THE SONG OF ORPHEUS
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- Published 2.02.07
|From Visconti’s film of Mann’s Death in Venice|
Patrick Süskind’s famous novel, Perfume, had profound philosophical underpinnings and concerns. Another, lesser-known, work of fiction, The Story of Mr Sommer, written by Süskind was also deeply philosophical, centred as it was on a man who refused to stop walking. It is thus not surprising that in this very short work of non-fiction, Süskind meditates on the two most elemental aspects of human existence.
Love and death are both very serious themes, and death inevitably has a sombre ring to it. But his prose has an enviable lightness of touch which makes this essay a delight to read.
Süskind begins with Augustine’s famous statement on time, “If no one asks me about it, then I know what it is; but if someone asks me about it and I try to explain it to him, then I do not know what it is.” He says that the same thing could be said about love. Yet it is a subject that has inspired an enormous amount of writing, prose and verse. The answer, that the mystery of love is its lure, does not satisfy him. He says that there is a mystery about the Big Bang but no poet or lyricist has gone ecstatic about the Big Bang.
To understand love, Süskind takes three examples. One of a couple engaging in oral sex in a traffic jam. The other of a couple he had met at a party who could not keep their eyes and hands off each other and refused to greet anyone else who was present. And finally, of Thomas Mann’s sudden attraction at the age of 75 for a 19-year-old waiter in a hotel in Zürich.
The examples only add to confusion since love is obviously selfish, painful (as in the case of Mann) and even be vulgar. Yet it is supposed to be beautiful. A beautiful sickness? Love is also invariably linked to death. The French call that supreme moment of sharing in love, la petite morte. Death can even become liberation from the pain of unrequited love. Eros desires to merge with Thanatos to find fulfilment. Death is seen as the complement of love.
Süskind ends with a discussion on love as revealed in the narratives of Orpheus and Jesus. Orpheus entered Hades to win back his beloved. He won her back but failed to bring her back to earth because he turned around to see if she was following. Orpheus, Süskind says, was an artist, he needed an audience. There was silence when he was climbing out of Hades, so he turned to see. This was his failure.
The Nazarene, on the other hand, had a script of triumph, despite that moment of despair on the cross — eli eli lama sabachtini. Jesus carried the message of love because in it lay his triumph. He, unlike Orpheus, did not know failure. Orpheus is thus for Süskind a kindred soul.