The Magazine

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.

Charles Baudelaire recounts in an 1851 essay the conversation he had with a young intellectual alight with an ardor for the pagan world -- "the true doctrines that were eclipsed, but only for an instant, by the infamous Galilean." The great god Pan, the young man declares, will be the presiding deity of the revolution that will save the world from the horrors of Christianity. The young man takes his own greatest inspiration from "a profound and benevolent look" that Juno recently gave him. Baudelaire suspects he might be mad, and a third man observes that the pagan enthusiast must have caught the eye of an actress who was playing Juno at the Hippodrome, a Parisian circus. As Calasso puts it, "By this time what had started as the most magniloquent and visionary of exchanges has become pure Offenbach." At the glance of the urbane ironist, the sublime melts like so much ice cream.

In the desire to revive the pagan world, the most repulsive monstrosity would quickly become literature's peculiar province. In the hands of the wicked Lautr amont, every piety and impiety is gutted, and we become incapable, Calasso claims, of knowing whether to laugh or to shudder. Les Chants de Maldoror (1868) recounts the misdeeds of a serial killer who makes Romantic Satanism seem like kid stuff: Maldoror and his bulldog take turns raping a young virgin, before the book's hero takes his pocket knife to the girl's vagina and removes her organs, one by one. The "original chaos of human nature" that once seemed so enticing has lost much of its innocent appeal.

The moral indecision of Lautr amont's tone, which never lets on whether the reader is to take any of this seriously, fascinates and appalls Calasso: "'When there are no gods, the phantoms reign,' Novalis had prophesied. Now one could go a step further and say: Gods and phantoms will alternate on the scene with equal rights. There is no longer a theological power capable of taking charge and putting them in order." Maldoror takes on God Himself in a series of battles, and he is strong enough to make the Creator howl in agony. Literature, which used to serve a moral purpose, now takes no direction from religion or society but "wanders about the ocean of the mind for the pure pleasure and play of the gesture."

Curiously, it is the literature thus constituted that becomes for certain modern readers the one source of salvation. Mallarm went through his own "terrible struggle with old and evil plumage" -- and his poetry is the proof that he emerged victorious from the fray: "Having discovered Nothingness I have found the Beautiful."
Dry-eyed materialism furnishes the ground for the most thrilling ecstasies of the soul:

Yes, I know, we are nothing but vain forms of matter -- yet sublime too when you think that we invented God and our own souls. So sublime, my friend! That I want to give myself this spectacle of a matter aware, yes, of what it is but throwing itself madly into the Dream that it knows it is not, singing the Soul and all those divine impressions that gather in us from earliest childhood, and proclaiming, before the Nothingness that is the truth, those glorious falsehoods!

As Calasso writes, "In Mallarm the material of poetry is brought back, with unprecedented and as yet unrepeated determination, to mental experience." When the gods have been evicted, the human mind takes over occupancy of the sacred precincts -- and every modern poet's mind, Mallarm declares, thus holds the possibility of a rhetoric and cadence uniquely his own. The literary forms that tradition had hallowed now yield to inspired improvisation.

The age of Mallarm , as Calasso formulates the central insight of his book, "was the period in which the epiphany of a multiplicity of gods went hand in hand with the overturning of established forms, a prolonged contact with the 'sacred chaos,' the emancipation of literature from all the authorities it had previously obeyed."

Every modern writer is his own authority, and the practice of absolute literature provides him with a knowledge he can get from no other source -- knowledge that he acquires in quest of the absolute, and that pays no obeisance to the petty idols of social usefulness.

Calasso sometimes sprays ideas in a fine mist rather than direct them in a concentrated fire. He includes, for example, a chapter on the significance of meter in ancient Indian texts that seems only dimly related to the rest of the book. And one is left wondering what Calasso thinks of such twentieth-century developments as the musical twanging and thumping of John Cage, or the monumental urinals of Marcel Duchamp. Surely this is art reduced to "mental experience": Its sole reason for being is to question the nature of art itself, and it provides no other interest.

Still, Calasso's Literature and the Gods is a learned, eloquent, and artful piece of work. Drawing upon little-known writings by well-known writers, making astute connections between spiritual life and artistic form, he forces us to think again what the gods were for -- what it meant when they were present, what it meant when they withdrew, and what frightening things the effort to revive them awoke in the modern soul.

Algis Valiunas is a writer in Greenacres, Florida.