A backward glance

One cannot retrieve people from the dead: not family, not lovers, not friends. This will not come as news to most of my gentle readers, though some (me, for instance) may be infected with romanticism. The Greek myths and legends are ruthless with people like us. It is why I respect them. For centuries before the Judæo-Christian traditions both conquered and melded with theirs, they were the West’s torchbearers of truth. They told us of the impossibilities, and they prepared us for irretrievable death. They could not tell us of the conquest of Death by Love, because they could not know it yet; but they did know what it was not. They — the Greeks with their legends — were not just pessimistic. They were heroic pessimists.

Orpheus descends into Hades to retrieve his bride, Eurydice. In the account we read in Virgil’s Georgics, the point of the tale is already slightly smoothed, blunted. Orpheus has made the mistake of looking back on her countenance, when he is almost home. He has emerged in the sun, but she is still in the shadows. As he looks back, she recedes, disappears; she is now lost forever. In modern “education” we used to weep for the tragedy. He almost succeeded. It is a tragedy, strictly in the Roman pagan sense.

But it was a tragedy in the Greek sense, first. If we go instead to Plato, and listen to the aristocratic Phaedrus in the Symposium, we learn that Orpheus was thoroughly in the wrong, in his attempt to retrieve Eurydice. He was bound to be punished. His mistake was not a technicality. His living descent into Hades was a challenge not only to the gods, but to nature, and to the truth of things. His love for Eurydice, so affecting in his mournful dirges — moving everyone to tears — was not true love. A coward, he would not die for it.

Hades has presented him with a wraith, in Eurydice’s outward form. Inevitably, this illusion would dissolve in the sunlight. And the fate of Orpheus was now set — the fate of an eloquent softie, who loves an imaginary woman — a woman he had created from the start. He will die at the hands of the real ones he rejected. He will be torn apart by the Maenads, as by wild beasts. His lyre will be destroyed. This is the fate of our shallow romantic star; the pretty boy whose lyre and whose voice had once been an enchantment.

Boethius deals with that backward gaze, in the Consolations of Philosophy. We who seek to lead into the light of the upper day — we triumphalist philosophers — are bound to look back into the Tartarean cave. And when we do, the clarity of our “vision” will be obscured; then ruined, totally. To guide we must be guided; or all will be lost.

Rilke, the “German Orpheus,” in writing his “mystical” Sonnets to Orpheus — as a grave-marker to a beautiful young girl — tries, I think, to recover the romance from Plato’s wonderful wreckage. Can poetry be divine?

Yes, he seems to answer, yet he cannot escape the No. Robert Musil somewhere tears Rilke apart, for his very accomplishment: an achieved perfection, that nothing underlies. Rilke is a magnificent modern (“the Saint Francis of the will to power,” another of my heroes called him). He creates the fabulous appearance of a “there” where there is no there. (I love Rilke, incidentally.)

We use Greek myths to escape from Christian reality. The Germans have been doing it since Goethe and Hölderlin; and yet, to my mind at least, without a final conviction. Goethe went Apollonian, Hölderlin went mad. Rilke brilliantly hovers. For when we look back upon the Greek imagination, we should see something that oddly anticipates the revelation to come, in which “true love” does, actually, triumph over death.

The Greeks said everything that could be said, short of this paradoxical revelation; Saint Paul brought them the key to it.