Confronting the monster before us
by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of
Atlanta, Jan. 3, 1998)
The temptation, in a year-end column in this space,
is to write about the death of the New Age. That movement's positive aspects
have become integrated in the mainstream: Even Harvard is now teaching
alternative medicine. And its sillier aspects seem, at least in my reading,
to have been relegated among reasonable people to the theatrics of snake-oil
Perhaps, as we approach the millennial year, the open-minded skeptic will
continue to gain ground. In the meantime, we remain stuck in many ways --
not quite sure of what is true or how to find our way out of the stuckness.
What we call the New Age -- and now, often, the transpersonal or holistic
movements -- is, after all, about finding solutions to problems that seem
intractable before conventional remedies and wisdom.
In my work with clients, I often tell the story of the Medusa as a parable
of the appropriate way to respond when we feel stuck. The Jungian analysts
Pat Berry and Marion Woodman also tell the story in that way, as did the
mythologist Joseph Campbell.
Now, even before I tell the story, I have to make some qualifications. When
you go in search of a myth's origins, you discover that there's no such thing.
David Miller, who teaches mythology at Syracuse, often tells the story of
assigning students the task of finding the story of Dionysos' origins. They
are given weeks to complete the task -- and they always come back empty-handed
What we know -- and Miller's students learn -- is that myths change according
to what needs to be expressed in a given time. Those oral storytelling cultures
we tend to sentimentalize are full of people who change the details of a
myth quite literally to suit their immediate situation. The embarrassment
Miller's students feel signifies the (scientistic) belief in our culture
that everything has a fixed origin.
The story of the Medusa is no different. There are many different versions,
so we give ourselves permission to imagine the story in several ways.
The Medusa, if you remember your Greek mythology, was one of three terrible
sisters, the Gorgons, whose winged bodies were covered with golden scales.
Their hair was a mass of writhing snakes. Whoever looked directly at them
was transfixed, paralyzed, turned to stone.
Perseus, for reasons irrelevant to our purposes here, was given the task
of slaying the Medusa, who was the one mortal sister of the Gorgons. His
dilemma, of course, was how to slay her without looking at her.
Two popular solutions have been told for centuries. In the most common, the
hero was given a shield by Athena. Rather than look directly at the monster,
which lay sleeping, he was to look at her reflection. He did so and then
decapitated her. In another story, Perseus simply averts his face and lets
fortune, with Athena's help, guide his hand. As Berry says, he feels his
way to her, and then chops off her head.
From her gushing blood then sprang the winged horse Pegasus, who flew into
the sky and then back down to earth. His hoof struck the ground on the mountain
of Helicon, where the muses lived, and a spring, Hippocrene, issued forth.
The spring, like Pegasus himself, was forever beloved by poets and the muses
gathered there to dance.
Most scholars with a psychological orientation regard the Medusa as a symbol
of the stony stuckness in which we can become trapped. We are moving along
in our lives and suddenly we encounter something -- a Medusa -- with the
potential to arrest us, derail us, stop us in our tracks and impede our progress.
We regard this as a terrible thing. And it is true that to look directly
at this thing, will bring us to a standstill. Depression is like that.
Berry asks why the thing, the Medusa, does not want to be looked at directly.
(In some stories, the Medusa was formerly beautiful, cursed out of envy by
Athena, so shame is her motivation, not blind monstrous evil, as our modern
reading always seems to simplify it.) Let's say you are well on your career
path and you all of a sudden encounter an enemy or a rival who seems to want
to inhibit your progress. You make all sorts of explanations, you instinctively
avoid the person. But when you do think about your enemy, "look at him directly,"
you regard him as a monster dropped from the sky just to make you miserable.
You can't do a thing. The "thing" is demonized. You are an innocent victim.
In other words, by looking directly at the "monster," you create an enormous,
polarizing distance between the two of you. You are victim; he is aggressor.
If you regard this as an internal dynamic, it's akin to refusing to consider
what is constituted between the forward-moving part of yourself and the part
that sabotages you. And life is like that. What we disown in ourselves --
something we don't like about ourselves, usually -- appears in the environment,
stopping us, demanding we pay attention. As long as it is demonized as a
monster, we are stuck. In the real-life situation, as long as we demonize
our "enemy" at the office without finding a way to really examine his
motivations, his situation in relationship to our own, we have no hope of
What is the solution? The two versions of the myth provide two
One is the wisdom of carrying a shield that reflects the truth as an image
that can be perceived with less threat. Psychotherapy might be regarded in
that way. There is a monster to be dealt with, but it cannot be looked at
too directly because it will immobilize you. So, the therapist shields you
and reflects for you what he sees. By approaching the issue indirectly, with
shielding, you can begin to liberate energy -- Pegasus -- from the stoniness
and give the muses of creativity a place to perform. Power and delight can
return to your life.
Likewise, in the second version, you must feel your way into the issue. You
can't deal with the monster, which is an image of yourself in some disowned
respect, until you feel your way into it. You touch it, rather than just
hold it in your critical gaze. It is a thing of nature, as Berry says, and
it cannot be held apart from yourself.
What impedes us, then, has the potential to reveal our greatest power and
joy, if it is adequately reflected and felt. Thus in some stories of the
Medusa, as Joseph Campbell notes, the blood of the Medusa is scavenged by
Asclepius, the god of healing. He uses the blood from the left side of her
body to slay and from her right to cure and reawaken life. Like the Indian
goddess Kali, the giver of life is also the destroyer.
The problem, in short, contains its own solution. Creativity itself arises
out of stuckness. Skepticism, doubting but not knowing, allows us reflection
Copyright 1998 by Creative Loafing | Published Jan. 3,
"Echo's Subtle Body," Pat Berry; "Occidental Mythology," Joseph Campbell;
"The Pregnant Virgin," Marion Woodman.
Archetypal Advice |