Gérard de Nerval was imbued with shamanism and orphism. With its calculated, ironic and visionary poetry, Voyage en Orient bears witness to these tropisms.
« They plunged me three times into the waters of the Cocyte » (Antéros).
The four rivers of Hell, who can cross their liquid walls? Can a pale poet cross these bitter barriers, these dark, convulsive masses?
« Et j’ai deux fois vainqueur traversé l’Achéron,
Modulant tour à tour sur la lyre d’Orphée
Les soupirs de la sainte et les cris de la fée.”
(And I have twice a winner crossed the Acheron
Modulating in turn on the lyre of Orpheus
The sighs of the saint and the cries of the fairy.) (El Desdichado)
Nerval’s work is influenced by the tutelary figure of Orpheus, prince of poets, lovers and mystics – explorer of the depths.
Orpheus was dismembered alive by the Bacchae in madness, but continued to sing from the mouth of his beheaded head. His singing had already persuaded Hades to let him leave Hell with Eurydice. The condition was that he did not look at her, until he came out of the world of the dead. Worried about the silence of the beloved, he turned his head when they had arrived at the edge of the world of the living. He lost again, and forever, Eurydice.
Instead of looking at her, he could have talked to her, held her by the hand, or inhaled her scent, to make sure she was there? No, he had to see her, to look at her. As a result, she died.
Why do heroes want to face Hell?
What haunts them is whether death is real, or imaginary. What drives them is the desire to see the loved ones again, though lost forever. In these difficult circumstances, they must acquire special powers, magical abilities. Orpheus’ strengths were music, song and poetry.
Music produces, even in Hell, a form, a meaning, and calls for the poem. Orpheus might have sung:
« Always, under the branches of Virgil’s laurel
The pale hydrangea unites with the green myrtle. » (Myrto)
Gérard de Nerval was inspired. By what?
From the scattered crumbs, let us deduce the bread that feeds him.
« Man, free thinker! Do you think you’re the only one thinking
In this world where life is bursting into everything?
Each flower is a soul to nature blooms.
A mystery of love in metal rests.
Often in the dark being dwells a hidden God
And like a nascent eye covered by his eyelids,
A pure spirit grows under the bark of the stones. » (Golden Worms)
The poets lose, lost, in the theological assaults. Nerval admits defeat, false hopes and real regret:
« They will return these Gods that you always cry for!
Time will bring back the order of the old days,
The earth shuddered with a prophetic breath…
However, the sibyl with its Latin face
Is asleep under the arch of Constantine
And nothing disturbed the severe gantry. » (Delfica)
Did Nerval believe in the breath of the sibyl, in the order of the day?
Orpheus, Nerval, prophetic poets.
During the Renaissance, Marsile Ficin presented Orpheus as an explorer of Chaos and a theologian of love.
« Orpheus in Argonautics imitating the Theology of Mercury Trismegist, when he sings the principles of things in the presence of Chiron and the heroes, that is, angelic men, he puts Chaos before the world, & before Saturn, Iupiter and the other gods, and within Chaos, he welcomes Love, saying Love is very ancient, by itself perfect, of great counsel. Plato in Timaeus similarly describes Chaos, and here puts Love. »i
Chaos is before the gods, – before the very sovereign God, Jupiter. And in Chaos, there is Love!
« Finally, in all of us, Love accompanies Chaos, and precedes the world, excites the things that sleep, illuminates the dark ones: gives life to the dead things: forms the unformed, and gives perfection to the imperfect. » ii
This « good news » was first announced by Orpheus.
« But the unique invisible perpetual light of the divine Sun, by its presence, always gives comfort, life and perfection to all things. Of what divinely sang Orpheus, saying:
God the Eternal Love all things comforts
And on all of them is spread, animated and supported. »
Orpheus bequeathed to humanity these simple pearls: « Love is more ancient and younger than other Gods ». « Love is the beginning and the end. He is the first and last of the gods. »
Finally, Ficin specifies the figure of the last of all the gods: « There are therefore four kinds of divine fury. The first is the Poetic Fury. The second is the Mystical, that is, the Sacred. The third is Divination. The fourth is the Affection of Love. Poetry depends on the Muses: The Mystery of Bacchus: The Deviation of Apollo: & The Love of Venus. Certainly Soul cannot return to unity unless it becomes unique. » iii
The One. The Love. The Union. This is the message of Orpheus.
To learn it first, Orpheus had to have lost Eurydice.
To hear it, what do we have to lose?
iMarsile Ficin. Discours de l’honneste amour sur le banquet de Platon, Oraison 1ère, Ch. 2, (1578)
ii Marsile Ficin. Discours de l’honneste amour sur le banquet de Platon, Oraison 1ère, Ch. 2, (1578)
iii Ibid., Oraison 7, Ch. 14