Thursday, 17 January 2008

Black Orpheus



Here’s a clip from Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus (1959), which relocates the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to the madness of the Rio carnival and is an ecstatic, sensuous, feminine film celebrating Brazilian culture and black sexuality. Certainly, one of the most beautiful films ever made.

The Greek myth involves Orpheus – the progenitor of civilisation, the harbinger of music, poetry, writing, agriculture and medicine – descending into the underworld to retrieve his wife, Eurydice, having suffered a fatal snake bite, initially succeeding in his impossible task by winning over Persephone and Hades with his plaintive songs beautifully sung, but failing to heed the warning not to turn and look at Eurydice before they emerge into the light and consigning the poor woman to return to the land of the dead.

Orpheus continues to live his life, railing at the cruelty of the gods and vowing never to love another woman, and is eventually ripped to pieces by frenzied female devotees of the god Dionysus, furious at Orpheus’ repudiation of women and his disdain for their preferred deity, and in this way Orpheus is reunited with Eurydice, in death, for eternity in the Elysian Fields.

The Orpheus and Eurydice myth has become one of the most popular subjects in Western culture, inspiring novels, operas, films, songs, poems, paintings and so on.

Indeed, Andrew Motion, Britain’s poet laureate, has recently written that Orpheus is ‘the patron saint of artists’ and put the enduring fascination of the myth in the Western imagination down to its ‘astonishing creative powers, [its story of] perfect love, tragic loss, heroic bravery, recognisable human failure, noble grief, ignominious death, final union… a compelling tale of finding and losing, making and marring.’

Not that the Greeks would have shared Motion’s reading of the myth. Rather, they would have seen the myth as describing man’s encounter with death and destruction and as reinforcing the Greek view that life results from terror. Indeed, the Orpheus myth was the basis of the most enduring and death-obsessed mystery cult in the ancient world, Orphism.

In Orphism, life is preparation for death, one long process of purification and penitence for crimes committed against the gods – specifically the murder of Dionysus by the Titans, man’s ancestors – which saw the body as evil, a tomb for the soul, which is divine and immortal; and asserted that an initiate’s aim in life – using a variety of ascetic and ecstatic techniques, cleansings, baths and aspersions, following a strict set of rules in everyday life (such as, not poking the fire with a knife, not stepping over a broom, not looking into a mirror by light, not speaking without light) eschewing anything to do with birth or death, refusing to attend funerals and marriages, following a strict dress and dietary code (no meat, eggs, beans or wine), and practicing sexual restraint – was to liberate the soul from bodily taints, in this way facilitating the soul’s escape from constant reincarnation – from the ‘wheel of rebirth’ – and finding eternal blessedness.

Pythagoras was an Orphic initiate, and the Pythagoreans – with their insistence on the importance of mathematics in knowledge and ontology, their inclination towards the Apollonian over the Dionysian side of Orphism, their stress on ascetic over ecstatic practices – have been credited with turning Orphism into a form of logical mysticism; while Plato, though appalled by the wandering Orphic beggar priests who preyed on people’s fears and guilt and convinced them to engage in strange initiation ceremonies and services as a means to purify them of their misdeeds and save them from torment in the afterlife, was attracted to ideas of metempsychosis, the immortality of the soul, body-soul dualism, and even had Socrates in the Phaedo define the practice of philosophy in Pythagoro-Orphic terms, as a process of purging the soul in preparation for death, and had him reveal the core mission of the philosopher as the pursuit of death.

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