A Journey with Orpheus

Alan Pollack

Through Covid, Death has once again coopted for its own dark purposes our most fundamental need, the need for human connection. Consequently, our drive to defeat death is more consciously with us than in ordinary times. I would like to share some thoughts about a classic story of one person's attempt to defeat death. In the story, Orpheus journeyed into the realm that Shakespeare would later call “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” But uniquely among men, Orpheus returned to life. He braved the journey driven by the need to retrieve his beloved Eurydice from death's dominion, and would have succeeded but for a single backward glance.

My own journey with Orpheus began when I first encountered the myth in adolescence. But only in my maturity did its meaning and function reveal itself. I hope that my personal journey with the myth will interest others. I believe it illuminates universal aspects of our relationship with death while revealing something about how myth and psychic defenses function.

First, in case the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is not fresh in mind, allow me to summarize. Orpheus was the great musician of mythic Greek antiquity. No soul could remain untouched by the beauty and power of his singing. Even stones responded. Upon the death of his wife, Eurydice, his mournful song of grief moved the very gods to pity, so they granted him a boon not permitted another mortal: to travel into the realm of death and bring his beloved back to the world of the living. There was one stipulation. (Why, why must there always be one, fateful stipulation?) The stipulation was that Orpheus not look at Eurydice until they reach the surface. With this, tragedy is set in motion, and the inevitable follows. Just in sight of the surface, Orpheus glances behind at Eurydice, and, with that gaze, loses her forever.

When, as a teenager, I first read this myth, I asked a question that haunted me for decades: Why such severe punishment for the simple act of looking? I later learned that psychoanalysis had a ready answer to offer: scoptophilic conflict. An old-fashioned psychoanalytic term, it refers to the conflicted wish to look, conflicted because of the forbidden sexual significance of looking.

That looking can be sexual is obvious. Ordinary cultural and clinical experience confirms it. A six-year-old boy was compelled to confess to his father, over and over, that he caught a glimpse of mother naked in the bathroom. And a precocious latency-aged boy invented fiber-optic cable long before technologists did. He imagined a thin glass thread running from his window to the bedroom window of a girl he yearned for. He understood that the glass thread must be very thin to escape detection, and thus for him to escape punishment for forbidden looking.

The loss of Eurydice is not a punishment imposed for the crime of looking; it is a simple fact. Death is a fact that cannot be reversed for any mortal, no matter the extremity of our grief or the beauty of our song.

But even acknowledging the power of scoptophilic conflict, it still seemed to me that losing Eurydice was a punishment far out of proportion to the sin of looking. And anyway, Orpheus and Eurydice were married, so wasn't pleasure and arousal in looking sanctified? Furthermore, if the myth is about Orpheus's forbidden sexual desire, why should Eurydice also be punished?

I've asked such questions of a number of thoughtful analysts. All gave variations on the idea of scoptophilic conflict. But I remained troubled. Then one day an answer announced itself in a sudden Aha!: “Where in the world did I get the idea that anyone can return from the dead?!” With that realization, what had been hidden right in front of my eyes suddenly came into view. The reason Orpheus cannot look at Eurydice is that to look at her, to really look at her, would be to behold a corpse. To see truly is to relinquish denial. The loss of Eurydice is not a punishment imposed for the crime of looking; it is a simple fact. Death is a fact that cannot be reversed for any mortal, no matter the extremity of our grief or the beauty of our song.

With my new understanding of the myth, I now also understood something about how the myth functions. The question and protest that I interposed parenthetically above—Why must there be this fateful stipulation?—is what I felt every time I had thought of the myth. Why, oh why, must Orpheus look back just as he has almost saves his beloved? Each time I encountered the myth, in my heart I shouted out, “Orpheus! Don't look back!” If only I could get through to him, or if by protesting the unfairness of the punishment I could convince the gods to moderate their decree, then Eurydice would live. We might say that the myth induced an identification by which I became Orpheus. No longer merely an onlooker to the drama, I was drawn inside the myth, merged with Orpheus himself. With Orpheus, or as Orpheus, I too denied death, and resisted relinquishing denial.

Thus my persistent question, about why looking is so severely punished, functioned as a defense. It drew energy from the intensely charged matters of sex, punishment, and power, all central elements of childhood's tumultuous emotional life. It used that sexual energy and fear to distract attention away from the terrible and terrifying fact of irreversible death. The question thus worked by legerdemain: it hid truth within plain sight, by diverting attention.

Still, I wonder, if I am correct that the myth is actually about the denial of death and the ultimate necessity of relinquishing denial, why punishment? That is to ask, is the theme of punishment somehow inherent in denial as opposed to acknowledgement of death? For an answer to this question I am indebted to Tony Kris. After my Aha! moment, I asked Tony what he thought of my solution to the myth. He thought it correct and original, which of course pleased me. Then I asked him about the punishment theme. Tony had a convincing response. When we are denying the death of someone, he explained, our unconscious experience is that we are keeping them alive by force of will. Under dominion of the pleasure principle, we are keeping them alive, intrapsychically. As a consequence, the act of relinquishing denial is equivalent, in the unconscious, to murder. And murder requires punishment.

In a recent TAP article, Eli Diamond paraphrased Joseph Campbell as saying that myths “are not stories that never happened, but are, in fact, stories that always happen.” My own personal journey with Orpheus—as Orpheus—illustrates one way that always happening works. Great stories work not by describing or telling but by inducing, enacting, drawing us inside so that story is our own lived experience. The journey of Orpheus is always happening because we all deny the reality of death. We all are Orpheus. APSAA

This article is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Anton Kris (1934-2021).


Alan Pollack, M.D., is a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst practicing in Newton, Massachusetts. He is a member of the faculty of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, where for twenty-four years he served as director of psychotherapy training.