I have rarely been impressed with a book like Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. It bridges philosophy, culture and narrative offering interpretations for the function of myth and deity to the Greeks and by implication a reflection on the roots of Western civilization. This is so thick in ideas and pleasant to read that I have been rationing reading it for months. I cannot do this work justice so append a couple of quotes to give the flavour of the text.
“It is part of the hero’s civilizing work to suppress himself, because the hero is monstrous. Immediately after the monsters, die the heroes.” (p.70)
On a Socratic reflection on belief and myths “we enter the mythical when we enter the realm of risk, and myth is the enchantment we generate in ourselves at such moments. More than a belief, it is a magical bond that tightens around us. It is a spell the soul casts on itself” (p.278)
On Oedipus and the sub-conscious “From then on the lucidity we associate with consciousness is turned inside out in a way that can only bode ill. This is the monster’s revenge. The monster can pardon the hero who has killed him. But he will never pardon the hero who would not deign to touch him.” (p.345)
It is not strictly necessary to have read the Homeric poems or Hesiod but it would help in making associations among the dramatis personae. The opening pages with the multiple different versions of the abduction of Europa are somewhat disorienting. But the power and erudition of the narrative soon leads the reader to a new multi-dimensional and richly textured reflection. This does not mean one has to agree with Calasso. I am obviously overwhelmed with this book, while at the same time cannot help reflecting on the authors’ (and our collective) assumption of superiority when considering these myths. We recognise these as tools for dealing with reality, while their original creators-poets (ποιητές) did not. Therein lies a certain fallacy for a presumption of comprehension.