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Thomas Albrecht, The Medusa Effect: Representation and Epistemology in Victorian Aesthetics

Julie Sauvage
p. 210-214
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Thomas Albrecht. The Medusa Effect: Representation and Epistemology in Victorian Aesthetics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. 166 pages, ISBN: 978-1-4384-2867-3.

Texte intégral

1Thomas Albrecht presents a stimulating study of what he calls the “Medusa effect” in Victorian aesthetics. This specific pattern, linked to the mythological figure of Medusa, raises both epistemological and aesthetic issues. The wide range of texts he examines spans a variety of genres and includes works by Gabriel Dante Rosetti, Freud, Nietzsche, Swinburne and Pater as well as George Eliot. They may not all be Victorian in the strict sense, but T. Albrecht does convincingly show that they all share common epistemological concerns that can be considered as typical of the Victorian era. His arguments rest on impressive close-readings in which he pays as much attention to the letter of Freud and Nietzsche’s theoretical essays and their translations as to Eliot’s literary style.

2The useful explanatory introduction, aptly entitled “Apotropaic reading,” could almost make up a chapter in itself. It deals with Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s poem entitled “Aspecta Medusa” and his correspondence with Charles Peter Matthews, who had commissioned a Medusa painting which the poem was meant to accompany, and which the artist was actually never to complete. The poem seems to epitomize the apotropaic structure that is also present in all the other texts T. Albrecht studies. At first sight, they all rest on the notion that their authors have gained some dangerous insight into the mysterious depths of art, life and creation, which they set out to disclose while protecting themselves and their readers from its potentially lethal effect by using their own writing as a shield, just as Perseus used his shield as a mirror to kill Medusa. As the mythological scene suggests, the shield device both reveals dangerous knowledge and protects the hero. In a quite traditional, apotropaic way, the Medusa effect is first related to the self-reflexive quality of the texts in which it appears, as representation becomes a protection against the very dangers it reveals. Yet, as T. Albrecht remarks, it is also powerfully disruptive since there is precisely no real model for Medusa, let alone for her severed head. Rosetti’s poem could thus be read as an endorsement of the platonic view, in which representation is to reality as copy to model, which aims to hide what the Medusa head precisely points up, namely that there is no such thing as a model, that representation is to its subject as a copy to another copy.

3The traditional “doubleness” of the Medusa figure, as the author puts it, has been abundantly documented by historians who have shown that it used to stand for the blurring of boundaries between genders and ages of life, as well as animal and human realms. T. Albrecht demonstrates that, similarly, the authors he studies all turn this “doubleness” into a textual structure and proceed to both maintain and stealthily blur the distinction between the real and its representation, the model and its copy or between an original, hidden essence and its manifestation or appearance.

4The first chapter is devoted to an in-depth analysis of Freud’s essay on the Medusa head. T. Albrecht’s skills at close-reading enable him to show that this text can be considered as Freud’s own shield against the terrible insight provided by his very theory of the Medusa head as a castration symbol. In a way, he argues, this is reminiscent of Freud’s conception of fetishism, since his notes or fragment about the Medusa head become the fetish that allows him to both reveal and deny the groundlessness of his own system. In spite of his equation (“To decapitate=to castrate”), Freud equates the Medusa head with female genitals. Now, this also runs counter to his Aristotelian insistence on using metaphors that rely on perceptible, albeit not obvious similarities to justify his interpretation. Indeed, in one of his two antagonistic narratives accounting for the development of a castration complex, Freud notes that the little boy “sees nothing” when he first sees female genitals. He thus implies that castration cannot be perceived but only represented. So that his interpretation of the Medusa head consists in substituting a representation for another representation, rather than a symbol for an actual perception. In short, “Freud uses the primal scene to explain the Medusa myth, and he conversely uses the myth to construct and confirm the scenario of the primal scene” (39). Freud has often been charged with such a sleight of hand but few of his critics have examined his prose so closely. T. Albrecht cogently demonstrates that the realization that psychoanalysis might amount to an endless substitution of interchangeable representations—and thus fail to disclose any hidden meaning—looms large in one of the most famous pieces of writing by the founding father of the discipline.

5Chapter two deals with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. Admittedly, the author relies much on Paul de Man’s commentary but, once again, his reading of the philosopher’s complex, seemingly contradictory stance does shed new light on the traditional opposition between Apollo and Dionysus. At first sight, the two antagonistic principles seem to bear the same relationship as essence to appearance or thing to representation and the Dionysian principle is explicitly linked the figure of Medusa. Apollo overcomes Dionysus “by petrifying him into Doric architecture” (59) and sculpture, which both negates and reflects him, as they give a permanent, stable appearance to his intangible, musical essence. Yet this very process destabilizes the clear-cut opposition between being and appearing. According to de Man, it can be understood as a division, not of Dionysus, but of Apollo, who is split between what he appears (the Apollonian) and what he represents or means (the Dionysian). In this perspective, the notion of a Dionysian essence becomes an illusion and the hierarchy is reversed, so that the true Dionysian insight lies in the recognition of the illusion of an essence. To T. Albrecht, this accounts for the troubling presence of two antagonistic narrators in Nietzsche’s text—one of them implements a fetishist defence strategy by striving (and ultimately failing) to establish the opposition between Apollo and Dionysus, while the other reveals that there might be no such thing as a true Dionysian essence, that is, no meaning. The parallel can thus be drawn between the textual structure Freud’s fragment and that of The Birth of Tragedy.

6Chapter three is devoted to “Two Impressions of Medusa” respectively Swinburne’s and Pater’s. In “Notes on Designs of the Old Masters of Florence”, the former describes three female portraits by Michelangelo, while in “Leonardo da Vinci,” the latter deals with a famous Medusa head attributed to Leonardo. To both of them, fear is the spectator’s primary reaction when faced with those works. They relate this feeling to the painters’ dangerous knowledge about human death and evil, which they consider to be both expressed and mitigated through art. T. Albrecht shows that, when the critics set out to describe the Italian masters’ works, they adopt a similar, Perseus-like strategy. Pater proceeds carefully to separate beauty and horror in Leonardo’s painting, insisting on its formal composition. Swinburne also relies on the assumption that writing can somehow soften the effect of the visual representations. He thus provides a description of the portraits that draws a fine distinction between evil, the female body and its emblematic, “serpentine” ornaments. Yet T. Albrecht shows that he seems to lose control, not because of the horror he sees in the drawings, but because of his own rhetorical devices, as if his writing threatened to become autonomous. The text, then, does not so much record the poet’s impressions as proliferate through its own imagery and diction, thus questioning its primary protective function.

7Chapter four consists in an interesting reading of George Eliot’s short story entitled The Lifted Veil in the light of the writer’s theory of sympathy as elaborated in her essays and in Adam Bede. Eliot explicitly stated that her realist aesthetics aimed to broaden the readers’ sympathy by giving them access to other people’s thoughts and experiences in order to provoke an ethical response. Being a clairvoyant with telepathic abilities, the hero of her short story, Latimer, could stand for her perfect reader. Yet his insights into other people’s minds only elicit boredom and indifference and his misanthropy hints at Eliot’s own doubts about her theory. Latimer falls in love with a Femme Fatale character, Bertha, the only woman whose thoughts he cannot perceive. Only after his first experience of true sympathy for his dying father can he gain some knowledge of Bertha’s feelings, to realize how indifferent and heartless she has always been. T. Albrecht argues that Bertha is thus turned into Latimer’s double, a projection of his antipathy that plays an apotropaic role. The Femme Fatale character allows Eliot to rescue her theory of sympathy and pave the way for Latimer’s redemption and conversion to sympathy through writing: he will write about it and find the compassion he needs in his readers’ reactions. According to T. Albrecht, though, the main conflict in The Lifted Veil does not lie between sympathy and antipathy but between an ethics of similarity and an ethics of difference. As the title and many subsequent metaphors suggest, Latimer’s insight into Bertha’s mind is presented in visual terms. Yet the text recurrently hints at the possibility that Latimer might not actually see anything in her mind, except a cluster of signs that he proceeds to interpret. Like the illegible writing she is also compared to, Bertha has to be interpreted to be understood. This is confirmed by very metaphors Latimer uses to describe her. Actually, he constantly interprets what he sees in her by substituting a metaphor for another metaphor. Now, as T. Albrecht notices, “a metaphor is always one’s own figure for the other” (114) and Latimer seems unable to apprehend Bertha’s otherness without reducing her to images or figures he already knows. In this respect, the sympathy/antipathy dilemma could be a displacement of Eliot’s radical questioning, somehow masking the true ethical problem, i.e. our inability to face the otherness of the other, to elaborate an ethical response that does not rest on similarity and sympathy but on difference and “telepathy”, in the etymological sense. Latimer’s ultimate conversion to sympathy can be seen as a failure, a sign of his inability to outgrow narcissism. Similarly, Eliot’s own turn to sympathy can be considered as an apotropaic move since, in a fetishist way, T. Albrecht argues, her theory of sympathy designates both the absence and the presence of a relationship to the inaccessible other.

8The conclusion clearly sums up T. Albrecht’s demonstrations and foregrounds the notion that the Victorians’ attitude to representation was probably more ambivalent and complex than is usually assumed by commentators. The fact that, to the authors whose texts T. Albrecht closely analyzes, representation itself threatens to destabilize the platonic assumptions on which it seemingly relies is indeed reminiscent of 20th -century theories of the simulacrum, such as Gilles Deleuze’s. One could venture that, even though he does not really mention this, T. Albrecht abundantly documents a pattern that constitutes a continuity between the Victorians, preoccupied as they were with representation and epistemology, and their modernist heirs, not to mention their post-modernist offspring. In this respect, The Medusa Effect will prove useful not only to Victorian scholars, but also to those specializing in 20th-century and contemporary literature.

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Julie Sauvage, « Thomas Albrecht, The Medusa Effect: Representation and Epistemology in Victorian Aesthetics », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 72 Automne | 2010, 210-214.

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Julie Sauvage, « Thomas Albrecht, The Medusa Effect: Representation and Epistemology in Victorian Aesthetics », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 72 Automne | 2010, mis en ligne le 29 août 2016, consulté le 22 mars 2017. URL :

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