A Face to the World

László F. Földényi, The Glance of the Medusa: The Physiognomy of Mysticism

Seagull Books, 296pp, £21.99, ISBN 9780857426086

reviewed by Farah Abdessamad

What did we lose when we renounced magic? Everything, according to Hungarian critic and philosopher László F. Földényi in his new collection of essays, The Glance of the Medusa. ‘There would be no exceptional moments in life if life itself was not a unique and extraordinary moment of lightning,’ he writes.

The first time I felt the unsettling gaze of an artwork stirring my emotions I was sitting in a church. Though not steeped in religion, I wondered what kind of presence lingered and its origin. The novelist and essayist Marguerite Yourcenar viewed ancient statues as an allegory of erosion, from the marble quarry redefining native landscapes to the faded sharpness of statuesque traits. Later in life, I experienced art not as an elitist bore but as a mystery: a simultaneous familiarity, kinship almost, and a distant reverence for both subject and artist for showing a truth I had never considered.

In The Glance of the Medusa, Földényi develops an anatomy of European mythology in his quest towards understanding human completeness. Földényi’s statues, unlike Yourcenar’s, suggest an apparent paradox: they incarnate a void (‘the infinite void as a personal fate’) and a timelessness. It’s in a gaze, he posits, that much of our search for sameness and otherness crystallises.

The book advocates a re-enchantment of the world, a theme already introduced in Földényi’s previous non-fiction work, Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears (2020), and is a logical development of his authoritative Melancholy (2016) which gave voice to deep ontological anguish. He also argues that a fragmentation of the soul is a function of our spiritual disorientation as we, moderns, have forgotten our place in — and connection with — a wider cosmos.

Földényi compares the human, liminal space of existence to a symbolic point, where the four arms of a Christian cross meet. He quotes the ancient apocryphal text the ‘Acts of Andrew’ in relation to this mystical shape:

Its top reaches the heavens and points to Logos; its left and right sides keep chaos at bay and hold the cosmos together; its bottom stretches down to the lower depths, so it can connect the below to the above.

The interconnectedness of grace, death and a Heideggerian sense of ‘being-in-the-world’ results in a divine experience.

Cultures, through their beliefs and symbolic expressions, are by and large syncretic. For Lévi-Strauss, mythology holds a structure responding to wish-fulfilment. For Jameson, myths are ‘the imaginary resolution of a real contradiction’ (The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, 1981). Myths and lore tell stories and distil an iconography of who are we (representation), as well as who we wish to be (aspiration). Among these images, faces remain the most inscrutable. Consider the book’s cover picture of Medusa — villain or victim?

Földényi explains mythology as a powerful genealogy of images. The gaze is multifaceted. The eye is talismanic. It stands against the infelicitous (for instance, recalling the worship of the Egyptian Eye of Horus or the ‘nazars’ of Mediterranean cultures). A gaze communicates incertitude, transcendence, and finitude; it also emanates an essence, what Földényi calls ‘the very’, a non-proselytising affirmation of a supreme force.

Yet a gaze isn’t a mere combination of two eyes staring back at an object, a navel isn’t just a visual cue between our upper and lower abdomens or the remnant of in-utero assistance (‘a memento of birth’). Our bodies, whole and in their parts, convey a layer of significance and cultural transmission which harks back to our collective psyche. A mythological life is one of signs and signifiers, with a sacred time dominating over a common, mortal, historical lived experience. Myths feed an axiological memory which inscribes core, inter-generational values.

Földényi is an avid reader of Mircea Eliade’s pioneering works on the history of religions, recognisable from the centrality of archaic and classical references, or concepts such as the ‘omphalos’ (navel of the world) of traditional societies, discussed as a vital human anchor in time and place (and more often, outside time and place).

In this vein, Földényi recalls that Zeus had searched for this ‘omphalos’. The Ancient Greeks had found their centre of humanity — a centre as a void and completeness, removed from the usual cardinal points — in Delphi, the site of the famous oracle. The temple and its forecourt, where pilgrims could read the first maxim ‘Know Thyself’ upon entering the sacred grounds, encompassed a no-place and an all-place. In a womb-like grotto, the Delphic Pythia delivered the word of a supreme creator to supplicants. The grotto offered a zwischenraum, or in-between crevice, of pulling opposites. It was said to host in equal measures the solar realm of Apollo when the celestial light brightened its depths, and the dithyrambic tribulations of Dionysius living in its darkness. Delphi as a metaphor commemorates a divine, and by proxy human, contradiction.

Földényi uses his exploration of hollowness to establish the idea that contemporaries have fallen out of their own existence – an existence which used to involve more than just material pursuits and cynicism. He argues for the connection of the soul and the world via logos, that is, to re-engage with the irrational and the divine, which he defines as ‘that which has neither beginning nor end’.

We find in Földényi’s writing the intellectual influence of Gnostic sects and Neoplatonic monism, in the way he engages with separation and unicity. His reinterpretation of the human anatomy (eyes, mouth, throat, skin) is an opportunity to project a microcosm. Under this lens, human beings may hold the universe – understood as the perpetual tension between Chaos and Cosmos – in miniature form.

To illustrate this, he recalls the historical flimsiness of an artificial human-divine split:

Gods not only lived among humans but they lived inside them, taking up residence in the physical body the same way they did inside images and statues. As such, human nature was actually a composite of humanity and divinity.

Not just human bodies but the earth, too, presents a living, breathing body in Földényi’s organicist view. He draws a parallel between volcanic eruptions (a volcano as an ‘eyeball of the earth’) and epidermal scabs or scarring which contributes to show how one contains a multitude, and vice versa.

Thus, the universe mirrors the uniqueness of life; and the completeness of the whole is indistinguishable from the fragmentation inherent in uniqueness. The fraction is whole, because it is unique, exceptional, unmistakable and irreplaceable – since its life is unrepeatable, too. And yet, it is but a part, a fragment, a chip – akin to a sharp shard of glass that cannot be taken in hand, but in which the entire existence glares back, including the shard itself that keeps on reflecting its own self, over and over again, in ways impossible to trace or follow.

Myths cultivate a sense of safety and comfort. They indicate responsibility and agency. They often contain a nurturing element and a sense of determination for disenchanted societies mourning an imagined lost harmony. The Glance of the Medusa isn’t about debunking ancient mysteries. Rather, it advocates embracing the inscrutable through visceral empiricism. Regrettably, Földényi doesn’t engage with Romain Rolland’s ‘oceanic feeling’ of limitlessness and the Russian Cosmism movement of the early 20th century which channels similar concerns and metaphysical aspirations and could have fostered a dialogue more relevant to our times.

The Glance of the Medusa considers the divine experience as a gateway to consciousness and the obsession of the gaze — visible and invisible — permeates throughout. It’s by leaning towards mysticism that men undertake to see themselves as more than just flesh and blood. This state of ecstasy, understandably hard to transcribe, may be akin to stepping in or becoming a vortex. NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured images of Jupiter’s ‘Abyss’ in 2019 – an intriguing whirlpool of complexity. Alice’s curiosity about a rabbit hole leads to her adventures in Wonderland. Kazimir Malevich painted his enigmatic Black Circle in 1924, and Suprematism depicts several other artistic interpretations of vortices and passageways, as does the unclassifiable literature of Can Xue.

The separation between mortal fate and the co-existence of immortal beings and forces is modern. The ancients, and people who still abide by traditional, sacred beliefs, want to join an immensity, Földényi argues. Constructed borders, or even the idea of ‘trespassing’ from one world to another, don’t apply to them. Trespassing is almost a nonsense given that religious men constantly live as a part of the cosmos and in the sacred realm. In this discussion, Földényi gives a contemporary resonance to borders and limits. Trespassers are not dangerous, he writes. The divine experience is a form of inner displacement of the soul. One ‘exits’ oneself to bond with infinity. We all have a capacity, if not a tendency, towards migration and displacement. I wondered here about Földényi’s attempt to engage with the recent politics of his native Hungary, responsible for some of the most conservative refugee and migration-related policies. When does mysticism become another form of fanaticism?

In this permanent oscillation and negotiation between Cosmos and Chaos, men crave the former while fearing the latter. Chaos is both genesis and decay. As such, it’s desirable for it marks the origin of order and enables the emergence of a new symbolic cycle of creation — a new dawn. ‘Chaos is a form of absence that completes existence,’ writes Földényi, who grieves a missing piece, an irreplaceable past and the ineluctability of our erasure.

Farah Abdessamad is a French and Tunisian writer living in New York City.