Fallback Friday: Fishman in Exelsis Table

By Aldrin Valdez

April 23, 2021

Egyptian tapestry roundel with Orpheus and Apollo, 5th–6th century CE. Linen and wool, 19 1/16 x 20 7/16 x 1/16 in. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.

For the 2012 Degree Critical print publication Mapping, Aldrin Valdez modernized the fateful love in the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice. Fishman in Exelsis Table reads like a dream sequence and situates the ancient myth in the present, where Eurydice browses newsstands on a city street amidst blaring vehicular traffic. In Valdez’s retelling, Orpheus is a Fishman, and the boat he carved would take him “to some distant city where something better was waiting.” As Valdez describes how the symbolic boat blocks Orpheus’s vision, the visual description begins to point to Paul Thek’s sculpture Fishman in Exelsis Table (1970-71): “The boat flattened itself into a table. Beneath it, its underbelly meeting the curve of his back. Orpheus felt like he was rising.” In this seamless interweaving of writing and artwork, Valdez’s tragedy-as-criticism tugs on the reader’s heart strings with the well-known anguish of knowing that one’s beloved is “fated to leave.” This experimental essay exemplifies the breadth of art writing that Degree Critical has proudly published since 2007.

—Lune Ames, Managing Editor

Orpheus was dreaming a painting. In it he watched Eurydice; she was dreaming, too. They moved constantly to find a dovetailed fit in each other’s body, in the scoop of a clavicle, or between an arm and a rib. 

He remembered last summer.

He had carved a boat to get to some distant city where something better was waiting. 

His Fishman body was caked with mud and carried the dried cascading marks of the river. Swing your hand, he told himself. And as if the spoken word could create another body, there appeared his mirror image. The second Fishman asked him to follow his hand to conjure memories. What do you mean? Now there was a consciousness outside of him that he could feel beyond the two corpuses of thought. Was there also a third body?

Orpheus the Fishman thought the boat was blocking his vision. He was now on land trudging to the city where something better was waiting. He asked a lot of questions. What kind of wood was the boat made of? Fishman Number Two asked him to imagine letting the boat go, but he couldn’t help wondering about its shape, its texture. How did it buoy itself and sway in the river?

Other questions followed: how deep was the river? What was its name? Did it cut through the earth, rushing sediments to the banks? And was the water blue or green?

He didn’t get to ask about the salmon, which as he considered them briefly, filled the periphery of his vision. He worried that if the boat was necessary, then the land across would suddenly recede into the distance. Didn’t needing a boat mean that he was leaving one place and traveling to another? If he was crossing the river, then wasn’t he going against the current?

Letting go was awkward, Orpheus thought. 

In another dream, his eyes shivered open. They were re-filing memory, reconstructing scenes. He was crossing Seventh Avenue now; Eurydice was waiting for him. She was Eurydice and then she was the image of Eurydice he had lost eons ago. His vision alternated between the two. A distant thought touched his consciousness for a moment. What if she wasn’t there at all?

Before the memory and the dream collapsed, Orpheus saw Eurydice searching the corner across from the newsstand. She stood by the subway steps. The entrance reminded him of an ancient crevice he could only fleetingly glimpse. She must have seen him through the traffic, filing and re-filing vehicles with his eyes. What he saw frightened him. He was tilting and rising at the same time, but he was mostly falling. Bodiless, he saw himself clinging to the tiled walls of the subway. He could have turned around; he could have left her. 

But Eurydice stood at the traffic’s end, waiting. Orpheus had a vague sense of a previous dream and wondered if in that other dream he had carried a boat over his eyes, too, and sailed to her, bound by vehicles and pedestrians. He had held tightly to the idea that if he lost her before he began to fear losing her, he would be okay. He would not get hurt. The traffic blared open his dream. 

His consciousness flickered from one stream of thought to another, half submerged in the closed-lid shadow of sleep. What he sensed most strongly was the discomfort he had with his anger, which even now he tried to silence. A version of his dreaming self, stealthy and defensive, tried to hum a song to cover the tumult of feeling. But anger seeped through any artifice he wore. 

Why was she so distant? Why couldn’t she be more open and jump with him or tilt or rise like smoke? He had shown himself, but felt more and more foolish, holding her image so high above him that she was incapable of falling. Yet she was the one fated to leave. Even as he refused to feel hurt, he was the one who dove. All those childish feelings he deplored leaked out like a cold stream of water that accentuated his nakedness. 

But why couldn’t he see her as she truly was and hold her hand?

The boat flattened itself into a table. Beneath it, its underbelly meeting the curve of his back. Orpheus felt like he was rising. He couldn’t sense the ground. The salmon that until now had occupied only the periphery of his mind suddenly surrounded him. The table prevented him from looking back. He couldn’t breathe. 

To see Eurydicewith his whole beings beneath the river, not in it or a part of it, but deep below it, distant and watching how he feltthis was what it was like to have a boat over his eyes. It carried the water like a necessary drowning, even when he was on land, walking to a city he knew nothing about. 

Installation view of Paul Thek, Fishman in Exelsis Table (1970-71). Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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