Of all the mythical figures through history, Medusa stands prominent – having influenced great works of art, architecture, design and literature. Who is Medusa, and why does she still resonate with us today?
It’s a familiar trope – the scorned, crazed, jealous (insert negative characteristic here) woman – likened to a Medusa figure. Whether in fiction or seen played out in current events, the more visible women become, the more people feel threatened by her power and presence and feel emboldened to devalue, silence, and strike her down. This archetype is evoked as a way of minimising women’s power and ambition and reducing them to a caricature. However, over time, there have been many interpretations of Medusa that have emerged and invite further examination. Enter Gillian Alban whose research and writing are creating a dialogue that extends beyond this narrow viewpoint of the Medusa woman as monstrous and petrifying, to include a spectrum of attributes from maternal to redemptive. She recently authored her second book, The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction, and spent time with us, digging into this iconic figure.
Alban is an accomplished academic who hails from England and has been living in Turkey since the 1970s. Having left an incomplete graduate degree from Oxford University’s Linacre College, she eventually returned to university and received two Masters degrees and her PhD. She published her first book, Melusine Serpent Goddess and then got into University teaching where she has been for some time.
She has recently published her second book, called The Medusa Gaze, which offers insights into the desires and frustrations of women through the narratives of selected contemporary novelists. The book explores the various Medusa roles of women in modern and contemporary fiction.
Alban focuses on writings and considers the situation of contemporary, modern women, and their interactions. Over time some recurring patterns on tensions and negative relationships started to emerge in the literature she was reading, and she kept coming back to this concept of Medusa. It is greatly referred to in literature, though it is not always called Medusa, it may be called reflection or symbiosis. Sartre calls it Medusa, Lacan calls it the Mirror Gaze, and Alban pulls it all together as it seems to be a reality of people’s lives. To start, who is Medusa? While there are many variations of the story, the one that persists is the account by Ovid that Medusa was a great beauty, raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple. Who was punished? Of course, not the guilty person, but the victim. For the crime of defiling the temple, Athena gave Medusa snakes for hair, so that anyone who gazed directly at her would be turned to stone. Later, Medusa’s head was severed and presented to Athena. As we see, there is a symbiosis between Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who takes the head of Medusa, puts her on her shield and destroys her enemies with this deadly force. They are alter egos – two sides of the same coin. Athena is perhaps perceived as the more positive side of the two. However, images of Medusa are pervasive in architecture, specifically on the temple of Artemis in Corfu, where she is depicted as goddess, deflecting negative rays with her powerful gaze.
“I am passionately feminist and interested in relationships between women, and between men and women. When men write about women, they are usually very obtuse. So, for me, women writers get to the heart of the experience, and thus I am largely driven towards women writers. The power of Medusa – specifically, the gaze – started to crop up in my writings. It was the power relationships between people that I found I was honing in on. At the same time, I was bringing up daughters who were fighting with each other, fighting with me, and I dug up an article that I had read more than 10 years ago where it describes a situation with two siblings, or two cousins, or two friends who are constantly fighting. There is a love-hate relationships – a symbiosis taking place. What I found way back then is that these pairs are seeing each other in their mirror distorted reflections and they are struggling. One is on top, then the other one is on top. It starts with one victimising the other, and then the situation gets reversed, so I started to see that pattern and I started to see the Medusa Gaze as power. Although she was given snake hair which is regarded as a form of punishment, I regard it as a form of power, so Athena gave her a back-handed compliment. Although she was beheaded which was the end of her life, she still had the power of the petrifying gaze”. As Alban started to put her writings together and observed the interaction between women sometimes women and men, where there is this power exercise through this gaze, she realised she had the makings of a book.
The book is broken down into six mirroring pair chapters. In the first two chapters, she is looking at the Medusa gaze, which is generally known to be petrifying, maybe destructive, maybe empowering depending on what side of the power structure you are on. The central chapter of the book examine the view of the mother as monstrous, because this is the psychoanalytical view of Freud, and other male contemporaries. Alban tackles these theories and deconstructs them as last two chapters, she addresses the gaze as a protective force, and one that deflects and reflects back power – like the Turkish evil eye.
With so many contemporary writers to analyse, Alban focused her references to nine female writers whose works exemplify the Medusa Gaze. Iris Murdoch bases her writings on the work of Jean Sartre, and uses the Medusa concept throughout. Jean Rhys depicts a perfect mirror imaging concept in her book The Wide Saragasso Sea between two girls who are friends/ enemies. Antoinette’s home has been set on fire, and as she is being thrown out of her home, she runs to her friend Tia, the little black girl. and Tia throws a stone at her, and Jean Rhys is aware of this mirror image, and at this moment, Antoinette experiences whether it is tear or blood running down her face – and sees the same thing on her friend/ enemy’s face, who weeps for her as she drives her out. And she says it was if they were looking at each other in the mirror.
Sylvia Plath has a famous poem called Medusa, which depicts the monstrous mother trope and in the Bell Jar, she looks at these mirroring reflections. In Angela Carter, Alban found a great source of inspiration, as she untangles fairy tales, and many stories of very powerful women. Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, was the initial inspiration of this work, with the mirroring relationship and symbiosis between two friends/ so-called enemies. Toni Morrison, doesn’t use the term Medusa, but her characters use the gaze, or they are subject to it. Similarly in A.S. Byatt’s The Game, she shows a symbiosis between characters through sibling rivalry. “What I prove in the first two chapters is that the Medusa Gaze passing between women may destroy, may make the other person go mad, may make the person commit suicide. When I saw that theme coming together, I thought ‘wow, this is powerful’. Sometimes women work through the gaze to a good relationship, but it is largely about power relationships. It can be scary, but not necessarily deadly. Sometimes people find themselves under this gaze and can be destroyed by it – it could be narcissistic, hostile or even friendly”. In the middle chapters, Alban uses a psychoanalytical approach, and Freud’s theories on females and mothers are introduced and then deconstructed. He saw the Medusa mother as monstrous. “So I started to look at that perception. There is a certain amount of monstrosity, especially in the Western world, because the mother is in a position of power, although she can lose it. To me it seems a big exaggeration – is the mother really monstrous, or has that been put upon her? In my research, I do find a spectrum. For example, you have Medea from Greek mythology, who is portrayed as a destructive mother – she kills her children in order to take revenge on her husband Jason, who left her for another woman. In contemporary fiction, you have Sethe from Toni Morrison’s Beloved who kills her daughter in order to save her from a life of slavery. Not every mother is murdering her daughter, but I go into the background of why she acts this way. Of course, you also have benign and nurturing mothers as well”. In the last two sections, they mirror each other, and one is monstrous (women going crazy, jealousy, clashing with each other, rage) and on the other side, the apotropaic power of turning the gaze back on others. Think of the evil eye in Turkey or other cultures around the world. And it turns back the hostile gaze and that is a protective force. You have the Medusa as an icon – and she is saving anybody who is appealing to her. So this is the Temple of Corfu, the redemptive Medusa. That’s the final pair. She is the evil eye on the temple, saving anyone who appears to her.
Alban acknowledged that academic writing tends to be highly theoretical and dense and with this book, hopes to reach other audiences. “I properly back myself up with theoretical discussion, but I don’t want to block anyone out with theoretical language. I wanted to speak to the intelligent reader, who reads literature across the generations, and embrace those who might be outside academia”.
For such a multi-layered subject, the book is a very accessible and portable read at 263 pages. And before anyone ever reads a word of the book, the striking cover draws you in and invites you to study and dissect the powerful imagery. That brings us to how Alban and American-born artist Meg Dreyer met and decided to collaborate. It was a book club through a common friend, when the dynamic duo of Gillian M.E. Alban and Meg Dreyer first met. “Meg had brought out some wonderful collage pictures she had created for a children’s book, and it sort of simmered, and I thought – hey I want Meg to do my cover! So we started talking and I thought Meg was an artist, but realised she has many skills, and came in on the editing of the book, creating illustrations, and designing my website”, Alban recalled.
In fact, the multi-talented Dreyer is a photographer, film maker, animator, illustrator, and designer almost became a medical doctor before realising it was a bad fit for her. Fast-forward through receiving a Master of Fine Arts, working in several different design firms and being the in-house designer for the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, she arrived in Turkey in 2014 after being awarded a Fulbright grant to do independent design research. “I was really interested in pattern, not only as visual culture, but how people assimilate pattern into their lives. Is it important to a culture who has produced so much pattern over the centuries through rugs, tile, metal work, and what does that mean in terms of how people navigate every-day life? I started by examining Ottoman patterns, and doing street photography, and I made a video of people enacting every day rituals and when I finished my Fulbright grant, I still had a lot of work I wanted to do, and decided I wanted to stay, and I never looked back. So, in three years, I have found my way to a really vibrant creative community and have made connections with people for the purpose of collaboration. I’m really excited to be here at the moment”, she said.
When something is done well, the observer takes for granted how much blood sweat and tears go into the final product. To really appreciate the time and effort involved in the finishing touches of the book, you have to go behind the scenes to understand Dreyer’s approach. “The project grew organically. We had to edit the manuscript first, then I started to design the book and in the course of that process, Gillian asked me to contribute some illustrations. It wasn’t until the book had been designed and illustrations finished that I knew what I wanted to do with the cover. There is so much you can say about Medusa. What Gillian’s book is doing is deconstructing it and showing facets of it, exploring it from many different angles. It reminded me of cubism — how form is deconstructed and sliced and reflected and shown to you in facets and shards, so my inspiration was Picasso.”
“My technique is cut-paper collage. I basically chop up a lot of magazines, glue everything together then I scan it into the computer, add a background in this case. ”When Gillian first saw it, she didn’t say anything for five minutes and then called her husband in, who liked it”, Dreyer said.
Alban gave Dreyer carte blanche on the cover. “I had this mirror image in my mind – this concept of somebody looking in the mirror and reflected back. She went away for the summer – it turned out very different and of course, it is brilliant”, Alban added. From idea to execution, it took Dreyer about two weeks to make the image, and another 10 days to finalise it with the background. In the process, they bumped up against the publishing house’s house style, fought some wars, and retreated from others. She joked “it’s like laws and sausages!”, meaning you don’t want to know how either are made. “In the end, I am really happy with it, and usually, I’m not happy when I see my book finalised and printed”, she commented.
With a measured pause, Dreyer added, “I’m a real perfectionist, and I never thought I would be able to collaborate with someone. I found the work that I have done with Gillian, and the relationship we have built really fulfilling and richly rewarding, and I couldn’t even tell you how we did it. I’ve learned a lot on how to work fast, and how to take queues from suggestions that may have come from a dropped phrase in a conversation that all of a sudden I’ve been able to build into an idea, and it has really freed me up. I’m really excited to collaborate with Gillian and others, and have high hopes for the future”.
Alban concurred, “It worked out in many more ways than one. We started with the idea of art, moved into editorial work, came back to the art and the website. I was almost saying to Meg ‘you are going to have to be my manager because I am a literatute expert in my field. I use the computer because I have to, but I’m not technological. There are all sorts of things I can’t do, and it has really worked out very well. It has been exciting to be able to make this project all together”.
Bouncing off of each other, Dreyer concluded with, “I’ve seen you grow in the process. You were so protective of your writing. What you make is your baby, and you are trying to protect it from people who are trying to mess it up. I saw you grow to trust me, to take more risks, and transformed into this Medusa figure, letting your hair down”.
Gillian M.E. Alban engages with women in her literary analyses, exploring the theme of mythic women as it emerges in contemporary literature. Her publications include Melusine the Serpent Goddess in A.S. Byatt’s Possession and in Mythology. She has elaborated her insights though a lifetime of enjoying the study and teaching of literature in Istanbul, where she lives and works.
You can read more about Gillian by visiting her website gillianmealban.com.
Meg Dreyer is a photographer, film maker, animator, illustrator, and designer, originally from the United States. She came to Istanbul in 2014 on a Fulbright grant, and has remained in Istanbul because she discovered a robust creative community here that encompasses a rich variety of art and design practices, from traditional crafts to new media. Currently she is designing an app just for Istanbulites that foretells the future. She designs books, posters and invitations, logos, corporate identity systems and web sites for clients in and outside Turkey.
Feature by Monisha Kar, Lale Magazine of the International Women of Istanbul, 02 (November – December 2017). To read the full magazine (open access), click here.