Calasso takes ancient myths about great gods and turns them into poetic, psychoanalytical texts.
Roberto Calasso and the Psychic Persistence of the Gods /
Roberto Calasso, one of the leading academic figures in critical analysis of classical myths, likes to quote a phrase of Carl Jung when talking about our tendency to relegate ancient gods to our psyche's shadows: “Ancient gods have turned into contemporary illnesses.”
Science hasn't done away with gods, but it has moved them to our subconscious where they can't integrate into daily life and are left with no choice but to manifest as pathologies. And so the repressed Eros has turned into neurosis, and Cronus, with his long, melancholy shadow, now takes the form depression.
All of Calasso's texts focus on the permanence of these gods within us. He talks about how we're destined to repeat the gestures and deeds of these gods without necessarily being conscious of what we're doing. Aphrodite possesses the woman who ties a ribbon around herself. The man who sidesteps obstacles in order to get home more quickly, doesn't just emulate Odysseus, he is Odysseus. Modernity, with its prevailing rationality has embraced the idea of control and done away with the idea of being possessed, an idea that we've come to see as a horrifying invasion of the self. But in classical antiquity being possessed was a way in which man came into contact with the divine.
Calasso explains: “The first thing I want to make clear is that it's not only artists who are possessed by these powers. They possess us all. We are made to be possessed. Second, this is a phenomenon that, paradoxically, monumental figures from Plato to Delphi saw as a central part of life. Today this phenomenon stirs fear and embarrassment and is immediately deemed a pathology. It's a radical change we've seen since Greek Antiquity.
“For the ancient Greeks, even before gods had names and complex histories, the divine was manifested in events. A Greek expression says: 'the divine is.' And this is apparent in all of our experiences. The divine isn't something that belongs only to one point in history. It belongs to the very tapestry of our lives. The difference between now and then is that we don't recognize it now.”
Aristotle, though a bastion in Western thinking, is also a radical philosopher. And he thought that our emotions were inspired by the gods. Calasso quotes Aristotle in his essay, Insanity comes from Nymphs: “Maybe happiness comes to us as it comes to nympholeptoi and theoleptoi who get drunk (enthousiazontes) with divine inspiration (epipnoia daimoniou tino).”
Calasso questions: “What modern thinker admits that it may be possession, that morbid horror, that brings us happiness?” Without using the word possession, Borges suggests it in his poem Someone:
may feel suddenly, when crossing the street
a mysterious happiness
not coming from the side of hope
but from an ancient innocence
from his own root or from some diffused god.
Left floating in the depths of our memory is the knowledge that intensity comes from “walking into a god's sphere of influence” (Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmo and Harmonia). Calasso thus builds a modern poetics of the gods.
Why not concede to the possibility that whatever assaults us when we step out onto the street on a sunny morning, or when we feel invaded by an emotion without any known reason, is an ancient god of the pantheon, still latent in the shadows of our mind?Tagged: literature, symbols, mythology, Roberto Calasso, books