During the past couple of months I’ve spent increasing amounts of time in what my therapist calls the ‘Sandpit of Archetypes’, where I play with archetypal figures as if they were my dolls. Since Nanowrimo, I’ve begun to weave bridges between my arche-puppets, to see if they bring something out of each other that wasn’t there before, although in all honesty, all I’m probably achieving at the moment is more of the same.
Grief has a way of knocking your mind full of holes, which has kept me from spinning my thoughts as far as I wish they went. But I don’t think the archetypes mind too much, they just want to be played with.
Anyway, here is my precious baby Orpheus, intercepted by my favourite castle-building sea-witch Melusina, who seems to be taking a break from Siegfried’s crap.
Orpheus has lost count of the times he has gone down to the Underworld, carrying a mound of increasingly artificial hope on his back, so as to reconstruct the lacework between himself, the part that wants to love, and Eurydice, the part of him that cannot trust, cannot open herself to the world. Worn out from the recurring descent, Orpheus has automated his mourning; his emotions change so quickly, and with each step, that he has, for the first time in ages, lost interest in logging them. His feelings skid across the ice, they are so fast, so fleeting – they are no more to him now than the buzzing of flies.
Orpheus emerges from the Underworld, where he has yet again lost Eurydice to the depths, had to watch her slide back into the dark, and here he is the bright light of day with his lids pinched together because after each ascent the sun seems harder to bear, its heat less like nourishment and more like paper cutting into a pre-existing wound.
Each time he comes back up to life for air, Eurydice’s silent refusal rings in his ears, I cannot love, not now, not you, not the world. Orpheus can’t make himself whole again because his missing piece, Eurydice, listens only to the poison in her foot. We were hurt once, we will be hurt again. She isn’t wrong when she says this, but her approach creates nothing but inertia.
And here he is now, up here in the waking world, where birds call to each other and the wind makes music in the trees, Orpheus hears a new voice, unplaceable, one he hasn’t heard before. The voice is saying:
“Take a seat, Orpheus, take a break. You’ve been doing this for, how long now? I’m not saying you have to stop, but it might be time for a change, no, a little distraction from this business of being Orpheus so relentlessly.”
Melusina’s eyes are like lichen glowing on a tree. They don’t burn Orpheus’s eyes the way the sun does, and so he sits on the ground and listens. Melusina has found her way into his story, somehow, and he doesn’t ask how. You don’t ask a witch how she does things, or why.
“We both belong to our damage, our myths,” she says, “and we know this, so maybe we can help each other out, just this once, change masks and bodies, let our roles become translucent for a while. What do you say?”
Confusion is a great place to be, the faith healer says.
They both know the path they’re on, the inevitability of it. They will try their entire lives to fix something that cannot be changed, to regain the love of a part of themselves that has forsaken them. Eurydice is the part of Orpheus that will always be submerged, will always withdraw from love, the part that won’t leave Hades no matter how much Orpheus struggles. Siegfried is the part of herself Melusina will never cease to please, do right by, the part that can never be satisfied. So why not give in to each other for a while, leave aside their myths, the paths they will later have to return to. Melusina has no bearing on Eurydice, no interest in Eurydice’s damage; Orpheus cannot explain or make up for Siegfried, and Melusina doesn’t want him to.
Crossing over and putting your own myth on pause is a risk, the shrink advises. You know you can’t escape the repetition you are always working your way through. The thing you escape will find you again, no matter whose story you hide in.
But what sweet release it is to imagine a moment in which they can be something else, act as a roadblock in each other’s automatic progression. Cut through the fog of repetition and eternal recurrence, screw up this whole inconclusive trundle. Rip them for a moment from their fate and see if it leaves a mark, see if it changes the way of things. Rub them against each other, see if their sparks transform the scenery from forest to desert, see if they can clear what’s overhead to reveal a night sky full of stars.
Confusion is wonderful, the faith healer says, because all bets are off, and there are no maps telling you where to go.
Melusina says: “I think it’s time we suspended what we’re carrying and found some solace in each other. I know you Orpheus: you get distracted when you’re not rewarded. You think of yourself as a patient man, patience is your virtue of choice, not your singing, which is beautiful, not your body, which is love. Patience is how you love, and yet your patience traps you in a deadlock with yourself: the part of you that seeks connection versus the part of you that wants, above all else, to protect herself in isolation. Such a long-lasting stalemate, don’t you think? And so familiar to me. Couldn’t we both use something else to wipe the slate, something to spark a fire in the palms, a stomping rage inside the lower parts, remember what the body feels like when it tangles up with another’s limbs. Let’s step into each other’s myths, Orpheus, see what things are like outside the deadlock. Let’s give this to ourselves now, Orpheus, to each other, during this lull in our patterns, this waiting time before we head back down into our respective Underworlds – yours in Hades, mine a castle on a hill – before we return to fighting for the parts of us that refuse to yield, back to the ache we nurse so ceaselessly. This is the time to remember what it feels like to mourn without sorrow. To bite a lip that isn’t your own, nor Eurydice’s in dreams.”
Orpheus nods and walks through the door she holds open for him, a passageway she clawed from the air with her hands, which are magic. He walks through to see another wood there, similar to those he knows, yet different, further north, its greenness lusher, and not a juniper in sight. There is no sea salt in the air, this is a landlocked kingdom.
This is the wood Melusina inhabits, and around her are valleys hollowed from the gentle slopes of black and leafy hills. It is in these woods that Melusina waits for man after man, each one of them Siegfried, all of them waiting to be Count, all of them impatient men wo repeat Melusina’s painful pattern, men who have no patience with who she can be, who she is becoming. Siegfried is distressed by transition, by what wavers and mutates. Each version of Siegfried who finds out how erratic Melusina’s physical form is, blending human and serpent and bird and fish, chases her away in fear, cannot find in himself the ability to love such a confusing being. And yet it is this person Melusina must return to each time, Siegfried after Siegfried, until she comes, with each successive involvement, closer to an answer.
David Cronenberg, who is in many ways a fish, says: “Everybody’s a mad scientist, and life is their lab. We’re all trying to experiment to find a way to live, to solve problems, to fend off madness and chaos.” (Cronenberg on Cronenberg, p.7)
Melusina and Orpheus look for themselves in the pain of a no, look for themselves in every instance of reaching out to Eurydice or Siegfried respectively, and in this repeated no they look for the part of their psyche they are missing, have been missing for so long, and they look, most of all, to understand. Their path, they tell themselves, is scientific, but even this motivation cannot save them from becoming tired, becoming discouraged, becoming bored.
The aim of the experiment, if there is one, is fuelled by the masochism of the scientific mind: to return again and again, like a Hegelian self-consciousness, to that which says no to you, refuses to yield, which like a glass flower fools the eye and cuts the palate to shreds; that which looks edible but cannot be bitten without shattering, without a violent disappointment. In the name of science you return to it and make it happen to you over and over, to see, not if you can make it yield, make it say yes instead, but to see why its refusal tears these clumps out of you, to see where in your body this no hurts the most, and why it feels the same each time it occurs.
“The point,” says Martyn Steenbeck about science-fish David Cronenberg, “is to follow the experiment or hypothesis through to the end, unrestrained by social or political consideration.”
The reason this is permitted, is because Orpheus operates in a dream, Melusina in a tale. They are returning something to its wholeness, something that may never have been whole, but they know wholeness can never be attained without admitting that parts of oneself will always be hidden in others, where they may have been for much longer than we imagine. Eventually, both Melusina and Orpheus will have to abandon distraction and return to their quests, their experiments, repeating again and again the patterns that are theirs alone.
Orpheus says: I’ve spent so much time with my ear pressed to my own sternum, and yet I know almost nothing, except for all those things I’ve wrapped in words, concepts of my needs and thoughts, what I think I know myself to want. And all of a sudden there is Melusina, who knows nothing about me, knows only what she sees, and she says, ‘I don’t think you’re scared of being unloved, you’re scared that once you are loved in return you’ll realise you don’t know how to act, that every word you say seems heavy or wrong, you’re scared that once you are loved you begin to doubt yourself immensely, your abilities, your temperament, you start thinking you’re a monster, you think “I’m not worthy of this person’s love, they must be mistaken, they can’t possibly love me and know what they’re doing, they must think I’m someone else.”
Her arms fall around me and she says, “No-one can know you the way you want to be known, Orpheus. Nobody wants to. It would be like wanting to know water, wanting to know it as if it were a person, beyond knowledge of its chemical composition. Wanting to know what water dreams at night, if it has aspirations, what its relationship with its father was like.”
And her voice is such that I don’t care if she’s right or wrong, what matters is that she puts me somewhere in an imbalance of comfortable and ill at ease, and she smells like seaweed and her hair is split like lightning at the tips, I feel the calluses on her hands and think, so what if I don’t know where this is going, so what if Eurydice and I are trapped in an endless cycle of denial, so what if love is never more than a whiff of God that wants to quell His absence.
The setting of Melusina’s world changes when Orpheus enters it, though of course he doesn’t know this: shadows have a lilac shimmer like Orpheus’s eyes and hair, no longer the rich gold of Siegfried’s shade. Melusina notices the air is cold and light with Orpheus here, not the dense and temperate wafts that curdle around Siegfried’s fiery frame. Orpheus has brought tenderness into the atmosphere, a playfulness that Siegfried cannot find, Siegfried who says, “I don’t know who or what you are, you’re too many things at once. I’m just trying to run a county here.” And Orpheus, who’s seen it all, who’s been to Hades so many times now that he’s surprised when rivers aren’t full of flames, the air for once not veined with wailing souls.
They sit and drink the coffee Siegfried won’t allow himself to drink.
They touch each other’s bodies the way Eurydice will not let herself be touched.
Remember, says the therapist, the enormous, underlying grief, so large that even standing right on top of it you could not see the outline of its face, could only see the texture of earth instead of skin. It’s not Eurydice who will make you feel whole, it’s learning to be without her, to let her stay in Hades for as long as she needs. The grief you are both dealing with in your own ways is primal and eternal; you can’t shake it from your bones nor write about it, put it into words, but it is what has driven you from copy to copy of the same person, it has rubbed you into the most translucent version of yourself, into someone who, for fear of hurting, eats only sand and leaves, drinks only his own piss, whose hands touch only his own skin; but Orpheus, before you head out into the plain to have what’s left of your scraggy little body mutilated and torn, think again that each small pain, no matter how displaced, is a manageable way to mourn that unfathomable death. Get distracted, Orpheus, create some chaos for a while. Remember what it’s like to be rewarded. In time you will return to yourself, your Eurydice. You will return to caring for that which eats only itself.