“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.