Treasure of the earth: on Elizabeth Sewell’s The Orphic voice: Poetry and Natural History (2022). by Gerardo Muñoz

Written at a time when the sciences of biological life were becoming fully integrated to technological and procedural social experimentation, Elizabeth Sewell’s 1960 The Orphic voice (nyrb, 2022) dared to pose the question of poetic myth as the mirror of scientific transformation of the modern world. Given that myth reopens the question of poetry and the natural world, for Sewell the modern exposure entails a profound misunderstanding: it is not that myth has eclipsed from the developments of scientific regime, but rather that science is incapable of absorbing it through its formal explorations in a system of subdivisions, classifications, and applicabilities. But for Sewell, it is myth itself that conditions scientific activity, providing ground for the discovery of situations and play in the world of forms. In other words, it is the persistence of myth in biological imagination the real forgotten path in the crisis of the transmission of tradition in a world aligned by the movement of scientific objectivity. For Sewell’s understanding of myth, there is no positive dialectical movement between myth and calculative rationality; rather, myth is what stands for the irreducibility of life in the cosmos. It is the very mystery of the anthropogenesis of creation as pure metamorphosis of forms. Why Orpheus, then? For Sewell, the orphic figure becomes “myth as a living thought and the very type of thought in action, and for all those other self-reflecting forms; for the human organism as an indivisible whole trying to understand itself….for biology reflection on the whole span of life in which thinking man appears as the last enigmatic development” (41). Orphism is the natural prehistory of becoming. This implies nothing less than reminding modern science of its “mistaken mythology”; as it is poetry – not mathematics or a scientific theory of language – the proper site for the adventure of life.

The strange career of orphism in the modern age is one of struggle, according to Sewell. A “struggle” that accounts for change, process, organism, and life” in an epoch that thinks of itself as definite and irreversible; completing the demythologization of the old gods and the ultimate achievement of secularization. Unlike for Oskar Goldberg for whom the civilizational regime of fixation of humanity is a matter of thousands of years (at least since Cain); for Sewell it has only bern a couple of centuries that has led to an esoteric experimentation with natural history in the wake of his postmythical substitution. At bottom, her task is to bring together, once and for all, the voice of Orpheus and “natural history and poetry, had not parted company and it only remains to try to bring them, after their long and wintry estrangement, back to one another” (48). This is the central task of the modern poet, Sewell seems to tell us: to wrestle the potentiality of myth to craft the a “model of thought” that transfigures the logical framework of rational thought into a “flexible and plastic” (beweglich und bildsam) play between form and formlessness that becomes inalienable from the metamorphosis of nature. This does not mean that all modern poets are orphic; and, I am not sure that Sewell will go as far as to accept that all orphism comes in the form of poetry (this will be of scarce persuasion). What the Orphic voices are saying “is that the poet and his world is part of natural history…it is postlogic” (153). The postlogic stands a tenuous and loose term to avoid the supreme autonomy of reason of scientific modernity. Rather than a tool to understand the causation of natural processes, or a set of artificial strategies for representation, the postlogical poetics is the music of a world as being transformed through experience and immersion. It is no doubt strange that Sewell calls postlogical method to account for the permanent overflowing of the orphic voice; although it becomes clear that she wants to think of it as a utensil inseparable from the form that it makes. In other words, the “method” stands for the possibilities of use through the attunement with worldly phenomena. Postlogical method wants to give substance to how well we construct and tailor the potent infinity of form. As Sewell writes: “The method, the lute strung with the poet sings, consists in the use of the self, and mind, heart ,as well as intelligence, as an instrument of wider interpretation, with language assisting in the process” (168).

The free use of one’s own is surely the hardest task for the poet, as we already know from Hölderlin who grasped the crisis at the outset of Romantic modernity. The capacities of the orphic poet wants to wrestle the force of expression from the stage of history into the methodology of forms. This is what Sewell reads positively in Goethe’s Urworte and Urpflanze as the “methodology of transformations…the key to all the signs in nature” (274). It is noteworthy that Sewell does feel the need to revise Hölderlin’s poetological attempt at the insufficiency of the tragic poet embedded in the play of Empedocles mediation between the material craft of art and the aorgic excess of nature. And it is too bad that she does not (alas, Hölderlin remains the missing key for many of these problems). But it might be that for Sewell the orphic voice is not a transfigurative element, but rather the acoustic composition of the play between creation and decreation. In this sense, the bios orphikos is, not merely of this world, but also the immemorial journey to the infraworld sidestepping tragic overflowing. It is very late in her book that Sewell defines this pathways that transcends all form and contours of scientific vitality:

“The origins of all our bodily and mental powers are in an exact sense with the dead, in heredity and tradition; thus the dead are not wholly dead here within the living body. The heart and the center of the kingdom of the dead to which Orpheus goes in search of Eurydice is also the penetralia of the individual human life which pulsates and thinks…Anthropology suggest that the labyrinth of primitive man, the maze emblem and the real mazes of the caves, were capable also of being the body, and the site of a journey between the two worlds of living and dead. The orphic search here goes past Orpheus back into immemorial antiquity.” (326-327). 

Immemorial antiquity – these are the wonderful markers of everything that Sewell’s book does not accomplish or flesh out in its voluminous 400 plus plages. But, it is only at this point that we are capable of understanding that what Sewell calls “biological thinking” has nothing to do with the basic mental capacities that dispenses the anthropological density of the modern reserve to self-assertion (in Blumenberg’s unsurpassed definition), and everything with a tradition of the immemorial that is creation’s most intense point of bifurcation between the living and the dead. The passage to this region becomes testament to the validity of one’s experience. This is also why the orphic voice cuts through the the subdivision of the polis and the modern autonomy of art; as it takes life through the fleeting instance of the freedom of forms in its non dependency with historical necessity and domestication, as Gianni Carchia lucidly reminded us [1].

The orphic immemorial will not appeal to a morality of nature based on its fictive aura of normative order, but rather, it will supply the potentiality of the taking place of language. Hence, it is no surprise that the taking place of the voice (its postlogical status) lifts the human outside of itself, at the same time that it retains its most absolute nearness to the symbolic strata of myth. Commenting on Wordsworth, Sewell writes: “…the first provisional conclusion on method in the poem: that each language is a treasure of the earth but that poetry is the more valuable (as if our word, postlogic, might here receive additional justification)” (358-359). The voice has never been an organ or a specific faculty that belongs properly to the human; it is the passage between humanity and its constitutive exteriority in the world. Like the harmony of the spheres, the voice registers tone in the wake of the impossibility of communicating in the murky waters of physis.

If at the turn of the century Aby Warburg had shown how modern technical civilization had ended up soaking the mythical force of the serpent from the stormy sky of the Pueblo Indians (and thus the luminous space of contemplation of man in the cosmos); Sewell’s extremely idiosyncratic essay shows, between lines and amidst rhetorical inflation, that the echoes of the mythic imagination are still an integral part of the sliding amore fati, whose “aim is the discovery of the world” (405) [2]. The lesson in our epoch becomes easily adapted: the ethical standard does not prove itself by appealing to norms and substitute fictive authorities, but rather in terms of how well one is able to attend to the incoming vibrations of forms. One can even go as far as contradict Sewell post factum and say that this is no longer a request to be made on science, which has fully ascended to the place of prima philosophia as prima politica. So, it is perhaps love (that figures so poorly in Sewell’s book in relation to the centrality of cerebral intelligence, barely making an appearance in the very last page) the symbol of the highest riches transfiguring myth into a voice that outlives the specter of humanity and the futility of the machine. If orphism means anything, it is that the voice implies withdrawing from the cacophony of a world that has imprisoned the living in the blistering entertainment of their own wrongdoing. “Flebile lingua murmurat exanimis”, signs Ovid — right, but who is still able to listen?




1. Gianni Carchia. Orfismo e tragedia: Il mito trasfigurato (Quodlibet, 2019), 

2. Aby Warburg. “A lecture on Serpent Ritual”, Journal of the Warburg Institute, April 1939, 292. 

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