Medusa-The Gaze that Kills and Heals: The Collaboration of Maya Deren and Jean Erdman
The article was originally published in Return To Mago E-Magazine July 20, 2018
In 1949 the film-maker Maya Deren and the dancer-choreographer Jean Erdman began working together on a filmed version of Erdman’s solo piece The Transformations of Medusa, first performed in 1942. Deren and Erdman were creative explorers of the invisible realms of the psyche and processed mythological archetypes and ritualistic forms inspired by archaic and shamanic cultures. Evidently, they were both interested in feminine mythic motifs and the realms of goddesses. Although their film project was not completed, it illustrates a relevant example of the involvement with the goddess and mythic themes relating to female characters among women artists during the first part of the twentieth century.
Deren and Erdman sought to manifest and embody the invisible through their different art forms, i.e., film in the case of Deren and dance in the case of Erdman. Regardless of their different approaches, they found in the Medusa archetype and myth generative metaphors and creative forms through which the repressed and violent aspects of the psyche could be mirrored, evolved and transformed. The two women engaged with the female body and psyche by the interrelations of opposites which they recognized in the goddesses and archetypes of Athena-Medusa and Medusa-Erzulie. They both utilized the woman’s body and the woman’s gaze to re-write myths and trigger alternative meanings from feminine perspectives.
Erdman’s choreography transforms the Medusa myth into a challenging experiment in feminine self-empowerment. Through her dance, the Medusa claims her killing gaze. She is no longer a mirror image that kills those who look at her directly but the sole owner of her look and ultimate power. Thus, she can bring death in an active way through her gorgon eyes and not only serves death in a passive way by killing involuntarily those who happen to encounter her stare. While she holds and controls the opposites of life and death in her body, her powers cease to be manipulated by the psychic mirror projections of those who cannot tolerate them. Erdman’s choreography returns Medusa’s mirror image and gaze back to her so that she is the bearer of her look and can no longer kill against her will. She therefore recreates the myth from a feminine and early feminist perspective by turning the passive and cursed Medusa into a feminine character with independent mind and agency.
For Deren, the Medusa is an integral part of a cosmic serpentine movement; nexus of an unstable balance that is regained through ritual, trance and possession. She moves in infinite spirals that spin in opposite directions like the bitter and wise aspect of the beautiful goddess Erzulie. The serpentine forms of Medusa are most ancient and reflected in the dance of the waters of heaven which are stirred by the Voudoun deities, the benevolent father serpent Damballa and his counterpart Ayida.
In Divine Horsemen, The Living Gods of Haiti (1953:144), Deren writes on the loa’s cosmic forces which are required for the achievement of ‘some natural cosmic balance’. In the case of the goddess Arzulie as loa, the labor needed for achieving balance and perfection is infinite and is compared by Deren to the merciless and unhappy muse Medusa. Deren correlates Medusa and Erzulie as the latter drives humans to attain that which is beyond their capacity through dreaming. Endlessly, Erzulie-Medusa perpetuates in humans a sense of dissatisfaction and imperfection that demands new dreams, quests and achievements. It is the Medusa in Erzulie that maintains the sense of frustration in the devotees and send them to quest further and dream more.
Deren writes on the challenging Medusa-infused nature of Erzulie:
She is the divinity of the dream, and it is in the very nature of dream to begin where reality ends and to spin it and to send it forward in space, as the spider spins and sends forward its own thread.
The imagery of the thread, weaving and spinning, was already part of Deren’s filmic vocabulary before she encountered the attributes and ceremonial powers of Erzulie as an artist, researcher and an initiate of the great goddess of Haitian Voudoun.
The film project, which was after some attempts cancelled by Deren, was described by her as too easy. Art should not be easy, she expressed in her notes, emphasizing the Medusa’s challenging aspect of the goddess.
The Transformations of Medusa (1942) Commissioned score by Louis Horst, performed by Jerry Benton Danced by Muna Tseng
What can we learn from the Medusa archetype in this day and age? Can her gaze transform us through new knowledge and art forms? Can she, who is associated with the mechanism of fear and killings, show us how to untangle the prevalent narrative of violence?