Literature and the Gods

Literature and the Gods


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Brilliant, inspired, and gloriously erudite, Literature and the Gods is the culmination of Roberto Calasso’s lifelong study of the gods in the human imagination. By uncovering the divine whisper that lies behind the best poetry and prose from across the centuries, Calasso gives us a renewed sense of the mystery and enchantment of great literature.

From the banishment of the classical divinities during the Age of Reason to their emancipation by the Romantics and their place in the literature of our own time, the history of the gods can also be read as a ciphered and splendid history of literary inspiration. Rewriting that story, Calasso carves out a sacred space for literature where the presence of the gods is discernible. His inquiry into the nature of “absolute literature” transports us to the realms of Dionysus and Orpheus, Baudelaire and Mallarmé, and prompts a lucid and impassioned defense of poetic form, even when apparently severed from any social function. Lyrical and assured, Literature and the Gods is an intensely engaging work of literary affirmation that deserves to be read alongside the masterpieces it celebrates.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375725432
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/04/2002
Series: Vintage International Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.22(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.48(d)

About the Author

Roberto Calasso lives in Milan, Italy.

Read an Excerpt

The Pagan School

The gods are fugitive guests of literature. They cross it with the trail of their names and are soon gone. Every time the writer sets down a word, he must fight to win them back. The mercurial quality that heralds their appearance is token also of their evanescence. It wasn't always thus. At least not so long as we had a liturgy. That weave of word and gesture, that aura of controlled destruction, that use of certain materials rather than others: this gratified the gods, so long as men chose to turn to them. After which, like windblown scraps in an abandoned encampment, all that was left were the stories that every ritual gesture implied. Uprooted from their soil and exposed, in the vibration of the word, to the harsh light of day, they frequently seemed idle and impudent. Everything ends up as history of literature.

So it would be a dull business indeed just to list the times the Greek gods turn up in modern poetry from the early Romantics on. Almost all the poets of the nineteenth century, from the most mediocre to the sublime, wrote a line or two in which the gods are mentioned. And the same is true of most of the poets of the twentieth century. Why? For all kinds of reasons: out of established scholastic habit-or to sound noble, or exotic, or pagan, or erotic, or erudite. Or-most frequently and tautologically-to sound poetic. But whether a poem chooses to name Apollo, or maybe an oak tree, or the ocean's foam, doesn't make much difference and can hardly be very meaningful: they are all terms from the literary lexicon, worn smooth by use.

Yet there was a time when the gods were not just a literary cliché, but an event, a sudden apparition, an encounter with bandits perhaps, or the sighting of a ship. And it didn't even have to be a vision of the whole. Ajax Oileus recognized Poseidon disguised as Calchas from his gait. He saw him walking from behind and knew it was Poseidon "from his feet, his legs."

Since for us everything begins with Homer, we can ask ourselves: which words did he use for such events? By the time the Trojan War broke out, the gods were already coming to earth less frequently than in an earlier age. Only a generation before, Zeus had fathered Sarpedon on a mortal woman. All the gods had turned up for the marriage of Peleus and Thetis. But now Zeus no longer showed himself to men; he sent other Olympians along to do his exploring for him: Hermes, Athena, Apollo. And it was getting harder to see them. Odysseus admits as much to Athena: "Arduous it is, oh goddess, to recognize you, even for one who knows much." The Hymn to Demeter offers the plainest comment: "Difficult are the gods for men to see." Every primordial age is one in which it is said that the gods have almost disappeared. Only to the select few, chosen by divine will, do they show themselves: "The gods do not appear to everyone in all their fullness [enargeis]," the Odyssey tells us. Enargei's is the terminus technicus for divine epiphany: an adjective that contains the dazzle of "white," argos, but which ultimately comes to designate a pure and unquestionable "conspicuousness." It's the kind of "conspicuousness" that will later be inherited by poetry, thus becoming perhaps the characteristic that distinguishes poetry from every other form.

But how does a god make himself manifest? In the Greek language the word theos, "god," has no vocative case, observed the illustrious linguist Jakob Wackernagel. Theos has a predicative function: it designates something that happens. There is a wonderful example of this in Euripides' Helen: "O theoi. theos gar kai to gigno' skein philous"—"O gods: recognizing the beloved is god." Kerenyi thought that the distinguishing quality of the Greek world was this habit of "saying of an event: 'It is theos.'" And an event referred to as being theís could easily become Zeus, the most vast and all-inclusive of gods, the god who is the background noise of the divine. So when Aratus set out to describe the phenomena of the cosmos, he began his poem thus: "From Zeus let our beginning be, from he whom men never leave unnamed. Full of Zeus are the paths and the places where men meet, full of Zeus the sea and the seaports. Every one of us and in every way has need of Zeus. Indeed we are his offspring."

"Iovis omnia plena," Virgil would later write, and in these words we hear his assurance that this was a presence to be found everywhere in the world, in the multiplicity of its events, in the intertwining of its forms. And we also hear a great familiarity, almost a recklessness, in the way the divine is mentioned, as though to encounter divinity was hardly unusual, but rather something that could be expected, or provoked. The word atheos, on the other hand, was only rarely used to refer to those who didn't believe in the gods. More often it meant to be abandoned by the gods, meant that they had chosen to withdraw from all commerce with men. Aratus was writing in the third century b.c., but what became of this experience that for him was so obvious and all-pervasive in the centuries that followed? How did time affect it? Did it dissolve it, destroy it, alter and empty it beyond recognition? Or is it something that still reaches out to us, whole and unscathed? And if so, where, how?

One morning in 1851, Baudelaire tells us, Paris awoke with the feeling that "something important" had happened: something new, something "symptomatic," yet something that nevertheless presented itself as merely another fait divers. A word had been buzzing insistently in everybody's head: revolution. Now it so happened that, at a dinner party in honor of the revolution of February 1848, a young intellectual had proposed a toast to the god Pan. "But what has Pan got to do with the revolution?" Baudelaire asked the young intellectual. "Don't you know?" came the answer: "It's Pan who starts revolutions. He is the revolution." Baudelaire didn't leave it at that: "So it's not true that he's been dead for ages? I thought a loud voice had been heard drifting across the Mediterranean and that this mysterious voice that rang out from the Columns of Hercules as far as the shores of Asia had announced to the old world: THE GOD PAN IS DEAD." The young intellectual didn't seem worried. "It's just a rumor," he said. "Scandal mongers, nothing in it. No, the god Pan is not dead! The god Pan lives on," he insisted, lifting his eye to the heavens with quite bizarre tenderness: "He will return." Baudelaire glosses: "He was talking about the god Pan as if he were the prisoner of Saint Helena." But the exchange wasn't over; Baudelaire had another question: "So can we presume that you are pagan?" The young intellectual was positively disdainful: "Of course I am; don't you know that only paganism, if properly understood, that is, can save the world? We must go back to the true doctrines that were eclipsed, but only for an instant, by the infamous Galilean. And then, Juno has looked favorably on me, a look that went right to my soul. I was sad and miserable, watching the procession go by; I implored that beautiful divinity, my eyes were full of love, and she sent one of her looks, a profound and benevolent look, to cheer me up and give me courage." Baudelaire comments: "Juno threw him one of her regards de vache, Boopis Ere. Possibly the poor fellow is mad." This last joking remark is addressed to an anonymous third person, so far a silent observer, who now dismisses the affair thus: "Can't you see he's talking about the ceremony of the fatted calf? He was looking at all those rosy women with their pagan eyes, and Ernestine, who works at the Hippodrome and was playing Juno, tipped him an allusive wink, a really sluttish stare." By this time what had started out as the most magniloquent and visionary of exchanges has become pure Offenbach, an example of boulevardier wit that actually predates the boulevards themselves, albeit by very little. And the young intellectual winds up the conversation with the same ambiguous mix of registers: "Call her Ernestine all you like," said the young pagan. "You want to disappoint me. But the effect on my morale was the same-and think of that look as a good omen."

So with the regard de vache of a Juno of the Hippodrome-which, as we remember, was a circus near the Arc de Triomphe that had burned down a few months previously-the gods of Olympus announced their return to the Parisian theatre circuit. And, as is so often the way in Paris, the Parisians announced as news-or at least as only really counting as news once it happened in Paris-something that actually had already manifested itself elsewhere and quite some time ago, in the Germany of Holderlin and Novalis, for example, a good fifty years before: the reawakening and return of the gods. Yet Parisians had had the privilege of being introduced to that Germany by an illustrious explorer. When Madame de Stael began to travel the highways and byways of Germany like some journalist in search of the flavor of the day, the country was still very much the enchanted forest at the heart of Europe. No sooner were its leaves rustled than they stirred the chords of the Romantic piano. Madame de Stael didn't notice this, of course, her ears being attuned only to the ideas all around her-which she wielded like blunt instruments. Traveling beneath the huge open skies of a country where to her amazement she was seeing "traces of a nature uninhabited by man," her immediate response was one of discouragement: "Something oddly silent in both the landscape and its inhabitants saddens one at first." Between the pert and ruthless chitter-chatter of Parisian society and this deep, brooding silence lay a distance more speculative than spatial. So the first odd thing this journalist observed was that on German soil "the empire of taste and the weapon of ridicule have no influence." Hence when the gods returned to manifest themselves here, they would not be immediately corroded by irony and sarcasm as in Paris. On the contrary, the danger here was that their appearance would be overwhelming. As indeed was the case for Holderlin, dazzled by Apollo on his way home from Bordeaux: "As they tell of the heroes, I can say Apollo struck me down," he wrote to Bohlendorff. But in order for Apollo, "he who strikes from afar," to thrust himself with such violence on a German poet wandering through western France, "constantly moved by the celestial fire and the silence of men," and in order for "the celestial fire" actually to mean something frightening and enchanting again, rather than be just another ornamental flourish in a pompous tragedie classique, something had to happen that really was a "revolution," a powerful shaking of earth and sky. Which brings us back to the young Parisian intellectual whom Baudelaire obviously was mocking and who raised his glass to the god Pan, for the god Pan "is the revolution." And we note that Baudelaire wrote L'Ecole paienne in 1852 while Holderlin's letter to Bohlendorff is dated November 1802, exactly fifty years before. So what Baudelaire is talking about here was a case of involuntary parody, on the part of the young man, of an extreme experience-Holderlin's in the period immediately preceding his madness. An experience that was quite unknown in France and hadn't even percolated through in Germany, if only because of the sacred terror it aroused. But events live on, have their meaning and do their work on their own, even when not immediately noticed. To understand how that incongruous toast to Pan could happen in Paris in 1851, one cannot avoid going back to Holderlin on his way from Bordeaux. Fortunately there are some stepping stones in between. The first comes courtesy of Heinrich Heine, the only ambassador that Romantic Germany would send to Paris. And it is Baudelaire himself who brings in Heine for us when commenting on his dialogue with the young intellectual and devotee of Pan: "It seems to me," he remarks, "that such immoderate paganism is typical of a man who has read too much and understood too little of Heinrich Heine and that literature of his rotten with materialistic sentimentalism." The harshness of the remark might lead you to suppose that Baudelaire loathes Heine. Quite the contrary. Shortly afterwards he was to speak of him as "this enchanting mind who would be a genius if only he would address himself more often to the divine." And when, in 1865, Jules Janin published a feuilleton scornful of Heine, Baudelaire was seized by "a tremendous rage," as if the article had somehow touched a raw nerve. At once he set about writing a vehement defense of Heine, a poet, he announced, "whom no Frenchman can equal." But the matter got no further than this sudden fury. Later he would write to Michel Levy: "Then, as soon as I'd written it, and was happy I had, I kept the letter and didn't send it to any of the papers." Fortunately, though, we still have his notes-where one is struck by a sentence that will remain forever the ultimate dismissal of the irritating cult of bonheur in all its manifestations: "Je vous plains, monsieur, d'etre si facilement heureux"-"I feel sorry for you, monsieur, that you are so easily happy." Attacking Heine, Janin had attacked the whole band of "melancholy and mocking" poets to which, of course, Baudelaire knew he belonged. Hence the strident, exasperated tone of the poet's response, which reads like an act of urgent self-defense. But if Baudelaire's admiration of Heine was such and so great that he actually identified with the German, it follows that the disparaging remarks on Heine in the Ecole paienne are not really representative of the poet's mind. And this is the telltale sign that confirms a growing suspicion: Baudelaire is writing the whole piece as if from the point of view of his enemies. From start to finish the thing is tongue-in-cheek. Not only that, but in assuming his enemies' point of view, Baudelaire actually seems to be offering them arguments against himself that are far more effective and biting than any they would have been able to dream up themselves. Only when we have grasped this does the last section of the piece, after the aside on Heine, make sense. Suddenly the spirit is pure Offenbach again: "Let's go back to Olympus. For a while now I've had the whole of Olympus hard at my heels, something that bothers me a great deal; gods are falling on my head like chimney pots. It's like a bad dream, as if I were plunging down into the void and a host of wooden, iron, golden, and silver idols along with me, all chasing after me as I plummet, all shoving me and digging me in the ribs and whacking me over the head." This comic if calamitous vision might well be seen as the final galop of the first half of the nineteenth century, a period which had seen not only the Greek gods invade the psyche once again, but also and following hard after them another huge procession of idols too, their names often quite unpronounceable. This was the so-called renaissance orientale, a process that came out of the work of philologists, who for the first time were translating texts of the greatest importance, while statues, reliefs, and amulets went on and on multiplying in the vast crypts of the museums. The idols were back at last and Europe was under siege, and this at precisely the moment when everyone was singing the praises of Progress and the clarifying powers of Reason. There is thus a wonderfully theatrical timing to the fact that only a few months after Baudelaire's Ecole paienne, the Revue des deux mondes should publish Heine's Les Dieux en exil, which almost amounts to a countermelody to Baudelaire's piece. Heine explains how, before coming back to invade the scene, the pagan gods would have to lead a long and grueling life in hiding, as exiles, "among the owls and toads in the dark hovels of their past splendor." Much of what the world now calls "satanic," he added, was once blessedly pagan. But what happens when the gods come back and show themselves in all the fullness of their sorcery, when Venus once again seduces a mortal man-Tannhauser, to be precise? We can hardly, as once in the past, say incessu patuit dea, and we won't even be able to recognize in the goddess a "noble quiet," as Winckelmann dictates. Rather, Venus will come to meet us as a "demon, that she-devil of a woman who, beneath all her Olympian arrogance and the magnificence of her passion allows us to glimpse la dame galante; she's a celestial courtesan perfumed with ambrosia, a divinity aux camelias, or as one might say a deesse entretenue." In short, the real news is this: the Olympian gods are back and in business, but they live in the demi-monde. Complicitous as a pair of jugglers, Baudelaire and Heine conjure together in irreversible combination the reawakening of the gods and the spirit of parody. In so doing they look forward to a state of affairs which is still very much our own today.

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