- James Pollock
Literature and the Gods
"'The meters are sacred power.'"
An Ecstatic Defense of "Absolute Literature"
Literature and the Gods is the Italian writer Roberto Calasso’s extraordinary defense of the autonomy of literature or, rather, of “absolute literature,” “a creature sufficient unto itself” whose telltale sign isn't theoretical but physical: literature "recognized by a certain vibration or luminescence of the sentence," "a shiver down the spine," a "horripilation," a "happiness of the hairs."
The exemplars of this literary aesthetic constitute a gloriously cosmopolitan (albeit andro- and Eurocentric) canon. Hölderlin, Baudelaire, Nabokov, Lautréamont, and Mallarmé come in for extended treatment, though Calasso also mentions, as allies, dozens of other writers from Proust and Tsvetaeva to Yeats and Calvino.
As the book’s title suggests, absolute literature is, above all, writing in which a reader may discern the presence of the gods, beings who in the modern world “manifest themselves . . . as mental events” or “epiphanies.” And whereas for Carl Jung “the gods have become diseases,” for Calasso, “literature can become an effective stratagem for sneaking the gods out of the universal clinic and getting them back into the world.”
The most exciting part of Calasso’s book for me, as a poet, is the chapter called “Meters are the Cattle of the Gods,’” named after a phrase from the Vedic Satapatha Brahmana that Calasso calls “the premise” of Vedic ritual and philosophy. To explain what this surprising metaphor means, he recounts an astonishing ancient Indian myth of poetic metre (here I switch to the Canadian spelling) that has profoundly influenced the way I think of prosody.
The story begins with Prajapati, the Progenitor “out of whom the gods themselves sprang.” (Prajapati resembles Blake’s Giant Albion, from whom emerge the four Zoas and their emanations and spectres.) Calasso, quoting from the Taittiriya Samhita, describes Prajapati conducting the primordial Vedic rite:
"Prajapati constructed the fire; it was keen-edged as a razor; terrified, the gods would not come near; then, wrapping themselves in the meters, they came near, and that is how the meters got their name. The meters are sacred power; the skin of the black antelope is the form of sacred power; he puts on shoes of antelope skin; not to be hurt, he wraps himself in meters before approaching the fire."
Since men imitate the gods, this wrapping oneself in the metres is what “any priest, any man” did in chanting the Vedic hymns. And, for Calasso, today, it is also what “consciously or otherwise, every poet, every writer does when he writes.”
The metres are thus protection against death or psychic injury in the dangerous work of approaching the sublime. But they are also a vehicle for journeying to heaven. They are a yoke (that is, a yoga, or discipline) that binds the mind and the word together while keeping them distinct: “Only thus can [the word] reach the heavens, like a female creature covered in bird feathers. And only thus can it make the return journey from heaven to earth.” In fact, the metres, these female creatures covered in bird feathers, are nothing less than life-giving gods themselves, and accordingly each Sanskrit metre has its own divine name.
The metres are always in danger, however, of becoming worn-out by their use in hymns and ceremonies. Indeed, “the strength of the meters was exhausted by the gods, because it was through the meters that the gods reached the heavens.” This is why metres require the rapture of divine inspiration to revive them; otherwise they would remain inert.
The most crucial--and to me, exciting--inference to be drawn from Calasso’s account of this Vedic myth of the metres is that prosody is itself a technique of inspiration; in fact, this, for me, is what it means to say that metre is a vehicle for approaching the gods. (I discuss this subject at length in my essay "The Art of Poetry," which you may find in my book You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada.) Certainly we could not be further from Ezra Pound’s misleading metaphor that likens metre to a mere “metronome,” a trope that was to have far-reaching effects, both creative and destructive.
There is much more to say about Calasso’s book, but this is a recommendation, not an essay, so let me break off here with a suggestion that you find a copy and read it for yourself.