time reading Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound in the last few years. Suddenly, and with a shudder, a new thought intruded—the possibility of an infernal reading of Act II scene IV—the cave of Demogorgon interlude.

Demogorgon is a strange character, the motive force of the play—sometimes read allegorically as Shelley’s notion of necessity. In the final act, it is Demogorgon who dethrones Jupiter, casting him into the pit, triggering the apocalypse. His motive or reasons for acting are nebulous. His speeches in Act II scene IV are marked by obscure pronouns (a Shelley trademark) and not much in the way of answers. A shadowy figure, he is described in distinct allusion to Milton’s description of Satan in Paradise Lost:

Panthea:                          I see a mighty darkness
Filling the seat of power, and rays of gloom
Dart round, as light from the meridian sun,
Ungazed upon and shapeless; neither limb
Nor form, nor outline; yet we feel it is
A living spirit.

Demogorgon:        Ask what thou wouldst know.

Asia:        What can thou tell?

Demogorgon:                All things thou dar’st demand.

At first, the questions and answers are straightforward: “Who made the living world?”— “God.” But when the questioning turns to lordship and misery, Demogorgon evades by using a pronoun.

Asia:        And who made terror, madness, crime,
Which form the links of the great chain of things,
To every thought within the mind of man
Sway and drag heavily, and each one reels
Under the load towards the pit of death;
Abandoned hope, and love that turns to hate;
And self-contempt, bitterer to drink than blood;
Pain, whose unheeded and familiar speech
Is howling, and keen shrieks, day after day;
And Hell, or the sharp fear of Hell?

Demogorgon:                                  He reigns.

I had always read “he” to be “God” before. After all, the question of genesis seems to make that allusion clear. But Demogorgon’s answer is repeated endlessly, as Asia queries him as to the origins of lordship and bondage—the answer remains, “He reigns.”

Looking at Paradise Lost yesterday, it seems to me that there is an alternate way of reading that—Demogorgon stands by Chaos and his consort, Night. His immediate superior, then, would be Chaos. If Demogorgon is answering regarding his immediate (though not ultimate) commander, then Chaos would be the source of lordship and bondage, and of the suffering that binds our being together—a more satisfactory answer, I think, than the recourse to cast blame upon God.

The questioning procedure in this scene very much places the source of the answers that Asia requests regarding tyranny in the words of Asia herself—Demogorgon’s answer to the question of “Who is God” is demurred by saying “I spoke but as ye speak” and her question of “Who is the Master of the Slave?” is answered cryptically:

                   If the abysm
Could vomit forth its secrets.—But a voice
Is wanting, the deep truth is imageless;
For what would it avail to bid thee gaze
On the revolving world? What to bid speak
Fate, Time, Occasion, Chance, and Change? To these
All things are subject but eternal Love.

In the scene from Paradise Lost, Rumor, Chance, Tumult, Confusion and Discord sit beside the throne of Chaos where Demogorgon stands, perhaps in Shelley’s view as some sort of sergeant at arms. Earth is dangling from a golden chain from the edge of Heaven, immersed in the chaos that separates Heaven from Hell. Satan has to stop by the war-tent of Chaos to ask directions to Eden—only those beings outside of hell knew the way there. Accepting the Christian commonplace that “God is Love” then it would seem that the reigning force of living beings, in the cosmology of Prometheus Unbound, would be Chaos. Only “Almighty God” is not subject to Chaos.

This reading makes more sense to me now. Rather than suggesting that God speaks (a voice is wanting) Demogorgon, in his sphinx-like way, provides the motive force only after Asia accepts her autonomy. Asia provides the answer Demogorgon needs to act:

So much I asked before, and my heart gave
The response thou hast given; and of such truths
Each to itself must be the oracle

Asia’s final demand, that Prometheus be freed, is then granted in the denouement of the play. The hour of the apocalypse arrives with her acceptance of her own responsibility to provide the answers she needs.

Shelley’s text is an intricate puzzle. Yeats called it “a sacred text”— interpretation is always tenuous, but this view is far more coherent to me than my previous attempts at making sense of the scene. It just didn’t seem logical that blind necessity would provide for the deposition of the tyrant. The victory of autonomy over Chaos seems to make sense.

What Demogorgon says seems to be far less important than what he does and who he is. Reading for deep hidden meanings is difficult when there are no words present to describe motives or authority. People are then forced to think for themselves.

1 thought on “Cave of Demogorgon”

  1. Anything that gives this text currency or elucidation is welcome. It’s one of the most ignored of great poems. The approximation to Nietzsche is very suggestive.

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