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Reply To: The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony


Early one morning eight years ago, I was sipping coffee in the kitchen of Stephen and Robin Larsen’s farmhouse (the authors of the Campbell bio, Fire in the Mind) outside New Paltz, New York, and chatting with Rebecca Armstrong (whose parents, friends of Joe, often had him over for rollicking good times during her formative years). I mentioned that, though there were many competent scholars working and writing in the field of myth today, no authors come close to capturing the magic of myth the way Joe does.

Rebecca, with a knowing smile and a twinkle in her eye, suggested Roberto Calasso. I scribbled his name on a notepad, which ended up in a random stack of papers in my office back home, turning up months later – and finally tracked down The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, and fell in love. Though it’s labeled a novel, it’s like no other novel I’ve read. “Dreamlike” is indeed the best way to describe his writing, focused on the protean images forming and flowing – certainly captures the essence of myth for me. The early pages alone, where he riffs on bulls and gods, proved an epiphany.

The passage you share on Dionysus is an elegant example of the way he doesn’t just tell a story, but unveils the myriad associations embedded in the image that would have been bubbling beneath the surface in the minds of the hearers as well as the tellers – and he does this with such skill and attention to detail, but in a way that feels organic, bringing the myth to life in a way that a scholarly exegesis cannot. (Not to mention my awe at how his magic, his poetry, comes across so well in translation from the Italian!)

Shortly before that, I believe, I had presented a lecture, with multiple slides, on the love of Dionysus and Ariadne, at the Gaia festival. The deeper I delved into that imagery, the more I found their myth to be a bottomless well. I did my best to capture and convey a bit of the magic, but nothing I shared about Ariadne came close to Calasso, who so elegantly draws together the many conflicting accounts to embrace the paradox contained in her image:

Mythical figures live many lives, die many deaths, and in this they differ from the characters we find in novels, who can never go beyond the single gesture. But in each of these lives and deaths all the others are present, and we can hear their echo. Only when we become aware of a sudden consistency between incompatibles can we say we have crossed the threshold of myth. Abandoned in Naxos, Ariadne was shot dead by Artemis’s arrow; Dionysus ordered the killing and stood watching, motionless. Or: Ariadne hung herself in Naxos, after being left by Theseus. Or: pregnant by Theseus and shipwrecked on Naxos, she died there in childbirth. Or: Dionysus came to Ariadne in Naxos, together with his band of followers; they celebrated a divine marriage, after which she rose into the sky, where we still see her today amid the northern constellations. Or: Dionysus came to Ariadne in Naxos, after which she followed him around on his adventures, sharing his bed and fighting with his soldiers; when Dionysus attacked Perseus in the country near Argos, Ariadne went with him, armed to fight amid the ranks of the crazed Bacchants, until Perseus shook the deadly face of Medusa in front of her and Ariadne was turned to stone. And there she stayed, a stone in the field.

No other woman, or goddess, had so many deaths as Ariadne. That stone in Argos, that constellation in the sky, that hanging corpse, that death by childbirth, that girl with an arrow through her breast: Ariadne was all this.

I am so excited someone else wants to talk about Calasso! I’m curious to know what you will think of his novel Ka, where he does something similar with Hindu myth.

I envy you the joy of discovery – but only a little bit. I can pick up The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony today, open it at random to any page, and immediately discover treasures I had completely overlooked.