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Roberto Calasso Exhibit

Roberto Calasso and the Psychic Persistence of the Gods


Calasso is the author of a work that makes poetry and psychoanalysis out of myth, pulling out thus the ancient gods from the shadows.

Roberto Calasso, one of the maximum authorities of contemporary literature on mythology, likes to quote a phrase by Carl Jung: “Those who were gods have become diseases.” This phrase talks about the metamorphic persistence of the ancient gods who are currently struggling in the psyche’s shadows; not overshadowed or forgotten by science, but displaced to the subconscious, from where, by not being integrated into daily life, they manifest as pathologies (thus, a repressed Eros becomes a neurosis, or Chronos, due to his long, melancholic shadow, becomes a depression).

All of Calasso’s work reflects on the permanence of the gods inside us; not only of the deities as archetypes, but also the gestures and feats of this potencies as a substrate, or matrix, that we repeat without having a full awareness of what we do (the woman who wears a band around her body enters in a transtemporal resonance with Aphrodite, wrapped in a garment where “we can se the Milky Way”; the man who uses a sophism to mock an obstacle and arrive home doesn’t only emulate Odysseus: he is him). Modernity and its prevailing rationality have embraced the restraint and control of self to the detriment of possession (a word we now associate to a malignant invasion). But in ancient times, possession was the a man came into contact with the divine, a feverish enthusiasm (enthousiazein, divine inspiration) or fury. Calasso explains:

The first thing I want to say is that those powers don’t only concern the artist. They concern us all. They involve the way we are made.   In second place, possession is a phenomenon which, paradoxically, during the time of the Greeks, was a central part of life according to authors as far and wide from Plato — who was an immense political and religious importance — to Delphos. Now it is a phenomenon which generally arouses a certain fear and shame, and is immediately classified within the pathology. It’s a radical change compared to the times of Ancient Greece […].  

For the ancient Greeks, even before there were individual gods with names and stories, the divine existed as an event.   A Greek expression says: the divine is the divine unknown. This fact exists in the experience of everyone. It isn’t something that just belongs to a certain moment in history. It belongs to the fabric of our lives. The true difference lies in recognizing it or not. Whether or not there is awareness of it is the point where the water divides.

We could hardly consider Aristotle as a radical or wild philosopher, but this bastion of western thinking also seems to believe there our emotions are inspired by the gods. Calasso quotes Aristotle in his essay “The madness that comes from the nymphs”:

Perhaps happiness cannot come to us in any of these forms, rather in another two — for example, as occurs with the nympholeptoi and the theoleptoi, which enter into a state of drunkenness (enthousiazontes) due to inspiration of a divine being (epipnoia daimoniou tino) or through fortune (many of them say that happiness and fortune are the same thing).

Calasso wonders: “But, happiness? Which of our modern scholars has ever dared consider possession, that terrorizing morbidness, a path towards happiness?” Without putting it in terms of possession, Borges suggests it in his poem “Someone”: “A man…may feel suddenly, when crossing the street, a mysterious happiness not coming from the side of hope but from an ancient innocence, from his own root or from some diffuse god.”

It rests in the dust of history, which still floats in the depths of our memory, something of those Greeks for whom “any increase in the intensity allowed them entry to the sphere of a god” (Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony). Certainly Calasso builds a poetics of the gods, full of tropes (one of which is hyperbole), but, why not concede the possibility that that which seizes us when we go out one sunny morning, or when we feel overwhelmed for no apparent reason, is one of the ancient gods of the pantheon, still latent in the darkness of the mind?

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