Orpheus, Beheaded

            And as they floated down the gentle current
            The lyre made mournful sounds, and the tongue murmured
            In mournful harmony, and the banks echoed
            The strains of mourning.

                                    — from Metamorphoses, Book 11 (tr. Rolfe Humphries)

Having descended into Hell; having found, led, and lost Eurydice; having re-ascended, mourning his loss; having camped himself on the hill overlooking the Hebrus; having declared he can never love again; having then sung his final, greatest song; having attracted the trees and beasts and stones through that song; having then been overtaken and torn apart by maenads; Orpheus, beheaded, is here stripped to his primary element: the tongue. His spirit stays with this murmuring tongue until grounding at Lesbos, where he parts with the flesh, and again descends to Hell, reuniting with Eurydice.

But here, on the way, we are mourning. Ovid’s word is flebile: “flebile lyra,” “flebile lingua,” “respondet flebile ripae.” Flebilis is defined as “pitiful, pathetic, deplorable; tearful.” But we’ll accept “mourning:” as when a poet is reduced, deplorably, to the bare element necessary for poetry (a tongue, a potential to sound), the “small nouns” that the poet lights through sound (here, the banks) are, appropriately, going to echo the same deplorability.

Certainly, this is a mournful state for the poet, and for the objects that receive the poet’s attention. In this moment, the poet is recast as a homo sacer, Giorgio Agamben’s term for the outsider, literally meaning “taboo man,” a kind of person suicided by society. And when the Bacchic women overtake and destroy Orpheus, are they not treating him as a classic taboo? He is both sacred (in that his song lights, animates), and forbidden (in that he has denied all suitors his love).

Thus, the maenad’s overtaking of Orpheus is a kind of Freudian primal scene: they destroy the taboo in order to achieve the forbidden, but the act of destruction — in which the taboo thing is lost — in turn makes the lost thing sacred, thus also forbidden, and thus still taboo. Even though the maenads were unmoved by Orpheus’s singing as they killed him, their principle motivation for killing him came from the fact that they were originally moved, and, being so moved, made advances to him, but were denied.

We cannot then say that it is the song that kills the singer, a romantic cliché. Instead, what kills is the confusion of the poet’s self with the poet’s flesh. What drove the maenads was the beauty of Orpheus’s song; they knew nothing of Orpheus the man. What powers constitute the poetic self are manifested in the poem; the flesh is the repository of a life.      

Joseph Bradshaw (© 2008)