Friday, September 25, 2009

The Death of Eurydice

The Superior asked me some time ago to write an article on the history of OHC over the last 25 years, a sort of brief update to the history of the Order I wrote in the 80's, to be published in the 125th Anniversary issue of the Order's little magazine this fall. So I went to work and started doing the chronicle of dates and names and events and so forth onto which to inscribe a more developed narrative. And I have kept at it and at it. And by doing so I have pushed off writing it.

In wondering why I didn't just dig in -- I had some clues of course -- I considered a lot of reasons, and they are all probably true at some level. But it wasn't until early this evening that they came together for me.

After supper I was having a quiet evening in my cell, reading an excellent article by Michael Casey in his The Undivided Heart called "Saint Benedict's Approach to Prayer", which is so wonderful I have been reading it half for knowledge and half as lectio for a few days, not wanting it to end.

I put on a cd of Haydn's L'anima del filosofo ossia Orfeo ed Euridice, the Hogwood version on L'Oiseau-Lyre, with the incomparable Cecilia Bartoli. It was the only opera he composed after leaving the employ of the Esterhazys, and was written for his first journey to London in 1791, though it was not produced there. It is contemporary with the last of Mozart's operas, but somehow it feels like it is from an earlier age. I was enjoying Haydn's brilliant but not always deeply moving music when, at the end of the second act, something I had completely forgotten: the death of Eurydice. The music dims in volume as Eurydice describes her emotion as the poison in her body takes effect:
Del mio core il voto estremo
dello sposo io vo' che sia.
Al mio ben l'anima mia
dono l'ultimo sospir.
Bartoli sings with such pathos that I was suddenly drawn into the music, into what was happening, in a way I have not been for a long time. As I listened to her, I could feel part of me dying with her.

Then it was time for Compline, and what would the first psalm be but 88:
my life is at the brink of the grave.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I have become like one who has no strength....
My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,
and darkness is my only companion.
It would be an overstatement to say that I was undone. But tears came. I suddenly realized, sitting in the Chapel at West Park singing Compline this evening, what was keeping me from writing.

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is certainly one of the most important myths in the history of Western art, and deservedly so. The (purportedly) first opera is an Orfeo by Monteverdi, and there are others as well. My favorite is by Gluck. Orfeo is a musician, and at the death of his beloved wife Eurydice, he plays so beautifully that the powers of the underworld are moved to allow him to descend there and be with her once again. But he cannot turn to see her.

There is a lot going on in this myth, as there is in every major myth. Its main attraction to art and music would seem to be the power of music to change what seems unchangeable, and much more, of course. Orfeo's art rearranges the past, if ever so briefly, and resurrects (here we're getting into Christian territory, but that's another set of thoughts) the one so deeply loved, only to be lost again. When they are reunited Orpheus is not to look at her or she will return definitively to the Underworld, lost to him in this life forever. And, of course, he turns and looks at her. Who would not?

I have been resisting writing the article, brief as it will be, because it brings me close to what is gone, to places and times and events now past, to those who are dead, and to people and places living but different than when I encountered them in the early enthusiasm of monastic youth. It brings me close to what might have been but wasn't, and to what is, but not as I had hoped or imagined. And, not to be too lugubrious, some things have turned out better!

For Orpheus the death of the object of his love brings forth the power of his art, and I suspect that this is one of the reasons this story has moved so many for so many centuries, and probably still does. (I would mention the film Black Orpheus as a contemporary witness to the story's power, but it would only date me!) Eurydice's loss opens the gates of creativity to Orpheus, but in this version he cannot continue, and takes poison to join his beloved. Haydn's Orfeo cannot face his loss and live.

How can we write about "the" past when it is our own past? -- because in writing this article I will be writing about myself as well as the community I have been part of, and not something that happened before me. How can we write about what is irretrievably lost except to memory, and in setting it down, in choosing this and not that to represent, how can we not betray that past, that love? How can one continue to live when one's love does not? How can any artist take what he has lost and give substance to what is inexpressible, make what is emotionally inchoate beautiful, externalize it and share it in some recognizable artistic form, and continue to live? Certainly he cannot do so unchanged.

To give substance to the memory of what has been lost to external reality is to change it from the pure but unexpressed memory to a shaped and produced and shared object. By that act the memory, the love, will now always be different. That is the nature of art. In sharing it, it is lost in its completeness, it dies a second death. And so, at a profound level, the artist who "makes music" of his loss is both acting to recapture it and acting to betray its completeness. The work of art is thus not only an act of betrayal (losing its completeness in concrete, shared expression). It is also a work of hope, because in making it, the artist is rejecting the option of joining what is now gone (except for memory) in its Eurydicean oblivion. The artist reshapes and gives to others as beauty what would have drawn him down with it into what is no more. He conquers the Orphic temptation to lose himself in his private, irrecoverable, sensate memory, which will be lost to the world if it is not shared, and ironically, lost to himself (as private, as complete) if he does share it.

The artist, or musician, or writer, or (in my case) historian, takes "the" past, recognizes it as his own past, and makes something new of it, something that will live for others, as well as refashioning it for himself. Neither he nor "the" -- his -- past is the same after it is done.


joel said...

Dear Adam: Looking and Living the past is almost unquenchable ... just like History. In my opinion...there is no History...only Biography; where OHC was and is and will be is part of what I think very much like a love story between God and us. All the best and of course, prayers, joel

Greg Burke said...

Dear Adam: Earlier this year I read your history of Holy Cross and was very moved by it. I really wanted to find out what happened next. There was so much energy and hope which obviously led to some of the sadness and disappointment you hint at. I know where you are coming from as my own community has had a similar story (though less dramatic as we had no successful revolution). I became a religious 40 years ago this year. The story of these years is yet to be written. I would be grateful to have a copy of the article when it appears (I am not a subscriber to the print edition of your little magazine). Your brother in Christ, Greg