The Mytheme of Male Desire

by Thomas Larson


“I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths,

but how myths operate in men’s minds without their being aware of the fact.”

The Raw and the Cooked, Claude Lévi-Strauss


The greatest stories of mythic love are those most encumbered by ecstatic subjugation. Among them are the romance legends of Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere, and Orpheus and Eurydice. Of Orpheus’s tragic loss and demise, the tale tells of a man’s love for a woman, read princess wife queen Eros, so consuming that at her death he descends into Hades to bring her back. His act may grant her a second life or, after a brief flawed reunion, a second and final death. Set aside the male as hero or victim. His outcome matters less than the spell men believe they wield over women who must, to live, desire the salvific power of his love.

I find this tale represented, narrated, in the painting “Nymphs Find the Head of Orpheus” (1900) by John William Waterhouse, in which the British pre-Raphaelite casts most of his mythic female subjects as virginal idols. Two nymphs on the isle of Lesbos gaze into a pool of water where the head of Orpheus, the matchless poet-singer of Greek lore, and his lyre float by. The moment possesses transcendent mystery and kernelled eroticism. One girl beholds Orpheus with comely curiosity; the other seems triggered by reticence and fear. They’ve been imprinted by the male gaze, rising from the body-less head of Orpheus who continues to enchant. Like a Billie Holiday recording, the song and its spell live on.

Nymphs Find the Head of Orpheus by John William Waterhouse.  Oil on canvas, 1900.

The backstory is well-known (core variants come from Ovid, Plato, and Virgil). One day, Orpheus’s wife Eurydice is frolicking in a copse, enchanted by her husband’s singing, and is bitten by a snake. Dying, she descends into the underworld, chased by a grieving Orpheus. Below, he calms the torments of the damned, and they allow him passage. He enthralls Hades (both God and realm) who, with his sidekick, the captured Persephone, releases Eurydice. She may return to the surface on one condition: No matter how much she pleads with Orpheus to acknowledge her gratitude and lessen her anxiety as they ascend, he cannot look back. If he does, she will be whisked back to the Inferno, and he will lose her forever.

In the most tragic versions, Orpheus does look back, she vanishes, and he is stricken, diseased with loss; he wanders fields and woods, chorusing his sorrow songs, plagued by his guilt and her memory. One day he meets the Maenads (female devotees of Dionysus, an orgiastic cult) who, crazed by the wail of his one-note elegies, tear him to pieces. His severed head is placed on his lyre and floats down a river on the isle of Lesbos.

There, voice and lyre, still chorusing its agonies, come to rest before the nymphs in Waterhouse’s painting. It is the girls’ guileless gazes that capture my attention. They embody the theme of male-summoned dependency, agented attraction, women enthralled by the man’s tragic sensuality—his fading groans, his perfumed prison. Mythic indeed.

Waterhouse’s rendering in hand, I revisit a favorite short story: D. H. Lawrence’s “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter.” Here is a companionable tale—a woman deluged by her emotions (another myth) and “saved” by male devotion. In the story, Mabel has lost her parents, mother early, father recently; the farm’s unpayable debts and three indifferent brothers have sentenced her to an arranged marriage or indentured servitude, both despairs.

A doctor friend of the family is attracted to Mabel’s loneliness. The two make eye contact, exciting him and underscoring her desperation, which culminates in Mabel’s suicidal descent into a pond. Seeing her go under, the doctor rushes in and drags her out. Before a fire and shedding their clothes, the naked pair spark a devotional lust. Mabel asks the doctor if she’s crazy, if she’s worth saving, worth loving, to which, in Lawrence’s ecstatic prose and the doctor’s perspective, he is overcome by her vulnerability, her need to be valued. Dual spells ensue, him more than her. In the kettle-on warmth, the more self-effacing and needy she is, the more he wants her—love overserved by desire. Lawrencian indeed.

The psychology of Lawrence’s eroticism goes like this: The man wants her so he saves her, and she feels indebted to his rescue. He recognizes her need to be loved, so he loves her, tells her how pure his intention is. He recognizes her need to be wanted, so he covets her, tells her how limitless their love can be. The final line, spurred by the doctor’s exhortative yearning, captures an insight they will need a lifetime to unravel:

“No, I want you, I want you,” was all he answered, blindly, with that terrible intonation which frightened her almost more than her horror lest he should not want her.

Here is the re-assignation of romantic love, whose fire, owing to its Vesuvian origin, should burn and last. To anneal the moment, Lawrence cinematizes the scene—the fabric-feel of his prose (like Waterhouse’s silken colors), heaped upon his characters, which, according to Virginia Woolf, embodies Lawrence’s unparalleled, sensual/pictorial gift:

as if we had opened the door and come in by chance, some hand, some eye of astonishing penetration and force, has swiftly arranged the whole scene, so that we feel that it is more exciting, more moving, in some ways fuller of life than one had thought real life could be, as if a painter had brought out the leaf or the tulip or the jar by pulling a green curtain behind it.

The verisimilitude of Lawrence’s lovers echoes in Waterhouse’s nymphs. In my renewed looking, the latter are pre-Mabel, first fodder for a Sir Galahad romance. They gaze at the love-mad singer, all head, no body, whose song is inseparable from himself. Though Waterhouse cleverly shields his eyes, Orpheus, even in death, seems to size the nymphs up as his. Still in heat, he is carnally alive and beautifully drowned, enough to turn the nymphs his way. They know the score. We know the score: These two are costumed in sexual deliberation, willowy and pure-skinned, the half-robed disrobing, the deserving male seeks, wants and covets and will love, as if love must float unawares into our lives when, gathering an amphora of water, we are most untaken and, so, most awakened. Love is the efficacious thing, not the other person. Love loves to love, writes Joyce, a turning-to that begets a truth, though we don’t know why it’s true or why we’ve been chosen except that we have so our only refuge is to admit we’ve been had and tumble in:

“Don’t be silly, don’t be silly,” [the doctor] said, trying to comfort her, kissing her, holding [Mabel] in his arms. “I want you, I want to marry you, we’re going to be married, quickly, quickly—tomorrow if I can.”

The lyrical attends to what’s lost and must be grieved, the mystery of Aphrodite, of Per-sephone, of Billie Holiday, pulls with it circumstance, proximity. We painters and story-tellers thrust together a man aghast at a woman drowning, nymphs beholding a drowning poet. Just at the moment we have lost faith in love, the beloved arrives in the nick of time. The other engines the transition toward, well, toward what neither lover knows because toward is delayed by the moment’s swoon, fulfillment in itself. Gladly. Fatally. To manifest and linger with desire, to delay its loss, shapes the artist’s conjuration.

And last, to commingle Waterhouse’s and Lawrence’s conjurations releases my own.

Composing a novel, I must make a most unlikely male-female attraction work: a student nurse, twenty-six, and a Catholic monk, fifty-one. In 1966, Margie Smith, whose boyfriend goes to Vietnam, falls in love with the most famous spiritual writer in America, Thomas Merton. The improbability is key, to readers and to them. At first, they maneuver freely—picnics, letters and poems, an assignation in a psychiatrist’s office—contexts in which their freedom is stretched and thwarted. Found out, they are scrutinized, judged, and threatened, actions which they eventually perpetrate on each other and which pull them apart.

It is, as we say, “based on a true story,” but that begs the question. How do they fall in love when neither was seeking such love? (He is devoted to a life of solitude, she to a career in psychiatric nursing, neither of which fits into the other’s plans.) It’s hard to make them the agents of their separate desires because their paths differ, because they are lonely and vulnerable, and because they are guided by a religious or romantic force whose purpose they discover as they grow closer only to realize that purpose is unsustainable.

But for me, the prickliest dilemma is to not make the young nurse the object of the older monk’s lust and ego, which is true but needs deemphasis. She cannot be seen as his ful-fillment but must have her own agency.

Thus, nurse and monk have to trust each other; they and I must enact their difficulty with trying to explain said trust, that is, after I place them on a blanket in the woods, and they unbutton and fumble at making love. As lovers, they do and they do not comply. With what? With the strain of my leash. With how the Merton aficionados of the world would like them to behave. In the novel, they need a kind of dual agency. I want them to, at least, apprehend how the mytheme of male desire controls them, where he is the victim of his seduction and her loneliness. Though their end is known, fall and failure, the means by which they fall and fail equally lies entombed until I—until they—dig it out.

Writing lovers remains steeped in so much of our mythic and historical consciousness (how myths operate in men’s minds) that its prevalence still in the male-female union is both true and false and neither.



Journalist, book/music critic, and memoirist Thomas Larson is the author of two books on memoir writing, Spirituality and the Writer: A Personal Inquiry and The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative, as well as The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease.

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