Thursday, February 2, 2012

"The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony": Advanced-Level Greek Mythology

When you get involved with a theater festival based on Greek mythology, friends who wish to know more about Greek myths will come to you for book recommendations. I got asked about this last month and, to my chagrin, realized it had been years since I had actually read a mythology book. Sure, I had researched certain topics when it became necessary to do so (I came up with the plot of Pleiades after reading the Wikipedia entry), but I hadn't delved deeply into a volume of mythological writing.  I decided to remedy this and picked up a copy of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, by Roberto Calasso.

Calasso is an Italian author and this book came out about 20 years ago to some acclaim, winning a French prize for Best Foreign Book (meilleur livre ├ętranger).  Tim Parks' English translation also won an award.  The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is Calasso's idiosyncratic take on the corpus of Greek mythology, weaving stories together, drawing parallels, identifying motifs, discerning deeper structures, and investigating what the myths imply about Greek and Western civilization. He incorporates anecdotes from Ancient Greek history as well as from myth. The book is in twelve chapters, which might lead you to assume that each chapter focuses on one of the twelve Olympians, but Calasso's structure is far more twisty than that. Stories lead into stories in a style that one associates far more with The Arabian Nights than with the Greeks -- even though any student of Greek myths knows that, because they are the stories of an extended family, it is easy to link them together.

If I had to pick one word to describe The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, it would be "European."  It's not that the translation is clumsy.  If you examined the individual sentences, you would not know that they had been written in a foreign language. Rather, what seems foreign to an English-speaking reader is the book's content -- its structure, its thoughts, its outlook on the world.  I feel that continental Europeans have a much higher tolerance for abstract thought than Anglo-Americans do, and The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is full of abstract thoughts.

Thus, Calasso will begin with an intensely readable retelling of a myth (here, Paris' abduction of Helen):
Of all times to go away, the prince chuckled to himself, Menelaus had chosen these very days. He was gong off to Crete, for his grandfather Catreus's funeral. As he left, Menelaus, serious as ever, told Helen to look after their guest. After that, there were absolutely no other men about. Helen and the prince were each sleeping alone in the same palace. In the emptiness of the palace halls, Aphrodite assembled those archons of desire Himeros and Pothos, and the Charites too. But on the visible plane, the person who acted as pimp was Aethra. Paris gripped Helen's wrist. The Trojan's escorts loaded up her riches and the things the prince had pretended were gifts. Paris stood tall on a chariot drawn by four horses. Helen was next to him, tunic tossed back over her shoulders, offering her body half naked to the night, where nothing could be seen but Eros's dazzling torch twisting and turning in front of them. Behind the fleeing couple, another Eros was waving a torch. The two lovers and their escorts raced across the open space of red earth and scattered olive trees that led down from Sparta to the coast.
And then he will move into a much more abstract, philosophical mode, to discuss the deeper meaning of the mythological figure:
To defend herself, Helen relies on the brilliant surface, makes it throb as no other figure, however fleshy, could, since other figures have no doubles, and indeed as no idea ever could, since ideas have no pores: this is the supreme level of existence, mocking every other. The object of the dispute between Homer and Plato is the body of Helen. Both men won. When we see the goddess reproduced thousands upon thousands of times, the Platonic curse of the copy triumphs. But the goddess is a star and occupies a unique, unassailable place in the sky.
At this point I should confess that I have a low tolerance for abstract thought and a great affection for striking, specific details. I am hard pressed to care about the "Platonic curse of the copy," but I love the "tunic tossed back over her shoulders" and the "gripped wrist" and the "red earth and olive trees." (Though, note that Calasso presupposes a great deal of mythological knowledge on the part of his readers. The story of Paris and Helen may be famous, but very few people know about Himeros and Pothos, or that the "Charites" are better known as "The Three Graces.") The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony certainly made several myths come alive in my mind as never before; but at other times it would lose me, and deaden the myths again, with excessive philosophizing.

To make matters worse, this erratically organized book has no index or chapter headings.  I doubt I shall ever read this book cover-to-cover again, but it contains several interesting passages that I might like to go back and reference. But how could I, without an index? I rarely write in my books, but I finally got so frustrated that I grabbed a pen and, on the title page of each chapter, wrote down a list/outline of the topics covered therein.  Here is the start of my list for Chapter VIII, which may give you some idea of the way Calasso skips from topic to topic and mixes mythology, philosophy, and history.
  • Zeus, Metis & Athena
  • Pallas; the Palladium (statue)
  • Medusa
  • Doubles & simulacra
  • Athena's virtues; her virginity
  • Athena, Hephaestus & Erichthonius
  • Athens
  • Splendor, presence, form, aesthetics, perfection, appearance
  • Eleusis
  • The "Greek thing" -- Greek identity
  • Spartan self-sufficiency and control, unity and hatred
  • Terror maintains the social order -- A police state
I would therefore recommend The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony to advanced-level students of Greek mythology only! You will not appreciate its insights unless you are already familiar with the myths and have started to see some common themes or parallels that link them.  And because its structure is unlikely to make sense to anyone not named Roberto Calasso, it is less useful as a mythographical resource than it would be otherwise.


George in Chestnut Hill said...

Another beautifully written book of interest (complete with index and table of contents!) would be "The Greek Myths, vol. I & II" by Robert Graves, first published in 1955. Graves had his "Captain Crawley" experience in France in the First World War and wrote a memorable autobiography, "Goodbye to All That" that "Downton Abbey" followers would enjoy. Masterpiece Theater fans probably know Graves as the writer of "I, Claudius" and "Claudius the God." His chapter on "Perseus" in Volume 1 of "The Greek Myths" is good background reading for "Downton Abbey".

Marissa Skudlarek said...

Some of my fellow Olympians playwrights have recommended Graves' mythology books. Will have to check them out.