Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Orpheus: The song of life

Ann Wroe
Published by Pimlico, 2011

Lamentation d'Orphée by Alexandre Séon (1896)
 An innovative prose poem biography that doesn't explain this hero's mysterious appeal.
I'm late reviewing this book, which was published in 2011, but I couldn't leave the London Olympics year without at least one review relevant to Ancient Greece...

In the future, we may feel this book is a pioneer of Wikipedia world, a product of our current Light Age, where so much information is available that organising it will be a work of art in itself. I suppose this raises the question of whether Google is a work of art, but I will leave that aside. 

Orpheus, the singer who descended to the underworld and returned, may seem a relatively simple hero of the ancient Western world, his story a convenient model for composers. But his mystery cult in ancient Greece influenced Plato and was once felt to be a harbinger of Christianity. For this if nothing else he deserves this innovative biography. 

I see nothing wrong in writing a biography of myth. While we’re certain that nobody ever heard Orpheus play his lyre, and are equally certain that many people heard Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, nobody we know has heard either, and artists and biographers are required in both cases to interpret. 

Wroe organises her facts under seven themes (or strings to Orpheus’ lyre), arranged broadly in a standard life cycle. So a section on love precedes a section on death. The material in each section is necessarily drawn from a wide range of sources, far-flung chronologically, geographically and linguistically. 

We get ancient Greek figure vases, ancient Roman poetry, early Christian philosophy, medieval romances,  renaissance paintings, modern films, and of course operas. The variety is bewildering, and the author cannot intend us to remember, for example, whether  contemporary readers of Orpheus on the Argonautica also knew of his love for Eurydice. 

Less a detached biography than a love song, the prose is breathless and poetic, as if the narrator were reciting one of Orpheus' hymns. We gain a unifying image of Orpheus out of the chaos, and he would seem to be the narrator’s wish-fulfilment, a beautiful non-sexual sensitive young man who is too wise to be truly attached to anything or anyone, though this only makes it easier to fall hopelessly in love with him. 

Sometimes, the narrator references something that wouldn’t be so easily located on wikipedia, such as a busker on the London Underground, singing to the shades that pass him, perhaps searching for his Eurydice. I wish there were more of these lateral references in this book; as it is, we are given Orpheus ‘straight’.  

Even here, though, some of his mystery has been conveyed better by other writers.  

The German poet Rilke features prominently in this book, with regular quotes from his Sonnets to Orpheus. Yet Wroe doesn’t seem aware of Erich Heller’s wonderful essay on Rilke and Nietzsche, in which Orpheus becomes for the poet something like a composite of Apollo and Dionysus for the philosopher. 

This is the biggest disappointment with the biography. It presents the facts in an entertaining manner, but doesn’t attempt to explain Orpheus’ significance, especially his significance to us, now. The affirmation of life in spite of its horror; the role of style in mediating between Dionysus’ indivisible terrifying truth and Apollo’s false yet beautiful mastery; all of this goes unmentioned.

But perhaps the book itself is an attempt to achieve that style, that balance. The last line, involving a coffee cup, cake and primroses, might suggest this.
On the whole, though, I feel Orpheus keeps his mysteries.

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