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A Deal with the Devil


Consistent with the overall theme of Neuromythology, I am including an interpretation of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The myth can be found in just about any standard account of classical mythology, though my favorite is the 2004 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Charles Martin. This segment is from the draft of a novella called The Gift by yours truly. The protagonist is a flawed classics professor, Dr. Dante Gerry, now teaching at a small liberal arts college in the rural area of a large northeastern state ;-).

From The Gift

by John A. Teske

He’d come to love being in front of a class, striding across his proscenium, and had managed to convince himself that his fingers through the hair tic was just part of his early semester excitement, his cockiness at being able to get students to play with this material in new ways. Not fairy tales told over and over until you can repeat them word for word, but parts of long traditions, stories told and retold, and not always in the same ways. He loved Solon’s line about myths not being stories about things that never happened, but about things that happen over and over again. Including now, in their own lives, and in his. And he wanted them to start to own these, not just to memorize them and spit them back. That meant thinking about them, not just reciting them. He got some girl in the front row to tell the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, no presumption that anyone had read it the first day.

She: “Me? I’m not sure if I can tell it very well.”

He: “Not to worry, you’ve got a whole class that can help you fill in the details.

She: “OK, here goes. There’s this sweet young thing, like, it’s her wedding day, she’s still in her fancy dress, and she gets bitten by a snake or something and dies. She goes to hell, or I guess it’s the “underworld,” where there's Hades, the dark dude of the three brother Gods, Zeus, Neptune, and Hades. I guess he’s like the devil. Anyhow, her husband, this great musician, singer and lyre player is really grieving, and loves her so much he actually goes to Hades to try to get her back. Everything stops since he’s such a great musician, and he actually makes it to Hades. He basically tells Hades, look, man, you’re gonna get us both eventually anyway, why not let me have the love of my life, on her wedding day, return with her husband. We just got married, and she’s so young and innocent, so this isn’t really fair. Hades wants him out of there, so his nasty business can get back to normal, so he cuts him a deal. Orpheus can return to the land of the living, and he’ll have Hermes, you know, the guy with wings on his feet, escort her after him, like the father of the bride or something. But the deal is, if Orpheus looks back at her, he doesn’t get her back, and Hermes brings her back to Hades. So, he’s like, just going through the exit and he can’t help it, he looks back to see if she’s really coming, so she doesn’t get to. They try to hug each other but he’s just hugging air, and she’s gone.”

He: “So what’s the tragedy here?”

She: “Well, that Eurydice is dead, for starters. And his failure of trust.”

He: “OK, first the death, then we’ll get back to the lesson about trust. So, people die all the time, we all die. I suppose that’s the tragedy of life, but why should we care about this one?”

She: “Because he was so in love with her?”

He: “’You ever loved a woman, so much, you trembled in pain?’”

She: “What?”

He: “Blues song, Eric Clapton, on the album Layla, Classic Rock, one of the best guitarists ever, anyone know this?”

French girl: “Clapton was in love with his best friend’s wife.”

He: “And who would that friend be?”

French Girl: “George Harrison. They had a guitar duel over her!”

He: “Anybody else heard of The Beatles?”

Back row Lacrosse player: “Didn’t he just DIE?”

He: “Yeah, they are old, even older than me. But they weren’t much older than you guys when this happened. You ever listened to songs about love? You ever been in love? You ever LOST someone you loved? Anyone?”

First girl: “Yeah, it hurts pretty bad.”

He: “Pretty bad? You know anything that hurts worse? You know anything that hurts so bad it makes you feel like you want to die? Getting denied tenure didn’t hurt as much as losing my first love; divorce was a distant third. And Orpheus isn’t just pining here for someone he couldn’t have, this is the love of his life and, at least in your version, she’s still in her wedding dress. They just got married, but hadn’t even been to the marital bed. And this guy is amazing, he’s like the best lead guitar and songwriter there ever was, like, say Eric Clapton (if you don’t know his stuff, you should, “Tears in Heaven” is more recent, its about his five-year-old son, who fell out of a window and died…you want to know about pain?). So what’s he going to do?

Lacrosse guy: “He’s going to Hell after her.”

He: “So you think he is motivated? You think his heart isn’t ripped out? You ever go after someone you loved who was in real trouble, and you had to go to someplace pretty bad to help them? And it brings out the best in him, his lyre, and his singing, and what does he do?

First girl: “He sings his way in, even Hades has sympathy.”

He: “Careful, don’t get me going on Sympathy for the Devil. But yeah, he’s good. You ever hear a song that made you cry? God, Neil Young does it to me all the time.”

French girl: “He’s famous.”

He: “Enough for even you guys to have heard of him? Wow…yeah, he played the Arena a couple of years ago. But what does Orpheus do? He stops the business of Hell, the tortures stop: ‘Tantalus did not seek the receding water…the birds let go the liver…you, O Sisyphus, sat on your stone.’”

First girl: “He’s the one that kept pushing the stone to the top of a mountain and it kept rolling down.”

He:”Yeah, like me grading student papers. But it is more even than that: ‘Then, for the first time ever, overcome by the effects of song, the Furies wept.’”

First girl: “Like I said, he gets Hades to make a deal.”

He: “Whoa, really? Hades. He’s the king of Hell, right? Who is that in the Christian tradition?”

Lacrosse guy: “Satan, the Devil,”

French girl: “Lucifer, Beelzebub, the Dark Angel.”

He: “OK, girl, we know you rock! So Orpheus makes a deal with Satan. Does this sound like a good deal?”

First girl: “For your soul?”

He: “Yeah, like Faust. But wait. Do you TRUST this deal? You gonna TRUST SATAN? Really? Good luck. So the “failure of trust” is a failure to trust Satan? That’s a moral failure? So this kick ass guitarist has shut down your shop, made your bitches cry, and even, maybe, made you a little sad, you devil, you. What will you say to get him out of there? Pretty much anything he wants to hear, right? So you make a deal. You want to get him the, um, Hell out of there. And of course, being the good guy you are, you’ll keep your word?”

Lacrosse guy: “The devil is a liar, I’d never buy it.”

He: “No? How much do you love Eurydice? What are your other options?

He’s got the keys, my man.”

Lacrosse guy: “Better make the deal, but be careful.”

He: “Bingo. Careful. Trust but verify, right, or do you even trust this guy as far as you can throw him? But he’s not an idiot either, he’s made you a deal, but maybe he already knows you can’t keep it, he’s going to USE your love against you (bastard from hell, right? none worse). Maybe he’s even got a sick sense of humor: He knows you can’t trust him, so he makes you a deal in which you have to. You’re screwed no matter what. But you hope, don’t you? And you sure as Hell (ooops, sorry, I keep doing that, don’t I?), love Eurydice to death, don’t you? Do you have any other choice? Can you do anything but watch this play out, even if you know how it is going to play out. Because all you have is hope. Anyone know who Vaclav Havel is?”

French girl: “Prime Minister of the Czech Republic.Wrote absurdist plays before that.”

He: “Yeah, and one of his first acts as Prime Minister was to have the Rolling Stones as state guests, ya gotta love this guy. Wait, I’ve got this quote somewhere…(long pause, he can’t find it)…screw it, I’ll get it to you later. Basically it is that hope isn’t a confident expectation that things will turn out, but a commitment to something, not because you are sure it will turn out, but because it is so right. Hope is all the more important the less likely the outcome, or even if you never get there.

Lacrosse guy: “So why bother, if you know it won’t turn out?”

He: “You ever play a game against opponents you know are going to beat you? You’re never 100% certain are you? You could get lucky, you could have a really good day and they a bad…ever happen in sports? Don’t tell me. But wait: Is there a God? Does Satan always win? So you hope, and you start the long walk out of hell. So, what about trust? Is this really a story about a failure to trust? Does he trust Eurydice?”

First girl: “Of course, he’s in love with her.”

He: “Oh my, yes, he’d trust her even if she betrayed him, which she doesn’t. This isn’t about what she does at all. We really don’t know much about her at all, even why rock star Orpheus loves her as much as he does; he could probably have anyone he wants, but it is her he loves, and we know what he will do for it, and he is, in fact, never going to love anyone else again. But what’s her state of mind? She’s been suffering the tortures of the damned? No, it’s not all bad in the underworld. But she probably has lost track of time, days or weeks could seem like eternity, it isn’t even clear what she might remember (by the way, the Theater Department’s production of Metamorphoses this fall will also make more of this, as well as the inevitability of the outcome, over, and over again…and yes, you guys are going to have Ovid’s version down long before the play, so you’ll really be able to impress your friends…or your date).”

Lacrosse guy: “Sign me up.”

He: “Duly noted. OK, so Eurydice is a bit out of it. But she might well also have been pretty awed, pretty overwhelmed by Orpheus, maybe she was a little anxious about their wedding night. And, gee, the dude has just stopped Hell, and made a deal with the Devil to get your ass out. But Hermes (Mercury, messenger of the gods, a lot from him later, but he can also be a little tricky, patron of thieves and liars, but also of the crossroads, of good fortune, of, maybe, in Christian terms, grace, the gifts you get that you know you don’t deserve), Hermes is leading you out, following Orpheus. So how do you feel?”

Other girl: “Confused, a little out of it, scared.”

He: “Good. And ahead is your may-un, your love, the man you married, with his back toward you, walking toward the light, right? Might a little reassurance go a long way? Do you want him to turn and look at you? Maybe, just maybe, do you need him to?”

Other girl: “So he has to turn around.”

He: “Only if he loves her. And he loves her more than life; look where he has just been. And he knows all this. Maybe she wouldn’t even have the confidence to follow him out without the look of love he gives her. He also knows that Hades knows all this, the bargain he can’t really trust, the bargain that is broken if he looks back, but that might not be kept (actually probably won’t be kept) even if he doesn’t. So what is left? Eurydice may need him to look, or not be able to come anyway (and he knows this because he knows and loves her, even in whatever weakness, whatever insecurity, whatever confused state she might be in right now). If he looks, then he is the dealbreaker, and Satan can say, hey, I gave you the deal…. But if he doesn’t, it is part of Eurydice’s hell, eternally, that she doesn’t know if he really loves her. And that is the gift he gives her, though he knows he won’t see her again in this lifetime. Finally, he knows this, too. He stretches out his arms, and seizes nothing. But ‘she did not find fault with him, for what indeed could he be faulted for, but his constancy,’ and she cries out to him one last time ‘farewell.’”

Dr Gerry’s eyes have teared up with emotion, and he knows from experience that he is not the only one, whether from the power of the story, or the mimesis of his own emotion, it probably doesn’t matter. He’s enough of a dramatist to know it isn’t always just the words. He pauses, and looks down to get control of himself, preparing to deliver them to the Elysian Fields, and his overview of the course, and their responsibilities, though it is all in the syllabus. But when he looks up, he sees that the French girl is looking straight at him, and has a tear running down her face, and his heart catches again in his throat, and he thinks, what is this little girl doing to me? So, his voice catches again, and the class worries that he won’t go on, and wants him to get past this. So he does:

“The usual version of the tale, and it is the moral everyone is supposed to have, like the stock morals of fairy tales and Bible stories we’ve all heard, is about the tragedy of Eurydice’s death, beloved wife of Orpheus who, despite his talent and his monumental effort borne of this great love, is ultimately the tragic figure, undone by his failure to trust, his fear that Eurydice will fail him. But he had a choice, and it was a choice that was multiply determined, and maybe inevitable, a choice that, had he to do it over again, he may well not regret, and would likely take again, out of love for Eurydice. An eternal tale, not of something that never happened, but of something that happens over and over again, even in our own lives and maybe, just maybe, we can understand a little better why.

“After all, what would have happened if he did win her back? They are mortal, Hades gets them both in the end anyway, right? So what happens in the meantime? Normal life. Maybe Eurydice doesn’t forgive him for his callous lack of encouragement back at the gates of hell. Maybe he betrays her with too many of his other groupies (what happened with Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall?). Maybe they just fade into dreary middle age, trouble with their kids, the fire gone from their youthful passion. Maybe not, we can always hope. Despite the odds for marriage these days, we always do. Ours will be different and yes, every once in a while, one really is, and lasts through crises, and change, and growth, and betrayal, and each one brings out the best in the other rather than falling into the acrimony of neither being what the other thought they were, the inevitable betrayal.

“So Orpheus lives out his painful life, which we find out about in the next book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which starts with the death of Orpheus. Who knows what art can be inspired: George Harrison’s “Something in the way, she moves, attracts me like no other lover…” and Eric Clapton writes a whole album of songs on Layla. OK, and then she dumps George for sleeping with Ringo’s wife, and ends up in Eric’s arms anyway (but it doesn’t last, and Clapton later has a child who dies falling out of a window). Orpheus has plenty of women, of course, but never falls in love again. Rumor has it he starts the practice of sleeping with boys. Bacchus, the god of wine, finally gets jealous of his talents and sends his Maenads, perhaps women scorned, who tear him apart.

“In the end, though, the pieces are collected together and put at the foot of Olympus, where the nightingales sing the most beautifully (check this). With Ovid, we can dream of the Elysian Fields, and the oft-forgotten Death of Orpheus, where Orpheus comes again upon what had left his life an empty, unfillable void, his lost Eurydice, Dr. Gerry reads from the text, “…and passionately threw his arms around her; here now they walk together, side by side, or now he follows as she goes before, or he precedes, and he goes after him; and now there is no longer any danger when Orpheus looks on Eurydice.” Unfortunately, this happy ending, like most, occurs only in eternity, ‘that undiscovered land, where no tears obscure the sun, and we can walk together hand in hand.’ Sorry, that last was from Stone Coyotes, an internet band that no one I know who hasn’t heard them live appreciates. From “Valley of Regret,” their album Fire It Up.

Good timing. Mostly they didn’t hear the last part, with all the rustling of students getting up to leave at the end of class, but he says: “Make sure you read the syllabus! Assignments read before class. See you Friday, we’ll do a hero next time.”

Copyright; John A. Teske