Thursday, October 13, 2011

The gods always keep their bargains, or, Orpheus and Eurydice

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I hadn't intended to read Grace Dane Mazur's Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination this week. It's October, after all: I'm supposed to be reading of ghosts and ghouls.

But the book drew me in--and, unexpectedly, offered some areas of thought suitable for October. I wrote about two earlier in the week, and here's another: Orpheus's descent into Hades.

The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice has long bothered me for one simple reason: Orpheus's lack of discipline. Discipline--in its complicated interactions with habit, routine, and commitment--is the foundation of my understanding, and living, of day-to-day life. Discipline is difficult when its rewards are vague, the punishment for lapses uncertain or manifest only over a longer term, or when it is forced to wrestle with strong competing imperatives. But when it takes the form of a singular requirement--do not look back at your wife, or you will lose her--discipline should simply take over; it should, ultimately, not be hard. Yet Orpheus, with everything in the balance, couldn't follow a single command. As Mazur writes, setting Orpheus in contrast with Virgil's agricultural concerns in the Georgics:
But never has there been someone more unlikely to follow instructions than Orpheus. He is a genius, a poet, a musician, not a farmer, and his instruments are the imagination, language, and the lyre, never the plough. Descended from and inspired by the Muses, he is not one for prudent behavior or stolid obedience.
And that's how I understood the story of Orpheus . . . until about a year ago, when I was struck, wildly, by the realization that Orpheus didn't turn back because of a failure of discipline, but because he had no choice:
Orpheus pulls himself up one more step. It feels as if he's been climbing forever, with no memory but of this hunched-over, claw-fingered, back-straining scrabble up the mountain, wreathed in sulfurous smoke that has left his lungs ragged, nostrils streaming, and his beard smelling of foul fire. The endless razors of the rough rock have turned his hands and feet into burning ribbons of bloody flesh; his knees, too, are lacerated almost to the bone.

When they started their climb--the last time he was able to gaze on Eurydice--the summit of the blackened mountain way above them, which would lead to the remote cave that would eventually spill them out once more into the land of the living, was wreathed in smoke, invisible. And in the hours (days? weeks?) of climbing since, it has not once appeared; if anything, the darkness has closed in even more tightly. Aside from the occasional, brutally tantalizing glimpse of a few feet further up offered by the occasional break in the clouds, Orpheus might as well be wearing a hood.

And why not wear a hood? For the one thing he wants to see, lives to see, descended--good gods--into Hades to see, he cannot see. In the early stages of the climb, Orpheus could at least hear Eurydice behind him, picking her way carefully up and over the rocks. Once, early, he even felt a puff of her breath against his neck, deliciously cool in Hades's hot toxicity, shivering him with an emotion that felt utterly foreign to this place: joy.

But now he has not heard her for he doesn't know how long. Not a word, not a breath, not a step. It is impossible to climb this mountain without sending a clatter of rocks sliding to the bottom with every step. But from Eurydice, for lo these many hours, there has been no sound.

The gods always keep their bargains. The gods always keep their bargains. Orpheus continues to climb, up and on. Up, and on.

Then Eurydice cries out. Orpheus. He stops. Help me. I'm so tired. I don't know if I can keep going. I'm afraid I'm going to fall all the way back down. Lifting a hand, a foot, continuing to climb, Orpheus throws words of reassurance over his shoulder. But they don't reassure; rather, they seem to inflame. Orpheus!

He tries singing. It has always worked. It has always been the answer to any situation in which he's found himself. But it does nothing, and for the first time--remarkably, insanely, for the first time in this entire journey into the land of the dead--Orpheus feels fear.

The gods always keep their bargains. Eurydice cries out again. This time it is a cry of pain. And Orpheus begins to feel his control of his mind slip, begins to wonder. When they get to the cave, and on to the world of the living--and they will, he has no doubt; the gods always keep their bargains--will he find himself, not the brave husband who descended into Hades to retrieve his lost love, but, rather, the cruel husband who callously ignored all his wife's entreaties, hardened his heart to her pleas when she was in utmost despair? Will Eurydice--while in her rational mind knowing, or at least telling herself, that he had no choice--hate him in her secret heart, nurse, year after year, a cancerous canker that will slowly poison their marriage, blanch then poison their love? Doubt is a worm that never stops eating. Burrowing. Orpheus falls to his knees, trembling, racked by uncertainty.

Eurydice is screaming. The gods always keep their bargains. But do they keep the spirit along with the letter? They promise to return your wife, but do they promise to return her whole, sane, unbrutalized, unflayed? What commitments do they honor? What commitments ought Orpheus honor, to himself, his love, his wife?

Eurydice screams. Orpheus turns.

The gods always keep their bargains.
This is why the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is a horror story at heart, suitable for October: it is about being left with only impossible choices, only evil outcomes, yet still feeling responsible. Having been thinking about Orpheus in this new (to me) way for a while, I was pleased to find Mazur working along similar lines, but with an additional, interesting twist:
In the end Orpheus may prove to be wiser than most heroes. Even when he looks back, I think he knows what he is doing. . . .

Orpheus is fully aware of the relative time--momentary versus infinite--spent above and below. In fact, it may be the opposite of greed and impetuousness to do what he does, for by looking Orpheus is ensuring an infinite joy with his beloved, rather than the short-sighted not-looking that would have gained her momentarily, but always, during life as well as for the infinite afterlife, with the marital strife and blame of inconstancy: "You never once looked at me."
If there's one thing that October stories teach us, it's that, while the gods always keep their bargains, we mortals should avoid those deals if we have any choice at all. Chance and fate may be implacable, but they also offer fewer cruel illusions.


  1. Have you read Calvino's take on Orpheus and Euridice? "The Stone Sky" is told from the point of view of Hades (or rather Qfwfq) about Orpheus treacherously luring Rdix out onto the superficial exterior world, and thus undoing their dream of bringing life to the center of the planet.

  2. I must surely have read it long ago, but I don't remember it. I'll have to check it out tonight. It fits nicely with a thought I had the other night about another traveler to the land of the dead, Odysseus: put in the same situation as Orpheus, what would he have done? What trick would he have contrived to get out of the bargain?

  3. I just read it, in the new "Complete Cosmicomics" -- there are actually two versions of it, "The Stone Sky" was published in 1968 and has not been translated prior to this publication, and a rewrite called "The Other Euridice" was published in 1984 and has been published in translation.

  4. Andrea10:20 AM

    I just wrote a comment; now am I supposed to post it again?

  5. Andrea--that's weird: the comment above is all that came through. Maybe try again, if you don't mind?

  6. Andrea the flustered10:57 AM

    Okay, the same thing just happened again. I rewrote my comment, sent it, and then something sent me here asking me to leave my comment. I don't know where those other comments are going.

    The gist of my comment was that I was flustered by the new look of your site--all white, with viewing options, and totally unfamiliar. Did you post anything about this change? Where is the column of authors that used to snake down the right-hand side?

  7. I'm sorry about the comment confusion. I'll see if I can figure out what's going wrong.

    The new template is something that Blogger just started offering. I decided to give it a try, but I suspect I'll be going back to the old one (or trying a different one): I like the new organization, though I'll admit it's not instantly obvious, but I do miss the long list of authors and subjects.

    So bear with me a few days, if you don't mind, and I expect it will all get more organized soon!

  8. Andrea11:08 AM

    Okay, I'll try to be patient.

    Off to take my smelling salts now....