In his Holocaust survival memoir, If This Is A Man, Primo Levi talks about the Muselmann, those in the concentration camps who shuffle around in a state between life and death, the ones closest to the gas chambers, mind and body broken. He describes them as having ‘seen the Gorgon’.
The Gorgon in question being Medusa, she of snakes for hair who turns men to stone and was eventually beheaded by Perseus. A traditional monster in her various interpretations. An evil, bitter woman with a contempt for humankind who lives in a cave and dispenses punishment.
The concept seems simple enough, that these zombie-like men of the camps have looked into the eyes of the Gorgon and turned to stone, in a type of living death, a stasis that is impenetrable to the outside world, until they are eventually smashed to pieces perhaps. Yet, is that what staring into the eyes of the Gorgon really represents? Is Medusa a figure of villainy, or victimhood?
Medusa’s curse stems from a punishment itself. Having suffered a rape by Poseidon, Medusa is punished by Athena. The once beautiful Medusa has her features taken away from her, no man will bear to look upon her lest he be turned to stone.
Is this a monstrosity? It sounds shockingly modern. A rape victim punished twice, first by the rape itself and then by the stigma. Is this not what the #MeToo is trying to combat? Is Athena not, in some way, victim-shaming? Medusa being so beautiful that Poseidon cannot help but rape her, seems the Ancient Greek equivalent of saying she was asking for it because she wore a skirt that was too short.
What then, did the Muselmann of the camps find in the eyes of the Gorgon? Perhaps not a punishment, but rather facing up to the inhumanity of humanity. A fellow victim, cursed to wander the world as a symbol of what a society is capable of. No wonder she hides in a cave.
Giorgio Agamben describes the homo sacer as the outsider of society. The downtrodden, the one that exists outside of humanity, that may be killed without consequence. Medusa is surely a homo sacer, the sacer described as an ambivalence, the untouchable, lest you be sullied by that which sullied them. Maybe we would do well to look into the eyes of the Gorgon and ask why we continue to punish the victim.