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Cast Away Diva — On the Monstrosity of Pasolini’s ‘Medea’

Medea (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969)

The monster is one who lives in transition. One whose face, body and behaviors cannot yet be considered true in a predetermined regime of knowledge and power.

Can the Monster Speak? (Paul B. Preciado, 2021)

For Benny, master in monstrosity.

I. Mythology/Misogyny

Myths are very persistent. As enlightened as we like to envision ourselves, we are still haunted by their legacy. Even the most rational of human beings will succumb now and then to a pre-modern, unscientific understanding of himself amidst the likes of Oedipus, Elektra and Antigone, because the remnants of what they once personified for us have not yet been extinguished in human culture. These myths not only contain a poetic truth but might actually put forward the idea that poetry is the truth of the human being. Which does not necessarily have to be a good thing. Poetry is a force as destructive as it is creative.

The myth of Medea is a misogynistic one. Or at least it appears to be at first glance with its emphasis on a woman’s destruction – an ending that is implied to be of her own doing. Medea falls in love with a beautiful stranger, Jason, leaves her homeland, only to be abandoned for another woman by her then husband in the new country, and out of revenge kills her children. As with all stories, myths too were constructed during a specific era in a specific geographical place and with the explicit purpose of explicating a then current state of affairs, which most of the time meant consolidating the status quo. Few stories are supposed to undermine the position of the storyteller. This story in particular seems to have been born out of a fear of women. But that fear also grants them powers.  The exoticism of the woman, in this case literally coming from a faraway country. The woman as barbarian, deprived of reason, but gifted with magical powers, gifted with, dare we say it, emotions.

For centuries these stereotypical ideas have been used to silence women. Silence in the broadest sense of the word ranging from the most absolute one – death – to the sneakier silencing of rendering what women say unintelligible because of its proclaimed inherent irrational nature.

In 1968 Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of the greatest mythologists of his century, took it upon himself to sift through the layers of attributed meaning in hopes of finding the possibility to tell his own version of Medea amidst the ruins of the history of western civilization. For the portrayal of the lead role, he found a woman who had only recently lived through an approximation of the biography of the Corinthian witch. By the time of the filming of Medea, Maria Callas had left her husband for the wealthy Aristotle Onassis, even renouncing her US citizenship in order to hasten the ending of her previous marriage, or as she called it—fulfill “her life as a woman”, only to be left in return for the recently widowed, but nonetheless presidential, Jacqueline Kennedy. This nevertheless, as rumor has it, did not prevent Onassis from continuing his relationship with Maria away from the scrutiny of the spotlights of society. It was as if nothing had changed in the eras separating the original Medea from her mid-20th century interpreter.

Besides renouncing her citizenship, Callas had also given up her most important vocation. Just as Medea migrated from Colchis to Corinth, Callas migrated into Pasolini’s film from another country with different rules and customs. A country where emotions are bigger than life, where jealousy, treason and revenge are daily fare and women tend to have a much bigger space carved out for themselves, away from being mere part of the chorus. The migration I am talking about is, of course, Maria Callas washing upon the shore of Pasolini’s movie from the far away land called Opera.

II. The Symbolic Order

Equally important as the place of origin of a story is the place where one decides it will begin. At the start of the most famous rendition of Medea’s tale, Euripides’s reworking of it by molding it into an Attic tragedy, Medea has already been living for ten years in the kingdom that she once believed would become hers. Everything that came before, and everything that could make what happens next legible, is summarized by the chorus. Choosing to let Medea’s story begin like this has its ethical consequences since the focus of the story is condensed around Medea’s act of violence with much less inclination towards an understanding of her position than were possible in a reading more generous towards the woman’s plight.

Pasolini lets his version start much earlier. In Jason’s childhood, long before the birth of his tragedy, a Centaur (Laurent Terzieff), who has up until then acted as both father and mother to the boy, comes clean about his lies. The boy is in fact a descendant of a long mythological genealogy, which is recounted in a humorous fashion as a nearly incomprehensible entanglement of rapes, betrayal and usurpations. Greek mythology does not follow a linear timeline, but evolves like the concentric circles that emerged after a stone was cast into the chaotic soup of the universe. Starting the story with this history of violence creates a much broader perspective for the transgressions yet to follow. The ultimate act of Medea is no longer a bolt from the blue, but an action within a history endlessly repeating itself.

The Centaur acts as a narrator of some sorts, who not only prepares the story for us, but also introduces us to the themes of the movie, of which sacrality—and its perceived loss in our modern times—seems to be the most prominent. The tension between rationality and sacrality, consumerism and sacrifice, the laws of political life and those of divine tradition is the battlefield upon which this tragedy plays itself out.

Jason (Giuseppe Gentile) is warned he will be sent to a faraway overseas country where he will encounter a society that still practices rituals modern man has forgotten eons ago. With his distinctive tendency towards ambiguity, Pasolini seems conflicted about this loss. “Sacrality is also a malediction”, the centaur warns us, seemingly alluding to the dangers of a symbolic order—the overarching structures through which any society organizes itself—hardened into dogma, wherein everything has been given its rightful place based on ancient traditions and rituals, of which we have forgotten the practical soil from which they sprouted in favor of a stern and inexorable interpretation that leaves no room for vital and necessary changes.

Another prologue of sorts ensues. One wherein we are introduced to Medea and the world she inhabits as a central figure. The first shot we are granted of La Callas is unforgettable. Lit in chiaroscuro, her face—and Medea is very much a movie of faces, faces with traces of a life lived in close harmony with the landscape one occupies—emerges from a dark background, foreshadowing the struggle between light and darkness she will fight within herself, the punctum, here, that nose of which she was so ashamed but which Pasolini, reportedly, admired, reminding him of the classic beauty of Greek vases. In the symbolic order of her pre-modern world, the Corinthian witch occupies a place of taboo: sacred and horrifying, revered and despised at the same time.

It is genuinely exhilarating how little is explained of the rituals we are witnessing. I believe we are presented with the tale of how Corinthe came in possession of the golden fleece, but Pasolini envisions the story of the ram with magical properties as a human sacrifice, a rite of spring of some sorts. He confidently lets the iconography speak for itself. A lot of bodily fluids are involved in gestures where they seem to be given back to the earth. Nature, the place that, when the gods still resided there, demanded sacrifices. The Centaur warned Jason that if he ever were to see nature as sheer nature, it would be too late for him. Medea; a story of disenchantment.

III. Otherhood

Reason obfuscates. Enlightenment strives for a clarity that is unable to show us what blooms in darkness. Medea steals the golden fleece and kills her brother in order to slow down her pursuers. All of this out of love. “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” These reasons are not reasonable but all the more justified. I believe she wanted a way out and found one in the slightly slow-witted face of her himbo, soon-to-be husband. She burns all her bridges, maybe more out of desperation than love. She needs to destroy the symbolic order against which she is pinned down like those butterflies captured by taxidermists. By destroying her ties with this symbolic order, she hopes to gain a sort of freedom. The freedom of inventing herself away from tradition and obligations.

But, of course, the cages we leave have grafted themselves inside us and, on top of that, Medea will soon find out similar cages are spread and cultivated everywhere. Upon arriving in the new kingdom, the kingdom which her husband was promised and which he had thus promised her, she is instantly recognized by the ladies of the court and treated with the reverence a woman of her supernatural stature compels; be it in awe or sheer terror. Throughout the movie a lot is made of La Callas’s jewels and gowns. Verging on the ceremonial, she dresses and undresses and is dressed and undressed to signify her changes in status. One does not simply leave behind one’s history. Even though, as Jason remarks with quite an uncharacteristic intuitive intelligence for him, the Golden Fleece has lost its meaning outside of its country of origin; outside of its symbolic context. The reverence paid to Medea is an attempt at capturing her and keeping her pinned down against the backdrop of her foreignness.

IV. Motherhood

In (the beginning of) the end Jason will betray her. Being denied his country, soon he starts eyeing the treacherous king’s daughter in hopes of still laying claim to his rightful throne. By now he and Medea have had two children. And in this tale as old as time, Jason justifies his betrayal as a way of safeguarding these children in this country where they have to live in the shadow of their mother’s notorious reputation. He tries to reason with Medea and reasonably push her back against the walls of her motherhood. Hoping to deny her any way of agency except that which would benefit their offspring. Anything else would be unreasonable and, for a mother, utterly monstrous.

A mother can never win. The great witch of yore has been brought to her knees by way of society’s constrained insistence on her motherly plight. No woman can ever be forgiven for not bowing down to the unreachable ideal of motherhood as self-sacrifice. In King Kong Theory Virginie Despentes insists on this ideal of motherhood, of mothers knowing best, as a nursery for fascism. Denying mothers any liberty as persons outside their biological functioning, at the same time denigrates men to guileless consumers through constant pampering. An idealized mother is the wellspring for a totalitarian state apparatus. An overbearing mother necessitates a strict and punishing father.

Reasonably reduced to her state of motherhood, Medea has become speechless. Everything she would like to bring in against this dictum that was made by a—quite literal—patriarch, will be deemed irrational and thus unintelligible. Everything she can do henceforth will be held against her. She will be screeching, her voice too high-pitched to be understood. She will not understand because she will not be thinking logically; she’s not capable of thinking logically. The king’s daughter understands the rules of this game much better. She is still playing her part in the symbolic order, which is much less supernatural or artistic, but juridical and economical. The woman deprived of her youth and fortune can just not compete with one who still possesses and upholds both. The rules of the game are man-made laws of nature. Tais-toi et sois mère.

V. Irrational Reason

The essence of tragedy in a classical sense is the fact that the single unifying action of the story was always inevitable. In trying to escape his destiny, Oedipus fulfills it. By standing for what she believes in, Antigone executes her own death sentence. But the thing is, and Pasolini shows an awareness of this possibility, that most tragedies are not the result of some universal, divine law but the clash between patriarchal laws and the concept of justice that transcends those laws. It is actually Oedipus’s father who sets in motion the prophecy by abandoning his child in the mountains and as such turning him into the stranger that would kill him. It is Creon, Antigone’s father in law, who is much more obsessed with saving face than the grief of his soon-to-dead daughter-in-law. The so-called inescapability of our destinies looks a lot like the stubbornness and pride of our fathers. The kind of father who would justify his own desire for power by claiming it a necessary action for the protection of his children.

In the version of Euripides, Medea sends her competitor a bewitched garment that will be set ablaze once she wears it. Pasolini shows us this part of the story as a dream of revenge Medea ultimately abandons. Because violence should not beget violence. Instead, in a remarkable deviation from canon, the garment sent to the competitor contains all the sadness and anguish Medea has gone through and that presumably awaits her competitor in the near future. This moment of communication instead of revenge shows Pasolini’s understanding of the tragedy as a woman scorned but not by her female competitor. As is too often the case women are fighting each other over the mistakes men made. Pasolini resolves this antagonism by making both women equal in their misery. A small step perhaps, but a step nonetheless.

Yet even though another possibility was explored, the ending remains the same. When Medea tries to negotiate with the king about the wellbeing and safety of herself and her children, which were promised to her by Jason, she is told to leave. Where another migrant, Odysseus, was invited to kings’ tables and into sorcerers’ beds, the female emigrant—a double burden—considered to be a witch, is driven out, cast away. Scared for the safety of his daughter, and rightfully so but wrongly accusing Medea, the king expels her and her demon breed from his country. Denying her a last chance at a reasonable outcome, denied once more the possibility to speak, as a woman, as an emigrant, as a mother, Medea has to answer reasonably. If reason can be unreasonable enough to not let her speak, she will act as irrationally rational as the man who left his children to marry another woman under the guise of protecting them. When pushed into the corner of hysteria, her answer will not be silence but fire because it is the only reasonable thing left to do.

When a mother is forced into an ideal of motherhood that is unattainable. When an immigrant who left everything and ultimately lost everything, gets no chance to either forget or remember what was left behind. When a woman is denied language itself, left outside alone while only men are having the conversations (most often about the woman they silenced). Then the only reasonable answer seems to be to reciprocate the violence reason has brought upon them. Civilization might pretend to have forgotten the meaning of sacrifice, but the people it sacrifices for this blissful unawareness remember its meaning all too well. In a blazingly lit last image, Medea, crying, finally tells Jason to shut up. She has pushed his reason past the borders of what is humanly bearable.

She has left (t)his world behind.