This is the fourth in a series.
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Our automatic reaction to what we perceive as dreadful, threatening, or monstrous is apotropaic. We try to drive the monster away, fleeing from it—combining fight against it with flight from it, in the common “fight-or-flight” reaction to what engenders fear in us. Thus did one flee from Medusa, as one fled from all three Gorgons of Greek myth. One fled even and especially from the horror of turning around and looking at Medusa or the others of her ilk. One fled having to see her dreadful visage, fled by averting one’s eyes however one could.
Unfortunately—at least it strikes us at first as a misfortune, and continues so to strike us for a very long while—Medusa refuses to be avoided. The more we try to avoid her, the more stubbornly she dogs our heels.
Trying to run away from Medusa is like trying to run away from one’s own shadow: The faster one runs, the faster one’s shadow chases after, not to be outrun, always shadowing us.
However, if we just stop trying to run away from it, our shadow is quite content to stay in the shadows behind us, only occasionally overshadowing us. And even when it does overshadow us, there is nothing of insistence to the shadowing. Far from demanding our attention, our shadow just gently and unobtrusively accompanies us wherever we go, so long as there is light to see for going. When it does overshadow us, it only helps to shade our eyes from the glare of the sun blazing away at us from behind.
Not so with Medusa, on the other hand. Unlike our shadow, Medusa is insistent. She is obtrusive. And she will not be dismissed. She demands our attention, with the demand increasing directly in proportion to our efforts to deaden our ears to it. Our natural apotropaic reaction to Medusa’s insistence is precisely to expend such defensive effort: to stiffen all the harder against her, trying to ward her off. Yet that only increases the fury of her demand on our attention.
Trying to avoid Medusa is what “systems theorists” such as Gregory Bateson described as a “self-escalating system.” As that name indicates, such a system just keeps on ratcheting itself up, as it were. It ratchets itself up ever more tightly until, like an over-wound watch, it finally ratchets itself so over-tight that it springs apart. That is the point of breakdown of the system. As Bateson taught, however, that point of break-down is also, as such, the very point of possible break-through into something new, unexpected, and hitherto unimaginable.*
In just that way, when one finally stops running from Medusa, worn down at last by the ever-growing intensity of interlocked avoidance and pursuit, one may suddenly in surprise find oneself, not petrified by the very sight of her, but rather kissed gently by her. That kiss, in turn, may open our eyes to see what had really been there all along, for those who had been given the very eyes to see it, as her kiss has now given them to us. Then we may suddenly experience Medusa no longer as monstrous, but as beautiful. Indeed, we may see that her very beauty is a “ravishing” beauty, as our apt expression has it.
That expression is apt because we are indeed ravished, which literally means “carried away,” by the vision of her beauty that the kiss of Medusa at last en-visions us to see. That vision tears us away from our preoccupations and concerns, and brings us up short, struck by wonder—just as we are on occasion by the beauty and power of works of art, when we are fortunate enough to be given the eyes to see what is at work in such works.
We are riven by the power of such beauty as Medusa’s, which is to say cleft asunder by it, split in two. So struck, we are no longer able to “pull ourselves together,” as another common expression goes.
In contrast, when we are petrified by fear we have no need to “pull ourselves together.” The petrification produced by fear has already taken care of that for us.
Fear fixes and freezes what it strikes, stiffening it erect. It is the fear of Medusa which turns to stone, not Medusa herself. Such fear is riveting.
Medusa herself, however, unfixes and thaws out. She does not rivet us in place, but carries us away. Her beauty is riving, not riveting.
The two verbs rive and rivet share spelling, and are perhaps related to one another in their etymological roots. Yet the two are not at all alike in meaning. Rive means “to tear in pieces, strike asunder,” from the Proto-Indo-European root *rei-,to scratch, tear, cut.” The word river comes from the same root, reflecting how flowing water, with even the gentlest flow, sustained over time can cut through even the hardest stone, splitting it asunder.
Rivet, on the other hand, points in the opposite direction. To rivet means “to clench, fix, fasten, nail in place.” Whereas what rives us takes us out of ourselves and carries us away, splitting us in two, what rivets us nails us in place, fixing and fastening us rigid, clenched tightly together.
In that sense, Medusa’s kiss is riving, not riveting. Her kiss liberates us from the futile apotropaic reaction of trying to run from her and ward her off, stiffening ourselves stonily in the face of her advances. Her kiss frees us from such frozen reaction and empowers us at last to see and respond to her beauty. We are not riveted stiff by her kiss. We are riven soft by it.
The kiss of Medusa splits us gently asunder, like the leaves of a flower petal opening to the sun, making us over into her own soft and gentle image.
*See, for example, Gregory Bateson, “The Cybernetics of ‘Self’: A Theory of Alcoholism,” Psychiatry, 34 (February 1971).
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To be continued.