Un Être en Vertige

L’être voué à l’eau est un être en vertige. Il meurt à chaque minute, sans cesse quelque chose de sa substance s’écoule. La mort quotidienne n’est pas la mort exubérante du feu qui perce le ciel de ses flèches ; la mort quotidienne est la mort de l’eau. L’eau coule toujours, l’eau tombe toujours, elle finit toujours en sa mort horizontale. […] la mort de l’eau est plus songeuse que la mort de la terre : la peine de l’eau est infinie. […] 

Gaston Bachelard, L’Eau et les rêves, Essai sur l’Imagination de la Matière.
John William Waterhouse, Circe Invidiosa, 1892
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Exquisite

You told me to go through the garden and find the thing that was most like myself, and so once I was alone I walked through the vegetation, looking. I walked through the high grasses and my feet folded their blades into more complicated shapes. I walked and the pebbles flicked out from under me. I walked close to the water, past reeds that gorged themselves on its pools, past driftwood with intricate reliefs, rocks intensely veined, birds rotund with song. I walked past exquisite lilies, past the structural devotion of pines, every part of me looking in this beauty for a resonance.

After a while, the rain fell hard into my hair and I hid in the undergrowth, crawling between streams of ivy, my hands smeared with lichen and wiped clean again by neon pads of moss, until a low clearing emerged and I leaned against the striated bark of a cherry tree. Its cauterised marks embossed themselves into my back and this damaged being seemed to me such an obvious mirror I decided this was it. Having completed my task, I closed my eyes until the rain let up. 

But when I crawled out after a while to hold my hand into the air and check for drops, I saw further down the path a cluster of dried grey twigs growing bare, clipped and idle from the earth, and the part of me that wishes I could just exist in my true and unadorned mediocrity felt understood. I weaved myself, with great cost to my personal boundaries, between the brittle twigs, making my body as boneless as it could be, and there I breathed the shallow breath of deferral until the day went dark and you returned to me. When you asked me what I had learned, I told you I would have to think about it deeply, and tell you once I understood.

Not like now

heaven is insufficient / you know too well it’s paradise

you want // where we are bodies, extemporised and full

of melting splinters /// fondness consumed

amidst animals and trees, our colours all coiled

in embrace //// you think the white light of love is a quiet

bath of bliss, so immaterial, the inscrutable

everlastingness of it ///// paradise is heaven

with lungs, but you say there is no return

to a place of breath and sublimity ////// our grunting cannot blend 

with the birds’ capacity for speech, not in the damp 

chill of the shade after our dying /////// you bit me, and I know

I bit you in turn, betraying pale matter below

the sun-reddened skin //////// not here, and not now

paradise is incarnate, but this ongoing heaven

is bland, a doorway of bodies / peeled off

and hung up like garb //////// that which we want

is deep / and bright / and unlikely

it already slipped once / and you

tore out your lungs / saying

////////// that was enough

His Bedding of Flowers and Bones

Edward Burne-Jones, Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, 1861-2

Depictions of this sort do little to undo my unfounded and completely sentimental conviction that the Minotaur is somehow a child to whom appalling things happen because of his monstrous appearance and the somewhat psychotic conclusions it generates in the minds of those in charge of his person. He’s a bull, yet he’s a monster, so surely he will not subsist on grass alone; they decide his diet will therefore consist of nothing but virgins.

This week, associations between flowers and bones have been, if not scattered across my bedroom floor, at least at the forefront of my mind, so if nothing else this post is proof that I am capable of something resembling consistency, yay.

Obligatory Flashback Sequence Starting From Mildly Distorted Reality

The compass needle spins where Orpheus is sitting. It is earlier in time, an earlier point in the myth, before he learns to cradle himself properly, before his arms and feet are stained a deep blue, before he learns to resist the past’s pointless call.

Orpheus is furious with the ugliness of the world, its inability to charm him back towards it. No effort, the world an old wife who has stopped trying. No blossoms in the trees, no warmth in the sand, the air so bland he worries his sense of smell has atrophied.

“Dr. Mother,” says Orpheus, slumped in his therapist’s chair, with his untied boots and naked chest, wearing only his coat woven from hair collected by brushstroke from the backs of a hundred gibbons, “Dr. Mother, listen. I have tried to improve myself, I have tried to let go of self-doubt, of accumulations of yearning and anxiety, but it’s too hard. Compared to the present, the past has so much more allure. Do you know who I ran into the other day? A girl I hadn’t seen in years, with whom a short-lived fling had long passed. Of course, even though this girl precedes her by half a decade, I compared her to Eurydice, then as if to punish myself for the thought I let her lead me by the hand into the nearest park and I fucked her under an overturned canoe. Not saying any of this is true, but isn’t it fun to say? This attachment to my myth has ruined my ability to distinguish between figment and reality. Do you think, Dr. Mother, that my entire life is made up of lies that exist in the world for no reason other than because the words composing them hold each other by the hand just right?”

Dr. Mother replies, “I thought we agreed, Orpheus, to keep your poetry out of our sessions. There is no place in psychoanalysis for balladry.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“So tell me again, and tell me the truth this time. What happened to you this week? Did you see anyone?”

“No, although I did run into an unusual number of wild dogs. For most of the week, I hung from the ceiling by my left ankle, until the colours of the world became inverted. It was nuts.”

“Orpheus, enough,” says Dr. Mother. She doesn’t usually smoke, but suddenly there is a cigarette in a red holder between her lips.

“You’re being very unprofessional,” says Orpheus, and feigns a cough. The truth is, he hasn’t felt a thing in the back of his throat for months, certainly not enough to warrant a cough. In fact, come to think of it, his entire mouth is numb. His palate is still coated with his longing for Eurydice. “Smoking in front of a patient,” he says. “You know how suggestible I am.”

“You’re not a smoker, Orpheus, and I am. My nerves are frayed. Just look away until I’m done.”

Orpheus sighs and slumps deeper in his chair until only his head rests on the seat, and he stares up at Dr. Mother’s lofty ceiling. In many ways, he is younger than he looks.

“So there I was, hanging from the ceiling,” he resumes. Dr. Mother throws a lighter across the room, nearly missing his forehead.

“Fine,” he says. “I did absolutely nothing, saw nobody, had no opinions about anything, least of all myself, spent hours smelling my own armpits, as you do, and then for a moment, just a very short moment, I thought about the future, which is so uncertain now that my hands no longer pulsate with magic and my brain is out of room for words, and at that thought a constriction in my torso echoed so violently I think most of my organs must have been rearranged in the process.”

“And how did that make you feel?”

“Fuck off,” says Orpheus.

“Let me rephrase that. Are you still in love with Eurydice?”

“What do you think?”

“Orpheus, we won’t get anywhere if all your answers are either lies or sarcasm. I want to help you, it’s what you pay me for.”

“Fine. What was the question?”

“Do you still want Eurydice to return to you?”

“That’s a different question than the one you asked me earlier, but I’ll take it. Yes, Dr. Mother, I do. Twice a day, up and down with vigorous strokes, lasting between two and five minutes.”

“Orpheus, normally I’d say that this is a safe space, but as you can see, I’ve succumbed to my nicotine cravings, this is not the time for your inappropriate shenanigans.”

“Brushing my teeth is inappropriate?”

“Let’s talk about something else. How is your family?”

Orpheus lets out a sigh so long and loud his body slides from the chair onto the floor.

“How’s work?” Dr. Mother asks.

“You said no poetry.”

“Do you mean to tell me after all these years we have run out of things to talk about?”

“I’m in love,” groans Orpheus. “What the fuck do you want to talk about?”

“Your goals, your self-development. Your mother, if necessary.”

“In love with a ghost who thinks Hades is the place to be. This old tale again, as if it’s scored into my flesh. What sort of goals do you foresee there, Dr. Mother? What kind of self-development, for her or me? My mother would be proud, I can tell you that. This whole mess is perfect muse-material.”

Dr. Mother slaps the side of her chair as if berating a badly-mannered dog.

“Listen, you impossible child,” she snaps. “For years I have humoured your bullshit, enough is enough. Forget about Eurydice for a second, forget about what you think you feel. Sit down on your fucking chair and act like a human being, if you can remember how.”

“Jeez.” Orpheus drags himself back onto his chair and hangs one leg over the armrest. “What is up with you today?”

“Sit properly,” says Dr. Mother.

“I am. Still growing into my parts, I’ll have you know. Honestly, you’re never this weird. What’s going on?”

Dr. Mother stubs out her cigarette against her phone screen. “I read my daughter’s diary last night.”

“Oh, Dr. Mother. What a stupid thing to do.”

“I know.” Dr. Mother waves her hand at the tiny plume of smoke rising from her singed screen. “She is such a smart girl, but the men she involves herself with… I don’t understand how you can go so wrong.”

Dr. Mother closes her eyes the way only an exasperated mother can.

“I blame the parents,” says Orpheus.

Dr. Mother threatens him with a throw pillow, then sighs.

“Speaking of badly chosen men,” she says, “we haven’t discussed Hamlet for a while. Why is that?”

“Because, first of all, it’s in the past, and also it’s disruptive to my myth.”

“I thought the past had so much more allure.”

Orpheus groans. “That was back when I was lying to myself. You need to keep up.”

“Wouldn’t it be useful to start disrupting your myth? Isn’t your attachment to Eurydice based on some very restrictive assumptions?”

“I don’t know,” says Orpheus, picking his toenails. “I wouldn’t call it attachment. Anyway, I vote for talking about what hurts in the present, not what hurt back then.”

“We should talk about the past, Orpheus,” says Dr. Mother, suddenly back to her true form – this is psychoanalysis, after all. Dr. Mother puts the cigarettes away and opens a window to clear the fumes from her melting phone screen. “Eurydice isn’t where it all began.”

***

The compass needle spins where Orpheus is sitting. It is earlier in time, much earlier, before Eurydice, when his name wasn’t quite Orpheus but something else, when the love he felt was as consuming and voracious as a swarm of flies.

His food tastes of nothing, the people he sleeps with make no sound, the pages he turns reveal the same words as the ones before.

Orpheus is in love with Hamlet, who is somehow always otherwise engaged. Blablabla, my father’s ghost visits me in my sleep, blablabla, I may have to enact my revenge on a murdering uncle, blablabla, I’ve got to finish this report for my scientific assistant post tomorrow. Oh, I’ve got an essay due on Monday, I was once hurt so badly I don’t remember how to love, and on top of everything I need to apply for MA funding within the coming month. Nightmare.

Orpheus, who is always something of a child, even more so at that age, isn’t always this much of an asshole. At first, when Hamlet catches his eye, Orpheus is a delight. He sings the most enchanting songs he can muster, writes every word of his juvenile poetry addressing Hamlet’s gentle body and beautiful mind. He spends hours listening to Hamlet’s wild ideas, future plans, and endless complaints. He behaves the way Orpheus behaves when he is in love, opening his heart wide and bathing the entire world in his incandescent charms.

So many of his thoughts pertain to Hamlet, who has no use for them. Every inch of his skin is open to Hamlet, who is left cold by its touch. In his immature passion, Orpheus has no weapon against Hamlet’s disinterest except his own loveliness, which crumbles in the face of apathy, and Orpheus’s heart crumbles along with it.

Hamlet sits in their university library for hours without speaking a word to Orpheus, because Hamlet isn’t sure if it’s Orpheus he wants or someone else. After all, the girl who left him might return, and in the meantime there are all these other girls with bright red hair who look so charming when they laugh at his jokes.

Despite this, Hamlet has abstracted from all bodily pleasures and made desire into a completely intangible pursuit, to be led only by the ego in an immaterial realm. He writes love letters to Orpheus, writes poetry, endless lines of worship and erotica, but when they are alone, Hamlet won’t so much as touch him. Orpheus’s body is Hamlet’s fantasy, and as such it must never be consumed, only praised and made love to in words. Orpheus, up on his pedestal, is exhausted by having to hold a pose his agile, living body isn’t meant to hold, his body which wants only to be touched and stroked and played with, but which Hamlet will only caress through language. Hamlet’s mouth and Hamlet’s hands do not understand their purpose, and reduce themselves to verbalisers.

Slowly, Orpheus fades away inside his unreciprocated needs, until after years of this, Hamlet shows up at his door and says, “Why did you leave?” Orpheus says nothing. He builds a fort from blankets to cradle their bodies and offers Hamlet tea, then holds his hand while Hamlet weeps out his exasperation. The next day, Orpheus gives in and says, “I love you Hamlet, I never stopped,” which is true, and Hamlet’s ego is satisfied for a while.

But it isn’t enough, and soon Hamlet is drawn back into his own tumultuous self, and the easy admiration he receives from others. Turns out it’s not just the prospect of a duel that makes Hamlet feel queasy, but anything resembling a twosome. The person Hamlet needs to be is always elsewhere, always out of reach, and there is no room there for Orpheus, who wants reciprocity, to play his lyre and write his poetry, and whose need for physical closeness is too great for what Hamlet will allow himself to give.

***

“What was it that hurt you about Hamlet, Orpheus?” asks Dr. Mother.

“That whole unshakeable sense that none of what occurred between us was up to me. He removed my body from our bond, made my needs irrelevant and turned me into an idea,” says Orpheus. “I didn’t exist to him, not in my embodied form.”

“Do you think you exist, Orpheus? Physically, I mean.”

Orpheus slaps his thigh, once, then again, and again, and again, until Dr. Mother says, “I get your point. What I mean is, do you believe you deserve to exist physically in a way that compels those you love to engage with you? Don’t you feel you are somehow always a burden just by virtue of having a material presence, and physical needs?”

“You know,” says Orpheus, “you’re not supposed to validate my narratives this way. It’s bad form. I’m in a psychically vulnerable state.”

“I’m sorry,” says Dr. Mother. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me today.”

“Your daughter is sleeping with bikers, I believe. Happens to the best of us.”

Dr. Mother rubs the bridge of her nose. “The most recent one is apparently a knight and falconer. I just don’t know where she digs them up.”

“Can we get back to my story, or do you want to switch seats?”

“Go on.”

“Yes,” says Orpheus, “I carry damage. Yes, I once chose someone who exacerbated my fears about being rebuffed in my intensity and needs. Yes, being with Hamlet somehow confirmed my fear of never being a priority to the people I cared about the most. Yes, for years I forgot what it felt like to have a body, to be an agent in the world, to desire and be desired. But I was also young, prey to more insecurities than I could handle, and Hamlet stabbed right into those unpleasant wounds for three continuous years. In a way, it’s remarkable I came out of it able, and willing, to keep desiring, and wanting to be desired. That I came out of it willing to keep trying.”

“I’m very happy to hear you say that, Orpheus,” says Dr. Mother.

“That doesn’t mean I don’t still know how to pick ’em.”

“We all do. Of course we choose those who match our wounds, how could we not? Those vulnerable parts of us that fall in love are also the parts that need the most healing, the most care. Sometimes, those we fall for cause our wounds to deepen, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, and if we accept their goodness, there will be a rare few who help us decontaminate all that festering hurt and redress our narratives, allowing the lesions to slowly heal.”

“I should be so lucky,” says Orpheus.

“You aren’t all that bad at healing yourself, Orpheus. You’re just impatient. Sometimes I worry you’d rather care for the wounds of others than give that attention to yourself. Why? Is it because in others the reward is more visible than in yourself?”

“Eh,” says Orpheus. His lids feel heavy. “Who’s to say.”

“You understand, don’t you, that Eurydice isn’t Hamlet, and vice-versa?”

“Yes, yes.”

“And the pain of losing Eurydice isn’t the same as the pain of Hamlet failing to love you,” says Dr. Mother.

“I know that. You’re the one constantly drawing comparisons.”

Outside, the sky has darkened to indicate the end of their session. Dr. Mother’s eyes are glazed over, her mind is already elsewhere. Orpheus can’t blame her, this has been his own condition for a while. The myth is slowly coming apart, undoing the rigidity of its seams, and all of its elements are now floating in free association, and already new matter is growing inside the widening spaces. The last thing that remains is Orpheus, loving Eurydice, this thought of her that will not fade from his mind, the gentle vibration of her that lives in his flesh.

Orpheus and the Flayed Man

Orpheus is distraught. A man without skin lives in his dreams. Orpheus knows this is because too many of his thoughts focus on limitations, on the boundaries of the self.

Trapped inside his own skin, in his unique consciousness, Orpheus has no chance at communion with others, not even those he wants the most. 

Eurydice swims in her set of underwater chambers, moving pebbles with her mouth. 

The muscles around the man’s eyes resemble the rings on a felled tree trunk. Orpheus watches them twitch. 

The bare musculature is an embrace, the twist of jungle vines around the tender skeletal trunks – in all things, Orpheus sees what he is lacking. 

In his dreams, the skinless man stalks across the landscape Orpheus is attempting to inhabit. The landscape has released its logic. The shadows thrown by its elements are golden, as are the pupils of animals, reflecting light rather than absorbing it. 

When they first found each other, Orpheus and Eurydice rubbed their pasts against each other, to see which parts this process might heal. In the fading light, their bodies, panting and warm, fell side by side into the sand. Eurydice placed a handful of sand on Orpheus’s skin and rubbed it into his legs, his arms, his back and torso. He returned the favour until their skins glowed with awareness, as new and receptive as an infant’s.

The flayed man in Orpheus’s dream cannot blink. He can only watch without pause, without release. 

Skinning is not an improvement on exfoliation. Skinning deadens the impact of touch.

Despite the impression of opening, removing the skin is in fact a closing.

In losing your skin, you lose the membrane allowing you to feel another’s caress. Left behind is only a raw, impotent mass, unable to engage or receive. Too much has been removed, and you become untouchable.

The dripping muscles on the flayed man’s stomach twitch.

Eurydice has arranged her pebbles in hexagonal patterns, befitting the vibrations that rise from the bottom of the lake.

Orpheus turns over to seek a cold patch on his mattress, scratching and chewing the pillow in his sleep.

Michaux parle à Orphée

Si tu arrives à dormir, c’est que le spectacle, la présence du réel tu en as assez, tu n’en peux plus.

Fini tout ce mesuré, mesuré mais voyant. Tout sombre, tu sais t’y dérober, tu t’arrêtes et tout s’arrête et coule dans une indifférence qui n’inquiète pas. En effet le lendemain tu te réveilles avec à peu près les mêmes sottises que la veille, quand pourtant tu n’en pouvais plus de tenir ensemble les pièces, structures ou débris, toutes ces illusions en forme de réalité, que tu reprends maintenant grosso modo et pas fâché de les retrouver pour faire face à ce qui va se présenter. 

Mais ne serait-ce pas que chaque soir tu voudrais plutôt seulement t’éloigner, t’éloigner en voguant de l’insatisfaisant monotone qui persiste à se présenter? ce serait là ton désir.

Henri Michaux, Poteaux d’Angle, 72
Odilon Redon, Orpheus