(This is a chapter from my book Small Arcs of Larger Circles, published by Triarchy Press, 2016)
I would love you as a bird loves flight, as meat loves salt, as a dog loves chase, as water finds its own level.
Or I would not love you at all.
—Jeanette Winterson, Gut Symmetries
In the Galleria Borghese in Rome I wandered into a room with a Bernini statue that rewrote me.
Bernini’s ‘Daphne and Apollo’ is a heartbreakingly beautiful sculpture of an unflinching adoration. It is the depiction of an ancient but suddenly viable map back to the trees, through an eternity of yearning. In an impossible balance of weight-defying marble, Bernini has set even the wind against Daphne and Apollo’s final union. They are carved into a perfection of endless almost-ness…
I did not know the myth well enough to recall the storyline. Greek myths these days are wholly half forgotten, at least. The symbols remain, holding time’s revisions in erasable pencil. Who was Daphne again? What was her story? I remembered who Apollo was.
The statue questioned:
How do you wish to be loved?
And what of the earth?
We will never be out of relationship with the ecologies we live within, so what is the relationship?
For me, I would want conquest to be put aside. Unkind measurements of physical or financial worth should be simply abandoned. We are not here to win one another, nor to be won. Winning has a flawed polarity within it that suggests the possibility of defeat, and presumes the impossibility of being equals. Win a prize, or win a race: I am neither. Whatever the math is of our giving and receiving, it is not to be counted, or compared like taxes, nor contaminated with doubt and manipulation.
One of Apollo’s hands is wound around Daphne’s waist. The statue captures the last minute, when his fingers hover just above her navel, excruciatingly soft, holding her. She is beginning to transform into the laurel tree, Apollo’s touch returns her to her body. In the same moment she is bound to the forest. Bernini delicately sculpts this cold marble into the mythology of the potential of humanity’s engagement to the natural world in verse between beloveds.
We are water. We are air. We grow, we bloom, we seed, we wilt, we die. There is a false separation between humanity and nature. Of course we are nature. But, while the one-ness is enticing, unity is not so useful if it obscures our perception of the aesthetic of our relationship with the world around us. The paradox is good for us; it is medicine against the habit of binaries. We are nature, and we can also be besotted by nature.
Apollo was too late—Daphne’s fingertips had already become leaves. She would not belong to him. She joined the forest just in time. Bernini’s statue is a story of everything alive, and everything lost—a love story of the highest caliber. A signal, written in stone, to remind us always of the never-ending ways we are bound to nature itself.
Slipping from longing to greed is a tiny shift in aperture. The marble remains in the same form that Bernini left it, but the story that is read into it changes.
I entered the room in the Galleria where the statue is kept, and in a flash of recognition of another metaphor of what an impassioned closeness to nature might be, I realized I never wanted to hear the terms ‘resources,’ ‘stewardship,’ or ‘sustainable’ ever again. For all the good intentions those endeavors have on their side, they do not describe any relationship I would want to be in. In those words we see control, possession, objectification, and manipulation. Ache and tenderness are another approach altogether. The story of Daphne and Apollo is an old story, ready for new telling, and perhaps for the reclamation of an original imagining.
A good story has many meanings, and a surprising number of the old ones warn us of the dangers of hubris. Bernini’s retelling pushes past that old trope into the uncertain complexity of consequences that describe life.
Still, hubris is catalyst. Apollo, in a show of arrogance about his own hunting skills, chided Cupid for playing with arrows “like a child.” That was a mistake. Never mess with Cupid. Never chide love. It followed that Cupid set out to teach Apollo a lesson, which thousands of years later we are apparently still learning.
Prior to that day, the gnats buzzed in the fields alongside the swimming holes where Apollo and the lovely Daphne were flirting. She was doing her best to give him an opportunity to pursue her by not seeming overly interested. (But really, he was Apollo forgodsakes, how disinterested could she be?) And he was willing and eager to flatter her, showing off and boasting about his gloriousness. Delicate beginnings were in play; the filigree of invitation was being woven.
Cupid was small and mischievous, wise and difficult. He was not to be one-upped. He shot a golden arrow into Apollo’s heart. As it pierced Apollo a poison of desire was released into his blood, making him lovesick and obsessed with Daphne. Then Cupid shot Daphne in the heart with a leaden arrow, rendering her incapable of loving again. The evolution of their courtship was contaminated by two unecological corrosives; greed and cynicism. Daphne was unjustly written into Apollo’s punishment, you might think. But ask anyone, such is the nature of relationship. We carry each other’s pain. We learn together, or we do not learn.
Wedding rings should not be made of gold. Gold is a symbol for material desire, for ownership, and wealth, for hoarding and possessing. Gold is not lovable. It is the opposite of love. Gold is a stand-in for the sun, but the sun offers itself freely. Gold is money, collecting, stockpiling, claiming, Gold is counting beans with hunched and caved-in chest, it is hoarding the stockpile; it’s a shadowy corner.
Hearts are broken open, but in the time that has passed since the tale was told, this myth of Apollo and Daphne has been gathering dust. In this era, where importance is measured through property and position, the embarrassing breaking open of hearts is irrelevant and unnecessary. Gold won.
Longing is lost in having. It is an art to ache. It requires stoic strength and unshakeable trust matched by equivalent portions of impatience and naked vulnerability. Stretching into the delirious pull of just-out-of-reach love, lights every cell. Apollo is reaching with body and soul in an unresolvable tension. In doing so he engages wholly in the intense effortlessness of the living world. Daphne is alive without measure, without time. The poetry of creation is necessarily incomplete—always unobtainable. It is emerging, dying, defining boundaries, and breaking them, contracting and expanding in controlled chaos, or chaotic control. This is the uncrackable code of evolution.
Gratification is an intruder on this lust; it is a bucket of water on the smoldering coals that bring the laws of attraction to their boiling point. Lust and greed can be easily confused, but when it comes to love and ecology, they stand in dire opposition. Lust, with greenery wound around it in a festival of fecundity, is spirited with a desire of unions, while greed rots rank, desiring only to possess.
People used to write love-letters, and have long courtships with parlor visits. There was a practice of longing, and escapees dashed off to the gardens for a tryst here and there. Do we, can we, yearn in this way for that which we now refer to as ‘resources’?
Daphne’s blood was poisoned by Cupid’s lead. Perhaps in this post-industrial era we have all tasted that poison. The beginning of the end was always in the lead—and then the steel. The first use of the stuff was a cut to the umbilical cord. Cold and hard, immune to the viral bloom of love’s warmth, it sent grey alloy into Daphne’s veins.
The math of love is not good math. The sums have never added up. But we are built to adopt another equation, one in which the shameless vitality of life is given a parallax of its own. Even though fall comes, even though death exists, even though the nature of nature is to change, we set aside eternity for love. Until we are broken. Then we either soften or harden.
With lead in her heart, Daphne was greying inside. Doubt takes desire and mocks it, folding suspicion into attraction until it does a U-turn and becomes repulsion. He said he needed her. She could see now that his attraction to her was for all the wrong reasons, in all the wrong ways. Doubt makes a case for the fact that it is better to run away than toward. What is in the balanceA choice that is not really a choice. A decision made in the undergrowth and overtones. A vision of self in isolation cannot imagine the materials of mending. No healing is conceivable when the heart is faced with a wheel of whirling blades, insincere promises, fickle emotions, and obsessive flattery. So Daphne ran. Possession is not love; it is exploitation waiting to happen. There is nothing but an abyss of pain there. “He is covetous, not ready to love, and incapable of balancing what he is driven by,” she thought. His vision of ownership of her did not allow for either of them to have dignity. His version of her as his own, erased her history, her future, her complexity. So, “He is unsafe. Run, don’t walk.”
Apollo was hopeless. He knew better, but he could not stop himself. The golden arrow he was cursed by was too dazzling, and set alight a craving he could not tame, nor satisfy. He could not leave her alone, he wanted her, wanted her, wanted her. Wanted her for his own. Love? Of course he thought it was love, he was bedazzled. So lovely; bare feet skipping over the roots on the forest floor as she escaped his grasp, how could he not need her? Why could she not just settle her lovely self into his arms where she belonged? Pretty and fair, her limbs would have folded around his arms perfectly. Alone in the forest he found he had stopped chasing her and had his arms outstretched in an imaginary embrace which held nothing but air. Find her, make her his. Explain to her, tell her, convince her, win her, have her. Earn her. Catch her…
Apollo was the world’s original charisma maven. The primary golden boy. Actually, before the Cupid mishap, Daphne liked Apollo. What’s not to like? He made her laugh, he was beautiful and strong. He may have been a bit boastful, but then he had reason to be. She was warming to his affection, letting him in. She could assign him the familiar roles from her tales of love and marriage, giving him the male lead, the part of the lover. She daydreamed. He was highly daydream-able, and they were well suited. She never let on though. Of course not. That would spoil the fun, take away the chase. Now the chase was going to take her.
The lead had woken her up to the hypocrisy of jettisoning self-respect for adoration. Women do that. Maybe men do too. But for Daphne, now that she could see the pattern—never again.
That they were the playthings in Cupid’s mischievous chemistry experiment was not cloaked from them. Both of them understood mentally what was happening. Knowing does not matter. Once the arrows struck there was no way to reason with the runaway emotions and talk sense to them. It never matters with love, or greed, or addiction, or vengefulness, or envy. Understand all you want, the structures and the causations are totally irrelevant next to the dragons that lurk below what we think of as rational.
Cupid only triggered what was already there. He merely turned up the volume on the weaknesses of the heart that Apollo and Daphne each previously harbored. Everyone has a weakness: too stoic, too gushy, too beautiful, too strong, too dependent, too independent, too needy…. It could happen to any of us, at any second. The holes in our armor are the possibilities either for growth or destruction. We know this and, since the risk is horrid, we wear masks over masks to disguise ourselves. Cupid played the symphony that was already there. He just cranked it up to rock concert levels and sat back to enjoy the performance.
Daphne’s feet sought refuge in the contact they made with the forest floor. If they could just hold her up, keep her moving away from him. One eye seemed to make more tears than the other. Half despair. Half destiny. Half of history and she was only half the story. But the tears were coming fast. The heated weight of lead tearing against its own metallic nature made her fragile. The pulled and torn gauze veil of her heart was thin. Transparent, surely it could not withstand the touch of even his breath. She was betrayed by false armor. She wondered, “How can you be filled with lead and still be breaking?”
She turned her head backwards to see how far behind he was. Not very. He was a glow of gold and strength, a beam of determination, ambition, focused on her. Tree trunks seemed to lean out of his path. Unimpeded, he leapt the tangled shrubs, catching the sunlight like fuel. Stunning luck, he was as confident: a gambler with a no-lose bet, he rolled the dice of the irreverent wind to carry him forward.
Daphne was only getting heavier, sinking with sorrow, lost in loss, she began to realize she could not do this alone. But with the cynicism in her now she trusted no one. The metal in her blood oxidized every molecule of belief, as bacteria in a petri dish devour sugar. How could she even cry out? The plea in her voice would carry her delicacy to the outside world.
‘Resistant to corrosion’—that was what she was supposed to be, that was the point of lead, last-forever-lead. Lasting forever in cold isolation without a lingering string of connective warmth.
The grief was too much to drag behind her, in her, through her. She had done the math badly and would face the grade. Better to be something else. Perhaps she could be a door to another realm, she thought to herself: “If you cannot handle the connections, avoid the endpoints and be connectivity itself. Merge.”
To go into a bond, and form linkage with another, is to dangle in the ravaging sea. She could not hold her end of the thread, could not see it, it was not hers. Apollo’s beckonings across the forest were like ice shards stabbing at her bones. The idea of their merging was to her a disaster. It was a cliff to fall off, a non-existent bridge across an immeasurable crevasse for her to fall through. In self-protection her instinct was to reject instead of being rejected.
Her concern for him was minimal. Surely another damsel would catch his eye. Surely it was all a game to him. The alchemy of distrust and self-doubt scared all sweetness away. She ran now, alongside her empty- handed future. She offered no options, even to herself. There were to be no deals, and no way out. Nothing was too much.
With the momentum of a boulder on its way to the bottom-feeders of the Red Sea, she sank. A smooth plummet headed directly to the abyss. Was she standing still, screaming silently? She looked down. No, she was running, she was still running. Her leaded footsteps embossed her despair into the forest floor.
Cynicism, measurement, failure, rejection brought on by pounding poison. She could never have loved. She was emotional lead, melted to form but not to forge a bond. It was not written. Another nymph in another myth could maybe enjoy such mush. For Daphne, it would be better to transform into something that was already woven into the pattern. That way she could be un-partnered and still never be alone, like a tree in the forest.
“Change me,” she called to Peneus, “I cannot be. These limbs will carry only vulnerability, this womb will carry only the seeds of worthlessness, nothing will grow in me, nothing can absorb the nutrients of creation. I cannot be a vessel, let me out, change me… change me. If I cannot be creative, let me rest in the lap of creation, and be of some assistance there.”
The weight of cold lead seared and stripped her veins. She could not run further. Apollo was catching up.
The cold became cool, and the grey in her blood began to feel green. Fingertips first opening into leaves branching into stems. Her toes began rooting into the earth searching the moistness and gritty ground, finding bracing and balancing her against the winds. Her lungs filled for the last time with the breath that passed her lips. From this moment onward she would make oxygen, not inhale it. Her exhale was the flash of heat and the brush of ecstasy that trailed from where his fingertips whispered over her skin…
Apollo, was late. I wondered, as I stood in the corner of the Galleria, why are men always a second too late?
When their bodies touched, the antidote to Cupid’s poisons was scheduled to release them from the cursed arrows. Cupid knew better than to disrupt love. He was just a prankster. Apollo’s fingerprint on her belly sent affection flushing through Daphne’s veins with the scorching of a young woman whose body has just woken to love. But by then other influences were at work—her father’s magic was already in play; bark wrapped itself around her torso, leaves sprang from her hair, but her circulation was storming with the essence of her femininity met in full by Apollo’s love. Those were the last seconds of her life as a woman. Some still say she was one of the lucky ones.
Daphne reaches, marble arms like branches, lifting into the sunlight while I almost merge with her. Her tragedy and her triumph are tightly strung in the harmonizing chord so recklessly rung. This is life itself, it is love, it is yes & no, order & chaos. And it is ringing us all into existence. Invite life as it is—as much grace as disaster. There will be shredded emotional tissue and there will be the floating wisps of infatuated cloud dance. Or, without invitation, it’s just another statue; it’s nothing at all.
There in carved marble in the far western hall of the Galleria Borghese a study of who we are as ecologists is carved into our mythology. But which mythology? Whose version? I had the benefit of blurred vision, a half screwed up understanding of the piece. I read my own story. I know, with heavier stone now, the game of gold and lead and love and humanity and the earth. Longing now, to long again and to touch the belly of my natural nature. Is there a mythology that can release us from the grip of havingness? To adore the world around me as I would be adored, and never find the end of the strings that pull? I will remember Apollo in his reach for Daphne, and retell the story of the trees. Unsolved, unfinished.
And they lived stretched taught in desperate yearning ever after…
Phoebus (Apollo) admired and loved the graceful tree, (For still, though changed, her slender form remained) and with his right hand lingering on the trunk he felt her bosom throbbing in the bark. He clung to trunk and branch as though to twine.
—Ovid, Metamorphoses (A.D. Melville translatio
4 thoughts on “Daphne and Apollo”
Thank you. I love this.
I had to go look up a photo of the sculpture. Again, Nora, your prose reads like poetry, which, considering the subject, is more than appropriate. Can humans arrive at a way of living as a love poem to all that with which we are in intimate relationship?
Reblogged this on cabbagesandkings524 and commented:
Nora Bateson on a sculpture and myth with so much to say about so much