Summon the gods


The Roman historian, Plutarch, relates how, in the 1st century AD, during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, a passenger ship was driven by storm near to the coast of some small islands off Crete, and over the noise of the wind and the waves the passengers heard a great voice, or a chorus of voices, calling out to one Thamous the terrible announcement that "The great god Pan is dead!". When the ship reached Rome with this news there was consternation. The Emperor, as is the way of leaders at moments of public disquiet, ordered an inquiry. No plausible explanation was found of what the passengers had heard. A later scholar conjectured that the voices in the wind were those of the worshippers of Thamuz, the Syrian version of Adonis, lamenting the ritual demise of their vegetation god. That stricken cry, however, has echoed down the ages, and is heard again, no matter how faintly, when a president is assassinated, or a pop star overdoses, or some great public figure turns out not just to have clay feet, but to be made entirely of mud.

The gods have been dying for ages. By the time of the Trojan War, Roberto Calasso tells us, they were coming to earth less frequently than once they had been wont to do. For the earliest Greeks the divine was everywhere to hand. In Greek, Calasso observes, the word thΘos, "god", has no vocative case, but has mainly "a predicative function: it designates something that happens". The scholar KenΘnyi held that the distinguishing quality of the Greek world was its manner of saying of an event: "It is thΘos."

Only to the select, only to the chosen, will the gods be manifest in what the Odyssey describes as their fullness, their enargeȨs, a term which, according to Calasso, "contains the dazzle of 'white', arg≤s, but which ultimately comes to designate a pure and unquestionable 'conspicuousness'. It's the kind of 'conspicuousness' that will later be inherited by poetry, thus becoming perhaps the characteristic that distinguishes poetry from every other form."

Roberto Calasso knows a lot about the gods. In The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony he wove a vast and intricate tapestry out of Western mythology, then went on, in Ka, to do the same thing, only more so, with the Indian myths. In his attentiveness to the divine flame still burning behind the mundane realities of a fallen world he is a direct descendant of H÷lderlin and Nietzsche, of Baudelaire and MallarmΘ, of Yeats and Nabokov. In Literature and the Gods, based on the Weidenfeld Lectures delivered at Oxford last year, Calasso posits the conviction that "the gods are still among us", that although they have always been dying they have never died. He quotes from an early sonnet by Verlaine:

Vaincus, mais non domptΘs, exilΘs mais vivants

Et malgrΘ les Θdits de l'Homme et ses menaces,

Ils n'ont point abdiquΘ, crispant leurs main tenaces

Sur des tronτons de sceptre, et r⌠dent dans les vents.

(Beaten, but not tamed, exiled but alive,

Notwithstanding the edicts of man and his threats,

They have not abdicated, their stubborn hands grip

Stumps of sceptres, and they wander in the wind.)

For Calasso, Verlaine's is a "gloomy vision" in which "the enchanter gods wander like 'rapacious ghosts' in a desolate world". The time has come for them to raise their rebellion against man. What form will this divine revolt take, and where will the gods find their sanctuary? Not on Olympus, not in cult and ritual, but in . . . books. The natural condition of the gods, he declares, is "to appear in books", and "all the powers of the cult of the gods have migrated into a single, immobile and solitary act: that of reading".

Even in the computer age, when "in the delirium of love affair with the microchip" we worry for the survival of the printed word, we spend many of our waking hours reading words, and the fact that they appear on a screen rather than on a paper page is scarcely significant. Reading has always been a form of virtual reality; after all, "what could be more technologically advanced than a transformation that takes place in a totally invisible way, within the mind?"

If today our best, our only, possibility of finding the divine is through the act of reading, how must we prepare ourselves for the encounter? We must first of all, Calasso insists, unlearn the harsh lessons taught us by an age obsessed with technology and the ethics of profit. In this context, naturally, he turns to Nietzsche, the greatest cultural critic of the modern era.

Behind the progressives' mirage of a "generalized culture", Nietzsche saw only the ferocious determination of the state . . . to breed reliable employees. "The factory rules," he noted, summing up the century to come in just a few words. Whenever we claim that culture must serve some purpose, he goes on, then sovereignty passes from culture to utility: "You only need to start thinking of culture as something useful and all too soon you'll be confusing what is useful with culture. Generalized culture turns into hatred against true culture."

To look at the condition of world culture today is to realise how prescient Nietzsche was. How is this state-sanctioned philistinism to be negated, what weapon may be wielded against it? It is Calasso's wonderful effrontery to thrust before us the flaming sword of what he calls "absolute literature":

"Literature" because it is a knowledge that claims to be accessible only and exclusively by way of literary composition; "absolute" because it is a knowledge that one assimilates while in search of an absolute, and that thus draws in no less than everything; and at the same time it is something absolutum, unbound, freed from any duty or common cause, from any social utility.

It is this last quality, its total independence and autonomy, that marks off absolute literature from what had gone before. Calasso considers that the heroic age of absolute literature was in the century that began in 1798 with the appearance of the Athenaeum review founded by young German Romantics such as Schlegel and Novalis, and ended in 1898, the year MallarmΘ died. In that hundred-year span, a "hardly numerous and variously scattered sect" of literary artists rebelled against a widespread, covert and pernicious process of secularisation, what Calasso calls "the pseudomorphism between religious and social". The Enlightenment set social forces to eat into the sacred, until in the end what was left was "naked society, but invested now with all the powers inherited, or rather burgled, from religion". The 20th century would see the triumph of this process.

The theology of society severed every tie, renounced all dependence, and flaunted its distinguishing feature: the tautological, the self-advertising. 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.

In the new, secular religion, society became that "for whose sake everything is justified" and whether the pretext was race or class or, indeed, religion, "the one sufficient reason for killing your enemies was always the same: these people were harmful to society". For that "scattered sect" who would not, and will not, accept the hegemony of this new, murderous social contract, the only available sign of mutual recognition was, and is, the word "literature". Calasso names those who are for him the leading members of this consistory, that includes Proust, Hofmannsthal, Joseph Brodsky, Yeats, Montale, Karl Kraus, Nabokov and Kundera (but, surprisingly and disappointingly, not Beckett). What they have in common is that "they are all talking about the same thing", even if they cannot put a name to it.

Protected by a variety of masks, they know that the literature they're talking about is not to be recognised by its observance of any theory, but rather by a certain vibration or luminescence of the sentence (or paragraph, or page, or chapter, or whole book even). This kind of literature is a creture that is sufficient unto itself.

Such a literature is of course open to the accusation of being merely self-referential - "art for art's sake" - but "at the same time it is omnivorous", consuming and containing multitudes.

Literature and the Gods advances a rich, intricate, sometimes self-contradictory but always provocative argument with which anyone interested in literature, and with culture in general, may profitably engage (and Calasso's publisher might have paid him the common honour of hardback publication, instead of bringing out the book on the cheap, as a "paperback original"). In a mealy-mouthed time, Calasso speaks out strongly from an unfashionably high-intellectual position. What he is urging on us is nothing less than our duty to recall the gods from banishment through the medium of literature.

At the close, he describes the scene painted on an Attic cup dating back to the Peloponnese wars, in which a young man, deep in concentration, is writing on a tablet, watched by Orpheus's severed but not silenced head, while to the side the god Apollo stands, stretching out a hand toward the young man writing. Calasso sees here a metaphor for the ambiguous nature of literature, which is "never the product of a single subject. There are always at least three actors: the hand that writes, the voice that speaks, the god who watches over and compels". Between these three extremes of the force field, "the I, the Self, and the Divine", the point of view is always shifting, often without either the reader or the writer noticing. It is this very ambiguity that gives to literature its numinous power.

Apollo grasps his laurel rod, his other arm stretching out to hint at something. Is he compelling? forbidding? protecting? We will never know. But that outstretched arm . . . a motionless axis in the centre of a vortex, invests and sustains the whole scene - and all literature.

John Banville is Chief Literary Critic and Associate Literary Editor of The Irish Times