Thursday, August 16, 2012

Orpheus in Hades: Myth of death, death of myth

As Metamorphoses 10 begins, Ovid makes clear that Orpheus is putting aside all the wiles of rhetoric when he makes his plea to Hades:
‘O gods of this world, placed below the earth, to which, all, who are created mortal, descend; if you allow me, and it is lawful, to set aside the fictions of idle tongues, and speak the truth."
Speaking plainly, he makes these assertions:

  • Death will claim all, including Eurydice.
  • Love overcame me -- I can't accept her death.
  • Did Love not overcame Hades when he carried off Proserpina? 
  • I won't return to life without her.

Even as he claims to be speaking without embellishment, the singer is accompanying himself on the lyre, and casts a deep spell. The land of death seems to experience a second death, a stasis new to that realm:
Talia dicentem nervosque ad verba moventem
exsangues flebant animae; nec Tantalus undam
captavit refugam, stupuitque Ixionis orbis,
nec carpsere iecur volucres, urnisque vacarunt
Belides, inque tuo sedisti, Sisyphe, saxo.
The bloodless spirits wept as he spoke, accompanying his words with the music. Tantalus did not reach for the ever-retreating water: Ixion’s wheel was stilled: the vultures did not pluck at Tityus’s liver: the Belides, the daughters of Danaüs, left their water jars: and you, Sisyphus, perched there, on your rock. 
The stillness that comes over, the immobilizing hush, is the contemplative moment, the timeless mode of the lyric. Ovid is situating lyric poetry in a close relationship with amor and mors.  For as long as Orpheus sings of love, the hard line between life and death, time itself, seems to be suspended. Myrrha will later ask to be situated in such a state. "Deny me both life and death," she begs.

. . . mihi vitamque necemque negate  (10.486)

Orpheus says he's just speaking the truth:
All things are destined to be yours, and though we delay a while, sooner or later, we hasten home. Here we are all bound, this is our final abode, and you hold the longest reign over the human race.
Yet the very story he alludes to, sung by Calliope in Book 5, concerns a negotiation in which Hades submits to an arrangement whereby Proserpina will never finally be his. Is Orpheus simply stating a fact, as he claims, or is this an example of what rhetoricians call captatio benevolentiae -- the "buttering up" that turns the ear of an audience (or judge) into a receptive, well-disposed receptacle? Fact? Or "captivating" flattery?

Why does Orpheus, while he's pretending to dispense with lies, readily concede the finality of death from the moment he opens his mouth, even as he denies that same finality when he says he is suspended upon an "if"?
if the story of that rape in ancient times is not a lie, you also were wedded by Amor.
Book 10, then, in which Ovid and Orpheus and Venus will have much to say about love, death, and art, finds the poet/lover in direct confrontation with death. Orpheus' claim to be speaking mere truth is complicated first by the question, unanswered, of whether Calliope's story is a lie. We really can't say we possess truth if we remain in suspense about whether something is a lie. When a Muse remembers, does she remember whether her story took place, or is she just remembering the story?

And even as he states the "fact" that death is that country from whose bourne no traveler returns, the poet is uttering a song of such charm that it halts the business of death in its tracks. Whatever else Orpheus's lyrics do, they move. They move trees, beasts, hearts. The quest of Orpheus is to find out whether the boundary between life and death can be set in motion, mis en jeu. The challenge turns out to be less determining that it moves than resisting the impulse to verify its motion.

No comments:

Post a Comment