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…

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