Roberto Calasso: The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

01.01.1999
As a child I used to read a lot. At night when I should have gone to sleep I was always reading under my blanket. My parents used to check on me whether I had really gone to sleep or was still reading by looking for the light of my reading lamp underneath the door to my room. And so I covered myself with my blanket and read sentence by sentence with my torch.

I must have been 9 or 10 years old when my mother gave me a big encyclopedia of Greek mythology. I absolutely loved it. All those stories about Ulysses, Perseus, The Trojan war, Ariadne, Atlas, Athens and all the other gods and heroes, I just couldn’t get enough of it. And so I swallowed the book from A to Z.

At about the same time, having read about all the children’s books I could find, and driving my parents and grandparents crazy because a few days after they’d given me a book I would have finished it, I started reading Ian Fleming’s James Bond pockets. It was thus that in my dreams I saw myself as a cross between Ulysses, my favorite character in Greek mythology, and James Bond.

I bought The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony the year the Dutch translation was published, in 1991, following a review in my newspaper. I was hooked from the first page. This was the book I’d been waiting for. I've since read it twice from beginning to end.

In The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony Roberto Calasso retells the myths of ancient Greece. As Calasso writes, every myth and every story refers to another myth or to the same myth but in a different version.

"No sooner have you grabbed hold of it than myth opens out into a fan of a thousand segments. Here the variant is the origin. Everything that happens, 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." (p.147/148).

The only way according to Roberto Calasso to penetrate deeper into the mythological universe is to retell the stories from beginning to end. And this Roberto Calasso does magnificently. What emerges from all these stories is a picture, but each time you look closer you realize that what you see is not what you thought you saw.

The book opens with the story of Europa’s kidnapping by a bull, told several times over, and each time one question recurs, "But how did it all begin?". The abduction of Europa by Zeus sets the tone for the rest of the book, for what follows is a seemingly endless array of rape, betrayal, murder and adultery.

The abduction of Europa was also the one capture by Zeus that would have the most far-reaching consequences. Europa’s brother Cadmus would follow his sister and later found Thebe, Europa’s son Minos would become king of Crete and build the labyrinth that would become the home of the Minotaure, which would be killed by Theseus, helped by Ariadne, Europa’s granddaughter. Cadmus would also give the Greeks a seemingly innocent but precious gift: the alphabet.

Out of the myriad of Greek myths Roberto Calasso has created a caleidoscope of stories which at first appears disorienting but then totally absorbs you. The only way to get to know the landscape is to lose yourself and get lost...

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony does not tell all Greek myths. I myself would have loved to read Roberto Calasso’s account of Orpheus and Eurydice and of Prometheus and Perseus and... But The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is the greatest encouragement to reread those myths yourself and recreate them in all their variations from the different sources that come to us. Not only books, but also operas, architecture, novels and ballets. The myths and the gods are not dead. They continue to live on in us.

Some of my favorite passages:

"The mythical 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 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". p.281

"Behind what the Greeks called heídolon, which is at once the idol, the statue, the simulacrum, the phantom, lies the mental image. This fanciful and insubstantial creature imitates the world and at the same time subjects it to a frenzy of different combinations, confounding its forms in inexhaustible proliferation. It emanates a prodigious strength, our awe in the face of what we see in the invisible. It has all the features of the arbitrary, of what is born in the dark, from formlessness, the way our world was perhaps once born.

But this time the chaos is the vast shadowy canvas that lies behind our eyes and on which phosphenic patterns constantly merge and fade. Such constant formation of images occurs in each one of us in every instant. But these are not the only peculiarities of the phenomenon. When the phantom, the mental image, takes over our minds, when it begins to join with other similar or alien figures, then little by little it fills the whole space of the mind in an ever more detailed and ever richer concatenation. What initially presented itself as the prodigy of appearance, cut off from everything, is now linked, from one phantom to another, to everything." p.133

"The Greeks were drawn to enigmas. But what is an enigma? A mysterious formulation, you could say. Yet that wouldn't be enough to define an enigma. The other thing you have to say is that the answer to an enigma is likewise mysterious. This is what distinguishes the enigma from the problem, although at the beginning of Greek civilization the two categories were confused. When a problem is resolved, both question and answer dissolve, are absorbed into a mechanical formula. Climbing a wall is a problem, until you lean a ladder against it. Afterward, you have neither problem nor solution, just a wall and a ladder. This is not so for the enigma.

Take the most famous one of all, the Sphinx's: "What is the being that has but one voice and yet sometimes has two feet, sometimes three, sometimes four, and is progressively weaker the more feet it has?" Oedipus answers: "Man". But if we think about that answer, we realize that precisely the fact that "man" is the solution to such an enigma suggests the enigmatic nature of man. What is this incongruous being that goes from the animal condition of the quadruped through to the prosthesis (the old man’s stick), all the time preserving a single voice? The solution to the enigma is thus itself an enigma, and a more difficult one.

Resolving an enigma means shifting it to a higher level, as the first drops away. The Sphinx hints at the indecipherable nature of man, this elusive, multiform being whose definition cannot be otherwise than elusive and multiform. Oedipus was drawn to the Sphinx, and he resolved the Sphinx’s enigma, but only to become an enigma himself. Thus anthropologists were drawn to Oedipus, and are still there measuring themselves against him, wondering about him." p.343-344

"One day, in Ithaca, when he was pretending to be crazy so as not to go to Troy, Odysseus saw Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Palamedes heading toward him across the fields. He went on plowing. He tossed handfuls of salt in the furrows, and he yoked together an ox and an ass. He tossed the sea, which knows no harvest, into the hollow of the fertile earth; he who one day, after seeing the whole world, would take his salty skin to a place where people knew nothing of the sea.

But it was too early for Odysseus to appreciate that he was representing his own life in this gesture. On his head, to add insolence to pretense, he wore a pointed hat, the kind Cabirian initiates wore. Only another initiate would be able to understand his game. Palamedes watched him. Then, quite suddenly, he snatched the baby Telemachus from Penelope’s arms and threw him down on the ground in front of the plow. Ar which Odysseus stopped. He was beaten. Palamedes had forced him up against the limits of simulation.

There was nothing Odysseus loathed more, even if he knew that this wasn’t quite how it was, for simulation must know no limits for him. That was his secret, that was what separated him from the vigorous simplemindedness of all the Ajaxes. Simulation meant gliding down from high above, commanding everything with one’s eye, without ever being commanded by another eye even higher up. Palamedes was that other eye.

Odysseus said nothing and followed him. Locked away in his heart, he nursed a hatred no enemy would ever rouse. They were to fight side by side for years. Compared with Odysseus, ‘Palamedes was mentally quicker, but not so good at helping himself.’ His inventions enchanted the soldiers but didn’t achieve anything. They obeyed the power of abstraction and at the same time mimicked the course of nature. Palamedes knew that. He dedicated the dice he had invented to Tyche, in her sanctuary in Argos. Tyche was not a popular divinity at the time. But one day everybody would recognize her as the image that most closely resembles nature.

When life strips off all her finery, what remains is fortune. Everything that happens is a constant collision of tossed dice. One day this image became fixed in people’s minds, never to be replaced. But Palamedes was the only one of those beneath the walls of Troy who saw this truth in all its starkness. That was why Odysseus hated him, that was why he felt that this man was too close to himself for comfort. His own intelligence needed solitude and distance from others. He could not accept s complicity he hadn’t sought.

When the Achaeans needed to find Achilles to take him to Troy, Odysseus immediately thought of the trick Palamedes had used to unmask him. He went to Scyros disguised as a merchant and got himself taken to the women’s quarters. He had brought a crate of precious goods, and now he laid them out on the floor. Immediately, girlish hands were fingering the fabrics, searching among the jewelry. But there was a shield and a spear in the heap too. And a redhead grabbed them at once, as if she’d spent her whole life slinging such things over her shoulder. It was Achilles. Odysses knew then that he had won the war, using Palamedes’ trick. With Achilles on their side, Troy had already fallen. Now all he had to do was take his revenge on Palamedes.

He mulled over it for years. And in the end he chose the trick that was at once the most cowardly, the most sure to work, and the most philosophical. In unmasking Odysseus’s fake madness, Palamedes had demonstrated the existence of a truth behind the simulation. A truth of gesture. Odysseus responded by demonstrating the opposite: that the truest of gestures could be judged a perfect pretense.

He took a Trojan prisoner and gave him a forged letter, ostensibly from Priam, to take to Palamedes. The letter spoke of gold in return for an understanding between them. Then he killed the Trojan prisoner and contrived to have the letter discovered as if by chance. In the meantime he had hidden some gold under Palamedes’ bed. When the letter was discovered and Palamedes declared himself innocent, Odysseus suggested people look under his bed. Upon which Palamedes was unanimously condemned by his companions, and they stoned him. Every one of the dice players threw a stone at hime, and likewise the Achaean leaders, and Odysseus, and Agamemnon.

The only thing Palamedes said before dying was that he mourned the passing of the truth, which had died before him. Those words were his answer to Odysseus.

Palamedes’ enemy had shown that a total agreement between the world and the mind could be falseness itself. All had been sincerely indignant in their condemnation of Palamedes. All had seen the gold under his bed. The lie was more consistent than the truth. Odysseus could feel alone again at last, in the rapturous gliding of his intelligence.” p. 352-354.

Category: Books