Essays

How to Come Back to Life

On reaching middle age and carrying on

Emily Ogden
Black and white still showing Giulietta Masina smiling with a black tear at the corner of her eye
Still of Giulietta Masina in Federico Fellini's Le notti di Cabiria (1957). Courtesy the Criterion Collection.

                                      By this place full of fear,
By immense Chaos and the silence of this vast realm,
Reweave, I beg you, Eurydice’s hurried fates.
ovid, Metamorphoses

They say that orpheus turned back. The devil is in this detail. Eurydice has died by a snakebite. Orpheus, her grieving husband, harrows hell for her. All of us are “owed to you,” he says to Hades, but let her return for now. He pleads so movingly for Eurydice’s life—“we are asking for a loan,” he says, in Stanley Lombardo’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—that Hades agrees. She can follow him over the rim of the world. But there is one condition: her husband must keep his eyes facing upward, outward, until the two of them are through the gates. Orpheus, knowing this, turns back. Is Eurydice really following? Maybe she liked her taste of hell a bit more than she let on. Let’s just check, he says, killing her. Ovid tells us she fades away without complaint. “What could she complain of except she was loved?” What indeed? How about this senseless dashing of her chances, for starters? Why must the men always check? Othello strangles Desdemona, then cries about it. Lear stamps his foot for testimony from Cordelia. The men have to check. The women die.

Meanwhile, as Orpheus fretted, Eurydice was only confronting the fundamental human question: namely, shall I live at all? Orpheus turned back, but who cares about that? My question is, did Eurydice?

Let’s say it was Eurydice alone who had to walk, straight as an arrow, out into the upper world. Let’s say it was the middle of the road of her life, and she had to decide, shall I keep living? Let’s say she was in her thirties, like Chris Kraus in I Love Dick. “She stands on the cliff of her life,” Eileen Myles writes of Chris. The cliff is “approximately the same one, Jack Kerouac warned Neal Cassidy to not go over ‘for nothing.’ Which for those guys (fifties, alkies) was 30. For Chris it’s 39. A female expiration date. And why? Chris’ powerful account makes me wonder if all those bible stories that warn women not to turn around are just ’cause she might see something. Like her life.”

It’s not that after some particular birthday, women in fact “expire,” or go off; it’s merely that some tiresome people think so, and that being invisible to such people confers a certain freedom. It’s distracting to be wanted for dumb reasons—to be wanted as dumb—and to have to keep calculating whether you’ll try to use that desire to your advantage or not. Myles is saying, Think what happens when a gust of wind blows these admirers away, as though they were only so many gnats, and a woman can clear her head. This kind of “going over” is in some ways the opposite of what it meant to “go over” for Kerouac and Cassidy—although middle age is at issue in both cases. If the world was the men’s oyster till they were thirty, thirty-nine is when Chris gets to stop being the oyster to men. If there is misery in no longer being desirable, there is liberty, too. Now she can begin to think about what making the most of things would mean. The question life presents is no longer, Am I wanted? but rather, Do I want it? Life, that is.

Life is in Eurydice’s hands, and she has to decide whether or not to walk up out of the underworld with it. So does Eurydice turn back? If she feels death’s attractions, she is in good company. All over mythology we find people who have been told when they will die or what will kill them. It is supposed to be a curse. But this curse is also a wish. Without being in any way suicidal, a person can stand on a bridge and feel it would be, somehow, simpler to jump. A person can hold a knife and have the fleeting thought that since a knife must be plunged into one’s gut sooner or later, literally or figuratively, it might as well be now. Edgar Allan Poe named the demon that prompts these thoughts “the Imp of the Perverse,” in his 1845 tale of that title. Poe explained that a destructive impulse within us counters our every “desire to be well.” “Perversion,” the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips suggests in his book On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored, is when we aim to still our desires prematurely. “We could say that we are being perverse whenever we think we know beforehand exactly what we desire,” he writes. “To know beforehand is to assume that otherness, whether it be a person, a medium, an environment, is redundant; that it has nothing to offer us, that it brings nothing—or just rage and disappointment—to the occasion.” To think, Let’s just end it now, is to think that there is nothing worth having in the dilating uncertainty that stands between me and my eventual death.

But now, having snatched back her life, does she really want it? Not at first! She collapses in despair at her husband’s feet, crying out again and again, “Kill me! Kill me! I don’t want to live any longer!”

It is not only in death itself that we encounter the temptation to prescind from life. “Eurydice recalls that death can claim us at any moment, in any of its forms,” writes the psychoanalyst and philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle in her book In Praise of Risk, “from renunciation to sacrifice, from anesthesia to dereliction.” This is Steven Miller’s translation. What it means for death to claim us is that the sterile round of our routines claims us. We no longer see the point or the possibility of a pleasant surprise. We think it would be better to have things settled. Death claims us in the passion some of us have for disposing of our lives, equally in the taking of excessive risks and in the settling of marriages. And those two things are not even incompatible: one can “sow one’s wild oats” in the name of settling down. Beneath the placid surface presented by the well-behaved is a panicked hunger to be tracked into a life of someone else’s devising. Put me, I beg you, in a rut.

When we are perverse, we murder time. Hopeless that time will bring us anything good, we seek to fill it, to warp it, to make what we have left of it go away. Poe’s Imp of the Perverse was also the patron saint of the cocktail party bore and the procrastinator. We are perverse, according to Poe, when we hold our listeners past their endurance, when we become seized with the thought, then the desire, of “delay.” Or, genuinely wanting to turn to the task that is before us, we nonetheless hesitate; we decline to do it. In his book on fellow psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, Phillips relays a story, passed down from Masud Khan, of how Winnicott once spoke to an audience of Anglican priests. One asked how they would know when pastoral care was no longer enough and that the parishioner ought to be referred to a psychiatrist. Winnicott said, Refer them if they bore you: “If a person comes and talks to you… and, listening to him, you feel he is boring you, then he is sick and needs psychiatric treatment. But if he sustains your interest, no matter how grave his distress or conflict, then you can help him all right.” Counterintuitively, it is not turmoil but placidity that betokens serious illness: the placidity of a flatline.

The self-sacrificing suicide and the deadening fulfillment of duty have in common their avoidance of the risk in the middle: “the risk of ‘not yet dying,’” as Dufourmantelle puts it, this “gamble that we will always lose in the end, but only after traversing life with more or less plenitude, joy, and most of all, intensity.” In Poe’s story, the final act of perversion is, in effect, to ask to be put to death, because not yet dying is something the narrator can no longer tolerate. Having committed an undetectable crime, the narrator of “The Imp of the Perverse” confesses it for no reason other than to master time once and for all. He speaks, knowing he will be hanged in the morning. The crime is beside the point. The point is to end the uncertainty of his days. He cannot find the capacity to live a life to which no definite term has been set—one to whose occasion otherness might bring something besides rage and disappointment. It seems strange to say that the person who sets a term to his life has done so because he “know[s] beforehand exactly what [he] desires.” But nonetheless there is a truth to it. He has prevented there being anything that he could want, that he hasn’t already conceived.

In a case recounted by Dufourmantelle, the patient “Eurydice” has contrived to set a definite term to her life—not by courting her execution but by an inward certainty that she will not live past thirty. The thirties, to recall, are the age of “going over” for Myles and Kerouac. Eurydice has always imagined death as an “appointment”:

It would be an appointment no more important than the dentist, an oil change, buying a pack of cigarettes. That morning, she knew, would be just a little more definitive than other mornings. And it wouldn’t come from her. Certainly not! She was a stranger to any thought of killing herself, or even praying that chance would do it for her. She simply observed that she had a slight advantage over other people: knowing when the grim reaper would come to collect her.

That Eurydice’s death is an “appointment” tells us that this rendezvous is not about self-destruction, exactly, but about “definitiveness.” Eurydice has felt she has an “advantage”: her life is bounded more exactly than other people’s. Knowing when death will come makes her life a well-appointed room, with definite boundaries, rather than a vast and unmanageable space. But it also makes it something less than a life. What takes her to psychoanalysis is the sudden appearance of a countervailing wish: perhaps she does, after all, want to live. This desire announces itself first as a fear of dying, a novel sensation for her. She has one session with an analyst, who says—with “stupidity,” with “gentleness”—“Perhaps you want to live, a little bit more?” Could she wish, really, for something so foolish as to live?

She returns for another appointment, but the analyst is not there. It turns out that he has suddenly died, almost as if his death were a clinical intervention. Therapeutic actions in Dufourmantelle’s cases do have a folkloric tendency to take place partly beyond the consulting room, in the realm of life itself. Sometimes the analyst seems to live out, by sympathetic magic, an experience the patient needs to offload. The language game through which psychoanalysis helps, if it does, depends on viewing the patient’s life as a kind of poetic making. The patient’s acts and habits, their phobias and wishes, are to be listened to as if they were speaking in language. In Dufourmantelle’s depictions of the analytic scene, the analyst is not exempt, either, from this poetics of life.

These happy fools try to include her. They are singing, dancing, covered in flowers. They look about twenty; she looks thirty-nine. She knows better; they do not. It is as if the dancers say to her, Are you a fool? They are the fools. But she tucks the burden under her arm and says Yes, I am a fool.

Here, then, the analyst’s death is an act of making. But it is not that he renounces his life in Eurydice’s favor or that death takes him instead of her. “In the street, she knew that death had come to pass, that it took someone else. In her place? No, not even. It was just that she would no longer be there at the appointed time.” If the analyst’s death has the function of signaling her release, it does so through a dream-logic. The therapist dies; she lives. He does not keep their appointment for therapy; she does. Now she does not have to come again. Recombined, these elements yield: she kept her appointment with death. Death didn’t show. Death stood her up—on her own feet, as if for the first time. She will walk up out of the underworld. She will not die yet.

At the end of Federico Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria (1957), the actress Giulietta Masina stands up, turns away from her death, and walks back through the dusk to the upper world. (I have described this scene before, in an essay about starting over, published at 3 Quarks Daily.) Masina plays Cabiria, an indomitably cheerful prostitute who has carefully saved up over years to leave her profession and buy a house. She is in love; she thinks it’s mutual; they marry.

But it turns out he has planned all along to kill her and steal her life’s savings. Soon after their wedding, he takes her to the edge of a cliff. He tells her they’re there to watch the sunset, but he intends to push her off. She sees what he means to do just in time.

But now, having snatched back her life, does she really want it? Not at first! She collapses in despair at her husband’s feet, crying out again and again, “Kill me! Kill me! I don’t want to live any longer!” He runs away, leaving the problem of life on her hands. The screen flickers to black, as if Cabiria has fainted. We see her again in the twilight. The sunset is over; she stands herself up. Her wedding suit is dusted with debris and a teardrop of mascara stands in the corner of her left eye. There is nothing for it but to walk uphill before darkness definitively falls—to walk out of Hades, following, albeit hours after, in the footsteps of her worthless Orpheus. The question that Fellini and Masina pose—they were creative partners, and married—is not whether he will look back. It’s whether she will.

“Hell, you see,” writes Dufourmantelle, “is an exact replica of the living world where you and I live. A surface projected into a cardboard eternity, where eras are superimposed on one another, from reflection to reflection.” But what is different in the living world is our consent not to know already everything there is to know about it. Not to model the desertions of the flim-flam man onto every young affair, nor to seek love as stasis. As Cabiria reaches the road, a little festival of spring suddenly weaves itself around her. For no reason that realism can furnish, dancers, an accordion player, a couple on a moped, and other revelers populate the road. These happy fools try to include her. They are singing, dancing, covered in flowers. They look about twenty; she looks thirty-nine. She knows better; they do not. It is as if the dancers say to her, Are you a fool? They are the fools. But she tucks the burden under her arm and says Yes, I am a fool. She cheers up, though the tear-shaped smudge of mascara is still visible in her left eye. She has not been pushed off a cliff, but she will “go over” into life. She gives a glance of puckish acknowledgment to each of the dancers, and then to the camera, and to us fools beyond it, too.

Emily Ogden is an English professor and the author of Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism and On Not Knowing. @ENOgden
Originally published:
June 28, 2021

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