Orpheus and the Tar Pit

As if he had been poured

in tar, he lies

on a pillow of turf

and seems to weep

the black river of himself.

– Seamus Heaney, The Grauballe Man

Orpheus as an adult is a different person from Orpheus as a young man. It’s the bridge between the two, made from little more than knotted string, that can at times be precarious, the kind that folds in on itself and tangles in near-permanent ways.

What Orpheus seeks as an adult is internal, no longer bound to a self contained in others. Orpheus as a young man seeks love, and only external love, to make up for the widening, crumbling emptiness at work inside him. Orpheus as an adult has constructed an inner citadel in the spirit of Marcus Aurelius, one whose spiralling towers and metamorphic soapstone structure is impermeable. The citadel reassures Orpheus with its timeline intimately tied to his: while people, objects, riches, and even ideas, exist on shifting, tectonic levels and will either outlive Orpheus or disappear from his presence for any reason or none, the citadel will exist exactly as long as Orpheus will, is so inextricably part of him that it has become the only reliable thing in life. There is peace to be found in this idea. 

Nietzsche, more bearded than ever, rests his dirty feet on Orpheus’s pillow and waffles on about the importance of forgetting, and of digesting one’s past properly.

The body and soul, which are in a sense one and the same in that their boundaries blur and pulsate between the visible and the concealed, are here, are his, and whatever they digest or are drawn to, no matter how intensely, will eventually pass through them without causing them to disappear. After the digestive process, drawn-out as it may be, the body is still there with its stomach and bowels. 

Nietzsche seems concerned that digestion is something people have abandoned for the sake of wallowing, of an eternal practice of chewing the cud. Orpheus can’t deny this; much of his time was spent in such a state of rumination, turning his face more and more into the long muzzled mask of a cow. For a while, taurine horns sprouted from his head. 

Orpheus has undergone so many metamorphoses that the limits of his self feel unclear, smeared with the grease of otherness. But this otherness is of a particular kind, more ethereal than a person’s simple presence. Orpheus is backed up with ideal selves, which have undermined and torn through his digestive organs for years, have made him incapable of releasing what kept accumulating. 

The mind turns life into memories, but when the soil that should cradle these memories in its darkness is overrun with writhing bodies, bloated and undead, the memories have no choice but to fall in heaps onto the surface, rotting there like Antigone’s kin in the blazing sun. Orpheus is dizzy with the fumes of slow decay. 

“You need to become empty so that you can fill yourself again,” says Nietzsche, unhelpfully. 

Franz Stuck, Orpheus, 1891

Orpheus, whose oral fixation is considerable, takes bites upon bites of the world, sucking and gnawing on it to find the precise combination of sensations and tastes that will still the rumbling inside. 

Orpheus has heard of a man across many mountains, perhaps even across many chunks of time, who suffers from the opposite problem, the inability to stop excreting. Losing control over his body has trapped that man in his own hell of increasingly destructive dreams. Orpheus wishes he and the man could meet, speak to each other of their afflictions, and find a middle-ground in which to attempt a mutual healing. But Orpheus knows that such a desire is selfish, and that the man, who finds himself chained up by greedy men who harvest his excretions for fuel, has enough to deal with without being weighed-down with Orpheus’s indigestible accumulation of selves. Orpheus comes not as a clean and single self, but as a cluster of concerns and pains, triggers and difficulties, all these things he hasn’t yet managed to shave off himself. 

Orpheus spends more time thinking about his own mouth than is perhaps advisable, and he has recently stopped trusting even this aperture, which used to be his truest means of expressing himself. The mouth is where the voice substantiates, where language shows itself with the greatest possible immediacy, where longing quivers, where food breaks in, where kisses fall together, where the beloved’s body can be tasted and indulged. 

But now, Orpheus has given up his finger-painting relation to the world, has exiled all hands from his vicinity. The wind touches him only through tissue paper, the light hits his skin only with invisible brushstrokes. Still, despite its failures, the mouth remains. Whether Orpheus wants it or not, his mouth is open to the world, a concentrate of yearning. 

In response, his environment either curls up into absence or opens itself in kind. The world wavers between petrified wood and openness, and the landscape Orpheus inhabits pits itself with holes of incalculable depth. These holes open around him with wet smacking sounds, bringing bitumen to the surface like pus, old suppurations, which both the world and Orpheus ought to have dealt with but which they chose instead to ignore, letting them ferment into hypogeal patches. Orpheus exists in a time of tectonic upheaval. 

One morning, one such hole opens in front of him while he empties his bladder into a mulberry bush. The stream running from his phallus his clear as glass, almost silent as it hits the thorns. The hole’s presence annoys Orpheus, who wishes for a semblance of stability. His internal citadel is still under construction, not yet a home, torn down each night by the same perfectionist impulses that cause people-pleasing Melusina to redraft again and again the palace she builds for Siegfried, the man she wants to look after. 

Orpheus, still homeless but with a vague idea of what an internal home might entail, does not want to be confronted with holes and their attention-seeking bullshit. He shouts a number of obscenities into the hole, expecting an echo, but nothing returns, not even a faint, whimpering reflection of his call. 

All he feels is a fluttering at the back of his throat, the sense of something tearing away, and for a moment the rustle of wings obscures his vision. 

When Orpheus opens his mouth to ask what the hell just happened, his voice is gone. Like an unsettled bat it flees with the flap of leathery wings towards a more amenable cave, and it is now lost in the bottomless hole along with his words.

Orpheus hurls a handful of mulberry blooms into the hole and heads for the deep end of the forest, kicking pebbles along the way. After an hour, he comes to rest against a mossy rock. A few paces ahead, he sees what appears to be another hole, of a black so total no light returns from it. Orpheus approaches and feels the ground sucking at his feet. The hole is surrounded by tar, perhaps even filled with it, although its centre is a deeper black than Orpheus has ever witnessed. 

For a moment, his mind is full of bodies preserved after death, able, by the grace of chemical magic, to retain their human form even after consciousness has trickled like fat from the flesh. He looks into the centre of the hole, into the complete impossibility of a reflection. This hole is the loneliest place on earth, where not even the self can be witnessed. 

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,

To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring

Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme

To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

– Seamus Heaney, Personal Helicon

The sun shuffles around in the branches of trees like an animal waking up, and Orpheus wants to escape. Whenever the sun shines his mind flings itself back towards Eurydice, towards Hamlet, towards Apollo, towards Melusina, all these impossible beings sprouting from his sides and inside his heart, who left their perforations inside Orpheus’s flesh; all these creatures who inhabit a higher realm into which they have retreated, and where Orpheus can’t follow. 

Do not take them seriously. If they retreat into heights, into distance and indifference, then Orpheus has at his disposal an entire realm of depth and intense claustrophobia. 

The earth has swallowed Henri Michaux. His body is in a process of slow decomposition as it sinks, and the gas escaping from his corpse is making the earth burp up sebaceous bubbles of advice.

“Descends,” says the wet voice of Henri Michaux, bursting from a bubble, “oui, descends en toi, vers cet immense rayonnage de besoins sans grandeurs. Il le faut. Après tu pourras, tu devras remonter.” Sink deep into yourself, it is necessary.

Come back, says a choir of spirits, cradled by the rocks and trees, only when the needs you feel have shifted, the yearning faded. Stay inside yourself, no matter how uncomfortable you may be there. Discomfort soon turns into placing one stone upon the other, building a makeshift resting place for the tired spine. Others, especially idealised others, those you trust too much without reason, cannot be your home. They will, like everything else in the world, crumble in your hands, disappoint and hurt, and leave. Some of them will not leave willingly, but they will break just the same. At least when you break, Orpheus, you won’t be left behind; all of you will disappear at once. Find comfort in this. 

“Les arbres frissonnent plus finement,” says Michaux from an other bubble, “plus amplement, plus souplement, plus gracieusement, plus infiniment qu’homme ou femme sur cette terre et soulagent d’avantage.”

Orpheus sighs, once again weighed down with well-meaning words of wisdom. But they are someone else’s wisdom. Orpheus, full of the past, full of the toxicity of echoes and evocations, full of long-gone happiness, has no space for the new, not yet. Orpheus needs darkness, and silence; he needs to be alone. There is nothing lonelier than the bottom of a tarpit infused with Vantablack. 

For a moment, Orpheus hesitates on the edge of the tar pit, and the sunlight falls in such a way that he thinks he sees the shadowy outline of Eurydice kneeling on the opposite edge of the pit.

Eurydice’s hands shake against the black surface, and as she submerges them in an attempt to quieten them, they disappear completely. Eurydice, too, wants stillness, and when she looks over at Orpheus she sees his blue stained hands, raises hers, dripping with tar, and like two drenched skunks they seem to recognise each other.

In a fanciful flash, Orpheus and Eurydice fling their bodies toward each other, landing in the tar’s black heaviness. They splash the slow substance about their writhing bodies, and as they embrace they sink down towards the centre of the earth. 

Inside the tar, there is no speech, no sight, no air. They have only the weight of their bodies against each other, mediated by the viscosity of bitumen.

When Orpheus hits the bottom of the tar pit, Eurydice is gone. Silence and darkness are equally absolute. He folds his knees against his chest, where neither heart nor lungs feel a need for air, and he waits for a light to come on inside him.

He waits like this for a long time, his body held by the tar like the yolk inside an egg. You deserve to be loved, whispers the tar in its tongueless, throatless voice. You deserve to exist. But this voice is only Orpheus’s superficial reassurance, and he needs to hear something else, something more substantial. He waits until his skin seems to have melted.

“Sache n’importe où tu te trouves reconnaître ton axe,” says Henri Michaux, muffled by the tar. “Ensuite tu aviseras.”

August Natterer, World Axis with Hare, 1911

In this perfect dark symmetry, where above is below and sides bear no difference to each other, Orpheus tries to feel his own spine, the way it has warped in grief, its line compromised by sorrow, and from this line, its bent and bumpy descent from skull to tail, Orpheus constructs a new compass needle, with a magnetic north down in his tailbone, south up in his head, and as he slowly stretches out his invisible body in the tar he feels a new gravitational pull jerk at him, lure him down to where the surface is, this new world he will inhabit. There is love there, and things make sense; there, his mind is no longer sore with isolated desires, impossible hopes.

His spine shudders with a sudden navigational need, and Orpheus follows its pull. He opens his mouth wide and lets the black fluid in, lets it fill his throat and organs, his ears and nostrils, he opens himself fully to the viscous bitumen, and a composite sensation, of drowning and breathing too fast, too deeply, smears itself across Orpheus’s consciousness, momentarily erasing his fear of having lost the thing he cares about the most.

The tar sucks at his body, compelling him to stay, to remain there in silent suspension, to let his body mummify alongside prehistoric animals and murdered men. But Orpheus would not be Orpheus if he didn’t know how to ascend from the impossible.

Once he is full of tar, a reversal occurs and the tar circling within him streams back out again, out of his ears, his nose, his throat, pushing more and more of itself out of him and in this increasing lightness Orpheus rises, tail first, towards an exit. 

When he reaches the tarpit’s surface, his eyes, bloodshot from the tar, are searing coals, ruddy like a pigeon’s. Orpheus feels the shudder of something in his mouth. Something has remained in him. Against his teeth, he feels his voice twitching its oily wings. 

He closes his burning eyes and lies on the tarnished grass in the sun, and his skin aches as the asphalt dries on it. There is a realisation he has come to: it was never Eurydice down in Hades. Perspectives were misplaced, dislodged like retinas. This entire time, Eurydice was alive. It was never her moving inside deaths’s leaden clutch, unfeeling like a bug trapped in resin. It was never Eurydice who refused to cross over into life on their recurring ascents; this whole time, it was Orpheus in Hades, sedate and bleary-eyed, enmeshed in death’s delusion. This whole time, Eurydice was alive, moving at the speed of life, which seems uncannily quick from the vantage point of death. While she shot through life as a swallow, Orpheus spent years in paralysis, stuck inside the ice block of Hades, and from there he watched her shape-shift, lamenting his own stagnant point of view. Orpheus looked on and saw his own limited capacities, his mind capable only of useless repetition, the return to a past that could never heal his present. 

Now he knows. Eurydice could not help him rise from the Underworld because it is not in Eurydice’s set of tasks to do so. Orpheus is the one to whom the charming of the infernal keepers befalls, who is meant to bring the dead to life, but how can he do so when he is the one trapped? The filaments of his mind are too flimsy to hoist him up from the bottom of the well where he lies.

The clouds pass left to right on the other side of his lids. A shadow leans over him, and Orpheus knows who it is, but isn’t ready to look, to confront, not just yet. 

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Orpheus and Nietzsche ponder detachment

Sub specie aeterni. – A: “You are moving away faster and faster from the living; soon they will strike your name from their rolls.” – B: “That is the only way to participate in the privilege of the dead.” – A: “What privilege?” – B: “To die no more.”

– Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book Three, 262

For a while, Orpheus surrounds himself with those who cling to repetition to the point of illness. The body is something to be held while it is there, and let go once it wants to leave. Ravel echoes inside his walls. Nietzsche’s sickly figure hovers around in Orpheus’s chamber, repeating again and again his definition of heroism as the simultaneous movement towards one’s greatest suffering and one’s greatest hope.

“Been there,” says Orpheus, “and I have tired of it.”

“The tiredness of exertion, or the tiredness of paralysis?” asks Nietzsche.

“The former has led to the latter.”

“That’s impossible,” says Nietzsche. “They are fundamentally separate.”

“I am an amalgam of contradictions, buddy,” says Orpheus, and turns to face the wall. The moonlight outside his window is so bright even closing his eyes doesn’t bring relief. Nietzsche continues his floating laps across the room, exhaling sharply at each turn, like a swimmer when he reaches the edge of the pool.

Orpheus knows that Nietzsche is all too familiar with the feeling of feebleness that comes from losing access to the object of love, the repository of so much hope and care. But Orpheus doesn’t feel like getting into this with him, because Nietzsche has made things about himself in the past, and Orpheus isn’t in the mood for displacing his concern.

Instead, he watches the moonlight bring out the cracks in his wall and thinks about something he heard about the expression of emotions in God’s City, the idea that, to Medieval Catholics, the motus animi (movement of the soul) is necessarily embodied. In Augustine, the Fall is what broke something inside Man, making him incapable of responding according to pure reason to his own turmoil. Man is broken up by cracks through which the affect flows, torn between those emotions which lead him to goodness, and those which drive what’s bad in him. It is his embodied form which makes him vulnerable to the full spectrum of human emotions.

In Heaven, members of the divine hierarchy can feel emotions, but don’t express them by physical means, and any expression of divine emotion seeming to resemble that of a human is a deliberate act of translation, the way an adult aims to make herself understood to a baby through soft gurgles. An angel cannot shed tears, and God’s sadness or wrath could never be understood by mortals because it transcends their emotional language.

When Jesus, God-made-flesh, comes to earth in a human body, he obtains the capacity for affect: during his carnal existence, he can cry for the first time, can scream, probably, can laugh, too, and this, Orpheus thinks, must be such a head-fuck after all that self-containment and divine detachment. How odd to descend from holy abstraction into a carnal vessel and feel it respond acutely, and with very little dignity, to things that were until that point vague and diffuse.

Orpheus thinks about Eurydice down there in Hades, where she, too, is free from affect, conveying no love, no yearning, no sadness, no joy, and he wonders if he should be glad for her, or if he should punch a wall in her name because she was separated from the ability to feel emotion, which Orpheus thinks of as the most worthwhile part of human experience.

In death, Eurydice can no longer want Orpheus, and he understands why that is. Where she dwells, a kind of arrogance sets in. The dead, so relieved to have finally gone through the process they spent their whole life dreading, feel superior to those who are alive, and therefore still mortal.

“We will never be mortal again,” the dead think to themselves, and begin to see their living lovers as lesser beings, to look down upon their living bodies even as they themselves sit in the pits of Hades. They look around at the other perished, immortal souls and think, “Finally, this is the sort of distance and abstraction I can be comfortable in. This is the detachment I need from another person in order to feel comfortable enough to allow intimacy to emerge.”

Of course, true intimacy belongs to the realm of the living, and is bound up in transience.

Head over heels for their own immateriality, the dead fall in love with the dead around them. They engage in disembodied orgies, flinging their souls’ useless particles at each other. There is no risk left. They are immortal, they cannot be hurt or weighed down, a disappointment to, or disappointed by, the living.

Love what is mortal no longer applies in the Underworld; there is no need to fear being disappointed by another person’s shortcomings, because what faces you in Hades is no longer a person, merely the most abstract form of what once was a human being. This is what the dead find easiest to love: someone who can never be close to you, place demands on you, someone who barely exists, just like you. Someone who can never be too much.