Nicole Barrière

Orpheus, a Figure of Exile in Contemporary Literature?

There are several versions of this myth. However, in all the variants, the main elements remain. Orpheus, the son of the Thracian king (or river god) Oeagrus and the muse Calliope, received from the hands of Apollo, who taught him the magic of words and poetry, a lyre with seven strings to which he added two, thus reaching the number of Muses.

The nine strings correspond to the nine Muses and thus symbolize the totalizing aspect often associated with Orpheus. Singing with his lyre, Orpheus charmed gods, mortals and animals.

It was through the union of his words and his music that he rescued the Argonauts from the captivating song of the sirens. Orpheus symbolizes, therefore, the power of emotion and seduction, conveyed by music.

In this first part of the myth, which sees in Orpheus a master of the sung word, there is a second component superimposed, which is probably more famous than the first one – the story of love or seduction.

Orpheus was the young husband of Eurydice. However, on their honeymoon, the hero Aristaeus started chasing Eurydice. In her attempt to escape, the young woman was bitten by a snake. She died. Orpheus went down to join her in the realm of the dead, in order to snatch her from hell.

His voice seduced the infernal powers that let him take Eurydice on the condition of not turning back to look at her before reaching the exit of hell.

Orpheus, unable to respect this ban, finally lost Eurydice, as he turned back to help her at a dangerous bit of the path.

Thus Eurydice died a second and last time. Overwhelmed and inconsolable, Orpheus retired to live with the animals that his song kept attracting. The Maenads, though, threw themselves upon him and tore his body into pieces, because he had disdained the love of the women of Thrace. Another version claims that he died as thundered by Zeus for initiating men to divine mysteries.


I would like to share with you the associations with our present history, which this myth inspires in my mind, concerning the situations of exile of “refugees” who arrive on the European shores: Greek, Sicilian or Spanish.

Young people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa are fleeing war and misery. I do not dwell on the responsibilities of Western governments, but I will just mention what Jean-Paul Sartre already pointed out in his preface “Black Orpheus” of the Anthology of the New French Negro and Malagasy Poetry by Léopold Sédar Senghor:


What did you expect, when you removed the gag that closed these black mouths? That they would sing you praises? Those heads that our fathers had bent to the ground by force, did you think, when they would get up again, that you would read the adoration in their eyes? Here are standing men watching us and I wish you the pleasure of being seen. For the white man has enjoyed for three thousand years the privilege of seeing without being seen; that was pure gaze, the light of his eyes drew everything from the native shadow, the whiteness of his skin, it was a still glance, condensed light.


So it is neither the myth nor the exile that I want to deal with here, but the possibilities that the current situation opens up. Situations of exile arise from the incoming literatures in dialogue with the literature of the host continent, because the “migrant” refugees who approach the shores of Europe, no matter what their origin is, challenge people, writers and artists, to witness their situations: lived, reported, mythified. This is not anything new in literature. Marcel Camus has adapted the Orphic myth in Opheo Negro, Alberto Moravia – too, and even Jean Genet who describes so well the situations of exile of the marginal (the assassin, thief, domestic, Negro, etc.)


We are already far from the ancient myth that separates the body from the soul. Since the body travels, it is no longer the body in internal exile, suffering, experiencing grace or revelation. It enters the European continent. And this is an exile outside – expatriates towards the new, towards the West supposed to be a paradise or new Eldorado.

If there is homesickness, if there is sense of strangeness to arrive on unknown shores – the new refugees have the opportunity to get in touch with other cultures, other civilizations, and also to get acquainted to new situations that their compatriots, left behind, do not know. The latter ones rather resemble Orpheus who stays on the edge of the threshold, while their “migrant” compatriots represent Ulysses, the performer of the initiatory and symbolic journey that sometimes leads to death.

This is a geographical exile, they become aware of it by the rejection, the betrayal of the values ​​proclaimed by the West: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Human Rights, etc. ...all the propaganda of the new empires...

On the side of the host populations, there is a militant and solidarity mobilization that runs up against the law prohibiting aid to refugees. In France, it is called offense of solidarity. For example, activists who have sheltered or transported, treated or fed refugees are tried and sentenced.

This is where we find the myth of Orpheus’s LOVE for Eurydice, that pushes him to an act of COURAGE – to get his beloved from hell at the risk of his own life. This courage is an act of disobedience, here – of civil disobedience, because it is thus that the accused and condemned militants justify their action.

Orpheus is on both sides of the shores, on the side of those who stay in the country, and on the side of the host countries – “exiled from within”[1]. While the migrants – “exiled from outside” – take the figure of Ulysses, between resignation and freedom, with the sum of trials that await them on the wandering paths of exile (passages, crossings, slavery, death), and even if these crossing trials are past, those of exclusion and rejection still await for them.

Thus one sees the figure of Orpheus as a stranger in his own country, in these operations of survival where the question of the OTHER and of the host (the one who is welcomed and the one who welcomes bear the same name in French – HOST).An oxymoronic relationship links the two terms and the comparison gives a rereading of the myth. It invites a common recognition of a shared story, as we could read in the structure of an itinerary in the Notebook of a Return to the Birthplace by Aimé Césaire, or in The Songs of the Shadow by Léopold Sédar Senghor, where the loss of oneself is described also as a rebirth through the dialogue and the joint work of the myth.In the nostalgia for the native land, in the ambiguity of the relation to the mother earth, writers pass from astonishment to interiorizing the exile. The texts contain this figure of the oxymoron: from the poetry of blackness, through the novels about African independence, to the modern novels.[2]Thus they articulate this tension between the Same and the Other. Unable to establish a relationship of equivalence, they do not say whether the hierarchy between here and elsewhere is positive or negative, or whether exile is not the catalyst for all disillusionment and disenchantment.Here and elsewhere are in opposition, elsewhere is in tension with here – tension which expresses the completion of the movement from elsewhere to here, besides the completion of the trip from elsewhere to here keeps mimicking. This tension creates an effect of rupture between the memory of elsewhere and the memory of here, and pronounces the meeting of a surprising world, without landmarks. The witness becomes a clairvoyant. The eye which sees the subject to be judged is now raised, it discovers hidden realities. The denunciation is done by a nested representation of the eyes: the amazement of the eyes of the refugees before the astonishment of the eyes of the Westerners. Exile is no longer a problem of oneself in his/her homeland or of oneself in the foreign culture, it becomes a problem of the very self – a problem of oneself with itself. Migrant’s experience renews Western experience, as soon as it enters the field of literary creativity. As soon as the loop of the Western world closes, the mouth of the migrant opens. It remains to be seen whether the migrant’s word will be heard, or it will be put at a distance, denied or rejected? And one can then ask the question of the dominance in literature, where the writers of exile do not have powerful enough forces to undermine victoriously the foundations of Western power (including the cultural one).
Writing reflects the crumbling of a life which is being constantly defeated by moments of inner monologue. As a result of exile, and even only as a result of the exile of language – it remains for these writers to operate an approach similar to that of Paul Celan who invents a new language of mourning that is both universal and irreducibly personal. In this respect, Claudio Magris wrote: “a song to the extreme limits of Orphism, that descends into the night and into the realm of the dead, that dissolves into the indistinct vital murmur, and breaks all forms, both linguistic and social ones, in order to find the word, the magical pass that opens the prison of History”.[3]


[1] Selon Achille Mbembe.

[2] Max Vega Ritter, “Débats et imaginaires algériens”.

[3] Cl. Magris, Danube, L’Arpenteur, Paris, 1988.


Translation – Elka Dimitrova


The project “International Festival of Poetry “ORPHEUS” – Plovdiv 2018” was realized with the financial support of “The Cultural Programme for the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union 2018” of the National Culture Fund.


Bulgarian Presidency
of the Council of the European Union

© 2018 International Poetry Festival „Orpheus” – Plovdiv
Международен фестивал на поезията „ОРФЕЙ” – Пловдив