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Pagans & Moderns

The beauty and monstrosity of the ancient gods

May 28, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 35 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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EVEN IN THE DAYS THAT HOMER SINGS OF, sightings of the gods were a rarity. By the time the Trojan War got underway, Zeus had pretty much given up making earthly appearances, and it was hard for even the wisest mortals to identify the lesser gods he sent in his stead, as Odysseus complained to Athena. As Roberto Calasso, the noted Italian literary critic, puts it: "Every primordial age is one in which it is said that the gods have almost disappeared."

But Calasso's principal concern in Literature and the Gods is with the gods' reappearance during what he calls "the heroic age of absolute literature," which began in 1798 with the youthful trumpetings of the German writers Friedrich von Schlegel and Novalis and closed in 1898 with the death of the French poet St phane Mallarm . With bold imaginative leaps Calasso discerns the important but subtle connections among "the reawakening of the gods, parody, and...'absolute literature,' by which I mean literature at its most piercing, its most intolerant of any social trappings."

Calasso heads an important Italian publishing firm, but his reputation
as a critical mandarin derives from the surprising critical success -- and even more surprising commercial success -- of his 1994 study of ancient mythology, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. His latest book, an outgrowth of the Weidenfeld Lectures he delivered at Oxford last year, is a similarly riveting work of cultural history.

The gods' reemergence in modern times came after the Enlightenment had virtually done them in, most notably in France, at the hands of Voltaire and his contemporaries: "With breezy and derisive self-assurance, the childish Greek fables, the barbaric Shakespeare, and the sordid biblical tales were all summarily dismissed as no more than the work of a shrewd priesthood determined to suffocate any potentially enlightened minds in their cradles."

But the orderliness and the intelligibility the Enlightenment promised in the eighteenth century were thwarted well before the century was out -- as Schlegel, speaking for the potent new movement, let it be known in 1798: The "beautiful muddle of the imagination" and the "original chaos of human nature" find their deepest expression in the "shining tangle of the ancient gods." It's an understatement to say that Schlegel's celebration of life-giving irrationality caught on. The great Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi denounced the cult of reason that "renders all the 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, and thus is the true mother and cause of nothingness, so that the more it grows, the smaller things get."

Leopardi did maintain some skepticism about the "new mythology" into which Schlegel hoped to breathe life. But though he thought the old gods could not be revived with any genuine religious significance for modern men, he also thought that the stories about those gods could endow poetry with a magnificence that ordinary life in modern times lacked. "To be contemporary to this century," Leopardi writes, "is, or necessarily involves, not being a poet, not being poetry."

So who, then, among Schlegel's followers actually felt the religious significance of the old gods? In Calasso's view, "there is one writer of whom we may suspect that he saw the gods enargeis, in all their vividness: H lderlin." There is a fine line between mysticism and madness, and, by all accounts, Friedrich H lderlin crossed it, never quite to find his way back.

As a young poet, he was already vouchsafed a vision of marvels. Wandering through France on his way home from Bordeaux, he was assailed by a divine apparition: "As they tell of the heroes, I can say Apollo struck me down," he wrote a friend. Unlike the ancient Greeks, who joined in a common worship (Calasso quotes a splendid passage from Apollonius of Rhodes in which the Argonauts see Apollo striding across an otherwise deserted island), the modern visionary suffers a terrifyingly singular, desperately lonely sanctity. No modern man, H lderlin states, will see the gods as the Greeks saw them. The gods are found in books alone, and reading is the closest thing to an act of devotion.