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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Calasso, my antipodes!

I’ve been reading Roberto Calasso’’s Literature and the God’s, and getting that antipodal feeling. So close, and so far, we stand in the invisible community, the third life.

Calasso, at the beginning of his chapter on nymphs, remarks that the “gods manifest themselves intermittently along with the ebb and flow of what Aby Warburg referred to as the mnomic wave.” Later, Calasso points to the position of the eighteenth century on that wave, ‘where the lowest point was probably a moment in eighteenth century France when, with a breezy and derisive self-assurance, the childish fables of the Greeks, the barbaric Shakespear and the sordid biblical tales were all dismissed as no more than the work of an shrewd priesthood determined to suffocate any potentially enlightened minds in the cradle.” (28) Nevermind, for a second, that Shakespeare’s barbarism was derived from Racinian classicism, which took its charisma from the sense of Greek theater given by Aristotle, or so it was thought – that theater obeys certain rules. Still, I want to tussle a bit with this point. In fact, France figures in a special way in Calasso’s book – it was even in France that, in 1802, the God’s returned, when Hölderlin, returning from Bordeau, wrote to his friend Böhlendorff: “As they tell of heros, I can say that Apollo struck me down.” (10)

To dicker with Calasso about the gods is generally a losing proposition, as no contemporary writer is so god-immersed. However, in this tale, it strikes me that Calasso is following a little too closely another tale, a brilliant one woven by Nietzsche, which reduces the gods to Apollo and Dionysus. However, that reduction, however it worked for Nietzsche and for Calasso, does not tell the story of the whole spectrum of the gods. Let me beg a place, for instance, for Hermes. Hermes in the eighteenth century.

Hermes, trickster/writer, who does not leap upon us with the dazzling masculinity of Apollo – or should I say a masculinity so fraught that it is not contained within the mere male. Hermes, on the other hand, appears from the beginning as the god who understands, above all things, the track and how to turn one. For when Hermes is born, according to the Homeric hymn, he jumps out of his mother’s belly and hurries off to steal Apollo’s cattle. Now Apollo, coming out to find his cows gone, investigated the matter, especially after he saw a bird and understood the augury – that the thief was divine. But when he found the tracks of the cows, he cried out: “Oh oh! Truly this is a great marvel that my eyes behold These are indeed the tracks of straight horned oxen, but they are turned backwards towards the flowery meadow. But these others are not the footprints of man or woman or grey wolves or bears or lions, nor do I think they are the tracks of a rough maned Centaur; whoever it be that with swift feet makes such monstrous footprints, wonderful are the tracks on this side of the way but yet more wonderful are those on that.” For Hermes, even as a child, wore the characteristically odd winged sandals.

And as Hermes invented the letter, he put in it, at the very center, the animal track – but it is a track that can be turned. This is always the writer’s first and secret trick, his bit of Houdini. While Voltaire may well have been breezily dismissive of Shakespeare, and of the myths, this was not the grinding, mechanical dismissal of a nineteenth century positivist. Voltaire, that trickseter, was preparing fires and eatthquakes of his own.

But to return to my antipodes – Calasso, while relying on the line of myths that keep coming forward in painting after painting – the while of girls who offer themselves, infinitely, to adorn Rococco landscapes and who surely lie bareassed for Boucher and mount on a swing for Watteau – seems to miss them in the fairy tale.

And yet – it is a strange fact, one that casts a secret shadow, that the moderns, in their struggle with the ancients, opened the door to the fairy tale in European literature. Right at the beginning of the eighteenth century. And surely, here, Calasso misses a trick, for isn’t this the beginning of a fairy tale?

Nymphē means both “girl ready for marriage’ and ‘spring of water’. Each meaning protects and encloses the other. To approach a Nymph is to be seized, possessed by something, to immerse oneself in an element at once soft and unstable, that may be thrilling or may equally well prove fatal.” (31) Change the joke and slip the note, remember that the tracks within the letter may lead you elsewhere. In Hermes’ enlightenment by fairy tale, what is fatal is certainly at play, and there is always a nymph: Barbe bleu, La belle et la bete, Ricdin Ricdon. But seizure, immersion, terror are the elements at play here, and the forest is still near. The woods of the New World, the woods of Normany, the woods into which, as I have been reading, the peasants of Rouen fled when, at the end of a peasant revolt led by a mythical Jean Nupieds a century before – Rouen, that city from which Fontenelle, and Pascal, both emerged – Fontenelle, whose book against the sources, On the Oracles, is balanced against his dialogues for a new generation of nymphs interested in catching l’esprit geometrique.

I think Calasso has turned a blind eye to Hermes because, at the base, he is convinced that materialism killeth, and that the cold hand of the statistical freezes history. He does not want us to further contribute to the decline of the world from the sweetness which was once inherent in it, and for this reason he has, in the end, no use for Marx. But Marx, who could read the tracks from blue book to blue book and out into the industrial wilds, is my Hermes.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

LI, perhaps you will recall the polemic that Marx had while at the Rheinische Zeitung with the Kölnische Zeitung, which led Marx to write a supplement to RZ. The editor of KZ was one Karl Heinrich Hermes. Marx seldom misses a trick and starts off with quoting Lucian's Dialogue of the Gods and referencing Hermes.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1842/07/10.htm

....

Calasso quotes the famous letter by Hölderlin to his friend Bohlendorf, where Hölderlin writes of being struck by Apollo while in the South of France. I don't want to dither with Calasso about gods either, though I don't quite think Hölderlin was announcing the "return of the gods". But while in the South of France, Hölderlin was not just struck by Apollo. He wrote a poem about it that is remarkably precise, literally. Here's a stanza.

Noch denket das mir wohl und wie
Die breiten Gipfel neiget
Der Ulmwald, über die Mühl',
Im Hofe aber wächset ein Feigenbaum.
An Feiertagen gehn
Die braunen Frauen daselbst
Auf seidnen Boden,
Zur Märzenzeit,
Wenn gleich ist Nacht und Tag,
Und über langsamen Stegen,
Von goldenen Träumen schwer,
Einwiegende Lüfte ziehen.


Die Braunen Frauen struck him too, n'est-ce pas? The mill he mentions in the poem was located in Lormont, on the other bank of the Garonne across from Bordeaux. It was a space that was a sort of cabaret, people would come there on Sundays and party and dance.

Amie

roger said...

Amie, I have to see Lormont! My own golden dreams are starting to come oddly true, lately, so who knows if this won't happen.

And you, my dear tracker, don't miss a trick or a track either. So, to continue the walk in the woods, I am writing, at the moment, about La belle et la bete, which - it turns out, on the testimony of Restif de la Bretonne, charmed Voltaire. Which is, it is said, a transformation of Apulaius' cupid and psyche story. Although what a transformation! And I'm thinking of its transformation, again, in Cocteau's film - how he takes the hint, at the end of the story, of the sister's turning into live statues - what a glorious touch! - and turns it into a vast scenario.

Anonymous said...

LI, i didn't know Voltaire was a fan of La belle et la bete or that the story was a reworking of Psyche and Eros! The third life has its surprises, that's for sure. Speaking of which, I don't mean to go on about Hölderlin, but just a reference, that leapt out at me. It so happens that the letter to Bohlendorff that Calasso quotes from about Apollo also mentions Psyche.

Schreibe doch nur mit bald. Ich brauche Deine reinen Tone. Die Psyche unter Freunden, das Entstehen des Gedankens im Gespräch und Brief ist Künstlern nötig.. Sonst haben wir keinen für uns selbst; sondern er gehöret dem heiligen Bilde, das wir bilden.

If you could just write to me soon. I need your pure tones. The Psyche among friends, the origination of thought in conversation and correspondence is necessary for artists. Otherwise we have none for ourselves; but it belongs to the holy image we create.

The syntax of "psyche among friends" is not a little strange. Adolf Beck, the first editor of Hölderlin's letters, was quite sure it was an evidence of Hölderlin's "weakening strength in linguistic expression". Benjamin would have a different take when he included it in his book of German letters.

One will have noticed I hope that Hölderlin writes the word Psyche. He could have translated it, but doesn't. Community, communication, friendship go by the way of the foreign. Which relates to what you said at the beginning of your post about the antipodal feeling, so far so close.

Amie

Anonymous said...

LI, i didn't know Voltaire was a fan of La belle et la bete or that the story was a reworking of Psyche and Eros! The third life has its surprises, that's for sure. Speaking of which, I don't mean to go on about Hölderlin, but just a reference, that leapt out at me. It so happens that the letter to Bohlendorff that Calasso quotes from about Apollo also mentions Psyche.

Schreibe doch nur mit bald. Ich brauche Deine reinen Tone. Die Psyche unter Freunden, das Entstehen des Gedankens im Gespräch und Brief ist Künstlern nötig.. Sonst haben wir keinen für uns selbst; sondern er gehöret dem heiligen Bilde, das wir bilden.

If you could just write to me soon. I need your pure tones. The Psyche among friends, the origination of thought in conversation and correspondence is necessary for artists. Otherwise we have none for ourselves; but it belongs to the holy image we create.

The syntax of "psyche among friends" is not a little strange. Adolf Beck, the first editor of Hölderlin's letters, was quite sure it was an evidence of Hölderlin's "weakening strength in linguistic expression". Benjamin would have a different take when he included it in his book of German letters.

One will have noticed I hope that Hölderlin writes the word Psyche. He could have translated it, but doesn't. Community, communication, friendship go by the way of the foreign. Which relates to what you said at the beginning of your post about the antipodal feeling, so far so close.

Amie

roger said...

Amie, you are full of amazements, as always.
I've been thinking about the difference between Le Prince Beaumont's La Belle et la Bete and Cocteau's. Beaumont has some touches that are incredible. The long sigh that the Bete releases every time that he asks his question. But Cocteau - I'm always amazed how Cocteau, such a faker in his life, could make those movies. The gods are capricious! Still, that the monster violates the space of Belle's room - something that would be impossible in Beaumont's version - is, somehow, both vulgarizing and right. And the glorious scene where la bete drinks from Belle's hands!

As Holderlin is going back to Germany, of course, the tales were moving in that direction too, along the roads, in the repertoire of the revolution's refugees. Which is where the Grimm Brother's obviously picked up a version of the tale.

Anonymous said...

LI, sorry for my previous comment showing up twice somehow. I don't much care for Cocteau either, and also think he was a poser and faker in large part, but then he made those amazing incredible films. Hell, he was the cinematographer for Genet's Chant d'Amour. By the way, Henri Alekan who was the cinematographer for La Belle et la bête, was also the one for Der Himmel über Berlin.

I'm not going to comment on the film, except to agree that yes that moment where la bête drinks out of la belle's hands is a glorious moment and all the more so for its simplicity. And it's not in the tale.

I just want to mention one detail from the tale. When the merchant goes bankrupt and the family leaves the city for the country, la belle gets up at four in the morning to work, and after she has worked she reads, plays the clavecin, sings while weaving.

La Belle se levait à quatre heures du matin, et se dépêchait de nettoyer la maison et d’apprêter à dîner pour la famille. Elle eut d’abord beaucoup de peine, car elle n’était pas accoutumée à travailler comme une servante ; mais au bout de deux mois elle devint plus forte, et la fatigue lui donna une santé parfaite. Quand elle avait fait son ouvrage, elle lisait, elle jouait du clavecin, ou bien elle chantait en filant.

Please note the weaving and singing.

When Belle is at the Château, she is amazed to find a room that bears the inscription: APPARTEMENT DE LA BELLE. She opens the door and is even more stuck buy the all the magnificence, which includes books, music, a clavecin, even books about music. And she thinks, bête doesn't want me to be bored.

Mais elle fut bien surprise de trouver une porte sur laquelle il y avait écrit : APPARTEMENT DE LA BELLE. Elle ouvrit cette porte avec précipitation, et elle fut éblouie de la magnificence qui y régnait ; mais ce qui frappa le plus sa vue fut une grande bibliothèque, un clavecin, et plusieurs livres de musique. On ne veut pas que je m’ennuie, dit-elle tout bas.

Has one noticed something different or missing between the two places. Music and books are there in both. But not weaving and singing.

Now there's a trail.

Amie

roger said...

Oh, Amie! You are such a clever cuss that I have to get in before you - I was gonna point out the reading bit myself! But I had a horrible day with this computer, and am feeling like I am being sucked, bodily, into this thing, so I didn't have a chance to do copy out my notes.

But, on the other hand, I am rather glad. Perhaps I should just skip the next post! It is done! Except for commenting on le prince de Beaumont's place as a female writer in the 18th century, qui fait un espece de catechismes pour des jeunes filles, I believe Voltaire dismissively said.

In this article, Genevieve Artigas-Menant, who has written Marie Le Prince de Beaumont's biography, writes about the magazine she put out in London, which she introduced with an essay in which she wrote, with fairy tale like assuranc, that the "author-woman" loves better to compose a novel, including the preface and even the dedicatory letter, than to place a ribbon, adding: " it is my decided incapacity for that sublime science which forced me to search for less elevated occupations."

Belle belle belle.

In this article

roger said...

Hey, I forgot to link the article!
http://www.persee.fr - look up vulgarisation scientifique dans le Nouveau Magasin francais - the link to this is way to long.