A wide-ranging scholar ponders the manifestations of ancient gods in modern literature.
Calasso (Ka, 1998, etc.) does not attempt to cover his topic comprehensively. He focuses instead on what he terms “absolute literature,” those “most audacious and demanding” works “that leave the ancient pattern of genres and prescribed patterns far behind . . . forever abandoned in a flight toward a knowledge grounded only in itself and expanding everywhere like a cloud, cloaking every shape, overstepping every boundary.” These literary epiphanies are to be found in works as various as Nabokov’s Lolita, the lyrics of the German poet Hölderlein, Nietzsche’s notebooks, and the essays of Mallarmé. The seven essays were originally delivered as a lecture series at Oxford University, and the effect is rather like eavesdropping on a seminar in progress: the aphorisms, connections, and fleeting allusions come thick and fast. A critic in the belles-lettres tradition, Calasso makes large statements with great authority but little substantiation, rather than engaging in sustained close reading or reconstructing literary history. Like Harold Bloom, he apparently regards individualism and innovation as the only criteria of literary value, so that every text is praised for its originality, with “suddenly,” “for the first time,” “an abrupt turning point,” and the like peppering every chapter. Within the limitations of the approach, however, he comes up with charming observations and remarkable flashes of insight, including a fascinating discussion of Isadore Ducasse’s bizarre 1869 collection of poems, Les Chants de Maldoror, “the first book written on the principle that anything and everything must be the object of sarcasm,” uncannily anticipating both postmodern fiction and slasher movies. In the two most powerful essays, “Mallarmé in Oxford” and “Meters Are the Cattle of the Gods,” magnificently detailed analyses of poetic form offer ample compensation for the sweeping pronouncements, and Calasso’s delight in the textures of language and imagery pervades the text.
Not an essential critical resource, but one offering many pleasures.