Category Archives: Academic Writing

Orpheus hands mirror

The Orpheus Myth: Life and Death in Media

Writing – black traces on white paper, with symbols peculiarly, arbitrarily fashioned –  and film – the captured moving image – are means of capture, storage and absorption.  What is contained in a written trace?  And what is contained in thought?  And why is one compelled to contain thought in a trace?  How are thought and perception captured by film?  A contemplation of the nature of media traces inevitably leads one to consider questions of aliveness.  The static materiality of the written trace exists in a complex relationship with the airy, lively presence of thought, suggesting a duality analogous to that of life and death.  In considering the nature of writing, Derrida writes “…access to the written sign assures the sacred power of keeping existence operative within the trace and of knowing the general structure of the universe…”[1]  Unfolding the word “existence” reveals the questions at the heart of this seeming duality in the nature of the trace.  Lurking barely under the surface of the word is the unsolvable puzzle at the heart of existential philosophy: What are the edges of existence?  Is there a divine presence in this world?  What happens when we die?  Is there another realm of existence?   And, for our purposes, what is the relationship of art to life and death, or to another realm?  About this last question, Theodor Adorno, in his essay “The Form of the Phonograph Record,” writes:

‘There is no doubt that, as music is removed by the phonograph record from the realm of live production and from the imperative of artistic activity and becomes petrified, it absorbs into itself, in this process of petrification, the very life that would otherwise vanish.  The dead art rescues the ephemeral and perishing art as the only one alive.’[2]

Adorno is suggesting that the dead art of the phonograph record absorbs life, extending the existence of life “that would otherwise vanish.” The compelling nature of the existential questions posed above lead naturally to questions of life and death in the world of art and media, where it is possible to observe the extension of existence in the storage containers created for art’s keeping beyond the seeming death of individual consciousnesses – ink, paper, stage, record, canvas.

The myth of Orpheus has been absorbed into so many tablets, papers, songs, films, stage plays, poems, paintings and sculptures since its origin in ancient Greece that its continuing existence feels safely immortal from our current perspective in history.  Jean Cocteau and Rainer Maria Rilke both opened the storage jars containing the myth of Orpheus, and, using the threads and colours they found there, created something new out of its essence, in particular exploring the myth’s themes of liminality and the nature of the creative source.  This essay will explore how Rilke and Cocteau have imagined the edges of existence and how their art enacts the subtle and complex relationships along the border between life and death, and consciousness and unconsciousness.  Their Orpheic works explore the boundary between life and death as a seemingly solid line, which as one approaches it becomes dissolved, merging both sides into an in-between place, with properties all its own.  In Cocteau’s 1949 film Orpheus this place is called “the Zone”, which he described as:  “…the fringe of life itself, a no-man’s land between life and death.  There, one is neither completely dead nor completely alive.”[3]   Rilke created a space like this in his poems and placed the poetic gaze within it, contemplating outward into both imagined realms of life and death.  Rilke’s main poetic works dealing with Orpheus are his 1922 Sonnets to Orpheus, a cycle of 55 complete sonnets, but Orpheic themes appear in much of his work, including his master work, the Duino Elegies, also completed in 1922.  In “The Eighth Elegy” from Duino Elegies, Rilke calls the space in-between life and death  “Nowhere without the no,” a paradoxical phrase that cryptically suggests a “where” which is not “Nowhere”, but which is also not “somewhere”.  I will suggest that the written trace of poetry and the recorded material of film represent a similarly seeming solid line that in its tracery of meaning transforms meaning and is transformed by meaning, that meaning and tracery dissolve into one another, creating something altogether new.  The trace is like the Zone – a space where meaning touches and mingles with delineation and both are transformed into something new by the encounter.  In particular, I will explore this idea through the lens of poetry’s relationship to the idea of the natural and instinctive world, as well as through depictions of the compelling and sensuous intimacy of the poet’s encounter with death.  Adorno’s quote suggests a paradigm of storage where a “dead” article of media borrows the ephemeral spark of life from a live art, extending its life, but my paradigm suggests that, especially in the case of poetry, the trace mingles with the ephemeral spark and creates something altogether new,[4]  which in itself is a reflection of the artistic process, whereby the subjective gaze of the person viewing/hearing/feeling art mingles with the piece, and as a result experiences a transformation in consciousness.

The story of Orpheus is about the journey of the poet into the realm of death and back again: Orpheus is a mortal poet and musician, who with his lyre has the power to charm gods, people, animals and even the stones of the earth.  His wife, Eurydice, is bitten by a viper and killed.  Orpheus, in his grief, sings laments that sadden the gods, who are moved by his power to suggest that he go to the Underworld to find Eurydice and bring her back.  His music enchants the god and goddess of the Underworld, Hades and Persephone, who agree to let Eurydice go back to the upper world, on the condition that Orpheus does not look at Eurydice until they are both back in the upper world.  At the last moment, Orpheus is too quick to look at her, and she vanishes forever into the world of death.

Cocteau’s character Orpheus enacts the compulsive fascination of the poet to reach into the realm of the “unsayable”[5] – a realm where sparks of creation exist in mysterious and perpetually elusive clouds of ambiguity –to create a trace that captures and carries sparks from this realm back into the referential world.  Cocteau’s poet and Rilke are both fascinated in different ways with this other realm.  Rilke’s fascination for it is often expressed through contemplation of the natural world: earth, water, sky, wind, animal, star, or tree; and he expresses in his poetry the inability of words ever to capture nature.  Cocteau’s Orpheus is fascinated by the nearly impenetrable ambiguity of the supernatural messages coming unbidden through the radio of a car belonging to the realm of the dead: “Silence goes more quickly backwards than forwards,” “Jupiter gives wisdom to those whom he wishes to lose” and “The night sky is a hedgerow in May.”[6]

One of the significant aspects of the myth that is explored by both Rilke and Cocteau is Orpheus’ ability to create art, and, correspondingly, the question of art’s source and power, and its relationship to the natural world.  In his notes to the published transcript of Orpheus, Cocteau writes that the theme of the film is

‘…inspiration: one should say expiration rather than inspiration.  That which we call inspiration comes from within us, from the darkness of our own night, not from outside, from a different so-called divine night.  Everything starts to go wrong when Orpheus ignores his own messages and agrees to accept messages coming from outside.’[7]

What is suggested here is that the creative impulse rising from a mysterious source within the poet (“the darkness of our own night”) is itself an element of the natural world to be channelled through the consciousness and industry of the poet, and that seeking another source for art – from outside – is a departure from the natural and leads to disaster, or “expiration”.   One interesting thread of the original Greek Orpheus myth that exists in Cocteau’s film is Orpheus’ power to sing songs in the language of nature.  He can sing in the language of divinity, animal and stone, as well as in the language of the human.  His singing is a primal movement of art that transcends the limits of different categories of being, suggesting that his art is in the language of pure being.  The story of his movement between different planes of existence is another statement of the theme of crossing thresholds normally perceived as absolute, and is a suggestion that those thresholds are permeable – for the artist.

The question of the relative states of purity of a creative source, and whether this source can be located within the human consciousness at all is a thought that Rilke explored in his essay “Primal Sound” (1919).  In the essay, Rilke remembers the moment from childhood when a science teacher instructed his young pupils to reproduce the technology of the phonograph by constructing one from whatever materials were available, which is when he first saw and heard the traced grooves of waves of sound.  This memory combines with another, of his time studying anatomy at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts when he became fascinated with the “coronal suture” of a skull one evening by candlelight: “I knew at once what it reminded me of: one of the those unforgotten grooves, which had been scratched in a little wax cylinder by the point of a bristle!”[8]  Synthesizing the two ideas and coming up with something groundbreaking, Rilke suggested that the needle of a phonograph might be “directed…along a tracing which was not derived from the graphic translation of sound but existed of itself naturally…along the coronal suture, for example… A sound would necessarily result, a series of sounds, music…”  He goes on to write, “Feelings – which?  Incredulity, timidity, fear, awe – which of all feelings here possible prevents me from suggesting a name for the primal sound which would then make its appearance in the world? …”[9]  Rilke’s deep feelings in this moment emanate from his belief that the true aim of the poet is to capture the purest existence of nature, and this “authorless”[10] sound is that purity, as it is the author who corrupts and distorts purity with human desires and longing.  Robert Hass, in his introduction to Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Rilke, writes: “The key to this is the idea of mirroring.  He imagines the artist as a polished surface, disinterested…which mirrors the world back to itself and, by wanting nothing of it, makes it real.”[11]  Kittler calls Rilke’s primal sound “an absolute transfer, that is, a metaphor” and goes on to say, “A writer thus celebrates the very opposite of his own medium – the white noise no writing can store.”[12]  In Cocteau’s Orpheus, when asked what a poet is, Orpheus answers, “One who writes without being a writer.”[13]

Rilke addresses this longing for the purity of nature to be “poured” into him, and for this purity to become “true singing”, another way of expressing “primal sound”, in the third sonnet from Sonnets to Orpheus:

‘…Song, as you have taught it, is not desire,

not wooing any grace that can be achieved;

song is reality.  Simple, for a god.

But when can we be real?  When does he pour

the earth, the stars, into us?  Young man,

it is not your loving, even if your mouth

was forced wide open by your own voice – learn

to forget that passionate music.  It will end.

True singing is a different breath, about

nothing.  A gust inside the god.  A wind.’[14]

This poem depicts Rilke’s envisioning of the creative source.  He imagines “true singing” to be composed of the elements of nature, and poured into the poet by a divine hand.  The sentence asking, “But when can we be real?” expresses his deep longing to experience this purity, and for his art to express this.  His admonition to the young man to “learn to forget” the “passionate music” sung by his “own voice” is Rilke imagining the dissolving of the self, the author, the subjective consciousness into some other kind of existence represented by nature, where true singing is “a gust inside the god.  A wind.”  This expresses Rilke’s sense of a force compelling purity in artistic expression – for life or nature to be channelled somehow through the poet as purely as possible, with the most extreme and ideal purity achieved through the vanishing of the author.   However, it is significant that Rilke is also compelled by circumstances – by the need to contain “the gust inside the god” in a medium that can be shared, which would require the particular language, choice of materials, and channels of individual consciousness of the artist, in order to continue the natural process of transformation of consciousness by these messages.  The relationship of this yearning for the purity of nature with the necessity of choosing a containment medium suggests a paradox at the heart of this artistic compulsion.  This poem expresses Rilke’s wish to dissolve his poetic voice entirely into the realm of the natural, in a kind of journey into the realm beyond human existence.  But the act of his poetry, which is where his trace joins together with the realm of artistic creation, is the place in-between the two worlds.

When Rilke writes, “…learn / to forget that passionate music.  It will end.”, it is the trace of the edge of death in this poem.  The words “passionate music” enact how the trace mingles with meaning: in English translation from the original German, the meaning of the words “passionate music” is fluid and ambiguous, as culture and individual perception swirl and eddy around words, changing what they signify.  The associations and connotations of these words are uncontrollable, alive, ambiguous energies that hover in the air above the scratches on paper.  The act of translation is the choosing of the prevailing energy or connotation of word from a different system of signification, the one closest to the perceived essence of the original, which is itself fluid.  The “passionate music” could refer to the young man’s poetic voice, or the orchestrations of his consciousness, or his life – his existence.  “Music” implies energies working in concert with each other – co-operative tensions that produce a harmony from their proximity: perhaps his soul will evaporate into diffuse atoms upon death, separating from each other, no longer making music from proximity?  The point is that Rilke’s choice, and English translator Stephen Mitchell’s choice, consciously contains ambiguity, and delights in this ambiguity.  The ambiguity is what holds the poem closer to the primal sound, the author-less trace that is the subject of the poem.  But the trace – the delineation, the choice and presence of the author – creates something new that didn’t exist before in nature – a new sequence of words, of particular ambiguous energies joined together, in a new “song” or “music.”  In the Greek myth, Orpheus is a mortal, but his mortality seems mingled with the divine, the sublime, in the creation of his music.  This thread of the myth is perhaps representing the strange and numinous power in the act of creation, which is what, perhaps, compels artists to contemplate the line at the edge of perceivable existence.

And what is on the other side of the edge of perceivable existence?  In Cocteau’s Orpheus, the character called The Princess is a chic, beautiful, dark-haired Parisian woman in an elegant couture dress.  She passes through mirrors from the human world into The Zone and the world of the dead and back again.  She is Orpheus’ death.  The plot of the film revolves around the love affair between the Princess and Orpheus.  In his notes to the published screenplay, Cocteau writes:

‘The Princess’ and Orpheus’ love for each other illustrates the deep attraction that poets feel for all that exists beyond the world they inhabit.  It also represents their determination to overcome the infirmity that cuts us off from a host of instincts.  We are haunted by these instincts, yet we are unable to define or enact them.’[15]

Orpheus and The Princess participate in a sensuous intimacy that is another representation of the mingling of different worlds at the border – of trace and meaning, of consciousness and unconsciousness, of life and death.  The parallel characteristic between death and the unconscious is that we can’t see into them; they are by their nature and orientation to human consciousness, the realm of the unknown.  Yet we can sense forces emanating from both of them, like the messages Orpheus hears in the Princess’ car, or instincts that bubble up to consciousness from some mysterious place.  Cocteau’s comment emphasises the role of instinct in the creation of art, and the depiction of death as linked to the natural, instinctual world.  Kittler, in a discussion of storage media and the realms of the unknown, recalls (quoting Nietzsche) “When the Stoic philosopher Zeno asked the oracle at Delphi how he should best lead his life, he was given the answer, ‘that he should mate with the dead.  He understood this to mean that he should read the ancients.’”[16]  In Cocteau’s Orpheus the Princess is beautiful and alluring, and almost cleansed by Cocteau of her symbolic baggage: terror, darkness, decay; at the moment when the character of Cegestius, a newly dead young poet, realises what she is, she says,

‘Well now, Cegestius.  What are you making such a face for?  Did you expect me to work with a shroud and a scythe?  My dear boy, if I appeared to the living as they imagine me to be, they would recognize me and it wouldn’t make our task any easier.’[17]

Cocteau, with this elegant depiction of death, makes the idea of drawing closer to death, in an intimacy so close that breath mingles, easy to imagine.  But this is an unusual depiction of death in our culture, one that distances terror, darkness, decay and grief.  The oracle’s instruction carries more of the raw shock inherent in the idea of “mating” with the dead, using the shockingly intimate metaphor of sexual union to emphasises the juxtaposition of life and death on the material plane of existence: living bodies house consciousness and the busy energy of cellular division, and dead bodies are devoid of consciousness and in a process of rotting.  The shock has the energetic effect of producing a clap of thunder, calling the attention of the consciousness to this idea.  But also, the idea of sexual union with death implies procreation and generative power and processes of transfiguration through the merging of different elements of existence.  The Jungian psychologist Clarissa Pinkola-Estes, who deciphers archetypes in ancient stories, mining them for messages that can be used for  balancing the psyche, discusses an archetype she calls “Skeleton Woman”, whom she describes as a representation of the “Life/Death/Life nature”:

‘Much of our knowledge of the Life/Death/Life nature is contaminated by our fear of death.  Therefore our ability to move with the cycles of the Life/Death/Life nature is quite frail.  These forces do not “do something” to us.  They are not thieves who rob us of the things we cherish.  This nature is not a hit-and-run driver who smashes what we value.  No, no, the Life/Death/Life forces are part of our own nature, an inner authority that knows the steps, knows the dance of Life and Death.  It is composed of the parts of ourselves who know when something can, should and must be born and when it must die.’[18]

Pinkola-Estes is speaking here of the instincts that govern the creation of our lives from moment to moment, and the creative choices we make about what should live and what should die in the shaping of our days and decades.  In the poet’s act of creation, these unconscious instincts merge with the craft of the consciousness.  The intimate union of Orpheus and his Death represents the merging of his consciousness, in clear-seeing daylight, with the dark, shadowy world of the instinct, and his willingness to dance to its strange and powerful tune.  In equating death to instinct, Cocteau equates death with the natural, and in Pinkola-Estes’ formulation, death is always followed by new life, in an unceasing cycle of nature.

There is another moment in Cocteau’s notes to the screenplay where he aligns death with the natural:

‘The Princess does not symbolize death because this film has no symbols.  She no more stands for  death than an air hostess represents an angel.  She is the Death of Orpheus, just as she decides to be the Death of Cegestius and of Eurydice.  We each possess our own death, who watches over us from the day we are born.’[19]

Cocteau is writing here as an artist working in the age of Modernism, which was in the process of throwing off the heaviness of the just-past Romantic symbolism of the late 19th century, where in the opinion of Modernism, the thick flocks of connotations in art had begun to obscure art.  Cocteau’s statement is an emphatic departure from that tradition, and it has the effect of stripping bare the Princess, to be simply what she is within the frame of this one piece of art, and not shrouded by several centuries’ worth of sticky association and allusion. This point illustrates the fluidly shifting currents circulating around the fixed elements of art.  It is possible to tussle with Cocteau, and say that she does symbolize death, and that Cocteau’s statement saying otherwise has no power over the interpretation of her trace.  This is one of the shifting ambiguities of art, which has to do with its alchemic interaction with the consciousness of the watcher, something newly made in each artistic engagement.  It is significant that Cocteau’s statement claims for the Princess an essence, an existence, and a reality implying she is governed by a certain sense of freedom.  Notice that Cocteau writes, “she decides”, leaving the question suspended of whether he, as her creator, decides, or she, having been brought into existence, decides.  This simplicity, of her new existence simply being, echoes the simplicity of nature in its being.

A final theme in this exploration of the mingling territory along the edges of life and death is transformation.   Robert Hass writes about the moment in 1922 when Rilke poured out his two greatest works in a great creative exhalation lasting only a couple of months, after ten years of struggling to produce much of anything:

‘…the experience of hearing the music rise in himself to greet Vera Knoop’s death and all his own unassuageable grief, I think…finally jarred Rilke loose.  He felt the energy of life starting up out of death in this most profound and ordinary way.  That is why Orpheus represents more than poetry.  He stands where human beings stand, in the middle of life and death, coming and going.’[20]

This passage encapsulates the messages from Cocteau and Pinkola-Estes about the instinctual perception of the Life/Death/Life nature and its oscillating cycles, in which one thing is transformed into the other, and carries the power over from its previous state, and the power from the struggle through the transition, in an act of transmutation.  This paradigm of life’s relationship to death, which always has life following death in an even balance, negates our present Western culture’s unbalanced and overwrought terror of death.  Hass suggests, “Rilke’s project was the transformation of human longing into something else.  Eurydice is that something else.”  Perhaps Eurydice represents the spark of life imbued with purity and love that the artist attempts to bring from the realm of the numinous back into the human world.  Her purity and sweetness, in the Orpheus myth, exist on the other side of death, tempering the dark terror with the thought, “If beauty and love goes into the realm of death, then beauty and love must exist in that place.”  Rilke, in the poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” from his New Poems describes the fulfilment of Eurydice’s essence in death and the transformation of her existence into something else:

‘Deep within herself.  Being dead

Filled her beyond fulfilment.  Like a fruit

suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,

she was filled with her vast death…’[21]

“The Ninth Elegy” from Duino Elegies expresses many of the themes we have explored up to this point, but in particular it traces the transformation Rilke perceives happening through death, which is finally envisaged as a joyous moment.  Rilke opens the poem with wondering

‘Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely

in the form of a laurel, slightly darker than all

other green, with tiny waves on the edges

of every leaf (like the smile of a breeze) – : why then

have to be human – and, escaping from fate,

keep longing for fate? . . .’ [22]

He begins by transplanting his human consciousness into a laurel, “with tiny waves on the edges / of every leaf” – a beginning turn of the cycle he is describing the arc of, from the human world into the world beyond, through the lens of the natural world.  He de-scribes the edge of each leaf using a metaphor in miniature of “waves” (in the original German, “Wellen” which literally translates to “waves”), which themselves depict the movement of oscillation between two states, tracing minutely the overarching theme of the poem.  The poetic instinct, or choice, to invoke this metaphor enacts the creative music happening at the border between the act of tracery and meaning.  “Waves” is the vessel chosen to contain the edges of Rilke’s as-yet unformed, ambiguous thought about the nature, the beingness, of trees.  In this moment of tracing thought, the shape of the trace, which is the word chosen from amongst a host of possibilities hovering above the poet’s head, is chosen particularly for the set of meanings and associations which in concert form its essence.  This act of delineation joins the choice of the shape of the trace (“waves”) with the meaning arching over the stanza and poem (the oscillation between two states of being).  In this sense, the vessel has a life of its own – its own ambiguous energies – and a prevailing shape formed by the cultural consensus of language, which when joined to the ephemerality of thought, creates something wholly new, which is bursting with elements sparking and combusting with other elements.

Next, he addresses “the unsayable” nature of the realm beyond human existence, or consciousness:

‘…when the traveller returns from the mountain-slopes into the valley,

he brings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead

some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue

gentian.  Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,

bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window –

at most: column, tower. . . . But to say them, you must understand,

oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves

ever dreamed of existing.  Isn’t the secret intent

of this taciturn earth, when it forces lovers together,

that inside their boundless emotion all things may shudder with joy?’

Here Rilke wonders if the point of human existence is the saying, the tracing of nature – if the act of tracing with its sparking of new intensities, if join the fullness of human emotion and consciousness to what is numinous, is the point of life on earth. The poem ends in a jubilant one-sided dialogue with the “taciturn earth”, personified, in which the oscillation of the poet’s gaze at the two worlds of life and death finally resolves into the merging of both and the transformation of the poet:

‘Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us,

invisible? Isn’t it your dream

to be wholly invisible someday? – O Earth: invisible!

What, if not transformation, is your urgent command?

Earth, my dearest, I will.  Oh believe me, you no longer

need your springtimes to win me over – one of them,

ah, even one, is already too much for my blood.

Unspeakably I have belonged to you, from the first.

You were always right, and your holiest inspiration

is our intimate companion, Death. 

Look, I am living.  On what?  Neither childhood nor future

grows any smaller . . . . . Superabundant being

wells up in my heart.’

 This conversation has the full tenderness of a conversation between lovers, although, in contrast to the relationship between Orpheus and the Princess, there is no subtext of sensuality here, so perhaps it is more appropriate to say that it has the tenderness of a conversation between loved ones.  The poetic device of personification of the earth is a another enactment of the theme of humanity dissolving into nature, this time with nature taking on the characteristics of humanity as a listener and silent participant in the dialogue.  The airy lightness of the “earth” “arising” “invisible” “within” us is a significant contradiction to the usual associations with earthiness: dark, rich, dense, fertile, soil; and this suggests that Rilke imagines a spiritual element existing in duality with the materiality of nature. The relationship described in these last two stanzas of the poem is between the poet and his own death and transformation.  The merging of the natural world and the poet is depicted with a tender plural possessive: “our intimate companion, Death”.  The poet has passed into a place where time ceases to exist, where “childhood” and “future” exist stripped of size, measurement or relativity.  In this place, in communion with Nature, the poet experiences a “welling up in his heart” of “Superabundant being.”  The word “Superabundant” is the spark of a superlative element mingled with an element already multiplying itself in limitless expansion, enacting the movement of “welling up”, a gathering together and rising of alive forces, and suggesting from its pinnacle in the overarching theme of the poem, the apotheosis of the poet into the realm of pure being.

Poetry is different to logic, and Rilke’s poetic imagination is imbued with a light, vivid and unbounded gaze that searches for poetic formulations to contain his perceptions of metaphysical reality.  Ultimately, the point about the realm of the unknown, which is the subject of furious industry on the part of both poets and philosophers, is that it is unknown.  So, Rilke’s poetic gaze towards the edge of existence remains simply a view from a single human perspective from the land of the living.  However, it is interesting to wonder.






Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W.   “The Form of the Phonograph Record” (1934).  Essays on Music.  Ed.        Richard Leppert.  Trans. Thomas Y. Levin.  London: University of California Press, 2002.


Cocteau, Jean.  Three Screenplays: L’Eternal Retour, Orphee, La Belle et la Bete.   Trans. Carol      Martin-Sperry.  London: Lorrimer Publishing Ltd, 1972.


Derrida, Jacques.  Of Grammatology  (1976).   Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.  Corrected Ed.            Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.


Kittler, Friedrich A.  Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986).   Trans. and Intro. Geoffrey Winthrop-          Young and Michael Wutz.   Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Mitchell, Stephen (Ed. and Trans.).   The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.  Intro. Robert      Hass.  London: Picador, 1987.


Pinkola-Estes, Clarissa.  Women Who Run with the Wolves (1992).   London: Rider, 1996.


[1]    Derrida, p 92

[2]    Adorno, p 279

[3]    Cocteau, p 191

[4]    Adorno, however, was writing in 1934, before djs…

[5]    Rilke, trans. Mitchell, “The Ninth Elegy”, p 199

[6]    Cocteau, p 146

[7]    Cocteau, p 188

[8]    Rilke, “Primal Sound”, reproduced in Kittler, p. 40

[9]    Ibid, p 40

[10]  Kittler, p 44

[11]  Hass’s introduction to Mitchell’s translation of Rilke, p xxix

[12]  Kittler, p 45

[13]  Cocteau, p 159

[14]  Rilke, trans Mitchell, p 231

[15]  Cocteau, p 191

[16]  Kittler, p 8, referencing Nietzsche, “Geschichte der griechischen Literatur” (1874), in idem 1922 – 29, 5, 213.

[17]  Cocteau, p 143

[18]  Pinkola-Estes, p 136

[19]  Cocteau, p 190

[20]  Hass’s introduction to Mitchell’s translation of Rilke, p. xxxix

[21]  Rilke, trans. Mitchell, p 51

[22]  Rilke, trans. Mitchell, p 199

N Swami woman and flute

The Power of Generation in the Novels of Toni Morrison


The stories told in Toni Morrison’s novels are strongly rooted in the fictional communities and familial structures of her main protagonists and concern the African-American’s experience in America, from the tragic social by-products of slavery to a continually evolving sense of cultural identity drawn from a fusion of the violently fragmented segments of African-American history.  One of the main motifs in her novels is the idea of generation, with its accompanying associations of cycles, fertility, and power.  Some of the many resonances encompassed by this motif are how the economy of slavery was involved in the birth of America as a country; the idea of reproduction – human and social; the suspended ambiguous relationship between the old and the new; how nourishment and sustenance of this bond are necessary for regeneration; the retention of African culture across the generational break that happened as a result of forced migration; and the birth of ideas through language.  This study will explore how these ideas mingle and interact in the novels The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Paradise, with emphasis on Song of Solomon and Paradise.

Peter Kolchin describes how in colonial America the combination of a world “with few ideological constraints against the use of forced labor”; fertile land suitable for growing crops that were greatly valued abroad, such as tobacco and rice; and a margin of profitability dependent on “the number of laborers one could command” created conditions that gave rise to the practice of slavery.[1]  Therefore, the forced migration of African slaves was mainly for the purpose of putting them to work in the fields, and the enormous wealth that was generated off the back of their labour was fundamental to the economic success of America.  Howard Zinn argues that the leaders of America’s revolution “found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits and political power from favourites of the British Empire”.[2]  Thus, in the birth of America as a nation there is a crucial relationship between the two interlocking generative cycles of wealth and power, which in turn fuelled the birth of an ideology, and the African-Americans’ experience of these dynamics was at the “ground” level of production, where their physical power sparked with the cyclical power of fertility. The tension between the ideology on the surface of American life and the materialistic concerns below it was a natural breeding ground for revolt, however, and, as is often the case in history, black literature was and is an important mouthpiece recording the progress of black Americans’ search for a sense of identity which is rooted in their past and which looks forward to the future.

The novel Paradise is intricately concerned with the intertwined ideas of fertility and material wealth, and how unhealthy ideologies at the foundation level of societies can breed only ill effects.  The novel is centred around the community of Ruby, Oklahoma and its relationship to “the Convent”, a nearby mansion house, which “before it was a convent …was an embezzler’s folly”,[3] and which houses a collection of wayfarer women scattered from their original homes by various tragedies and united under the perfect maternal love and care of Connie, who is a mixed-race, light-skinned with green eyes, former nun who stayed in the house after the convent was closed.  Ruby is a community founded by nine “eight-rock” families, eight-rock being a “deep, deep level in the coal mines”: “Blue-black people, tall and graceful, whose clear, wide eyes gave no sign of what they really felt about those who weren’t eight-rock like them”.[4]  Ruby is the resettlement of the original community of Haven. In the chapter named “Patricia”,[5] Morrison describes how the newly freed eight-rock founders of Haven discovered that there was a an internal prejudice amongst African Americans between light-skinned and black, and as a result of being shunned by their African American peers, they grouped together and embraced an ethos of maintaining their racial purity, the manifestation of which was the founding of an enclosed, separate community.  The original community of Haven naturally begins to mix more and more with the outside world, and after World War II the new generation of men who hold the power in the town decide to relocate to an even more remote location, “which has ninety miles between it and any other”.[6]

A community diseased by this purist ethos, Ruby is an example of the reactionary transference of ideas from oppressor to oppressed, other examples of which are the men’s imperial insistence on land ownership and materialism.  Morrison’s use of language with ringing thematic resonances is demonstrated by the term “eight-rock”.  Its immediate associations are with coal mining, and therefore with materiality and earth. It is a simultaneous evocation of a colour spectrum, an accompanying spectrum of evaluation, and an accompanying sliding spectrum of fortune.  It also evokes the physical labour of coal mining, which demands a cowed, subservient posture; and the spondaic rhythm enacts the violence and hardness of the tools striking the rock.  It takes the imagination “deep, deep” into the ground, which is important to the novel’s overarching theme of a community “buried” by its own prejudicial ethos, which acts as a cover for base materialism.

The timing of the resettlement in Ruby as post-WWII is significant, because it was the inclusion of African-Americans in the military and their experiences abroad of societies less racist than the United States that helped give momentum to the Civil Rights Movement in the following decades.[7]  Just as many African-Americans were pursuing integration into American society, this smaller society of eight-rock descendents moved in the opposite direction, towards greater isolation.  The feeling of isolation is evoked by Morrison in the novel’s reluctance to include any details of the Civil Rights Movement, while it emphasises a closed cycle of gain and loss for African-Americans, first after Reconstruction collapsed in the south with the implementation of segregation laws and the revocation of voting rights, and the gain of personal freedoms for African-American soldiers abroad, which they lost upon return to America.   The effect achieved by this is the strengthening of the bond between Ruby’s present and its past.  It is a re-enactment and stagnation of the exact conditions of the previous generation’s experiences of wandering and settling in the wilderness, and it is the negation of the hope of progress:

‘The house he lives in is big, comfortable, and this town is resplendent compared to his birthplace, which had gone from feet to belly in fifty years.  From Haven, a dreamtown in OklahomaTerritory, to Haven, a ghosttown in OklahomaState.  Freedmen who stood tall in 1889 dropped to their knees in 1934 and were stomach-crawling by 1948.  That is why they are here in this Convent.  To make sure it never happens again.  That nothing inside or out rots the one all-black town worth the pain … He and the others, veterans all … carried that devotion, gentling and nursing it from Bataan to Guam, from Iwo Jima to Stuttgart, and they made up their minds to do it again.’ (5-6)

This passage illustrates the adoption and mirroring of the unhealthy values of America’s white, male infrastructure; the men of Ruby become intoxicated with materialism, power and a self-righteous belief in the sanctity of their racial purity, which supplants actual spirituality. The consequence is that they become inflated, feel they are above the law, and decide to “cleanse” the town of the women in the Convent by killing them, in an evil inversion of religious values. The group of women at the Convent represent the outside world in their mixed-race composition and in their true spirituality that seeks healing and apotheosis through the retention of their original culture of spirituality, and the men find this threatening to their sense of safety, which is based upon isolation and enclosure.

In contrast, the linearity of generation in Song of Solomon is broken and obscured by history, and the character Milkman goes in search of the story of his family line, and his progress is set much more firmly against the events of the Civil Rights Movement.  Song of Solomon takes place in a lakeside city in Michigan, where Milkman’s father, Macon Dead, is a wealthy landlord, owning black properties all over town.  The feeling of history is partly evoked by the dichotomy of the two geographical landscapes in the novel: one is an urban setting in the cold northern Midwest, which evokes the mass migration of blacks northward to work in factories during the early twentieth century; and the other setting is in the south, with all its traditional associations of plantation slavery, warmth and fertility.  Another way in which the backdrop of history is evoked in the novel is by the existence of the “Seven Days”: a secret society of black men in Milkman’s town who, crucially, forsake family – and the possibility of regeneration – for inclusion, and who, whenever “a Negro child, Negro woman, or Negro man is killed by whites and nothing is done about it by their law and their courts …selects a similar victim at random, and they execute him or her in a similar manner if they can”.[8]  Milkman’s best friend Guitar is a member of the “Days”, and the two characters represent two opposing directions possible for African-Americans to pursue in their continual search for a positive identity in the culture of America: one represents the hopeful creation of a new self through the discovery and integration the past in the preciously guarded retention of African culture, and the other represents the flat, stagnant, and poisoned mirroring of the hate and violence of white oppressors leading only to destruction.  The proof of this end to Guitar’s direction is provided by the example of Robert Smith, a member of the Days who goes mad as a result of his involvement in the society and commits suicide by “flying” off the roof of the town’s whites-only hospital.  He draws a crowd of “forty or fifty people”, one of whom is Milkman’s mother, who is pregnant with him at the time.  The event starts her labour, and she becomes the first black woman to give birth in the hospital.  It is the dramatic scene which opens the novel, providing an introduction to the important themes of birth, flight, and the synthesis of old and new which is inherent in the refreshing process of regeneration.

In reflecting upon Morrison’s use of black American history, it is useful to take a lesson in synthesis from the novels themselves: the racial context is a crucial part of the synthesis of artistic elements, but the created whole work of art has an autonomous life of its own.  In attempting to understand the nature of the work of art, one must be aware of how its various elements are functioning together.  Thus, if we discuss “The Days” in Song of Solomon, it is important to discuss both the secret society’s relationship to black American history, and to the internal world of the novel.  The critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., whose contribution to this stream of thinking is key, in 1984 pointed out an early over-emphasis on the sociological and anthropological function of black literature, which happened at the expense of close-reading of the text:

‘The literary work of art has stood at the center of a triangle of relations (M.H. Abrams ‘universe’, ‘artist’ and ‘audience’), but as the very thing not to be explained, as if it were invisible, or literal, or a one-dimensional document.  The relation of the black text to its ‘universes’, its author, and its various readerships has until recently been the exception rather than the rule.’[9]

The shape of the resistance of black literary criticism to some types of Euro-centric criticism and a “curious valorization of the social and polemical functions of black literature”[10]  is parallel to the necessarily adaptive synthesis of different cultures which occurs in the novels themselves: the critical approach must be dual, diverse and inclusive of “the idiom of critical theory but also … the idiom which constitutes the ‘language of blackness’”.[11]  Gates highlights the importance of including the audience in the end accomplishment of creative endeavour:  “The viewer’s own history completes the forms, the canvas, the sculpture, the ahistorical testimony of a poetic licence”.[12]  This duality is presented by Frederick Karl, who explains that Milkman and Guitar “are like twins who break off so as to represent different elements of the black experience”.[13]  But Guitar’s element is the closed, reactionary, violent sphere of the black experience in its mirroring of hate and violence, whereas Milkman’s element represents the refreshing aspect of generation, which seeks understanding from the coherence of progression.

The language in the opening chapter of Paradise reveals how reproductive cycles, in terms of community as well as physiology, can be corrupted by materialism, resulting in obscured vision leading to base acts, which in turn perpetuate the corrupted cycle. The sense of obscured vision inherent in a stagnant and malign cycle is enacted by Morrison’s choice to begin the novel during the dramatic hunting scene: men from Ruby are hunting down the women in the Convent with murderous intent, and the story is told only from the perspective of the men.  The naturally-arising acute question of “why are they doing this?” must fight against the heavy dampening effect of being introduced to the novel’s story through the obscured vision of these murderous men.  The feelings of oppression and fear are enacted in the first lines of the novel:

‘They shoot the white girl first.  With the rest they can take their time.  No need to hurry out here…They are nine, over twice the number of the women they are obliged to stampede or kill and they have the paraphernalia for either requirement: rope, a palm leaf cross, handcuffs, Mace and sunglasses, along with clean, handsome guns.’[14]

The natural fear, shock and speed of the first sentence is immediately dampened by “they can take their time”; and the insistence on the slowing of pace is enacted through the repetition of the idea: “No need to hurry out here”.  The idea of suffocation or how the power in any imbalance is held by the side with greater quantity is enacted through “They are nine, over twice the number of the women”, and the use of the word “obliged”, suggests a heavy compulsion, as well as a number of questions about the men’s motives – questions which undermine the surface meaning of the word, and which go unanswered, really, until all the pieces of the puzzle finally drop into place in the ninth chapter of the book.

The evocation of heaviness, slowness, obscurity and fear is the physical manifestation through language of Morrison’s theme.  The fear of the pain of being shunned by American society is the impetus behind the founding of Haven, and then Ruby.  This original impetus becomes obscured by the creation of an ideology of purism, which is a mirrored negative of the prejudice that caused the founders of Ruby pain in the first place.  The mirroring of the prejudice creates an infected, structurally-rotten platform for the justification of inflicting pain on others.

The passage above reveals the confused logic inherent in the separateness of Ruby, with the first dramatic image, “They shoot the white girl first” – which evokes the horror and tragedy of death – and which is followed closely by the image of “clean, handsome guns”.  The associations with guns are blood, death, horror, unfair advantages, phallic symbols and murder, not cleanliness and beauty.  This jarring of the reader’s unconscious associations are like tremors before the earthquake, and pitch the reader into a state of confusion, enacting the confusion of the logic behind the story of Ruby, and also inducing the reader into a necessary state of scepticism.  Later in the novel, the dichotomy existing between the men’s superficial justification of their actions and their real motives is presented when Lone, the midwife, is eavesdropping on their plans:

‘Sargeant, she knew, would be nodding at every shred of gossip, chewing on the rag end of truth and wondering aloud why this deliberately beautiful town governed by responsible men couldn’t remain so … But he would be thinking how much less his outlay would be if he owned the Convent land, and how, if the women are gone from there, he would be in a better position to own it.’[15]

In Song of Solomon the lust for wealth inherent in the American dream is symbolised by Milkman’s father’s accumulation of property in their lakeside city in Michigan and the “treasure” which he is obsessed with finding.  The “treasure”, which turns out to be the bones of his father, provides the initial impetus for sending Milkman on a journey to the south, which ends up leading him to the truth of his family’s story.  Linden Peach comments,

‘Despite its traditional emphasis upon initiation, renunciation, atonement and release through ritual divestment, the experiment with the quest narrative in Song of Solomon through Milkman’s search for his legacy is determined by its radical content.  For example … in many respects [Milkman] is an unlikely hero; for much of the novel he draws inaccurate or inappropriate conclusions.  But then this is a novel which …suggests that to elevate any individual to the status of a hero or any one point of view to the level of myth is reductive.’[16]

In the resolution of the novel the value of money is supplanted by the values of truth, family and love, through Milkman’s discovery of the story of the bones – they are his grandfather’s – which is the discovery of his past.  Peach says that “many of the mythical and folklore elements come from Africa”.[17]  The most potent of these myths is that of Africans who could fly.  Milkman’s subsequent burial of the bones represents how he successfully transforms the destructive value of materialism into the productive values of healthy family love through the reconstruction of generational ties through knowing his family’s story.

The idea of birth and its various related issues of sexuality, the negation of birth in the form of abortion, and spiritual birth are important in Paradise, so important, in fact, that the structure of the novel repeatedly chimes with pregnancy motifs.  There are nine founding eight-rock families of Haven; the number of men hunting the Convent women is nine; the main traffic between Ruby and the Convent consists of women who “dragged their sorrow up and down the road”,[18] coming for abortions and help after beatings.  The down-pouring of rain before chapter nine symbolises the Convent women’s final healing and is like “water breaking”, and most importantly, the first nine chapters correspond to a period of gestation and development culminating in the “deliverance” of the soul of Ruby by the woman of chapter nine, who is Ruby’s midwife, Lone, when she overhears the men’s murderous plans and rallies the families peripheral to Ruby’s power structure, who still uphold integrity and a sense of true spirituality, to go and defend the women.  They arrive only in time to be witnesses to the deaths of the women.  When the town’s undertaker arrives to collect the bodies, he is astonished to find that they have all vanished, which is represented in the book as their apotheosis. The language continually evokes the motif of pregnancy, even in the description of how the “veterans all … carried that devotion [to the founding of a racially pure town], gentling and nursing it from Bataan to Guam, from Iwo Jima to Stuttgart, and they made up their minds to do it again”.[19]  The evocation of gestation, labour and birth in the chapter structure of the novel also draws a parallel with the labour involved in the production of art.

The idea of abortion within the birth motif contains the suggestion of broken cycles, of things not coming to their proper fruition; and also, as Morrison’s novels portray the search for identity of a disenfranchised people, abortion comes to symbolise the self-hate which is a reaction to the attitude of an oppressive white society, and is another aspect of how these attitudes can be transferred from oppressor to oppressed.  A pattern emerges in which the women of Ruby seek help from the Convent, sometimes asking for abortions, which amongst the women of Ruby is always a damaged offshoot of their relationship with the men of the town, who would condemn a woman pregnant before marriage as sullying the purity of the town.  Again, this shows how the men of Ruby have adopted an excessively self-righteous form of white Christianity, one which elicits an extreme paranoid response to the suggestion of occultism which is a part of the spiritual practices of the women at the Convent.  The “occultism” actually represents the women’s healthy exertions toward healing themselves and represents the healing knowledge to be gained from remembering and deciphering the past in order to create the future.  The women use knowledge from the preciously guarded retention of African spirituality, which is their collective past, to confront and heal the wounds of their individual pasts. It is significant that the most horrific depiction of abortion at the Convent is a self-inflicted abortion performed by Arnette, who is a female representative of the twisted male values.

The Bluest Eye opens with the text of a popular American children’s primer about Dick, Jane and their parents and dog.  The ideas highlighted by this choice of opening material are family relationships; education; superficial appearances and the imagistic appeal to the eye of colour and its significance; and the idea of the ideal and how it is expected and sometimes demanded by society.  All these things are twisted into a vortex of language, turned on their heads and presented in their unhealthy and tragic inversions, leading to the conclusion of how a sick society punishes its inhabitants in a self-begetting and destructive cycle.

The opening lines are ‘Here is the house.  It is green and white.  It has a red door.”  This enacts how information obtained from visual observation – as the first information we know about anything – influences our perception of it.  Colour is the first thing about a person that you know about that person.  This passage also depicts that the world of the novel we are about to enter will be seen through the eyes of a child, which asks us to ponder the questions of child as narrator – will she be trustworthy?  The innocence and purity of children is reflected in their first observations of life, and the novel makes the point that the child starts out with the truth, but may be taught by society to unlearn that truth if she wants to fit into society.  Morrison removes the punctuation of this passage and repeats it, effectively speeding up the words, blurring the ideas together and removing their superficial sense along with the syntax.  Then she spirals further into linguistic chaos by the removal of the spaces between the words.  Jan Furman comments that “these latter passages take on a frenetic tone that signals perversion of communal perfection for Morrison’s characters, who do not blithely run and play and live happily ever after.  In removing standard grammatical codes, symbols of Western culture, Morrison expurgates the white text as she constructs the black”.[20]  The effect is also to strip language of sense, which is a linguistic enactment of regressing through the stages of educational development; it has the effect of pulling the reader back to a state of childlike apprehension of the world. Later in the book, the narrator Claudia describes an overheard adult conversation:  “Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires”.[21]  This is how a child understands – the musicality, the blurred-togetherness of sounds is more immediate to her than the complex interchange of ideas which she cannot yet understand.  She has more learning to do first.  However, her education exists on a plane of tension between instinct and the demands of a sick society.

The sickness of society is represented by the inversion of familial relationships in the form of the rape of Pecola by her father, Cholly Breedlove, and the resulting pregnancy.  Cholly is also a victim of the unhealthy society: “he was alone with his own perceptions and appetites…as it was, he reacted to them [his own children], and his reactions were based on what he felt at the moment”.[22]  He is wholly uneducated in the field of family relationships, and it is almost as if his rape of his 11-year-old daughter is equivalent to making an error at the blackboard in front of the class, an error which displays his total lack of understanding how families work.  In his drunken state he perceives his daughter washing dishes, and she lifts her foot and uses it to scratch her other leg, in the same gesture that seductively fascinated him when he met his wife.  The gesture leads him into a memory and stimulates him sexually for his daughter – producing an inversion, a chaos of the family relationship.  He gets an “F”.  Morrison leads us into this way of looking at the horror of the incest in the beginning of the book when she writes, “Quiet as it’s kept there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.  We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow”.[23]  Morrison herself comments on this in the “Afterword” of 1993:

‘The opening phrase is an effort to be grown-up about this shocking information.  The point-of-view of a child alters the priority an adult would assign the information. ‘We thought…it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow’ foregrounds the flowers, backgrounds illicit, traumatic, incomprehensible sex coming to its dreaded fruition.  This foregrounding of “trivial” information and backgrounding of shocking knowledge secures the point of view but gives the reader pause about whether the voice of children can be trusted at all or is more trustworthy than an adult’s.’[24]

The scene of the rape is followed by a chapter which opens with the sentence: “Once there was an old man who loved things, for the slightest contact with people produced in him a faint but persistent nausea”[25].  He goes on to say that “knowing his label [misanthrope] provided him with both comfort and courage, he believed that to name an evil was to neutralize it if not annihilate it”.[26]  Toni Morrison, in the “Afterword”, comments on the power of naming and knowing: “thus, the opening provides the stroke that announces something more than a secret shared, but a silence broken, a void filled, an unspeakable thing spoken at last”[27].  More than this, the novel itself functions in the same way – Toni Morrison speaks to us, the reader, for the function of naming and knowing the societal evils which infect African-American communities and are by-products of the system of slavery.  Slavery is silently presented as the thing which is generative of negative cycles, and the cure for healing this is presented as language, manifested at the surface level of Morrison’s production of language. Peach comments,

‘Black literary criticism has been resistant to the various trends, such as structuralism, in Euro-American critical practice which posit the separation of the literary text from its author, partly because reclaiming an identity and (narrative) voice to counter centuries of denial and misrepresentation is central to much post-colonial writing.  However, a major reason for this reluctance to divorce text completely from its social and political context is that literature would lose its social function.  For African and African-American writers the novel has been an important vehicle to represent the social context, to expose inequality, racism and social injustice.’[28]

The idea of the power to give birth to ideas through language works on various levels; this quote refers to the power of literature to give birth to consciousness of “inequality, racism and social injustice”.  Within the context of the generation motif, the power of “naming and knowing” refers to the retention of African culture, the integration of which into self-identity is presented in Morrison’s novels as a necessary synthesis for achieving a full and progressive sense of identity.

One of the important critical issues which has to do with the nature of synthesis between African and African American culture is signifying.  It is a complex idea, and is defined in various ways by various writers and critics.  It has to do with a creative, coded way of retaining original African cultures across the violence of forced migration, within the use of the forms of white oppressors. It is explained by Sundquist, quoting Roger Abrahams:

“…Abrahams argues that black signifying refers to the capacity of linguistic formations to elicit deep meaning while casting doubt on conventional meaning: ‘To the outside world, such signifying is sometimes regarded as a mark of irresponsible irreverence; it may make serious matters seem playful, the subject of banter.  But this is exactly what is intended in the world of nonsense, to use the West Indian term for signifying; it provides a context in which the community encourages its wits to test the limits of meaning by exploring the edges of believability, all of this in the service of expressive resilience and improvisational creativity.’”[29]

The “conventional meaning” represents the surface forms of Euro-American discourse, in music, dance and literature.  The novel form is one of these, and examples of signifying abound in Morrison’s novels.  The example of the prologue material of The Bluest Eye being gradually deconstructed in the removal of “standard grammatical codes, symbols of Western culture” within the overall structure of what is a novel, is an example of how Morrison manipulates “the capacity of linguistic formations to elicit deep meaning while casting doubt on conventional meaning” .[30]

The pervasive elements of magical realism in Morrison’s novels also work as signifying.  In Song of Solomon, at the heart of the protagonist Milkman’s search for his ancestral roots, is Morrison’s use of the myth of Africans who can fly.  Solomon is Milkman’s great-great grandfather, and the story that he discovers while on a search for “treasure” is that Solomon flew from the white oppression of America back to Africa.  Crucially, the flight was also from his family, which resulted in a breaking of the linear generational cycle. It works as an element of magical realism, testing the reader’s assumptions about the novel form in the navigation of the “edges of believability”, and it leaves the question of whether or not Milkman’s Virginian great-grandfather actually flew away from white oppression on the ground unanswered, suspended – in an artistic, linguistic resolution that enacts flight, which is an excellent example of how signifying works.[31]

The character of Lone, who is Ruby’s midwife, represents both a sense of true spirituality and symbolises the importance of the retention of African and West Indian culture.  The overtones of female spirituality obviously chime in the naming of “the Convent”.  The old Mother Superior warns Connie to “be careful … I think she practices”,[32] the implication being that she “practices” magic, which is of course an abomination to the religion of Christianity, to which Connie belongs as a nun, as well as a retention of African culture.  The revulsion of the men of Ruby towards the spiritual practices of the Convent women, represents the intense hate of this retention of African culture, which amounts to a hate of that part of themselves.  However, it is Connie’s eventual acceptance and integration of Lone’s message which leads her along a profound spiritual path to eventual apotheosis at the end of the novel.  In response to Connie’s statement of resistance, “In my faith, faith is all I need”, Lone says “You need what we all need: earth, air, water.  Don’t separate God from His elements.  He created it all.  You stuck on dividing Him from His works.  Don’t unbalance His world”.[33]  This passage emphasises the theme of synthesis running through black literary criticism, Morrison’s novels taken as a group, as well as the individual stories told in Paradise and Song of Solomon.  The passage condemns the separation of “His elements”, which could be read as separating race from race, and race from humanity.

In Paradise, the balance between elements of the earth, representing the materialism of the men of Ruby, and the air, represented by the true spirituality of the women, is described by the language in the opening chapter of the novel. The name of Haven is only one vowel sound and letter away from Heaven, and this is in part responsible for evoking the strong overtones of religion in the story.  There is multi-faceted, jewel-like irony in the play of the words “Haven”, “Ruby”, and “Convent”, and their relationships to the ideas of religion, spirituality, the ground, the air, materialism, etc.  The re-naming of Haven to Ruby can be seen to yank away the status of this town as a haven, with all its spiritual associations with the heavens and the air.  With the re-naming, it is transformed to “Ruby”, with the associations of materialism, riches, jewels dug out of the ground and preciously hoarded, as the men of town preciously hoard the idea/ethos behind its founding to an unhealthy, evil conclusion.  They have lost the true guidance and understanding of spirituality.  The imagery supports this: when the men are searching the Convent, they find “that each woman sleeps not in a bed, like normal people, but in a hammock”.[34]  The women of the Convent have found true community, true spirituality, true love between themselves – they are uplifted, as in a hammock, suspended in the air, being pulled upward, off the ground, and that is where they can find rest, sleep and peace.  Also, the hunters/men come upon the Convent, formerly a rich man’s mansion, and from their perspective they see it as “[floating], dark and malevolently disconnected from God’s earth”.[35]

If the symbolic associations of Paradise’s concern earth, in its fertility, materiality and baseness, then Song of Solomon is a novel about the air, with its strong associative currents of song and air and knowledge.  Song of Solomon opens with a two-line poem: “The fathers may soar / And the children may know their names”.   The novel is about progression and regeneration in the healthiest way.  It is about the transformative power of knowledge.   In the opening scene of the novel, a member of the secret society “The Seven Days” is perched on top of the city’s white hospital and is threatening to fly off the roof.  A crowd has gathered to watch the mad man jump, and from amongst this crowd, which is mostly comprised of the town’s black community and the novel’s cast of characters, Pilate, who is Milkman’s aunt, begins to sing, “O Sugarman done fly / O Sugarman done gone…”.[36]  Her solo singing reveals her odd and slightly removed place from the society of the crowd, but the singing of the song, while also lyrically indicative of her adherence to beauty, feeling and truth despite what her society has to say to it, is one of the first clues of many leading us the readers and Milkman the character on a journey leading to the discovery of the truth of his family’s story, and the truth of their names and origins.  “Sugarman” is Solomon, and this is the literal “Song of Solomon”. We discover later that Pilate is able to see the ghost of her father, who shows up at different points in Pilate’s life, urging her to “sing”, the only word he ever speaks to her.  In the unravelling of the story of Pilate and Milkman’s family, we discover that Pilate’s father is repeating the name of his wife, which has been obscured by a break in the generational lineage of their branch of the family from the other descendents of Solomon, and her name is “Singing Bird”, a Native American name.  This journey of Milkman’s is a rite of passage for him and is a process of reconciliation.

The idea of American soil as it appears in Morrison’s novels reflects the complex historical relationship between it and African Americans – the relationship to bondage and violence is portrayed by Guitar’s statement that “the earth is soggy with black people’s blood”.[37]  And the economy of fertility is closely related to the economy of slavery – in America during slavery ownership of humans was in the same financial sphere as ownership of land.  When Milkman travels to Virginia in Song of Solomon, he is taken on a night-time hunting trip by the backwoods men who later turn out to be a community of Milkman’s relatives.  At the end of the hunt, which is a physical manifestation of the trial and strain of his desire to travel a meaningful distance along his path through life by pursuing an understanding of his past,

‘… he found himself exhilarated by simply walking the earth.  Walking it like he belonged on it; like his legs were stalks, tree trunks, a part of his body that extended down down down into the rock and soil, and were comfortable there – on the earth and on the place where he walked.  And he did not limp.’[38]

This passage is important because it shows the synthesis of Milkman, the black man whose ancestors were imported – a financial, material term which denies their humanityfrom Africa in a forced migration, feeling happiness and connection to, reconciliation and synthesis with American soil.  Also he is symbolised as a growing thing, gaining nourishment from a connection to his roots.  This can be contrasted with the images of dirt in The Bluest Eye: “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.  We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow … We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola’s father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt”.[39]  The handling of the motif of earth in Song of Solomon is positive – this is a joyful synthesis.  It can also be contrasted to the oppressive sense of the earth evoked by Paradise’s associations with “eight-rock” coal mining.

The evocation of a sense of refreshing regeneration from the discovery of the past is accomplished altogether in the first words of the above passage: “…he found himself exhilarated by simply walking the earth”.  The first part, “he found himself” depicts the meandering of Milkman’s thoughts toward his state of mind and how it relates to his physical movement, and the overtones ring with the novel’s theme of self-realisation through discovery of one’s lineage.  The word “exhilarated” enacts the physical movement of breath through the body, and how happiness is felt at a physical level.  It also evokes the element of air, and in the combination of human physicality with the element of air, flying.   And “walking the earth” is associated with physical and ideological progress forward, and at the same time shows the transformation of a black American’s traditional painful placement in relation to American soil to something joyous and positive.  Also inherent in the idea of “walking the earth” is the American idea of claiming the land that one walks over, integrating that claim into a new sense of identity.  Milkman is claiming this land in the Native American sense where all the land belonged to all the people, as opposed to the financial, imperial sense which is represented by Milkman’s father’s obsession with gaining property.

The synthesis achieved at the end of Song of Solomon is an intense blend of the elements of the world as listed by Lone in Paradise: earth, air and water.  The motif of flight – with its associations of mythic Africans, knowledge, and spiritual elevation – is wrapped up in the idea of multi-generational linearity, and the combination of all of these in the story of the flight of his great-grandfather produces a joyous ecstasy in Milkman: he explodes into the house of the woman he is staying with in Shalimar (a corruption of, but named for, Solomon), Virginia, and when she offers him a bath, he says,

“’Bath!  You think I’d put myself in that tight little porcelain box?  I need the sea?  The whole goddam sea!’  Laughing, hollering, he ran over to her and picked her up at the knees and ran around the room with her over his shoulder.  ‘The sea!  I have to swim in the sea.  Don’t give me no itty bitty teeny tiny tub, girl.  I need the whole entire complete deep blue sea!’”[40]

Morrison sustains the duality represented by Milkman and Guitar, and the struggle between their two ideologies, which is represented by a literal struggle, goes unresolved.  Guitar is hunting Milkman, intent on killing him, because he believes that Milkman found material treasure and hid it away for himself.  The reason Guitar wants the treasure so badly is that he wants to give it to the Seven Days, and the force of the seductive, violent ethos which mirrors the hate and violence of white racists, supersedes his humanity, which should render him unable to kill his best friend, in an inversion of values similar to that of the men of Ruby in Paradise.  When Milkman and Pilate are finally standing together on Solomon’s Leap, a high outcropping of rock which looks out over a valley near Shalimar, and have buried the bones of Milkman’s grandfather, Guitar shoots and hits Pilate.  The passage of culture from generation to generation is enacted when, as she dies, she says “I wish I’d a knowed more people.  I would of loved ‘em all.  If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more”.[41]  The lesson so recently learned by Milkman is the importance of knowing and loving, and there is an effective ambiguity in “If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more”: the ambiguity and embracing generality mean that it can be interpreted both as a wish to have known and loved more people, and also as emphasis of Morrison’s theme of the spiritual elevation and love which result from knowledge.  The transmission of culture is also enacted when Pilate speaks her last words to Milkman, asking him to “Sing … Sing a little somethin for me”.[42]  Milkman sings her a new variation of the “Song of Solomon”, in a powerful coherence of the dramatic emotion of the scene, which contains the importance of sustaining bonds of shared culture and knowledge, as well as of family, across generations; the birth of new culture from knowledge of the old; and the spiritual associations with flight and song – all of which are recalled and realised as Milkman sings “Sugargirl don’t leave me here / Cotton balls to choke me / Sugargirl don’t leave me here…”[43]


[1] Peter Kolchin. American Slavery: 1619-1877  (London: Penguin, 1993)  p. 6.

[2] Howard Zinn.  A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present  (New York: Perennial Classics, 2001) p. 59.

[3] Toni Morrison.  Paradise  (London: Chatto & Windus, 1997) p. 1.

[4] Paradise, p. 193.

[5] Paradise p. 185.

[6] Paradise p. 3.

[7] Zinn, p. 448.

[8] Toni Morrison.  Song of Solomon (New York: Plume (Penguin), 1987)  p. 154.

[9] Henry Louis Gates Jr.  Black Literature and Literary Theory  (New York and London: Methuen, 1984)  p. 6.

[10] Gates p. 5.

[11] Gates pp. 3, 8.

[12] Gates p. 54.

[13] Frederick R. Karl.  American Ficitions: 1940-1980  (New York: Harper and Row, 1983) p.435.

[14] Paradise p. 3.

[15] Paradise p. 277.

[16] Linden Peach. Toni Morrison (London: MacMillan Press Ltd., 1995) p. 58.

[17] Peach p. 58.

[18] Paradise p. 270.

[19] Paradise pp. 5-6.

[20] Jane Furman. Toni Morrison’s Fiction  (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina, 1996)  p. 20.

[21] Toni Morrison.  The Bluest Eye  (London: Chatto & Windus, 1979)  p. 9.

[22] The Bluest Eye p. 127.

[23] The Bluest Eye p. 4.

[24] The Bluest Eye, “Afterword”, p. 170.

[25] The Bluest Eye, p. 130.

[26] The Bluest Eye p. 130.

[27] The Bluest Eye, “Afterword”, p.171.

[28] Peach p. 2.

[29] Eric J. Sundquist. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature  (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993) pp. 279-280n.

[30] Furman p. 20.

[31] Linden Peach includes a discussion of how  “ the difficulty of achieving a properly balanced critical approach to African-American writing is exemplified in the application of the ‘magic realist’ model which has been suggested by Slemon (1989) as appropriate to post-colonial texts” (12), but this particular point is not central to my discussion.

[32] Paradise p. 244.

[33] Paradise p. 244.

[34] Paradise p. 7.

[35] Paradise p. 18.

[36] Song of Solomon p. 6.

[37] Song of Solomon p. 158.

[38] Song of Solomon p. 281.

[39] The Bluest Eye p. 4.

[40] Song of Solomon p. 326.

[41] Song of Solomon p. 336.

[42] Song of Solomon p. 336.

[43] Song of Solomon p. 336.

Antigone Holderlin

Antigone’s Realm: An Exploration of the Unity of Life and Death in Sophocles’ Antigone

There is an illusion of solidity in the idea of the original ancient Greek text of Sophocles’ Antigone, an artefact of literary archaeology preserved and cherished like the marble statues of Greek antiquity.  But beyond, behind and within the ancient Greek words inscribed on paper lies a realm of meaning and significance; and in this realm, the questions posed by Antigone whirl and eddy in ceaseless motion.  The play is surrounded by a vast sea of scrutiny, translation and interpretation, its vastness fed by the long history of the play[1] and the enduring relevance of the questions the play poses about the nature of humanity, chaos, civilisation, life and death. George Steiner writes in his book Antigones:

‘In the act of philosophical interpretation, in the poet’s recasting, we confront the fundamental constancy of homecoming, the backbone of theme and variation in western sensibility. The Antigone myth reaches unwavering across more than two millennia.  Why should this be?’[2]

The answer to this question proves to be surprisingly elusive.  In the first attempt to answer it, one only discovers more questions, such as “What is it that makes the play great?”, and  “What compels us continually to return to its themes?”  Each of these questions leads to more questions, as one descends layer by layer deeper into the play, through its cultural context, plot, themes, characters,   and language.  Perhaps the incredible generative power of Antigone is one aspect of its greatness – its fertility in producing questions that compel a search within the play for significance that reaches beyond the boundaries of the play to illuminate the nature of humanity.  Perhaps Steiner’s question is difficult to answer because the fundamental nature of tragedy is to pose questions, not answer them, and Antigone will not permit final, sweeping conclusions to settle upon it.  But the act of contemplating minute tensions and harmonies arising from particular themes in the play illuminates aspects of the human experience, and this search for meaning amongst the riches of the play is as valuable as it is endlessly compelling.

One provocative, open doorway leading into a current of significance in Antigone is the consideration of death as a foreign realm into which Antigone travels.  I will explore Antigone’s relationship with death and suggest that she is a guide sent ahead to compel the audience into a journey towards a confrontation with the idea of their own death, which is a confrontation with the forces of the unknown, the fearful, the dark, the powerful, and the ambiguous.  The transcendent result of this confrontation and struggle is knowledge and acceptance of coming death, which is a richer state of being, in which there is a unity achieved between the forces of the familiar and the foreign.  Conducting this exploration through the filters of various translations is curiously revealing, because the act of translation works with the raw materials of a “home” language and a “foreign” language combined in a unique and dynamic relationship.  The translation of Antigone by Friedrich Hölderlin from 1804 is particularly suitable for this exploration, because it represents and enacts the qualities of struggle and unity.  Hölderlin’s Antigone, radically, fused interpretation with translation[3] and is a culmination of his theory of translation, which suggests the necessity of struggle with the foreign, in which the home language “…will become skilful, strong and supple in the struggle with the beauty and greatness of the foreign original.”[4]

Antigone is closely aligned with the world of the dead throughout the play, beginning with the first scene, in which she speaks with her sister Ismene outside the palace gates in her home city of Thebes, and explains her intention to bury their dead brother Polyneices, in violation of the decree made by Creon, ruler of Thebes:

‘ …I

Will bury him.  To die after is good then

And lovely to lie by him then, my loved one,

When I’ve done what is holy.  Then a longer time

I shall be liked by those down there than here

For there I’ll dwell for ever…’[5]

Creon has decreed that Polyneices must remain unburied because he waged war on his home city of Thebes, and the punishment for violation of this decree is death.  To leave the dead unburied was disturbing to the ancient Greek mind[6], and Creon’s decree creates the major conflict in the play.  The language in this passage evokes the physicality of Antigone lying down in her grave and shows her consciousness travelling to the realm of the dead, marking the boundary line between “here” and “there,” and contemplating it as a place she will “dwell for ever.”  There is a remarkable simplicity, purity and balance in the lines “I will bury him.  To die after is good then.” These two utterances contain Antigone’s resolve to bury her brother, alongside her full knowledge that this resolve will bring her death.  Antigone gazes almost gently at death – the language of the passage combines love with death: “to die after is good,” “and lovely to lie by him then, my loved one.”  Antigone’s tender embrace of what is the most foreign and fearful concept to the mind is a jarring juxtaposition of opposing energies, heightening our awareness that she is different, other, foreign to humanity in some as yet undefined way.

From this beginning speech, Antigone is pulled onwards through the play by a force carrying her towards death, and she is draped in the poetry of death through metaphor and allusion.  What is the nature of this compelling force?  The force partly draws strength from the rigidity of Creon’s decree and the power he commands as ruler of Thebes.  It is wreathed about her head in the form of the pollution of the house of Laius, as the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, both dead.  She says, shortly before being led to her death,

‘The unlucky mother in delusion with her arms around

My father, her

Own birth,

And from them with a darkened mind I came

And to them I am coming cursed…’[7]


But by far the most compelling aspect of the force drawing Antigone towards death is the essential purity of her resolve to honour her brother, which is also perhaps a factor in the power of her story to “[reach] unwavering across more than two millennia” and inspire revolutions.

Antigone’s purity is demonstrated in every speech and action she takes.  She undertakes a self-determined, brave course of action in deciding to bury Polyneices against the decree of Creon upon the authority of her own principles.  She chooses for her actions to be made public by loudly  mourning the body in the sight of its guards.  She displays great integrity in her speeches with Creon and the remarkable quality of tenderness and clear-sightedness when confronting the reality of her coming death.  These portrayals make for a tragic heroine who shines like a beacon, as an ideal to humanity.  Although one possible surface assumption about this state of affairs is that Antigone represents the heights of human achievement in her purity of principle, Antigone’s purity, although ideal, is also somewhat inhuman in its perfection, and this is interesting to consider in terms of Hölderlin’s revolutionary translation of the second choral ode.

Antigone is famous for the beauty and power of its choral odes, and the second choral ode is particularly remarkable in the way it describes humanity’s achievements of existence.  The ode begins with a description of man using a qualifier from ancient Greek – tò deinón or δεινόϲ that is most often translated as “wondrous”, or “wonderful.”  For example, the first lines of Kitto’s translation of this ode are

‘Wonders are many, yet of all

Things is Man the most wonderful.

He can sail on the stormy sea

Though the tempest rage, and the loud

Waves roar around, as he makes his

Path amid the towering surge.’[8]


Hölderlin’s Antigone translates these beginning lines as

‘Monstrous, a lot.  But nothing

More monstrous than man.’[9]

The yawning chasm in meaning between “wondrous” and “monstrous” is shocking, but there is an enticing and subtle harmony existing amidst the discord of these two words, in the connotation of expansion beyond normal limits. T.A. Augst writes:

Hölderlin’s choice of the word “ungeheuer” for the Greek tò deinón…calls monstrosity to mind…given that this curious choice inevitably colours all that follows, the question of accuracy becomes moot, for there is more at stake here than a “correct” translation.  Tò deinón, which Hölderlin translates elsewhere and at other times as “das Gewaltige,” here disturbs in the very act of signifying.  Its translation produces an effect of foreignness in the same gesture that ought to render it comprehensible.  In a striking enactment of what his remarks will ultimately explore, translation begins to take action here, to speak its own name, even as it stands in for an other that will not be silenced.[10]

Holderlin’s choice to fuse interpretation into the act of translation in such a violent way demands from his audience a conscious contemplation of previously hidden subtleties, and this action lifts the reader forcibly out of the play and into a contemplation of the ambiguous relationships existing between language, poetry, tragedy and knowledge of human nature.  In this, translation joins with the original text of the tragedy, united in the purpose of urging the audience towards a confrontation with ambiguity, and with death.  The significant aspect of Hölderlin’s radical word choice to Augst is the producing of “an effect of foreignness,” which is an enactment of the themes of foreignness and monstrosity occurring in the play.  “Monstrous” is foreign in nature to “wondrous.”  The currents of meaning flowing between the words “wondrous” and “monstrous” highlight the ambiguity in the character of Antigone, as well as in the character of all humanity.  Is she wondrous or monstrous in the way her purity of will has expanded beyond the normal limits of humanity?  Steiner discusses the ambiguity inherent in Sophocles’ usage of the original Greek word, “δεινόϲ”:

‘If there is in δεινόϲ the concept of ‘terror’ and of ‘excess’, there is also, as in Herodotus’ use of the term – Herodotus’ idiom being often analogous to Sophocles’…the notion of ‘sagacity’, of  ‘practical wisdom’ and ‘canniness’.  Our own ‘uncanny’, in fact, points to a similar congruence of associations.’[11]

Antigone’s existence in the play is imbued with a slightly supernatural feeling, a numinous quality singling her out as one existing somewhere between life and death.  The elusive meaning of this quality exists, ambiguously, somewhere between the thought-worlds of “wonder,” “monstrosity,” and “uncanniness,” with “uncanniness” being the closest fitting term. When the Messenger reports the first burial of Polyneices to Creon, he describes the strangely undisturbed nature of the ground around the body:

‘…the land

Was solid, the earth nowhere dug up,

Not ridden over by wheels.  The master had left

No mark and when the day’s first glimpse denounced

It to us, it had an eerie feel, like a miracle.’[12]

We know that the “master” who has sprinkled dust on Polyneices is Antigone, and the nature of the action, imbued with religious power, but comprehended by the Messenger as having been done by an unseen force, recalls the formlessness, power, and presence of the Greek gods, and suggests Antigone’s alignment with them.   The wandering nature of words and their meanings, and the inability of words to settle on Antigone, to perfectly capture her, contains an essential point about the nature of art and humanity – there is a realm of unconquerable ambiguity that exists just between life and art, and the art that has the most life in it, travels through this realm and draws from its power.

The manner in which Creon punishes Antigone is a rich symbol for the strange territory of otherness that Antigone inhabits – he walls her up alive in a stone tomb.  In the Hölderlin translation  Creon says “I’ll…keep her living in the pit of rock,”[13] in Grene’s translation the words are “I will…hide her alive in a rocky cavern,”[14] and Kitto translates these lines as “I’ll find a cave in some deserted spot,/And there I will imprison her alive.”[15] This isn’t just a juxtaposition of death and life – it is life existing within death, and death existing within life.  This theme of the intermingling of life and death in the character of Antigone chimes again and again throughout the play.  She says to Ismene after her first scene with Creon,

‘You are alive, be cheerful, but my soul

Long since is dead and so I serve the dead.’[16]


And shortly before her death, Antigone says,

‘ Neither among the living nor the dead

do I have a home in common -

neither with the living nor the dead.’[17]


In Antigone’s raw and constant contemplation of death through the course of the play, she is inhabiting the realm of death in her mind, which is representative of how the audience, under Sophocles’ spell, is led to inhabit the same imaginary realm of death, to follow where Antigone leads in her journey towards death.

It is significant that Antigone, as the eponymous central figure in Sophocles’ play, does not actually travel the path of the tragic hero.   Froma Zeitlin writes,

‘Women as individuals or chorus may give their names at titles to plays; female characters may occupy the center stage and leave a far more indelible emotional impression on their spectators than their male counterparts (Antigone, for example, with respect to Creon).  But functionally women are never an end in themselves, and nothing changes for them once they have lived out their drama on stage.  Rather, they play the roles of catalysts, agents, instruments, blockers, spoilers, destroyers, and sometimes helpers or saviors for the male characters.’[18]

Zeitlin is making this point in the context of a discussion about the significance of gender roles in tragedy, but this passage is relevant to the depiction of Antigone as a numinous, liminal being existing in a foreign realm somewhere between the living and the dead.  It is significant that she has a role different from that of the tragic hero, and an existence in a realm somewhat separate from that of the living.  The striking measure of this is the fact that Antigone never experiences a revelation that changes her knowledge of her self.  This is another mark of the purity Sophocles builds into her character.  Whereas the chorus advises Creon to abandon his position in the conflict with Antigone, the chorus says to Antigone, tearfully, just after the beautiful choral ode about love:

‘But you go famous and accompanied by praise

Off to this chamber of the dead’[19]

and a four speeches later in the same scene,

‘A dweller neither with

The living nor the having died.

Pushing boldness to the parting place

On to the heights of justice…’

These lines show that the purity of Antigone’s will is rewarded by the chorus assigning her praise and the the high honour in the Greek world of a famous name.  She is depicted as “pushing boldness…to the heights of justice.”  This distinction has the effect of giving her a measure of authority, and imbuing her actions with the quality of the ideal.  Antigone does function as a catalyst instrumental in Creon’s tragic trajectory, but she also acts as a guide.  In his book, Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? – in which he offers a subtle, powerful variation on Aristotle’s theory of the purpose of tragedy (to accomplish a “catharsis of pity and fear”[20]) – A.D.  Nuttall writes “It is easy to see how the human imagination might begin to exhibit a need, in art, for a death-game, a game in which the muscles of psychic response, fear and pity, are exercised and made ready, through a facing of the worst, which is not yet the real worst.”[21]  Antigone is the leader of this death-game in Antigone. 

             The world of the dead as it existed in the collective ancient Greek mind is probably like our modern perceptions of Heaven, which is to say that it is shaped by our poets and artists, as well as religious practices.  It is impossible to arrive at any true understanding of how ancient Greeks conceived of the world of the dead, the “underworld” – therefore it is difficult to draw conclusions about the significance of the underworld in tragedy.  But clues from literature and archaeology paint some kind of picture and give some suggestive ideas of a separate world, foreign, and dark.  Edith Hamilton writes “In Homer the underworld is vague, a shadowy place inhabited by shadows.  Nothing is real there.  The ghosts’ existences, if it can be called that, is like a miserable dream.”[22]  After the fourth choral ode in Antigone, Antigone is edging ever closer to death, and she says

‘The god

Of death who hushes everything

Is leading me living

To the banks of Acheron…’[23]

And she imagines that she is entering into a marriage with death: “O grave, O bridal bed and housing Underground.”[24]  Antigone’s view of the afterlife is presented as this “hushed” and “shadowy” place where she will live a half-existence and probably represents the prevailing tide of belief in ancient Greece.  However, there is a less prevalent, alternative and provocative view of the afterlife in Greek mythology that is suggested by the myths surrounding the cult of Eleusis, which was originally associated with Demeter, and which came to be associated with Dionysus.[25]

Thus far the figure of Dionysus has been a silent presence in this exploration of the themes of death, foreignness, ambiguity and tragedy, but he is the god who symbolizes these themes, and he has been waiting in the wings.  The final choral ode in Antigone is a paean to Dionysus:

‘Creator of names, pride of the waters

That Cadmus loved, and a part of him

Who echoes in the thunder

Earth’s Father

And over famous Italy

You rove far and wide

In growth.  But common to all

Is something impenetrable.  For you

Govern also at Eleusis, in the womb.

But here, O God of Joy,

In the mother city, in bacchantic

Thebes you are at home…’[26]

This ode alludes to Dionysus’ association with wandering, the vine, ecstasy, and his home city of Thebes.  He was considered to be an Earth god, and not an Olympian, because although he was the son of Zeus, he was the result of one of Zeus’ liaisons with women other than Hera, and Hera would not permit his presence.  So Dionysus wandered, a perpetual foreigner.  Dionysus represented the vine itself, a wandering plant growing up from the earth, producing an elixir with transformative powers, which must be harshly pruned, and which had the appearance of death every winter, followed by rebirth in the spring.[27]  Three lines in particular from the ode above allude to Dionysus’ association with rebirth:

But common to all

Is something impenetrable.  For you

Govern also at Eleusis, in the womb.

This allusion to Dionysus’ association with rebirth is significant to an understanding of the themes of foreignness, death and unity in Antigone.  Kitto translates these lines as “King are thou in the crowded shrine/Where Demeter has her abode”[28] and Grene as “you who rule where all are welcome in Eleusis; /in the sheltered plains of Deo.” Hölderlin’s interpretive enhancements intensify the strength of the passage’s allusion to themes about the journey from life to death: the universality of the contemplation of the afterlife, the universal inability of all humankind to penetrate the mystery of what happens to the soul (or consciousness) after death, and the governance of Dionysus over “the womb”, or birth and fertility – in this context, probably the rebirth of the soul in a new realm in the afterlife.  Antigone has a bleak view of the world of the dead, but the cult of Eleusis offered initiates an alternative way of perceiving the afterlife.  Charles Freeman, describing what little is known of the initiation ceremony into the mysteries of Eleusis, writes

‘What went on at this moment [the climax of the initiation ceremony] remains secret (no ancient author ever revealed it), but it was clearly a highly emotional experience in which the participants felt they had achieved direct contact with the divine world and would enjoy a blessed afterlife.’[29]

The choral ode to Dionysus, coming as it does after the emotionally beautiful and charged final speeches of Antigone as she approaches her death (which are filled with a deep sorrow at her passage from life into what she perceives as a “desert of the dead”[30]), spoken by the chorus of Theban elders, has the effect of widening the play’s contemplation of the nature of the afterlife beyond the prevailing view, which is Antigone’s view, to include the nature of the afterlife presented by the cult at Eleusis.  This passage of the ode also provides a philosophical point emphasizing the “impenetrable” nature of these mysteries – that in truth, it is impossible for anyone to know what happens after death until they have experienced it.

It is perhaps fitting to conclude with a contemplation of death as a final homecoming and the transforming power of art.  Hölderlin’s act of translation in the passage above enacts the process of wandering in the foreignness of the original text, drawing power and illumination from the ambiguous energies of meaning and connotation assembled in the air around the words, and incorporating that energy into his interpretive translation in his home language.  Hölderlin carries over from the original Greek energies that are alive but hidden behind the surface meaning of the words.  Dionysus is the god representing these ambiguous energies, and these energies are represented in this ode as a part of the healing power of Dionysus, being invoked at this moment in the play:

‘O you walker in fire

Leader of the dance of the stars and keeper

Of secret speech’[31]

This allusion to Dionysus’ power over hidden, unseen energies comes from Sophocles’ original text – Grene translates “keeper of secret speech” as “master of the voices of the night.”[32] It is significant that Dionysus, as god of the ambiguous and of transformation, should be appealed to for his healing power.  The power of tragedy to transform and heal is the final unity in this exploration of death as a foreign realm.  The union of knowledge of the foreign with the original state of “home” produces a new state of being in which home includes an acceptance of the foreign.  Heidegger’s work on the river hymns of Hölderlin leads him to a contemplation of this eventual unity between home and the foreign:

The essence of one’s own is so mysterious that it unfolds its ownmost essential wealth only from out of a supremely thoughtful acknowledgement of the foreign…[33]

The healing, transformation and enlargement offered by the journey to the foreignness of death isn’t something that affects Antigone, because her role isn’t to be transformed, it is to inspire the journey, then to go first, compelling the imagination to follow her.  The nature of the tragic is the symbolic representation of the progression of the human consciousness coming to terms with what simply IS, and the final point to make about the nature of death in Antigone, and in life beyond Antigone, is that death is ultimately familiar, ultimately natural, ultimately a homecoming.  A final acceptance of the truth, rightness and certainty of death is essentially satisfying to human consciousness because it is a natural progression.  The journey to death involves an encounter with the unknown, which produces awe, fear, pain, and a reluctance to embark. Tragedy powerfully enacts the forces of “what must be,” and creates an explosion of complexities of emotion and significances when an individual is compelled to confront these forces. Beyond the words inscribed on paper, which have carried Antigone safely across two thousand years,  Antigone exists in a parallel realm that is like a crack in the universe and the mysterious space that exists between one thing and another.  In this dark, fertile, and mysterious place that gives birth to great art,  Antigone is alive.




Works Cited

Aristotle.  The Rhetoric (trans. W. Rhys Roberts) and the Poetics (trans. Ingram Bywater) of         Aristotle.  New York: Random House, 1984.


Augst, T. A. “Difference becomes Antigone: Hölderlin and the Ethics of Translation.”  Seminar    (Toronto).  38.2 (May 2002) : 95 – 115.


Constantine, David, trans.  Hölderlin’s Sophocles: Oedipus and Antigone. Highgreen, UK:            Bloodaxe Books, Ltd, 2001.


Freeman, Charles.  The Greek Achievement: The Foundation of the Western World.  London: Viking          Penguin, 1999.


Grene, David and Lattimore, Richard (Editors).  Greek Tragedies (Volume 1) (2nd Ed.).  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.


Hall, Edith (Editor).  Sophocles: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Electra.  H. D. F. Kitto (trans.).       Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.


Hamilton, Edith.  Mythology.  New York: Little, Brown, 1998.


Nuttall, A. D.  Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure?  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.


Steiner, George.  Antigones.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.


Zeitlin, Froma.  Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature.  Chicago:     University of Chicago Press, 1996.



[1]    Edith Hall, citing Bernard Knox’s Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theatre, in her introduction to Kitto’s translation of Antigone, writes “An ancient, but unreliable, tradition implies that Antigone may have been produced in the late 440s [b.c.].”  p xiv

[2]    Steiner, p 106

[3]    Constantine, p 8

[4]    Constantine, p 7

[5]    Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone,  p 73

[6]    Historian Charles Freeman writes, “When Thucydides describes the plague of 430 in Athens he seems as much concerned with the abandonment of the rituals of burial…as with the loss of life itself.” p 131 – 132

[7]    Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone,  p 97

[8]    Kitto trans., Hall (ed), p 13

[9]    Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 81

[10]  Augst, p 101

[11]  Steiner, p 89

[12]  Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 78

[13]  Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 94

[14]  Grene trans., Grene and Lattimore, p 212

[15]  Kitto trans., Hall (ed.), p 27

[16]  Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 87

[17]  Grene trans., Grene and Lattimore, p 214

[18]  Zeitlin, p 347

[19]  Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 96

[20]  Aristotle, trans. Ingram Bywater, p 230

[21]  Nuttall, p 77

[22]  Hamilton, p 42 – 43

[23]  Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 95

[24]  Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 98

[25]  Hamilton, p 75

[26]  Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 106

[27]  Hamilton, pp 64 – 76

[28]  Kitto trans., Hall (ed.), p 38

[29]  Freeman, p 142

[30]  Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 99

[31]  Constantine translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone, p 106

[32]  Grene trans., Grene and Lattimore, p. 225

[33]  Heidegger, p 55

Durer Melancolia engraving image

The Earth-Bound Angel: The Melancholy of Feminine Suppression in Durer’s Angel by Marie-Claire Blais

One of the striking profundities of the engraving Melencolia I (1514) by Albrecht Durer is the evocation of both heaviness and lightness in the image of the seated angel.  The image is emblematic of the melancholy state of being as it was perceived in the Renaissance, and harked a renewed connection between melancholy and genius in the consciousness of the age, a connection which arches over all of the vast field of the subject of melancholy.[1] The symbol of the angel in the engraving represents the potential of flight, brilliance, genius and transcendence, all of which are  weighed down by a profound heaviness, perhaps produced by the contemplation of grave spiritual and scholarly matters.  As a general symbol, an angel represents the elevated aspects of particular human existences that aspire to transcendence – whether it be artistic, intellectual, philosophical, or spiritual.  But beyond the ineffable impressions that arise from the contemplation of Durer’s image, it is difficult to arrive at a definition of melancholy.  In A Field Guide to Melancholy, Jacky Bowring writes: “Suffering and joy.  Pleasure and sadness.  Melancholy is a conundrum, a riddle of contradictions.  The latent richness of the concept grows out of these paradoxes, and three particular enigmas haunt melancholy: madness, genius and beauty.”[2]  In The Gendering of Melancholia, Juliana Schiesari describes melancholy variously as a “distinguished epithet”, “temperament”, “malady”, and (from within her feminist critique of the canon of melancholy) as “an elite ‘illness’ that afflicted men precisely as the sign of the exceptionality, as the inscription of genius within them.”[3]  With such an array of definitions, and such a vast field and long history, the nature of melancholy proves to be a culturally significant, though elusive, topic to explore.

One literary example of a human existence that aspires to lofty heights is the character Pauline Archange from Marie-Claire Blais’ novel Durer’s Angel, a work exploring melancholic themes from a particularly feminine perspective.  Durer’s Angel is deep and rich in melancholic themes to sift through, but I will explore in particular themes of suppression and elevation relative to the position of Pauline Archange as an aspiring, creative young woman living in a culture oppressive to her aspirations.  The tensions surrounding suppression and elevation in the novel invite contemplation of various questions about melancholy and femininity – whether there exists a unique sort of female melancholy that is suffused with the pain of suppression, in contrast to “the glory of male melancholia,”[4] and whether this suppression is only just finding expression in contemporary culture as a result of the emergence of women’s rights in the latter part of the twentieth century, suggesting that the great and grand tradition of melancholy beloved by western culture tells only one half of the story of melancholy.

Durer’s Angel is a beautiful, if sad, novel depicting French Canadian schoolgirl Pauline Archange’s passage from girlhood into adolescence in the mid-twentieth century.  It is filled with themes of heaviness – loss, grief, slumber, oppression.  The injustice Pauline feels in response to the suppression of her potential, however, introduces a sharp quality that sits in contrast with the novels dreamy melancholy beauty.  Although this loss could be read as the sole cause of Pauline Archange’s melancholy, the novel is ambiguous on this point, and there is also the suggestion that she is of a naturally melancholic disposition.  The novel frequently chimes with allusions to the vertical register of melancholy, such as in the image of Durer’s earth-bound angel and Pauline Archange’s walk up the mountain: brilliant, soaring heights are bound up with earth and matter.

There are several overarching literary techniques that evoke melancholic themes in the novel, in particular the theme of oppression.  There is a significant absence of orienting detail, such as date, place, landscape, and history, which makes the novel feel heavy, as it composed almost solely of the intense mass of Pauline’s inner thoughts and conversations between other characters.  The one significant exception to this is the novel’s allusion to “the dark lights of the distant storm…the bloodshed in another part of the world,”[5] which crucially orients the novel in the years following World War II, the time when women in western cultures were beginning to murmur of a serious resistance against their centuries-long suppression. The novel employs a stream-of-consciousness narration that is sometimes limited to Pauline’s perspective, and sometimes omniscient and flying freely through circumstances and the thoughts of others, and which is relentlessly intense and inward-looking.  The effect of all this is gently repressive:

‘How was I to pull myself from the dull orb of sleep when Grandmother Josette entered the room, announcing that it was time to leave for mass?  Outside, the night was cold and dark.  Dressed by those rough hands which had pulled me so rudely from the warmth of my bed, I could no longer recall why she had come for me, and a heavy sadness settled over me as I followed Grandfather Onezimon into the snowy streets…’[6]

This passage contains the evocation of heaviness – with sleep, which presses down on consciousness;  coldness, which presses itself against the senses; darkness, which presses out light; snow, which blankets the landscape; and of course, a  “heavy sadness”.  Pauline is 4 years old in this passage, and the night is Christmas Eve, and it is perhaps significant that as a small child, she is shown to be prone to feeling the weight of a “heavy sadness”.

Pauline Archange is preoccupied with loss, both the specific losses of people through death – her grandmother, her uncle Sebastien – and loss as a more general philosophical idea, but the larger loss depicted in the novel is the loss of her freedom to fulfil her potential, as a result of her family culture’s suppression of her aspirations to be a scholar and writer. The following passage shows the weight of her father’s expectations, and its effect on her:

‘“It’s very simple,” added my father.  “Next year she’ll have to go to work full-time and sweat a little for the food she’s always ready to stuff into her mouth!  No more studying!  No more fancy dreams!  We’ll see who’s so smart!”

A heavy anguish invaded my thoughts, then, the words I was reading suddenly vanishing in the fog that lay all about me and that constricted my heart.’[7]

This passage contains the essence of the heavy-handed, male authority that determines Pauline Archange’s fate. This example shows the relationship of earth-bound practical matters (stated quite coarsely – work, sweat, food being stuffed into mouths) to Pauline’s ‘fancy dreams’, her aspirations.    Like in Durer’s engraving, Pauline’s current reality is to be ruled by heaviness, though she has the potential for flight.  And, like the angel, heaviness and potential brilliance are housed in her one being.  One of the significant differences between the characteristically male tradition of melancholy alluded to in Durer’s Renaissance engraving, and this twentieth-century female literary character, however, is that the novel sharply portrays that a large portion of the oppression weighing down Pauline’s flight is a male-dominated culture satisfied with committing the moral wrong of female suppression, and asleep to the resulting psychological injuries to the women.

Sigmund Freud’s essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917) attempts to describe the state of melancholia from a clinical psychoanalytical perspective, and uses mourning to help delineate the different characteristics of the two closely-linked conditions.  The salient points of the theory that apply to Pauline Archange have to do with loss and the nature of the lost object.  Freud explains that in normal mourning

‘the testing of reality, having shown that the loved object no longer exists, requires forthwith that all the libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to this object.  Against this demand a struggle of course arises…  This struggle can be so intense that a turning away from reality ensues, the object being clung to through the medium of a hallucinatory wish-psychosis.  The normal outcome is that deference for reality wins the day.’[8]

Freud goes on to describe that melancholy’s difference from mourning is based around the nature of the loss, and the patient’s unconsciousness of what has been lost:

‘…it is evident that melancholia too may be the reaction to the loss of a loved object; where this is not the exciting cause one can perceive that there is a loss of a more ideal kind.  The object has not perhaps actually died, but has become lost as an object of love (e.g. the case of a deserted bride).  In yet other cases one feels justified in concluding that a loss of the kind has been experienced, but one cannot see clearly what has been lost, and may the more readily suppose that the patient too cannot consciously perceive what it is he has lost…this would suggest that melancholia is in some way related to an unconscious loss of a love-object, in  contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing unconscious about the loss.’[9]

This psychoanalytic theory of melancholy offers valid points, but it doesn’t seem to have a room in its house for the type of melancholy experienced by Pauline Archange.  The nature of Pauline Archange’s loss is the freedom to pursue her own aspirations.  Freud’s theory, although alluding to the possibility that what is lost can be an idea, is somewhat reliant on the lost objects being more human, as well as the  identification of self with the lost other, and the hatred for the lost other (resulting from ambivalence in the relationship with the other) turning back onto the self.  Pauline’s loss, and therefore the nature of her melancholy, do not quite fit into this paradigm.  Pauline does identify her miserable real self with an idealised other – a fulfilled other that she was occasionally free to be as a schoolgirl (“that person I had been and that I still cherished so deeply”[10]).  But this ephemeral relationship is of a different sort to the type drawn by Freud.  Pauline’s adolescent relationship to her free, fulfilled, other self is more simple and pure than a love relationship between adults filled with ambivalence, imbalance and woundings.  Pauline is clear about the fact that her loss is the result of suppression that comes from outside herself.  Freud’s theory would say that Pauline has ambivalent feelings towards her lost object, resulting in hatred toward the lost object, which then transforms into hatred for her self.  It is very clear that Pauline does not hate the idea of her own freedom to fulfil her potential.  The novel paints a vivid picture of her simple, pure yearning to be free to write.  She describes “…the sublime peace which settled over me the moment I closed the door of my room and sat down before the [typewriter], facing the window.”[11] She is also painfully conscious that this freedom should be hers, but that it is not.  She thinks, watching students from l’Ecole des Arts from a window, “What could be more excruciating…than this spectacle of a capricious liberty which always lay just out of reach?”[12]  Her relationship to her loss is conscious, and her relationship with her other, fulfilled self is simple and uncluttered with ambivalence, so Freud’s theory comes short of being able to comprehend and describe the particular type of melancholy she experiences.

Jean Baker Miller, who is considered to be a cultural feminist, is a psychologist who has written on women’s depression.  She writes, “…psychological problems are not so much caused by the unconscious as by deprivations of full consciousness… Lacking full consciousness, we create out of what is available.  For women only distorted conceptions about what is happening and what a person can and should be have been provided.”[13]  Miller is writing here about women who are asleep, along with the culture, to the nature of the suppression of women, and its effects.  Pauline Archange is strikingly, sharply conscious of what she wants, therefore she feels the full weight of heaviness descending upon it from her culture.  Her awakened consciousness, her genius perhaps, makes her more able to comprehend the true nature of her circumstances, the true height of her aspirations, the true depth of the loss of them, the true heaviness of the oppression surrounding her, and this is an important aspect of her particular kind of feminine melancholy.

Freud’s description of mourning sheds light on the nature of Pauline’s loss. Freud writes, “the testing of reality, having shown that the loved object no longer exists, requires forthwith that all the libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to this object.”[14]   Pauline sees that in reality, her family culture is suppressing her freedom to pursue the life she wants.  This reality contains an inherently unjust aspect.  Mourning requires that “all libido be withdrawn from the object”; if Pauline’s nature is to be a writer, then the suppression of her urge to write is like asking a wild animal not to hunt for food.  She knows instinctively that writing is her business.  The withdrawing of libido from the pursuit of her dreams is therefore unnatural.  In the case of mourning, releasing a loved one into a new reality in which they are dead is natural.  The constraints thrust upon Pauline are unnatural, and she knows this, and the tensions and struggles of her situation are therefore different than in cases where the deaths of people, ideals, or relationships are natural deaths.  This is another aspect of Pauline Archange’s particularly feminine type of melancholy.

In “A Room of One’s Own”, Virginia Woolf’s ponders the question of what women writers would have written through the ages if they had the practical means to develop their art, in an exploration that joins the earthy, practical matters of art production necessary for the creation of flights of artistic achievement, in order to secure an artist’s readership and place in the canon.  She writes:

‘…fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.  Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.’[15]

Pauline Archange’s web is torn and askew.  She reflects at one point, after she has been forced to quit school and take a job as a bank clerk: “I no longer dreamed of improving my mind, for too many things about me seemed to contribute to its abasement.  There was, above all, my hunger, an incessant hunger which, like an attack of dizziness, prevented me from reading or thinking clearly, opening great holes in the fog of my mind.”[16]

The result of this state of affairs in terms of melancholy is that women’s genius, and a particular type of female melancholy, are largely absent from the map of great artists and thinkers who have worked the colours and sounds and atmospheres of melancholy into their art and writing[17]Durer’s Angel is a powerful melancholy novel by a women writer, and it is significant that the main story told in the novel is of the injuries to Pauline Archange’s spirit, resulting from her imprisonment in a life she doesn’t want as a result of being a woman.  The novel also contains the sadness that this grave wounding goes unremarked in her culture at large.  In the novel, the passionate priest, Benjamin Robert, who roams the streets of the city helping  homeless children, says angrily, “…nothing is more dangerous than these sleepy, self-satisfied consciences!  These hard, reasonable consciences from which all life has been slowly drained…”[18]

Julia Schiesari’s book The Gendering of Melancholia raises the issue of the absence of women’s art from the tradition of melancholy.  She writes: “In contrast to the distinguished epithet by which men are called ‘melancholic,’ women who fall into the depths of sorrow are all too easily dismissed with the banal and unprestigious term ‘depression.’”[19]  Virginia Woolf, for example, is more usually described as a depressive woman writer who succumbed to the pull of suicide than a “great melancholic” in the grand, noble melancholic tradition.  So, it is significant that Durer’s Angel, a novel written by a woman in the melancholic tradition, should contain a main character whose great loss is the fulfilment of her own potential, and who contemplates the spectre of her words vanishing “like smoke.”[20]

Just as Albrecht Durer’s melancholy angel paradoxically possesses both heaviness and lightness, the unique version of melancholy presented in Durer’s Angel contains, alongside the  charged tension of cultural injustice, a quality of languorous appreciation for what Bowring calls “the pursuit of sadness”, where melancholy is “a desirable condition, sought for its ‘sweetness’ and intensity.”[21] Pauline writes in first person narration at the beginning of the novel:

‘I had wanted for so long to tell the story of my life that I actually believed at times that it was in my power to do so; but when it came to putting into words the events of my past, they vanished like smoke, leaving before me on the soiled white page of my notebook only the fleeting silhouette of that person I had been and that I cherished so deeply.’[22]

This passage contains a tender nostalgia for what she has lost and what she still longs for.  The sentence is long, gentle in its tone, and slow in its pace and progress through the ideas it is expressing.  This passage also features Pauline Archange’s consciousness of her own powerlessness, but this is bound within a dreamy modality of expression that is characteristic of melancholy.  Bowring writes of this particular aspect of melancholy:

‘The recognition of the beauty of things about to disappear, of the intensification of beauty at the approach of death, is a melancholic species called ubi sunt, Latin for ‘where are?’  The beauty of the ubi sunt moment is a version of nostalgic yearning and backwards-looking wonder at the fragility of what comes to pass.’[23]

Another example of the ubi sunt aspect of melancholy in Durer’s Angel is the novel’s allusions to The Little Prince, the children’s book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  Both The Little Prince  and Durer’s Angel are narrated from the first person past tense point of view of a character who has suffered a loss and is undertaking a contemplation of the past.  More importantly, The Little Prince contains a lyrical, dreamy beauty:  the Little Prince says, “It is just as it is with the flower.  If you love a flower that lives on a star, it is sweet to look at the sky at night.  All the stars are a-bloom with flowers…”[24] The Little Prince, like Durer’s Angel, contains a melancholy reminiscent of Durer’s grounded angel, and themes of lightness and heaviness.  This is enacted in The Little Prince in the way the Little Prince travels – he must shed his body, which is too heavy to allow his spirit to travel to his home, the “Asteroid B-612,” so he must make a bargain with a snake, who will “help” him travel home.  The heaviness of his body is holding down the flight of his spirit.  Durer’s Angel’s allusion to this story is another chime of the theme of Pauline Archange’s suppressed flight, along with the melancholy angel of Durer’s engraving.  Both novels contain symbols of the vertical register of melancholy, and are preoccupied with the reconciliation of duality –  exploring how flight, imagination, genius, spirit and freedom must interact with heaviness, loss, and death, and coming to tenderly melancholic conclusions that allow both spheres their portion.  At the end of The Little Prince, the pilot, who is the narrator, explains, “Now my sorrow is comforted a little.  That is to say – not entirely.  But I know that he did go back to his planet, because I did not find his body at daybreak.  It was not such a heavy body…And at night I love to listen to the stars.  It is like five hundred million little bells…”[25]

It is perhaps fitting to conclude with a meditation upon the lyrical heights of ecstasy experienced by Pauline Archange in Durer’s Angel, which form occasional, brief, yet breathtaking contrasts to the prevailing tone of oppression in the novel.  The evocation of melancholy in the novel could not be accomplished without brilliant flashes of the upper register – of flight, genius, freedom and transcendence.  The consciousness of Pauline Archange is sensitive to the highest heights and the deepest lows, and the highs in the novel are pushed higher in proportion to the heaviness and sustained quality of the lows.  Pauline’s escape from her family’s usual Sunday routine to climb a mountain provides a great release made sharper by contrast.  For example, after  33 pages filled with intense descriptions of oppression, Pauline describes her friend Marthe’s moment of reaching the summit: “she exclaimed with joy over ‘the low-lying sky…the clouds resting on our heads,’ for what she sought at the end of her climb was ‘space, the limitless horizon.’”[26] This is a phrase that invites a pause, with the alliteration of the sibilant, which aurally stretches the soundings of the words “space” and “limitless.”  The physical vertical ascent that Pauline Archange makes is symbolic of the flights of creative ecstasy she craves, and is a physical enactment of climbing up the vertical register of melancholy from her usual oppressed position.

Another moment when Pauline experiences transcendence happens within the sphere of her own mind, when she is engaged in writing alone in her room and listening to Mozart on the radio:

‘…each word glittered beneath my eyes like a blazing comet and my intoxication was complete…I had not written a single note of the symphony…but the music momentarily lent me a power that was not my own, carrying me into a world of sublime enchantment…This graceful, energetic exaltation lifted me toward a summit of pride and hope, where I silently exclaimed: “Nothing is impossible!”‘[27]

The ending of the novel contains another moment of transcendence in Pauline’s life, the rising of her hope and courage out of her darkest hour.  While fighting her way through a snowstorm, “an ocean of fury,”[28] in search of work to satisfy her father’s demand for rent money, and crushed by her journey through various stultifying jobs, Pauline spies through the window of a butcher’s shop a young student who earlier in the novel had impressed her with his virtue,  and his “intelligence and goodwill,”[29] Andre Chevreux:

‘He approached the frosty window and smiled at me.  And there was in his smile such an affection, such a gentle valour, that I suddenly sensed my courage being reborn within me, and carrying that precious image with me through the storm, I broke into a run, exclaiming joyfully: “It’s him…Durer’s angel, I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him at last!”‘[30]

Because Durer’s Angel depicts a feminine version of melancholy that draws much of its sadness from the unrealised potential of Pauline Archange, on one level, the flights she experiences represent moments of escape from her parents’ suppression.  But the character of Pauline Archange  is a homage to melancholy, and therefore is on another level symbolic of the grandeur of the whole melancholic tradition.  Part of Marie-Claire Blais’ accomplishment is that the novel’s statement of women’s innate right to freedom is harnessed to the vast, towering edifice of the melancholic canon, and this is achieved through the virtuosity of her literary homage to the tradition of melancholy.  In the passage of the novel where Pauline Archange alludes to Durer’s engraving Melencolia I, she identifies herself with both the angel’s capacity for genius and flight, and his earth-bound heaviness: “…the Spirit of Durer seemed to me so sad, so vulnerable.  Endowed with an unearthly vigour, the angel was nevertheless tied to the earth: seated on the rough ancient earth, his wings were open but he did not fly…”[31]



      Work Cited

Blais, Marie-Claire.  Durer’s Angel (1970). Trans. David Lobdell.  Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1976.


Bowring, Jacky.  A Field Guide to Melancholy.  Harpenden: Oldcastle Books, 2008.


Radden, Jennifer, ed.  The Nature of Melancholy: From Aristotle to Kristeva.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.


Saint-Exupery, Antoine de.  The Little Prince (1945). Trans. Katherine Woods.       London:          Heinemann, 2009.


Schiesari, Julia.  The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis and the Symbolics of   Loss in Renaissance Literature.  Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1992.


Woolf, Virginia.  A Room of One’s Own (1928).  London: Penguin, 1945.



[1]    Bowring, p 37

[2]    Bowring, p 23

[3]    Schiesari, p 7

[4]    Schiesari, p 95

[5]    Blais, p 15

[6]    Blais, p 10

[7]    Blais, p 32

[8]    Radden, p 284, citing ‘Mourning and Melancholy’ by Sigmund Freud from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated and edited by James Strachey (London: Random House, 1950)

[9]    Radden, p 284-285, citing ‘Mourning and Melancholy’ by Sigmund Freud from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated and edited by James Strachey (London: Random House, 1950)

[10]  Blais, p 7

[11]  Blais, 74

[12]  Blais, 81

[13]  Radden, p 331, citing

[14]  Radden, p 284, citing ‘Mourning and Melancholy’ by Sigmund Freud from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated and edited by James Strachey (London: Random House, 1950)

[15]  Woolf, p 43

[16]  Blais, p 80

[17]  Schiesari, p 3

[18]  Blais, p 29

[19]  Schiesari, p 4

[20]  Blais, p 7

[21]  Bowring, p 14

[22]  Blais, p 7

[23]  Bowring, p 42

[24]  Saint-Exupery (trans. Woods), p 82

[25]  Saint-Exupery (trans. Woods), p 87

[26]  Blais, p 34

[27]  Blais, p 75

[28]  Blais, p 104

[29]  Blais, p 58

[30]  Blais, p 105

[31]  Blais, p 76