We do not know if Orpheus really existed. Yet a gesture from his legend, the gaze of Orpheus or Eurydice’s disappearance, is to us more poetically electrifying and tragic than the particular details constructed around his possible existence. That moment, that passionate synecdoche where Blanchot situates the beginning of writing (‘writing begins with the gaze of Orpheus’), is a splitting that acquires such mythical transcendence that it is capable of configuring the legend and inventing the biography of its hero.
|Rodin's Orpheus & Eurydice|
Orpheus’s gaze is a ritual gaze, is like a myth in itself where the disappearance of what is loved becomes an essential condition for the birth of song. But it is not a myth in itself. The gaze that by turning disappears what was coming behind is the configuration of a literary space. With a turn on its axis, the gaze allows writing to begin. In the opposite direction to the gaze, immediately after, song begins to flow. The literary was not created by the myth, and it wasn’t a continuation as a different form of the tale: the literary broke-off from the myth. The temptation is to break the diachrony of the tale of Orpheus’s possible existence and to see in Eurydice’s disappearance the beauty of the singer’s song, its power, and its mystery. But such a temptation is not real. Eurydice does not transmit energy to Orpheus as something that transmits energy from one pole to another. Orpheus was already singing before Eurydice disappeared. Blanchot accurately places the appearance of writing on the gaze that prompts disappearance, not on the interchange of powers. Not as if Eurydice, in her disappearance, impregnated Orpheus or his song with disappearance. Nevertheless, there is an impregnation of disappearance in writing in our modern and contemporary readings. There is a reading that overflows with disappearance. In the myth of the singer by antonomasia—Orpheus—there is a key situation: the hero’s responsibility for the disappearance of the beloved. There is, perhaps, a wanting to know, an impatience, a stupidity—which is to say, a humanity—that informs the hero of loss, that makes him lose, and that loses him.
Is not our need for tragedy that which reads in the situation a moment that is key yet normal and transforms it into a foundational event? We practice a cultural extraction; we absorb the extract of what is foundational for our culture, not for the myth. Loss and song, loss and writing are transcendent meanings for us, not for the myth. Among other functions that he performs, Orpheus is an agent of civilization, a transformer, a hero. Or is the episode of Eurydice’s disappearance the core of tension that makes Orpheus’s life’s task educational? Orpheus is a wise character. To sing is to know. Above all the song that transforms nature is a song that belongs to the order of Apollo. Singing is beautiful for the Greeks. Beauty is action. That recklessness, that going against the grain of revelation, that hiding produced by recklessness or passion—that by which we get lost—creates rituals, orders, sects, ‘mysteries’. But this is an extrapolation, outside the context of a reading that cannot be understood if it is not seen as the internal tension of a tale about an experience. Still, ever since its classical ascendance that inexplicable tension creates the hidden speech of Western poetry, the unsaid that is said because it is contained in what is said. It is an absence added to presence, not by subterfuge but by pregnancy of meaning, by radiance of meaning, and for us, by a need of completeness. I insist: the disappearance of Eurydice is a meaningful event but it is only part of the tale, a part that for us, as Western debtors to the tragedy, has completely impregnated song with meaning. In this disappearance that song suffers—in this operation Orpheus is the song—there is a model of need, as if the myth prefigured its own absence. What is absent—Eurydice—is converted in song as insufficiency and corresponds to a possible future absence of the myth itself. In other words, what went missing went missing because it had to happen, it was over-determined, or determined from above, we would like to say. And so Orpheus is a puppet of the gods, singing is also a foreseeable insufficiency, and so is beauty. Then the myth can indeed be understood as a setback, even that which is contained within the myth as an internal meta-language that would inform us, from its bowels, about the true dimension of beauty. Beauty is an absence and it is what is absent, it is what we have a right to and what is constantly being subtracted from us. But it is also what is absent for order—a cosmos—to be complete. Beauty sacrificed in the name of equilibrium. And also love, which is ‘madness’. Yet what is important is the instrument that generates the absence: the gaze. We must keep an eye on this: it is not blindness, which also has had its cultural prestige throughout time, that foretells what shall come, away from the world of things that clutter our sight. It is the gaze.
Translated from the Spanish by Antonio Ochoa
Eduardo Milán is the author of over thirty books of poetry, essays, and translations. Born in Uruguay in the border city of Rivera in 1952, he shared the geographical and cultural closeness of Brazil and through his mother he inherited its language also. In the late 1970s he left Uruguay due to the repressive political climate and the incarceration of this father. He settled in Mexico City where he still lives.
Born in Mexico City, Antonio Ochoa is a poet, essay writer, and translator. He is the editor of Eduardo Milán’s Selected Poems published by Shearsman in 2012. This essay is part of Milán’s Selected Essays that will also be published by Shearsman. He lives in Cambridge, MA.