Two Ovids

Among your papers I found evidence that you, too, worried about Ovid’s exile. Like me, you were incensed by the fact that the reason for his exile is never given, and what seemed to upset you most was the idea of the poet dying outside his homeland’s borders.

Ovid sent letters to Augustus, who would never read them.

“Tout était dit.” Everything had been said.

*

For a while, you wrote dialogues between two sides of a single person or idea, making them argue and disagree before they came to see each other’s thoughts more clearly, more lovingly. You left room for reconciliation, which is always easier to do in fiction than in life.

*

Unlike me, you didn’t make the reason for Ovid’s exile into the failure of a love story between the poet and the emperor of Rome. Unlike me, you didn’t equate the borders of the Roman Empire with the lines of Augustus’s body, didn’t read Ovid’s exile as the eviction from the presence of the person you found most comfort in, and outside whose limits lies nothing but anhedonia.

Your Ovid was limited to the impossible question of what it is he was guilty of seeing, and how lucky he was not to be left to die on a rock in the middle of the sea. Unlike me, you’ve always known how to recognise a dangerous man.

*

I look at the picture I have of you as a child, grey ghost of a boy sitting in an end-of-times gondola, looking over his shoulder and through the paper at a pair of eyes you couldn’t have imagined would be mine, and all I can think of is not how similar our features are – I’ve heard this too many times – but how big your ears look on your child-sized head, ears you’d later grow into, but there you are in a crumbling barge like someone dreamt up by Thomas Mann, sitting between your uncle and posterity, immobilised on paper some years before something inside you broke for good, in the midst of Venice, whose stench you told me made you ill, and your eyes are already as sad as I knew they could be, and your ears, like your sadness, are those of an older man.

*

I remember the only time you ever commented on my body, standing in the kitchen while you put the knives away.

You said, “You have your grandfather’s ears,” and I said, “No, they’re just like yours,” even though I know they aren’t, I said it just because I didn’t want you to link me to your father, whose way with knives around the human anatomy was perhaps his softest, most redeeming part.

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Eurydice makes a decision

With the sutures still on his mouth, Orpheus makes a slow move back towards domesticity. He heads to the supermarket for household supplies, and as he hovers beside grapefruits in the cold and artificial air, he sees someone who might be Eurydice.

The figure lingers before the shelves, oblivious to Orpheus, whose feet are naked on the tiles. 

Perhaps she does see him, in the corners of her eyes, no longer lidless like those of a fish, her skin no longer bearing the shimmer of scales, but nothing about her posture concedes the difficulty of being in the presence of a person you once loved, then gave up on. 

Bracha L. Ettinger, Eurydice n. 5, 1994

It’s hard to tell real from fake in the droning supermarket light, but this person, whether or not she is Eurydice, seems very much alive, not a trace of Hades on her clothes, which are clean and unruffled. Her hair is warm and dry, her hands unmoving. She seems of normal density, human, with commonplace skin and forgivable instants of distraction, all in all very much like a person who never died, never suffered the ordeals of a myth. There seems to be no viper’s bite on her ankle. 

Orpheus watches as she crouches next to her basket, hesitating between recycled toilet rolls and some which are not, and in his crowded mind’s hearing he makes out the words that will be said to him several days after this by a well-meaning friend: 

Eurydice is not meant for you. She isn’t an inevitable part of your story, or linked to you in some mystical way. She is not a soulmate the world’s tides have flung into your hands. Like anyone else you ever loved, no matter how intensely, Eurydice is no more than an accident. 

Bracha L. Ettinger, Eurydice n. 45, 2006

Orpheus doesn’t approach the tender figure wrapped in her coat, only watches as she rises with the recycled rolls in her hand. He cannot say if Eurydice is more or less important to him knowing the crossing of their paths is, and has always been, accidental. 

He knows that what matters is not whether placing his hand on this person’s shoulder reveals her to be Eurydice, whom he loves, or a stranger, whom he knows nothing about and understands only in terms of their shared humanity, but the fact that Eurydice, where ever she is, doesn’t want to be alive and will not return to him, and that what this means isn’t that Orpheus is doomed to repeat the myth he has been repeating all this time, but that the world isn’t based on a foundation of symmetry, of reciprocity, no matter how much Orpheus, in his limited understanding of things, wishes that it were. 

The Aquarian

Your vision was fine. The clouded spots weren’t on your cornea but on your mind’s eye, which saw me clearly at first, then moved sideways towards interpretative paranoia. I wasn’t perfect, you decided, not yet. I needed to be improved on if I was to survive in the world you saw surrounding us. 

Many times, you saw the fire lick my bones, and thought that fire cannot help but consume, and like your namesake constellation you poured water over me to keep me from burning myself down to ash.

But my fire wasn’t a consumptive one, and although I bet that’s what they all say, I maintained that my fire was under control. My fire was as cleansing as a fish pedicure, I said, removing the surplus from my corium so as to refine sensation, clarify my feelings in the way I, prone to clutter, needed so badly. 

Again and again you doused me in refusal, in nightmare scenarios and do not’s. Every other word dripping with limits and impossibilities.  

My own cornea began to develop nebulae, its own galactic stable of them. These were my own hang-ups and blind spots into which I began to step even as I sought to avoid them. 

When you collapsed against the door of a parked car after the two excruciating hours during which the unseemly wolf-child hair was electrocuted from my body follicle by follicle, the day was sifted and overcast, but somehow I remember the sky above us being dark and full of stars. It was the first time I understood that you were going to die.

My nebulae run backwards, too, they burrow down into my memories. 

Sometimes, a red light appears in my mind from the gaping black of a silent stage, and I feel my entire body wet with animal fear, inconsolable, the way it felt after the hot and whirring needle burned its way into every one of my pores. When the red light appears, round like the circular illusion of stars, the space beneath my temples falls silent. 

Your constellation contains no brightness; all you have are reactive patches of gas and dust. Your body is etched into the night sky with several nebulae expanding around ageing stars. You, yourself, spent my whole life as an ageing star.

My life starts with the summer solstice. It makes me yearn for brightness and clarity. But my yearning is comical, to be ridiculed: my stars arrange into the shape of a crab, crushed under the foot of an overeager muscle-man tasked with a dozen labours. It goes without saying that this man’s constellation does not bear bright stars.

At the heart of me lives a beehive, Praesepe.

At the heart of me, the buzzing never stops, perhaps so as to make up for the fire you drenched with paternal worry until the flames eventually stopped growing back, like my wolfchild hair, burned from my pores until only a few remained in the charred soil with enough follicular strength to come back every spring.

At the heart of me, the beehive hides from this world in which smoke is only the suffocating element of fire.

It is in water we will suffocate, or perhaps in smoke, but not in the clarity of flames, and not in the earth which, like ageing bones, is so full of holes for light and air to shine through that even the most loving efforts will not manage to pack it tightly around the stem of a growing plant.

Kafka’s sirens

The siren speaks to Odysseus:

It hasn’t occurred to you that the reason why you haven’t drowned or crashed into rocks isn’t because you are immune to my song, but because, like Kafka’s sirens, I have not been singing to you.

My mouth was open, but I watched you sail past in silence; not because I don’t, in the silent inlet of my ribcage, carry unspoken words that chain together to express an excess of affection towards you, but because reaching out to you in song would cause a crash neither of us wants for you.

Like Kafka’s sirens, it could be enough to watch you sail past in blissful illusion of your own shrewdness, the conviction that you are stronger than most, with better self-control, and to witness, as your chained-up body passes by, the candle-light of your eyes pierced by the arrows of the sun.

Yes, sometimes it is enough to know how beautiful you are, to know you were once close, and that, by its absence, my song let your ship sail away from the jagged edges I serve.

***

Franz Kafka, Das Schweigen der Sirenen

I love this retelling of Odysseus sailing past the sirens. Kafka seems to make it about our capacity for delusion, the hardest thing to resist being the idea of one’s own resilience when facing temptation. However, this doesn’t apply to Odysseus alone, but also in part to the sirens themselves, perhaps even the Gods. It is possible, says Kafka, that Odysseus didn’t realise the sirens were silent, or maybe he did know and simply went through the motions his myth required of him. The siren is deluded into thinking she isn’t singing, and Odysseus is deluded into believing he hears a song when in reality all he hears is the rush of the sea around him, and the excitement of resisting temptation flowing through his skull. The Gods are deluded simply by virtue of being Gods.

Max Beckmann, Odysseus und Sirene, 1933

Orpheus and the fennecs switch elements

Just as I passed,   

Turning my head to search his face,   

His own head turned with mine

And fixed me with dilated, terrifying eyes   

That stopped my blood. His voice

Came at me like an echo in the dark.

Weldon Kees – Relating to Robinson

Orpheus sits in a stone desert with his mouth stitched shut. The sky above him has been a milky grey for weeks, the sun anaemic and low on the horizon, barely holding on, sometimes dipping back beneath the line the way the back of a whale descends into the sea. 

Two fennec foxes are keeping Orpheus company, patiently waiting by his side. Their enormous moth-wing ears twitch, and sometimes their amber eyes rise with concern towards Orpheus’s silent face. They worry for him, his disinterest in food and water, and the deep blue stains on his hands which have now spread to the soles of his feet.

The fennecs worry about their own feet, too, unaccustomed to the hardness of rock, which is wearing down their claws beyond what the gentle exfoliation of sand used to do. They know that Orpheus is the cause of the petrification of their desert, which used to be made from the rolling, shifting multitude of sand, a moving ground made from millions of beads, all of which Orpheus has cooked into dead, immovable slabs with his fire. 

Because of his vow of silence, the fennecs cannot ask Orpheus to explain what happened, but still they seek to understand. They know they have to wait until Orpheus undoes the stitches on his mouth.

With their enormous ears, the fennecs listen to what happens inside Orpheus’s face. They hear the words he cannot say, won’t allow himself to say. They hear language trapped behind his lips, inside the cave of his hungry mouth, words he speaks incessantly, to himself, and to Eurydice. 

The impossible emulsion between him and Eurydice seems to Orpheus an impetus to keep whisking, Orpheus whisking the burning air in front of so many obvious windmills, and here he sits after the fact of a fire fanned by him alone, mouth sewn shut in repentance by his own hand, with two desert foxes for sole company. 

He speaks to the foxes not in words, but by means of the dry length of a reed, which he drags in sound-producing shapes across the stone, making dry, scratching noises that crackle and hiss in the fennecs’ ears, noises they both dislike and understand. The fennecs are here because, like Orpheus, they speak the language of drought. 

A change needs to occur. Love each other less violently. The fennecs know this as well as Orpheus does. Don’t let your fire devour Eurydice. 

The stitches on his mouth are only temporary, while he looks within to see what’s wrong. The reed trembles in his hand, vibrating against the stone. Now that he has artificially and violently closed the demanding part of himself, the gaping hungry mouth sewn shut, Orpheus’s needs have ceased to be physical.

Along his sagittal plane, the suture running from the top of his skull to the base of his tailbone is distending, showing Orpheus, with very little room for doubt, that the incongruences inhabiting him can no longer be sustained. For too long, he has repeated the same pattern, brushing aside any evidence of his continual failure. It is time, now, for something else, a change he has been dreading, because unlike superficial changes this one goes deep into the flesh, into what he has taken to be his identity for so long. 

What the desert stones tell him through the scratching of the reed is this: Orpheus, you need to grow up. Let go of the fire. Its heat doesn’t belong to you. Return to your liquid state, remember the wetness that you are. A creature of water. You cannot live among all that fire, it has left you parched, dried you out with its relentless heat.

Orpheus knows his selfishness, his impetuous drives. A child of immortal parents, he has never learned to open himself up to the needs of mortality, the fragility that comes with being human; his own mortality unaccounted for in his behaviour. He knows his childish rashness, the selfish way he loves. Orpheus has spent so many years on fire that he has forgotten what it feels like not to burn. Orpheus on fire just wants to put a pin in the world. 

Drain yourself of heat, remember what it feels like to live submerged in your own internal rivers. Remember the slowness of water, and how it cleanses, and how it smoothes the surface of all things given enough time. 

His fire, he knows, hasn’t just devoured him, but also Eurydice, whose need is quiet delicacy. Beautiful Eurydice, who has no use for fire. Eurydice, who deserves to be loved in a manner accommodating her gentleness, the silence she craves. Loving Eurydice involves a permissive cradling of her need for withdrawal. 

It isn’t as easy as saying that Orpheus doesn’t know how to love, it’s just that he pummels the ground with the intensity of burning grass, and when Eurydice retreats he balloons out to chase her. No better than a child, Orpheus’s damage left him unable to see the act of retreating for what it is: a moment of reflection and self-care. 

The lesson is to let go of the fire.

Behind the stitches in his mouth, Orpheus vows to stop imposing his ideas of love on the beloved. More than that, what he needs is to let go of his myth. The myth and its specifics are restrictive, deadening to Orpheus and Eurydice alike.

When Eurydice retreats, it is instinctive, because Orpheus’s wild energy is as exhausting as the fumes of a fire, and Eurydice needs time to recover from the vortex of Orpheus. Here are two mortal titans with opposite wills: Eurydice doesn’t cause damage, acts in self-preservation. Orpheus has no off-switch, no instinct for retreat; instead, he clings so tightly that his body hardens into flint, setting fire to the delicacy of the filaments that flow between him and Eurydice.

Orpheus knows he cannot sustain his own fire. His parched heart wants nothing but water, the return of spring. He wants to stop trampling the fragility of affection with his clumsy limbs. Orpheus wants to feel wetness coursing through him, remember the tenderness of love, the sort that neither crushes nor crowds. Orpheus wants to learn to love in this expanding universe, expand into water and quiet maturity, away from fire and juvenile speed. 

The filaments between Orpheus and Eurydice may have been burnt irreparably, but all Orpheus can hope for now is a more grown-up version of himself.

The fennec foxes lean their tender muzzles on Orpheus’s knees. Love, they say, needs to occur on the other person’s terms. Love the other person as she needs to be loved. 

Orpheus traces a circle for them on the stone. “Yes,” he means this gesture to say, “I will learn to listen, the way you do, with your infinitely gaping ears, my mouth will shut finally, my lyre will be buried in the sand, no more poetry, no more repetition, this myth has not set me up to be a loving person, but I will undo this myth, I will undo myself, I will be better, different, I will no longer hurt Eurydice.”

The sky is heavy white as a bowl of milk, and the fennecs lap at the air around their heads. If you do not teach me I shall not learn.

Orpheus will sit in silence until his touch becomes attuned to the delicate world. He becomes unwilling to perform the fiery eruptions of desire. 

Love gently, quietly. Lay the child to rest and let the water creature grow. Your past of blazing wildness has no place in the world. Dryness has worn you to shreds, hardened the world around you to uncommunicative stone. If you don’t learn to love now, you will not recover, you will deteriorate until you are no more than sand. 

Orpheus watches the last of his fire crackle on the blue of his palm, then closes his fingers on the flame. Its destructive power has no place here, no place in his heart, where he wants only Eurydice, who is gentle and kind, who deserves better than Orpheus’s break-neck propulsion, which hurts like arrows. 

Orpheus opens his ears to silence, his eyes to absence, his heart to himself. The water wells up in his eyes, his sinuses, under his armpits, and Orpheus smiles behind the stitches because this is a start, a sign that the water can still return. Love is a gesture, a gift. 

Slowly, the heat drains from Orpheus, the wildness in him flattens itself down to the gurgle of a stream. Fire is not a shortcut towards intimacy, there is no such thing. 

He feels humidity rise in his skin, and small droplets of milk seem to fall around him from the sky. They land, round and white, on the rock, and the fennecs jump to their feet to lap up the liquid they are given. 

Orpheus sits with sutures still around his mouth, and waits. Change takes silence to occur. He will sit this way until his body adapts to its new, slow and rippling orbit. 

Apollo gives fatherhood a shot

“And when Orpheus, Apollo’s son, played the lyre, everything distempered was tamed, even the heaving shadows of the underworld.” 

The Book of Symbols. Reflections on Archetypal Images. “Harp/Lyre”, p. 670

Hermes, in his swiftness, like all the men whose flesh gave rise to mine, could not bear the slowness of things. Hermes strangled the life out of that which lives on an unhurried path, crushed the beaked and tender skull into the dirt with his foot, on which beats a pinion celerity. The tortoise, dead at his feet, would be transformed, made hollow, stripped of its flesh then strung with ligaments, which he tightened and plucked until their sound was clear as air. Later, when he owed Apollo a favour, the lyre was passed on as a gift. 

Up there on Parnassus, Apollo is the closest thing Orpheus has to an immortal daddy. When Orpheus turns to him in his despondent state, he does so because he knows he may well have fallen straight from Apollo’s sun-struck scrotum. 

“Why,” asks Orpheus, “am I bound to this myth when the myth itself is a lie?”

Apollo, whose idea of fatherhood involves hiding in abstraction, replies, “You are so impatient. Step out of this conditional mood and breathe some present-tense air.”

When he’s not handing Orpheus instrument after instrument, Apollo is useless, of course. But willing father figures are hard to come by on these blessed mountains, and so Orpheus keeps trying.

For most of his adult life, his lyre has doubled as a lure, a two-sided hook with which to draw close to himself those whose skin feels so good against his. No-one else now but Eurydice, and Eurydice only in untouchable memory. She swims in the amnesiac waters of the Lethe, and the myth dictating her absence refuses to break open and allow for a different story to unfold between Orpheus and Eurydice.

Why, Apollo, can’t he sew back together the halves death has torn into an irreconcilable binary? Why is Orpheus divided into a present self, gaping, open and needy, and an absent self, isolated and closed? 

Orpheus thinks that Apollo should know his pain, should know what it feels like to chase a desired object that endlessly recedes into abstraction, enamoured as he was with the virginal Daphne, who turned into a tree in order to escape his affection. But Apollo is thinking about this in fatherly terms and aims to keep any account of his personal experience out of it.

“Do you ever wonder,” says Apollo, “if you might just be Vitamin D deficient? You spend a lot of time in Hades, that can’t be good for you. Kid like you needs fresh air and daylight. Come for runs with me in the morning, get the blood moving inside those veins.”

“My entire aim is to restore harmony where disorder has caused things to fall apart,” says Orpheus. “For months, I have not understood my own actions. For months, what I do has been inexplicable to me, and when I try to put words to my deeds I fall even further away from understanding. How can I heal a damage that is unfathomable to me?”

“If your aim is to heal anything or anyone, then you might as well give up. Do you remember that you have a body? Can you feel your feet on these rocks? Feel how warm they are from the sun. Can you sense the prickling of life in your hands?”

Orpheus doesn’t know how to answer that. The only times he feels his body is in dreams, when his mind is friendly and kind, when wholeness returns to him, his body melting into the sway of sensation, the pulsating world. But he knows, when he wakes, that what has been torn apart by loss has not yet mended, and the veils between him and his body are not yet lifted. He wakes and the body functions as an automaton. He needs time, still more time, always this wait for something he recognises to appear. A familiar self is what he’s waiting for. 

“Time,” says Apollo. “Yes. My relationship with time is not like yours, Orpheus. I am not mortal, which is my limitation. However, I know the tides, and I know that the wholeness you want will return to you. But unlike us, your immortal guardians, you have to contest with change, endless waves of it.”

Then, satisfied with his parental efforts, Apollo leaves to go change some lightbulbs and practise his archery skills. Orpheus lays his lyre aside and watches it scratch its own strings, lick its butthole, and curl up snoring on the rug.

Orpheus knows he has inherited the speed at which immortals operate, their impatience with mortality. He knows that none of these are useful traits in a mortal man. Like the lyre, born from a violent killing, his impatience is an unresolvable inheritance. Eurydice in Hades is as painful to him as Persephone’s fate is to her mother, and Orpheus feels his tendency to atrophy in his impatience like a landscape wrapped in snow.

But there is no winter without spring, and Orpheus knows that his impatience exists to be learned from. He softens the tension in his muscles, the yearning in his tendons. There is light in the gap between notes, there is hope in the rebirth of dismembered Osiris, and held close by these stories he dozes off on Apollo’s floor, comforted, for once, by the thought that there is nothing he can do. Something is already underway, taking shape inside the frozen soil on which his head lies in sleep. 

John William Waterhouse, Apollo and Daphne, 1908

Love each other less violently

And who are you? she sternly spoke
To the one beneath the smoke.
Why, I’m fire, he replied,
And I love your solitude, I love your pride.
Then fire, make your body cold,
I’m going to give you mine to hold,
Saying this she climbed inside
To be his one, to be his only bride.

[…]

It was deep into his fiery heart
He took the dust of joan of arc,
And then she clearly understood
If he was fire, oh then she must be wood.

Leonard Cohen – Joan of Arc

The protagonist in horror is always a potential victim, even when she is the perpetrator, even when the killer’s and the narrator’s hands overlap. The protagonist can’t help but fall prey to the body she inhabits; the story has an endpoint, by which she will either be alive or dead. There is no uncertainty between those poles. In our flesh, we contain the potential for violence, not as an illness but as a characteristic. 

When Cronenberg shows the physical destruction of the body, it is not from an aesthetic fascination or in order to shock, but in order to make it real, to show the lastingness of the act, its irreversible consequence.

All of us are subject to our bodies, and when we succumb, we are gone.

Averroes gives us a mind on loan from the mass of universal spirit, but this chunk of the larger intellect is only activated within the animated body; once the body dies, the self with its specifics is erased from the intellect.

Feminist inquiry is about understanding how things work, who is in the action, what might be possible, and how worldly actors might somehow be accountable to and love each other less violently.

Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto p. 7

The beauty of us as Donna Haraway’s “mortal and fleshly knottings”. 

The body for David Cronenberg in all its uniqueness and fragility. This same body, depending on who perceives it, can be untouchably holy, pleasurable to defile, in need of protection, and also killable.

We have our ways, says Haraway, of making each other killable.

The idea of cannibalism, too, realises we are all potentially made killable, depending on the way we choose to see each other. In a sense, this is the problem underlying all desire; the Hegelian push-and-pull between wanting to devour (to think of as killable) and not wanting to lose (the regret of having made killable). To sustain while consuming is where the balance necessary for life and pleasure lies. Not to destroy the other fully, which would contribute only to self-destruction, but not to abstain either from the life-giving communion with the other; learning only to nibble at the other’s body before allowing the flesh to grow back, in a metaphorical sense.

This is part of the time we give to each other when we give. 

There is, of course, a narcissistic refusal to face what is other, choosing instead to live in the self-produced fantasy of the disembodied other, who exists at a safe distance within abstraction; the narcissistic attraction only to what is necessarily disembodied, unable to exert either refusal or acceptance of one’s desire.

Disembodied means: not desiring in itself, because desiring is to give in to the mortal flesh and its vulnerability, to give in to entropy, to what can be destroyed. It means reaching out to the other in full awareness the flesh’s necessarily time-bound arc, its temporariness. Sometimes, it’s not enough to want to burn each other up. Ash isn’t substantial enough to love.