Literature and the Gods by Roberto Calasso
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Literature and the Gods is a short, dense essay rather than the more literary-historical or conspective account the title might lead one to expect. In fact, Calasso has a refined Continental theorists’s contempt for mere literary history, which he seems to regard as a vast exercise in missing the point of what has happened over the last 200 years: western literature has broken free of all received forms and historical determinants; it has become “absolute literature,” and “absolute literature”—imaginative writing’s simultaneous turn from and incorporation of the world, even the universe—turns out to be this brilliant, beautiful book’s real theme:
But are we quite sure we know what “literature” means? When we pronounce the word today, we are immediately aware that it is immeasurably distant from anything an eighteenth-century writer would have meant by it, while at the beginning of the nineteenth century it was already taking on connotations we quickly recognize: notably the most audacious and demanding, those that leave the ancient pattern of genres and prescribed styles far behind, like some kind of kindergarten forever abandoned in a flight toward a knowledge grounded only in itself and expanding everywhere like a cloud, cloaking every shape, overstepping every boundary. This new creature that appeared we don’t know quite when and that still lives among us may be defined as “absolute literature.” “Literature” because it is a knowledge that claims to be accessible only and exclusively by way of literary composition; “absolute” because it is a knowledge that one assimilates while in search of an absolute, and that thus draws in no less than everything; and at the same time, it is something absolutum, unbound, freed from any duty or common cause, from any social utility.
But what does this have to do with the gods? According to Calasso, the gods burst from their confines with Romanticism. Before the 19th century, they were either repressed as demonic under Christianity, dismissed as superstition by the Enlightenment, or tamed as ornament by Neoclassicism; whereas the German Romantics—Novalis and Hölderlin are the heroes here—evoked the gods only to seek behind or beyond them for the law governing them (as the Greeks insisted):
It is the immediate that escapes not only men but the gods too: “The immediate, strictly speaking, is as impossible for the gods as it is for men.” Hölderlin is referring here to the lines where Pindar speaks of the nómos basileús, the “law that reigns over all, mortals and immortals alike.” Whatever else it might be, the divine is certainly the thing that imposes with maximum intensity the sensation of being alive. This is the immediate: but pure intensity, as a continuous experience, is “impossible,” overwhelming. To preserve its sovereignty, the immediate must come across to us through the law.
In other words, the rediscovery of the gods discloses the divine force that binds even them, which can only be transmitted through form: hence, literature’s turn from mimesis and the object to form and the subject.
The scene shifts to the later 19th century, when Mallarmé dissolves the boundaries between prose and poetry and reconceives the most proper subject matter of literature as the universe observing itself as mind through the medium of the poet:
In Mallarmé the material of poetry is brought back, with unprecedented and as yet unrepeated determination, to mental experience. Shut away in an invisible templum, the word evokes, one after another, simulacra, mutations, events, all of which issue and disperse in the sealed chamber of the mind, where the primordial crucible burns.
Calasso firmly rejects any postmodern interpretation of Mallarmé to the effect that he turns everything into language, into words, as if he were merely anticipating the likes of Saussure:
But we do not think in words. Or rather, we sometimes think in words. Words are scattered archipelagoes, drifting, sporadic. The mind is the sea. To recognize this sea in the mind seems to have become something forbidden, something that the presiding orthodoxies, in their various manifestations, whether scientistic or merely commonsensical, instinctively avoid.
The gods, then, become the sponsors of literature’s attempt to match itself to the world beyond the world, to weave the continuity of breath that staves off dissolution—hence, Calasso proves, with a lengthy excursus on ancient Sanskrit scriptures that is well beyond my competence, the necessity of rhythm and meter to all literary composition, including prose. He quotes the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa: “Meters are the cattle of the gods.”
A certain kind of Anglophone reader, or several different kinds of Anglophone readers, will become impatient with this. Calasso is not an empiricist, not a sociologist, not a Christian, not a humanitarian, not a liberal, not a feminist; he is a very late Late Romantic. His brief, extraordinary reading of Lolita has the benefit of actually attending to the details of the text, though it flies in the face of the 21st century’s dominant moralistic approaches to the novel, either neoconservative or feminist:
Although the word “nymphet” was to enjoy an astonishing future, mainly in the ecumenical community of pornography, not many readers realized that in those few lines Nabokov was actually offering the key to his novel’s enigma. Lolita is a Nymph who wanders among the motels of the Midwest, an “immortal daemon disguised as a female child” in a world where the nymphóleptoi will, like Humbert Humbert, have to choose between being though of as criminals or psychopaths.
A bitter pill, no doubt. It is not hard, by the way, to think of feminist ripostes worthy of this reading, but they would necessarily have to come from the more visionary type of critic, such as Gilbert/Gubar or Kristeva; today’s mawkish Sunday-school blather about “empathy,” to say nothing of sociology, will not do it. It takes a work of the imagination to counter a work of the imagination.
With the question of politics or morality, we come to the reason for literature’s absolutization of itself, in Calasso’s account. It was necessary for literature to become absolute because technology has made it possible for the first time for society to become absolute, to extend its dominion totally over the human mind and soul:
Of the ideas that were to fashion the twentieth century in ways for the most part disastrous, one that stands out above the others, so far-reaching and indeed immense were its consequences, is the idea of the good community, where relationships between individuals are strong and a powerful solidarity is founded on common feeling. Nazi Germany was the most drastic manifestation of this idea, Soviet Russia the most long-lived and territorially vast. And the world is still full of those who will champion this idea. Why is the phenomenon so tenacious? On what does it depend? First and most crucially, as is ever the way, on a desire: many still feel that a community, any community, in the sense of a group—be it the merest criminal association—where much is held in common and where ties between individuals are meaningful, is the ideal place to live. So intense is their desire to live in such a community that the reasons for and nature of those ties hardly seem important. What matters is that they be strong and close-knit. And this when all the evidence before us should at least prompt us to inquire: might there not be something pernicious in the very idea of community, at least when it manifests itself, as has frequently been the case, in a world where technology has extended its grip over the whole planet? This is the crux of the matter: are community and technology somehow incompatible? Not in the sense that community cannot be established in a technology-driven world—we know all too well that it can—but in the sense that once established, such a community can only lead to results that are radically different from those originally intended.
What is the difference, though, between absolute society and absolute literature? Calasso argues that, in the recovery of pagan divinity, when, to quote Nietzsche, the world becomes a fable again, our total lack of certitude about the meaning of our lives caused a veil of parody to drop over all literature: everything is said, along with its opposite; the truth may be stated, but it carries its provenance with it. Absolute parody, one imagines, prevents absolute literature from swallowing us whole, as absolute society does. (Calasso is a very oblique writer, so this—this whole review, really—should be taken a provisional reconstruction of an impossibly sophisticated European argument by a mere American naïf.)
Speaking of American naïveté, this essay’s canon is rather narrow—more or less limited to the French and Germans among the moderns, as Calasso sees the Continental 19th century, the period between Hölderlin and Mallarmé, as the high period of “absolute literature,” after which even modernism was rather too insistent and brittle, protesting too much and so, I assume, entering the social trap (he complains of the manifestoes, understandably—to whom is a manifesto directed if not to the public or the state?). Ancient Greece and India are in the background, as the first discoverers of the truths the Romantics will recover and use to escape the inescapable social snare of the modern; Calasso’s deep love of Sanskrit literature is evident. Calasso allows the odd Russian, Italian, Argentine, or Irish writer into the mix, but ignores England and North America utterly; this is a shame, as a few of the original ideas he attributes to Mallarmé or Nietzsche can be found first in Wordsworth, Shelley, and Emerson (indeed, Nietzsche probably found them in Emerson). Though he does pay tribute to Henry Vaughan, who writes in a poem that he saw eternity “the other night”—a casual theophany in which Calasso finds the essence of what he follows Hölderlin in calling “Western sobriety.” On the other hand, I am baffled by the total absence of Joyce from these pages, not only because of his Greek myth motif, but also because he is the supreme artist of universal parody.
I am cheered by Calasso’s polemic against society (when I was young, being anti-social was thought a virtue among all the most interesting people); and more cheered than I have any right to be by his polemic against literary criticism in its academic or journalistic (i.e., inartistic) guises, the note on which I will end:
Only the writers are able to open up their secret laboratories for us. Capricious and elusive guides as they are, they are the only ones who know the territory well: when we read the essays of Baudelaire or Proust, of Hofmannsthal or Benn, Valéry or Auden, Brodsky or Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetayeva or Karl Kraus, Yeats or Montale, Borges or Nabokov, Manganelli, Calvino, Canetti, Kundera, we immediately sense—even though each may have hated, or ignored, or even opposed the other—that they are all talking about the same thing.
P.S. Despite seeming differences in subject matter and style, Literature and the Gods would pair very well with J.F. Martel’s Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice.
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