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.

Proust (a “Vedantic master”) is a surprise guest on more than one occasion in Ka, a vast meditation on “Stories of the Mind and Gods of India” (the subtitle appears only on the dust jacket). As usual, Calasso ranges far and wide for his sources and allusions, but this time perhaps not as far or as wide as in the previous two books. In Ka he is more concentrated, more single-mindedly fixed upon his subject, which is, to put it with unwarranted brevity, the origin and nature of consciousness and, more specifically, self-consciousness, as identified and traced in the great welter of Indian mythology:

…consciousness, the raw sensation of whoever is awake and knows himself alive. This sensation is more amazing than any marvel the eye will ever see. In this regard the råásåáis were not so far away from Wittgenstein: that the world exists is far more amazing than any how the world exists.

This theme returns again and again, like a mantra, throughout the book.

Calasso must be one of the world’s great readers. It would be impossible to calculate how many millions of words he absorbed in preparation for these three books (and they are not the only ones he has written: others await, as yet untranslated). The main Sanskrit texts which he has mined for Ka are, first of all, the Brahmaåønåáas and the hymn cycle of the Råág Veda, dating from about 1000 BC, left to us by the Aryan peoples who invaded India from the Iranian plateau between 1500 BC and 1200 BC and settled in the valley of the Ganges. Truly they were people of the word:

Between the conquering Aryas and the Buddha: a thousand years and not a single object…. Yet the texts speak of paintings and jewels. Immensely complex metrics—and the void. One thousand and twenty-eight hymns collected in the Råág Veda. Not a trace of a dwelling. Rites described in the most meticulous detail. Not a single ritual object that has survived. Those who glorified the leftover left nothing over themselves, except what was filtered through the word.

It was the Aryas, clinging to their outposts of conquest in that verdant valley between the Himalayas and the great river, who instituted the caste system—largely still intact today, with some 3,000 castes and more than 25,000 subcastes—not only to assert their authority over the dark-skinned aboriginals, but to perpetuate their traditions and rituals. The castes of India are ranked loosely into four varåánas, or classes. The Aryas were the Brahmans, the priestly caste; next come the Kåásåáatriyas, or warrior caste, then the Vaisåáyas, the commoners or merchants, and lastly the Så«uåødras, the workers. At the very bottom of the social ladder are the “untouchables,” those who, literally, do the dirty work. The Brahmaåønåáas and the Vedas formed the Law of the Brahmans, but inevitably over time the Brahmanic rites became adulterated by the rites and rituals of the peoples among whom the invaders had settled, and gradually Vedic culture was transformed into what is now Hinduism.

The other texts Calasso calls upon are the Upanisåáads, dating from circa 700 BC, the Puraåønåáas, 500 AD-1000 AD, and of course the Mahaåøbhaåørata, the gigantic Sanskrit epic assembled over a period of nearly a thousand years, between 500 BC and 500 AD, “three times as long as the Bible, seven times as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey put together,” and described by one scholar as not a single work but a library. The central narrative tells of the epic war between two groups of claimants to the throne, the Paåønåádåáavas and the Kauravas, the latter descended from the ruler Bharata (the name given to modern India), hence the title, “the great [story] of the descendants of Bharata.” Calasso sees the vastness and complexity of the text not merely as “an artifice to allude to the infinite complication of existence,” but as a sort of acknowledgment of, and reflection on, the fact that “end and beginning, terms the mind is ever toying with, don’t, in themselves, exist at all.”

There came a day, as the times grew dark, when it became evident that the Four Vedas did not exhaust every form of knowledge. The hymns and ritual gestures went on, self-sufficient in their meaning. But, in the space between one ritual act and another, time was penetrated by the act of someone telling a story…. In the beginning, stories were no more than appendices to knowledge, but gradually the time given over to them grew in the gaps in that knowledge like grass between the bricks of the altar of fire, expanded and multiplied in stories that generated more stories, until they covered the whole construction of knowledge in which they had made their first furtive appearance as no more than an intermezzo. Thus literature began. Literature is what grows in the intervals of the sacrifice.

The story with which Ka opens, and also closes, is that of the eagle Garudåáa, who, after numerous adventures, settles in the great tree Rauhinåáa to study the Vedas, in hymn number 121 of which he comes upon the repeated question “Who (Ka) is the god to whom we should offer our sacrifice?” The question fascinates him:”Estuary to a hidden ocean, that syllable (ka) would go on echoing within him as the essence of the Vedas.” Calasso too is fascinated; this mysterious challenge (Ka?) is the first strand of the immense tapestry that he will weave for us. Ka is first identified with Prajaåøpati, the self-generated progenitor of all things, the “single seer” afloat in the midst of the primordial waters. Prajaåøpati is pure consciousness, the being that brings itself and all else into being by the transformative force of tapas, a key term here, meaning “at once the cosmic heat and the heat within the mind, that which broods, in the sense of incubates.”

Prajaåøpati was mind as power to transform. And to transform itself. Nothing else can so precisely be described as overflowing, boundless, inexpressible…. Everything remained attached to him. But it was an attachment that might well go unnoticed. Where was it? In the mind, buried in our being like a splinter no one can dislodge.

At the heart of the book, the “splinter” lodged deep in the flesh of all its whirling elaborations of story upon story, is the mystery of consciousness, of the separation of the aåøtman, the Self, from the aham, the I. Calasso keeps us well entertained with tales of gods and heroes, seers and saints, beautiful maidens, magical animals, but always he returns to this abiding preoccupation. In Part VIII, the god Varunåáa holds a symposium between “the more eminent råásåáis” and “a number of foreigners and theologians,” at which various råásåáis—those powerful beings who “had been there, hidden in the nonexistent, before existence existed”—expound on the nature of existence. Vasisåátåáha speaks:

“The neutral divine, brahman, comes before the gods. ‘In the beginning brahman alone existed.’ The gods, ‘as they gradually woke up to it, became it.’ This is the decisive step: awakening. Something invisible that happens within thought. Something that adds a new quality to thought: consciousness. To become aware that one is thinking: this is to enter into brahman.”

For Calasso, it seems, this constant struggle to awake to the self and the world, and to remain as wide awake as possible, despite all the blandishments of dogma and ignorance and self-forgetting, is the essence of life and the absolute human duty of human beings if they are to be fully human. And one means of achieving this wakefulness is to be constantly attentive to the gods and the stories they tell us. In his insistence on the necessity for openness to Being, Calasso frequently strikes a Heideggerian note—indeed, there are passages in Ka that make the more tenebrous ponderings of the Sage of Todtnauberg seem positively ablaze with light—while in the long section devoted to Så«iva, the lord of the dance, one is irresistibly reminded of Nietzsche’s dithyrambs to Dionysus:

When Så«iva wiped out the world, all combinations of existence would flow within him, without needing to exist. The mind and the outside were not separate entities—perhaps not even entities at all. Penetrating each other, they lost all their shyness. The stream was one. The dreadful and the delicate surfaced together, in pairs, indifferent to each other, like distant relatives. Then they bid each other goodbye. Immediately something else took their place. An incessant migration. All forms, all forces: they were Så«iva’s herd. That’s why they called him Paså«upati, Lord of the Herds.

Ka moves with the force of tragedy toward its inevitable conclusion in the coming of the Buddha. It is probably well for Calasso that Buddhists are a peaceable sect, for his distaste for their prophet and his teachings, which is palpable throughout Ka, and especially in the closing sections, might have earned him a death sentence had it been directed at the tenets of a more bloodthirsty faith. The strength of Buddhism—and of Jainism before it—the one great gift it offered to a people who believed themselves condemned to eternal recurrence by the iron law of samåásaåøra, or transmigration of the soul, was the possibility it offered of escape into nothingness. Under the older, Vedic doctrine, all personal actions will be rewarded or punished in the person’s succeeding lives. It took the genius of a Buddha to take the simple but momentous step of escaping this fate by eliminating action. Once the true nature of existence and of the world is understood, all striving will cease, and, through the practice of extreme asceticism, the initiate, or Tirthamkara, will pass over into that state of extinction which is nirvaåønåáa.

Every being was born as a tally of debts…. But—and this doctrine became increasingly obsessive as time went by—every being was also born weighed down by actions already performed and attracted to others yet to be performed. We are born old, of an age that dates back to the beginning of time. Every life is a segment in which certain actions fade and others blossom. More than anyone else, the Buddha appreciated the mass of pain stored up in time by the accumulation of one act after another. Perfection is achieved when someone is about to put an end to the long series of actions. Then that person is surrounded by sudden lightness, an emptiness.

In face of such a teaching, Calasso is driven to splendid heights of vituperation, never less than elegantly expressed. Even the images the Buddha employed were “dried out,” his “whole life was a gesture of farewell.” The essence of Buddhism Calasso takes to be emptiness: “Fullness drawn from fullness: this is the Vedic doctrine. Emptiness drawn from emptiness: this is the Buddha’s doctrine.” Just as in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony there thrummed a constant note of mourning for a pagan world destroyed by Christianity and by its own entropic tendencies, here Calasso rails against the annihilation of the necessary gods by the poison of nihilism.

What would one day be called “the modern” was, at least as far as its sharpest and most hidden point is concerned, a legacy of the Buddha. Seeing things as so many aggregates and dismantling them. Then dismantling the elements split off from the aggregates, insofar as they too are aggregates. And so on and on in dizzying succession. An arid, ferocious scholasticism. A taste for repetition, as agent provocateur of inanity. Vocation for monotony. Total lack of respect for any prohibition, any authority. Emptying of every substance from within. Only husks left intact.

Ka, like Cadmus and Harmony before it, is one man’s effort to revivify a world in which the gods lead men in the dance of life, in which ritual, not dogma, rules, in which due deference is paid to the ancient rites, in which the residue of divine superabundance is offered back to the gods in the form of sacrifice—in other words, a pagan world. The book is also an attempt to make a luminous work of art out of the fragments of antiquity. Whether he has succeeded or failed in the specific tasks he has set himself, he has certainly managed to open a new road through the old landscape of literature.

This Issue

January 14, 1999