Towards the end of the 19th century, Europe believed it dominated the world, through its techniques, empires and colonies. But the poet Mallarmé was already feeling desperate for the crisis of the mind. He noted, bitterly, that “mankind had not created new myths”, and that, for the field that most concerned him, “the dramatic art of our time, vast, sublime, almost religious, is yet to be found.”i
Mallarmé said he was in search of the « pure myth », of « the Figure that None is” (la Figure que Nul n’est ). He believed it was possible to find such a myth, by summoning « the immortal, innate delicacies and magnificences which are unbeknownst to all in the contest of a mute assistance.”ii
He took as his theoretical model, as a perfect paradigm, for this improbable and yet to be found myth, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and its obscure depth.
Mallarmé saw in Orpheus the creative power, solar energy, and « the idea of the morning with its short-lived beauty ». He recalled that the name Orpheus comes from the Sanskrit Ribhu, the « sun », a name that the Vedas often use to describe the divine, in its various forms. Eurydice, whose name is close to that of Europe, or Euryphassa, means, according to Mallarmé, « the vast gush of dawn in the sky ». The serpent that bites Eurydice and kills her is nothing more than the serpent of darkness that puts an end to the twilight.
The descent from Orpheus to the Underworld is therefore an image of the passage from day to night. “The pilgrimage of Orpheus represents the journey that, during the hours of the night, the Sun passed by to accomplish, in order to bring back, in the morning, the Dawn, whose disappearance it causes by its dazzling splendour.”iii
In this interpretation, the myth of Orpheus probably originally refers to the voyage of Ra in the sacred boat, celebrated by ancient Egypt.
But it must also be recognized that the myth of Orpheus is not meteorological, and that it says something other than the dissolution of the dawn by the morning ray.
Isn’t Orpheus the poet par excellence, in charge of the mystery itself? Mallarmé knows it well, who saw no higher task than poetry.
« Poetry is the expression, through human language brought back to its essential rhythm, of the mysterious meaning of the aspects of existence: it endows our stay with authenticity and is the only spiritual task.”iv
Mallarmé had a religious soul. He had a great dream, that of finding the origin of the Dream. This is evidenced by this text published after his death in an obituary:
« The Theatre is the confrontation of the Dream with the crowd and the disclosure of the Book, which drew its origin and is restored there. I believe that it will remain the great Human Festival; and what is dying is its counterfeiting and lying.”v
Incorrigible optimist, I also believe in the great Human Festival yet to be seen, but we may have to wait. Before its lights and beams, how many more dark periods will humanity have to endure?
What is striking about Mallarmé’s formula is that it establishes in its cryptic way, it seems to me, and this long before Freud’s iconoclastic theories, a hidden link between Egypt and Israel, between Akhenaten and Moses.
I am incited to see in Moses a man of the great World Theatre, a man who admirably and courageously confronted the « crowd », to impose his Dream (and finally to make Akhenaten’s One God live) and deliver his Book.
But, by contrast, it also brings to light the flagrant absence of a Myth today.
Admittedly, some religions, including the three monotheisms, and Buddhism, hold the upper hand from the point of view of international agit-prop, but it would no doubt be an insult to them to consider them as pure « myths ». Having no taste for vain martyrdom, I will not go looking for any leads in this direction, refusing in advance to confront the zealots and other guardians of the sacred dens.
If the myth of Orpheus prefigures in its own way the descent into the Christic underworld, if Akhenaten is the tutelary figure of the Mosaic God, they are also proof by induction of the power of ideas through the ages.
One key question remains: What myth does the whole of modernity, globalized modernity, strangled in a cramped and overpopulated, violent and oh so unequal planet, now need?
The bottom line is that modern religions (which have lost almost all connection with the original meaning of ancient religions) are part of the problem much more than the solution.
Ancient peoples knew that the Gods have many names, but that the mystery remains unique – and this long before Moses decided to export to the Sinai, with the success we know, the « counter-religion » that Akhenaten had failed to impose in Egypt.
A new world myth, tomorrow, will have to put an end to common hatred, general exclusion, and the idolatry of difference. It will also have to go beyond what Jan Assmann calls the « Mosaic Distinction »vi.
The new world myth, tomorrow, will have to blossom into a World Dream, for everyone to see, to hear, to taste, to feel, to smell, – and to imagine.
The World Dream will not be renewed dreams of modern Babel towers, but the Dream of an Adamic ziggurat, – ochre of consciousness, red with human humus. Red, not of blood, but of the flesh and the breathe of the primal Adam.
For the future of Mankind may well be hidden, like a remembrance of its lost paradise, in a new World Garden.
iS. Mallarmé. Œuvres complètes. 1956, p. 717
iiS. Mallarmé. Œuvres complètes. 1956, p. 545
iiiS. Mallarmé. Œuvres complètes. 1956, p. 1240,
ivS. Mallarmé. Propos sur la poésie. 1953, p. 134
vRevue Encyclopédique. Art. C. Mauclair. 5 novembre 1898. p. 963
viJan Assmann. Moses The Egyptian.