“Everything, in the world, exists to end up in a book.”
The surprising durability of ancient Greek myths in an age when Homer, Ovid, and other classics are no longer taught in our schools is astonishing and not easy to explain. In this country, we have never been very good at history, barely troubling to remember our own in much detail, and the same is true of the literary past, which is gradually being expunged from the curriculum. When it comes to pagan myth, most of the champions of progress take it for granted that they have nothing to say to us anymore. How wrong they are. This year, for example, saw the publication of Gods and Mortals, an anthology of modern poems based on classical myths.1 Out of 323 poems in the book, roughly one fourth are the work of contemporary American poets. When it comes to being out of sync with reigning intellectual fashions, poets get the prize every time.
As for the anthology itself, the structure is thematic so one finds poems on almost every figure in mythology, with Orpheus and Eurydice and the wanderings and homecoming of Odysseus seeming to be the favorites. Poets who have vastly different and frequently unreconcilable ideas of poetry, such as, for example, Joseph Brodsky and Gregory Corso, Robert Creeley and Richard Wilbur, Lucille Clifton and Jorie Graham, are to be found reflecting on some god or mortal hero. To paraphrase Charles Olson, myth is a bed in which human beings continue to make love to the gods.
What is it in these stories that the poets find indispensable? The answer has to be that they still feed their imagination. What Ezra Pound said long ago still appears to be true today: “No apter metaphor having been found for certain emotional colours, I assert that gods exist.” Here’s a poem of his from 1912 commemorating that discovery:
See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain
See, they return, one, and by one,
With fear, as half-awakened;
As if the snow should hesitate
And murmur in the wind,
and half turn back;
These were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,”
Gods of the wingèd shoe!
With them the silver hounds,
sniffing the trace of air!
These were the swift to harry;
These the keen-scented;
These were the souls of blood.
Slow on the leash,
pallid the leash-men!2
Even in our days of technology and globalization, it may be that the world we live in is too complex a place to explain with just one god. We need Eros, Apollo, Dionysus, Narcissus, and the rest of their tribe to make sense of things. For poets, there is also an additional motive. The big headache for over a hundred years has been how to find a larger setting for one’s personal experience. Without some sort of common belief, theology, mythology—or what have you—how was one supposed to figure out what it all means? The only option remaining, or so it seemed, was for each one of us to start from scratch and construct our own cosmology as we lay in bed at night. A poet who backtracks into myth is longing for a community that no longer exists. Or if it still does, it is a community of solitary readers and insomniac philosophers who are unknown to one another.
The Italian writer Roberto Calasso’s new book of essays, Literature and the Gods, based on Weidenfeld Lectures he gave at Oxford, takes up this very subject of what we mean when we talk about gods. It discusses such figures as Hölderlin, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Nabokov, Leopardi, Lautréamont, and Mallarmé and makes keen observations on several others. What is startling about his brief survey of the renewed interest in myth and pagan deities in Western literature is how recent it is in some countries. In eighteenth-century France, Greek myths were called childish fables, Shakespeare was seen as barbaric, and biblical tales were regarded as nothing more than priestly indoctrination to suffocate any potentially free spirit and enlightened mind. While the gods were never entirely lost sight of, supplying a bit of rhetorical dazzle and moral allegory in occasional poems and plays, only in painting, Calasso argues, did they run free over the centuries:
Thanks to its wordless nature, which allows it to be immoral without coming out and saying as much, the painted image was able to restore the gods to their glamorous and terrifying apparitions as simulacra. Hence a long and uninterrupted banquet of the gods runs parallel with Western history from Botticelli and Giovanni Bellini, through Guido Reni and Bernini, Poussin and Rembrandt (The Rape of Persephone would itself suffice), Saraceni and Furini and Dossi, right through to Tiepolo.
With the Romantics, the world of the Greeks returns as a lost paradise and an aesthetic ideal. Speaking about gods became acceptable again. There’s hardly a European poet in the nineteenth century who did not mention them. Their reasons were often superficial: they wanted to sound noble, exotic, pagan, erotic, erudite, or poetic. According to Calasso, the attraction of these antique fables for someone like Leopardi is that they were the mysterious remnants of a world where reason hadn’t yet been able to unleash the full effects of its lethal power, “a power that ‘renders all objects to which it turns its attention small and vile and empty, destroys the great and the beautiful and even, as it were, existence itself.'”
This attitude, as Leopardi himself realized, was absurd. Pretending to be ancient Romans or Greeks while concealing the fact that they were modern Europeans made some of the poets look silly. In France, among the Parnassians and Symbolists, that silliness had a use: it sheltered one against the vulgarity of the shopkeeper. “Everything can be at home in this cen-tury but poetry,” Leopardi wrote, a sentiment far removed from what Emerson and Whitman were saying a few years later; for them, in America at least, this was the golden age for poets.
“Difficult are the gods for men to see,” the ancient Hymn to Demeter already complains. Before they became literary clichés, the pagan deities lived the quiet lives of exiles in our midst, revealing their true nature only to a select few. The more modern literature tried to be absolutely original, the more it rummaged in the unconscious, the more it came face to face with them. Once again Orpheus picked up his lute, Venus seduced mortal men, Sisyphus shouldered his rock, and Odysseus dallied with Calypso. As Calasso points out—and there’s no disputing him—perhaps only to Hölderlin among the poets did the gods show themselves in their full radiance. Yet their supreme mystery has always been close. “Whatever else it might be, the divine is certainly the thing that imposes with maximum intensity the sensation of being alive,” Calasso writes. Where we find ourselves fully awake, divinities make their appearance. Emily Dickinson used the word “awe” to describe that experience in which the entire familiar world loses its normal significance and leaves one speechless in the presence of something one can no longer name. For us moderns, these cannot be the same gods as of old. Calasso writes:
They are no longer made up of just the one family, however complicated, residing in their vast homes on the slopes of a single mountain. No, now they are multitudes, a teeming crowd in an endless metropolis. It hardly matters that their names are often exotic and unpronounceable, like the names one reads on the doorbells of families of immigrants. The power of their stories is still at work. Yet there is something new and unusual about the situation: this composite tribe of gods now lives only in its stories and scattered idols. The way of cult and ritual is barred, either because there is no longer a group of devotees who carry out the ritual gestures, or because even when someone does perform these gestures they stop short. The statues of Så«iva and Vis.n.u still drip with offerings, but Varun.a is a remote and shapeless entity to the Indian of today, while Prajaåøpati is only to be found in books. [Varun.a was the supreme lord of the cosmos, the keeper of divine order. Prajaåøpati was the lord of creation.] And this, one might say, has become the natural condition of the gods: to appear in books—and often in books that few will ever open. Is this the prelude to extinction? Only to the superficial observer. For in the meantime all the powers of the cult of the gods have migrated into a single, immobile and solitary act: that of reading.
The effect of such solitary acts of piety and devotion of the few, as Calasso has amply shown, ought not to be underestimated. Two of his previously translated books, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1993) and Ka (1998), are formidably ambitious attempts to retell the stories of Greek and Indian mythology, untangle their many variants, and meditate on their meaning. “Stories,” he writes about the Greeks, “never live alone: they are the branches of a family that we have to trace back, and forward.” It is the same with India. “So many things happening, so many stories one inside the other, with every link hiding yet more stories.” Calasso serves as our guide in the maze.
Both of these books have been extravagantly praised, and deservedly so. In the ambition of the undertaking and wealth of material, they are comparable to Ovid’s Metamorphoses or The Thousand and One Nights, except the end result is very different. What Calasso has done is original and difficult to classify. The stories not only reassemble the ancient myths into a new synthesis, but they include literary, philosophical, and historical commentary. Still, despite their extraordinary erudition and insight into the minds of these two cultures, these are not scholarly studies. They are powerful works of the imagination in their own right that will most likely inspire future generations of mythographers and poets.
Calasso refreshes our memory of how violent the myths are. Murder, rape, incest, and acts of unbelievable cruelty are matters of course. It is a world in which the innocents suffer, justice is infrequent, and when it does come, it often comes too late. The trouble with too many poems on classical myths is that they are often no more than a pretext for lyric posturing, an evocation of the beauty of the bygone world and its ill-fated heroes and heroines at the expense of the harsher vision of the original. The perennial challenge in recounting myth, it seems to me, is how to make believable a pretty girl who is half fish and whose song mesmerizes sailors.
Calasso is a consummate storyteller, mixing drama, gossip, and even passages of poetry. He brings to life the ancient soap operas with their large cast of divine and human characters and keeps us entertained. Like all good stories and poems, the myths have many layers of meaning, which Calasso’s cunningly told narratives manage to preserve. Did ideas come first and the myths came afterward in order to illustrate them, or did the Greeks discover them as they listened to the stories? Here is an example of what I have in mind, from Calasso’s recreation of the myth of Persephone, the goddess of fertility who was carried off into the underworld by Hades (Pluto). In the Eleusinian mysteries she appears under the name Kore:
It was a place where dogs would lose their quarry’s trail, so violent was the scent of the flowers. A stream cut deep through the grass of a meadow that rose at the edge to fall sheer in a rocky ravine into the very navel of Sicily. And here, near Henna, Kore was carried off. When the earth split open and Hades’ chariot appeared, drawn by four horses abreast, Kore was looking at a narcissus. She was looking at the act of looking. She was about to pick it. And, at that very moment, she was herself plucked away by the invisible toward the invisible.
What fascinates Calasso is that moment of heightened consciousness. Kore sees herself reaching for a narcissus, just as Hades snatches her away to be his bride. Interestingly, Calasso writes that her name doesn’t just mean “girl” but “pupil” of the eyes. In the myth she turns away from the beautiful flower, their eyes meet, and she sees her pupil reflected in his. If as Socrates claims, and Calasso points out, the Delphic maxim “Know Thyself” can be understood as “Look at Thyself,” this marvelous story of the double gaze conveys a magnificent insight. As our consciousness divides to observe itself—observation for which looking at a narcissus is an evident metaphor—that invisible other watching within us is no other than our death, as it were. In other words, and this strikes me as both true and astonishing, we come to our self-knowledge through the eye of our mortality since, obviously, if we were going to be around forever such experiences would not be so precious.
The Greeks, as Calasso demonstrates, had more in mind. For them, this moment is not just about self-knowledge but is also about aesthetics. Our precarious life, fleeting and irreplaceable, has another dimension. That which exists once and only once is beautiful, the myths keep telling us. It is precisely because we are mortal beings that things have a significance and an intense presence at times. To come to understand that was a momentous discovery for literature. What has lyric poetry been for almost three thousand years, one can ask, but an aesthetic justification of mortality?
“The first enemy of the aesthetic was meaning,” Calasso writes in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. In the aesthetic experience the meaning is there, but it doesn’t impose itself. What dominates is a presence of someone or something one does not wish to name just then. The search for meaning takes one away from what is there before one’s eyes. Once again, Calasso is calling attention to the moment of heightened consciousness, its self-sufficiency and the wordless understanding that comes with it. Like a “pure light of midsummer,” such is the presence of the god Dionysus according to the poet Pindar. Perfection always keeps something hidden, says Calasso. And to conceal with light was always the Greeks’ specialty.
If our own classic myths still resonate imaginatively and philosophically for us, what about the ones from India? At first reading Ka, one is overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of the names, the oddness of the stories and their endlessly metamorphosing divinities. We are likely to be baffled by the plurality of viewpoints, clashing metaphysical ideas, and the difficulty of drawing a distinction between different traditions and schools of thought. Once again, Calasso’s prose, in Tim Parks’s masterful translation, casts its narrative spell. Eventually one begins to situate oneself in an exotic universe. As in Greece, the enigma of consciousness—that light capable of seeing what it illuminates—is at the center of cosmic mystery, as it was understood by the Aryans (or Aryas) who invaded India around 1500 BC:
Just as some claim that every true philosopher thinks but one thought, the same can be said of a civilization: from the beginning the Aåøryas thought, and India has ever continued to think, the thought that dazzled us r.s.is: the simple fact of being conscious. There is not a shape, not an event, not an individual in its history that cannot, in a certain number of steps, be taken back to that thought, just as Yaåøjñavlkya demonstrated that the three thousand, three hundred and six gods could all be taken back to a single word: brahman.
Here is an Indian myth that reads like a sequel to the Greek one about Kore and Hades:
The Person in the Eye is not born alone, cannot exist alone. The first couple were the two Persons in the Eye. In the right eye was Death. In the left eye his companion. Or again: in the right eye was Indra [the warrior god and thunder god of the Vedas]. In the left eye his partner Indraåøn.iåø. It was for these two that the gods made that division between the eyes: the nose. Behind the barrier of the nose two lovers hide, as though separated by a mountain. To meet, to touch, they must go down together into the cavity that opens up in the heart. That is their bedroom. There they twine in coitus. Seen from outside, the eyes of the sleepers are hidden by the eyelids as though by a curtain around a bed. Meanwhile, in the heart’s cavity, Indra and Indraåøn.iåø are one inside the other. This is the supreme beatitude.
What is truly extraordinary, as Calasso convincingly shows in Literature and the Gods, is that in the guise of what he calls “absolute literature” some of the mythic Indian ideas seem to reappear in the West. He is not talking about direct influence of Indian thought or mythology, which was largely unknown in the nineteenth century, but of an authentic independent discovery by Western poets of similar perceptions. Of course, before any of that was possible, poetry had to free itself from the obligation to be socially relevant. Poets were now saying that poetry is like music, a language that cannot be paraphrased into another language. It is a knowledge that refuses to be subject to any other knowledge, in touch with the nameless origins of everything, the home of even the gods themselves.
One gets a better idea of what Calasso has in mind from his lecture on Isidore Ducasse, the nineteenth-century French poet who wrote under the name of the Comte de Lautréamont. Les Chants de Maldoror, that notorious work of macabre humor and hallucinatory erotic imagery, was written, as he says, “on the principle that anything and everything must be the object of sarcasm,” not just the posturings of his contemporaries with their sniveling self-pity and Romantic melancholy, but even those who raged against it like Baudelaire. Before he died at the age of twenty-four in 1870, Ducasse lived entirely in books. He drew all his material from them, freely stole passages from classics and rewrote them reversing their meanings. Chants in the title makes one expect a book of songs, perhaps a French equivalent of Song of Myself. Instead, we find an anti-Whitman who exults in mixing up genres. As his translator Alexis Lykiard noted, in Ducasse we get prose poetry, poetic prose, the Gothic fantasy, the serial novel, horror and humor, authorial interventions, disruptions of space and time, stories within stories, plagiarism, techniques of collage, changes of style as frequent as his hero Maldoror’s own metamorphoses, and an elliptical rather than linear structure.
Rimbaud is undoubtedly a better poet, and his Illuminations and A Season in Hell have been far more influential works, but they lack Ducasse’s poisonous air of mockery. For him, writers are stooges and so is every literary propriety. He thought, Calasso writes, that “literature is a continuum of words to be interfered with as one pleases, by transforming every sign into its opposite, if that’s what we want.” Previously, even the most rebellious literature stayed in touch with some version of the real world. Ducasse got rid of all that. “Any literature that challenges the eternal truths is condemned to feed only on itself,” he wrote. And he did just that.
The two finest essays in Calasso’s new book are on Stephane Mallarmé. In the century of exact sciences, confident positivism in philosophy, and naturalism and realism in literature, Mallarmé cultivates obscure inner states and speaks approvingly of an art consecrated to fictions. In a piece based on a lecture given at Oxford and Cambridge universities in 1894, he writes:
Description conceals the fullness and intrinsic virtues of monuments, the sea and the human face; evocation, allusion or suggestion, though somewhat casual terms, point to what may be a very decisive trend in literature, one which both limits and sets free; for the special charm of the art lies not in the handful of dust, so to speak, not in the containing of any reality through description, in a book or a text, but in freeing from it the spirit, that volatile dispersion which is the musicality of nothing.3
Here modern literature and ancient myths meet. Without knowing the Vedic texts and with only a superficial acquaintance with Buddhism, Mallarmé was trying to give a name to a process at the heart of old esoteric traditions. It kept eluding him, but he made great poetry out of his inability to do so. “There must be something occult in the ground of everyone” is how he described it in a letter. “I firmly believe in something hidden away, a closed and secret signifier, that inhabits the ordinary.” “Yes, I know,” he writes in another letter, “we are nothing but vain forms of matter—yet sublime too when you think that we invented God and our own souls.” About Mallarmé Calasso writes that never had poetry been so magnificently superimposed upon the most mysterious and elementary fact of all, the very medium in which every quality and every likeness appear, and which is called consciousness. What draws him to Mallarmé is the poet’s recognition of that truth, which Calasso himself has chased after in all his books. For them, as for Heidegger, thinking of Being is the only way to deal with poetry.4 In their different ways they also have a longing for the absolute and are ready to go for broke. For them, the game of being and nothingness is the supreme game, the only one worth playing.
“There is a very strong and very ancient emotion,” Calasso writes, “that is rarely mentioned or recognized: it is the anguish we feel for the absence of idols. If the eye has no image on which to rest, if there’s nothing to mediate between the mental phantasm and that which simply is, then a subtle despondency creeps in.” The oldest dream ever recorded, it turns out, is told by a woman, the overseer of a palace in Mesopotamia, who in her dream enters the temple and finds that the statues have vanished and so have the people who worshiped them. For Calasso, literature is the guardian of every such space haunted by phantoms. “For whatever they may be, the gods manifest themselves above all as mental events. Yet, contrary to the modern illusion, it is the psychic powers that are fragments of the gods, not the gods that are fragments of the psychic powers.” Before they could come back, literature had to find again that place, inscribed in the very ground of our being, where they have always made their presence known.
Mallarmé has been both an ideal and a dead end for poets. His greatness, Octavio Paz, wrote, “lies not just in his attempt to create a language that would be the magic double of the universe—the Work conceived as a Cosmos—but above all in the consciousness of the impossibility of transforming that language into theater, into a dialogue with man.”5 Once there’s nothing left but a few cryptic words for the initiates, what started out as a new understanding of aesthetics has turned into mysticism. A poem cannot be pure: it is a marriage of contradictions, reverence and blasphemy, asceticism and sensuality. As much as I admire Calasso’s uncompromising search for the heart of the poetic, I’m not convinced that such a search is the best way to go about writing poetry. The most attractive and puzzling aspect of the long history of poetry is that no conception of the poem is final.
Literature is never the product of a single agent, Calasso tells us. There are always at least three actors: the hand that writes, the voice that speaks, the god who watches over and compels. They could be called the I, the Self, and the Divine. The relationship between them is constantly changing as they take turns viewing themselves and the world. Mallarmé, he says, gave notice that having left by society’s front door, literature was back through a cosmic window, having absorbed in the meantime nothing less than everything. Calasso concludes his study by saying that we still draw sustenance from this “daring fiction.” We undoubtedly do, while reminding ourselves that the search for the absolute doesn’t always take place in such a rarefied atmosphere, but has to contend with everything else human beings do, from tossing and turning all night with a toothache to falling in love with someone who doesn’t care whether you exist. The best critique of absolute literature is to be found in Calasso’s two books on myth where that crowning paradox is never forgotten. Besides, as he himself has told us, the gods get bored with men who have no stories to tell.
September 20, 2001
Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths, edited by Nina Kossman (Oxford University Press, 2001). ↩
Selected Poems (New Directions, 1949), p. 24. ↩
Symbolism: An Anthology, edited and translated by T.G. West (Methuen, 1980), p. 8. ↩
For Calasso’s reflections on Heidegger, Kafka, Flaubert, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Walter Benjamin, and Karl Kraus, among others, see the collection of his essays, Forty-nine Steps, translated by John Shepley, just published by the University of Minnesota Press. ↩
The Bow and the Lyre, translated by Ruth L.C. Simms (University of Texas Press, 1973), pp. 44–45. ↩