Metamorphoses: Myths of Love and Desire
Among the ancient myths that Mary Zimmerman weaves together in her play Metamorphoses, beautifully revived at Lookingglass Theater for autumn 2013, is the story of Eros, the god of love, and Psyche, his wife. Narrated as a dialogue between two unnamed speakers, we are told that Psyche loves Eros without ever having seen him. Eros has forbidden her to look upon him so he comes to her in the dark of night for sex – good sex, Zimmerman points out. Yet, despite having seen him through her hands, so to speak, Psyche has been gripped by a terrible suspicion: that her beloved is actually a monster. The narrators, seated at opposite ends of the stage, toss the story back and forth.
“Why does she suspect he is a monster?”
“Her jealous sisters told her so.”
“And she listened to them?”
As the narrators unfold the story, Eros and Psyche mime their parts as if they are actors in a dream the audience is sharing together. Indeed, Zimmerman’s staging is inspired by the idea of myths as expressions of what Jung called humanity’s collective unconscious. Whether or not you agree with Jung, ancient myths often possess the dream-like ability of bringing into consciousness something we have not been aware of, perhaps because we have been deliberately covering our eyes to avoid seeing it. Too often we can become blind to things we’d rather not see about ourselves. One of my favorite expressions is, “Denial is not just a river in Egypt.” Sadly, I have many occasions to use it in reference to my own lack of self-awareness, but it is not my problem alone. We are all guilty of avoiding thoughts that make us feel guilty or any number of other unpleasant emotions. This small vignette illustrates something we are so much in denial about that when I name it you probably won’t recognize the word (unless, of course, you read Raven articles regularly!) – human desire is mimetic.
To say that desire is mimetic means that our desires do not arise spontaneously from within us, despite our sense that they do. Our desires do indeed lodge within us, but we are not born with them. If we were we would call them instincts and they would not be as changeable as we know human desire is. Our desires come to us from a source outside of us because unlike an instinct, desire is always learned through a process of imitating the desires of others. Mimetic is the Greek word for imitation and myths often have embedded in them, like some ancient programming code, the awareness of our mimetic natures. We see that awareness both plainly and less obviously in this story. Plainly we see that Psyche’s opinion of her husband is influenced by her sister’s jealous accusation that he is a monster. The sisters are jealous because Psyche married a very well-to-do god – she lives in his opulent mansion with lots of servants. Truthfully, the sisters have done quite well in their marriages, but when they see what Psyche has, their possessions look paltry by comparison. Their desire is directed toward Psyche’s possessions precisely because Psyche has them.
In case you are thinking that no one needs to learn to desire opulent mansions and lots of money, Zimmerman opens her play by directly challenging the idea that objects, even gold, have intrinsic value. Midas, the king with the golden touch, introduces himself to the audience this way, “Now, I’m not a greedy man, but it is an accepted fact – a proven fact – that money is a good thing. A thing to be longed for, a necessary thing.” We might be tempted to agree with Midas, but as Zimmerman allows us to see, it is also a fact proven by our own experience that no matter how much money we have, we always want more. Psyche’s sisters are a case in point. We want as much as the guy (or sister) above us on the next rung of success. Or like Midas, we are in competition with ourselves to get more than we have at any given moment. Why? Because desire is never satisfied. Possession does not satiate desire, but simply robs it of its object. Sated desire must seek another object, and so it must find someone to give it the direction it craves. Endlessly craving more, Midas nearly starves to death, an ironic commentary on insatiable hunger. In Zimmerman’s telling, this opening scene ends with Midas accidently turning his young daughter into gold; she is transformed from a valuable person to a worthless object by her father’s endless wanting.
Returning to Psyche and Eros, the more difficult unveiling of mimetic desire is in Eros’ prohibition that Psyche must not look at him in the light of day. We all know that forbidden things are very desirable because life has taught us that the most valuable things are the things that others want to keep for themselves. Prohibitions take on the quality of a neon sign advertising one’s desire to others. And so Eros, the clever god of love, knows that if he wants to stimulate Psyche’s love for him, the best thing he can do is to veil himself behind a prohibition. It works, of course, because love chooses its object in the way of all desire, via others. It can become attached or detached by the same mechanism. When Eros is Psyche’s teacher or model of desire, she loves him completely. When her sisters undermine Psyche’s trust in Eros, her desire wavers. She cannot trust her own senses or even believe in her own experiences.
The narrators speak of Psyche’s change of heart by saying that her trust of Eros is not “radical” enough. I take that to mean it is not strong enough to resist being influenced by her sisters. Is Eros a god or a monster? Either can be true for Psyche. The story does have a happy ending and the narrators tell us that we can have happy endings too if we can allow our desire to settle down and learn from just one other who cares for us deeply. This one who loves us teaches us not only what to desire, but that we ourselves are desirable. It is what is meant by finding ourselves in the gaze of our beloved. The narrators end the story of Psyche and Eros this way:
“The soul wanders in the dark, until it finds love. And so, wherever our love goes, there we find our soul.”
“It always happens?”
“If we’re lucky. And if we let ourselves be blind.”
“Instead of watching out?”
“Instead of always watching out.”
Mary Zimmerman dramatizes many other myths in Metamorphoses, but suffice it to say that this is a show about how we are transformed by love: the real thing as well as all its lesser, maddening forms. But it is also about how we are transformed into being able to love. A good first step: stop denying the ancient truth that our desires are not our own creations. Desire is always watching out for the next best thing to latch on to. In order to be possessed by love, we must learn to turn a blind eye to a world of others clamoring to distract us with endless cravings and mythic wanderings. We must learn to radically trust the gaze of our beloved, to accept the truth they long for us to possess – that we are more valuable to them than gold. Zimmerman allows even Midas, the mythic epitome of a desire that is always watching out, to have a happy ending. Love is possible, and in the ways that truly matter, love is also blind.
Professor Patrice Rankine’s article written for the Metamorphoses study guide is available to download here.
The recording of the Raven Foundation sponsored preshow lecture on Metamorphoses by Professor Rankine of Purdue can be listened to or download below.
Here are the notes mentioned in his lecture that cite the origin of the tales used in the play.
Mary Zimmerman’s Metam0rphoses, the myths
1. Midas: Selinus, Dionysus/Bacchae: Ovid, Metamorphoses 11 (Nathaniel Hawthorne)
2. Alcyone/Ceryx: Ovid, Meta. 11
3. Orpheus/Eurydice: Ovid, Meta. 10
4. Ceres, Hunger, and Erysichthon: Ovid, Meta. 8.738ff.
5. Pomona, Vertumnus: Ovid, Meta. 14.623ff.
6. Cinyras, Myrrha, Aphrodite: Ovid, Meta. 10.299ff.
7. Phaeton, Apollo: Ovid, Meta. 11
The following quotes of the Therapist are directly from Joseph Campbell:
“The traditional idea of initiation combines an introduction of the candidate…”
“This tale of indulgent parenthood illustrates the antique idea…”
“The father is the initiating priest through whom… “
8. Cupid, Psyche: not Ovid, but Apuleius, The Golden Ass