Of Orpheus and Eurydice

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February 4, 2014 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

When Don Henley somberly declares “A little voice inside my head said don’t look back you can never look back”, not only is it the climax of “The Boys of Summer”, but it’s also the most perfect portrayal of a haunting nostalgia.  The song itself is a gloomy reminiscence of the past and how trying to recapture it is impossible since the past always seems to flutter away ever elusively.  The past is entirely impossible to recreate, because if it were, it’d be the present.  And on the surface, this refusal to accept that fact was Orpheus’ Achilles heel.

In Greek mythology, Orpheus was a musician whose wife died on their wedding day.  But, because he was such a talented musician, he journeyed all the way to Hades to sway the hearts of Hades and Persephone into allowing his beloved, Eurydice, back to the land of the living.  In Greek mythology, this had never been done before; once someone had died they were not allowed to return to life.  However, his threnody was so beautiful and sincere that it thawed the hearts of Hades and Persephone into allowing Orpheus to bring Eurydice back into the realm of the living.  In keeping up with the ancient Greek trope of irony, there was one condition of the release of Eurydice from the realm of the dead: Orpheus was not to turn around and face Eurydice whilst leading her out of Hades.  Once they had both crossed the river Styx which segregated the living from the dead, and Eurydice had been restored to life could he turn and embrace his love.

Since Eurydice was still technically dead until she crossed the river Styx she was unable to even speak, and instead had to follow Orpheus without giving him any sign that Hades had fulfilled his promise.  In a mixture of excitement to be with his love and a growing anxiety that Hades had merely lied about resuscitating Eurydice, Orpheus turned back just as he crossed the river Styx, but before Eurydice had done so.  Because she had not crossed the river, the deal was broken, by Orpheus no less, who could do nothing but watch helplessly as his love withered back to the underworld.

On the surface, the theme of looking back, in a very literal sense, is the most present and lingering one in this myth.  But looking at it from a deeper perspective, it’s clear that the implicit message of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is actually one of dichotomy, specifically the divergence between reason and irrationality, and logic and emotion.  With help from Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, this hidden theme becomes all too visible.

Most of the second disc of their recent double album is a homage to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, culminating in two tracks being titled “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)”.  It’s in the latter song where Orpheus and Eurydice are presented as juxtaposed forces, one representing emotion and irrationality, the other displaying patience and reason.

Eurydice’s entire existence is predicated upon Orpheus keeping calm and not letting his emotions of excitement and anxious dread get the better of him.  As such, because she cannot even speak to him, she can only repeat her prayers to herself.  The lines “Oh Orpheus, I’m behind you, don’t turn around” are Eurydice’s silent wishes to her love to remain steadfast and patient, as that is the only way they can be reunited.  Even though she has the most to gain in this scenario, it is Eurydice who is the most levelheaded because she knows that all she can do is hope that Orpheus won’t let his emotions get the better of him.  Despite her inability to do so, she is reiterating her desire for Orpheus’ steadfastness, as Arcade Fire vocalist Regine Chassagne, as Eurydice soothingly cautions “Don’t turn around too soon, just wait until it’s over, wait until it’s through”.  All he has to do is temper his emotions and keep himself in check and all would be well.  Eurydice needs Orpheus to be rational and keep his excitement at bay, while mastering his anxiety about the possibility of Hades fooling him.  She needs him to be stoic and restrained as that is what will win the day.

By contrast, Orpheus is feeling two opposing feelings that come from the exact same place.  He is excited at the prospect of holding his beloved Eurydice once more, and is impatient to do so, but he is also anxious and fearful that Hades has fooled him and will not relinquish Eurydice from the underworld.  That fear and anxiety turns into anger and restlessness which coupled with his potential excitement served to fuel his impatience and irrationality.  He had no reason not to believe Hades, as the god had given Orpheus his word, but still he let his paranoia get the better of himself.  Capturing this sense of subdued yet frantic unease, Win Butler, as Orpheus, exclaims “Hey Eurydice, can you see me…just wait until it’s over”.  All he wants, all he needs his some small modicum of reassurance to put his already harried mind at ease, because he is unable to temper or curtail himself.  The temptation to turn around and give in to the paranoia and irrationality is so great to Orpheus that he has to tell himself to “wait until it’s over”.  He’s trying to encourage himself to be rational and logical about the situation, because he knows that his emotions are slowly breeding irrationality which could lead to him ruining his chances to be reunited with his love.

“He told me he’d wake you up” are references to Hades, and are an ill-fated attempt by Orpheus to put his mind at ease.  In trying to do so, he starts to lose faith however, as his mind goes to the worst place possible, namely that of Hades betraying their agreement.  At that point, Orpheus is wondering why must there be a condition to their agreement; irrationally he reasons that it is just because Hades wants to be amused by Orpheus’ folly and foolishness at believing the god would relinquish Eurydice.  Silently, but illogically, Orpheus begins to accuse Hades of a horrible crime-knowingly manipulating and praying upon feelings of love.

Orpheus maintains his strength as he crosses the river Styx back, but abandons all logic when he turns around to see if his love was really trailing him all along, or if this was a cruel ploy by Hades.  Much to his dismay, Eurydice was actually behind him the entire time, praying for him to remain reasonable and refrain from giving in too soon.  As he watches helplessly as his love is whisked away from him all he can muster the strength to say is “Oh Eurydice it’s over too soon”.  Not only could they not spend their lives together, but they got a second chance to recreate the past only for Orpheus to falter and let that opportunity slip through is fingers because of his own brashness and irrationality.  He let his emotions get the better of him, and as a result it cost him Eurydice, the woman he braved life and death to reunite with.

Metaphorically, Orpheus could have looked back, as he went to Hades to reclaim his love.  He was given another chance to bring the past back into the present.  Unfortunately for these two lovers, Orpheus couldn’t maintain his rationality and in an anxious zeal he turned around and broke his barter that cost his love her life.  With Orpheus, we can’t say “don’t look back, you can never look back”.  What we can say is “you shouldn’t have looked back”.

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