Dialogue of the Imaginary

Article excerpt

In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf observes that "[w]omen have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size" (35). Seventy years after Woolf made this observation (and according to her hopeful projection), the dynamics of the man-woman-(as)-mirror scenario have changed a bit: because a woman often refuses to be a mirror or hold up a mirror, a man must hold up his own. A mirror of one's own.

Though the mythological Narcissus was a young man captivated by his own reflection, narcissism from the Enlightenment period on has been gendered as a female tendency, with the connection between women and narcissism cemented in Freud's anxious pronouncements. Freudian Oedipal economy depends on castration horror and penis desire, which results from seeing and then not seeing the phallus. And if one is caught up in her own reflection, she is not focusing properly on (fleeting) penises - unless she happens to be Freud's Medusa. In "Das Medusenhaupt," Freud takes a myth involving specularity and, as Craig Owens points out, petrifies and immobilizes the meaning of the Ovidian version (196). For Freud, Medusa's head is a fetish, an emblem of castration: decapitation = castration. Having seen herself in Perseus's shield - snake-haired, but alas! without a penis - Medusa turns to stone, her "otherness . . . acknowledged and simultaneously negated" (Modleski 162).

What Freud's version of the myth largely overlooks is the importance of appropriation and control of the gaze. In Ovid's story, Perseus begins the quest by stealing the single eye shared, passed back and forth, by the twin daughters of Phorcys. After intercepting the monocular organ, Perseus seeks the power of Medusa's evil eye, which is the ability to arrest, immobilize, and make statues of others. Perseus's "specular ruse" turns Medusa's gaze back on itself locking her into a closed system and transforming her strength into her vulnerability (Owens 196). No longer a subject, Medusa becomes the object of her own gaze, a frozen image. In Lacanian terms, Medusa is "captured" in the imaginary order, making the myth an allegory for the Lacanian subject's identification with and captivation by its image.

In addition to what the Perseus-Medusa myth tells us about the power of the gaze, Perseus's account of his conquest speaks volumes about the various methods men have used to silence and disempower strong, threatening women. This myth can serve as a cautionary tale for those who think that the feminist movement has secured our passage into a post-feminist world. Tania Modleski warns us that those who are "proclaiming or assuming the advent of postfeminism, are actually engaged in negating the critiques and undermining the goals of feminism - in effect, delivering us back into a prefeminist world . . . where there was only the universal subject - man (Modleski 3, 163).

Perseus's ruse has been given new spins of late in published and public(ized) encounters and intellectual debates between men and women - with men avoiding dialogues with feminists, and, instead, retreating to the autobiographical (historically, a denigrated genre of "narcissistic" women writers), and seeking refuge in personal narratives bolstered by the stereotypes/monuments of bourgeois humanism. At an international conference on narrative in the Spring of 1993, we witnessed within twenty-four hours two such excu(r)ses in the imaginary, both men refusing to engage the texts of those feminist scholars to whom they were scheduled to respond. The connection between these situations and the Perseus-Medusa myth becomes clear when we consider that both men brandished a shield of autobiographical narratives engraved with liberal stories mentioning liberal wives. (Subtext: Some of my best friends are feminists; as a matter of fact, my wife is a feminist.) Their narratives functioned to trivialize the papers of the feminists and to refocus the conference on the men. …