The Psychology of Orpheus: Why Do We Look Back?
The human experience of doubt provides some insight into the myth of Orpheus.
Posted November 14, 2020 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
You know the song—it’s not Greek Mythology’s most popular track, but it’s definitely on the greatest-hits album. The singer Orpheus, son of the solar god Apollo, weds his beloved Eurydice. She dies. She dies young, too young, and Orpheus isn’t having it. So Orpheus descends into the underworld, charming the Stygian horrors that block his path using only his voice and lyre. Hades himself is so moved that he offers Orpheus an unheard-of deal: He may take his bride back to the land of the living, but only if he completes the journey without once looking back at her.
He tries. He really does. He almost makes it. But almost doesn’t count for much in the underworld.
The Orpheus myth is unusual because it lacks the defining narrative arc that drives Greek tragedy: a hero undone by his fatal flaw. Arrogant King Oedipus ignored the advice of the oracle and persisted in his investigation into his parentage. Hercules, the alpha bro originator of toxic masculinity, pissed off the wrong gods with his frat-house antics. But Orpheus lacks such an obvious tragic flaw. His fateful mistake, losing his faith and turning back, does not develop from what we are shown of his actions and character.
Without a clear canonical explanation, Orpheus’ motives must be supplied by the storyteller. Ovid's Metamorphoses, for instance, flatly states that Orpheus looked back simply because he was "[a]fraid she was no longer there, and eager to see her." Virgil's Georgics elaborates on this: “sudden madness seized the incautious lover, one to be forgiven, if the spirits knew how to forgive: he stopped, and forgetful, alas, on the edge of light, his will conquered he looked back, now, at his Eurydice.”
Plato's Symposium, on the other hand, condemns Orpheus as a coward for trying to cheat death instead of accepting its inevitability: He "showed no spirit ... did not dare like Alcestis to die for love, but was contriving how he might enter Hades alive; moreover, they afterwards caused him to suffer death at the hands of women, as the punishment of his cowardliness."
More recently, Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels depict Orpheus overcome by suspicion, who concludes he's been tricked by Hades and ultimately looks back in anger.
With so many varying interpretations, one wonders: Why did Orpheus really look back? And what, if anything, can we mortals learn from his tragedy?
It’s tempting to approach myth as a symbolic puzzle, an entry in our collective dream journal that can be analyzed and, ultimately, decoded. I'd like to avoid this. Myth endures because it is elusive, protean, protoconscious; reducing it to a particular pathology cheapens and demeans it. (Evidence: the tragic case of Oedipus and his German psychoanalyst.) Instead, I will attempt to consider the myth more broadly, not as allegory but as a narrative exploration of human experience.
The essentially human experience of doubt provides some insight into the myth of Orpheus. In Anaïs Mitchell's album Hadestown, later adapted into the Tony-winning 2019 musical, Orpheus' doubt isn't really a personal flaw, because doubt is inevitable, insidious, an instinctive acquiescence to the passage of time and entropic decay. "Doubt comes in / And strips the paint," sing the Fates, "Doubt comes in / And turns the wine."
Mitchell’s insights are supported by modern psychology. The human mind is made profoundly vulnerable during a long journey with an uncertain outcome. "Rethinking Rumination" by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema et. al charts the course from well-meaning reflection on one’s self and circumstances into total dysphoria: "Self-regulation theories (Carver & Scheier, 1998; Duval & Wicklund, 1972; Martin & Tesser, 1996; Pyszczynski & Greenberg, 1987) argue that self-focused rumination is initiated by perceived discrepancies between one's current state or situation and a goal or desired state … [and] leads to negative affect when it involves perseverating on self-discrepancies." "When one is rendered powerless in any significant area of life," Gershen Kaufman writes in The Psychology of Shame, "one becomes susceptible to depression, hopeless, and, eventually, despair... If prolonged, powerlessness threatens one’s ability to sustain courage and hope. The combination of helplessness and hopelessness is psychologically toxic for the self."
An idle human mind, deprived of interesting or meaningful external engagement, will turn its formidable powers of analysis inward, questioning its own priorities, dismantling itself. The journey out of Hell is long, undertaken in silence and total darkness; the mind wanders.
But the very real psychological toll of a long journey in darkness does not explain why the character of Orpheus, specifically, makes this particular choice in response to his circumstances. Why, for example, doesn't Orpheus just lay down and give up? Or, possessed by the self-destructive resolve of the depressed, direct his frustration against his own perceived weakness and drive himself to the surface? How does Orpheus, in this state of total despondency and depletion, not only manage to invert the momentum of his journey—and overcome the inertia that must tempt him to surrender entirely—but purposefully choose the most effortful option and reverse his course of action?
The answer is that, in the human mind, "go forward" and "go back" do not exist independently of one another, but are intrinsically and inextricably connected. As infants, one of our very first tools for understanding the world is by identifying distinct objects as opposites. Niklas Törneke writes that "comparative relations often include a relation of opposition. For example, if something is heavier than something else, you might say that this implies a form of opposition: One object is heavy as opposed to the other object, which is light. This might indicate that the natural learning sequence involves learning the arbitrary relation of opposition before learning to put stimuli in a comparative relation" (Learning RFT). Our relational cognitive machinery demands that "for a verbally competent human being ... things are always related to their opposites, as well as to a number of other things." Up implies down; life implies death.
The command "I must not look back" encapsulates its own undoing; it is literally impossible to read that sentence aloud without simultaneously speaking its negative. Every time you repeat "I must not look back," you are forced to say: "look back."
So perhaps the fatal flaw of Orpheus is that, in accepting Hades’ offer, he refuses to accept the psychological cost of the undertaking. His journey so far, after all, has been a relatively easy one. For his entire life, Orpheus’ gift has proven devastatingly effective at persuading others; his voice charms Eurydice, Cerberus, Hades himself. But climbing out of the underworld, restless and uncertain, Orpheus is forced to negotiate with the one mind he cannot influence through song: his own. Alone with his thoughts, the great singer finds himself troubled by ideas he cannot simply dismiss with song. Orpheus cannot charm himself.
Why did Orpheus look back? You can ask Ovid or Plato or Vergil, or Gaiman, or Mitchell—but you’ll get a range of contradictory explanations. The only conclusive answer, of course, is “ask Orpheus”—but that immortal decapitated head has proven elusive as of late. Again, I don’t think it’s useful to look for definitive psychological explanations of ancient mythology. It’s not that you can’t, or you’re wrong for trying; it’s just not an approach I personally find helpful. I believe in a descriptive rather than a prescriptive approach, humbly observing how mortal storytellers and immortal stories exist in conversation with our everyday human concerns. The son of the god of light and reason still has wisdom to impart. The song persists.
Copyright Fletcher Wortmann, 2020.
You may also be interested in my columns exploring memes:
"Why Did I Think That? Your Internal Memes"
"Infohazard Warning: How Internal Memes Infect Your Brain"
Gershen Kaufman, The Psychology of Shame: Theory and Treatment of Shame-Based Syndromes. Springer Publishing Co., New York, NY, 1989. p. 84.
Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Blair E. Wisco, and Sonja Lyubomirsky. “Rethinking Rumination.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol 3, Issue 5, pp. 400—424.
Ovid, Metamorphoses Book X, trans. A. S. Kline. The Ovid Collection, University of Virginia, 2001. <https://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Ovhome.htm>. Accessed Sept. 25, 2020.
Anaïs Mitchell, “Doubt Comes In.” Hadestown, Brooklyn Recording Studio, NY, 2010.
Plato, Symposium, trans. B. Jowlet. Project Gutenberg, 2013. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1600/1600-h/1600-h.htm>. Accessed Sept. 25, 2020.
Niklas Törneke, Learning RFT: An Introduction to Relational Frame Theory and Its Clinical Application, Context Press, 2010. pp. 79, 135.
Virgil, Georgics Book IV, trans. A. S. Kline. Poetry In Translation, 2001. <https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/VirgilGeorgicsIV.php>. Accessed Sept. 25, 2020.