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The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

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  • #73474

    I am currently reading this intriguing book by Roberto Calasso, ‘The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony’. It is a study-cum-creative retelling of the Greek Myths, with all thought of prose structure thrown to the winds. So you get a dreamlike succession of images seamlessly dissolving into one another, rather like a dream or a myth. I found the following gem about Dionysus:

    Dionysus’s phallus is more hallucinogenic than coercive. It is close to a fungus, or a parasite in nature, or to the toxic grass stuffed in the cavity of the thyrsus. It has none of the faithfulness of the farmer’s crop, it won’t stretch out in the plowed furrow where Iasion made love to Demeter, nor does it push its way up amid flourishing harvest fields, but rather in the most intractable woodland. It is a metallic tip concealed beneath innocuous green leaves. It doesn’t intoxicate to promote growth; yet, growth sustains intoxication, as the stem of a goblet holds up the wine. Dionysus is not a useful god who helps weave or knot things together, but a god who loosens and unties. The weavers are his enemies. Yet there comes a moment when the weavers will abandon their looms to dash off after him into the mountains. Dionysus is the river we hear flowing by in the distance, an incessant booming from far away; then one day it rises and floods everything, as if the normal above-water state of things, the sober delimitation of our existence, were but a brief parenthesis overwhelmed in an instant.

    Thoughts?

    #73483

    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.

    #73482
    Michael
    Keymaster

    I think you expressed it well, Nandu. The dualistic nature of creation demands the Dionysian in contrast with the Apollonian, and each depend on the other. In terms of symbology, the human psyche requires a balance of both.

    I think Hemingway would agree. lol

    But they really do depend on each other, no, as dual pairing.

    And after Stephen’s comments, I now have to buy this book!

    #73481

    Stephen, I am savouring it slowly – like vintage single malt scotch. Oh, can the man write! I hope someone does it for Indian mythology.

    Michael, you have to read it.

    I love the way he intertwines all the elements of myth – its relation to language, to rituals, to cosmogony and to history. And you won’t find the joints anywhere when one melds into the other! I found his analysis of Achilles masterly – and I am getting wonderful thoughts on how much he resembles Bheeshma of the Mahabharatha. I might write a blog post on it.

    Cheers
    Nandu.

    #73480

    Savoring it slowly is the only approach that worked for me. It’s so dreamy that I could only read so much in any one sitting without risking drifting off into dreamland myself (not because it’s so boring I fall asleep – just the opposite: Calasso’s imagery calls up so many personal and mythic associations for me, and pulls me out of linear, directed thinking, pitching me into the realm of dream and myth).

    And often I’d find I had to just sit with a compelling paragraph and let it sink in – and then re-read it and peel back more layers of the mythic onion.

    Nandu – Calasso does this again in Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India, which is his every bit as exquisite and elegant, at least to someone like myself born out side that culture. Of course, there’s no one today raised as devotees of the Olympic pantheon, whereas Hinduism is an active believe system. I’ll be curious what your perception will be (I am far from finished with it – takes a long time to read a Calasso book).

    #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:
    ————
    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.

    #73478

    Stellar review, Nandu, for a stellar work. Reading Calasso strikes me as the literary equivalent of a symphonic masterpiece.

    Cover of Cadmus & Harmony

    #73477

    What I don’t get, Nandu, is how you were able to read this entire volume so quickly! It was slow going for me, and not because the work lacked quality – in fact, quite the opposite. Sometimes I would read a paragraph, sit with it for a bit, re-read it again, find more hidden within it … and then the material is so rich and creamy that I could only digest so much in a single sitting. Took me many months to get through it

    … whereas you zipped through it in days, by comparison. What sorcery is this?

    #73476

    Thanks, Stephen! As for how I read the book so fast… well, after some time I tried to stop analysing and went ahead with the flow: had I tried to “understand” what the author had written, I guess I would have been stuck.

    It is like watching Kathakali, classical stylised drama in Kerala. If I want to understand the meanings of all the gestures and facial expressions, I would run out of the auditorium. With myth, you go with the experience, and that is what I did with this book.

    I will return to it at later dates, I am sure, to dig up more meanings.

    Cheers

    Nandu.

    #73475

    Hello Nandu,

    You posted this over a year ago (one of our earliest threads in The Conversation with a Thousand Faces forum). I know since then you have been writing stories of your own – and, with the collective tragedy currently unfolding in India, I know you don’t have much time to read, much less participate in forum discussions – but Calasso has such a profound grasp of myth, and this is a lovely book – so I thought I would add a comment to bump this thread up to the top of the queue and give new arrivals an opportunity to see it.

    I’m also curious – did you ever get a chance to read Roberto Calasso’s Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India (where he does for Hindu mythology what The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony did for Greek mythology)?

    Meanwhile, I am hoping all goes well for you and your loved ones in these difficult times . . .

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