Perseus and Medusa.
Perseus is able to kill Medusa and use her head, with its power to turn all who gazed upon it to stone, to destroy Leviathan and free Andromeda.
It’s just struck me in a very straightforward manner that there is a lesson to this tale, we might not have considered. I certainly never saw it this way.
If we gaze upon our fears, like Medusa, this snake-haired embodiment of all we are afraid of, then we are “petrified,” turned to stone. Even if we resist paralysis, our attention is still trapped by those fears and can find nothing beside or beyond them.
Perseus was aware of Medusa’s power. He defeated her by only looking at her reflection in his shield.
How does this part translate?
I would say that it is enough to watch the reaction of fear in those around us. This is a reflection, that, if we are careful not to become caught there, placing it as a new center for our own trap, that we can use this knowledge as a guide through dangerous times.
What is wrong with gazing on fearful things?
The answer is two-fold.
We sap our strength and build an edifice of terror upon our perceptions of the power inherent in what we fear. In this way, it looms over us, blocking all exits and leaving us little energy to do anything but continue to pump up its presence. Related to this is another danger.
We hit what we are aiming at. We find what we are looking for. If we are focusing our attention on our fears they dominate our attention – the only thing we really have – and this effectively blocks any possibility of our discovering any avenue that might lead anywhere else.
Utopia. The word is literally translated as no place. Creating Utopian visions is an exercise in reverse magic. We try to negate what we fear by writing it out of our fantasy. This neither defeats our fears nor creates any viable alternative. We admit from the start, whether openly or just through an act of denial and surrender to a neutered formulation, that all we are able to envision can only exist no place, nowhere.
Dystopian visions appear to deal more directly with our fears, but they hold our gaze on the face of our Medusa. Beyond that, dystopian imaginings, if well crafted and compelling, work to bring the consequences we fear, that we see as implicit in our day, to life; as we unwittingly populate our mental field with a map for their coming to be.
The ancient’s feared Medusa and knew not to gaze at her horrors this way.
Modernism, this blend of extreme Narcissism and hubris, finds mirrors better employed in looking at the self. It has no respect for cautionary tales.
I was raised on dystopian literature. I find it hard to resist spinning out tales of where so many of the trends we notice all around us might lead.
I’ve begun to get leery of this predilection. I’ve begun to gain respect for those old admonitions.
There is a line we cross at our peril, between seeing what is dangerous and dwelling on the power of these forces to dominate our “futures.”
There is a dirty pleasure, best set-aside, involved in maintaining this lock on our attention and proliferating tales of dystopia.
Utopia is futile. Dystopia is dangerous.
There is another path. Odysseus, another intrepid ancient, might best illustrate this. We block our ears and we tie our hands to resist temptations we know to be harmful. We remain aware. We don’t hide from an awareness of what is out there striving to lead us into greater harm, but we focus our attention on finding a path that is clear of obstacles intent on drawing us in.
I am committed to thinking and writing about our precarious state and our multitude of predicaments. But, I am equally committed to maintaining whatever clarity I can muster to keep my attention free of the petrifying gaze of our Medusa, the Enormity we face.
Bouncing the rubble, to use that old War-Lover’s term for continuing to hit easy targets because we cannot resist feeling a destructive pleasure in doing so, is futile.
We cannot wallow in futility.
We cannot risk paralysis either.
Modernism rests on an attitude of mutual assurance that nothing can get between us and our fantasies. This may be its most terrifying quality.
Medusa’s writhing snakes are scary! It’s hard to avoid locking our gaze on their frightening dance!
There is nothing to be gained unless we can avoid that.
We don’t need to look upon them directly to know they are there. We can see their reflection and act accordingly. Appropriate action will come from a place that is not locked in petrified fear. Just as it won’t come from remaining trapped in fear itself.
15 thoughts on “Utopia is nowhere. Dystopia brings forth our own worst fears.”
Please don’t be too tough on imaginary worlds. Exaggeration is a legitimate and powerful artistic technique – it draws things to the foreground of our attention. The dystopias of Huxley, Orwell, Philip K Dick or Cormac McCarthy take small aspects of the world now and explore possible consequences of those aspects taken to the nth degree. They are not predictions – they are commentary, in the same way that creation stories, from the Dreamtime to the Greek Myths can be read as cautionary tales about greed, jealousy, pride or overreach. Plato’s Republic is a critique and an argument, not a place, or even the risk of a place.
‘1984’ gave us the words to describe the importance of having words to describe things with. ‘Brave New World’ is a statement of unease about Manufactured Consent, social programming, eugenics and distractions. They can be scary, but it’s the real world that makes them so, and they are oversized myths that help us to look for small truths. A good dystopia story can be a valuable tool for insight.
Of course, I’ll carry this argument up as far as ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. That movie scared the pants off me for no benefit.
Thanks for responding.
I’m afraid you bring up exactly what I am finding disturbing.
What if these writers, instead of simply warning us of what had been possibilities – one among many outcomes – instead, were actually assisting in bringing these things about? Not in some Manichean conspiracy of evil doers, but simply by compelling our attention to focus on these paths instead of elsewhere.
Myths seem different. They are about the past, not predicting and shaping the future. They are cautionary tales that we can apply as we see them. We apply them in the present, not in the future.
Utopias and dystopias are maps and plans.
Dreamtime is not nowhere. It is not a nightmare vision of where we are heading.
These are significant differences.
it’s easy to point at the unintended consequences of the power-mad. But what about our own?
Tools are only useful if we respect their power and their limitations. The technological attitude, we’ve spoken about before, does not take this into account. There is an abdication of this responsibility. “Hey! I only invented the Atom Bomb, napalm, agent orange, fill-in-the-blank! That doesn’t mean it’s my fault if they get used!”
Also, we do tend to weigh cost/benefit. We do it all the time, it’s second nature!
This is negotiation. It assumes negotiation is the default relationship we have with everything. What if that is at its heart a mistake?
If we are to drop this attitude, we not only accept what is, but we reject that which has risks that, while they may not fall on us, or not now; but that have a significant chance of doing great harm. Such a decision is not reached through analysis. It is outside the attitude of negotiation entirely.
I don’t know how all this plays out. To the point, no one can know. But that is part of its promise. There are aspects of leaving negotiation behind that are affirming and bring strength and clarity. Part of that clarity is a sense that negotiation is a failed attitude and that it is better to let it go. Doing this brings no guarantees. It sends us off on a voyage into an unknown and unknowable future. This is a truth more valuable than whatever consolations we might find in stories of imagined ideals or fearful terrors yet to be.
Unless we can let go of this fascination with our Medusa we will remain petrified and stuck in that no place where we insist the “future” to be.
This locks us out of all we have, attention and the present.
It does seem to me that all living is at the edge of some precipice. Always either bearing down at us from above , or looming ahead of us below. Each presents a boundary.
Living at these boundaries is, devilishly, the essence of our existence. All endeavor requires inching towards the precipice, taking a peek over the edge, or gazing upwards. Instinct alone will not prevent the challenge and adrenaline rush in testing these boundaries.
As children we are told , “don’t touch, stay close, look both ways, buckle up etc. etc.” Then magically, we change and challenge and take risk. Then parents and story tellers tell their tales of woe and danger to try to build a fence around the precipace. We post a sign of wisdom and past experience. Still ,with that knowledge we test those boundaries. We prepare for all the imaginable eventualities, even looking into the future and setting up circumstances that challenge the imagination.
The greatest chasm we will ever face is that of our own fear. Fear is a good thing, but it is burdensome. There is a weight to it, it presses back at us, and engulfs us. If we recklessly try to bust our way through it without a fore knowledge , we risk duplicating the disasters of those before us. Sometimes those fears are based on irrational superstition which is in itself an impediment.
It is often said that there is nothing new under the sun. Our stories always eventually end up saying what we all know. Consequence is the result of doing, and even not doing has consequence.
Maybe that is the allure of the interactive computer game. One can immerse his mind in a place where consequence is not real. Zap, your adversary is gone . Poof another takes it’s pace. There are no boundaries that can’t be jumped over. There are only dead ends, escapes, and goals. If you die , you start over again. There are rules but no engagement, or morality.
I find the above rather sick.
As far as life imitating art, it just happens. Art is a reflection of
life. it absolves of us of nothing, but it accuses us very well. It shows the limitations of our points of view, our narrowness of scope, and the insanity that is humanity.
Logic and technology will not solve the human condition, in fact it will exacerbate it.
Very well said!
Thank you for contributing.
I think that, at their best, Utopias or dystopias are not about the future at all; they are a thinly veiled present, with the ‘future’ used as a distancing device, to allow us to look at ourselves from a different point of view.
It’s when we treat these stories as predictions – the slightly odious ‘discipline’ of futurology, that we run the risk of mummifying the future with the worst of the present. Tony, is that what you mean by negotiation; that you start your journey/ conversation with an outcome to be achieved, rather than approaching it openly and seeing what takes shape?
I can see how stultifying that would be, creating Jetsons futures of repressed 1960s salarymen with aerials, Monsanto Worlds of Tomorrow, or creating enemies by arming ourselves against their predicted threat…
Specifically, in this instance, that’s what negotiation would mean in this context. It is a much broader attitude and it infects so many other assumptions and tangles us in futility in so many ways.
The main point I see in this thread, this post and what has come form it, is that we need to give as much attention to our own unintended consequences as to those of our “foes.”
What if some of the best minds of the Twentieth Century had not remained focused on articulating dystopias? What was left unconsidered?
What do we gain by following that path?
I see more and more clarity around an opening to places that are not bound by the futility of past efforts. This does seem to require letting go of a lot. But it never seems like losing!
I’m interested in how a point like this, a slightly different look at yours and my heroes, sheds light on finding a way forward.
It’s not about defending or attacking anyone’s life work, but admitting that we need a looser hold on our attachments and an ability to let go of the things that hold us.
The more we find a desire to defend something, the more it seems to point to an illusion we haven’t noticed and therefore still cling to.
Very few things ever really need to be confronted head on as they present themselves, putting us into a position dictated by the terms of what is coming at us.
Most things – all things? – are better dealt with by noting them and then letting go of our Ego’s compulsion to control the outcome.
This isn’t a neutral “disengagement.” It is a necessary precondition to our being able to fully engage a question. Removing the compulsive “massaging” of our fears is a precondition to addressing whatever can be addressed about what faces us and accepting what cannot be addressed.
It’s just that as soon as we follow our fears off into a “Future,” we have abandoned all we have. We have sent our attention off to nowhere or to hell, and we have left the present. We have abandoned all we can ever truly “have:” our attention and this moment.
This search for Negotiation on this site leads to a number of posts that have addressed this issue. I hope you can find some of them useful.
Thank you again for engaging!
Very evocative, Antonio. And the discussion brings me back to my unease about scary scenarios that so many people seem to be fixated on… no wonder the Club of Rome is seen by some on the right as … setting people up, in a way. Part of the hypnosis.
And that leads me onto my recent new awareness that abuse involves a sort of hypnosis. The one who is being set up for abuse is hypnotized as he or she fixates on the ghastly antics of the abusers. I once was abused by the airport people who took to ransacking my luggage without permission, and ended up throwing away my keepsake manicure scissors. I knew what was happening, and yet I “froze” in my shock. You cannot defeat the Medusa on her own terms, her own arguments, her own ghastly spectacle!
Sirens… that too. Both the seductive and the ghastly holds us in thrall.
“I see more and more clarity around an opening to places that are not bound by the futility of past efforts.”
“Very few things ever really need to be confronted head on as they present themselves, putting us into a position dictated by the terms of what is coming at us.”
Yes and yes… resonance…
Good to see you back here again!
Unless we really attend to these structural questions we’re just building castles in the sand.
I went fly fishing this weekend and your word “negotiation” was in my thoughts. I pondered it meanings;
#1, to settle in a business deal or treaty
#2, the process of a transaction
#3, the process of making ones way in passage.
As I stood there hip deep in frigid glacier cold water swinging a fly past a smooth patch of water, enjoying the sounds of running water and the solitude, I came to realize that standing there was an act of negotiation. I was processing the information coming to me from all around me. I was judging whether there was likely a trout in hold where I was trying to cast, I was judging the depth of the water in that fast running stream. I was judging the reach of my cast, the water temperature, the wind speed and my casting form.
I then decided that I needed to cross the stream to get a better position. I unfolded my staff, and inched my way along across the swift water. It pressed forcefully against me and I used the staff to both brace me and to read the depth and bottom type. The water kept getting deeper and my body was feeling the full force of the swiftest part of the stream. I stopped and realized that I was at the halfway point. I had to decide whether I had reached the point of no return . I didn’t exactly freeze there, I just stood there feeling the water slide by. I was well braced there and in no real danger. My focus was on the the moment, the balance and the rush. It seamed like a long time , as my thoughts slowed and I took in the whole thing, The leaves floating by, the shape of the cobbled stream bed, the smell of the stream, the insects on the surface and in the air and the almost imperceptible rise of a fish taking insect larvae right where I had been trying to set my fly. I finally moved the rest of the way across the stream to slower water and firmer footing . I got a fly in front of a nice trout and it took it enthusiastically.
After setting him free, I went to shore and sat. I laid back and realized that I had experienced all sorts of negotiation . It was a transaction to get to where the fish were, I negotiated with the stream to get across, and it allowed me to do so on it’s terms.I paid the price of patience as I let it course around me. I made my own way across , with fair knowledge of what preceded me by reading the water and probing for the safest route. The goal was to get to the other side, the reward was that being in the moment, and sucking it all in. The trout was just frosting on the cake.
Maybe this is where you are looking, Tony. The soft , penetrating progression, the feel of the world around you, the whole sense of not being swept away by life , but having it course around you.
A wonderful pondering!
David Bohm talked of an early insight as a geeky child realizing that to cross a stream on stepping-stones he had to just begin and keep moving! That there was no way to plan it or to stop and start and maintain the flow and momentum required.
You’re in that same stream!
I also like that your use of negotiation actually contradicts the way I’ve been using it! I’ve used negotiation as a label for the “commercial” attitude that insists that every interaction is a game or a battle and that we must strive to win or we will lose at the hands of another who does win.
You’ve “rehabilitated” the term!
If this is what negotiation can mean, then I’m all for it!
More on this as it settles in.
Do you know the scene in Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Koolaid Acid Test’ where Ken Kesey is a guest speaker at the Berkley Vietnam Day rally, and he gets up and says (coarse language warning):
“You know, you’re not going to stop this war with this rally, by marching… That’s what they do… They hold rallys and they march… They’ve been having wars for ten thousand years and you’re not gonna stop it this way…
…That’s the cry of the ego, and that’s the cry of this rally!… Me! Me! Me! Me!… And that’s why wars get fought… ego… because enough people want to scream Pay attention to me… Yep, you’re playing their game…
There’s only one thing to do… there’s only one things gonna do any good at all… And that’s just everybody just look at it, look at the war, and turn your backs and say… Fuck it…”
That does it! That’s what I’ve been coming to.
It was there in some of the counter-culture, but it got swamped by the Enormity of it all and our naiveté.
We still have Enormity. We don’t have much excuse left for naiveté.
Turning our backs on Ego games wherever they turn up is just a precondition, but it is essential. Only then can we free our attention and find something with traction.