What are we to God, and what is God to us?

Hardly questions that men considered serious naturally turn their minds to these days. Most intellectuals got past such matters long ago, and treat them with derision, even hostility. Anti-abortion Christians and Jew-crazed fellahin alike are loathed as uncivilized; so-called decent liberal politics is stripped of any attachment to the supernatural. Social and political concerns strictly of this world consume the intelligentsia.

Roberto Calasso (born 1941), the Italian cultural critic and head of the Adelphi publishing house in Milan, has defied the prevailing trend, although he tends to write not of God but of the gods—making him at once more ancient and more modern than those who address a single deity. However, while he is no polytheistic true believer, neither is he a disinterested antiquarian scholar of comparative religion. For him, the gods continue to live in literature. Reading provides his approach to the sacred—the only approach that remains, to his mind. Religious orthodoxies seem to hold no appeal for him; in that respect, he appears to share the common modern irreligion that is even more prevalent in Europe than in the United States. But, at his best, Calasso is a writer of sufficient force and grace not only to summon the gods, but to make them come.

A brief biographical note to Calasso’s latest book describes the publication as “the sixth panel” of “a work in progress.” Calasso has been laboring at this project for 25 years, and his work to date, with allowances made for inevitable lapses, constitutes a major critical accomplishment.

The best book of his, the second in the series and a surprise international bestseller, is The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1988), a beautiful narration of Greek myths with penetrating commentary. His understanding of the Greek soul before philosophers undertook to define it cuts to the cruel and splendid heart of the matter. Homer’s Achilles was the type of all humanity.

The aesthetic justification of existence [was] the tacit premise of life in Greece under the Olympians. Perfection of the outward appearance was indissolubly linked to the acceptance of a life without redemption, without salvation, without hope of repetition, circumscribed by the precarious wonder of its brief apparition.

Achilles was born of a goddess, but the gods granted him only a fleeting span on earth, both brutal and glorious. No Greek hero could hope for better, though his lot seems hard and terrible to modern men accustomed to relatively long and comfortable lives. The Olympians demanded far more of their human creatures than we tend to demand of ourselves. The life of a 21st-century soldier, in its rigor and peril, is the anomaly in our time; the life of a Greek warrior was the characteristic one in that ancient context. Calasso honors the strength of will that allowed the Greeks to submit heroically to a divine will incomparably stronger than their own. Such submission was the noblest assertion of human greatness. The afterlife was all murk and torpor, but until the hour of his death arrived, a man could resemble a god.

The next book in the series is Ka (1996), which sets out to do for the Hindu myths what Cadmus and Harmony did for the Greek. Ka means “Who?” in Sanskrit, and is the secret name of Prajapati, the Progenitor, the god from whom all the other gods issue. He is faceless, indistinct, indescribable. In the tales men told of the gods, Prajapati would become Brahma, who was the god of mind alone until his breast opened and a beautiful daughter was born. His purely reasonable sons, conceived of his solitary mind, disapproved of their father’s desire for Satarupa, but when she and Brahma touched fingertips, the world was transformed:

Brahma asked Satarupa to lie down on a lotus petal. Then he lay beside her. Slowly the petal closed around them. There they stayed, for a hundred years of the gods, loving each other the way common people do. Thus they conceived Manu, who founded the society of men.

The creative force of sensuality as against that of unabetted intelligence is a key Calasso theme. Unlike the erotic ideal of Greek philosophy—which Plato describes as friends’ thinking the same sublime thought at the same time—Hindu erotic perfection is the passionate entanglement of bodies overwhelmed by desire. The world here is too rich to be reduced to ideas.

In Tiepolo Pink (2006)—the title alludes to a chromatic effusion of Proust’s—Calasso turns to an 18th-century Venetian painter, Giambattista Tiepolo, who is poised between ancient and modern. Among the modern features Calasso has in mind is “the variegated image of equivocal beauty” that Charles Baudelaire would rhapsodize in his contemporary, Constantin Guys: “The Painter of Modern Life,” according to Baudelaire, must master the art of portraying courtesans, and even their less exclusive fellow professionals. A much finer artist than Guys, and bound by the taste of his time to make a career of divinities, Tiepolo brought a louche, proto-modern touch to the goddesses he depicted: “Tiepolo’s goddesses belong to the demimonde of the heavens—and this takes away none of their splendor.” After all, the Greek sculptor Praxiteles reputedly modeled his nonpareil Aphrodite of Cnidos on the prostitute Cratina, for whom the lovelorn artist was mad.

So Tiepolo consummated the European artistic tradition that incorporated every conceivable being: “And it was the sky of Europe—the only sky capable of embracing, with impartial benevolence, all images, of gods and men, saints and Nymphs, Olympus and Bethlehem. Scepsis and mysticism: Tiepolo welcomed all .  .  .” Already, however, skepticism was driving out the mystical—and in the name of the earth’s new master, who had recently discovered how eminently rational he could be.

The advancement of learning, to use Francis Bacon’s 17th-century phrase, foretold the eclipse of the gods, and of God: As Calasso writes in Tiepolo Pink, “every kind of humanism is unsuited to grasp the divine, precisely because of its bias in favor of the human.” Yet in K. (2002), his study of Franz Kafka, Calasso rejects the idea that the sacred has simply been dissolved “by some outside agent, by the light of the Enlightenment.” Rather, religion has been absorbed by the “self-sufficient” behemoth that is “content to be described as society.” And in Literature and the Gods (2001)—not one of his six panels, but based on his Weidenfeld Lectures at Oxford, and an important element of his oeuvre—Calasso indicts modern society for this ultimate moral perversion:

The power and impact of totalitarian regimes cannot be explained unless we accept that the very notion of society has appropriated an unprecedented power, one previously the preserve of religion. The results were not long in coming: the liturgies in the stadiums, the positive heroes, the fecund women, the massacres. Being antisocial would become the equivalent of sinning against the Holy Ghost.

This is not entirely a novel observation, yet there is something new and subtle about it: Calasso sees totalitarianism not as an aberration but as an inevitable consequence of society’s having engulfed sacred authority. Liberal society remains in peril of barbarism as long as it forgets traditional sanctity.

La Folie Baudelaire pits the poet’s traditional Roman Catholic sense of sin, which hounded him throughout a profligate life that ended in syphilitic paresis at 46, against the popular belief in endless social progress. Baudelaire wound up having the better end of that argument, though it would take the unprecedented hecatombs of the 20th century to demonstrate how right he was—and he was dead by 1867. During his lifetime, respectable persons scorned him, as though his tortured religious sensibility were simply the spirochetes talking. Calasso takes his book’s title from an article by Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the most influential mid-19th-century French critic, that explained why Baudelaire was quite unsuitable for the august Académie française: To the pedants and politicos convinced that their pursuits were the only serious ones—and to a timid critic anxious not to compromise his respectability—someone like Baudelaire was a freak who had constructed “a bizarre pavilion, a folly, highly decorated, highly tormented, but graceful and mysterious .  .  . toward the extreme part of the Romantic Kamchatka.”

Of course, society’s freak has his own idea of what is bizarre. The French word bête means both “beast” and “foolish,” and it was one of Baudelaire’s preferred terms of abuse for the bourgeois multitude, among whom the pudding-headed King Louis Philippe was primus inter pares. The bourgeoisie believed themselves to be the most extraordinary people who had ever lived, and, to quote a Frenchman of another sort, they knew that every day, in every way, they were getting better and better.

Such extraordinary people required a top-heavy and sententious art. They wanted poetry rich with gods, the way they wanted massive silver plate on their sideboards. Writers like Alfred de Musset delivered the divine afflatus. But where the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin had genuinely felt the gods’ terrible presence—a visitation from Apollo drove him mad—in post-revolutionary France, invoking the gods was sheer mummery.

The cleverest Parisians saw through the pretense, and sneered gaily. The operetta master Jacques Offenbach and his librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy introduced a new artistic insouciance, which spread to drawing rooms and dinner parties: “ ‘a nimble spirit, stripped of commonplaces and stock sentiments,’ endowed with an ‘intentional dryness,’ elastic, scathing, intolerant of the ‘verbal sentimentalism of a previous epoch’ (as Proust was to describe it).” Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) and La Belle Hélène (The Beautiful Helen) revel in the double-edged send-up of Greek myth and contemporary politics. In the words of the once-authoritative Jules Janin, fastidious critics huffed at the desecration of “holy and glorious Antiquity”; but the public filled the seats and ate it all up.

Calasso barely mentions the two operettas in passing—a strange reticence, given his lifelong preoccupations. Siegfried Kracauer, in the classic Jacques Offenbach and the Paris of His Time (1937), provides a full and illuminating account. Calasso leaves gaping questions here: Why did the gods so suddenly become funhouse caricatures? Why did the bourgeois audience go from demanding art of magniloquent solemnity to embracing the titillating and raffish? (For it is, of course, the titillating and raffish that have come to reign supreme in modern art.)

But then Calasso scatters his powers on all manner of subjects either directly or tangentially or remotely associated with Baudelaire and his folly. Most notable are the artists Ingres, Delacroix, Manet, and Degas; Baudelaire wrote about the first two in his art criticism for the newspapers, while the latter appear in Calasso’s book as Baudelairean epigoni, exemplars of the artistic modernity that opposed itself to bourgeois modernity—of decadence versus material progress.

The highlight of Calasso’s own art criticism is his description of Ingres’s Jupiter and Thetis, in which Achilles’ mother implores the master of the universe to restore her son’s tarnished honor: “Her white breast rests on the thigh of the sovereign of the gods with the familiarity of an old lover. And her right big toe brushes that of Zeus. Neoclassical eros had never gone so far.” Here, Ingres paints gods who possess the luscious erotic weight of mortal flesh.

Yet Calasso overlooks entirely a passage from Baudelaire’s piece on the Universal Exposition of 1855 that faults Ingres for “total absence of sentiment and of supernaturalism” in his Apotheosis of Emperor Napoleon I and Joan of Arc. According to Baudelaire, Ingres’s depiction of Joan fails to avenge “this noble virgin” for the “lewdnesses of Voltaire,” the supreme rationalist and archenemy of all that is holy, who had accused the martial saint of sluttishness. And Ingres’s Napoleon appears not to be ascending into heaven, the “goal of all human aspirations and classic habitation of all great men,” but to be tumbling earthward with his chariot, “like a balloon without gas.”

One hates to say it, for Calasso is an outstanding critic and his new book does have dazzling moments, but La Folie Baudelaire represents a falling off. Too often it rehearses tired themes, misses opportunities to make telling points, passes off incoherence as learned virtuosity, and diffuses the effervescence of the author’s own extraordinary mind so that a disappointing fizzle remains. Roberto Calasso is as good as they come, and one wants more and more from him. One just wants it to be better than this.

Algis Valiunas is a writer in Florida.

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