“The frightful grin, the flattened nose, the lolling tongue, the eyes with their fixed stare . . . such a face as drifts through dreams, the goddess of terrors” Russell Kirk, Prospects for Conservatives, p. 17
Kirk claims that the twentieth century writers about America do not really look upon the dreadful face of Medusa. Alfred Kinsey and David Riesman attempted to analyze the dark side of American character; Kirk said theirs was but a curious and morbid look in the monster’s direction and they too would be frozen in stone.
“We still need Perseus; but our Perseus, if he is to crush Medusa now, must be endowed with powers of mind and conscience undreamed of in our national boyhood.” p. 18. Who is this monster whose cove Kirk approaches in his work? It is a monster of the spirit, a “gorgon within.”
After unmasking the sources of boredom and criticizing avarice, Kirk says near the end of the book: “The grand question before us is really this: is life worth living? Are men and women to live as human persons, formed in God’s image, with minds and hearts and individuality of spiritual beings, or are they to become creatures less than human, herded by the masters of the total state, debauched by the indulgence of every appetite, deprived of the consolation of religion and tradition and learning and the sense of continuity, drenched in propaganda, aimless amusements, and the flood of sensual triviality?” (p. 253)
Kirk looks at the descending road before us and sees the ruin of souls and society.
Have we yet to name the Gorgon? It is not greed, nor power, nor sensuality. What then, where is she? In what mirror must we look; what shoes of Hermes must we don? Perhaps we must turn to Dante, mentioned by Kirk in chapter one. Dante fears that he might see the Gorgon’s head and be turned to stone never to return from hell. We hear the story in Canto Nine of the Inferno. As Virgil and Dante cross over to the depths of hell at the gates of Dis, they are confronted by three “hellish furies” whose heads were covered with snakes. They screech “Fetch Medusa! Turn him to stone!” I will draw upon the interpretation of Dorothy Sayers — she says they are “the images of the fruitless remorse which does not lead to penitence.” (Hell, Penguin edition, p. 127) Why do they need Medusa, why can they not affect Dante? Dante is following his guides and seeking, will find the light. He must be turned to stone so as never to return to the light. And so Sayers says: Medusa, “in this allegory” she is “the image of despair which so hardens the heart that it becomes powerless to repent.”
And there we have found her, the terror of Kirk’s dream. Despair. A lack of hope. Conservatives are quite prone to a lack of hope. And despair will turn one to stone. A heart of stone. A eye of stone. All stone, with no movement or aspiration. In the Inferno, Virgil puts his hands over Dante’s hands already covering his eyes. They descend to the bitter end and blown out from hell, make their eventual ascent. Hope is the one thing needed. See Margaret Mansfield, “Dante and the Gorgon,” Italica 47 (1970) found on-line here.
But Kirk calls for Perseus because we may not avoid her stare, the Gorgon within, despair. “We still need Perseus; but our Perseus, if he is to crush Medusa now, must be endowed with powers of mind and conscience undreamed of in our national boyhood.” Who has such powers of mind and conscience? Perhaps Pope John Paul II is that hero. [to be continued]
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
This essay is from John Hittinger’s site Reflections on the Philosopher Pope.