Roberto Calasso-Greek Myths as of something to be rediscovered, reawaken

Frontispiece of Volume II of Antoine Court de Gebelin’s ‘Monde Primitif’.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is from Roberto Calasso’s breathtaking and mesmerizing ‘The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony’, Vintage 1993 English Edition, page 278 to 282.


‘For centuries people have spoken of the Greek Myths as of something to be rediscovered, reawoken. The truth is it is the myths that are still out there waiting to wake us and be seen by us, like a tree waiting to greet our newly opened eyes.


Myths are made up of actions that include their opposites within themselves. The hero kills the monster, but even as he does so we perceive that the opposite is also true: the monster kills the hero. The hero carries of the princess, yet even as he does, we perceive that the opposite is also true: the hero deserts the princess. How can we be sure? The variants tell us. They keep the mystical blood in circulation. But let’s imagine that all the variants of a certain myth have been lost, erased by some invisible hand. Would the myth still be the same? Here one arrives at the hairline distinction between myth and every other kind of narratives. Even without its variants, the myth includes its opposite. How do we know? The knowledge intrinsic in the novel tells us so. The novel, a narrative deprived of variants, attempts to recover them by making the single text to which it is entrusted more dense, more detailed. Thus the action of the novel tends, as though toward its paradise, to the inclusion of its opposite, something the myth possesses as of right.


The mythographer lives in a permanent state of chronological vertigo, which he pretends to want to resolve. But while on the one table he puts generation and dynasties in order, like some old butler who knows the family history better than his masters, you can be sure that on another table the muddle is getting worse and the threads ever more entangled. No mythographer has ever managed to put his material together in a consistent sequence, yet all set out to impose order. In this, they have been faithful to the myth.


The mystical gesture is a wave which, as it breaks, assumes a shape, the way dice form a number when we toss them. But, as the wave withdraws, the unvanquished complications swell in the undertow, and likewise the muddle and the disorder from which the next mythical gesture will be formed. So, myth allows of no system. Indeed, when it first came into being, system itself was no more than a flap on a god’s cloak, a minor bequest of Apollo.


The Greek myths were stories passed on with variants. The writer-whether it was Pindar or Ovid- rewrote them, in a different way each time, omitting here, adding there. But new variants had to be rare, and unobtrusive. So each writer would build up and thin out the bodies of the stories. So the myth lived on in literature.’

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