Orphic Orange

I went up to Glasfryn in Llangattock to the Orpheus/Eurydice day organised by Lyndon Davies, Penny Hallas and Graham Hartill. The main event was a reading/talk by David Cook who has just published his translations of Rilke’s The Sonnets to Orpheus. This was accompanied by a series of lectures and performances on related themes.

I didn’t know a lot about the Orpheus myth and hadn’t read much Rilke. The only thing I knew was that Guillaume Apollinaire had used the term Orphism to describe a kind of Cubist painting that used bright colours, e.g. Robert and Sophia Delaunay, Fernand Leger and certain paintings of Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp.

Robert Delaunay, Window (1912)

Apollinaire wrote a poem called ‘The Windows’ which was a response to the orphic paintings of Robert Delaunay.  The last lines are: ‘The window opens like an orange / The beautiful fruit of light’. We were invited to bring along a contribution to lunch so I decided to make an orange cake. I didn’t want to do a talk but I felt that Apollinaire’s Orphism should be present somehow. I thought of creating an ambient lecture, a sort of background discussion that could be engaged in or ignored to different degrees. So I took some napkins which had oranges on them and wrote some of Apollinaire’s treatises on Orphism on them:

  • ‘Thus we are tending towards an entirely new art which will be to painting what, until today, one had imagined music to be to poetry.’ (The Beginnings of Cubism, 1912)
  • ‘It is the art of painting new structures with elements which have not been borrowed from visual reality, but have been entirely created by the artist, and which have been endowed by him with a powerful reality.’ (The Cubist Painters, 1913)
  • ‘And to renew inspiration, to make it fresher and more orphic, I think that the poet will have to refer back to nature, to life. If he should limit himself to noting undidactically the mystery he sees and hears, he would become habituated to life like the nineteenth-century realists who thus raised their art very high, and the decadence of the novel came at the very moment when the writers ceased observing external reality which is the very orphism of art.’ (Soirees de Paris, 1914)

I like the seeming contradiction in these quotes. Apollinaire describes the orphic as ‘the art of painting new structures with elements not borrowed from visual reality’ and then says that poets need to return to observing external reality ‘which is the very orphism of art’.

  • How could both be orphic?
  • When is painting more like music than poetry?
  • When is poetry more like music than poetry?
  • What is the poetic equivalent of colour in painting?

Some of these questions were answered in the discussion at Glasfryn.

For example, apparently Rodin told Rilke to go and look at things – similar advice to Apollinaire’s that poets need to undidactically observe the mystery that they see and hear. David Cook explained Rilke’s concept of ‘the Open’, which is like nature or life. He said that when Rilke was dying he refused to have a priest present because ‘he would stand between me and the Open’. He drew our attention to the Eighth Duino Elegy:

Animals see the Open with their whole eyes.

Only our eyes, turned inward, surround it

like traps, trying to hinder its freedom of movement

… to see shapes and forms,

and not the Open that is so deep in the face

of an animal.

[mix of translations by Gary Miranda and Martin Crucefix]

Cook pointed out the repeated references to breathing in Rilke’s poems. There’s the line in Sonnet II, 1: ‘Breathing, you invisible poem’. Cook explained that breathing is controlled by an automatic part of the nervous system. In this sense I could see that the orphic is not abstract but concrete – not abstracting philosophically from things, not distancing from them, but working deep in them, in the Open – so it becomes like breathing.

The Orphic painters were using swathes of colour in rhythmic or harmonic arrangements, rather than trying to depict an image from visual reality. A sort of music for the eyes. Brian Eno also described ambient music as using music as colour. And he created new structures by sampling sounds from disparate sources to create a new space or atmosphere. So maybe he was coming from the other direction to the same thing. Orphism as ambient painting. Ambient as orphic music.

In ‘The Windows’ Apollinaire juxtaposes imaginary worlds and everyday observations with snippets of overheard conversation:

From the red to the green all the yellow dies

When the macaws are calling from their native forest

Slaughter of pi-hi’s

There is a poem to be written about the bird which has only one wing

We had better send it in the form of a telephone message

Gigantic state of trauma

It makes your eyes water

Look there is a pretty girl among the young girls of Turin

The unfortunate young man dabbed his eyes with his white tie

Raise the blind

And now see how the window opens

[Oliver Bernard’s translation]

I wondered why Apollinaire responded to Delaunay’s patches of colour with snippets of overheard conversation.

I thought of Maurice Blanchot’s essay on ‘Everyday Speech’:

‘How many people turn on the radio and leave the room, satisfied with this distant and sufficient noise. Is this absurd? Not in the least. What is essential is not that one particular person should speak and another hear, but that, with no one in particular speaking and no one in particular listening, there should nonetheless be speech, and a kind of undefined promise to communicate guaranteed by the incessant coming and going of solitary words.’ (Blanchot, ‘Everyday Speech’)

Overheard conversation is background music, ambient language. Apollinaire’s ‘The Windows’ a background poem, like a colour, a wallpaper, a surrounding tint.


Cook explained Rilke’s use of the word ‘Zwischenraüme’, which literally means ‘in-between spaces’.

He uses it in two sonnets in the Orpheus sequence: in Sonnet II, 3 to describe mirrors as in-between spaces in time, and in Sonnet II, 26 to describe the many in-between spaces in a single space.

Mirrors: no one yet has knowingly said

what you must be in your depths.

You, like the airy holes in sieves,

make up the intervals (Zwischenraüme) in time.

[David Cook’s translation of Sonnet II, 3]

How the shriek of a bird will shake us…

any cry once it has broken in.

… Into the many breaches (Zwischenraüme)

within the one space, (where birdsong

plunges entire, as people into dreams)

they dart their piercing shouts.

[David Cook’s translation of Sonnet II, 26]

I suppose in a place you have lots of consciousnesses moving about which are each also spaces, different perceptions of the space. The space is composed of these different perceptions of it. Like Apollinaire’s cubist poems – multiple perspectives juxtaposed.

Rilke describes mirrors as ‘like the airy holes in sieves’. Someone suggested that a poem is also like a sieve – a form with holes. The holes, the in-between spaces are the different perceptions or interpretations of the poem, the many spaces within the one space of the poem.

It reminded me of Michel Foucault’s discussion of heterotopias in the lecture ‘Of Other Spaces’. He says mirrors are heterotopic because they are simultaneously real and unreal spaces:

‘From the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there. Starting from this gaze that is, as it were, directed toward me, from the ground of this virtual space that is on the other side of the glass, I come back toward myself; I begin again to direct my eyes toward myself and to reconstitute myself there where I am. The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.’ (Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces’)

The virtual space in the mirror shows us the real space where we are, but also in the act of seeing ourselves there it effaces it too. As Cook says, ‘The empty holes in sieves exist only by virtue of what is outside them, and the same is true of the reflection in the mirror.’

Foucault’s heterotopias are also in-between spaces, where many different places or times are juxtaposed and superimposed. Apollinaire created one of the key literary heterotopias in his poem ‘Zone’, which combines his impressions walking around Paris with memories of travels in other European cities and imaginative flights of fancy. The title was a reference to an area on the outskirts of Paris known as La Zone, where the poet ends up at the end of the poem. It was a defunct military area where people weren’t allowed to build homes, but when the military function ceased immigrants built shacks on the land turning it into a shantytown. Apollinaire’s ‘Zone’ is also built like a shantytown in the way it juxtaposes disparate materials. ‘The Windows’ is also a heterotopia, being made up of different places and times, real and imaginary. The juxtaposition of the exotic details at the start with the mundane conversation produces a strange, hybrid space. Like Eno’s ambient environments, these poems create ‘new structures’.

Angie Voela gave a talk on Bracha Ettinger’s ‘Eurydice’ sequence, where Ettinger fed photographs through a photocopier and opened the machine during the process in an attempt to capture the image in the moment of its emerging. It’s like in the myth where in the act of Orpheus looking at Eurydice, she disappears back to Hades. Voela said that in Ettinger’s work there is always this coming back to consciousness in the act of knowing, but done through a sense of responsibility to the Other.

Bracha Ettinger, Eurydice n. 27 (1998)

Cris Paul made a good point relating these things to quantum physics. It was to do with creativity and knowledge – something like, as soon as you retrieve something from the unconscious it slips from your grasp, in becoming known it ceases to be unconscious, like the quantum wave function collapses when it is observed. Cook suggested that it’s like when you try to describe a dream you’ve had and as you turn it into something coherent it feels like your losing something of what the dream was like.

Anthony Mellors disagreed with the idea of the unconscious as the source of creativity, saying that the unconscious is just nothingness. I think what he said was that creativity comes from contact with the objective. I might have misunderstood but it suggested to me that creativity doesn’t come from some magic depths within but from outside – the world or nature or life – the Open.

Lyndon pointed out that the poem, the sonnet form in particular, is a containing, enclosing structure. The Eighth Duino Elegy again: ‘Only our eyes, turned inward, surround it / like traps…’ (see discussion in previous post of Allen Fisher’s use of traps). Perhaps Orphism is a way of approaching the poem or art work like you’re making a sieve or a mirror – a way of enabling gaps or lack – assuming an immersive, musical or ambient relation to the Open which acknowledges that in capturing it, something always escapes – which allows for the reader, the Other. There is no poem without an observing consciousness who reads it. Consciousness might be the trap that captures the Open, but it is also an in-between space. Each perception of the poem is one of the many breaches within the single space of the poem, one of the many holes in the sieve.

View the recipe for my orphic orange cake


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