As mobs roved through our cities, pulling down statues of our past in the Summer of Hate, a question not asked enough was: What will replace them? Because nature abhors a vacuum it didn’t require a Delphic oracle to predict the empty plinths would be filled with something. This “something” — at least in New York City’s Collect Pond Park — is now a bronze replica of “Medusa with the Head of Perseus” erected to face the New York County Courthouse.
The statue, created in 2008 by Argentine-Italian artist Luciano Garbati, portrays the gorgon as a beautiful, naked woman with a blasé expression on her face; a sword in her left hand, and the head of the Greek hero Perseus in her right.
Tonally, the piece is the opposite of “Perseus with the Head of Medusa,” completed by Benvenuto Cellini in 1554. In that, Perseus is dynamic, left leg bent forward, right arm bent back while the left is held up and out to show the world the head of the slain monster. But the conversion from dynamism to static blandness is fitting, seeing as Garbati’s statues is the total inversion of the Greek myth wherein Perseus slew Medusa.
This story is too politically incorrect for our enlightened times, however, particularly because in the Roman poet Ovid’s retelling, Medusa was cursed to become a gorgon after being raped by Poseidon, the god of the sea. But its very incorrectness is why Medusa was transfigured into a feminist icon.
Missing the Point of the Story
Second-wave feminists saw Medusa as a victim of gods and men, making her the incarnation of Woman, oppressed by men and the patriarchal system. Marija Gimbutas, an archaeologist and anthropologist, postulated that Medusa was a symbol of ancient matriarchal societies destroyed by men.
The poet Mary Sarton wrote she was not turned to stone but “clothed in thought” when she looked upon Medusa, discovering that the gorgon did not have the face of a monster but her own: “That frozen rage is what I must explore–/Oh, secret, self-enclosed, and ravaged place!” In The Atlantic on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, Elizabeth Johnson provided the culmination of the feminist viewing of Medusa:
With this context, my students look anew on art like Cellini’s sculpture. Now, they can see that Perseus is the aggressor, not a hero but a symbolic rapist standing astride the body of his victim, her bloodied head held high in victory. Medusa’s closed eyes and lips speak volumes about both the history of women’s oppression and the submersion of women’s histories.
It is no surprise then that feminists have linked Medusa to the MeToo movement which is what happened with Garbati’s “Medusa.” This was done not only privately but publicly with NYC Parks, in their statement on the statue, making a direct connection between MeToo and the gorgon:
This narrative of victim-shaming in stories of sexual violence echoes through time, and into the present day ‘me too’ movement. In 2018, Garbati posted a photograph of his original sculpture to social media. This re-imagined Medusa went viral and became a symbol of resistance worldwide, inspiring thousands of women to reach out and share their own stories.
The end result is a city-approved work of bronze which Jessica Mason gushed would “shame men entering the New York County Criminal Courthouse.”
On that surface reading alone, Garbati’s “Medusa” would be a lie. For what do men, as a group, have to be ashamed? In Western countries, women are now better educated, more successful, and more ambitious than men and all because their culture was created on principles that made the political equality of the sexes possible through the workings of its own inner logic.
If only male rapists are to feel ashamed as they walk into the courthouse, that crucial detail should have been added. But would a bronze statue of a monster produce this emotion in hypothetical rapists? They would have to know who Medusa is, the myth as Ovid told it, and its feminist revision.
I may be wrong, but rapists are probably not up to speed on feminist literature or on the various strands and versions of classical myths. It is also unlikely that a bronze statue celebrating the inversion of a myth would install shame in guilty men even if they knew the literature and the myths by heart; if an individual conscience is so broken as to be unable to justly install shame after committing a crime, bronze gorgons in a park probably won’t do the trick either.
Lasting Myths are More Than Just ‘Stories’
It might be thought then that Garbati’s “Medusa” is a progressive misfire, doomed to fail miserably at its final purpose because of our postmodern arrogant ignorance. But even as a misfire, the statue is a perversion of mythology.
“Mythology” — like “racism,” “tolerance,” “freedom,” and even “persuasion” — has suffered the slings and arrows of redefinition. Today, if something is described as a myth, the speaker is pronouncing it fake, make-believe, a lie. Up through the beginning of the 20th century, however, myth was understood not as describing the truth value of a particular story but as a specific type of literature. Myth was seen as poetry in prose and, as such, true, just as every genuine poem is true.
This is bewildering in an age that has drilled into our heads that facts, logic, and “science” are much more valid that feelings, since poetry is nothing but feeling. This bewilderment is the fault of the age, however, not poetry, because the age has severed the mind from the heart. The postmodern left has claimed the heart, elevating feelings and “lived” experience as the pinnacle of truth, while the postmodern right has claimed the brain and made facts and logic its nucleus. Between them, they have bifurcated the human person into H.G. Wells’s Martians, either all brains or all emotions.
But men and women have heads and hearts for the simple fact that we cannot live without both; we are united substances. As Thomas Aquinas conveyed, we need everything we have been given in order to be whole, physically, spiritually, and psychologically. And, as we are naturally compelled to find the truth, our hearts and minds are both designed to seek it.
Truth expressed in poetry is different from streams of logic and linked syllogisms, which is why many don’t consider poetry a well of truth. Because we have been inundated with the idea that poetry and the rest of the arts have as their main purpose Beauty and “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” we’ve accepted as common sense that poetry only expresses “my truth” or “your truth.” Bad poetry may do this just as bad logic may defend insane conclusions, but these are perversions of logic and poetry.
If anything, poetry is greater than fact because what it seeks are transcendental truths that hold for all time and all places. The father of Western thought, Aristotle himself, wrote that poetry was greater than history since history could only give you particulars, but poetry presented universals and eternal truths that surpass mere time and circumstance.
Touching on the Permanent Things
No syllogism can prove love or express the sorrow that comes when a beloved dies, but Shakespeare’s sonnets and Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabel Lee” make both real for us. Philosophers, theologians, and historians can wax eloquently about the nature of courage and sacrifice, but reading Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” or Rudyard Kipling’s “Gunga Din” makes these virtues come alive in the theatre of our minds. This is why J.R.R. Tolkien honored myth-makers, poets, and scribblers in his poem “Mythopoeia”:
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme/of things not found within recorded time./It is not they that have forgot the Night/or bid us flee to organized delight/in lotus-isles of economic bliss/forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss/(and counterfeit at that, machine produced/bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Because myths are poetry in prose, they too touch transcendental truths, what T.S. Eliot would call the “Permanent Things.” The myth of Osiris from ancient Egypt is about the hope of life after death; the myths of Nuada the Silver-Armed from ancient Ireland are about kingliness (nobility, honor, justice, and the common good) and taking up arms to defeat the enemies of those things; the American myths of John Henry deal with the traits and virtues of strong men.
The myth of Medusa and Perseus follows the same channel. Rather than be about men oppressing women, victim-blaming, or any other ideological interpretation to which feminists have grafted it, the myth brings to life the qualities of heroism. In ancient Greece, as in most cultures, those qualities were to be directed toward the defeat of evil and chaos, incarnated in the forms of various monsters, demons, and giants.
As a defender of civilization, Perseus is a defender of women, not their oppressor; Medusa is not an icon of women but a representation of the chaos and evil that constantly threatens civilization. Because myths are about touching transcendent truths, they are the glue that hold societies together; every culture has its own unique mythology as the prism through which people see the world.
This is why Garbati’s “Medusa” is a direct attack on our civilization. By inverting the myth of Perseus, it becomes a perverted myth that doesn’t try to touch the Permanent Things but instead clings to lies and makes the lies the prism through which we see the world. Evil becomes good; heroism becomes oppression; chaos becomes freedom; men become monsters — these are all messages “Medusa” screams to the county courthouse, New York City, and our whole society. And it will take another Perseus beheading this new gorgon to reverse that.