The Kiss of Medusa and Trauma’s Return: Thought-Play (1)

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

                                                            —George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense


The sight of Medusas head makes the spectator stiff with terror, turns him to stone. [. . .] For becoming stiff means an erection. Thus in the original situation it offers consolation to the spectator: he is still in posses­sion of a penis, and the stiffening reassures him of the fact. [. . .] If Medusa’s head takes the place of a representation of the female genitals, or rather if it isolates their horrifying effects from their pleasure-giving ones, it may be recalled that displaying the genitals is familiar in other connections as an apotropaic act. What arouses horror in oneself will produce the same effect upon the enemy against whom one is seeking to defend oneself. [. . .] The erect male organ also has an apotropaic effect, but thanks to another mechanism. To display the penis (or any of its surrogates) is to say: ‘I am not afraid of you. I defy you. I have a penis.’ Here, then, is another way of intimidating the Evil Spirit. 

                                                            —Sigmund Freud, “Medusa’s Head”


Apotropaic Reactions

Apotropaic means “designed to avert evil” (from Greek apo-, “away from,” plus trepein, “to turn”). Acts so designed arise from the fear that evil—or at least what we experience as evil—evokes. To experience some thing or occurrence as evil is to experience it as injurious, dangerous, threatening. We flee from what we experience as evil, flee from it either by moving away from it, or by putting up defenses against it, to ward it off, deflect it, avert it (literally, “turn it aside”).

In most common usage today, evil has a moral connotation. To be evil is to be malevolent, intentionally seeking to do harm. Yet even today the term continues to carry echoes of its original meaning, which simply made it the equivalent of harmful, whether the harm was intended by whatever caused it or not. Thus, earthquakes and other harmful natural events were experienced as evil, which is to say dangerous and harmful, although no malevolent will lies behind such events.

Nevertheless, there remains that child in each of us who continues, despite all our rational knowing better, to treat all harm or threat as somehow involving intentional malevolence. Even crying can reasonably be regarded as an automatic “apotropaic” reaction, designed to turn away evil, or at least to lessen its impact. Yet it is obvious that crying can only have real apotropaic effect if the evil the crying seeks to turn aside is inflicted by some person or “spirit”—the “Evil Spirit” with which the above quotation from Freud ends. If no intentional agency is involved, then crying is of no avail. It might work on mothers or fathers, for example, who have struck a child in anger but who are brought to repentance and efforts to comfort by the wailing of the child they have just hit. However, the child cries when struck, even if the blow is delivered by a tree limb blowing in the wind, and not by a mother, father, or other agent capable of forming and enacting evil intentions.  

We automatically stiffen against what we perceive as evil—that is, as harmful, dangerous, and threatening, regardless of whether the harm, the evil, is intentional or not. Just so do we stiffen physically against physical pain. When we feel pain, the muscles in the area of the pain tense up, trying to draw away from the pain, avoid it, ward it off. In one perspective, however, that is as rational as trying to avert an avalanche with pleas to its conscience.

Although pleading with an avalanche not to hurt us may be childish, at least it is not counter-productive. That is, it does not have the effect of actually intensifying the harm the avalanche inflicts, rather than lessening it as intended. In contrast, physically tensing up in the effort to ward off bodily pain does have a counter-productive effect. That is why therapy for chronic pain sufferers, for example, makes central practicing doing the opposite: relaxing into the pain rather than tightening against it.

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To be continued.