Medusamorphosis: The Seduction of Love and Death

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Such is the seducer’s strategy : he gives himself the humility of the mirror, but a skillful mirror, like Perseus’ shield, in which Medusa found herself petrified. The girl too is going to fall captive to the mirror that reflects and analyzes her’, without her knowledge.

-Jean Baudrillard, Seduction

Medusamorphosis relates to the mythical figure of the Gorgon Medusa, a key figure of fascination, whose looks were thought to turn living beings into stone. The Medusa incorporates the ambivalent forces of attraction and repulsion that are at the heart of the dangerously seductive and petrifying lure referred to as ‘fascination’. Furthermore, the threat and thrill evoked by this figure support the conceptualisation of fascination and its development insofar as different representations of the Gorgon across historical eras, cultural contexts and across different media point to dominating trends underlying the dread of, or desire for ‘fascination’.1

Fascination is the “act of bewitching,” from Latin fascinationem (nominative fascinatio), noun of action from past participle stem of fascinare “bewitch, enchant”: the “state of being fascinated” is from 1650s; that of “fascinating quality, attractive influence upon the attention” is from 1690s. We know it is associated with “a charm, enchantment, spell, witchcraft,” which is of from European lore and folktales. Earliest used to describe witches and of serpents, who were said to be able to cast a spell by a look that rendered one unable to move or resist. Our legends of the Medusa with a head of serpents typifies this ancient motif, and became an apotropaic charm against the unknown and monstrous in ancient Greece. The Evil eye that binds, that wards off the dark and broken, the lonely and hungry ghosts; the dead among the darkening alleys, the mazes in the stone, circling, wandering, mazing among the endless gaps and cracks in-between times, in-between life and death; wandering across the hidden barriers, the hedgerows between the living and the dead, shifting, not knowing whether they are alive or dead. T.S. Eliot: “I had not thought death had undone so many.”

300px-MedusaIn the Medusa there is an association of beauty and terror, and even Leonardo da Vinci in the Renaissance would show this quality of absolute horror and beauty enfolded in the decay of stone ensorcelled by serpentine hair and frogs her lips and eyes open to the fateful stars above. The cool beauty of the femme fatale is another transformation of chthonian ugliness. Female animals are usually less beautiful than males. The mother bird’s dull feathers are camouflage, protecting the nest from predators. Male birds are creatures of spectacular display, of both plumage and parade, partly to impress females and conquer rivals and partly to divert enemies from the nest. Among humans, male ritual display is just as extreme, but for the first time the female becomes a lavishly beautiful object. Why? The female is adorned not simply to increase her property value, as Marxism would demystifyingly have it, but to assure her desirability. Consciousness has made cowards of us all. Animals do not feel sexual fear, because they are not rational beings. They operate under a pure biologic imperative. Mind, which has enabled humanity to adapt and flourish as a species, has also infinitely complicated our functioning as physical beings. We see too much, and so have to stringently limit our seeing. Desire is besieged on all sides by anxiety and doubt. Beauty, an ecstasy of the eye, drugs us and allows us to act. Beauty is our Apollonian revision of the chthonian.2

Seduction and Love: the twined ambivalence of the Western Eye, fascinated and allured by the wiles of beauty and death. Western love has been ambivalent from the start. As early as Sappho (600 B.C.) or even earlier in the epic legend of Helen of Troy, art records the push and pull of attraction and hostility in that perverse fascination we call love. There is a magnetics of eroticism in the west, due to the hardness of western personality: eroticism is an electric forcefield between masks. The modern pursuit of self-realization has not led to sexual happiness, because assertions of selfhood merely release the amoral chaos of libido. Freedom is the most overrated modern idea, originating in the Romantic rebellion against bourgeois society. But only in society can one be an individual. Nature is waiting at society’s gates to dissolve us in her chthonian bosom. Out with stereotypes, feminism proclaims. But stereotypes are the west’s stunning sexual personae, the vehicles of art’s assault against nature. The moment there is imagination, there is myth. We may have to accept an ethical cleavage between imagination and reality, tolerating horrors, rapes, and mutilations in art that we would not tolerate in society. For art is our message from the dark unknown – the chthonic underbelly of night, death, chaos, and oceanic time, telling us what nature is up to. Not sex but cruelty is the great neglected or suppressed item on the modern liberal humanism. We must honor the chthonian but not necessarily yield to it. In The Rape of the Lock, Pope counsels good humor as the only solution to sex war. So with our enslavement by chthonian nature. We must accept our pain, change what we can, and laugh at the rest. But let us see art for what it is and nature for what it is. From remotest antiquity, western art has been a parade of sexual personae, emanations of absolutist western mind. Western art is a cinema of sex and dreaming. Art is form struggling to wake from the nightmare of nature. (SP, 38)

The seductions of the Medusa not only serve as a cultural icon of fascination, suggesting a desire for fascination or even a fascination with fascination: she also allows us to rationalise the cognitive disorientation produced by simultaneous reactions of intense attraction and repulsion and alludes to the tension between presence and absence, which is constitutive of the Medusa effect. (LF, 2) Baumbach will call the ‘medusa effect’ a traveling concept “insofar as it transcends different eras, cultural contexts, genres and knowledge systems and traverses disciplinary boundaries” (LF, 3). Baumbach tells us that fascination is a borderline experience. It arises from the combination of two opposing forces and marks the concurrent awakening of deep attraction and intense repulsion. Borderline phenomena are especially powerful in eliciting fascination as they resist classification and occupy the vacuum between opposing aesthetic or ethical categories. Where ethics and aesthetics clash, fascination finds a fertile breeding ground. It is in this respect that aestheticised images of death, war atrocities or terrorist attacks can exert a disconcerting, yet irrepressible pull, which can only be described as fascination. (LF, 3-4)

Winfried Menninghaus in her study of ‘disgust’ observes three fundamental features of this attraction and repulsion toward terrible beauty: (1) the violent repulsion vis-à-vis (2) a physical presence or some other phenomenon in our proximity, (3) which at the same time, in various degrees, can also exert a subconscious attraction or even an open fascination.3  Through the work of artists, cultural theorists, philosophers, scientists, etc. she traces the notion of disgust: Mendelssohn, Winckelmann, Lessing, Herder, Kant, Rosenkranz, Nietzsche, Freud, Bataille, Sartre, Elias, Douglas, and Kristeva all have something to tell us about the allurements of the medusa effect. In the 1930’s Georges Bataille would develop a theoretic of disgust and the sacred that would entail this medusa effect. The revolt against a “sickly” aesthetic culture’s ideal of beauty (i.e., the High Decadent culture of the Aesthete’s – Pater, Wilde, and the French Decadents) is dedicated to the fascination of what is or renders debased, repellent, disgusting. Blending Nietzsche and Freud together with the “sociology of primitive peoples” (Durkheim, Mauss), Bataille’s and Leiris’ “sacred sociology” reveal the processing of what disgusts as constituting the very “heart of the existence animating us.” (WM, 343)

Bataille would develop an anti-aesthetic in deference to the Apollonian decadents of the Fin de siècle era’s languid passivity. The leading category of this anti-aesthetic is not form but “formless,” informe.  Bataille stresses that what is here at play is not simply a turning from beautiful forms to their monstrous antithesis. He even declines any definition of what he means by informe. In order to introduce it as the performative agent of a task, informe, we read:

 …is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term serving to degrade things in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm.

To this extent, informe signifies a mode of generating pictures that only presumes the soothing forms of “philosophy” in order—through an act of “degrading”—to confront them with an assertion itself claiming no legitimation through a “meaning”: namely, the assertion that “the universe is something like a spider or spit.” (LF, 345-346) This sense that the cosmos is itself the Medusa – a force of corruption, degradation, and decimation; a realm of decline and decay, a place of chaos and spasm, pervades the life and writings of Bataille.

In his essay Base Materialism and Gnosticism Georges Bataille will give a rather different reading of our ancient spiritual systems: “In practice, it is possible to see as a leitmotiv of Gnosticism the conception of matter as an active principle having its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness (which would not be simply the absence of light, but the monstrous archontes revealed by this absence), and as evil (which would not be the absence of good, but a creative action). This conception was perfectly incompatible with the very principle of the profoundly monistic Hellenistic spirit, whose dominant tendency saw matter and evil as degradations of superior principles.”

The notion that matter is not dead as most of our philosophical and scientific thinkers thought up till the introduction of quantum theory, along with this notion that rather than some eternal realm of Ideas, some Platonic acosmic world of archetypal powers superior to our Cosmos, another view onto things might be: a truth that matter harbored within its immanent fold a strange and energetic, even monstrous and daemonic source of intelligence and creative action never entered these ancient systems of philosophy. In fact, as Bataille would remark: “It is difficult to believe that on the whole Gnosticism does not manifest above all a sinister love of darkness, a monstrous taste for obscene and lawless archontes… If today we overtly abandon the idealistic point of view, as the Gnostics and Manicheans implicitly abandoned it, the attitude of those who see in their own lives an effect of the creative action of evil appears even radically optimistic. It is possible in all freedom to be a plaything of evil if evil itself does not have to answer before God”.

This sense of living in a lawless universe is at the heart of Bataille’s medusa effect. Bataille came to the conclusion early on that philosophy, and even the sciences should not concern itself with Being or the Science of Being, Ontology: “Thus it appears – all things considered – that Gnosticism, in its psychological process, is not so different from present-day materialism, I mean a materialism not implying an ontology, not implying that matter is the thing-in-itself.” So that against Kant and all his inheritors matter would no longer be reduced to ontology, nor even to the epistemic view onto “being” or “phenomena” as if these were the attributes and core of matter, Being’s Kingdom. No. As he’d suggest,

Base matter is external and foreign to ideal human aspirations, and it refuses to allow itself to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these aspirations. But the psychological process brought to light by Gnosticism had the same impact: it was a question of disconcerting the human spirit and idealism before something base, to the extent that one recognized the helplessness of superior principles.4

So against both epistemic and ontological forms Bataille would opt for formlessness (“informe”). In  “L’informe” (“Formless”) 1929 Bataille would offer us a most peculiar definition of a dictionary’s function – and, I repeat the whole passage:

A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.”5

This notion that all our overlays, our mathematical models, our elegant mappings of imaginary quarks and subatomic particles is a way of ordering, fictionalizing, stabilizing, what is essentially a chaos that has no ultimate order and can be compared to the webbing of a cosmic spider or the spit of a barroom brawler.

We still live under the shadow of Romanticism: the notion that the Self as transcendental Subject still exists. And, though it has slowly been eroded over the past two hundred years the basic liniments  of our cultural references still circulate in the metaphysical shadows of Kantian philosophy. Romanticism’s overexpanded superself immediately subjects itself to artificial restraints as a chastening ascesis, a discipline and punishment. First of all, Romantic poetry invents an archaic ritual form, implicitly pagan. Second, it steeps itself in sadomasochistic eroticism, never fully acknowledged by scholars. The sadomasochism becomes blatant in Decadent Late Romanticism, which defies Rousseau and Wordsworth by rejecting chthonian nature for Apollonian aestheticism. The artistic and philosophical, musical and poetic underbelly of nineteenth-century Decadence is a Mannerist convolution of High Romanticism and can be dated as early as — 1830. The themes we discover in the mirror worlds of Gothic Late Romantic literature, art, tales — cruelty, sexual ambiguity, narcissism, fascination, obsession, vampirism, seduction, violation— are all the still-uncharted psychodynamics of erotic, artistic, and theatrical cathexis that Freud and Lacan would delineate a hundred years later.  Decadence is a counter-reaction within Romanticism, correcting its tilt toward Dionysus and the dark informe or formlessness. This ambivalent pattern is there from the start. Rousseau is savagely answered by the decadent Marquis de Sade, who stands half in the Enlightenment, half in Romanticism. Blake, Sade’s British brother, answers himself, his voices of experience devouring his voices of innocence. (SP, 231)

Fascination is the black magic of art, love, and politics. Kenneth Burke remarks: “The theme of fascination in Coleridge’s ‘Mystery Poems’ is that of an ambivalent power. He gives us, as it were, a poetic thesaurus dictionary of terms ranging from thoroughly ‘good’ fascination to thoroughly ‘bad’ fascination.”  Fascination is ambivalent because love is ambivalent. The Latin fascinare, “to enchant, bewitch, charm,” is related to the Greek baskainein, “to use ill words” as in slander but also “to bewitch by spells or by means of an evil eye.” Fascinare and baskainein are linguistically connected to words of speaking, Latin farari and Greek phaskein, “to say.” As she lies down with Christabel, Geraldine says, “In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell, / Which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel!” Next morning, Christabel cannot tell her pain or appeal for help. Evil eye and magic spell: daemonic sorcery deprives its victim of speech, hurtling them backward through history to the animal realm. Thus Circe’s most sadistic torture is stopping the mouths of Odysseus’ men. Minds acute in their swine bodies, they can only grunt. Christabel’s heroine is plunged into muteness. Her “vision of fear” obliterates language. (SP, 339)

Christabel is the dark gorgoneion, the medusa as Lesbian temptress luring and alluring, a beauteous terror. The vampire’s power to fascinate derives from the snake’s legendary ability to immobilize its prey by fixing its eyes upon it. The fear freezing an animal in its tracks and the fear paralyzing a person beneath the vampire’s gaze are one and the same. It is an emanation of the cruel hierarchy of biology. The Gorgon who petrifies and the vampire who seduces achieve their ends by sudden hierarchic assertion. That the penis is power is one of the social lies men tell themselves to overcome their fear of the daemonism of sex. That woman can drain and paralyze is part of the latent vampirism in female physiology. The archetype of the femme fatale began in prehistory and will live forever. (SP, 340)

Fascination is becalming, that condition of erotic passivity in which the Ancient Mariner sees the vampire of nature at sea. Vision, silence, castration. We are approaching the sexual center of Coleridge’s mystery poems. Christabel is an alembic of daemonic possession, a superheated vat of erotic allurement. Energy is released and rebonded. Vampires make vampires: Christabel, “hissing,” has been genetically altered, irradiated by the daemonic. Fascination, capture, possession, transfiguration. (SP, 342) We all remember Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, and the poets binding,

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

In this poem it’s Coleridge, the poet, who is bound within the circle of fascination in the realm of the Medusa – frozen, mute, and turned to stone by the fiery serpent blaze of the medusa effect.

Fascination is commonly associated with the mysterious, the disquieting and the obscure. These entail elements of anxious uncertainty and risk, and allude to the occult and mystic roots of the allotrope of fascination. Fascination relates to the ability of objects or people to resonate with our innate, hidden, subversive and potentially devious desires which are repressed in daily social interaction, but surface when we are confronted with images or practices of transgression that challenge ethical codes, aesthetic conventions or cultural norms. Some of the most effective fascination mechanisms arise in the nexus of our desire to witness a forbidden spectacle and our dread of its potentially dangerous repercussions. (LF, 4)

The Divine Marquis de Sade would be the first to being the aesthetically pleasing and the disgusting in proximity. By manipulating fear and fascination, he tries to confer holiness on our most deeply polluted impulses, and vice versa. Anyone who does not register a sense of taboo in reading Sade lacks some element of humanity.6 Sade’s writings confront us with the extreme attempt in Western culture to strip away the constraints of civilization in order to return to barbarism. In all his major writings, Sade envisages a complete rejection of Hebrew law and prophecy, of Greek philosophy and tragic vision, of Christian charity and service, and of all principles of equal justice and democracy. He seeks to revive the talion law of an eye for an eye and might makes right. Perhaps there is something “great” in the sheer atrocity of Sade’s work, some monumental aberration and object lesson that we should hold in awe. But it will seem less admirable if we read him whole and keep his nihilistic ideas about egoism and power closely tied to his lurid scenes dripping with blood and feces. (FK, 289)

As Camille Paglia will hyperbolize Society is an artificial construction, a defense against nature’s power. Without society, we would be storm-tossed on the barbarous sea that is nature. Society is a system of inherited forms reducing our humiliating passivity to nature. We may alter these forms, slowly or suddenly, but no change in society will change nature. Human beings are not nature’s favorites. We are merely one of a multitude of species upon which nature indiscriminately exerts its force. Nature has a master agenda we can only dimly know. Human life began in flight and fear. Religion rose from rituals of propitiation, spells to lull the punishing elements. To this day, communities are few in regions scorched by heat or shackled by ice. Civilized man conceals from himself the extent of his subordination to nature. The grandeur of culture, the consolation of religion absorb his attention and win his faith. But let nature shrug, and all is in ruin. Fire, flood, lightning, tornado, hurricane, volcano, earthquake— anywhere at any time. Disaster falls upon the good and bad. Civilized life requires a state of illusion. The idea of the ultimate benevolence of nature and God is the most potent of man’s survival mechanisms. Without it, culture would revert to fear and despair. (SP, 1)

The great figures of mesmerizing fascination in literature as in life have all been shaped by the intellectual concentration in the eye. It is only through the eyes that objects and persons in all their fascination and disgust are uniquely revealed. The eye is peremptory in its judgments. It decides what to see and why. Each of our glances is as much exclusion as inclusion. We select, editorialize, and enhance. Everything is melting in nature. We think we see objects, but our eyes are slow and partial. Nature is blooming and withering in long puffy respirations, rising and falling in oceanic wave-motion. A mind that opened itself fully to nature without sentimental preconception would be glutted by nature’s coarse materialism, its relentless superfluity. The procreativeness of chthonian nature is an obstacle to all of western metaphysics and to each man in his quest for identity against his mother. Nature is the seething excess of being.

For Paglia Images are at the center of Western theory and conceptualization. Western culture is built on perceptual relations. From the soaring god-projections of ancient sky-cult to the celebrity-inflating machinery of American commercial promotion, western identity has organized itself around charismatic sexual personae of hierarchic command. Every god is an idol, literally an “image” (Latin idolum from Greek eidolon). Image is implied visibility. The visual is sorely undervalued in modern scholarship. Art history has attained only a fraction of the conceptual sophistication of literary criticism. And literature and art remain unmeshed. Drunk with self love, criticism has hugely overestimated the centrality of language to western culture. It has failed to see the electrifying sign language of images. (SP, 33-34)

Personae are visible ideas. All facial expressions and theatrical postures, present among animal primates, are fleeting shadows of personae. While Japanese decorum limits facial expressions, western art since the Hellenistic era has recorded every permutation of irony, anxiety, flirtation, and menace. The hardness of our personalities and the tension with which they are set off from nature have produced the west’s vulnerability to decadence. Tension leads to fatigue and collapse, “late” phases of history in which sadomasochism flourishes.  Decadence is a disease of the eye, a sexual intensification of artistic voyeurism. (SP, 36) In one of J.G. Ballard’s short stories, “Say Goodbye to the Wind,” the narrator will say: “For once, however, he had lost his aplomb. Leaning forward from the waist, eyes focused myopically, he was gazing at our customer like a seedy voyeur of the boulevards starstruck by some sub-teen nymphet.”7 This sense of male aggression, the voyeur and rapist congruent in the gaze. And, again the eyes, the voyeur mobilization in Ballard’s novel Crash:

The commentator had called the crowd to order. The test crash was about to take place. Vaughan had forgotten me, starting forward like a patient suburban voyeur half asleep over his binoculars. His right hand, shielded by the publicity folders, was manipulating his penis through the fabric of his trousers. He squeezed the distal end, almost forcing the glans through the threadbare cloth, index finger rolling back the foreskin. All the while his eyes moved up and down the collision course, taking in every detail.8

This alignment of technology and sex, of eros and thanatos, life and death in the obliteration of metal and flesh, the pornographic voyeurism of transgression and excess emerging as orgasm and Apollonian gaze of power. One could find examples across thousands of novels, stories, paintings… As Baudrillard will say of it:

What sometimes renders the real fascinating – and the truth as well – is the imaginary catastrophe which lies behind it Do you think that power, sex, economics – all these real, really big things – would have held up for a single moment unless sustained by fascination, a fascination that comes precisely from the mirror image in which they are reflected, from their continuous reversion, the palpable pleasure borne of their imminent catastrophe?9

Fascination moves towards the neuter, towards an indeterminate chasm, a mobile, diffuse sexuality. (S, 33) This sense that technology, sex, and death as the seduction of our Western voyeurism, the domination of the aggressive eye, penis – the arrow that shoots farthest, the eye that penetrates the darkness, enters the labyrinth, seduced by medusa – the snaky entrails: natural process, the chthonian cult of the Mother. Goethe’s Faust who enters the realm of the Mothers, deep within the earth and outside of space and time. Mephistopheles gives Faust a key. He says: “The key will smell the right place from all others; Follow it down, ’twill lead you to the Mothers.” Again, Baudrillard,

Any system that is totally complicit in its own absorption, such that signs no longer make sense, will exercise a remarkable power of fascination . Systems fascinate by their esotericism, which preserves them from external logics . The absorption of anything real by something self-sufficient, and self-destructive, proves fascinating. (S, 82)

How can one respond to pure appearances, whether hieratic or mobile, without first recognizing their sovereignty? By taking off the makeup, tearing off the veil, or enjoining the appearances to disappear? How ridiculous! An iconoclast’s utopia. There is no God behind the images, and the very nothingness they conceal must remain a secret . The seduction, fascination and “aesthetic” attraction of all the great imaginary processes lies here : in the effacing of every instance, be it the face and every substance, be it desire – in the artificial perfection of the sign . (S, 99)

Apotropaic charms are common in many Old European countries, where belief in the evil eye is still strong. Gold hands and red or gold horns dangle from necks and hang in kitchens next to chains of garlic to drive away vampires. The Mediterranean has never lost its chthonian cultism. And, yet, the medusa effect is itself an apotropaic gorgoneion, one that can be used in art or religion because they came from the same part of the mind (brain). As Paglia emphasizes great cult symbols transfer smoothly into artistic experience. Solitary or highly original artists often make apotropaic art. The Mona Lisa, for example, seems to have functioned as an apotropaion for Leonardo, who refused to part with it until his death at the court of the French king (hence its presence in the Louvre). Ambiguous Mona Lisa, presiding over her desolate landscape, is a gorgoneion, staring hierarch of pitiless nature. (SP, 49)

Yet, there is a second effect, too. Think of James Joyce or the late novels of Henry James in their dense prose. Joyce’s dense modernist style. Joyce has only one subject— Ireland. His writing is both a protest against an intolerable spiritual dependency and ironically an immortalization of the power that bound him. Ireland is a Gorgon, in Joyce’s words “the Mother Sow who eats her children.” Knight compares the mazelike meander design on Greek houses to “tangled thread” charms on British doorsteps: “Tangled drawings are meant to entangle intruders, as the tangled reality of a labyrinthine construction at the approach to a fort actually helps very much to entangle attackers.”  Language as labyrinth: Joyce’s aggressive impenetrability is the hex sign of Harrison’s “religion of fear and ‘riddance’.” One could elaborate on examples from the impenetrable modern style of Henry James as well in Golden Bowl. According to Paglia James’s Decadent late style is the heavy ritual transvestism of a eunuch-priest of the mother goddess. (SP, 50)

A third form of apotropaion is the mask as a ward against the return of the dead. Think of the Venetian Mardi Gras. In 1436, the masters of the Guild of Decorators in Venice re-organized the mask making industry by proposing a certain number of rules that were ratified by the Giustizieri Vecchi – the magistrates responsible for vigilance of the arts and crafts at the time.  This was when the Venetian profession of “maschereri” or “mascareri” (mask makers) was officially recognized with its own statutes.  Growing demand was attracting additional artisans to this profession and regulations were required!  A document, now in Correr Civic Museum in Venice, indicates that between 1530 and 1600 eleven craftsmen were registered in this guild as “mascherer” – even including a woman named Barbara Scharpetta.  They were joined in their art work by “targheri” – craftsmen who created new “faces”.10

The wearing of masks in theatres dates back as far as the ancient Greek festivals in honor of Dionysius, god of theater.  When the Romans conquered Southern Europe, they adapted the Grecian love of theater and the use of masks in plays and celebrations. The Venice Carnival, (or Carnevale) which dates back to the 15th century, is still famous today, attracting visitors from all around the world to the color and excitement of this ancient tradition. The masks represented absence of rules and freedom of action. One was living in the dead time: the in-between time when the dead could freely commingle with the living, when night and day, dream and nightmare reigned.  You could do anything you liked with the anonymity of a mask and adventure was possible in Venice itself, among the offices of institutions, regardless of the laws and the vetoes of morality, however severe they may be!  So, over time, the Carnival broke the traditional boundaries and masks entered the realm of every day life.  In some places, they actually were compulsory by law!  (VC, 55)

At the center of the use of the mask is the ugly staring Gorgon’s daemonic eye. She is the paralyzing animal eye of chthonian nature, the glittering, mesmerizing eye of vampires and seductresses. The tusked Gorgon is the eye which eats. In other words, the eye is still bound to biology. It hungers. I will show that the west invented a new eye, contemplative, conceptual, the eye of art. It was born in Egypt. This is the Apollonian solar disk, illuminating and idealizing. The Gorgon is the night eye, Apollo the day. The Apollonian eye is the brain’s great victory over the bloody open mouth of mother nature.

Fascination is being drawn into the magic circle of the Gorgon, the Queen of Medusas. Trapped in the allurements of her beauty, her power, grace, and elegance; and, at the same time fearful, terrified, and repulsed by her hellish visage of serpentine seduction that would turn you to stone, silence your cries, and frame you forever in a cage of death. To be caught in the eye of the Gorgon is to fall prey to the seduction of fascination. Exquisite and artificial, she is mind-made image forever caught in radiant Apollonian freeze frame of Time’s strange gaze…


  1. Sibylle Baumbach. Literature and Fascination. Palgrave Macmillan; 1st ed. 2015 edition (July 30, 2015)
  2. Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae (pp. 15-16). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
  3. Winfried Menninghaus. Disgust: The Theory and History of a Strong Sensation (Suny Series, Intersections: Philosophy and Critical Theory). State University of New York Press (October 9, 2003)
  4. Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press “Base Materialism and Gnosticism”, p. 45)
  5. “Formless” by Georges Bataille, Documents 1, Paris, 1929, p. 382 (translated by Allan Stoekl with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie Jr. Georges Bataille. Vision of Excess. Selected Writings, 1927-1939, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press “Formless”, p. 31)
  6. Roger Shattuck. Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography. Harvest Books; 1 edition (September 15, 1997)   (Page 277).
  7. Ballard, J. G.. The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard (p. 798). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  8. Ballard, J. G.. Crash: A Novel (p. 124). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
  9. Jean Baudrillard. Seduction. Palgrave Macmillan; English ed edition (January 15, 1991) (Page 52).
  10. Antonio Guibelli (Author), Fulvio Roiter (Photographer). Venetian Carnival: History and Traditions.  Cografa (1995)

 

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