Poetry and Dismemberment: Three Versions of Orpheus



Orpheus, son of the Thracian King Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope, was the most famous poet and musician who ever lived. Apollo presented him with a lyre, and the Muses taught him its use, so that he not only enchanted wild beasts, but made the trees and rocks move from their places to follow the sound of his music. At Zone in Thrace a number of ancient mountain oaks are still in the pattern of one of his dances, just as he left them.[ii]

Orpheus, as Robert Graves points out, was the great poet-singer of Greek mythology. He had always been a wonderful singer, apparently – we first hear of him travelling with Jason and the Argonauts, when his great feat was to out-sing, and so save the crew from the temptations of, the Sirens – but when his new bride, Eurydice, died from a snake-bite, his singing, intensified by grief, became so powerful that he was able not only to disarm the guards of the underworld so that he could enter, a live man, in search of her, but was able to persuade Hades to let her go back to the world of the living: no mean feat, since the Lord of the Underworld had fallen in love with her himself. Eurydice was allowed to return, however, only on the condition that, as he led her up toward the light, Orpheus did not at any point turn around to look at her. But he did, of course, even as his goal was in sight, and lost her forever. And it is said that the power of his song increased all the more for his redoubled grief for her.

The story is that Orpheus turned around at the last minute because he loved Eurydice so much that he could not bear the thought that she might not be following him. But there may be another explanation. Perhaps, on his lonely trek up the path from the underworld, so movingly imagined by Rilke –

His senses felt as though they were split in two:
his sight would race ahead of him like a dog,
stop, come back, then rushing off again
would stand, impatient, at the path’s next turn,—
but his hearing, like an odour, stayed behind[iii]

– he had been thinking things over. And perhaps he had changed his mind. Perhaps his turning was a deliberate thing, a sacrifice. Orpheus was later torn apart by Maenads – wine-crazed women followers of Dionysus – at a place called Zone, where the mountain oaks still bear their witness[iv], and his severed head was thrown into the river there still singing of Eurydice. Why this dismemberment? And why is it part of the same myth? What does it say about – or add to – the powerful voice, the lost beloved, the descent into the underworld?

When I first began writing and associating with writers I remember being on several occasions deeply disturbed by the way one or another of them exploited the confidences and sufferings of those closest to them: an author, for example, who used her friend’s breast cancer as a subject for her next work of fiction, before that friend’s ashes were cold; another who began one of her novels with harrowing images taken straight from the bedside of a friend who had just undergone surgery for brain tumours; another so obsessed with the difficulties in his own relationship that he made it, and the beginnings of an affair, the subject of his next novel, and not only lost the relationship as a consequence, but deeply wounded the woman involved.

What I came to realise and accept, as I began to write more, and to be drawn more into the strange, visceral machinery of writing, is that most writers are deeply dependant upon the most intense experiences of their lives (that old saw – it is Robert Frost, originally – ‘no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’[v]), and draw upon these continually for their work. And these intense experiences, of course, are very often inextricably entwined with the lives of those nearest to them: their partners, their families, their closest friends.

Not all writers are like this – there are other ways, other sources of intensity (imagination, for example, but even the most original feats of imagination are synthesised from the actual experience of the one who imagines them) – but for those who are, writing, in this sense, is potentially fraught with betrayal. And it is not only their friends and their families who can suffer: the writers themselves, isolated, guilty, not trusted to keep the confidences of others, can be torn apart by this, self-banished, exiled, dis-membered (for that, surely, is one of the potential meanings of the term, to be unhouseled, deprived of one’s membership). ‘Once upon a time two women met in a bar’, writes Helen Garner in one of her short stories:

‘I will not talk about the past,’ said the furious one. ‘But we must,’ said the one who burst into tears. Each was afraid that the death of friendship, its murder, would be discovered to be her fault. I do not give you permission to write about me.[vi]

Are writing and a ‘normal’ life at odds in this way? Does writing entail a kind of emotional violence, a dis-membering of lives? Is the writer inherently lonely, sacrificed (sacrificing all?) to his or her art?

I wonder if these are not some of the things encoded or puzzled over in the story of Orpheus’ turning: that it might not have been for love, but might have been a conscious choice between art and domestic comfort, connubial bliss – that Orpheus, foreseeing the possible loss of what had made his song so intense, chose instead to lose his Eurydice a second time. Chose art. And, of course, eventually paid an artist’s price.


A second re-reading of Orpheus’ turning might go something like this. In Rilke’s marvellous poem ‘Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.’ (note that it is not commas that Rilke’s uses there, but periods, to point their emphatic isolation), Eurydice, following Orpheus toward the upper world, is led by Hermes, the messenger god. Rilke was writing after the advent of psychoanalysis, which had held out the possibility that we are puppets to our subconscious. There is in each of us, psychoanalysis tells us, a kind of deep self – something like Proust’s ‘moi profond’ – with its own narrative that can only appear, in our normal, upper-world life, dismembered, disguised, displaced: a matter of fragmentary projections, hauntings of a kind that are, from one perspective, the artist’s life-blood.

What Rilke’s poem reflected was that the possibility now existed that the analyst could function as a kind of psychopomp, leading the repressed – figured, in a patriarchal civilization, as feminine, as Eurydice – into the light. The modern Orpheus thus becomes, at least potentially, a figure of the artist deciding, at the last moment, that he or she does not want to know the truth about their repressed after all, doesn’t really want their subconscious brought up into the light.

The artist, after all, has an ambivalent investment in this regard, a complicated relationship to this dismemberment, this not-being-whole. There is the wish – set out so nicely in Baudelaire’s poem ‘Correspondences’ – to hear clearly and to be able to understand the mysterious voices that seem to be speaking to us through the things about us (how else to explain their affect upon us – the affect of Beauty, for example?), the wish to see, beyond the bars or barriers of the real, the ‘paysage d’âme’, the landscape of the soul (again the term is Baudelaire’s), entire, …but there is also the consciousness, or fear, that, should this happen, the artist’s work would be more or less over, its well-spring lost. Things – people, events, ideas, landscapes – would not haunt us in the same way as before; we wouldn’t be led so much to try to capture and explain their mystery, because it wouldn’t be quite so much of a mystery as it once was.

It all sounds very patriarchal – the repressed figured as feminine, etc. – but is it? exclusively? necessarily? Do women poets, women artists, not also have their repressed? Of course they do. And do they, any more than their male contemporaries, feel that they will write better with the repressed revealed, exposed, returned to them? I suspect not, and that a modern Orpheus, male or female, would hardly find him- or herself alone in wanting to let his or her demons lie, out of sight, where, as far as their art was concerned, they could do the most good. Or, conversely (for there can be pharmaceutical psychopomps, and the outsider might have been outside all along, and might resist being brought in), may wish to eschew the relative peace or equilibrium that a drug for one kind or another of psychosis might bring – might choose to remain unhealed, un-normalised – in order to maintain the presence of their demons, and the dis-membership this presence is traditionally seen to convey.


Humanity is faced with a double perspective: in one direction, violent pleasure, horror and death – precisely the perspective of poetry – and in the opposite direction, that of science or the real world of utility. Only the useful, the real, have a serious character. We are never within our rights in preferring seduction to it: truth has rights over us. Indeed it has every right. And yet we can, and indeed we must respond to something which, not being God, is stronger than every right, that impossible to which we accede only by forgetting the truth of all those rights.
– Georges Bataille, The Impossible (1966)[vii]

In Baudelaire’s marvellous yet disturbing ‘A Voyage to Cythera’, the poet, in the full knowledge of his own syphilis, presents us with a kind of summation of his erotic experience. Cythera, of course, is Aphrodite’s island. In Baudelaire’s poem it is a grim place, dark and ominous, offering

…no shady tree-set temple where
The young priestess whose virgin body glows
With secret fire gathers the flowers and throws
Her light robes open to the wandering air.[viii]

Cythera now, he tells us,

…is a dead hole, harsh and dry,
An empty desert, troubled by the cry
Of loss…

and something more, and worse: a gibbet that he sees upon the shore, on which there hangs the figure of a man dismembered, his entrails tumbling from him, being eaten – castrated – by vultures while other, four-legged creatures prowl below, awaiting their chance. ‘Man of Cythera’, writes Baudelaire, addressing this figure,

…ecstasy’s child,
How mutely you suffer these insults
In expiation for your filthy cults –
The sins that stand between the grave and you.

and very shortly he acknowledges the obvious, that this hanged man – borrowed from the tarot, but also, from something Gérard de Nerval saw on the beach at Cerigo (another of the names of Cythera)[ix] – as an image of himself:

Love, on your island I found death and lust:
Hanged man and gibbet, symbols of my fate…

‘Ah, God!’, the poem finishes,

…Give me the strength to contemplate
My body and my heart without disgust.

We have to pause over these last lines, and wonder to what extent Baudelaire might really have meant them – or, allowing that they might have been an earnest and remorseful cry, what it might have meant had this wish been earlier made and granted. For isn’t Baudelaire’s poetry this agon, and vice versa? His consciousness of sin, his insistent exploration and explanation of it, his dogged inhabitation of, and holding the ground of, the illicit against – and as a kind of proof of – the God he perceives as having abandoned him? His expressed desire to be able to view his body and his heart ‘without disgust’ – his desire not to be ashamed of what he has done, or wished to do – is surely at the same time an admission that he has created situations of shame, and that these have, in some manner, been of the essence of, a spur to, his poetry (his sense that, through these shameful activities he might reach some thing, some knowledge, that he might not otherwise attain – for another source of the hanged man is of course Prometheus, punished for stealing the fire of the gods).

In a third re-reading of Orpheus – in fact it is a development, an elaboration of the first – the poet turns toward Eurydice at the last moment in order to turn his back on domestic bliss, conjugality, comfort, ‘normality’ – those things, hypothetically, that he would have, or have again, if he had Eurydice back. It is not necessarily that he wishes to be unfaithful so much as it is in the sense of his turning his back upon the real, the Law, the accepted, the sponsored, and to enter instead the territory of that which is on the other side of the real: to enter that illicit space. Symbolically or otherwise, it is a choice of art – poetry – over the marital, the domestic, the familiar, the norm, and in effect a dissociation of poetry from the realm of such things. In this sense it is in accord with Bataille’s association of poetry with what he calls the Impossible. In its rejection of the marital and the sponsored, it can also be seen as a choice of the erotic that is so often felt to be sacrificed, lost in that realm, and so offers that association of the erotic and the illicit with the poetic that underpins one of the enduring myths of male creativity (but, again, is it only and entirely male?), and might help us to understand, too, such things as the idea of the woman as muse, or the association of genius with libidinous excess and other improper behaviour.

It is also of interest for the access it might give us to the mechanism which underpins and unites these things, a mechanism of which Baudelaire’s poetry provides so useful an example, and which, for want of a better term, I have found myself calling the Mechanism of Shame. To put it very simply, this is the mechanism which connects the improper with the Impossible, the illicit with the Illicit. It is the mechanism which impels – or, rather, enables one to impel oneself – from one to the other. Shame, a consciousness that one has entered the realm of the improper and the illicit, that one has transgressed, in one’s own eyes, and that, according to the law that still has a hold on one, one should not be there, stimulates or compels one to explain oneself to oneself – to the audience of the self – in such a manner as increases one’s scepticism toward the Real, the Law, the Proper, and intensifies one’s critique thereof, makes one all the more conscious of their exigency, their fragility. It is a mechanism which, in the belief that it is somehow central to one’s stance or position as an artist, compels one to seek the illicit for the intensity of experience, thought and perception it can provide. But, and here is the drub, it is also a mechanism which enables one to justify one’s desire to be there in the first place.

A circle. The shame has to be in one’s own eyes or it is not shame. It has to be, at one and the same time, a conscious wronging of others, or an other, and, in one’s awareness of this, a dividing of oneself against oneself – a dismembering, on both counts. And its mechanism – its function in maintaining the artist in the territory of the impossible – is a difficult thing to demonstrate, almost by definition. Authors, poets, artists who employ it might not be conscious that that is what they are doing, and, even if they are, are not necessarily going to advertise the fact. If here and there one comes across what seem to be clear examples, one is in effect making biographical assumptions, and to point out the presence or operation of the mechanism would be tantamount to accusation. Perhaps, when the present or the recent past are sufficiently far behind one, one might speculate with impunity, but until then one is left with the more distant past. The mechanism is there in Baudelaire (as Bataille can be seen to have demonstrated)[x]; it is there in a variant form in Rimbaud; it is there, almost everywhere, in the poetry of Rilke, who wrote so keenly of Orpheus that one suspects that he shared his secret.

[i] This essay was first published in Slovenian translation as three short articles in the literary supplement to the Slovene national newspaper Delo in 2004, and subsequently, somewhat revised, in The Chautauqua Literary Journal 1.1 (2004), 158-64.

[ii] Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955), vol.1, p.111.

[iii] From ‘Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.’, as translated by Stephen Mitchell, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (1980, rpt.; London: Pan/Picador, 1987), p.49.

[iv] The reader may recall Apollinaire’s famous surrealist poem ‘Zone’, concerning – in some senses, he might have argued, effecting – the dismemberment of poetry itself.

[v] ‘I’ve often been quoted: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” But another distinction I made is: however sad, no grievance, grief without grievance. How could I, how could anyone have a good time with what cost me too much agony, how could they? What do I want to communicate but what a hell of a good time I had writing it? The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don’t critics talk about those things—what a feat it was to turn that that way, and what a feat it was to remember that, to be reminded of that by this? Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score. They say not, but you’ve got to score, in all the realms—theology, politics, astronomy, history, and the country life around you.’ ‘The Art of Poetry: number 2’ (Robert Frost, interviewed by Richard Poirier), The Paris Review  24 (Summer-Fall 1960).

[vi] ‘The Psychological Effect of Wearing Stripes’, in My Hard Heart (Melbourne: Viking, 1998), p.11.

[vii] Trans. Robert Hurley (San Francisco: City Lights, 1991).

[viii] Richard Howard has an excellent translation of this poem, but I am using R.F. Brissenden’s, from his Building A Terrace (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1975), slightly altered.

[ix] See ‘Introduction: Vers L’Orient’, in Gérard de Nerval, Voyage en Orient, Ch.xv (‘San-Nicolo’): ‘C’était un gibet, un gibet à trois branches, dont une seule était garnie. Le premier gibet réel que j’aie vu encore’.

[x] In his essay on Baudelaire in Literature and Evil (1957), trans. Alastair Hamilton (New York: Marion Boyars, 1973).