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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.