The uncanny quietude of Orpheus Mediator

A few follow-up thoughts on previous post, before I conk out (it is Saturday night, after all).

We sketched out an idea of beauty as something we undergo, something we "suffer" in the old sense of the term : an effect, not a cause : an end in itself. A phenomenon whose source is (in some fairly inexplicable sense) spiritual, not material. And we suggest this "spiritual" origin is the root of all those aspects of art which we designate roughly as wholeness, fulfillment, "complete-in-itself", finish, the "sense of an ending", etc.... the pleasure we take in what Aristotle called a "whole action" (beginning, middle, end). Organic. Integral. Independent... & so on. Unwilled, uncontrollable, ungraspable...

& we argued that Orpheus exhibits a sort of passivity, a "quietude" if you will, a willingness-to-suffer (in contrast to Dionysius) which parallels the sensible stasis or static wholeness exhibited by works of art. & that Orpheus behaves in this way because he is at the crossroads of spirit & matter, spirit & flesh : he represents the union of the two, in the harmony of the art which he performs (music, poetry).

Let's extrapolate some of the consequences of all this. If we accept the foregoing, then the concept of an inherent dualism is inescapable : ie., spiritual and material, spirit and flesh. And at some level we insist on this duality, because without it there is no possibility of eternal life. And we sorely desire eternal life, in some form or another ("Eternity, O Eternity - that is our business!" Roger Williams exclaimed).

(This does not necessarily entail the relegation of matter to a secondary position. Far from it. We noted earlier that all beauty is necessarily embodied beauty. This state of affairs has its theological underpinnings in the notion that spirit fuses with matter for the sake of the "glory of God" : ie. the universe is being "restored" through the "providence" of God. Belief in a "resurrection of the body" expresses theological confidence that both spirit & flesh will be restored, somehow, to life.)

Let's make one further extrapolation. All these previous assertions depend on a single overriding metaphysical concept : the idea that the source of the physical universe resides, somehow, in consciousness, in "the spirit." How can we relate this to what we have been saying about Orpheus, and poetry? In the light of such a notion of "logos" - a cosmic order, in which spirit or consciousness pervades and orders matter & "flesh" - the myth of Orpheus taming nature with his song, and entering the underworld to restore the dead Eurydice to life, begins to reverberate as a symbol, an analogy... a myth representing the existential (human) condition in general. For if humanity is trapped in mortal flesh, subject to time and death, then a poetic word which signals a rescue from these existential limitations (ie., eternal life) is like unto Orpheus, calling Eurydice back from the grave.

Orpheus & the beautiful

Let's follow this thread a little further. Orpheus with his lyre can be viewed as the ur-mask, the archaic arch-persona of the poet; Orpheus can also be seen as the representative figure for the mythical, the poetic word in its own right, per se. The poet is the person devoted to the muse - bonded in a formal relationship with whatever or whoever it is that instigates music & song. The poetic word is language under the sign of that muse - "music" - harmony; it is language fused in a formal bond with art, with beauty.

This is an unfashionable way of thinking; we hardly know what these terms mean anymore. What is the beautiful to us? What is beauty? Think of how we experience it in ordinary things. The encounter with beauty is an end in itself. It is non-utilitarian; it is an experience, an effect not a cause - it is something we undergo, not something we create from nothing. Even in our works of art, where we aim to produce something beautiful, all we can do is aim toward it, labor toward it - and perhaps it will coalesce & appear. We can't will it into being.

There is something a little frightening about our inability to control this dimension (perhaps the "sublime" is actually a sort of psychological projection of this terrifying, unmanageable aspect of beauty). Let us suggest that beauty is fundamentally a "spiritual" phenomenon, where by spiritual we mean precisely that dimension of experience which we can only undergo, which is always a little bit beyond our ken and out of our grasp. (I realize this doesn't really "explain" what I'm trying to get at : but this thread we're following is headed toward that very border of the ineffable, the inexplicable.)

I would like to suggest further that all beauty is embodied beauty. Even abstract mathematical proportions only "make sense" in terms of their extension into dimensions, their applications. It follows then, from our sketch of a definition, that the encounter with beauty happens at the conjunction point of the spiritual and the material - the ineffable and the knowable. Beauty in its very substance is a conjunction of opposites, then - a coniunctio oppositorum.

This brings me back to the duality or agon outlined earlier here, between the Apollonian & the Dionysian. The Apollonian calm, the beautiful order, the harmony represented by Orpheus is rooted in a "passion of undergoing" : the experience of beauty itself, of its paradoxical union of dual worlds. Here we approach the peculiar "stasis" inherent in beauty and in art - Eliot's chinese vase, "still moving" in its stillness. All this reaches back to our own basic and ordinary undergoing of beauty (as a "spiritual" dimension of everyday life). The challenge of the Dionysian, then - the orgiastic glee/rage of the Maenads - can be understood as part of the process (dialectical, conflictual) of the senses' submission to the uncontrollable spiritual power (of beauty). It is natural force submitting to spiritual order.


The (late) Plumbline School (before it got derailed by a Dionysian) was seeking that temperate Apollonian chord.
The old skinny bards in the old skinny days never sang without accompaniment; they all plucked or bowed a little stringed catgut thingamajig, playing off their yowling verses. In doing so, they shored up the effect of art : they framed their speech within its magic circle, they distinguished it, set it apart. Set apart : a holy thing. Filled with dangerous charisma & spiritual mana : the word set to music.


We have heard that poetry is the art of the word. But what is art? A kind of order, an ordering. A framework. In time (beginning, middle, end) & space (perspective, view). An ordering, itself ordered toward one end : the beautiful. Ordered by means of, what? Vision (a kind of inward vision, involving all senses). "Beauty is truth, truth beauty..." mumbles Keats's urn. Art is an ordering, an orientation, toward the manifestation of that pre-existent beauty (natural and spiritual).


Poetry manifests harmony in the forms of polyvalent rhythm. Not just the rhythms of ordinary speech or patterns of words & lines : these staccato elements are upheld on deeper sound-waves, sea-surges of verbal flow - dialectical turns & counter-turns, suspense & procession, gradual or sudden unfoldings & appearances. & underlying these are yet more vast & mysterious organic changes, imponderable circuits of time itself - life's emotional cycles (say, the films of Satyajit Ray or Jean Renoir...).


When they twanged their thingamajigs & yodeled the myth of Orpheus, those skinny old bards entered an echo chamber. Self-reflexive (how postmodern!). The myth of Orpheus the Singer was the story of themselves : taming the wild beasts, enrapturing everyone with sweet melody... descending even unto Hades to fetch back dear Eurydice... child of Apollo, torn apart by unreasoning (Dionysian) Maenads... Yet this myth also reflected back another way, onto Myth itself : for what is myth, if not a kind of ritual orientation? A harmonizing activity, meant to resolve chaos into order, to humanize life, make it intelligible - by means of words, stories? Myth in general has an orphic dimension. So in the story of Orpheus these dual reverberations overlap and intertwine.


The God of the Torah and the prophets is also a kind of Orpheus, in medias res (& before all things). Creating an ordered cosmos by his word, his "Let there be..." As is the Christ of the Gospels, who says "Heaven & Earth shall pass away, but my Word shall not pass away".... who after Good Friday descends Orpheus-like into Hell, to liberate imprisoned souls. Renaissance poets (Ariosto, Spenser, Milton), in all their furry & bejeweled verbal elegance, made much of this blended Yahweh-Jesus-Orpheus. & Dante, following the call of Beatrice from Hell to Paradise, played Christo-Orpheus Redivivus to the glittering hilt of heaven.


& someday some inspired scholar might penetrate to the unity of Shakespeare's oeuvre... tap the spine of his deepest motive... & Hamlet's play-within-a-play-within-a-history-play within the play of History will reveal a certain Orphic ambience... & we, who are the mortal, sinful audience, outside the magic mirror of the Tempest, might recognize Prospero as a type of Orpheus-in-reverse : not so much descending into Hell, but calling to us, calling us back to, that echoing, heavenly Island of well-tempered sounds...


Those scrawny ancient minstrels, whether Jew or Greek or otherwise, provided metaphors, analogies for experience in general - for Everyman & Everywoman. Thus the descensus ad Inferos, the Harrowing of Hell, by Orpheus- and Jesus-Hero, presented an icon, an exemplary tale : reverberated with unspoken (or unspeakable) dimensions of human life. Such as, the well-known Fall of Man. We know, intuitively, that both as individuals and as a species we have fallen away, we have lost something, we have forgotten some early heaven, we have drifted from eternity to mortality. & the Hero who climbs down to Hades & redeems its pitiful denizens is the saving (self-saving) dream of Man, of Species-Man, Everyman : to climb from the nightmare of history & become the rightful Gardener of the planet : to fulfill the deep-sown mission of humankind itself, the ultimate human telos...


The scent of Orpheus (pine-boughs?) hovers around Modern poetry too (both an explicit & implicit presence). Eliot set the tone with "The Waste Land", that desiccated nowhereville in extremis, in direful need of a redemptive Word (shantih). Pound & Crane followed & divagated in their different ways. But the Greco-Christian Orpheus was never simply an Apollonian savior, heroic, powerful & glorious; he was tainted with blood & passion & Dionysius. The Christian "descent into hell" was not just a nekuia : it was also a kenosis : a humbling, a shedding of divinity & glory. Jesus-Orpheus as Suffering Servant. & I note an echo of this (kenotic) theme in the 20th-cent. long poem - the poem of shards & local facts & glittering fragments, the "grab-bag", the Whitmanish loping & limping life-poem, the wayward processions & unfinished works-in-progress, the poetry of dissociated bits & pieces, humiliated poets... it's a mode of Everyman-kenosis : the shattering & scattering of the Orphic Word, of the Son of Man, into the grimy, glimmering wasteland of forlorn & chirping backgrounds & back alleys... (think David Jones here).


Walking to work today I passed the fine sculpture "Orpheus Ascending," by Gilbert Franklin, at the RI School of Design. Orpheus clutches his lyre, while Eurydice, led by Hermes, heads back to Hades. The lyre was Orpheus' bardic thingamajig : the lyre, the frame of sound, the scaffolding of harmony, which accompanies & merges with the word in poetry. (Muse+Word = Music.) Hermes plays a key role in this story : messenger, communicator, mediator between realms (heaven, earth, underworld). If Orpheus represents beauty, art & Apollonian order, and Eurydice the (lost, repressed, imprisoned?) feminine spirit, Hermes stands for the occult connections & affinity between differences, opposites, antagonists. In Franklin's work, we behold these three at the point of tragic disjunction (yet united by another "lyre" - the shell of form underneath their feet). The title, "Orpheus Ascending," strikes me as somewhat ironic : Orpheus stretching up toward heaven, ready to crow like a rooster (in a major key), is by this very action separated from Eurydice and Hermes, moving away and down (on a minor chord). Or is it the tragic irrevocable chord itself that Orpheus strums, as he makes the fatal (human) mistake - a failure of faith (turning to see if Eurydice's still there).


We have pointed toward notions of art as an achievement of harmonious order - of finish, completion, fulfillment; a kind of labor, which rests on the most natural and instinctive human (aesthetic) responses to beauty in general, beauty pre-existent in nature. But our contemporaries may (rightly) be skeptical of such notions : in fact all the flummery about Orpheus, mythology, Jesus-Orpheus, & so on, might be seen as laughably irrelevant to the manifold existential crises of the present day. We inhabit an age of science, disenchantment, a knowing disillusionment : so what's the point of all this archaic play-acting, these mystifications? And our skeptic will likely be well-trained and steeped in such doubts - since a strong, perhaps the strongest, current of thought, since 1914 at least, has been thoroughly Nietzschean, Dionysiac, iconoclastic. A notion of art as order is viewed with great suspicion (& not without basis, considering how such a notion was distorted and manipulated by fascism, Stalinism, etc.). 20th-century art was largely anti-art: self-contradictory, enmeshed in a struggle with its own processes, repudiating any claim to its own autonomy or authority, cannibalizing and parodying its own backgrounds... Paradoxically, however, when we remind ourselves of this central struggle - between icon and iconoclasm, between Apollo and Dionysius, between harmony and force, between order and chaos, between "beauty" and "truth" - we inevitably restore the relevance of the now-maligned, diminished side of this battle (the Apollonian, the Orphic). The "return of the repressed"....


We have suggested a sense of the Orpheus myth as self-conscious, self-reflexive. Orpheus is the "type" not only of the myth-maker, but of myth itself, when myth is considered as the basic expression of human (poetic) imagination. In the story of Orpheus the poet steps forward onto the stage, like Shakespeare playing Hamlet's father, or Hitchcock strolling through his films. Orpheus is poetry's "play-within-the-play." Again, the chorus demands : the relevance of all this for today? Well, take a look at the August 2010 issue of Poetry magazine, in the essay there by Tony Hoagland. Hoagland recasts and re-imagines the too-familiar "binary" of the American poetry wars, between "mainstream" and "experimental" (& all the other brand-names for same), as an issue between two essential approaches : poetry as an art of : 1) "perspective" or 2) "resistance." For these terms, read, respectively : Apollonian or Dionysian. What we have here is a very ancient duality dressed up in today's terminology. What we have, at root, is an inner struggle within art : between a sense of beauty as order, finish, fullness, completion - and a contrary sense of beauty as invigorating, enlivening, liberating, aleatory, chaotic. & just as in the realm of politics, the ideological partisans (of both sides) resist any mediation of this polarity, any proposed resolution of this conflicted conundrum. Orpheus, with his temperate, well-tempered lyre, continues to be torn apart by joyfully inebriated Dionysians : harmony opposed by, & opposing, force (say, since May 29th, 1913 - & the first performance, in Paris, of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring).