The Raft of the Medusa
I awoke this morning to more sad news about the ongoing and seeming hopelessly tragic plight of the refugees and sanctuary seekers (I do what I can given my frugal lifestyle to sponsor a Syrian refugee family to come to Canada, whose backstory is especially heart-wrenchingly sad). The endless shipwrecks and drownings, the notable humanity and heroism of some of their rescuers. The intensity of this drama, and the tragedy of it, brought to my mind this morning the great dramatic painting by the French Romantic painter Théodore Géricault (1791–1824), a masterpiece called “The Raft of the Medusa”. Many of you are probably familiar with.
I’m uncertain whether there is an old connection between the words “drama” and “dharma“. I suspect that there is, (and for likely reasons as I’ll give below). It is, in any event, the issue I want to address in this post as concerns the current refugee crisis and its connection to an old masterpiece of Romantic art. Géricault’s all-too short life seems to have been lived solely for the sake and purpose of producing this one great masterpiece, for he died soon after completing it.
I want, here, to demonstrate how nearly perfect it really is in its aspect as being both drama and dharma, and how it connects the incidental with the transcendental in a way that very much reflects even the main themes of Iain McGilchrist’s “divided brain” story, the human condition, and the authentic role of the great artist in society.
The first thing I want to note about the painting as reproduced here is that this is an image of the painting. The mediated image of a painting doesn’t do much justice to the immediacy of the painting itself — the impact of presence. A re-presentation of a great work of art in a photograph always strips the original of some quality of aliveness or immediacy that the artist attempted to bring out in his or her subject (and for all the reasons I gave in “The Image and the Spirit of Place“). A photograph turns the immediate into the mediate which is the more general issue, and problem, of media and representation, especially today when we are surrounded by media which tends to foster the mind’s self-enclosure as “hall of mirrors” or “the windmills of your mind”. There is, indeed, a connection between the two “modes of attention” of the divided brain as described by McGilchrist and the meanings of the immediate and the mediate, and these correspond to “the first attention” and “the second attention”, respectively. Our “mediated life”, as it were, through our dissociation from the immediate or what is called “presence” has all sorts of implications for understanding the contemporary plight of Late Modern Man as living inside a bubble of perception.
So, when I say, for example, that we should appreciate the difference between “awareness” and “consciousness”, this has much also to do with the difference in meaning between the immediate and the mediate, and correspondingly, too, with the sense of “presence” or “absence” (necessarily, then, also the “Now” and the “Then”).
The element I want to begin with here is the painting’s title: “The Raft of the Medusa”. Some backstory for the painting is provided by the Wikipedia article and by a good video description from The Khan Academy which also shows the actual scale of the composition. The artist himself struggled, even obsessed, with this painting and even the story of its development and its final form is the story of a great victory of the human spirit itself, for in its final form Géricault achieved that result that Blake might call “the marriage of Heaven and Hell” because in this painting is the also the wedding day of the transcendental with the incidental. And rather than speak of “levels of meaning” or “layers of meaning” it’s far more appropriate to say that the transcendental factor is in-volved (in relation to the e-volved) or is implicit within the explicit. Still, even to say whether the transcendental factor is “involved” or “implicit” in contrast to the e-volved or ex-plicit is a matter of the mode of attention you bring to an appreciation of the painting.
The artist begins with the transcendental aspect and moves towards the incidental (that is to say, from the overview to the point-of-view), while the viewer of the artwork works in the other direction, from the point-of-view to the overview, or from the incidental to the transcendental. This corresponds to McGilchrist’s right->left->right dynamic of the modes of attention. In that sense, in interpreting “The Raft of the Medusa” I’ll attempt to show how McGilchrist’s “two modes of attention” associated with the right and left hemispheres of the brain are portrayed in the work of art.
The painting, in its explicit aspect, depicts an actual historical incident: the wreck of the ship Medusa in 1816 and the tragic story of the survivors. When the painting was finished and finally publicly displayed, it caused some controversy as many saw in it a socio-political critique of the Bourbon Restoration after the failure of the French Revolution. You can even read in it a despairing statement about the delusions of the Enlightenment in its prospects for an Age of Reason as that actually played out in the Terror of the French Revolution and as seemed to be relived in the story of the survivors on the raft itself. As the backstory relates,
“According to critic Jonathan Miles, the raft carried the survivors “to the frontiers of human experience. Crazed, parched and starved, they slaughtered mutineers, ate their dead companions and killed the weakest.” After 13 days, on 17 July 1816, the raft was rescued by the Argus by chance—no particular search effort was made by the French for the raft. By this time only 15 men were still alive; the others had been killed or thrown overboard by their comrades, died of starvation, or thrown themselves into the sea in despair. The incident became a huge public embarrassment for the French monarchy, only recently restored to power after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815″ (“The Raft of the Medusa“, Wikipedia)
It makes William Golding’s scenario in The Lord of the Flies look tame and civilised by comparison (The “Lord of the Flies” is the ancient god Beelzebub or Baal). There is also the curious name of the ship itself — the Medusa. Medusa is the alter ego of Minerva, goddess of reason. Her Greek counterpart is the Gorgon, who is the alter ego of the goddess Athena. Medusa/Gorgon represents unreason, deities which belong to chaos or the Chthonic powers, all of which was uncannily played out in the gruesome stories of the survivors on the raft. But Géricault finally chose the moment when hope of salvation and redemption appeared on the horizon, in the form of a rescue ship, for the theme of his painting. “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”, as it were.
So, when looked at in these terms, the transcendental within the incidental really becomes apparent, doesn’t? And this is, finally, what probably fascinated Géricault about the whole incident, its mythos. In one sense, it is another interpretation of the parable of the Prodigal Son, who ends his journey as a swine living amongst swine until he comes to remembrance of himself as hope of transcendence from his condition of dis-memberment — dismemberment meaning a condition of dissociation and disintegration, or estrangement, apartness, exile. And is that not also the meaning of McGilchrist’s concerns about the hyperactivity of the mode of attention of the left-hemisphere of the brain?
“The Raft of the Medusa” (so poignant today in relation to the refugee crisis) is a depiction of the human condition. It is the human race that is on that raft. That is, I think, why he also (and controversially, too, as it turns out) chose to give a prominent place in the painting to a black man, who rises to the occasion in the painting, so to speak. Géricault is saying here “we are all in this together”.
This is what I find so poignant about this painting. That is its transcendental message, and even the theme of its hope of transcendence from the all-too human condition. The painting reminds me of an aboriginal elder’s vision that I once heard: he saw the whole world in one canoe, headed for a rapids. It was a dangerous rapids. But if everyone pulled together, the canoe would safely navigate the rapids to calmer waters beyond. Is that not the theme of the Raft of the Medusa also? The Raft of the Medusa, and the elder’s Canoe, is also “Spaceship Earth”.
The transcendental presence in the painting lies in the dynamic diagonal of ascent from the lower left towards the upper right. This is the archetypal movement of transcendence as rising. Outside the frame in the lower left is the Medusa, goddess of unreason and chaos, now wrecked. The action moves towards the upper right — the ship on the horizon that is the promise of salvation or redemption. That ship is true Reason. And in between the wreck of the Medusa and the hope of true Reason lies the human race, adrift on a raft upon a stormy sea, murdering and cannibalising one another or resorting to suicide. But only some on the raft actually see the hope of salvation and sanctuary already on the horizon. Others remain oblivious, lost in the tragedy of their despair, sorrow, and grief.
This is the ingenious metaphor of the painting.
The raft too is a metaphor. The raft became an obsession for Géricault. As the backstory tells it, he even had the original ship’s carpenter of the Medusa rebuild it for him. I don’t know if Géricault knew the Buddha’s parable of the raft as the dharma. But whether he knew of the parable of the raft or not, I believe it intuitively meant the same thing for him. The raft is what carries you towards sanctuary or transcendence or enlightenment, however you want to call it. The raft is also the canoe. The raft is the dharma, the “law” or “teaching”. The raft is also the true meaning of the sharia, the path that leads through the desert to the well or oasis. The raft is what Jesus means in saying “the law is made for man, not man for the law”. The Buddha’s raft parable follows his water snake parable, (as I’ve reproduced from the website “About Religion“)
“In the first parable, a man (for reasons unexplained) went out looking for a water snake. And, sure enough, he found one. But he did not properly grasp the snake, and it gave him a poisonous bite. This is compared to someone whose sloppy and inattentive study of the dharma leads to wrong-headed views. The water snake parable introduces the raft parable. At the conclusion of the raft parable, the Buddha said,
“In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma [dharma] compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas.”
The dharma, the “law”, the sharia, the canoe, the raft, even, perhaps, Gebser’s “law of the Earth” — these are the things that are supposed to bear you safely over the sea of samsaric existence to the oasis, the sanctuary, the safe harbour, the other shore. When you arrive at the well, at the oasis, which is called “enlightenment” or “knowledge” or “true self”, why would you want to walk back along the sharia? The “raft” is not the point. The “sharia” is not the point. The other shore is the point, the safe harbour is the point, the oasis, the well is the point. And yet people treat the raft, the law, the sharia as the point. This is called “idolatry”. If the law does not serve towards man’s self-transcendence and liberation from samsaric existence, it is bad law.
Neither Rumi nor Jesus nor the Buddha cared much for the law. But that’s because they had arrived at the oasis themselves, and were beckoning back to those still on the path, or on the raft. The law is meant to encourage, not discourage. That’s the meaning of Rumi’s great piece of poetry
“Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again , come , come.”
And that is, I think, ultimately the trascendental message of “The Raft of the Medusa” also, which makes this painting truly a masterpiece as a statement about the human condition. We’re all refugees and survivors adrift upon the ocean of samsaric existence. We are all on that raft.
In some ways you can say that the obsession with the law, with the raft, as the point of existence is the myopic and truncated view of the left-hemisphere of the brain as described by McGilchrist — it’s inability to discern metaphorical meaning. The meaning is provided by the predilections of the right-hemisphere’s mode of attention, which is holistic, which has also been referred to as “man’s better nature”. The ship on the horizon of Géricault’s masterpiece is indeed the sanctuary of “man’s better nature”.