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
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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