Orpheus Redux

I’ve just been asked to write a short (2,000 word) essay about David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp (AP). I’m ridiculously excited by this prospect: AP is a beautiful book and one of my favourite graphic novels of recent years.

Asterios Polyp, Snake Bite

It’s not giving much away to say that, among other things, AP retells the myth of Orpheus and focuses on its most memorable section. Orpheus descends into Hades to extract his wife, Eurydice, who’s been killed by a snake (see above). But having charmed the gods of the underworld with his song, Orpheus loses Eurydice again when he fails to fulfill their one condition. To bring Eurydice back,  they stipulate, Orpheus should not look back until he has returned to earth (see below). But who could resist?

Asterios Polyp, Looking Back

Mazzucchelli engages with the famous myth in at least two ways. While Asterios’s life loosely parallels Orpheus’s, his romantic rival (the choreographer Willy Ilium) attempts to turn the myth into a performance, Orpheus (Underground). In a fit of pique, Willy abandons his project upon learning that a friend “has scheduled a revival of Gluck’s Orfeo–as the highlight of his spring festival!”

Asterios Polyp, Willy cancels Orpheus (Underground)

We shouldn’t take Willy’s outrage too seriously. For a start, his own methodology is essentially derivative: he creates his productions by “excising sequences from famous dance compositions and reassembling them into new works”. And then, of course, there’s the fact the story of Orpheus has been told and retold for centuries in plays, poems, the visual arts, and music. In addition to Gluck’s work, Wikipedia lists some seventy (yes, seven zero!) other Orphean operas, dating from between 1600 and 2010.

My own favourite version of the myth is Ovid’s, which starts book X of Metamorphoses. Here’s what I particularly like about it: after describing Eurydice’s “second death,” Ovid turns the grieving poet into the narrator of the rest of that book. It’s easy to forget it when you’re reading this part of Metamorphoses, but some of Ovid’s most famous stories should be imagined as having been selected and sung by the mournful Orpheus, not simply told by Ovid. He sings, or they sing, of love tragically lost (Venus and Adonis) and love implausibly won (Pygmalion and Galatea). The stories gain resonance because we see them emerging out of Orpheus’s experiences and hopes. We are asked to imagine singing of such beauty that it can wring tears from its audience–and that means us.

I’ll be thinking a lot about Orpheus, in all his manifestations, while I write my essay about AP. So let me finish by asking you this question: What’s your favourite version of the Orpheus story (in any medium) and why?

Redon, Head of Orpheus, 1881, charcoal on paper