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The Dawn of the Gods

The gods do not die, only take new forms, new names. There is something in us that will not let them go, not a longing for redemption, though we do long for it, or even a fear of the dark, though we do go in terror of it, but an unquenchable need to have ourselves and our mundane doings reflected and exalted, to see the saga of ourselves written across the sky. What is appealing for us about the gods, as distinct from God, is that they are like us: weak and willful, the slaves of desire, vengeful, capricious, silly, yet capable at times of acts of self-transcending greatness.

Composed as we are, in Auden’s wonderful formulation, of Eros and dust, we look to the immortals to tell us that all will not be lost, that something of us will remain, some fragment of our legend. And so we will have stories of them, whether it be epics from Mount Olympus or gossip from Hollywood. It was this frivolous demand for entertainment over edification that so offended the zealots, from Moses to Saint Paul, from Mohammed to the Buddha. Paganism is a standing offense to the single-minded. A pagan fundamentalism is a contradiction in terms.

A life in which the gods are not invited isn’t worth living. It will be quieter, but there won’t be any stories.”1 Thus Roberto Calasso in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (Le Nozze di Cadmo e Armonia, 1988), his wonderful synthesis of the Greek myths, the first volume to appear in English of a projected series of five books, including The Ruin of Kasch (La Rovina di Kasch, 1983), which traces the birth of “the Modern” out of the collapse of the classical world (“This is the story of the passage from one world to another, from one order to another—and of the ruin of both”2 ), a vast work that is by turns dazzling and mind-numbing. Now comes a third volume, Ka, which does for Indian mythology, as preserved in the Mahaåøbhaåørata and other key texts, what The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony did for the Greek legends as he found them mainly in the Iliad and the Odyssey and the surviving works of the great tragedians, mediated by the scholarly commentators of the classical era.

Yet to speak of “myth” or “legend” in this context is to give an inadequate sense of the venture Calasso is embarked upon. For him, these stories together form the story of what mankind has been and is:together they present, as the subtitle to Ka hints, a portrait of the mind of man. What Calasso aims to do is reassemble the great forms of antiquity: “We live in a warehouse of casts that have lost their molds,” he ruefully declares in Cadmus and Harmony. “In the beginning was the mold.”

The cast of Calasso’s own mind, as evidenced in these three books, is a matter of unusual consequence here. He is not a scholar, or at least does not present himself as such, and so there is no attempt at scholarly distance or academic neutrality. Indeed, it seems that he considers Ka and Cadmus and Harmony to be novels, in the broadest sense of the term. As such, they are part of that narrow but deep stream of works which includes his fellow countryman Claudio Magris’s Danube and Microsmi (the latter to be published in English next year), and which has its modern source in Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil. Broch contended that the great age of the realistic novel had come to an end in the period between Madame Bovary and Ulysses, and that the only direction the novelist should follow, could legitimately follow, is toward a synthesis of fiction and philosophy. Art, Broch believed, could become a mode of knowledge, a means of direct statement about the world and society. His best-known disciple is Milan Kundera, although Kundera still clings, however diffidently, to the trappings of realistic fiction (though how many realistic novels of our time would dare mention the name of Nietzsche on the first page, as Kundera does in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and still hope to become international best sellers?). It may be that if a new form of fiction does come, and heaven knows it will be welcome, Magris and Calasso, following Broch whether consciously or unconsciously, will be seen as its true begetters.

Calasso is a covert polemicist, a champion of multiplicity in a culture which is still essentially monotheistic, a pagan among the priests. He recognizes that human existence is a matter of risk, and insists, with Nietzsche, that life is justifiable only as an aesthetic phenomenon. “To invite the gods ruins our relationship with them but sets history in motion,” he observes in Cadmus and Harmony, and “we enter the mythical when we enter the realm of risk, and myth is the enchantment we generate in ourselves at such moments.” He has set his face, and, more importantly, his very considerable intellect and imaginative energies, against the aridity and mean-spiritedness of the modern era, our era. “With the heroes,” he writes, “man takes his first step beyond the necessary: into the realm of risk, defiance, shrewdness, deceit, art.”

Some of the strongest pages of Cadmus and Harmony are devoted to Sparta, “the only place in Greece, and in all European history since, where the whole citizenry constituted an initiatory sect.” He finds similarities between Sparta and Stalinist Russia, and although he does not say so, he would probably see a likeness also between the Spartans and contemporary Muslim and Christian fundamentalists. “Sparta understood, with a clarity that set it apart from every other society of the ancient world, that the real enemy was the excess that is part of life.”

This is fine and stirring stuff, and no doubt it is all true or at least verifiable (the two are not always the same), yet behind Calasso’s measured passion one suspects one can detect a faint echo of Briesacher, the Jewish scholar of antiquity in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, whose fascination with the primitiveness of the ancient world blinded him to the new barbarism all around him in 1930s Germany (in The Ruin of Kasch a chapter, devoted to Max Stirner, is titled “The Artificial Barbarian”). Calasso is very keen on great bloodshot outcasts of thought such as Nietzsche and Joseph de Maistre, about the latter of whom he writes perceptively and freshly in The Ruin of Kasch. He is also much preoccupied in that book, and in Ka, with the subject of the sacrifice. “Driven by a painful compulsion, those who develop myths have always had a tendency to celebrate rituals.”

What is offered to us for the taking demands to be given back to what has offered it; the acceptance of this nexus is the basis of the sacrificial life, the ceremonial attitude toward existence. The pathos of this action lies in acknowledging that at the center of every give-and-take there is a killing. What we take, we kill or uproot. What we give cannot be less; it would then imply that we should kill ourselves. But this would interrupt the flow of exchanges. And here we see the great cunning of sacrifice: substitution. Sacrificing something that stands for something else sets in motion the very machinery of language and of algebra, the conquering digitality. The deception by which one can, on the altar, slit the throat of a substitute victim and not of the designated victim expands power immeasurably, and this expansion will completely erase from consciousness the need for sacrificial giving. Pure exchange, which systematizes substitution, gradually expels uniqueness, the vestige of the primordial victim. In the end, the world will be inhabited only by substitutes, hence by victims unaware that they are victims, because the irreplaceable priest who raises the knife over them has no name and no shape.

This passage, from The Ruin of Kasch, is a good example of Calasso’s prose style and method, in its control, its tension, its allusiveness, its startling conjunctions (sacrifice and algebra), its almost feral alertness to the violence that underlies human affairs. (“The din of applause drowns out the victim’s cries. When the movie star or the politician is killed for being ‘too famous,’ it is said that the murderer is mad. But his madness reveals the origin of the applause.”) Within the lapidary prose a thrilled heart beats with wild irregularity.

The author of these books, and of The Ruin of Kasch in particular, is both elusive and everywhere present: “Literature does not even need to talk about sacrifice. In one of its forms—absolute literature (genealogy of décadence: Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Benn; or Flaubert, Proust)—writing takes on the features of a sacrificial offering, which implies that the author has in some sense been destroyed.” In these books there are moments—long, burdened moments—when the reader yearns for a little of the plain light of day, for a breath of ordinary air. So much detail is piled up, so many cross-references woven into the text, that at times one has the suspicion that the entire edifice is a sort of iceberg in reverse: nine tenths surface, one tenth hidden depth. Usually it is then that one encounters a passage of such ecstatic insight and dazzling cross-cultural synthesis—simply, of such beauty—that all doubts tend to fall away. Here, from Ka, chosen almost at random, is such a passage (the translation too, by Tim Parks, is to be highly praised), in which the narrative transcends itself and is no longer about something but, as is the case with all true art, becomes the thing itself:

The “waters” to which the Vedic text endlessly refer resemble nothing more closely than the jeunes filles of Proust’s Recherche. Did Andrée exist in herself, did Albertine? a suddenly dazed Marcel asks himself in the Prisonnière. Likewise the waters. It’s not for nothing that from their first appearance the jeunes filles are confused against the backdrop of the sea, in an air heavy with the salty, blue spray of the front at Balbec. Then, with imperious self-assurance, Marcel decides that they “embodied the frenzy of pleasure.” And from that moment on, their existence becomes the vertigo of a ceaseless mutability, punctuated by names, scarves, dresses, episodes, golden drops ever different from each other yet no more individual than a succession of lights sparkling on waves. Like a lover, like a råásåái [seer], Marcel watches Albertine as she sleeps. In her mute abandon to merest breathing, he sees her as a plant, a stalk. The natural realms mingle together, finding themselves in the same element. They flood silently through the watchful mind, and through prose. The obsessive detail is a bud in the pond. The waters are plurality itself, fringes swinging back and forth, the slight trembling of wakefulness that precedes the word. Immersing itself in them, the mind follows the royal way toward revelation of itself to itself, in its shifting lunar essence. But this is not their ultimate mystery, which only emerges when they appear as messengers in an outside scenario, in the blind structure of matter, eyes closed like Albertine’s, emissaries of a self-sufficient and remote existence, which one can pierce but never grasp.

  1. 1

    The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, translated by Tim Parks (Knopf, 1993), p. 387.

  2. 2

    The Ruin of Kasch, translated by William Weaver and Stephen Sartarelli (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 128.

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