Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Death of Orpheus

The Death of Orpheus (1866)
Emile Lévy
oil on canvas
Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France

Ovid’s Metamorphosis
The Death of Orpheus

All moderation is entirely lost,
and a wild Fury overcomes the right.--
although their weapons would have lost all force,
subjected to the power of Orpheus' harp,
the clamorous discord of their boxwood pipes,
the blaring of their horns, their tambourines
and clapping hands and Bacchanalian yells,
with hideous discords drowned his voice and harp.--
at last the stones that heard his song no more
fell crimson with the Thracian poet's blood.

Levy depicts the moment of Orpheus’s death at the hands of screaming women whose shouts drown out the hypnotic power of his defending harp. Though feminine teen hysteria has situated itself in popular discourse as a thoroughly modern product made possible only by the corrupting forces of mass media, The Death of Orpheus in book 11 of Ovid’s Metamorphosis suggests that this is a more richly embedded cultural archetype.

Emile Levy envisions this moment every bit as chaotic and frenzied as the 1964 news footage of the Beatles’ arrival in JFK. The throbbing masses of shrieking girls precariously held back by city officials and only barely confined by the airport gates are a fearsome spectacle. The sight of the Beatles maddens the girls; they feel every bit as capable as Levy’s Bacchantes to tear the musicians to shreds.

The display of feminine ecstasies and savagery in Levy’s representation reifies in the language of images a persistent archetype for women. Despite a popular sense of "the unprecedented" in 1964, the girls of Beatlemania are, in fact, a crude mirror Levy’s elegantly realized scene. Is this the essential feminine? Or is the proliferation if this imagery itself confining feminine expression to the abandon of hysteria?

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