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A Writer Pursues His Subjects as a Hunter Stalks His Prey

By Roberto Calasso

By becoming hunters, Roberto Calasso asserts in “The Celestial Hunter,” mankind, originally prey not predator, separated from the rest of the animals. This in turn provoked a new anxiety. “Once he had completed the step to predation, Homo didn’t know how to deal with that new part of his nature,” Calasso writes. “He invented hunting as a nonessential, gratuitous activity. It was the first art for art’s sake.”

A writer is also a kind of hunter, Calasso reminds us: “A book is written when there is something specific that has to be discovered. The writer doesn’t know what it is, nor where it is, but knows it has to be found. The hunt then begins. The writing begins.”

“The Celestial Hunter” is the eighth of nine volumes in Calasso’s ongoing project, a modern Ennead addressing civilization, mythology, literature and the human mind. But readers who have not read, say, his international best seller “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” will find that “The Celestial Hunter” also works as a stand-alone book. Calasso, who has been described as “a literary institution of one,” circles back to the same themes, proceeding by aphorism and allegory, narrative and anecdote, gossip about Henry James, a tangent on Plotinus’ pronouns. You can dip in at any point, and be carried along as in a lively cafe conversation — that is, if your friend happens to be a polymath with seemingly all of European literature (in the original languages), as well as Vedic writings, in his head, but whose flow of associations leaves you feeling not out of your depth, but smarter and better read.

[ Read an excerpt from “The Celestial Hunter.” ]

Despite its title, much of the book is not as concerned with the hunt as it is the entangled gesture of blood sacrifice. Hunting, the killing of wild beasts, takes place in the wilderness, while sacrifice, the slaughter of domestic creatures or fellow humans, is carried out within the precincts of civilization. Sacrifice, Calasso argues, is a response to the primal guilt of taking life.

Yet perhaps the most important aspect of the sacrifice is not the killing, but the libation beforehand, the pouring out of a liquid — wine, water, honey, milk — down through the air into the ground, connecting heaven and hell. That purposeful spilling, and the fact that something spilled cannot be unspilled, denotes for Calasso the irretrievable nature of time’s arrow and time’s wound. If what a writer does is hunting, perhaps the spilled ink is the sacrificial libation.

One of the recurring themes of the book is “imitation”: Man becomes a hunter by imitating predators. Lacking the teeth and claws of those that prey upon him, he develops the “prostheses” of the javelin and the bow and arrow, acquiring the godlike ability to strike from afar. This act of substitution, his ability to make one thing stand for another, is the “bedrock” of thought, Calasso says.

(Calasso’s mankind subsumes the female under a universal “he.” There are many legendary and mythological huntresses — Artemis or Atalanta, for instance — but for Calasso they possess the “erotic aura” of the pursued, their short chitons fluttering above their knees as they run.)

“Animals do not imitate humans,” Calasso goes on to say in one of his digressions, “though it did happen, in Victorian times, when Beatrix Potter started drawing her characters.” The author enjoys making provocative statements and letting them twinkle before moving on. “There were two glorious moments in the Victorian age,” he writes, considering Potter’s bonneted and jacket-clad Peter Rabbit characters. “Darwin linked human beings to primates; Beatrix Potter distributed human behavior among a certain number of small domestic and rural animals.”

Calasso is especially good at describing the characters of myth and legend with a novelist’s omniscient authority — and the occasional zinger. “For 16 generations Zeus had intercourse with women from earth,” he writes, and “had always been attracted to the women of the house of Argus.” (Even the king of the gods, it seems, had a “type.”) When Zeus hides in a cloud to pursue a love affair, his wife, Hera, isn’t fooled: “Hera,” as Calasso puts it, “was also a skilled meteorologist.” That these stylish sentences come through with such verve in English — one is almost never aware the book is a translation from the Italian — is due in no small part to the translator, Richard Dixon.

The connection of the book’s later chapters to the celestial hunter (Orion, forever stalking through the heavens) is less clear; by the end, the book seems less about man’s transformation from hunted to hunter than about the larger topic of metamorphosis.

The chapter on Ovid, the fulcrum of the book, begins: “Ovid, at the age of 20, was a provincial boy from a respectable family seeking his fortune in Rome. He balked at the idea of entering a serious career of the kind that parents generally favor. Rhetoric inclined him not to the law, but to verse, which gushed from his lips like the prose of Monsieur Jourdain.”

The description of Ovid as an ambitious young Italian writer might easily double as a portrait of the author as a young man, who was born in Florence in 1941 and moved to Rome at 12. His father was a distinguished professor of law. This sleight of hand, whereby the author is talking about Ovid’s transformation, and possibly his own, while alluding to a Molière character, is very, well, Calasso.

If Calasso’s Ovid somehow seems like he would be at home in 20th-century Rome, so Calasso could pass as a native inhabitant of fifth-century-B.C. Athens. The golden-age Athens of Pericles recalls sun-drenched marble, open squares, but in a chapter titled “The Night of the Hermocopids,” it is shadowy and claustrophobic, a noirish place roiled with scandal and an unsolved mystery.

On the night before the ill-considered Sicilian Expedition, a military disaster that would turn the tide of the Peloponnesian War against Athens, someone — or some group — vandalizes the city’s herms. (Something between garden gnome, road sign and border marker, herms were ithyphallic plinths topped with the head of Hermes. Though commonplace, they were invested with religious significance.) Dread and paranoia quickly follows, and many young men are sent into exile or put to death. Calasso reminds us that in Athens, engaging in politics, even obliquely, is a dangerous game: Sooner or later you’ll be dragged before the law.

The book concludes with a chapter on the Eleusinian Mysteries, religious rites for the cult of Demeter and Persephone that promise some sort of eternal life. If everything in Athens concerns the public and the polis, then Eleusis, 13 miles to the east, concerns a transformation that is private and outside of politics. Citizenship in Athens is open only to freeborn Athenian males, but initiation into the Mysteries is open to men and women, slave and free, child and adult. The only requirements are to not be a murderer, and to speak Greek. Calasso, citing Seneca, writes: “The Mysteries are not something that can be owned, like a thought; they are not something that can be applied, like a formula. They are a place that offers some further thing each time people return.”

Perhaps, in that way, they are not unlike literature.

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