Orpheus falls asleep inside Mercury

Orpheus sleeps in a deep red room bathed in orange mineral light. He dreams there as if he lay embedded in Mercury’s heavy iron core, and his breath adapts to the planet’s slow revolutions. When he sleeps, which is rare, he sleeps in what has come to be elsewhere, a colder place born from the collision of two celestial bodies. He hides inside his unstable star and waits. A solar year on Mercury is 88 Earth days. Only one sunrise every 180 days. 

In his dreams, Orpheus lays poultices on Eurydice’s fragility. The planet’s surface is dark grey, at least it appears as such to mediated human sight. There is no unmediated vision of Mercury, the trickster god, none, unless you have died and are being led down into the Underworld. True to reputation, Mercury’s space weather is extreme.

Orpheus tries to look within and couldn’t tell whether or not he qualifies as temperamental. For the most part, his mercurial tendencies seem to stay internal, only rarely making their way to the surface. Mercury doesn’t recycle his surface waste, he doesn’t need to. Mercury, who both makes and transgresses boundaries, exists in a state of simultaneous damage and innocence. Mercury accumulates marks on his deformed surface, riddled with scars.

Orpheus lives within the confines of his body and finds it hard to reach beyond, push himself into the world, no matter how much he would like to be there. Give yourself to the world, many of his hungry suitors tell him, don’t deny the world your presence. But Orpheus doesn’t remember how.

This used to come so easily to him, and then the walls came up, Orpheus locked in. Mercury doesn’t have any moons, no satellite suitors want to be anywhere close to this irregular being. In his sleep, Orpheus develops a deep, distressing thirst, causing panic to build within. Like Echo, Mercury is terrestrial, small and rocky, with no water in sight.

In his dreams, Orpheus remains a poet, capable of speaking directly from his organs, words Eurydice hears and understands; in waking, like the wolf from the fable made to learn Latin in school and trying to replicate the sounds he is taught but only ever managing to say ‘lamb’, Orpheus fails to speak any words but those pertaining directly to the object of his desire:

Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Psyche et L’Amour (1889)

Dreaming of Eurydice ferries heat into Orpheus’s body, which wants to cool down for sleep. The heat of missing Eurydice rolls itself into flames, and Orpheus moves around on the bed, looking for colder spots. Despite his proximity to the sun, Mercury is cooling down, shrinking. His atmosphere is very thin. In many ways, Mercury is a beautiful impossibility – too close to the sun to have been born there. Born, one assumes, somewhere else, further out, then migrated inward, closer and closer to the sun’s intensity. A gradual tempering, like the rigidity that changed the elastic magma body of Orpheus into a hardened, guarded tower.

Orpheus’s night skies are mostly overcast, but even if they weren’t, Mercury is very difficult to see. Mercury is almost always outshone by the brilliant beauty of Venus, the bitch, made more beautiful still by the torment she inflicts on Psyche. Venus, greedy, who wants to steal even Persephone’s beauty. Persephone, the only woman who looks after herself properly in the entire myth of Eros and Psyche. In a story full of the pity of men and the betrayal of women, Eros and Psyche themselves could easily be a couple of callow, lovestruck teenagers from a Shakespeare play. Persephone’s beauty sends a curious Psyche straight to sleep. Orpheus could do with some of that right now; unfortunately, sleep eludes him more often than not these days, and when it doesn’t, his dreams are more vivid than his bleary-eyed concept of the present, so vivid he wakes from them with the sense of not having slept at all.

Eurydice, Eurydice, Eurydice. 

On Mercury’s pocked surface lies a crater named Debussy. The craters on Orpheus’s body don’t have names, but they bear the marks of impact, fingernails and teeth. From the lower end of his spine, he feels an invisible band extend, towards what he doesn’t know. Eurydice’s body, so present in his dreams, is still gone when he wakes. He wishes, but can no longer assume, that she lies awake at the other end. 

Once their union redeems Eros of his past, he and Psyche give birth to Pleasure. Of course, because this is the story of Olympians, their marriage is a handshake supporting Zeus’s plan to fuck mortal girls by the bucketload. If Orpheus could make any change to Psyche’s tale, he would steal one of Eros’s love darts and put it to use between Psyche and Pan. Pan doesn’t need to be earned, isn’t guarded by ferocious goddesses as if he were a golden lamb. Pan is free, open to Psyche. Pan is the son of Mercury, who is perhaps to blame for Pan’s excessive sexual nature, but who also delivered his son onto the world, gave him an affinity with humans and their mortal needs. With Pan, Psyche could allow herself to be, and remain, human, a creature of faults and flesh, not someone who needs to pass demeaning tests and court suicide to deserve the love of Venus’s horny teenage son. In fact, with Pan, Psyche could come to terms with her own mortality, in the arms of this god who will himself die. 

Edward Burne-Jones, Pan and Psyche, 1872-4

After extinguishing the orange light and darkening his deep red cave, Orpheus lies awake and listens to Daniel Deshays’s recording of a dying crow. The French expression for recording sound involves taking it; more to the point, prise de son and prise the sang are so similar. The red walls of his room are pulsing, closing like a protective membrane around the bird’s agony. Blood rushing through the skin of the world. Mercury carries an unspoken trauma, the collision between two celestial bodies at the source of his existence. Mercury, with his 75% iron core. 

Consciousness can move away from the sounds of dying if the sensation becomes too much, if the awareness of the process feels overwhelming. The microphone doesn’t care. Part of what is taken is an absence. When more and more absence finds its way between the crow’s rustling body and tiring voice, Orpheus begins to feel abandoned by what he hears. If sound were soul, this would make soul a ceaselessly regenerating substance that cannot be run out of or stolen until the death of the animated self.

According to Deshays, the microphone doesn’t, as consciousness does, discern among the things it takes; the machine takes in what it’s pointed towards, indiscriminately. Even though Orpheus feels a tether reach out from his body, he cannot see what he is tethered to. Another version of himself somewhere in the ether, he assumes. An anchor, reaching somewhere into the iron depths of Earth. Something he cannot release, even though he and it swim into discordant directions among the busy patterns of the firmament.  

“A cord joins the tails of Pisces, the two fishes”
Atlas Coelestis, James Thornhill, John Flamsteed
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Curdling

The sadness cannot be referred to as ‘missing’, it is impossible, it takes presence for a subsequent absence to register. The part of me that bites is running out of teeth, the part of me that holds is losing all her arms. My body’s radial arrangement curdles in a corner of my tank, flush against the glass. More often than not the sky seems to swell with thoughts of you, turning my body towards yours, although this is something I take on faith because all directions look about the same to me.

And here comes the orthodontist with his thoughts on realignment of the jaw, and he talks with a lisp, of course he does, and his hands tremble when he touches the sides of my face. He can see the holes there in the flesh, holes invisible to anyone without a medical degree, and he says, you need to do something about this grief, you look like cheese, and I tell him that I don’t blame him because this isn’t his area of expertise but that from a writerly perspective his metaphor is an imperfect one, because it all very much depends on the curdling process and the bacteria involved, and that some cheeses, if not most, are actually dense and smooth in texture, but he is an orthodontist and his hands are strong and he is holding my jaw in such a way that I can’t speak, or perhaps it’s just that his huge flat hands feel like a bed and my head is tired, looking to rest on something stable for a while. 

The Cyclops

After many years of being alive in a beautiful, sprightly body, she concludes that two eyes are too many, and that she would prefer to have only one. 

Since childhood, she’s had the ability to perceive time in spatial terms, time laid out in the landscape around her, the past a field stretching behind her back, the future a terrain vanishing ahead. Trees and other landmarks stand in for people, for changes in her psychic topography, and she spent years interpreting these signs instead of living in the present and simply allowing life’s unfolding to surprise her.

Because of this, the Cyclops has become afraid of past and future, and she dislikes seeing them laid out this way, so inescapable and distracting. Sensing time is fine, but being compelled to see it materialise whenever one’s eyes are open is too much.  

She’s heard it takes two eyes for depth perception to take place, and she is looking to confirm whether a single eye help her see immediate things more clearly, keep her from distracting herself with sensory information gathered from too many dimensions. She tapes down her right eye with a bright yellow bandage, planning to keep it shut for a year. 

With her remaining eye, the Cyclops can now focus entirely on the narrow radius of things around her, the so-called present. What lies ahead or behind no longer pulls on her attention. All that matters is what is right here, close to her body’s perimeter. Unlike her thoughts or senses, her body is confined to its own limits, and cannot reach very far into the surrounding distance. 

After taping down her right eye, only the here and now can penetrate the Cyclop’s remaining pupil. The present tunnels its way into her mind, keeping her tethered to her flesh. She panics at first, but soon gets used to being one-eyed, and to the lack of depth perception.

Her left eye is now individualised, capable of seeing with more intensity what is right in front of her. The seeing eye can be seen in turn, which feels like a miracle to her now that she is no longer spoilt with twin versions of this magical organ. Her eye is precious in its uniqueness, and she trusts it more and more each day.  

The eye she has hidden under the tape is invisible and unseeing, yet it still remembers. It recalls the things it saw, remembers what it was like to glimpse past and future. The hidden eye has no use for the present, in which it cannot take part. Exiled from the present, it warms itself on its memories.

Sometimes at night, the Cyclops imagines she can hear the right eye weep under its bandage, weep with small shudders of frustration. Pangs of guilt keep her up all night, and she has to bury her hands elsewhere, under her pillow for instance, to keep herself from ripping the bandage off and bringing an end to the eye’s despair. 

In order to keep this from happening, the Cyclops plans to have the eye removed. After all, it is now merely a vestige of her former bifocal vision, to which she feels no need to return. Being in the present is a much better use of her time, and what better way to keep herself in this state than by removing any distractions.

The Cyclops is learning to come to terms with anything beyond the here and now being a mere illusion. From her former farsightedness, she returns again and again to herself, until the continuous return becomes a spiral, a vertiginous spin. The simultaneity of things sometimes makes her nauseous, and only the narrowing of her focus can heal her. 

Desire has depleted the Cyclops, scattering her across space and time. To desire objects in the world is to run away from herself. She knows that distance from the object of desire causes suffering, which means that the ability to see into a three-dimensional distance, spatially or temporally, gives rise to suffering. The self cannot exist simultaneously in the present and the past or future, and having only one eye puts a limit on desire.

Having only one eye helps her return to a state of pure consciousness, in which she isn’t always observing herself from other vantage points, but simply being in the present.

The Cyclops is a craftswoman. Her hands have strong opposable thumbs that can hold various elements of the human anatomy with an assuredness that delights anyone experiencing it. Her thumbs push into the sore flesh between another’s shoulder blades, and she feels useful when she gives someone else’s tender muscle some release. She builds things by holding them into the fire until they glow, then hammering their materiality into a more deliberate shape. 

Ideally, the Cyclops would like to exist outside of thought, in the radical present. She wants to hear the creaking inside her walls, the slam of every car door in her street, the shaking of leaves in the neighbouring tree, the wet lick of the lids across her eye. She knows that human consciousness identifies with what it sees, and if consciousness sees only the present, it will believe itself to be no more than this present. This is the change she is waiting for. She wants to live far from the hope and dread brought on by the future; she must not allow herself to hope. 

Sometimes, she misses the fading, unseeing eye under the tape, and its ability to look further in time than the present; she misses imagining the future and remembering the past, misses envisioning happy possibilities ahead.

But these things have put her into difficult positions before, especially where love is concerned. Love, she knows, is a selfish and delusional endeavour, and must not be seen anywhere except in the radical present. Love cannot be placed into the past or future as anything other than cruel illusion. Only that which is right here, within the narrow boundaries of her body, can be trusted and held. 

And so she sits in her short-sightedness, listening to her own, incessant breathing, to the kneading in her stomach. She senses the world’s hands pulling her out like dough, calling on her to spread herself wide, and she does what she can to avoid responding. 

After a while, the taped-down eye and the bone tissue containing it begin to degenerate from misuse. Her head shape changes to accommodate the growing intensity of her single open eye, which has begun to swell up and radiate its power deep into her skull. 

Only when she dreams does she open both her eyes. She looks around the world and sees it in a way she remembers: the past stretched out behind her, bobbing with the people she loved, and the future ahead, a vast field of possibility. She feels the sting of recognition, and yet a dream is only a dream, a playground for the self outside of the confines of time, and therefore it has no bearing on what she is trying to achieve at all. 

Francis Picabia – Cyclope (c. 1924-26)

Terrible Things

Terrible things may happen after the sun goes down, but most terrible things don’t care what state the sun is in. Most terrible things aren’t much affected by the amount of light witnessing them. 

Think about the way looking at a candle in a dark room allows you to see you the fine drizzle of gold around the flame. This is how you make me feel.

The only time I want to see things happen more slowly is when your face produces words that matter to me. I want to draw you out, prolong you, see your muscles move more heavily so I can devour each moment of their journey. I want the words you say to crawl under my skin and press down on each nerve ending, I want them to bore into my muscle memory, the only true kind of memory. 

The only way to make words stay inside you is to roll their flat paper bodies into tubes and stick them into the muscle slots. Each muscle is perforated by a thousand holes to allow your words to settle there. These slots are accessed via every pore of the skin. 

It doesn’t matter if this makes sense: what matters is that I’m trying to describe what you make me feel, and the bad job I’m doing should prove my point that words are useless at making the most of what little time there is. 

The Sphinx

The Sphinx never says yes, nor does he ever say no. He says everything in-between, none of which means a thing. Like many powerful animals, he spends much of his time resting, waiting for his distractions to approach him. His occupation is to stand guard in front of a tomb, which his impressive size allows him to do. 

As a guardian, he guards not only his charge but also himself. Any attempt to approach him or his tomb is subjected to the same, merciless test, although in the case of his personal space, the riddles are harder, even impossible, to solve. Whatever the angle of approach, the Sphinx never truly opens himself up, only appearing to open before closing like a trap. 

He is known to guard the dead, who in their physical paralysis are in need of protection, lest their riches be stolen and their bodies defiled to the point of no return. The Sphinx does not believe in ownership, but is happy to provide a service based on the beliefs of others.

The Sphinx believes himself to be in constant motion, like a planet or a shark, moving ahead into a future of potentiality, when in fact he is always sitting down, bolted to a pedestal of unresolved issues.

When it comes to dealing with others, of whom there is no shortage in his line of work, ceaselessly approached as he is by explorers, tomb raiders and lost tourists, the Sphinx has a failsafe strategy. The strategy is of staggering simplicity: he draws them in by seeming to invest without ever investing at all. 

The Sphinx has noticed that others are rarely immune to his allure and solid force, and when he poses them his riddles, they quickly mistake this for interest in the contents of their minds. Because the Sphinx is large and has an air of authority, those who approach him assume that he will treat them kindly, that he will be mindful of their hopes, and their fragility.

But the Sphinx doesn’t care, doesn’t have the capacity for selflessness others project onto him. The mistake others make is thinking that a guardian can always be trusted.

The Sphinx’s lion body puts him in direct relation with the sun, this bright, paternal star, blinding those below it with its fire, and causing them, in their blindness, to feel as though there were no other star in the sky but him.

For the most part, the Sphinx can’t understand why people see him this way, but he doesn’t try particularly hard to dissuade them. If pressed, he’d have to admit that it feels nice to be looked at with doting eyes by those standing below him; that it excites him to see them hesitate, to witness their respect and attempts to woo him. 

But, ultimately, this is all there can be had from the situation. The Sphinx is not a straight-forward person; he cannot, in a context of intimate expectation, speak his mind, so he talks around his worries in a way that places the fault with the other person. What he wants is not to resolve a problem, but to show the other person that any connection would be useless to pursue.

The Sphinx wants to be left alone by those who want him to change. At heart, he considers himself a solitary person, functioning best in a state of isolation. 

He lives at a great enough distance from other Sphinxes that he can allow himself to call them friends. Those Sphinxes guard their own monuments, which helps the matter greatly. Anyone not guarding a tomb or shrine is suspicious to the Sphinx, who worries that such an unattached agent will have designs on what he’s guarding, will expect to be shared with, or made a priority.

People are vultures, thinks the Sphinx, and he spends his nights devising further unsolvable riddles to keep himself safe from anyone attractive enough to bypass his better instincts. 

According to those who have known him, the Sphinx is a time-waster; not of his own time, of course, but of the time of those who stand in front of his large stone body asking to come in, and whom he feeds puzzle after puzzle, knowing full well what they don’t know, that no matter how many of his tests they pass, they will never be allowed in. He wastes their time to the point of exhaustion, waiting for them to leave.

The Sphinx is not confrontational, and will simply remain a silent, ungenerous wall until those who attempt to enter what he is guarding simply give up. 

What the Sphinx is really afraid of, however, is the seemingly endless list of demands others are capable of making: “Guard this for me, make sure nothing about it is allowed to change,” they say, which is fine, but then they also say, “We expect you to know who you are, and who you will have become by the age of five hundred and thirty.” The Sphinx is put in charge of keeping things as they are, yet he barely knows who he is. 

He is suspicious of the moon, who changes constantly for the sake of another, changes according to rotational whims and the light of the sun, and the Sphinx thinks that this doesn’t evoke a lot of integrity. Changing to accommodate an other cannot possibly lead to a fulfilling life. 

One night at sunset, a traveller burdened with heavy bags stops in front of the Sphinx and, rather than ask for admission, falls asleep on the warm stone of his paw for three consecutive nights. Befuddled, the Sphinx sits silently and observes the small body on his paw. The traveller’s innocent faith confuses him. 

When the traveller wakes, he asks for admission to the tomb the Sphinx is guarding. 

“I have come,” he says, “to visit the remains of my father, so as to learn about myself.” 

The Sphinx, who learns about himself in the process of withholding from others, finds this laughable. But the traveller is attractive, with an intriguing seriousness about his face, and the Sphinx hasn’t played with anyone in a while. The Sphinx poses the most difficult riddles he possesses, and the traveller sits cross-legged on the sand to think.

The Sphinx watches and finds pleasure in this new toy of a person, with his serious face and well-formed back. The traveller’s candour seems to warm a cold part of him, though only temporarily. Soon, the Sphinx loses interest and returns to old patterns as he deploys his familiar push-and-pull routine. 

When the traveller, who is used to resistance, says to the Sphinx, “I know what you’re doing,” the Sphinx feigns ignorance, replying, “I have better things to do than defend myself to you.” 

When the traveller lays out the contents of his bags in front of the Sphinx and announces that he is unarmed, unwilling to cause pain, the Sphinx laughs and says, “You are small, I am gargantuan. What about you could possibly scare me?” 

The traveller opens his chest and reveals a burning heart beating fast between his lungs. 

“This is who I am,” he says. “Your riddles cannot be solved. All that proves to me is that you are stuck. But I see who you have the potential to be, and I see that it is time for you to change, to become a better version of yourself. Let me help you. I am not here to deceive you, my intentions are kind.” 

To this, the Sphinx says nothing, seals his stone lips and closes access to the traveller, who, after all, doesn’t know him at all, how could he? It is not yet time to change, the Sphinx thinks, not at the behest of this scruffy, diminutive tramp. The traveller’s eyes are pale as fish, and his arms open wide like the desert. 

“No,” says the Sphinx, but only to himself. To the traveller, he says nothing. The puzzle no longer matters, the traveller has failed and will not enter the tomb he came to visit. The Sphinx’s stone tail whips the sand and his paws cling to the status quo. Thus, he believes himself to be moving, never settling, the dust always flying around him. 

“I am who I am,” says the Sphinx, to himself and anyone who’ll listen. “I am this way, I cannot be otherwise, it would be a compromise, a violation of my serenity.”

The traveller has picked up his heavy bags, draped a cloth over the flames in his heart, and leaves small footprints in the sand as he heads off seeking another tomb in which he hopes to find his father’s remains. 

“The mistake lies in permitting the fact that your stars seem so like my stars to foster the illusion of their sharing a sky, when both our stars are in fact scattered in separate deserts, and are nothing but dying rocks and glimmering sand.”

The Lost Boy

She is a Lost Boy in the sense that in French a boy can be missed like an opportunity. 

She is lost the way the prodigal son is out there still, never completing his return because he is not ready to be forgiven, because like Mercury his orbit is eccentric, full of inherent kinks distracting him in his course, keeping him from colliding with what he truly wants, the off-centre God of his break-neck circumgyration, the brightest of all stars who causes on the surface of Mercury a roaring tidal bulge. 

Mercury, the filthy jester kid, Mercury who spirals after lust with wings on his secret hooves, and like Mercury she, too, is a Lost Boy, one set adrift in a narcoleptic swirl of street hustles and Shakespeare quotes. One of many daddyless Lost Boys, stomping on coffins, falling asleep on deserted roads under pink and yellow and lilac skies.

When she opens her eyes, the salmon have jumped backwards through the glitter and the clouds have fallen off the left side of the screen.

She is a Lost Boy in the sense that she has not yet learned to tame the many aching stars in her belly, and she is lost, also, because the place she set off from is there but the endpoint of her trajectory has vanished from sight.

Often, at night, her eyes deceive her, and she can’t be sure until dawn whether she is or isn’t stepping into the darkness of holes. While she waits for the lost other to return, the world is packed in shadows, and she makes up stories to pass the time.

Seen from above by a benevolent eye, her orbit takes on the shape of an egg, with the sun as the yolk stain in the middle. All she wants to know is that the person she lost isn’t lost forever, hasn’t disappeared, that he will return to her, that orbits are peculiar but never just lines vanishing into the ether.

When she speaks, she is lost, because the words she hears are not the words she is meant to respond to; what she responds to is the tone of a voice, the warmth of a body, the craving she has for the other. When she opens her mouth, she responds to the wrong part of what was said, and only later realises what happened. Words are bad vehicles of personhood. Words swerve on badly made orbits and around infinite corners, so fast she can’t keep up with her urge to vomit. 

She is a Lost Boy not because she fell unclaimed out of a crib but because the bars of the crib in which she grew like fattened fowl were made of stars, blazing and absent in equal and confusing measure. She wants to align herself with an equal, yet cannot bear the thought of being bound; she orbits, she leans, she gives the light she takes from another, gives little of herself because most of herself has the aftertaste of iron, of which she was taught to be ashamed. She is lost because she is too human for the broken shapes she takes on. 

She is a Lost Boy, and the mistake she makes is of not being open enough, rejecting the side of her that was hurt in the past; this is why, when she runs, she is lopsided. This is why, when she closes her eyes while walking, she ends up in a different landscape and cannot find her way back.

She lusts after those who are more at ease with their desires and kinks. She is a Lost Boy endlessly looking for what is lost in others and clinging to it, looking to associate the burning in her chest with another’s fire, the way Mercury is at times a lesser Venus, bright yet not as bright as she who stands alongside him, and also more difficult, more elusive to the eye, more complicated, harder, in essence, to love. 

The mercurial and the caring

In reality the bat is shy and gentle, fastidiously groomed and a tidy housekeeper (Ackerman, 4ff). Particularly in Asia, the bat represents the maternal aspect of the great goddess. The attunement of a mother bat and her baby is such that they can instantly recognize each other’s high-pitched squeak in a nursery cave of millions and be reunited. […]

Alchemy sometimes depicted the mercurial spirit of the unconscious with bat wings. It is a way of conveying not only psyche’s darkness, mystery and ambivalence, but also its provision and unforeseen agency, the way it can lead consciousness into spheres requiring a different kind of orientation and in which can be found the fructifying unconventionality of nature.

“The Bat”, in: The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, ed. A. Ronnberg, K. Martin

https://aras.org/