ALICE ENTWISTLE: I’m not sure: (re)constructing Eurydice

Written For the Border/Lines ‘Orpheus at Glasfryn’ Event, 2oth November 2010

I’m not sure what I’m doing here.

The Orpheus myth isn’t one I’ve spent much time thinking about. I started by trying to think about that. Some myths I think about a good deal. Why not this one? I’m not sure that it’s not because I don’t like thinking about it.

I think I don’t like it for two reasons. Firstly, the story offends me. Orpheus offends me. He lets the poor girl down so catastrophically. And brutally: at the very moment that her freedom – in all the gloriousness of the idea– seems certain. Imagine. It’s unimaginable. The glimmer of reprieve: light, love, normality. The planes of the back and shoulders, moving, just perceptible; the familiar gait. Possibility turning into reality. But not. End of. Literally.

No way out. No way beyond. Men.

I’m sorry if that sounds reductive but I think it’s pertinent, for me, for this. I couldn’t find another way into a terrain from which the rest of my own professional story seems so absent.

And I didn’t think Blanchot, to be honest, would help much. I’ve not read him before; I can’t say I enjoyed it. I think I dislike the way he turns Eurydice into a tool of logic, a means to an end; refuses her independent agency. As rhetorical topos, she is diminished: flattened out into a platform to perform on, a space to fill, show off in. But Blanchot’s most shocking abuse of Eurydice occurs for me in his meandering, paradoxical, beastly justifying of her fate as both virtuously productive (sacrifice) and ruinous (crime). For Blanchot, ‘Inspiration means the ruin of Orpheus and the certainty of his ruin … The work is just as much compromised by inspiration as Orpheus is threatened by it. In that instant it reaches its extreme point of uncertainty.’

I’m not sure how far I agree with these remarks; I cite them because I think I can make use of them. Because they suggest another reason why I haven’t thought much about this myth.

I don’t know anything about inspiration. I don’t much want to know about inspiration. It’s not something I’m in the habit of thinking about; I don’t expect to have to. But I can say I know a bit about uncertainty. And I like thinking about ruin.

As reader, critic and teacher, I think certainty is perhaps the greatest peril of my job. How can I know anything, certainly, about anything? What would be the point? For Blanchot, orphic inspiration seems at some level ruinous. And here, at last, he offers me an idea with which I might be able to agree. For doesn’t inspiration adumbrate a degree of certainty? The pact struck between author and source in the name of inspiration annexes the creative act; at best it threatens, by displacing, the collaborative agency in which reader and writer share; at worst it drains language (and in the poem, the language of form) of what should be its inexhaustible provisionalities.

And yet isn’t poetry sturdier than the mythopoeic genealogy in which we seem to be seeking to embed it? Isn’t poetic language rarified by, because of, the material and/or aesthetic circumstances in which it is deployed: in the meshing contexts of its (vocal or textual) production and reception? Don’t poems speak as eloquently in their formal as linguistic behaviours, in and through the constraints exerted by and on those behaviours? Aren’t they, like maps and pictures, defined by their spatial limits; by their borders; by what they leave out, deny; by (as Christopher Ricks notes), not always going to the end of the line? (You should know that I like to think that I don’t normally do rhetoric either.)

I’m with those for whom, in all its constructedness, the poem is manifestly fragmentary; for whom it can never be but vestigial. For whom it is, seductively, ruin. The aporiae which inhere in the poetic construct constitute, and invite me into, the only kind of intellectual space I want to occupy in, write out of. To heck with Orpheus and his wretched singlemindedness; the silence to which it condemns Eurydice. And me. Let me position myself, self-exposingly and self-protectively, in the uncertain creative energies of the hermeneutic act, among the shifting interstices of the text’s self-fracturing languages and forms; the socio-historical, cultural and political circumstances of its production and reception; the always proliferating uncertainties of its aesthetic life. I don’t want to be anywhere else.

Does the shade of Eurydice play more rebarbatively and more freely in the ‘melodious, entrancing’ legacy (ruins) of the poem than I’d guessed? Is that the point of the myth? That I can remake it as I choose, if I choose? Is this what Blanchot was saying? (Trying to say.) I’m not sure.

I’m not sure what I’m doing here.

Dr Alice Entwistle is Principal Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Glamorgan. She is author of In These Stones: Women writing poetry in and out of contemporary Wales (Seren, 2013) and co-author (with Jane Dowson) of A History of Twentieth Century British Women’s Poetry (Cambridge UP, 2005). She is co-founder, with her colleagues Philip Gross and Kevin Mills, of the creative-critical research grouping Border/Lines. ‘I’m not sure what …’ was written for ‘Orpheus at Glasfryn’, a day-long colloquium jointly held by Border/Lines and Glasfryn Seminars in November 2010, specifically in response to a paper on the essay The Gaze of Orpheus, by Maurice Blanchot *

*Maurice Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays ed. P. Adams Sitney; trans. Lydia Davis (Station Hill Press 1981), p. 99 – 104


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