BMCR 2004.07.19

The Medusa Reader

, , The Medusa reader. Culture work. New York and London: Routledge, 2003. xvi, 310 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0415900980 $24.95.

The guests are stood in silence
They stare and drink their wine
On the wall the canvas hangs
Frozen there in time
They marvel at the beauty
The horror and despair
At the wake of the Medusa
No one shed a tear

The Wake of the Medusa,1 Jem Finer of the Pogues

When I type the name “Medusa” into Google, I am informed that I have found approximately 1, 050,000 hits. (For rough comparison, Oedipus turns up 318,000; Medea, 519,000. Poor Perseus, even with the help of the Perseus Project, only exists in 736,000 cyperspaces. Freud tops them all with a whopping 2,140,000.) These days, Medusa exists in many forms. She is an amusement park roller coaster, and is well-known as the symbol for the late Gianni Versace’s line of clothing. But she is also a DS9 security system, “a framework for writing asynchronous socket-based servers,” and a guerilla poetry group based in Lawrence, KS. As a cultural icon, a social and literary trope, Medusa’s got chops.

That seems to be the point of the curious collection under review here, edited by literary/cultural theorists Marjorie Garber and Nancy Vickers. This book collects, in English translation, 73 generally brief selections of things that critics, theorists, and poets have written about Medusa and/or the Gorgon. Each selection is prefaced by a short, informative paragraph explaining for the non-expert who the author is and what is significant about his/her contribution. The first selection is from Homer (the description of the aegis in Book 5, Agamemnon’s shield in Book 11), and the last is from a 1996 interview with Gianni Versace. In between, Medusa’s story does duty as Christian allegory, as military strategy, as a representation of the castration complex and of primitive initiation rites, as a call to arms for feminists and for African-American women, as a comment on poetic and artistic production, as a figure for gender blur (the particular interest of editor Garber), and as inspiration for numerous poems and works of fiction.

The book was pleasing to read, but I confess that I cannot discern the book’s intended audience. Unlike, say, The Kristeva Reader, it does not present a coherent body of work, but rather a hodgepodge of representations and appropriations of a complex figure. Literary critics in various fields who are dealing with Medusa as a type will consult it, and it is instructive simply to see Medusa’s protean metamorphoses. But reading it straight through (as a reviewer must, but most other readers will not), is a bit like reading an anthology of modern poetry. You read a selection, find it amusing or disturbing or morose, perhaps read another selection, perhaps put it aside for the next day. The editors — both formidable critics — have made no attempt to interpret, and the introduction (1-7) makes only the slightest gestures towards theorizing the ways in which Medusa has become a trope, or analyzing why she has such iconic status in the modern world. Given the information that the book took shape because the editors were working (separately) on the figure of Medusa in two works of Shakespeare (xvii), I began to suspect that this book represents, more or less, the background research that went into those two articles (excerpts from which are included.) Who, then, is this book for? Perhaps only the curious, well-educated browser, and if that is the intent, she will be reasonably well-served.

The editors chose to leave the excerpts in strict chronological order, rather than arranging them into thematic groups. (A thematically arranged bibliography closes the book.) They did this, they say, because they do not see the myth evolving. Rather, “… the Medusa myth … includes, from its very beginnings, all the conflicting elements that have fascinated audiences and readers …” (7). This is not strictly true, of course. As Vernant points out in the essay selected for this volume, the introduction of Perseus’ mirror (or shield acting as one) seems to take place in the late 5th century (225), a development that Vernant also links to the characterization of Medusa as arrestingly beautiful (227). Most post-Ovidian readers and critics, however, read the myth in its amalgamated form (of which an early representative is pseudo-Apollodorus, selection 6). So Medusa-as-icon is a product of the myth taken, in good structuralist fashion, from the combination of all of its variants.

This chronological arrangement makes for some interesting juxtapositions. Freud’s essay was late in his career (1923, not published until 1940). It bumps up, in this volume, against Countee Cullen’s 1935 poem from the Harlem Renaissance and is not far from James Merrill’s splendid “Medusa” of 1946. It hardly seems possible that these three occupied the same chronological context, and some of the delight of reading the volume comes from reading these passages in sequence. At the same time, it might have been useful to separate out different modes of production, particularly in the modern period. Though Bacon’s allegorical use of the Medusa story to explain military strategy (for example) defies classification, it seems clear enough that the selections of poetry inspired by Medusa are of a different order than scholarly essays interpreting artistic representations of her.

Many of the excerpts are very short — a page or two — with the longest spaces reserved for 20th century works of interpretation by key figures such as J-P. Vernant, John Freccero, and Neil Hertz. The book is dominated by the last century. The first fifty pages take us to the end of late antiquity (John Malalas), and on page 84 we reach Freud’s influential, and late, 1923 essay on Medusa’s head. By page 100 we come to Sylvia Plath, and the remaining 176 pages are post-1962.

The selection from the ancient world is quite good. I was unfamiliar, before now, with the early rationalizing work of Palaephaetus (selection 5), which is wildly entertaining. The late antique passages from Fulgentius and John Malalas are also probably not well-known and are certainly worth reading. The other, better-known passages (Pindar Pythian 12, Euripides’ Ion, Ovid, Lucan, Achilles Tatius, etc.) are well-selected, chosen from good published translations, and competently introduced. I am less able to comment on the selection from later periods, though I did note the curious absence of Bocaccio’s sketch of Medusa in his selection of famous women. (Thanks to this volume I am now able to see, I think, Boccaccio’s dependence on Fulgentius.) I also wondered why the editors did not include the entry for Medusa from Wittig and Zeig’s Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary.

The volume presents a remarkable sample from the dazzling range of appropriations of Medusa, particularly in the modern period. One also must admit, however, that Medusa is less present in some of these excerpts than others. For some authors — I think particularly of Freud and Cixous — she is a fundamental underlying metaphor, or an inspiration for a different kind of discourse. In the passage from Marx’ Capital, on the other hand, she is barely there, and hardly necessary for the argument. Some of the passages, too, are so short as to be incomprehensible for readers who are not already immersed in their particular theoretical modes. Two pages each are presented from Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Hélène Cixous, Stephen Heath, and Teresa de Lauretis… it is difficult to imagine gleaning much from these selections.

The editors have drawn connections where they can, and readers are generally directed towards them in the paragraphs introducing individual excerpts. The volume includes, for example, both Dante’s description of Medusa in the Inferno, and Freccero’s insightful analysis of that troubling passage; Caravaggio’s famous head of Medusa (1590-1600) is figure 1, and included is a longish passage from Louis Marin discussing that painting. Editor Nancy Vickers’ essay on Shakespeare’s Lucrece cites many of the earlier sources for the myth included here. Versace’s fascination with Medusa (and his use of her image as his icon) becomes particularly clear, and striking, with the inclusion of two full-page Versace advertisements (figures 28 and 29). On the other hand, it is difficult to understand why they included Rosetti’s “Aspecta Medusa,” but not the accompanying image.

A few technical details are aggravating. In some instances the editors have clearly marked book and line numbers for their excerpts (e.g. in the case of Ovid). In others, they have not. Good luck to the reader, then, who wants to pinpoint the one paragraph of Pausanias excerpted here, to say nothing of the two page passage from Derrida’s Glas. There is a bibliography of works having to do with Medusa, divided into broad categories. The reader will find Homer under “Mythology and Religion: Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance,” rather than under “Fiction, Poetry, Drama and Autobiography.” The passages of Homer cited in the bibliography as having to do with Medusa do not correspond to the ones included in this volume. I give only this example to suggest that the casual reader will have to do some work to benefit from the bibliography.

The most disappointing aspect of the book is the lack of analysis by the editors in general. In particular, Freud’s analysis of Medusa’s head as fetishized representation of castration anxiety marks a clear turning point in the life of the Medusa myth. One cannot read the second half of this book without realizing that, for better or worse, many of the later reactions to Medusa are at least in part reacting as much to Freud’s reading of her. Indeed, even the fundamental question of whether one identifies with Medusa or is petrified by her is, for the modern world, a question shaped by Freudian frameworks of thought. Given Garber’s insightful work on gender, sexuality, and personal identity elsewhere, it is surprising that the book does not try to synthesize the force of the post-Freudian Medusa in modern society. For those interested in pursuing that problem, this book will provide a good place to start.

Classicists will find the first 50 pages interesting and perhaps useful in teaching mythology. A course on the history of ideas, or the history of modes of interpretation may find the ancient, medieval, renaissance, and modern readings of Medusa instructive. I suspect that this book will help along a number of dissertations in comparative literature and English. In itself, however, it is not so much a book as a Medusa-themed curiosity shop: neither profound nor particularly coherent, but for all that an engaging way to spend the afternoon.


1. This song, released on the Pogues’ Hell’s Ditch album, was apparently inspired by Théodore Géricault’s painting, Le Radau de la Méduse (1818-19). A modified version of the painting appeared as the cover art for Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash.