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ALEXANDER M. SCHLUTZ Recovering the Beauty ofMedusa W HEN 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 irre­ sistible 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 himselfface to face with Medusa, whose petrifying glance makes her the consummate sculptor of Greek myth, a reverse Pygmalion ofsorts, 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 thor­ oughly 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 identi­ fication with his near-namesake.2 I. For an illuminating account of Shelley’s pursuit of Greek sculpture in Italy and his attempt to “locate the sceptical, ‘disfiguring’ iconoclasm of his writing from Queen Mab through his 1816 lyrics in the interstices among the various arts and their differing repre­ sentational capacities both for critiquing and for rebuilding cultural forms or ideological struc­ tures,” as well as his “effort to communicate an ontological form or spirit of beauty fluidly across history,” see Nancy Moore Goslee, “Shelleyan Inspiration and the Sister Arts,” The Un­ familiar Shelley, eds. Timothy Webb and Alan Weinberg (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 160, 169. 2. See Scott, “Shelley, Medusa, and the Perils of Ekphrasis,” in The Romantic Imagination. Literature and Art in England and Germany, eds. Frederick Burwick andJurgen Klein (Amster­ dam: Rodopi, 1996), 319—20. Taking his cue from Helene Cixous in her influential essay Le Rire de la Meduse, Hal Foster, in his Lacanian reading ofthe Medusa myth, goes a step fur­ ther than Scott and points out that Antonio Canova’s sculpture of Perseus, Medusa’s decapi­ tated head in hand, presides over the grand staircase ofthe New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, suggesting, as Foster surmises, that the slaying of Medusa, the “phallogocentric sublation” necessary to enter the symbolic order, might be “the introit of any art museum.” SiR, 54. (Fall 2015) 329 330 ALEXANDER M. SCHLUTZ Confronting the Flemish Gorgoneion (fig. i), Shelley creates a fragmen­ tary ekphrastic shield ofwords that is not meant to protect against the pur­ ported deadliness ofMedusa’s glance, but rather aims to undo the represen­ tational and ideological structures ofpatriarchal 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 ofa 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 ofpercep­ tion, 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 in­ stances 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 ofperception that might extri­ cate 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...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 329-353
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-13
Open Access
No
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