Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Recovering the Beauty of Medusa

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Recovering the Beauty of Medusa

Article excerpt

WHEN P.B. SHELLEY VISITED THE UFFIZI GALLERY IN FLORENCE IN THE fall of 1819, he was drawn there by his interest in Greek sculpture, making his encounter with an anonymous sixteenth-century oil painting of the decapitated "Head of Medusa," then still erroneously attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, in all probability a mere accident. (1) But an almost irresistible aesthetic logic informs the imaginary scenario in which the exiled British Romantic poet makes his way, pen and notebook in hand, through the Florentine collection of "Grecian marbles," only to find himself face to face with Medusa, whose petrifying glance makes her the consummate sculptor of Greek myth, a reverse Pygmalion of sorts, her primordial cave a sculpture hall of melancholy beauty. Whether Shelley's discovery of the painting was accidental or not, his poetic response makes clear that he thoroughly understands the petrifying mythological and representational traps surrounding the Gorgon; for if, as Grant F. Scott has pointed out, there is an undeniable parallelism between Perseus, the slayer of the Medusa, and the ekphrastic poet entering the museum, Percy Shelley clearly attempts to avoid repeating the former's violent approach and cannily resists all identification with his near-namesake. (2)

Confronting the Flemish Gorgoneion (fig. 1), Shelley creates a fragmentary ekphrastic shield of words that is not meant to protect against the purported deadliness of Medusa's glance, but rather aims to undo the representational and ideological structures of patriarchal power that make Medusa a monster in the first place, and of which the sword-wielding Perseus is no more than an instrument. By refusing to perpetuate the violence of the possessive gaze, Shelley's "On the Medusa" becomes an ekphrastic poem that subverts the dominant aesthetic rules of a genre playing on male desires and fears and affirming power and control over the female art object. Through the undermining of such modes of seeing in his ekphrastic verse, Shelley ultimately seeks to open up the possibility of new modes of perception, unbound by the inherently ideological structures of representation that usually inform the way we see the world. Shelley's verse enables us to realize that acts of representation, be they verbal or visual, are always instances of "inextricable error," acts of power and control that produce the very objects they purport to represent. The "strain" of his fragmentary poem also asks us to imagine a poetic mode of perception that might extricate us from such forms of petrification and, in so doing, recover the Medusa's original beauty, which is also the true power of "poetry" in the Shelleyan, non-generic sense of the word. "Beauty" here must lose all gendered connotations, and "poetry" be revealed as non-representational vision, if the fundamental bond is to be broken, by which the original object of a non-possessive gaze must remain forever inaccessible and art be constrained to signal its irrevocable impotence to bring it into view. (3) In order to appreciate fully how Shelley aims to unbind both beauty and poetry and to enable a different relation to the (not just female) Other in his fragmentary verse, it will first be necessary to retrace the generic structures that threaten to entrap the ekphrastic writer. (4)

1. Ekphrasis

W. J. T. Mitchell has argued that female otherness is overdetermined in ekphrastic texts, as the genre is mired in gendered assumptions about the relationship between the verbal and the visual--the male logos controlling and taking possession of the female image--which always gives its intermedial texts "overtones ... of pornographic writing and masturbatory fantasy," and turns the verbal obsession with the ekphrastic image into "a kind of mental rape that may induce a sense of guilt, paralysis, or ambivalence in the observer." (5) Medusa, the once beautiful maiden, who, according to myth, was raped by Poseidon and transformed into a snake-headed monster by Athena as punishment for her "association" with the earth-shaker, can hence be seen as an emblem of the repressed sexual violence hidden by the representational illusions of ekphrasis. …

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