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Medusa or New Medusa – Symbol or Allegory – A de Manian Reading of Medusa in John Barth’s "Perseid"
This article is a de Manian reading of Medusa as another textual groundwork in “Perseid”, the second novella in Barth’s Chimera. The de Manian privilege of allegory over symbol is the target of speculation. De Man challenges the classical, historical superiority of symbol, with its merit of infinity, and discloses the non-organic essence of allegory that emancipates any sign from the circumventions ascribed by symbol. In this regard, Barth’s perspective towards Medusa is going to be elaborated in the light of allegory. Barth’s treatment of Medusa in “Perseid” becomes quite allegorical rather than symbolic. Thus, showing the procedure within which allegory supersedes symbol in the figure of Medusa and New Medusa is at the crux of this part. As aforementioned, such an explication in terms of allegory is interrelated with the notion of unreadability and the improbability of eliciting a single, symbolic meaning from the text.
Medusa as the Symbol of Cosmophilic Transcendentalism
Ken Dowden asserts that Greek mythology at first sight has plenty of monsters: things from the beginning of time or at least begotten by primeval earth for gods or heroes to defeat; awkward customers like the Hydra of Lerna (always sprouting new heads), the Nemean Lion (with Chobham skin) for Herakles; the Chimaira for Bellerophon, or centaurs or satyrs; and the simply loathsome Gorgon Medousa for Perseus. In his opinion, monsters disproportionately attract the attention of modern readers, who tend not to notice that in Greek mythology monsters have limited circulation, as manifested in their slight portion in any complete book of Greek myths. Perhaps the gods themselves sap something of the demand for the non-human and magical in myth – Greek myth is more affected by dungeon-masters than by dragons. But other factors contributed; the exceptional authority of Homer can be viewed as setting a particularly human and realistic tone for later Greek writers to follow. He allows little room for the magical and monstrous (138).
Chief of the Gorgons and the mortal one, Medusa is the serpent-headed monster of Greek mythology whose hideous appearance turned men into stone. Originally a fair maiden, she was violated by Poseidon in a temple of the goddess Athene, who then punished her by transforming her into an ugly monster with snakes for hair. Perseus carried Medusa’s still-lethal head along on his other heroic adventures, brandishing it against foes until finally returning the prize to Athene, who affixed it to her shield. The blood from her head also had magical powers, and was said to be the seed from which Pegasus sprang, as well as the origin of poisonous snakes in Africa. Joel Schmidt in Larousse Greek and Roman Mythology (1983) considers the Gorgons as one of the most horrendous beasts of Greek mythology.
The attraction and importance of monsters for Dowden is psychological. As they have never existed, their particular construction is likely to reveal more about what is inside man than what is outside. In broad terms, they are the epitomes of the fears, loathings and worries. Then Dowden proceeds in describing various kinds of monsters from Titans to Giants and so on. For him, Caldwell, Bremmer, and a host of other critics, the she-monsters of Greek mythology can be interpreted variably as the fear of mother or incestuous, libidinal drives on the part of the heroes. Of course this paper never intends to immerse in psychoanalysis of any kind. The main point is that how the grand narrative of black criticism (traditional criticism) has tried to minimalize mythology into a geometrically-structured work – in Barthes’ sense of the word in contrast to text – in order to appease the demands of modern human.
De Man’s reading of Medusa not in terms of rhetoricity or tropes would culminate into the notion of symbol. De Man destabilizes the entire tradition of symbolic superiority over allegorical arbitrariness. Symbol’s more labile semantic nature in comparison with allegory is probably due to its being used much more frequently and in more contexts. This greater frequency of use is probably due in turn to the positive associations that symbol as opposed to allegory has acquired over the last 200 years. Symbol is able to carry the quasi-religious concept of the revelation of the Infinite in and through any finite thing because anything, linguistic or non-linguistic, could be a symbol.
In order to recapitulate the difference between allegory and symbol, it is fundamental to compare them in terms of their classical definitions, and also historical genesis. Symbolon originally denoted physical objects such as marks, tokens or tickets. These were conventional signs in which language had at most only a part to play. The original sense of symbolon did not denote linguistic entities. Symbol was extended from the non-linguistic to the linguistic sphere; Gadamer in Truth and Method (1993) argues that it was this that allowed symbol to take on a much wider role than allegory at the end of the 18th century (73-81). Carlyle says, symbol is “some embodiment and revelation of the Infinite” (Carlyle 78). As a post-structuralist, de Man in “The Rhetoric of Temporality” elaborates upon the historical and structural differences of allegory and symbol. He believes that in the latter half of the eighteenth century, symbol tends to supplant other denominations for figural language, including that of allegory. In German literature symbol was valorized over allegory because of its appeal to infinity. It was considered as a sign that referred to one specific meaning and thus exhausted its suggestive potentialities once it had been deciphered. “The symbol was founded upon an intimate unity between the image that came up before the senses and the supersensory totality that the image suggested sees” (Blindness, “The Rhetoric of Temporality” 189). He mentions Coleridge for whom “symbol is the product of the organic growth of form; in the world of symbol, life and form are identical” (191). The rhetorical structure of symbol is synecdoche, for the symbol is always a part of the totality that it presents.
Because of this part and whole relation in symbol, it postulates the possibility of an identity or identification. Hence, symbol is characterized by “the translucence of the special in the individual, or of the general in the special, or of the universal in the general; above all by the translucence of the eternal through and in the temporal” (192).
The more opportunistic and less structured features of symbol than other figures, its claimed organic unity of sign and meaning and its articulation of individual scenes and entities make it a proportionate medium for analyzing the mythological Medusa, essentially in contrast with Barthian New Medusa. Not only Medusa but all the Greek monsters have long been considered as the symbols of human fright, Mother Nature’s cruelty, the unconscious zones of human mind and so on. Barth himself has to embark on such notions in order to foreground his own Medusa. Medusa symbolically presents Barth’s cosmophilic transcendentalism; the possibility of attaining the creativity despite the maladies and monsters. It embodies Perseus’ attempts to become at least the author of his heroic tale, even when he knows that there are other authors claiming the authorship of his text, such as Calyxa or the anonymous writer of the heroic pattern. By narrating how he slew Medusa to Calyxa and the readers, he can affirm that in the midst of many impotencies, especially sexual ones, he has at least accomplished one, universally-acknowledged heroic venture. Such a loophole helps him to survive the tyranny of cosmopsis in which now he is ensnared. Now after twenty years, telling his tale of Medusa symbolizes his artistic along with heroic survival.
Slaying Medusa becomes the symbol of gaining an epistemological knowledge; the answer to the question of whether the hero can know anything to be certainly true if there is no ultimate truth as standard. Despite the nonexistence of ultimate truth, Perseus at least takes the risk and engenders his own version of truth with regard to his ontogeny. Thus, it can be concluded that Medusa marks an important phase in the metamorphosis of Perseus into a hero. Medusa as a symbol expands itself beyond its mythic context to a universal sign. It can present any obstacle on any individual’s ontogeny. Hence, the symbolic reading of any sign, even in a meta-meta-fiction like Chimera may not differ from the nineteenth century attitude of romantics towards symbol’s universality and infinity. A symbol can always remain a symbol.
Medusa as an Allegory
Considering Medusa as a symbol is not a de Manian reading of it. It is in line with any exponential approach towards texts in order to illicit a unified, unambiguous meaning from language. However, for de Man, the supremacy of symbol, “conceived as an expression of unity between the representative and the semantic function of language, becomes a commonplace that underlies literary taste, literary criticism and literary history” (189). The synthesis that is ascribed to Medusa and its meaning not only in “Perseid” but in Greek mythology is transvalued in de Manian reading. He sharply contradicts Gadamer who asserts: “Symbol and allegory are opposed as art is opposed to non-art, in that the former seems endlessly suggestive in the indefiniteness of its meaning, whereas the latter, as soon as its meaning is reached, has run its full course” (Gadamer 67). Allegory has long been considered as arbitrary and mechanical. In “Allegory and Symbol; a Fundamental Opposition?” (2005) Peter Crisp delineates two major senses or trends of allegory that have occurred in the rhetorical tradition, though they are never sharply demarcated. The first reflects the derivational morphology of ancient Greek allegoria, or “other speaking”, which simply denotes figurative language in general, meaning something other than what one says. The second is significantly narrower and denotes anything from sentential metaphor opposed to nominal or predicative through extended metaphor up to an entire narrative poem such as The Faerie Queene. Allegory in all its forms was thus understood as part of the general continuum of metaphorical and figurative language. A major consequence of this is that allegory usually involves continuous narrative, since this is needed to structure its text world. Thus, the original sense of allegoria by contrast to symbol was purely linguistic in denotation, and extended from the linguistic to the non-linguistic, for paintings as well as poems came to be described as allegories.
The dramatic opposition between allegory and symbol that emerged at the end of the 18th century was associated with an equally dramatic narrowing of the sense of allegory. The widest sense of allegory as figurative language in general was lost altogether and the narrower sense was narrowed still further. Only works in which metaphorical extension was pushed to the extreme of eliminating all overt references, and direct characterization of the metaphorical target domain now qualified as allegories. That is, only extended narratives such as The Faerie Queene or The Pilgrim’s Progress or, less prototypically, shorter works such as George Herbert’s “The Pilgrimage” or Henry Vaughan’s “Regeneration”, now counted as allegories (Crisp, “Allegory, Blending and Possible Worlds” 115-21).
De Man retains the allegory’s supposed arbitrariness. For him, the external relations of its signifier and signified, is its supreme virtue. He takes the romantic opposition of allegory and symbol while transvaluing its values, making allegory positive and symbol negative. The concept of symbol devalued by de Man is clearly that of the romantic tradition. As a post-structuralist he sees its claimed organic unity of sign and meaning as disguising the arbitrariness and discontinuity of all significations and being.
Allegory designates primarily a distance in relation to its own origin, and renouncing the nostalgia and the desire to coincide, it establishes its language in the void of this temporal difference. In so doing, it prevents the self from an illusory identification with the non-self. De Man confirms that “allegory exists entirely within an ideal time that is never here and now but always a past or an endless future. It appears as a successive mode capable of engendering duration as the illusion of a continuity that it knows to be illusionary” (226).
Thus it can be concluded that his relation to allegory is quite complicated. He accepts its sharp opposition to symbol but, apart from the supposed arbitrariness of its sign/meaning relation, there is little in his account relating to any standard sense of allegory. As Crisp puts forward, it seems enough for him to classify a text as allegorical if it undermines, or he judges it to undermine, the organic unity associated with symbol. For de Man such an undermining “acceptance of time denies unity to human experience” (“The Rhetoric of Temporality” 178). De Man himself recognizes that the sense he gives allegory is highly idiosyncratic. He speaks of “our sense of allegory”.
Hence, allegory, in the maximally narrow sense dominant in literary discourse over the last 200 years, becomes a form of metaphor extended to the point where the linguistic focus/frame contrast is eliminated and the conceptual source domain becomes a fictional, text world (Crisp, “Allegory: Conceptual Metaphor in History” 5-19). The relationship between source and target domain is thus highly motivated in two ways. First, the source domain is typically more experientially basic than the target domain. Second, the two domains must share sufficient conceptual structure to allow one to be mapped onto another. Not just any domain can be mapped onto any domain (Lakoff 39-74). The relationship between conceptual domains in metaphor is thus highly motivated and non-arbitrary. If allegory is a form of metaphor then it too is highly motivated and non-arbitrary. Those who have believed that allegoric meanings are fixed and definite have mistaken the specification of such starting points for the whole process of realizing a metaphorical mapping.
Now applying such an elaborate, allegorical mode to “Perseid” would result in the juxtaposition between the symbolic, simultaneous Medusa and allegoric, diachronic New Medusa. The distance between sign and its meaning engenders a discontinuity in the sign that can metaphorically be outlined as literal and figural. The temporal void in allegory never allows the reconciliation of the literal with the figural. By slaying Medusa, following the heroic pattern, winning the heart of Andromeda and being reincarnated in heaven, Perseus has symbolically mastered a one to one, synchronic correspondence between heroism and its signification. The image and its substance, Perseus and mythic essence are incorporated without spatiality or temporality. This is the fundamental premise on which Barth constructs his own mode in which the de Manian disparity between mythological sign and its signification is attained. After narrating his heroic adventures of slaying Medusa, Perseus commences the new allegoric Medusa by recounting his marital problems with Andromeda, their decision of journeying to Joppa in order to visit his in-laws, their row on the ship to Joppa and Andromeda’s throwing away of Perseus’ fan letters in the sea and so on. Athene’s solution to all the problems is rekilling Medusa. She claims that she has reincarnated her into New Medusa: “She reckoned she punished the girl nearly enough, so she rejoined her head to her body, revived her, and restored her original appearance” (92), but with a difference; “nowadays she turns stone to flesh instead of vice-versa: makes old folks spry again” (91). Initially, Perseus rejects the offer of reslaying her: “If there was a new Medusa, let a new Perseus be resickled, -shielded, -sandaled, and the rest, to reglorifiy himself by re-beheading her. It wasn’t Mother Danae wanted rescuing but Danae’s son” (89). But by being reassured that Medusa is no more petrifying he accepts. Now having entered Barth’s modern-family-mythology, the reader is exposed to a new Barthian pattern; “I was a new man; only regard me with shield and sickle, it was a decade’s petrifaction in myself I’d cut off first, then Medusa’s head to melt away another, then confront Andromeda with a better Perseus than had first unscarped her”(93).
The emergence of New Medusa with de-petrified features of the old Medusa is accompanied by another ironic de-Gorgonization; “New Medusa’s probationary stipulations allowed for one special circumstance in which petrifaction might occur as of old, and in which not only its contrary but a kind of immortality might be accomplished” (92). Now Medusa has turned into an allegory, whose final signification is deferred. She is a sign that is conditioned by the previous and preceding signs; by the past, petrifying destroyer, and the future, nurturing lover of Perseus, with whom he is going to rest in his immortality. The temporality of New Medusa is reinforced in the text within various relapses of time, during which Medusa finds her final image as a redeemer not a femme fatale. After being ironically rescued by her and spending an amorous night with her, while she has covered her face (with the same sexual impotencies), Perseus notices that despite of his killing her “she still loved [him] and had lived, during her death, for those moments when [he] raised her by the hair and she withered [his] enemies with a glance” (110). Now in love with her he wants to know Athene’s condition in order to be able to “see the face that spoke in such a gentle voice” (111). Perseus says,
If the man who uncowled her, and on whom she laid her one-shot grace, were her true lover, the two of them would turn ageless as the stars and be together forever. But since she hadn’t known herself a Gorgon before, and couldn’t view herself now, for all she or I could know she might be Gorgon still, and Athene’s restoration a nasty trick. In short, whoever unveiled and kissed her must do so open-eyed, prepared to risk petrifaction forever in a Gorgon’s hug. (110)
Barth again embarks on playing tricks and impostures on his readers. Is New Medusa petrifying or juvenating? Is she the old Medusa in disguise? Or is Barth just trying to build up the novella to its climax by maintaining suspense? As de Man asserts allegory instills a sense of continuity, otherwise it is encumbered with essential discontinuity of meaning. Henceforth, New Medusa’s allegoric mode impedes the reader from coming up with a single interpretation. The repetitive quality of the myth of Medusa, that is, occurring in various contexts but each time with a new process of dissemination marks the unreadability of the allegory. Trapped in the aporia of stone and star, of petrifier and immortal lover of Perseus, New Medusa is the allegory of Barthian mythology; manipulated, unravished, uncertain, waiting to be written and also trying to write. As manifested in the final dialogue of the novella, Perseus and New Medusa are enjoying their newly-gained eternity, while revising their story. Now as arch-critic of Perseus’ tale, she takes on not a pure mythic role, but shifts into another figural level of being an allegory. Oscillating between discrepant signs, she can no more be reduced to a symbol. She has become an extended metaphor whose vehicle is quite polysemic.
The text-length tropological quality of Medusa in “Perseid” preserves the two-level ontological structure of metaphor; literal and figural. However, these two levels remain implicit throughout the text, in other words, the distinction between Medusa the petrifier and New Medusa the reviver is blurry, till the end of the novella. Even the ending of the text never tries to dissolve the riddle due to the fact that Perseus in their eternity has not yet met New Medusa unveiled. So the text’s lack of closure makes it impossible to decide if Medusa is de-Gorgonized or not. According to McHale, “in allegory the literal frame of reference is missing” (McHale 141). In this respect, “Perseid” is seething with all figural aspects of Medusa; her love of Perseus, her innocence, turning into New Medusa and finally becoming the critic of Perseus’ (or even Barth’s) tale. However, her literal, symbolic role is forfeited in the text, that is to say, even Perseus’ initial accounts of slaying her to Calyxa in heaven, turns out be part of a hypertrope; he is actually narrating the process of slaying Medusa to Medusa. As clarified at the end of the novella, the entire “Perseid” has been a tale narrated by Perseus to New Medusa in their eternity. Thus, Medusa exerts her allegorical role throughout the text as an extended metaphor that is immersed in its own figurality.
In conclusion, it can be said that the contrast between symbol and allegory is not de Man’s venture. Postmodernist fiction has long been obsessed with returning to allegorical mode of literature as a “medieval, suprarealist, sacralizing power” (Nash 99). “Perseid” embodies mythic Medusa as an allegory of textual unpossessibility. It can be considered as the allegory of an allegory, in other words, the allegory of unreadability of any sign or any text. Here, it should be pertained that allegory in de Manian sense of the word can never be dovetailed into a term the same way as symbol. It is possible to say that a red rose is the symbol of love, but it is not possible to reduce Medusa, for example, to an allegory of fatal woman, or an allegory of ideal woman. The term allegory encompasses all the contradicting attributes of a sign. Thus, Medusa in its allegoric mode substantiates her own unreadability along with the novella’s.
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