RELIGIOLOGIQUES, 15 (printemps 1997) Orphée et Eurydice: mythes en mutation


Patrice J. Proulx *

Sur Eurydice pendant la remontée, le mythe se tait.
Comme elle. C’est sur le silence que se retourne la voix d’Orphée et sur le vide son regard, et ne rencontre que le silence. Ou peut-être, plutôt que le vide, le regard d’Orphée découvre-t-il ce qu’il ne peut pas voir.(1)

Now you whistle, putting together
the new words, learning the songs
to tell the others how far you travelled for me.
Singing of my desire to live.
Oh, if you knew what you do not know
I could be in the world remembering this.

Linda Gregg, "Eurydice"



Many contemporary women writers have chosen to challenge well-established myth structures, by engaging in what Adrienne Rich has termed "re-vision — the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction..." (35). These writers place themselves "in the world — remembering" through an elaboration of mythic constructs which privilege female agency. Tilde Sankovitch cogently elucidates the transgressive implications and the generative function of the feminist revisionary mythopoetic enterprise: "The mythopoeic process is [...] a process of recovery and re-formation, as the ‘old’ myths are spirited away from their dead, oppressive contexts, and rejuvenated by reinterpretation, rereading, rewriting, all performed in newly found female contexts." (146)

In Histoire d’Eurydice pendant la remontée, Michèle Sarde rewrites the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in order to articulate the recovery of a female story. The novel’s title frames the author’s own revisionist mythmaking strategy, manifesting her intent to inscribe the unwritten story of Eurydice "pendant la remontée," thus creating a space for the "regard d’Eurydice." Sarde’s protagonist, a character who embodies the mythic figure relegated to the underworld by the "regard d’Orphée,"(2) undertakes a perilous journey to the past in an attempt to resituate herself and come to terms with her double identity as Sophie Lambert-Sarah Solal. In this article, I propose to examine issues of myth and memory in relation to the question of woman’s emergence as subject, as the protagonist endeavors to re-envision her past, to return to a time/space from which she will be able to reconstitute her fragmented identity.

Both structurally and thematically, Sarde’s text reflects the desire to revitalize the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice; the text counters traditional narrative depictions of Eurydice as silent and lacking agency through its privileging of female voices and memories. Her protagonist self-consciously situates herself in relation to the myth by choosing to write a dissertation entitled "Fonction et symbolique d’Eurydice dans les arts lyriques." Her thesis director’s hostile reaction to her topic bears witness to the potential resistance to woman-centered reinterpretations: "Mais, madame, pardon, mademoiselle, ne laissez pas votre féminisme impénitent jouer à réécrire les mythes." (13).

The act of re-membering is critical to the protagonist’s project of conjuring up Eurydice, as her own past will serve as a springboard for an alternative interpretation of the mythic figure’s story — a restructuring she will explore through her written remarks. This commentary is to be found in the "Notes de Sophie" sections, placed at the end of each chapter by a narrator who claims to have interviewed Sophie and to be transcribing her story after the protagonist’s disappearance. In the "notes," observations illu-minating the protagonist’s quest for Eurydice’s "truth" intersect with Sophie’s reflections on her own need to renegotiate the labyrinth of her past in a questioning of origins.(3) Her emphasis on "la difficulté qu’il y aura à travailler sans sources" (13) manifests her anxiety, and points to her understanding of the ways in which the search for Eurydice converges with her own construction of self.

In order to give voice to the silenced Eurydice, and to recontextualize her own story, Sophie must return to a buried past and history in which she could potentially "lose herself" — her journey to remembering mimics, at least in part, the structure of the Orphic quest, beginning with the "descente aux Enfers" [the katábasis].(4) Her descent is precipitated by the sudden appearance of ex-fiancé Éric Tosca, a man whose 20-year quest for the "lost" Sophie leads him to identify with the mythic figure of Orpheus.(5)

The protagonist hesitates at first, but eventually agrees to accompany Éric on a journey to their respective and collective pasts. They travel to Rome, where they will spend a period of three days evoking their memories among the archaeological traces of the ancient city. The protagonist hopes to illuminate Éric’s incomplete vision of their past, while concomitantly filling in the gaps in her own recollection of events. Rather than believing in the existence of an immutable past unmediated by present-day perceptions, she recognizes the revisionist possibilities of memory.

She is thus aware of the way in which Éric’s "truth" could undermine her own reconstitution of events; his motives in self-consciously using the myth are, from the beginning, in conflict with her own, and she suspects that his desire to see her again relates to his own narcissistic proprietary needs: "Ainsi ils sont tous les mêmes [...] La marque du maître sur les bonnes pâtes à pétrir. Le regard qui donne la vie ou l’interdit. Ils ne connaissent donc que cela!" (26) She further develops her observations on the male gaze in the "notes," in which she questions the validity of previous readings of the myth which served to perpetuate the power of the "regard d’Orphée" in placing Eurydice under erasure:


Savoir si le regard d’Orphée se retourne sur l’ombre d’Eurydice ou si c’est le regard d’Orphée qui fait d’Eurydice une ombre, qu’importe! Dans tous les cas de figure, Orphée joue avec la vérité et avec la vie d’Eurydice, et Eurydice est impuissante à faire valoir ses droits. [...] Un simple regard la renvoie au néant d’où elle vient. (41)


In traditional representations of male poetic mastery in the Orpheus myth, Eurydice is always marginalized, reduced to serving as source of inspiration for Orpheus’s poetic endeavors. Diane Purkiss, in her commentary on such conventional delineations, posits that "Male poetry is a search for self-replication which ends not in the acquisition of knowledge of the underworld, but in loss caused by the male desire to capture knowledge with a look" (449). The figure of Eurydice is made absence, rather than presence, by Orpheus’s desire. The re-vision of the "regard" in Sarde’s text opens up a space for female desire and creation.

To assert her autonomous presence when confronted once more with the "regard d’Orphée," the protagonist assumes a contestatory stance, responding to his claims on her former self by negating her ersatz identity as the blond, Catholic girl he had met during a pilgrimage to Chartres in 1957: "Je t’interdis de m’appeler Sophie. Je ne suis pas Sophie. Mon nom, c’est Sarah, Sarah Solal. Tu as aimé une usurpatrice, Éric Tosca. Tu as aimé une ombre. La fille des cendres." (196) In effect, the protagonist has rejected the name Sophie Lambert, bestowed upon her by adoptive parents, and has assumed the name Sarah Solal,(6) the one chosen for her by Abraham and Thamar, her birth parents. She discovered shortly before first meeting Éric that her entire family, with the exception of one great-aunt, had been deported and had perished in what is characterized in the text as the "désastre." A note to the reader by the narrator illuminates the reason behind her use of the "désastre(7)" to signify the events which befell Sophie: "En découvrant assez tard dans le récit le secret de ses origines, j’ai reproduit l’incapacité de mon personnage à me ‘le’ dire, aussi bien qu’à ‘le’ dire à l’homme qu’elle aimait. [...] La minuscule ne cherche pas à banaliser le désastre historique, mais à lui restituer sa dimension personnelle." (14)

This stunning revelation of unimagined origins forced Sophie to confront the precarious nature of the self and to come to terms with her Jewishness. The truth of her identity, which appears to conflate with the mythic figure of Eurydice, is trapped in the netherworld, unable to surface: "Une vérité qui ne sait plus par où remonter. Ma vérité. Mon miroir. Moi-même qui m’épelle entre deux noms séparés d’un trait d’union: Sophie-Sarah." (289) She initially repudiates the horror of the "désastre" figured in this hybrid identity, succumbing to a desire to resituate herself through an emphasis on corporeal presence which results in a sort of "amnesia". She invents a "corps sans mémoire" (16), a body "qui n’a pas de nom" (252), as a mechanism for escaping the pain of cumbersome memories: "[...] car elle croyait que la route de l’exil se prend avec un bagage léger, une mémoire vierge [...]." (19)

The protagonist ultimately acknowledges that this self-imposed loss of memory only leads to a further alienation which threatens her very existence.(8) Although the process and the potential consequences of this journey to remembering are fraught with danger for the protagonist, she nevertheless recognizes that a reconceptualization of the past will be crucial in effecting a "remontée." Sophie must reclaim painful memories — through her situating of self in relation to the mythic figure of Eurydice — before being able to progress in her pursuit of a more integrated self. In Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha alludes to the transformative properties of memory in reformulating a shattered self: "Remembering is never a quiet act of introspection or retrospection. It is a painful re-membering, a putting together of the dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present." (63) In this sense, and in relation to the Orphic paradigm, memory appears to act as an anti-sparágmos — re-membering leads to a fuller integration of past and present selves.

Sophie realizes it is necessary to exhume and to articulate fragments of her buried past in order to heal her "mémoire malade" and to effect a rebirth. She must risk looking back at herself and her origins — as a restorative measure: "[...] il faudra creuser un peu plus dans la mémoire malade. Il faudra bien, couche après couche, terrasser jusqu’au désastre." (96) In a revisionist gesture, she will turn back and see her past "with fresh eyes" (Rich), uncovering forgotten episodes which shed new light on her present situation. Such an excavation of the past often informs a feminist project which, according to Gayle Greene, "addresses memory as a means to liberation" (291). Archaeological tropes serve as a framing device in the protagonists’ discussions of the multi-layered past, suggesting the palimpsestic nature of memory. In this "working through" of the past, Sophie thinks of her memories as "fragmentaires [...] par rapport aux souvenirs fondements d’Éric Tosca" (241).

An image which particularly intrigues Sophie and which emblematizes her need to refigure her past is that of the "petrified remains" — the "moulages des corps asphyxiés et étouffés" (292) — of those trying to escape the volcanic eruption which destroyed Pompeii centuries earlier. As she and Éric wander through the Jewish ghetto in Rome, she visualizes this haunting preservation of Pompeii’s past, while reflecting on the untraceable absence of her own family:


De ceux-là du moins la présence et la disparition ont déposé à même la terre la mémoire, dont la pétrification restitue au moulage leur forme et dont le creux invisible fait encore résonner l’absence. (191)


She continues to reflect upon the diverse implications of the "moulage," an interpretive structure which could lend itself to a reformulation of self. Éric’s description of the casting process calls attention to its emancipatory potential: "Il dit qu’on obtient ces moulages en coulant du plâtre dans les espaces créés par la décomposition des corps; et elle s’émeut dans ce va-et-vient de l’objet, que le vide puisse à son tour donner une forme au plein." (292) Sophie, who once considered herself "la fiancée du vide" (139), will give form to her own memories, thereby foregrounding her "remontée," through the strategic (re)telling of her story to the one most directly implicated in her disappearance. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice serves as a "moulage" in the sense that it structures her quest for self.

Nevertheless, in order to effect the "remontée" denied Eurydice by the "regard d’Orphée," the protagonist must break free from the mythic constraints linking her to readings of Eurydice which condemn her to remain in the underworld, unseen and unseeing, an "absence infinie.(9)" She does experience a symbolic rebirth through the telling of her story. Unlike the mythic figure of Eurydice, she refuses to remain the voiceless object of the gaze: "Elle voudrait qu’il entende. Il voudrait qu’elle se taise. Alors elle va jouer de la prudence. Calculer la stratégie. Cultiver la parenthèse. Allonger le dos sur l’ellipse [...] Savoir rester en coulisse. Mais pour mieux préparer sa rentrée." (283-284)

The protagonist’s appropriation of this discursive space is not unproblematic, however, as her recollections of the past conflict dramatically with those of her ex-fiancé. Her "bringing to light" of the "désastre" causes her to examine the significance of the divergent nature of their memories(10) "En racontant ses propres histoires du passé, en choisissant ses souvenirs, elle sait qu’elle fait ombre sur ceux d’Éric Tosca, qu’elle décolore en quelques heures son bel hier d’il y a 20 ans." (241) He insists that she must have left him upon discovery that his father, the opera singer Christian Hermesse,(11) had been executed for collaborating with the Nazis. She endeavors to explain the true reason for the break-up and her subsequent disappearance — his fascist beliefs and the "death-blow" inscribed in his attempt to defend himself: "Mais à Auschwitz on n’a exterminé que des poux [...]." (276)

Éric refuses to hear her truth, professing to have "no memory" of having spoken those words. In effect, he searches for "mastery" of their past, attempting to displace her story with his own. His denial of her double identity essays to deny her access to the "remontée": "Cette femme-là il ne la connaît pas, et il ne veut pas la connaître. [...] Qu’elle reste là d’où elle vient! Derrière Sophie. Sous Sophie. Comme autrefois." (287) As in previous episodes, Éric’s reactions have been foregrounded in the text, mirrored in Sophie’s reflections on Orphée: "La vérité, il ne veut pas la voir. Tout maître qu’il fut de la vie et de la mort, le poète ne sut pas accompagner une femme jusqu’à la lumière. Il ne sut que s’aveugler par deux fois. Et la perdre." (273)

Ultimately, Éric’s blindness is responsible for his own untimely end. Following further revelations from the protagonist, he flees, leaving Sophie to finish the journey on her own. His fate is an appropriately ambiguous one in a text exploring disparate interpretations of a shared history. Newspaper articles report that a man — variously identified as a tourist, an escapee from an asylum, a CIA agent, and a former singer — ended up in the midst of a demonstration by "Il Colletivo delle Donne," where he suffered various indignities — dismemberment is implied — and perhaps death, at the hand of the "manifestants." Sophie-Sarah disappears once more, this time of her own volition.

In Histoire d’Eurydice pendant la remontée, the protagonist succeeds in resituating herself through reflections on myth and memory which converge with a personal and collective history. In the end, the act of telling her story leads to her redemption. Sarde’s use of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice provides an alternative framing for a re-visioning of woman’s status in myth, and lends structure to the protagonist’s quest for self. Jane Caputi illustrates the significance of contemporary revisionist mythmaking strategies which, like Sarde’s, result in the articulation of a female story: "One of the most significant developments to emerge out of the contemporary feminist movement is the quest [...] to refigure the female self from a gynocentric perspective, to discover, revitalize and create a female oral and visual mythic tradition and use it, ultimately, to change the world." (425) In recounting her past, Sophie-Sarah-Eurydice realizes the "remontée" which had been denied her by the silencing implicit in the "regard d’Orphée." The text’s final note reinforces Caputi’s emphasis on the female revisionary quest, opening up a space for further re-writings of the myth: "Le mythe ne disait rien de l’itinéraire d’Eurydice après le retournement d’Orphée, après la mort d’Orphée, pas même, si cheminant seule sur un chemin de traverse, elle n’aura pas fini par atteindre le bout de la remontée." (326)

Works Cited


Bhabha, Homi K. Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Blanchot, Maurice. L’écriture du désastre. Paris: Gallimard, 1980.

L’entretien infini. Paris: Gallimard, 1969.

L’Espace littéraire. 1955. Paris: Gallimard, Collection Folio/Essais, 1988.

Caputi, Jane. "On Psychic Activism: Feminist Mythmaking." The Feminist Companion to Mythology. Carolyne Larrington (ed.). London: Pandora Press, 1992.

Greene, Gayle. "Feminist Fiction and the Uses of Memory." Signs 16.2 (1991): 290-321.

Gregg, Linda. "Eurydice." Too Bright to See. 1981. Barry Goldensohn. "Euridice Looks Back." The American Poetry Review 23.6 (1994): 43-53. Online. Expanded Academic ASAP. December, 1995.

Lourie, Margaret A., Domna C. Stanton, and Martha Vicinus. "Introduction." Michigan Quarterly Review XXVI. 1(1987): 1-8.

Lowenthal, David. The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Plate, Liedeke. "Breaking the Silence: Michèle Sarde’s Histoire d’Eurydice pendant la remontée." Women in French Studies 3 (1995): 90-99.

Purkiss, Diane. "Women’s Rewriting of Myth." The Feminist Companion to Mythology. Carolyne Larrington (ed.). London: Pandora Press, 1992. 441-57.

Rich, Adrienne. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979.

Sankovitch, Tilde A. French Women Writers and the Book: Myths of Access and Desire. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1988.

Sarde, Michèle. Histoire d’Eurydice pendant la remontée. Paris: Seuil, 1991.

Strauss, Walter A. "Orphée déchu de la grâce?" Mythes dans la littérature contemporaine d’expression française. Metka Zupancic (dir.) Ottawa: Nordir, 1994. 30-41.


Sommaire du numéro 15 | Page d'accueil

(*) Patrice J. Proulx is a professor of French in the University of Nebraska at Omaha. This article is a revision of author’s paper presented at the session "Le mythe d’Eurydice dans les textes contemporains de femmes" at the 1996 XXth Century French Studies Colloquium. |Retourner au texte|

(1) Michèle Sarde, Histoire d’Eurydice pendant la remontée (157). All quotations will be taken from the edition listed in the "Works Cited" section, and indicated by page number in the text. |Retourner au texte|

(2) See Maurice Blanchot’s essay, "Le regard d’Orphée," for an interpretation of this term based on the premise that poetic creativity is male — the "regard d’Eurydice" does not exist in this vision of the artist. Orphée holds the power of life and death over Eurydice, as manifested in this quote from Blanchot’s L’entretien infini: "[...] lorsque Orphée se retourne, cessant de parler pour voir, son regard se révèle être la violence qui porte la mort, l’atteinte effroyable." (86) |Retourner au texte|

(3) In The Past is a Foreign Country, David Lowenthal affirms the primacy of memory in sustaining identity: "Self-continuity depends wholly on memory; recalling past experiences links us with our earlier selves." (197) |Retourner au texte|

(4) Walter Strauss, in "Orphée déchu de la grâce?", outlines the three principal moments of this quest, namely, the katábasis (descent), the anábasis (ascension), and the sparágmos (dismemberment). |Retourner au texte|

(5) Éric also sets himself up as Orphic hero through his affinity for music and his interest in alchemy. As Liedeke Plate points out, he "reconstructs their story in light of the myth by emphasizing the mythical figure’s heroic role in the Argonautica’s quest for the Golden Fleece and his status as the first alchemist." (94) |Retourner au texte|

(6) The surname Solal is connected to the solar myth as embodied by Apollo. Sarah, in (re)claiming this name, manifests her desire to seek out the truth — to cast light — on her origins. |Retourner au texte|

(7) The use of this term also evokes Blanchot’s L’écriture du désastre. |Retourner au texte|

(8) As Lourie, Stanton and Vicinus observe in their introduction to a special volume of Michigan Quarterly on women and memory, "To be bereft of memory is not only to lack knowledge, but also to retain nothing: to lose one’s memory is to lose oneself" (2). |Retourner au texte|

(9) Blanchot, "Le regard d’Orphée." (227) |Retourner au texte|

(10) Gayle Greene elaborates on the protean nature of memory: "Memory revises, reorders, refigures, resignifies; it includes or omits, embellishes or represses, decorates or drips, according to imperatives of its own." (294) |Retourner au texte|

(11) Éric had taken the name of his mother in order to avoid being identified through the "nom du père." The surname of Éric’s father, a feminization of Hermès, links him in another way to the Orphic myth. Later, when Éric is a member of the OAS, his "nom de guerre," bestowed on him by fellow soldiers, will be Hermès. |Retourner au texte|