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Reply To: The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

#73479

Yes, Stephen, I found out that he has done it for India too. Goes on my TBR right away!

BTW, see below my review of the book:
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What can one write about a book which defies all definition? For Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is such a book. It could be called a treatise on Greek mythology; a creative retelling of the Greek myths; and I think it has also been pigeonholed as a novel. It is all of these, and it is none of these. Whatever you call these approximately four hundred densely-packed pages of amazing prose, you can be sure of one thing: it is sometimes translucent and uplifting, sometimes opaque and frustrating: but always, always, it is irresistibly enchanting – like the Greek myths themselves.

Calasso has taken on the Herculean task of trying to capture the essence of the whole of the Greek civilisation, including its culture, its language, its philosophy and its history, in a rambling tour across time and space. In this, he has thrown his road maps to the winds. Calasso jumps from myth to myth with a suddenness resembling jump cuts in an avant-garde movie, while he talks about mythology, linguistics, local customs, and philosophy often in the same breath. It is as though Joseph Campbell is talking to you, using the techniques of William Faulkner.

To be truthful – this is not a book for the newbie. Unless you are up-to-date on your mythology, you are going to be confused (a person like me who is relatively well-read in the Greek myths, was lost many a time). However, if you are a myth junkie, this book will pull you in and hold you spellbound, though even then, it won’t be smooth sailing all the way.

The unique thing about the Greek Pantheon is that the Gods are all very near to mankind. They are just superior beings, that is all. There is absolutely no morality – the stories are full of rape, incest, sodomy, ritual mutilation, dismemberment and even necrophilia. Zeus, the supreme god, himself is the chief abductor and rapist. Throughout the book, the author stresses these themes as they are repeated across the tales, time and again; breaking and melding, splitting and reforming, as one story becomes many and many become one.

No sooner have you grabbed hold of it than myth opens out into a fan of thousand segments. Here the variant is the origin. Everything that happens this way, or that way, or this other way. And in each of these diverging stories all the others are reflected, all brush by us like folds of the same cloth. If, out of some perversity of tradition, only one version of some mythical event has come down to us, it is like a body without a shadow, and we must do our best to trace out that invisible shadow in our minds.

All the favourite gods are here – the intellectual Apollo and the passionate Dionysus; Athena, the eternal virgin and Aphrodite, lust personified; Artemis, Demeter, Persephone, Hades… all ruled over by Zeus and Hera. So also are the heroes, who by slaying monsters, assimilate them; Heracles, Theseus, Perseus, Achilles and the wily Odysseus. They play out their eternal drama in the heavens, as well as on the earth in the form of rituals. Because in Greece, the gods are always nearby.

But when something undefined and powerful shakes mind and fiber and trembles the cage of our bones, when the person who only a moment before was dull and agnostic is suddenly rocked by laughter and homicidal frenzy, or by the pangs of love, or by the hallucination of form, or finds his face streaming with tears, then the Greek realizes that he is not alone. Somebody else stands beside him, and that somebody is a god. He no longer has the calm clarity of perception he had in his mediocre state of existence. Instead, that clarity has migrated into his divine companion. A sharp profile against the sky, the god is resplendent, while the person who evoked him is left confused and overwhelmed.

The book begins with Europa being carried off by Zeus in the form of bull; in the last chapter, we find her brother Cadmus in search of her. Instead, he ends up saving Zeus from the monster Typhon – a leftover from the earth religions, before the gods of Mount Olympus took over – by the use of music to distract the monster. As a reward, Zeus promises him Harmony, the love child of Aphrodite and Ares, as wife. However, he is unable to recover Europa, and thus unable to return home as that was the condition he left his country. So Cadmus founds his own city on Thebes.

Why is Cadmus important? Because, according to legend, it was he who brought the alphabet to Greece. And Harmony’s name itself symbolises what she stands for. Therefore even when Cadmus moves out of his country with his wife, a defeated man, he can be gratified about a life well spent.

Cadmus had brought Greece “gifts of the mind”: vowels and consonants yoked together in tiny signs, “etched model of a silence that speaks” – the alphabet. With the alphabet, the Greeks would teach themselves to experience the gods in the silence of the mind, and no longer in the full and normal presence, as Cadmus himself had the day of his marriage. He thought of his routed kingdom: of daughters and grandchildren torn to pieces, tearing others to pieces, ulcerated in boiling water, run through with spits, drowned in the sea. And Thebes was a heap of rubble. But no one could erase those small letters, those fly’s feet that Cadmus the Phoenician had scattered across Greece, where the winds had brought him in his quest for Europa carried off by a bull that rose from the sea.