Sunday, December 25, 2005

Medusa Meets Monty Python

Perhaps you've noticed my tendency to discuss odd tidbits of popular culture, sometimes in groups that wouldn't necessarily seem to go together and sometimes in groups that don't go together. I like these little pieces of random and I think it shows.

Last week, I came across and article that namechecks, among other things, Medusa, the basilisk, "The Ring," a Monty Python sketch, Stendhal Syndrome, Lady Godiva, a song called "Gloomy Sunday" and that creepy "Red Room" Flash site that allegedly infatuated my new little friend, Nevada-tan. These subjects wouldn't readily seem to share any quality warranting their presence in the same article. And before I read the Wikipedia entry on "Motif of harmful sensation," I wouldn't have expected anything other than something I wrote to include them all, either.

To explain, the motif of harmful sensation is a rather clunkily named phenomenon in which a person is killed or otherwise harmed simply by perceiving something, usually visually or aurally. For example, the video tape in "The Ring" causes people to die, whereas most video tapes do not. Looking at Medusa's face also kills people — though, by turning them to stone, though I suppose that total body petrification should kill someone as well. Looking at most other people, however, does not result in this effect.

I have been aware of this notion for some time, and even been attracted to it, though I never thought to put a name to it or anything. (If I had, I think I would have picked something better than "motif of harmful sensation." Maybe something like "thing-that-isn't-usually-bad-is" or "bad perception thing" or "gooberstumpis" or something.) The motif of harmful sensation, as the Wikipedia calls it, is quite an old concept that has arisen repeatedly in various world cultures.

Notable examples:
  • Like Medusa, the mythical medieval animal called the basilisk, a bird-looking serpent that could turn people to stone just by looking at them.
  • There's a plant called the mandrake that supposedly emits a human-like shriek when it is plucked. The shriek causes instant death.
  • The Stendhal syndrome is a supposedly documented effect in which people become dizzy or ill after viewing a painting or other work of art that they find particularly dazzling.
  • The Chuck Palahniuk novels Lullaby and Diary. In the former, hearing the lyrics to a certain song causes instant death. In the latter, a woman's drawings cause a severe form of Stendhal syndrome.
  • "Gloomy Sunday," also known as the "Hungarian Suicide Song," a little ditty that purportedly drove scads of Hungarians to kill themselves. (I've actually heard the Billie Holiday version of the English translation and like it quite a bit.)
  • The whole thing with the number of God in that movie "Pi."
  • A Monty Python sketch in which the British invent a joke so funny that anyone who hears it will die laughing. The joke is then used as a weapon against the Germans in World War II.
Best part of all, the article also mentions that creepy haunted eBay painting. In fact, the only glaring omission I see is that episode of "The Tick" in which the Queen of the Ottoman Empire tried to steal the Most Comfortable Chair in the World, a seat so accommodating that anybody who sits it in is unable to leave it of their own volition. But that might be different. Maybe.

I'm not sure why I find this so fascinating, but I think it might have something to do with that fact that these things, if they existed, would be forbidden to be perceived — unless you had a death wish, of course. So on top of never being able to see them because they're not real, I would be dead if I had seen them. Shoot.
[ link: the full article ]

5 comments:

  1. Anonymous4:48 PM

    I had forgotten -- there's a Saki story that ties in here -- "The Seventh Pullet" -- read it now, I demand it.

    - spence

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous4:39 PM

    Don't forget that Scientology has occasionally claimed that the Xenu story gives people who aren't ready for it pneumonia.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ah, at long last the article has been deleted as Original Research. I did some editing to it myself in the past, pruning out things that were clearly not in theme (such as being punished for sensation, rather than BY the sensation) but I knew in my heart it violated the OR rule. It resonated so strongly, and with a lot of other editors (even some of the Delete votes in the AfD entry seem to say that it's clear the motif exists, it just hasn't been "expressed" in a reliable, notable source) I left it for more thorough souls to bring it to and end. I just couldn't bring myself to. (I even agreed on the talk page, at one point, that it was a terrible name for something that is a very real theme in mythology and literature.)

    Luckily some users have preserved the article. ( like: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Xanthoxyl/Motif_of_harmful_sensation )

    It seems to have been given life by Wikipedia's transgressions though. Not only is it all over the Wiki-clone sites, but it's been mentioned in at least one book you can search via Google Books, and another author ( http://ettadiem.com/spiderwebs/?p=18 ) appears to have taken it up as well. And it lives on in a few essays:

    http://www.haresrocklots.com/essays/willie.html
    http://humanities.uchicago.edu/faculty/mitchell/glossary2004/meme.htm

    It may very well persist, and one day make it back into Wikipedia once other sources take it up. Kinda funny.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well it's a bummer it's gone now. I guess I'm glad I posted this when I did. Thanks for all your work. The article did a good job tying together a lot of ideas I had bouncing around in my head but had never considered as examples of the same idea.

    And thanks for the links, too.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Well, mostly I tried to stem the tide of OTHER well-meaning helpful people trying to add things that didn't really fit.

    I've also preserved it here in case the other user decides to wipe it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:BalthCat/Motif_of_harmful_sensation

    ReplyDelete