I have been thinking this morning about Orpheus. Orpheus is, I believe, the ancient Greek musician whose beloved wife died. Orpheus loved her so much that he journeyed to hell. There he so moved Hades – the god of hell – with the beauty of his music, that Hades allowed Orpheus to lead his wife out of hell on the condition that Orpheus walk forward without looking back to make sure she was there. Of course, Orpheus, with his foot on the threshold, couldn’t help looking back and lost his beloved wife a second time.
I may not have that exactly right, but half of the power of a myth is how you remember it, how you re-tell it.
At first, this myth seems to be about love, the power of love, and the importance of having faith in the one you love. I imagine Orpheus approaching a crag in the ground, a low hole under a ledge of sharp, red, volcanic rock. He stoops, slides his legs through the hole, then slithers in after them, pulling his lyre down last, and drops to the floor of the dark cave.
It’s dim there, near the entrance, and he can see that the cave floor is uneven and that, if he falls or puts a hand out to balance himself on the cave wall, he will cut himself on sharp rocks. And yet he moves forward into the darkness, slowly, feeling the way with his foot before putting weight on it.
Eventually he emerges from the cave into the underworld, a twilight world, not quite light, not quite dark, a wide featureless plain the stretches endlessly in each direction and extends upward endlessly through where the sky should be and isn’t. There is no color. There are no smells. The ground is smooth and featureless. It is almost silent there, except for the gentle passing of the river that splits the world in two.
On the near side, shades drift about restlessly, seeking something they are unable to find and unable to forget. They see Orpheus, approach him, then lose interest in him. He sees Charon’s boat on the river and tricks him into letting him cross. On the other side, Orpheus is in danger of forgetting, for once you cross the lazy river, you let go of your past.
Before he can discover what else that side of the river holds, a huge presence, unseen but felt, looms up about him, everywhere, nowhere, watching him, waiting to see what he will do. He swings his lyre off his shoulder and begins to sing. He sings of his love for his wife, his great undying love, tears streaming down his face. Eurydice, he sings, Eurydice.
And suddenly she is there beside him. He turns, still singing, toward the boat, and she turns with him. As he steps into the boat, he feels her step in beside him, settle her weight, and sit close behind. Across the river he sings of his love for her, and through the restless shades. Back into the dark cave, step by step, he sings, his voice echoing off the walls and ceiling. When he reaches the entrance, still singing, he slides the lyre from his shoulder and out through the crack above him. He sings softer now, in barely a whisper, but he cannot hear her behind him.
He doubts. His voice cracks and he looks back over his shoulder – only to see her recede quickly away from him into the dark, like water down the drain, one hand outstretched to him, her voice a silent scream. His song trails off as he stands one last moment, realizing what he has done, the permanence of it, before he turns again to the light and climbs out silently.
On one hand, this is about love. The importance of always believing in the one you love even when they are not there. Even when you cannot monitor their behavior, you trust that they love you back. If you doubt that love – how can s/he possibly love me, the miserable worm that I am, they must be about to leave me – you risk losing them.
On another hand, it is about loss. The loss of someone so important to you that you would risk your life for theirs, if given that choice. That you would bargain with the gods for their life. That you would give your greatest gift to get them back, but you know that, in the end, you can’t. You must let them go and move forward, back into the light without them.
This morning I had another thought. What if Eurydice does not represent love or loss? What if she represents our past and the things we cannot let go of our past? You know those things: the birthday parties that went awry; the slights you suffered in school; the paths not taken; the important words spoken or not spoken; things you loved taken away from you.
When I was in school, I was taught, when entering the stage, to cover my entrance by coming from somewhere and something else I was doing. If it was raining outside, shake and unfold my umbrella. And to know my history – have I been there before? If so, what has happened to me there before? Do I know this person, have a history with them? What are my feelings about that history? “Let the past affect you,” they said.
And how does our past affect us now? What are we constantly looking over our shoulder to check on, to see, to long for, to regret the loss of?
And what will happen if we move forward without looking back at it?
I did not think I would like this book – the title made me think it was something nihilistic. Turns out it is closer to Buddhism.
And I am loving it.