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.