The Passion of Lovers is for Death

Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus reimagines the Orphic legend, telling the immortal story of the poet’s love affair with Death.
It depicts the story of Orpheus, a poet beloved by the public – but a pariah among the art set who have turned their affection towards Cegeste, a new and younger voice. Cegeste is like Arthur Rimbaud, whose early death cements his accomplishments as insurmountable.

So the poet, Orpheus, pursues death at the risk of life. As a reward, he receives the sounds of his new poetry as transmissions through the car radio coming from another realm. “I’m on the trail of the unknown,” he says as he is possessed by the words of the dead.
The poet is torn between two loves: Life and Death. He is alive and there is the natural obligation of self-preservation. But he would do also anything to prove himself as a poet.

It is death that the poet longs for. He sees it in himself as he gets older, the reflection in the mirror, taunting him but not taking him. Death steals his vitality, his life, his wife, and he descends into hell to retrieve her. There is a cyclical pattern of death and rebirth, the pursuit of one at the stake of the other. This is consistent with Cocteau’s notion of the poet’s need for a series of deaths in order to prove himself.

Orpheus redeems his life/ wife but is not allowed to look at her. Salvation requires repentance – which literally means “to turn away.” To look back at the object of desire is to want more than what has been given. Death is not satisfied by only looking and not touching, as Orpheus needs to have and to hold.

In the end, Death relinquishes Orpheus because she loves him and through his trials and poetry, he has become immortal.
Death as a lover is a common theme in poetry. Shakespeare says, “The stroke of death is a lover’s pinch,” (Antony and Cleopatra IV, ii: 280). Baudelaire describes the Dance of Death in his “Flowers of Evil”.  Emily Dickinson writes that “Death is a suitor” while Stephenie Meyer transforms vampires and monsters into heartthrobs. It is not (always) just a morbid preoccupation. Death is the common terminus of all humans. And as such it holds a certain power over life.
It is a paradox and poetic that the only way to achieve immortality is to woo Death.

by Brian Warfield

Orpheus screening and discussion:
July 1st, 7:30pm
AxD Gallery, 265 South 10th Street / Philadelphia, PA
Like us on Facebook for additional information.

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