Roberto Calasso:

"The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony" (1988)

(Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
In my humble opinion, this book is about absolutely nothing. Calasso set out to a vast retelling of Greek myths: not all of them, and not a particular subset of them, just what this whimsical author felt like retelling, sometimes superficially and sometimes in minute details, sometimes verbatim and sometimes speculalively. Missing are, for example, the myths of Orpheus and Eurydice, and of Prometheus and Perseus, and of Demeter and Persephone, etc.

Calasso writes in a disorganized, convoluted manner so that the reader is constantly unsure of what is being said.

For example, "It was precisely because the Greeks had reduced the difference between gods and men to a minimum that they measured the distance still separating them with such cruel precision: an infinite, unbridgeable distance" can be both obviously true and obviously false because, within one sentence, it says something and the opposite of it.

For example, "In the long history of divinities, the inhabitants of Olympus were the first who wished to be perfect rather than powerful. Like an obsidian blade, the aesthetic for the first time cut away all ties, connections, devotions. What remained was a group of figures, isolated in the air, complete, initiated, perfect..." (page 90) means absolutely nothing.

Some statements are so ridiculously meaningless that one is embarrassed to read them: "The Greeks were drawn to enigmas." Only the Greeks? How about "all human beings of all civilizations have always been drawn to enigmas"? Instead he goes on to ramble that "Oedipus was drawn to the Sphinx, and he resolved the Sphinx's enigma, but only to become an enigma himself. Thus anthropologists were drawn to Oedipus, and are still there measuring themselves against him, wondering about him." (page 344).

Maybe he could use a little neuroscience when he writes long passages that assume how the brain works: "Behind what the Greeks called heĦdolon, which is at once the idol, the statue, the simulacrum, the phantom, lies the mental image. This fanciful and insubstantial creature imitates the world and at the same time subjects it to a frenzy of different combinations, confounding its forms in inexhaustible proliferation. It emanates a prodigious strength, our awe in the face of what we see in the invisible. It has all the features of the arbitrary, of what is born in the dark, from formlessness, the way our world was perhaps once born. But this time the chaos is the vast shadowy canvas that lies behind our eyes and on which phosphenic patterns constantly merge and fade. Such constant formation of images occurs in each one of us in every instant. But these are not the only peculiarities of the phenomenon. When the phantom, the mental image, takes over our minds, when it begins to join with other similar or alien figures, then little by little it fills the whole space of the mind in an ever more detailed and ever richer concatenation. What initially presented itself as the prodigy of appearance, cut off from everything, is now linked, from one phantom to another, to everything." (page 133).

There is virtually nothing to be learned about Greek society, philosophy or religion in this book. Calasso pretends to have learned a lot about Greek myth but he ends up sounding like those students who have memorized a page of the textbook without understanding a word of it. Ask them a simple question and, after repeating word by word what they memorized, they can only ramble on and on trying to pack as little actual meaning as possible in their sentences. He keeps spinning out bits and pieces of his rote learning, but with virtually no depth of understanding. That is why he can mix in the same chapter inputs coming from Homer, Lucian, Virgil, Ovid, Plato and Nonnos (4th century AD!), i.e. from wildly different places and ages with wildly different meanings. Calasso emphasizes that myths are fluid, that different legends often tell a different story about the same character, and he seems clueless about the fact that he is talking about stories told in different centuries by different authors.

He is unable to present a scientific study of Greek myth because, in my humble opinion, he didn't study the Greek world: readers who think this is an erudite book are being fooled by the way it is (dis)organized and (poorly) written. It is exactly the opposite of "erudite".

A frustrating reading, to say the least; but the perfect book for those who want to "pretend" to know about Greek myth without doing the due diligence of really studying it.