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[Book reviews]

Into the mystic
Roberto Calasso’s uneasy absolutes


By Roberto Calasso. Knopf, 212 pages, $22.

Roberto Calasso’s last two books — a mix of storytelling and scholarship — were great banquets of myth. In The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony he wove together dozens of Greek legends into a single narrative; in Ka he did the same for the Hindu gods. Now he has published Literature and the Gods, originally a series of lectures given at Oxford University, which serves as a sort of epilogue to those major works. It takes the story of the ancient gods into the 19th century, where they began to stir again after centuries of neglect.

Or so, at least, Calasso claims; the premise of his book is shaky in proportion to its audacity. He argues that the development of “absolute literature” in the 19th century — or what is more often called Symbolism, especially in poetry — is related, in some obscure way, to a renewed belief in the ancient gods, if not to their actual return. It is characteristic of Calasso’s mysticism that he never clearly separates these two interpretations of the divine: he wants the gods to be more than mere literary symbols, yet he is too cautious simply to announce that they exist. The ambiguity is marked in a passage like this one, from the book’s last chapter: “ . . . 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.”

The first sentence sounds like the textbook understanding of myth. The gods are projections or symbols of “mental events” or qualities: the warrior’s anger is personified as Mars, the lover’s passion as Venus. But the second sentence claims that the gods pre-exist and even cause our “mental events”: Mars makes us angry, Venus makes fall in love. It is impossible to endorse this idea: no one truly worships the Greco-Roman deities or sees them at work in the world. They exist only in the metaphorical sense that things exist in poetry: they are symbols.

The nexus of the divine and the poetic is therefore Calasso’s theme. He takes as his starting point an essay published in 1798 by the German Romantic thinker Friedrich Schlegel proposing that modern writers return to “the shining tangle of the ancient gods” as a symbol of “the original chaos of human nature.” And he traces this idea in the poetry of Hölderlin and Baudelaire, the surreal ravings of Lautréamont, the philosophy of Nietzsche, and the linguistic experiments of Mallarmé. According to Calasso, these writers reinvented literature as something altogether new: “absolute literature,” “literature at its most piercing, its most intolerant of social trappings.” In other words, literature becomes purely ćsthetic, radically autonomous, yet at the same time universal; Calasso sees it “sparkling everywhere, like an all-enfolding spiral of dust.” And through a chain of associations that’s never entirely clear, this “absolute literature” puts him in mind of the Hindu idea that poetic meters “are the harness of the gods” — an obscure metaphor to which he devotes a brilliant chapter of analysis.

This sort of connection — sudden, improbable, suggestive — abounds in Calasso’s short book. It’s his way of telling “the secret history of literature”: he puts Mallarmé together with the Hindu god Prajapati and allows them to illuminate each other. But there is something arbitrary and deliberately mystifying in this approach; Calasso argues by assertion and solemn intimation rather than logic and reference. His “theory” of literature and the gods is not really a theory at all but a literary construct, a speculation or fairy tale; it asks for an assent that it cannot compel.

Dozens of objections to this construct present themselves. For one thing, Calasso’s conception of “absolute literature” is unrecognizable in actual works. He writes about literature as though it were football, a gratuitous game with its own arbitrary rules; he recognizes the literary only as “a certain vibration or luminescence of the sentence.” But actual works of literature are almost always about something else — about “life.” Calasso’s idea of literature may fit Mallarmé, but only with difficulty can it be applied to Baudelaire, and only with violence to Nietzsche.

Indeed, Nietzsche is a good example of how the “and” in Calasso’s title falls apart under scrutiny. He writes that Nietzsche had a stronger, more immediate feeling for the Greek gods than any thinker before him; in his madness, Nietzsche signed himself “Dionysus.” Yet Nietzsche was not at all a practitioner or theorist of “absolute literature,” literature detached from every other subject; to the contrary, he included “art for its own sake” in his catalogue of “the ways of self-narcotization.” For him, the gods were precisely not literary; they were ethical forces that demanded a certain kind of action.

Still, the seriousness and the erudition of Literature and the Gods demand a serious and erudite — and sometimes dissenting — response. Such books are infrequent. All the more reason to welcome, and read, this one.

Issue Date: April 12-19, 2001