Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso: A Review

“A life in which the gods are not invited isn’t worth living. It will be quieter, but there won’t be any stories. And you could suppose that these dangerous invitations were in fact contrived by the gods themselves, because the gods get bored with men who have no stories.” (Page 387)

If you have ever had an interest in Greek Religion as a form devotional practice, this is the single most important book you’ll ever read. Sure, classics like Homer and Hesiod are a great starting point, but Roberto Colasso is very skilled at taking the classics and telling them in way that really touches your very soul.

Originally written in Italian and published in 1988, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony has been translated to English and many other languages. It begins by retelling and reshaping the story of Europa, but doesn’t take long to ask the reoccurring question; “But how does it all begin?” The question will appear and reappear over and over in multiple forms throughout the book. The telling of another myth, either related in terms of its main characters or theme, follows the telling of each myth. Every story runs seamlessly into the next, always asking the question “But how does it all begin?” The Gods, Goddesses, Heroes and Heroines of ancient Greece are analyzed, and realized, in every way possible and always treated with the highest respect and honor. Each story is told with amazing language and images. It is a book that can easily be read multiple times, and you may learn new things each reading.

So, you ask, how does this relate to Persephone? As you might imagine, Calasso spends a great deal of time on her myth in all its forms. Chapter 7 tells many versions of her story jumping from myth to myth. Sometimes it seems as if he stops in the middle of a tale but don’t worry, he will always get back to it. Calasso weaves both Homeric and Orphic versions of the story together even as they eternally contradict one another. It is as though he is trying to make some sort of order out of them but still allows beautiful chaos permeate his telling. There are so many amazing passages about Persephone that it would be difficult to share them all, which is precisely the reason I am suggesting that you seek this book out and read it from cover to cover several times. To whet your appetite, perhaps, I share the following:

“When the earth split open and Hades’ chariot appeared, draw by four horses abreast, Kore was looking at a narcissus. She was looking at the act of looking. She was about to pick it. And, at that very moment, she herself was plucked away by the invisible toward the invisible.” (Page 209)
I love the phrase “She was looking at the act of looking”. In the same chapter, Calasso makes the comparison between Persephone’s myth and the myth of Narcissus himself, for whom the flower was named. Did she have a similar fatal flaw? Was her abduction by Hades really a dive deeper into her own self? Calasso continues:

“Some early poets suggest that Persephone felt a ‘fatal desire’ to be carried off, that she formed a ‘love pact’ with the king of the night, that she shamelessly and willingly exposed herself to the contagion of Hades. Kore saw herself in Hades pupil. She recognized, in the eye observing herself, the eye of an invisible other. She recognized that she belonged to that other. At that moment she crossed the threshold she had been about to cross while looking at the narcissus.” (Pages 209-210)
In his poetic piece by piece reconstruction of the myth of Persephone, Calasso gives her autonomy over her own fate, her own destiny, and her own future. Hades seems to be just a prop in her one-woman play. He doesn’t stop there, though. He continues to tell her story investigating it over and over again beneath different microscopes. The last story recounted in the chapter is a part of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, probably the most well known version of Persephone’s story. He masterfully tells the story of her reunion with her mother, Demeter, and how she comes to spend her time split between, essentially, this word and the next.

I could not recommend a book more than this one, which is why I chose it for my first blogging book review. I have found it inspirational and devotional. It isn’t a reference book and it isn’t indexed so you can’t pull it off the shelf and turn to page to learn about any particular god or myth. It is a continuous interwoven story, like all of human history, which is worth reading from cover to cover. And you will ask your self repeatedly, “but how did it all begin”. Calasso does, after a fashion, answer just that very question by the end of the book.

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