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Literature and the Gods

Literature and the Gods

by Roberto Calasso

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From the internationally acclaimed author of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and Ka, a stunning summation of his lifelong study of the role of the gods in the human imagination. Based on the prestigious Weidenfeld Lectures Roberto Calasso gave at Oxford in May 2000, Literature and the Gods traces the return of pagan divinities to Western


From the internationally acclaimed author of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and Ka, a stunning summation of his lifelong study of the role of the gods in the human imagination. Based on the prestigious Weidenfeld Lectures Roberto Calasso gave at Oxford in May 2000, Literature and the Gods traces the return of pagan divinities to Western literature from their first reappearance at the beginning of the modern era to their place in the literature of our own time.

Calasso sets out to uncover the divine— godly or otherwise—in specific texts, and finds it in what he calls "absolute literature." With its roots in early Vedic verse, absolute literature reached the apex of its expression during the period beginning with the German Romantics in 1798 and ending with Mallarmé's death in 1898. But Calasso also discovers the divine in the work of Valéry, Auden, Yeats, Montale, Borges, and Nabokov, and he reveals how these writers, in their own very particular ways, were articulating the same unnameable thing. Finally, he delineates the timeless, ever-mysterious laws that surround the creative act itself.

With Literature and the Gods, Roberto Calasso profoundly deepens our understanding of our literary tradition. It is, itself, a literary masterpiece.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"One way or another, the world will go on being the place of epiphanies," says literary theorist Calasso (Ka; The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony) in this impressive, weighty and succinct work based on his Weidenfeld Lectures at Oxford last year. Calasso argues that literary texts have always had a religious dimension, whether overtly (as in Homer) or covertly (as in Borges). In the modern era, pre-Christian deities, though often seen as "fugitive guests of literature," have weighed in heavily, asserts Calasso. He elucidates their none-too-obvious influence in a variety of works, both Western and non-Western, from Vedic verse ("the first example of the worship of form") and the Romantic prose of Nietzsche, to the modern poetry of Mallarm and even the postmodern prose of Nabokov. Calasso sees the 19th century as "the heroic age of absolute literature," which embodies "a knowledge that one assimilates while in search of an absolute, and that thus draws in no less than everything... unbound, freed from any... social utility." Married to certain aesthetics, specifically from German Romanticism through Symbolism, he dismisses much 20th-century poetic experimentalism "embarrassingly labeled as `modernism' or `the avant-garde' " for its "aggressive, disruptive forms." Regardless of literary preference, his gorgeous, vivid turns of phrase are a pleasure, and Parks's translation retains Calasso's grace and poise, doing justice to his lovely metaphors ("literature can become an effective stratagem for sneaking the gods out of the universal clinic and getting them back into the world, scattered across its surface where they have always dwelt"). Scholars and general readers of world literature and religion will enjoy this rich, poetic contribution to literary theory, and to poetics in particular. (Mar. 21) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Anyone who has read Ka or The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony knows that one cannot speed-read Calasso. Like all his other works, this latest by the Italian historian and publisher, based on his Weidenfeld Lectures of May 2000 at Oxford, speaks to an erudite audience. It is not for the easily daunted; to appreciate it, one must know Baudelaire, Nietzsche, H lderlin, Lautr amont, Mallarm , and several other important writers and be acquainted with Greco-Roman and Vedic myth. This is not really prose but rather edited oratory, and it comes across that way; you must listen to it more than read it. If you do and put what you hear in the context of 19th- and 20th-century European history and culture, you will understand that the ancient Gods are no longer dead but were reborn to live in our novels and poetry. Here Calasso describes how that came about. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries. James F. DeRoche, Alexandria, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A wide-ranging scholar ponders the manifestations of ancient gods in modern literature. Calasso (Ka, 1998, etc.) does not attempt to cover his topic comprehensively. He focuses instead on what he terms "absolute literature," those "most audacious and demanding" works "that leave the ancient pattern of genres and prescribed patterns far behind . . . forever abandoned in a flight toward a knowledge grounded only in itself and expanding everywhere like a cloud, cloaking every shape, overstepping every boundary." These literary epiphanies are to be found in works as various as Nabokov's Lolita, the lyrics of the German poet Hölderlein, Nietzsche's notebooks, and the essays of Mallarmé. The seven essays were originally delivered as a lecture series at Oxford University, and the effect is rather like eavesdropping on a seminar in progress: the aphorisms, connections, and fleeting allusions come thick and fast. A critic in the belles-lettres tradition, Calasso makes large statements with great authority but little substantiation, rather than engaging in sustained close reading or reconstructing literary history. Like Harold Bloom, he apparently regards individualism and innovation as the only criteria of literary value, so that every text is praised for its originality, with "suddenly," "for the first time," "an abrupt turning point," and the like peppering every chapter. Within the limitations of the approach, however, he comes up with charming observations and remarkable flashes of insight, including a fascinating discussion of Isadore Ducasse's bizarre 1869 collection of poems, Les Chants de Maldoror, "the first book written on the principle that anythingandeverything must be the object of sarcasm," uncannily anticipating both postmodern fiction and slasher movies. In the two most powerful essays, "Mallarmé in Oxford" and "Meters Are the Cattle of the Gods," magnificently detailed analyses of poetic form offer ample compensation for the sweeping pronouncements, and Calasso's delight in the textures of language and imagery pervades the text. Not an essential critical resource, but one offering many pleasures.

From the Publisher
"Roberto Calasso's survey of the renewed interest in myth demonstrates how decisive the gods' influence was on modern literature. Calasso is not only immensely learned; he is one of the most original thinkers and writers we have today." —Charles Simic

“Calasso can take your breath away.” –The New Yorker

“[A] riveting work of cultural history. . . . Learned, eloquent, and artful.” –The Weekly Standard

“Luminescent. . . . Stimulating. . . . Seduce[s] a reader in search of ideas that entertain as well as edify.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review

Product Details

Knopf Publishing Group
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5.31(w) x 7.85(h) x 0.89(d)

Read an Excerpt

Brilliant, inspired, and gloriously erudite, Literature and the Gods is the culmination of Roberto Calasso’s lifelong study of the gods in the human imagination. By uncovering the divine whisper that lies behind the best poetry and prose from across the centuries, Calasso gives us a renewed sense of the mystery and enchantment of great literature.

From the banishment of the classical divinities during the Age of Reason to their emancipation by the Romantics and their place in the literature of our own time, the history of the gods can also be read as a ciphered and splendid history of literary inspiration. Rewriting that story, Calasso carves out a sacred space for literature where the presence of the gods is discernible. His inquiry into the nature of “absolute literature” transports us to the realms of Dionysus and Orpheus, Baudelaire and Mallarmé, and prompts a lucid and impassioned defense of poetic form, even when apparently severed from any social function. Lyrical and assured, Literature and the Gods is an intensely engaging work of literary affirmation that deserves to be read alongside the masterpieces it celebrates.

Meet the Author

Roberto Calasso lives in Milan, Italy.

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