Medusa’s Head, or This Is Happening

by Paul Cantrell

They say ignorance is bliss. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. The ostrich with its head in the sand. The child with fingers in ears, singing “La la la, I can’t hear you.” (Adults do this too, though almost exclusively with plot spoilers nowadays. Zero shame in this.)

Famous adult musicians are not immune to this impulse either. Following the juggernaut success of OK Computer, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke found himself in need of some sound coping strategies. Enter R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, who counseled: “Pull the shutters down and keep saying, ‘I’m not here, this is not happening.’”

This advice is problematic on several levels, not least of all that it flies in the face of James Murphy’s words just a decade later, namely that This Is Happening, and I don’t want to have to pick sides with just one of these guys.

LCDStipe’s phrase appeared on Radiohead’s next album, Kid A, as the refrain to “How to Disappear Completely”: “That there / That’s not me / I go / Where I please / I walk through walls / Float down the Liffey / I’m not here / This isn’t happening.” When asked as to the meaning, Yorke said, “I dreamt I was floating down the Liffey, and there was nothing I could do.”

If you follow the River Liffey out of Dublin toward the bay, you’ll be right near Sandymount Strand, where the third episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses begins. There the young man Stephen Dedalus walks along the beach, thinking of Aristotle, as one does:

“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. . . . Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time.”

The above scene presents something of a thought exercise. If I close my eyes, does the world disappear? (And “howsomever” isn’t a typo for “howsoever.” That’s just Joyce having fun. Also, since I had to look it up too, “ineluctable” means “unable to be resisted or avoided, inescapable.” I hear “Simply Ineluctable” was actually the working title for Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible,” but it just didn’t have the same ring to it.)

Now, narcissism refers to the story of Narcissus who becomes transfixed by his own image in the water. However, narcissism isn’t quite the right word for these examples. Fortunately for us, from narcissism it is only a short hop, skip, and a jump to solipsism, which is quite closer to fitting the bill here.

Solipsism—from the Latin solus, alone + ipse, self; + –ism—is the philosophy that “the self can be aware of nothing but its own experiences” or “that nothing exists outside the self.” Ask a solipsist, “If a tree falls in the forest with no one to hear it, does it make a sound?” The solipsist will say, “Forest? What forest?”

This is the ostrich in the sand, the child with both ears firmly plugged, Stephen Dedalus on the beach, eyes closed. (Or, as Erin Hannon so poignantly puts it in The Office: “In the foster home, my hair was my room.”)Erin Hair Room

Italo Calvino, recalling his humble literary beginnings, writes, “Maybe I was only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world . . . At certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone: a slow petrification . . . one that spared no aspect of life.” If this is not the eternity of this past week in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.

“It was,” Calvino continues, “as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa. The only hero able to cut off Medusa’s head is Perseus, who flies with winged sandals; Perseus, who does not turn his gaze upon the face of the Gorgon but only upon her image reflected in his bronze shield.”

Higher-Res Perseus

We are often taught the virtue of looking a thing squarely in the eye, of facing a problem head-on (so to speak, all apologies to Medusa). What Calvino is suggesting here is something less direct—not circumspect or sidelong, but perhaps more . . . peripheral, the way you would observe the sun or an eclipse without staring at it full-on.

Perhaps that is what makes this stay-at-home situation so strange: its sheer indefiniteness. Staring down the prospect of a potential weeks- or even months-long stay at home could be a daunting task to say the least, but at least we would know what we’re in for. Instead, we press on as through a dense fog.

As ever, and as I wrote just last week, it is a question of visibility. We see the opposing high beams coming toward us. We don’t look directly at them, lest they blind us, turn us to stone. No, instead we look ever so slightly away and, in doing so, safely drive past. Put another way, day-in day-out, we distract ourselves just enough to make it bearable, and in doing so, make it manageable, doable. Crisis averted, literally.

What I am envisioning here is the precise opposite of a police horse. Not clear enough, you say? Ok, so you know those horses working for the police downtown, walking around and solving crimes while their hoity-toity cousins pull the hansom cabs around the park? When we say someone “has blinders on” or is “blinkered,” we are conjuring up this same image of a Horse in the City. (And no, “blinkered” doesn’t mean the horse is indicating a left turn, though that would be adorable.) But that’s not how Medusa works. For as, Calvino tells us, “Perseus’s strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live.”

Put another way, “Use your peripherals.”

I would like to close by returning to Stephen Dedalus on the beach at Sandymount Strand, about to reopen his eyes: “Open your eyes now. I will. One moment. Has all vanished since? If I open and am for ever in the black adiaphane. Basta! [Enough!] I will see if I can see. See now. There all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end.” Amen.

We need each and everyone of us to be present throughout this protracted absence. To be in this, whatever that means for you personally. In these truly unusual times, we each have to do whatever we can to be the best we can be: the best partner, the best parent, the best neighbor and citizen, for as long as it takes.

You, we, are walking through it howsomever. A stride at a time.

Now here’s some LCD Soundsystem to get through the day. Take care, stay safe, and be well.

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