(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Roberto Calasso is the author of three previous works, Rovina di Kasch (1983; The Ruin of Kasch,1994), the internationally acclaimed Nozzi di Cadmo e Armonia (1988; The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, 1993), and Ka (1996; English translation, 1998), all of which have in common a concern with the disappearance of the pagan divinities at the beginning of the Christian era, and their rediscovery, or reappearance in the modern age—not as popular objects of worship and superstition so much as vectors of literary and artistic inspiration, and as occult influences in the political arena. In all, the underlying theme of sacrifice to the gods is evident, as is Calasso’s ongoing concern with language as the matrix of myth.

Literature and the Gods combines a number of these earlier themes, especially that of language and myth, but unlike his other works displays little of Calasso’s characteristic narrative creativity.Literature and the Gods began as the prestigious Weidenfield Lectures, presented at Oxford University in May, 2000, and Calasso appears to have done little more than polish those lectures prior to publication. As a result, the style may seem dry and even pedantic to readers accustomed to the more freewheeling narrative structures of the earlier books. This foray into a more academic style of literary history and theory is distinctly postmodern in approach and may puzzle readers unversed in recent trends in European literary theory and criticism. On the other hand, it must be noted that Calasso keeps his use of theoretical jargon to a minimum and does not overwhelm readers with footnotes.

In spite of its central importance in Calasso’s study, the term “absolute literature” is not adequately defined until chapter 8, where he calls into question the traditional understanding of the word “literature” as a “pattern of genres and styles;” rather, since the eighteenth century, literature has been transformed into a kind of “knowledge grounded only in itself and expanding everywhere . . . overstepping every boundary.” It has become a “knowledge that claims to be accessible only and exclusively by way of literary composition.” It is “absolute” in the sense that it is something “absolutum, unbound, freed from any duty or common cause, from any social utility.” For those who are acquainted with the tenets of literary modernism, the latter part of this definition will sound familiar. It was one of the fundamental assumptions of the late nineteenth century avant-garde that literature should not bow before the god of “utility,” but should rather serve its own iconoclastic aesthetic purposes—as the phrase “art for art’s sake” suggested. However, in defining absolute literature as a form of knowledge, Calasso attempts to restore an understanding that was somehow lost as literary modernism was more widely assimilated. Taking his cue from Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), Calasso understands the emergence of absolute literature in quasi-religious terms as “the most radical apostasy from history and society.” The knowledge that its practitioners seek is akin to religious knowledge in the sense that they are “possessed by a sense of divinity,” one which resides in the mystery of literary form. The better part of Literature and the Gods is an attempt to peer into this occult association between form and divinity.

One of the many ironies of Calasso’s book is that literature has served not only to entomb the gods but also as the vehicle of their reawakening. When the gods of Greece and Rome withdrew from the human world into the mists of “mythology,” they found a place of refuge in literature, largely as ornamental presences. During the Middle Ages, they all but disappeared even from the arts, and it was not until the advent of German Romanticism, early in the eighteenth century, that the gods again became a presence to reckon with, tinged with an aura of the forbidden, the dangerous, the divine. Central to this development is the life and work of Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), whose poetry frequently invokes the “sacred chaos,” a term that may be understood to refer to poetry practiced as a kind of divination or ritual conjuring of a sacred and disruptive power. Among Hölderlin and his circle, “chaos” is no longer to be associated with the dissolution of form, but “seems to suggest a higher form . . . where nature and artifice mix together to be separated no more . . . .”

After Hölderlin, this absolute literature makes its way to France by way of an important transitional figure, Heinrich Heine (1797-1856). It is Heine who is the first to understand fully that, after almost two thousand years of exile, the pagan gods must return in “satanic” disguise. This intuition emerges in France in the nineteenth century as a school of literary...

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