Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Orphic shade

From the start of Metamorphoses 10, Orpheus is dealing with shadows. Overcome by Amor, he descends to win back Eurydice, and encounters the umbrarum dominum, Hades, the Lord of Shades. To die in Ovid's world is to become a shadow of who you were, the spent afterimage of your day in the sun.

After he loses Eurydice a second time, Orpheus mourns her. Upon a hill devoid of shade, he begins to play and sing. Ignoring the tradition that his voice attracted wild beasts, Ovid speaks only of trees -- not just any trees, but a mixed wood led by the Dodonian Oak, gather around the poet. Several of these trees are linked to other tales -- the pine, for example, to Attis. (Apollo's loves tend to end up as vegetation: Daphne, Dryope, Cyparissus and Hyacinthus, to name a few.) To sing, to be a poet, is to get out of the solar, too-bright world of action -- the world of Heracles -- to a lunar world of indirection, of words and music, where one can summon what is past.

The juxtaposition of the poet's descent to the Underworld and this silva, (Aristotle's term: hyle) this moving forest of shade, is Ovid's way of linking the realm of reflection, the contemplative life, with a series of images and psychological, poetic, and metaphysical themes -- time, desire, shadows, death, echoes, indirection, memory, representation. Representation, as the word implies, is the presence of a lack, an absence. Usually a grave presence, lacking in light and lightness. The capacity to bring things up, to re-present them, depends upon their absence thanks to time, space, unintelligibility, or death.

Speaking matter-of-factly and without false or ambiguous words, Orpheus asks Hades and Proserpina for the usum of Eurydice -- the use, the loan of her, for a short natural time, before she (and all who live) permanently enter the nether world. We owe Hades a life, and according to this figural logic, our time is borrowed, on loan, from one who never fails to collect in full. Orpheus asks to borrow time:

Per ego haec loca plena timoris,
30per chaos hoc ingens vastique silentia regni,
Eurydicesoroproperata retexite fata.
Omnia debemur vobispaulumque morati
serius aut citius sedem properamus ad unam.
I beg you, by these fearful places, by this immense abyss, and the silence of your vast realms, reverse Eurydice’s swift death. All things are destined to be yours, and though we delay a while, sooner or later, we hasten home. 
To "reweave" the Fates is to rewrite what the Fates have already woven: retexite is linked to the root sense of text as something made, via techne, art. The fate of Eurydice is a text that Orpheus asks Hades to edit.

When Heracles asked more time for Iolaus in Book 9, we saw how Hebe managed to add some years to the sons of Alcmaeon and subtract them from a rejuvenated Iolaus. Orpheus, using his music, almost succeeds in recapturing his lost love, then he bends his eyes back to look directly upon the one thing he must not directly look upon, according to the condition (legem) imposed with the prospect of her return: the original referent of that fatal text. The rewrite fails.

As he mourns the loss of the usum of his irreplaceable bride, Orpheus turns away from all women. The story thus explains how the arch poet became the "auctor" of human homoeroticism:

Ille etiam Thracum populis fuit auctor amorem
in teneros transferre mares citraque iuventam
85aetatis breve ver et primos carpere flores.
Indeed, he was the first of the Thracian people to transfer his love to young boys, and enjoy their brief springtime, and early flowering, this side of manhood.
Much if not all of Book 10, the stories of Apollo and Cyparissus, Hyacinthus, Attis and Adonis, all flow from this linking of death and unyielding mourning to homoeroticism. The tale of Orpheus, linked with Proserpina, brings us back to Ovid's thinking about art, which began with the songs of the Muses in book 6. This counterweight lends a symmetry to the central five books of the Metamorphoses.

No comments:

Post a Comment