Biophilia and the Ecogothic
“Biophilia” is concept central to the story “Perdita.”
It is a term first used by philosopher-psychologist Erich Fromm to describe the sense of vital connection and attraction human beings feel toward all other living things. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson developed the concept further by suggesting biophilia is an unconscious force built into human biology. He has suggested that biophilia is what drives us toward deeper interconnection with nature.
In the novel “Perdita,” nature is also understood to have its own, unique kinds of biophilia, i.e., attraction for and orientation toward humans.
The choice of (bio)philia (love/attraction) rather than (bio)phobia (fear/aversion) is significant in that biophilia places emphasis on positive, reciprocal relationships. The Ecogothic genre, however, acknowledges that both philias and phobias (both attraction and aversion) are always at work in human relationships with the natural world.
Biophilia in the Ecogothic novel “Perdita”:
How did biophilia come to humans?
Perdita (Latin for the “lost one”) is said to have brought biophilia to humans. She is first mentioned in the works of Hesiod (c. 650-750 BCE), a Greek poet who provided one of the earliest histories of the gods. In Hesiod’s original account, Perdita accompanies Prometheus after he has stolen fire from the gods and escapes with him to the Earth where she gives four kinds of love to human beings. These are:
• Philia—affection and friendship.
• Eros—passion and physical desire.
• Agape—unconditional love.
• Biophilia—love that connects all life (and thus the human to all forms of nature).
Thus it is a mythological figure (a child named Perdita) who brings biophilia to humans.
Perdita’s story, however, has been “lost” within the western tradition for two reasons. First: emphasis is placed on Prometheus and what he brings to humanity (fire and the promise of mastery over nature). Second, emphasis is given to human-to-human kinds of loves (philia, eros and agape) while biophilia is largely ignored. In Hesiod’s original mythological account, Perdita is abandoned and rescued by shepherds. She remains largely invisible within (and thus forgotten to) the western tradition—that is, except to those who are open to discovering and appreciating her gift of biophilia.
Perdita’s Origins and Time with the Fates
In the mythological account, Perdita is an orphaned child who was once hidden among the Fates—the three sisters who determine how long a mortal being will live. The metaphor connecting the sisters is “the thread of life.”
Clotho (pictured on the right) is the youngest sister: she spins the “thread of life” from her distaff onto a spindle.
Her sister, Lachesis (sitting on the left) then measures out the amount of thread that a person is “allotted.”
It is the third sister, Atropos (seated in the background and whose name means “inexorable one”) who cuts the thread and ends a person’s life. Atropos is said to determine both the timing and manner of a mortal’s death.
The Fates may seem rather grim company for a small child, but they have a unique place within Greek mythology. In many accounts, the Fates are depicted as independent entities who ensure that the immutable laws of destiny unfold without interference.
The Fates, however, occasionally become distracted in their work and make “mistakes.” (The painting by John Strudwick seems to capture a sense of this: Atropos looks thoroughly bored.) The results of their distraction are pieces of “thread” that cannot be accounted for—or in other words, “loose ends.”
The extra pieces of thread are hidden under Lachesis’s robe and it is the lost child, Perdita, who gathers these up and makes bundles out of them.
Perdita is an abandoned child in William Shakespeare’s play, “The Winter’s Tale.” King Leontes thinks that his wife (Queen Hermione) has had a child by her lover. The King orders the child’s death but Perdita (the lost one) is rescued by shepherds. (Detail of a painting by A. F. Sandys 1829-1904.)
Gathered in Perdita’s bundle, then, are the “loose ends” associated with all the different forms of love: friendship (philia), erotic love (eros), unselfish love (agape), and biophilia, the love between humans and the natural world.
What are particularly important to Perdita are the loose ends of love relationships—for example: romances foiled by circumstance, love that isn’t returned, or love that isn’t acknowledged or even “seen.” Perdita keeps these loose ends (“lost threads” or in Latin fila perdita) because they are never completely dormant. Loose ends are important to mortals because they always offer the possibility of redemption, reconciliation and greater understanding. So Perdita’s gift to humans is an extraordinary one—the possibility of love. It is therefore just as remarkable as Prometheus’s gift of fire (see below).
Perdita and Greek Mythology
In the “original” text of Hesiod’s epic poem, events involving Hephaestus, Pandora and Prometheus unfold in a very different way than in conventional versions. Both the events themselves and their sequence is different in the “original,” uncensored version (in the novel it is Garth and Clare who discover it). But before detailing Perdita’s story, a quick who’s who of the relevant figures in Greek mythology.
Zeus by William Blake (1794)
Zeus is the godhead or “father of all gods and mortals.” He is omnipotent in ancient Greek cosmology and not only does he like to get his way, but fully expects to get it.
Prometheus is a god with a rocky relationship to Zeus. In many stories he frequently tricks Zeus and embarrasses him. He is best known for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind. As a result, Prometheus is often depicted as a special friend of humanity—a sort of patron saint—who gives humankind a special skill that none of the other creatures have: that of harnessing and utilizing fire and all its associated technologies. In 18th century Europe (the time of the Western Enlightenment), Prometheus became associated with scientific advancement, technological innovation and the triumph of “reason” over religion and superstition.
Prometheus’s punishment by Zeus (J. Jordans, 1640)
In Greek mythology, Zeus punishes Prometheus for his many transgressions by chaining him to a mountain. Each night an eagle visits Prometheus and eats his liver. During the day, Prometheus’ liver regenerates itself—but it is only eaten again by the eagle at night. This goes on for thousands of years until Hercules rescues Prometheus. The phrase a “Promethean agony,” then, captures this sense of a horrible torture that goes on and on.
Hephaestus: the “Blacksmith” and maker of Vulcan’s thunderbolts
Hephaestus is the son of Zeus and Hera (goddess of love) and a master craftsman. He is said to have been born crippled and to have made the winged helmet of Hermes, Achilles’ armour, Helios’ chariot, and the golden lions and dogs at the entrance to Alkinoos who could tell the difference between friends and intruders (and bite only the latter!). One of Hephaestus’ tasks was to make the chains binding Prometheus to the mountain, thus allowing Zeus to inflict his horrible punishment.
A cosmological “love child”
Hephaestus in his forge (detail of painting by Diego Valesquez, 1640)
Yet even before chaining him to a mountain, Zeus is very angry with Prometheus for his many tricks. Zeus is also jealous of Prometheus’ friendship for mortals and so Zeus orders his son Hephaestus to make a “beautiful maiden”—a female human (Pandora) who will become the vehicle of Zeus’ revenge. Pandora’s extraordinary beauty is meant to hide what she is really bringing in her “box” to humans: the spirits of pestilence, disease, jealousy, greed, etc. Hephaestus obeys, begins work and creates Pandora.
Pandora peeping in her box—J. W. Waterhouse, 1896
In most stories, Pandora cannot resist looking inside her box (as depicted in Waterhouse’s painting). In the original text, however, something else happens: Hephaestus unexpectedly falls in love with Pandora. He doesn’t intend to and initially he resists his impulses, but is ultimately unsuccessful. Perdita is the result of his eventual union with Pandora. She is therefore born without Zeus’s knowledge or approval.
Perdita’s escape with Prometheus
Prometheus steals fire from Zeus (Christian Griepenkerl, 1839-1916)
Hephaestus and Pandora conceal their “love-child,” but Zeus eventually hears about Perdita and demands that she be handed over to him. The two lovers initially hide her among the Fates and it is here that Perdita is given the task of saving all the “loose ends” of existence. But Perdita is not safe among the Fates: Zeus plans to steal her and so the Fates give her to Prometheus.
Prometheus agrees to hide the child among mortals. Taking her with him while he steals fire from the gods, he gives both Perdita and fire to humans. Humans seize upon fire and begin to use it‚ but they forget about Perdita (and her gift of the fourth love biophilia), and eventually abandon her. Thus she remains lost to humanity but also always potentially found—the threads of her bundle always potentially recoverable.