Divine Inspiration: Absolute Literatre and the Soul of the Artist

Roberto Calasso’s first work translated into English, the brilliant Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, saw him marking out his territory as somewhere between the literary anthropology of Robert Graves’ classic The White Goddess and the mythology-blender of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. The Calasso of Literature and the Gods is a little closer to Goddess than Hero, as he attempts to trace through all of Western literature, from Homer to Nabokov, a phenomenon that he defines called “absolute literature.” Absolute literature is literature inspired by some sort of force of divinity; or at least that’s my best guess. Calasso never seems to feel obligated to explain much about “absolute literature.”

What Calasso did with Greek mythology in Cadmus and Harmony was a bit like what Blake did with the Bible in his poetry: breaking the old myths apart, reinterpreting them, and finding explanations for all the contradictions and holes in the different versions of the myths. While it is a great read that draws its power from a very genuine sense of awe and wonder, I don’t think anyone would mistake it for an accurate version of Greek mythology. It’s more like Calasso’s personal poetic riff on symbols established by Greek culture. Considering the number of local variations and cultural imports contained in Greek mythology, it doesn’t make much sense to treat it as a monolithic structure that can be interpreted as a coherent whole. Still, it was easier to suspend one’s disbelief when Calasso limited his conclusions to one culture and one timeframe; it makes even less sense to treat the entire literary history of Europe (and parts of Asia) as a single interpretive subject. In Cadmus and Harmony, Calasso set the rules arbitrarily, but he also played by them. In Literature and the Gods, his choices for inclusion seem too arbitrary to carry any real weight; even if one can find parallels between the Vedas, Proust, Nietzsche and Mallarme, one has to wonder how useful such an accomplishment is.

Calasso also puts forward the claim that absolute literature exists without context, connected only to other pieces of absolute literature. Not in a causal link, mind you: Calasso reveals at the end of the book they are only related by the initiating impulse in the soul of the artist. A pretty slick answer to the accusation of arbitrariness, is it not? Maybe if Calasso had spent more of the book explaining why he feels “absolute literature” is without context, and proved that point before gallivanting around the literary canon like a madman, the book would have been a sounder read.

Calasso doesn’t make it any easier for us by making an argument that pretty much just says, “Some works are divinely inspired and some aren’t.” Calasso also seems to think that spark elevating those divinely inspired works can be discovered only by a reader’s personal reaction to it (such as having his hairs stand on end), begging the question of why the hell we would need Calasso to point them out. But this is not to suggest that this is a thesis-driven sort of book. No, no and no. The sections veer wildly from one topic to another (“Incipit Parodia,” “Musings of a Serial Killer,” and “Meters Are the Cattle of the Gods” are all chapters, and their content is almost as unrelated as their headings). The only thing unifying the loose strands seems to be Calasso’s attempt to codify why he likes certain authors better than others. I don’t generally agree with H. L. Mencken’s statement that “criticism is prejudice made plausible,” but I do agree with it here. Calasso dismisses modernism, Mallarme’s prose works and other revered targets with nothing more than a wave of his pen and an assertion that they’re not inspired.

To further decrease its cost-effectiveness, the book is astonishingly short. There are 193 pages of text, but as one well acquainted with fudging font size and page margins to achieve length, I can attest that they are a short 193 pages. At 22 bucks for about 200 pages, that’s about 11 cents a page, isn’t it? On a page-by-page installment plan, I think there would be very few readers willing to pop all the coins required to finish the book.

However, having been rather hard on the man, I am going to relent a little bit. He does occasionally stumble upon an interesting insight concerning the authors he skims through, although none of these insights are given enough space to be anything more than pretty observations. His prose style is also extremely pretty, although it only occasionally comes to the fore, obscured mostly by his somewhat cloudy scholarly assertions.

The best reason to be glad we have Calasso is that he represents an antidote to the most common error on the modern lit-criticism scene: that of dissecting a text until it is nothing more than a series of textual moments made to be deconstructed, rather than a living, breathing emotional experience. In Literature and the Gods, Calasso goes too far in the opposite direction, letting himself get bowled over by the mystical alchemy that happens in good literature, but at least it’s in the opposite direction.

But a book review is really, in the end, about what you do with your money, so I’ll give you my instructions on the matter and then you can go. So, as for Literature and the Gods, smile when you pass it on a bookshelf, but don’t buy it. If it’s awe and wonder you’re looking for, check out The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, where Calasso comes by it honestly. If it’s coherent literary theory you’re looking for, bleached of interest, I hereby give you permission to sneak into any one of the English courses on campus, free of charge.

Literature and the Gods

by Roberto Calasso

translated by Tim Parks

Alfred A. Knopf

193 pp., $22