October 14, 2012

The living myth

“Orpheus: The Song of Life” by Ann Wroe (The Overlook Press, 262 pages, $26.95)

“Orpheus: The Song of Life” by Ann Wroe (The Overlook Press, 262 pages, $26.95)

Although we’ve broken their statues,

although we’ve driven them from their temples,

the gods have not perished from this, not at all.

– From “Ionic” by C. P. Cavafy

If you have ever studied philosophy, practiced religion, read poetry, or been caught up in a mystical experience, you may have heard, in your moments of quiet solitude, the lilting strains of a lyre playing – a haunting melody, familiar, yet exotic; numinous, yet earthy; real, yet otherworldly.

Listen closely, and time stands still.

The music resonates with a mythic harmony not of your own making; its notes are as simple and ubiquitous as the earth you are standing on, as the trees you climbed for pleasure as a child, as the clouds your heavy soul aspires to, willing a swift ascent.

It is the lyre of Orpheus, the stirring figure of ancient Greek mythology who has no permanent roots in the cosmos, but keeps returning to humankind for the past three millennia with an irresistible urgency.

Whether in the impoverished mountain villages of Bulgaria, or the crowded subways of London, or the seedy boardwalk of Atlantic City, Orpheus is a constant presence in the modern world.

“He exists – whether he is thought of, believed in or imagined,” Ann Wroe tells us.

To Wroe, an editor of the Economist newspaper in England, Orpheus is practically a flesh-and-blood person, with a biography full of actual deeds and desires, with a story so universal that even Hindu and Islamic poets sing his praises.

Wroe has written a book on “the life and myth of humanity’s eternal muse,” that is as captivating as Orpheus’ own mystique “as a revealer of mysteries: not merely secrets, but mystikon, unutterable things.”

You may not, in the end, share her belief in Orpheus’ material reality, in the sense that, say, you would view your spouse, your parents, or your coworkers as real.

But you will come to appreciate how widespread his influence has been in the Western world, especially in the ecstatic verse of the early 20th-century poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who in a frenzy of fitful inspiration in 1922, composed 25 sonnets to Orpheus in three days – what Rilke called a “breathless act of obedience.”

Wroe takes Rilke as her starting point on a journey through the inner recesses of the soul, first defined by Orpheus as the radiant, boundless essence of man. Her expansive imagination and felicitous turns of phrase fuel her narrative with the energy of a novel.

Orpheus remains her first love (at least as an intellectual endeavor), and she wears her erudition lightly. In her eyes, scholarship has value only as it furthers the story of the nearly naked youth, armed with a lyre, who loved “more than any mortal has ever loved,” who descended into Hell to retrieve his beloved, dead wife, Eurydice, only to defy her wishes and banish her back to the grave.

This book will make you realize just how little you know of Greece’s enormous contribution to Western civilization, and just how much more you need to read: Rilke’s sonnets, for one; the extant works attributed to Orpheus; Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”; and the contemporary American poet Gregory Orr, whose “Orpheus & Eurydice: A Lyric Sequence” beautifully retells the legend (even though Wroe, in her proper Britishness, does not mention his book).

Still, in her hands, Orpheus delights and amazes with his ageless power of enchantment over nature, mortals and the gods. He makes the mundane world radiate with a divine light; his mesmerizing melodies soar as a counterpoint to our urban noise pollution.

In her tireless dedication to the son of Calliope, loveliest of the Muses, and Apollo, the god of light, Wroe has written a minor masterpiece that cannot be easily categorized.

It, too, has a haunting kind of presence that, if approached openly, will be music to the modern reader’s ear.

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