Orfeo/Heurodis/Cotard: Delusions of Life


Today’s undergrad Middle English Lit class covered Sir Orfeo lines 1-330 (until Orfeo rediscovers Heurodis). A student had proposed that Heurodis (Eurydice to you) had suffered a psychotic break, and that Orfeo, to show his love, had followed her into her madness. A creative reading, and one that lodged in my brain to provoke, roughly 10 minutes later, a kind of psychotic, or hermeneutic, or pedagogic break. Likewise provoking was the student who suggest that Orfeo’s emaciated and shaggy look in the wilderness made him a kind of walking corpse.

I compared line 159-60, “And schewed me castels and tours, / Rivers, forestes, frith with flours” (Heurodis’s description of the Otherworld) to lines 245-6, “He that hadde had castels and tours, / Rivers, forest, frith with flours” (the Ubi Sunt when Orfeo abandons himself to the wild). Following a brief explanation of the Uncanny, I asked: why should the otherworld be identical to Orfeo’s own kingdom?

I went on: if we believe in an afterlife, we expect that death makes a break, and that the afterlife will give us something different. That’s a kind of hope, yes?

But, I asked, what if I dropped dead right here, arose, and found myself in the afterlife, still teaching this class? What if the afterlife was exactly the same as this life? What if there was no difference between life and death? Wouldn’t the absolute, endless perpetuation of life be a kind of mechaninization of life and thus a life in or as death?

And then I proposed reading Orfeo via Cotard Delusion, or “Walking Corpse Syndrome,” which you may know about from the film Synecdoche, New York. From a case study here:

A 46-year-old woman with known rapid-cycling bipolar disorder was admitted to our hospital. She presented with a depressive episode with psychotic features. Her nihilistic delusions were compatible with Cotard’s syndrome. She had the constant experience of having no identity or “self” and being only a body without content. In addition, she was convinced that her brain had vanished, her intestines had disappeared, and her whole body was translucent. She refused to take a bath or shower because she was afraid of being soluble and disappearing through the water drain.

Having hit this point accidentally, I felt that my ideas were racing far ahead of my ability to remain coherent, so I let class out 5 minutes early. We’ll be sure to return to this on Wednesday, perhaps through the barons’ words at 552, “It is no bot of mannes death,” which I might flip to read: it is no bot of mannes lyf [there is no remedy for life].

For other ITM posts about Orfeo, see here and here (both Jeffrey).