Draft Literature Review 'psychoanalysis And Vision A Study Of Medusa Otherness And The Politics Of Looking' Notes
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Psychoanalysis and Vision: A Study of Medusa, Otherness and the Politics of Looking Literature Review (draft) Introduction: Relationship Between Psychoanalysis and Literature / Mythology Writing on the relationship between psychoanalysis and literature, Freud acknowledged poets and philosophers as his precursors in their exploration of the human psyche, as well as asserting that it is only through knowledge of infant sexuality that one can fully understand mythology. Indeed, Freud's recognition that human beings may find it difficult to cast aside the ideas of their forefathers and fully accept newer sets of beliefs (see 'The Uncanny') suggests that mythology may continue to exert an influence upon one's psyche. One may thus regard psychoanalysis and literature / mythology as 'mutually illuminating' (Brooks, 108), and this relationship has been noted by various theorists: Reik, for example, argues that the images received and conceived in one's early years continue to reside in the unconscious and are thus 'indelible and as immortal as the Gods of the Olympus', while Auerbach observes that past mythologies can serve to illuminate the 'blend of anger and awe that men feel in our culture'. So, when one takes these and similar statements (Bowlby, Brooks, de Vos, Zajko) into account, it is clear that mythological stories and figures can potentially be rich in symbolic meaning. Why the Medusa is fear-inducing (ie why does the male wish to destroy or subdue her) While there are many mythological tales that are of interest from a psychoanalytic perspective, Schneider makes an interesting point in noting that, in Homer's Underworld, Medusa is the only one of the (primarily female) monsters that causes a loss of bravery on the part of its protagonist. Likewise, Howe's (in Schneider) observation that, in the myth, the sight of the Medusa's severed head has 'no effect on women, but all men who look on her are rendered impotent' is similarly provocative. One of the key questions that one must consider, then, is why the Medusa is fear-inducing; that is, in what way(s) does she threaten masculine power and why is it necessary that Perseus destroy or subdue her? This is a matter that has been afforded significant attention, with various (though by no means mutually exclusive) possibilities being offered. Firstly, there is the obvious point that Medusa terrifies simply because she represents the other (Frank) and is thus threatening or contemptible due to her difference. Similarly, Medusa can be seen as indicative of the socially constructed binary division that structures definitions of the female, with Medusa being placed on the negative side of this binary. However, theorists have also pointed out elements of recognition in the Medusa, whether this be recognition of the mother or recognition of elements of oneself. To begin with the former, one is again faced with different interpretations, the most common being that of the Medusa's head as symbol of the 'castrated' female genitals - an assertion made by Freud in his short but influential notes on the myth. Specific aspects of this motif (chiefly the snakes) will be discussed separately in this review, but the key point to acknowledge is that the Medusa's fear-inducing nature is widely associated with her 'castrated' status, which subsequently makes the male aware of the possibility that he too could be castrated (Freud.) Moreover, this symbolism is also seen to create an uncanny sensation in that the 'castrated' female genitals nevertheless hark back to one's entrance into the world (thus creating a sense of familiarity), and so the viewer may experience mingling
feelings such as curiosity, confusion and fear of the loss of self (Brooks, de Vos, Freud) The Medusa thus takes on a tone of ambivalence, and this is something that one encounters repeatedly throughout a study of the myth and its surrounding literature. However, other theorists have moved away from the image of the mother as castrated to highlight the mother as an active, aggressive, powerful figure (who may serve as a projection of the son's own futile incestuous impulses), whether this be in the form of a dangerous seductress, active castrator or omnipotent phallic creator-destroyer (Beres, Creed, Hartke, Leonard, Schneider)
- guises that Freud would appear to have been familiar with (Krull in Hartke) but subsequently suppressed (Creed, Hartke.) Still, whatever interpretation is offered, the mother figure and issues relating to castration and incest prohibition often play a key role in explorations of the Medusa myth, in keeping with the argument that cultural differences and changing notions of the family do not completely negate the shared symbolic formations that develop in relation to the maternal body. (Brooks) Fear of Female Power Another obvious fear-inducing aspect of the Medusa is her power, which is fear-inducing due to its departure from the typical equation of the female with weakness and passivity - an equation that is typically regarded as appropriate and desirable, with confident, assertive women often being shunned (Seidenberg). On this note, writers have pointed to the powerful nature of the Medusa's sexuality, positing that an antiphallus is more powerful than the male member precisely because it is unknowable. So, while the male may seek to penetrate, possess and master, there remains a hidden source of energy that cannot be known or contained and may thus be regarded with fear and confusion (Brooks, Buci-Glucksmann, Geha.) One can thus speculate that this mysteriousness enabled nineteenth century imaginings in which various powers were imagined 'fancifully, wistfully and fearfully' imagined in women (Auerbach), with such power being evident in the image of the aggressive, devouring, hypnotic and sexually devastating female who perverts established values (Etherington, Hartke, Leonard, Neumann in Schneider.) This also ties in with the notion of female excess and multiplicity, with theorists arguing that the equation of women with lack is a construction that seeks to suppress, categorise and contain the female (Cixous, Irigiray). The Medusa can therefore be seen as a return of the repressed - of chaos, that which cannot be categorised - which is clearly a fear-inducing prospect within patriarchal society. Not only this, it has also been noted that woman may be feared due to the conception of her as not only a powerful but also a vengeful figure, with the wronged woman's savagery (which can be linked with the female castration complex) being a frequent motif - particularly in mythology (Geha, Leonard, Praz) Ontological Uncertainty While the Medusa is often seen to represent the mother, another frequent interpretation posits that the Medusa serves as a symbol of the viewer's own unconscious, representing the splitting of one's ego and projection (in the manner outlined by Freud and Klein) of aspects of oneself into other characters. Thus, the horrifying / threatening nature of the Medusa and the need to look away or eliminate the threat may be explained in terms of the displacement
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