Why Roberto Calasso told stories of the gods

The modern world, it is said, banished stories of the gods. But can the gods be banished? Or, in banishing gods, what exactly are we banishing? What do we lose when the gods are banished? For one thing, the gods gave us great stories. Or, perhaps, one can put it the other way around as well: wherever there is a great story, you can see a trace of the gods at play, the fugitive presence of forces we do not fully understand.

Roberto Calasso, one of the most encyclopaedic, playful, lyrical and acute minds to have ever graced the world of letters, spent his lifetime telling stories with unmatched grace, narrative tension and precision. He recreated entire civilisations through retelling what we now call “mythology.” The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1988) light up the Greek gods. Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India (1998), told the story of Indian gods from the exuberant dawn of creation to the moment where even gods begin to find existence heavy. And other brilliant books on Kafka, on Baudelaire, told the story of the reappearance of the gods in the modern world.

But Calasso was not just telling stories. He was also telling a story about stories. And the big story is that we have forgotten the real stories. He knew the real mystery is not that there is an “I” who can observe the world, make it an object of knowledge and render it transparent. The real mystery is the self-awareness of this I, watching itself watch the world — the mystery of consciousness. There is, as he put it, the “gaze that perceives the world” and a gaze that “contemplates the gaze directed at the world.” It is this dual constitution of the mind, the connection between the Self (atman) and the I (aham) that we seek to banish.

From the Vedas to the Upanishads, to the Buddha, in an unbroken continuity the great mystery is the sensation of thinking. In the Vedas, the point is not just the sacrifice, it is the attention. Not for nothing Calasso reminds us in the philologically brilliant Ardor (2014) does the word “manasa” occur 116 times in the Rig Veda, but even in that most hermetic of texts that only a Calasso would dare deeply engage with — The Satapatha Brahmana — the point is not the ritual or the gesture: it is thinking the gesture even as you perform it. These stories were about the ways in which the realm of the mind and the realm of the tangible world communicate.

This is what we banished in banishing the stories about the gods. No wonder, he could write, that “ For those born in India, certain words, certain forms, certain objects may seem familiar, like an invincible atavism. But they are scattered fragments of a dream whose story has been blotted out.” When we banished the Gods, we banished consciousness; we now operate only with a simulacrum of it.

But the West also has its own story of forgetting, or rather disguising. It banished the gods, it waged a war on idolatry, and did away with sacrifice as a form of superstition. But this was only an illusion. In The Ruin of Kasch (1983), that literally discusses everything, he reminded us that by banishing the gods, all we did was replace it with the idolatory of society. It is the social that now becomes our new supernatural, that which contains everything, the mysterious force that operates upon us. Even nature becomes a thing within society. We might think this is the harbinger of liberation: after all, if everything is social, we can create and recreate it.

But this turns out to be the fatal delusion. For one thing, the social is as mysterious as the gods were; for another, this promises a world without limits. (French sociologist Émile) Durkheim’s reduction of religion to the social revealed more than he realised. Explaining everything, as modern thought does, in the name of the social, does not explain anything: it just sets up a new god in its place. Yes, the modern world liberates the individual in a certain sense, but only to reabsorb her, and make her the instrument of the social. After all, what are we if we don’t contribute to the GDP or the glory of the nation — gods that can suppress individuality.

The stories of the gods, whether of the Greeks, of the Mahabharata or of the Old Testament, were aware of sacrifice. Someone or something was always being put up as an offering. But the stories never let you forget that. In The Celestial Hunter (2016), Calasso reminds us of how humans set themselves apart from animals and became predators. He has a provocative story. In the Jewish and Islamic consumption of meat, you are never allowed to forget that the meat comes through an act of violence.

Modern industrial consumption of meat anesthetises the animals, perhaps to convince both the animals and us that there is no violence involved in this consumption. The stories of sacrifice were a form of hyperawareness of the fragility and violence by which order is often constituted, the world maintained in balance. In some ways, our modern stories or myths seek to convince us that we moderns don’t sacrifice, even as we are constantly mobilised and slaughtered for abstract causes. In telling old stories, he illuminated the new world.

The combination of playful rapture, philological precision, philosophical insight, uncanny connections and the sheer storytelling power of Calasso’s work is unmatched. He was warm, accessible, incredibly funny, as only really serious people can be. His favourite line was a sentence from Yoga Vasistha: “The world is like an impression left by the telling of a story.” Calasso always made an impression.

(Pratap Bhanu Mehta is contributing editor, The Indian Express)

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