Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Proserpina's infinite wisdom

Orpheus' dramatic arrival in the underworld might well have resulted in utter failure... at the outset. What if he had descended this enormous depth and failed in his quest for Eurydice entirely? There was no guarantee, when he set out, that he would persuade Pluto and Proserpina to let Eurydice go back.

The first phase of the journey involved the unlikelihood that the singer could even persuade the Powers of Death to relinquish the newlywed bride back into his custody, her plaintive groom. I know of no recorded attempts before Orpheus'. His victory over Hades and Persephone marks him as the first to succeed in that realm. Surely every lover would fain the attempt. Yet, the greatest singer's greatest song was unprecedented.

What made the moment of Orpheus' appeal succeed where others might have failed? Stephen Mitchell imagines that Proserpina's shrewd reasoning made all the difference. Mitchell's brief parable traces intimately the queen's thoughts and then concludes: "She turns to the king. 'Yes, darling,' she says, 'Let them go.'"

Mitchell's vignette sets itself apart from the thronging Orpheus narratives by thinking through what  motivated Hades to break the bands of immortality and relinquish Eurydice's shade to live again on earth. As men might, Pluto seems not to weigh the ramifications of Orpheus' song. The narrative opens with his favorable reaction to a "beautiful ... ah, beautiful" performance.  Mitchell's most provocative contribution to this myth is his formulation of Proserpina''s desire to liberate the young bride from those Orphic ties. 

Proserpina has not always been so perceptive. She came to the world of the dead against her will. A child "birde". "She has ripened." "Now she can see clearly..." Perhaps most poignantly, Ceres's daughter came here once wholly against her will, but having grown accustomed to this place, she has learned the risk of retrospection. Wiser now, if she used to, she won't be looking back again. 

Mitchell's wise young queen scrutinizes the attitude of Orpheus. She sizes up his readiness "to be in harmony with a woman." She regards Orpheus' presence in her realm, lyre in hand, as a manifestation of "fear protected by longing." So, thanks to Mitchell, our comfortable praise for Orpheus' loving heroism is turned on its ear. The champion of rhetorical longing is really a frightened poser. "No wonder Eurydice took the serpent's way out." 

Mitchell's dive into the female psyche achieves new depths with this suggestion that Eurydice has entered the Underworld by calculated choice. The dramatic moment conceived by Mitchell omits Eurydice herself. This is all about Orpheus and his judges. Two men and one woman articulate opinions about Eurydice's immediate fate; all three are figments of one man's (Mitchell's) imagination. Only one of them forms a rational reaction to the matter at hand. For, Orpheus is singing his heart out in longing, hoping to reset the world, and Pluto responds naturally to the most passionate song anyone has ever heard. It is all about the greatest lovesong ever sung and the divinities' reception of it. As automatic as the male response was, so insightful is the queen's anticipation that Orpheus will only learn from Eurydice's loss, if he will "lose his lover again and again." And that loss, she sees, must be gut-wrenching ("precipitous") and incessant. The parable has a structure to it: Pluto spoke briefly at first, and Proserpina speaks briefly at last. She has the final word, really. Accordingly, fresh ideas from the gods imparted and the queen's take on the whole event intimated, Mitchell gives Proserpina voice: "'Yes, darling,' she says. 'Let them go.'"

Classical mythology provides narrative frames in which marvels like Mitchell's vignette germinate.
Where will the next really deep consideration of Eurydice's predicament lead?

Stephen Mitchell, "Orpheus" in Parables and Portraits. HarperPerennial, 1994; reprinted in Nina Kossman, ed., Gods and Mortals: poems on classical myths (Oxford University Press 2001), 106 (OGCMA0797NOTOrpheusEurydice_Mitchell).


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