Recently I asked a psychoanalytic colleague why men might be afraid of my new work. What he wrote is below, followed by some of my thoughts and reflections.
By a happy coincidence, I was already working with the image of Medusa and her Tongue, thinking about language, mother animals and the way they wash their newborn young, sexual acts of great intimacy and love, and the expression of our greatest needs – for love, for adoration.
“In response to your question of why some men are afraid of your new work I think about Medusa. According to the Greek poet Hesiod, (750-650 BCE) Medusa was Gaia’s granddaughter. Hesiod tells that Gaia as the original personification of Earth gave birth to a son, Pontus, as the original personification of the Sea, and that from the union of Gaia and Pontus Medusa’s parents, Phorkys (Homer’s ‘Old Man of the Sea’) and Keto (whose name is related to ‘whale’ and ‘monster’), were born. Medusa was one of triplet daughters known as the ‘Gorgons’, and her parents, once rulers over the deep, were subsequently vanquished by the Olympian God Poseidon.
Medusa, despite her immortal parentage was mortal and as ‘a young woman of great beauty’ (Leeming, 2013, p.12) she was, according to Ovid, raped by Poseidon in the temple of Athene. Athene was outraged both by the violation of her temple and by Medusa’s beauty which was a direct challenge to her own, and seems to have blamed the desecration of her sacred temple on the beauty that is blamed for causing the rape. To punish her Athene turned Medusa into a monstrous figure of horror, with snakes for hair, a protruding tongue, staring eyes and tusks.
This aspect of the Greek myth illustrates the power of elemental beauty to arouse the uncontained impetuous sexual action of a male God of the patriarchal Olympian pantheon. It also describes the punishing reaction to that power by the rational female God of the patriarchal pantheon: the powerful beauty which is not authorised becomes petrifying to all who encounter it.
The invocation of involuntary powerful arousal is experienced as petrifying because it bypasses and so appears to incapacitate conscious agency. The patriarchal response to this appears to be to try to re-impose control firstly through rape and secondly by locating the cause for the rape in the victim not the perpetrator. This is a pattern repeated through patriarchal structures.
In Medusa in the Mirror of Time David Leeming quotes St Augustine’s response to the arousing effect of women:
‘St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430), author of Confessions and City of God, said: “Women should not be enlightened or educated in any way. They should, in fact, be segregated as they are the cause of hideous and involuntary erections in holy men” and “whether it is in a wife of a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman”.’ (Leeming, 2013 p.32)
Maybe patriarchal cultures fear the involuntary arousal men experience in the face of erotically alive women? Maybe erotic scenes that do not remain within the parameters prescribed by patriarchal discourse are experienced as disturbing because the arousal they cause is involuntary and so escapes from the orbit of patriarchal control? Perhaps this is partly why some men are afraid of your recent work.
In “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” Audre Lorde describes how women are taught to deny a relation to their erotic selves as part of a strategy to domesticate and control life forces that would otherwise disrupt patriarchal order.
‘In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power’;
‘The erotic has been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticised sensation’;
‘pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasises sensation without feeling’;
‘the erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings’; (Your Silence will not Protect You, Lorde 2017, pp.22,23)
The ancient Greeks conceptualised the arousal of a loving sensual sexual response to things and events through personification in the figure of Eros. They described Eros, this arousal of a loving response that includes the sensual sexual relation, in Audre Lorde’s words, as being ‘born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony’ (Lorde 2017, p.25). This would seem to be a powerful force that is not in the control or at the mercy of the patriarchal subject and which pushes up out of chaotic undifferentiated feeling insistent on seeking a form. For St. Augustine the only form this can take is an ‘involuntary erection’ and, perhaps, the incapacitating of his ability to think appropriate thoughts in an appropriately ordered manner.
Audre Lorde elaborates how a woman in touch with her own erotic power and energy is experienced as dangerous to the nature of patriarchal culture and particularly its men.
When I look at your recent work its erotic power is evident. While noticing this power I also wonder where it originates. It is not in my control but my curiosity is not incapacitated. To an extent the paintings present a conventional scene in that heterosexual couples meet the authorised parameters of post-romanticism, and they rehearse the scene of the man sensually and sexually aroused by the woman. This references the theme of the powerful and attractive woman drawing the man into an enchantment, which is simultaneously a defence against and an elaboration of the patriarchal fear of being taken over by one’s own arousal and a consequent loss of control. So this may also add to why some men are afraid of this work. Yet that would be true of erotic work in general and not specific to this work.
If there is something specific to this work that causes some men to be afraid it may lie somewhere else as well.
It seems to me that the source of the erotic power in the work doesn’t lie particularly in any one of the figures individually, nor in the overt sexuality of the images. When I experience myself looking at the paintings the erotic charge seems to come viscerally from the paint itself, as a communication direct from the activity of paint taking this form. The experience, if you open to it, is one by which the effect of the act of painting is re-evoked for the viewer in the act of looking, and this effect is perhaps precisely the connection to the erotic.
Whereas a classical nude scene might be erotic and arousing by virtue of its sexual aspect, it is unlikely to be disturbing in the same way as these are because what in the former is found to be erotic has already been objectified in the specific places marked out for it by patriarchal discourse. When the erotic is found in these specific places it has already been ‘relegated to the bedroom alone’ (Lorde 2017, p26) and so placed under the control of the man where its power is yoked to the requirements of patriarchal order. The centre of power and agency is located in the man. This means his erection is neither involuntary nor hideous but expected and required.
However, if your erotic energy, and with it your desire, is aroused without your intention your understanding or your will, something Other is at work in you. And that something Other is working in concert with something Other in the world and it is refusing to be bound. I suggest something Other is also at work in these paintings. There are unclear locations for the urgency of the desire and arousal: in the man reaching towards the woman; in the woman drawing him towards her; in the woman giving birth to the man who then finds her arousing; in the woman being alive with new life brought forth by the man; by their interpenetration and mutual receptivity; in the woman charming and demanding a willing surrender to an arousing revelation that is experienced and expressed in the work. An untold story is being unfolded in this work; an Other story.
I am reminded of Medusa’s back story: Gaia parthenogenetically gives birth to Pontus, their union gives birth to Phorkys and Keto whose union gives birth to Medusa. To fit the myth where having been raped by Poseidon and turned into a monster by Athene she is beheaded by Perseus, Medusa is denied immortality: it must be possible to kill her. But the story ensures that she lives on. Where does Medusa go? It is as if something of her escapes after having been raped by Poseidon and then beheaded, enslaved and colonised by Perseus and is seeking other paths into being. Perhaps that which is disturbing to the viewer in these paintings is connected to the process of enquiry they insist on and if you allow yourself to respond to that insistent call it invokes in you a visceral experience that articulates the path and effect of the erotic which is opened up by an Other Medusa.
When following any of these lines of enquiry one is invited into rough water where one’s reference points of acceptability become destabilised.
Perhaps the most disturbing and liberating effect of the erotic in the paintings is located in their insistence on directing your attention to the process of painting and of looking as an erotic engagement. To be the one through whom this creative power is channelled is clearly a huge turn on. To be the one who is properly allowing themselves to be brought into relation with the paintings threatens to also be a huge turn on. The process of looking involves you in a relationship with the process of creating whether you like it or not: something is created in the space between you and the painting which cannot be restricted to the detached fantasy of two lovers meeting in an embrace that is authorised, sanctioned and so neutered by patriarchal approval.
Perhaps it is this above all that causes those men to be afraid of your new work.”
I think another reason for fear and uneasiness around this new work might be to do with the fear of the loss of sight of what is considered to be rational. In his book on Ithell Colquhoun Richard Shillitoe has written: “Mysterious, liberating and transforming, sexual attraction and arousal are the antithesis of the rational.” (p. 101) He also expresses his thought that the thing men are most afraid of is the vagina…
From my shamanic work I know that the spirits want to experience this fleshly life through us embodied mortals. This includes sexuality and human love, and maybe this is another prohibited area for patriarchy?
It’s possible that paint, and the act of painting from a heart cracked open, enables them to come through…
When I was on the Isle of Iona recently, I thought a lot about magic wands. I even found one: the elegant, refined, gently bending rib of a whale (yes, I brought it home).
Here is a poem about a magic wand, by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff.
Sleeps a song in things abounding
that keeps dreaming to be heard:
Earth’es tunes will start resounding
If you find the magic wand.
In tiny drawings made on Iona and back at home, the man’s tongue is washing the woman’s heart, penetrating the heart space. I ask, “Is his tongue a magic wand?”