I first read Roberto Calasso when Knopf published his celebrated retelling of Greek mythology in 1993, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, a book that still to this day gives me shivers when I read it. Since that time I’ve re-read the book numerous times and have used it in my literature classes twice. I’ve also been an obsessive reader of his since that first reading, and whenever a new book by Calasso is published it is a cause for celebration in my house.
Calasso is the epitome of the modern literary man. He not only writes books, but since 1999 he has directed famous Adelphi Edizioni publishing house in Milan, where he has worked since its founding in 1962. With the possible exception of his fellow Milanese neighbor, Umberto Eco, Calasso is the leading public intellectual in Italy, perhaps all of Europe. He is truly a European intellectual, a species that, sadly, does not exist in the United States.
Here is Calasso through Tim Park’s elegant translation:
“For centuries people have spoken of the Greek myths as of something to be rediscovered, reawoken. The truth is it is the myths that are still out there waiting to wake us and be seen by us, like a tree waiting to greet our newly opened eyes.” (Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, 280)
There is perhaps no other statement that lends itself more fully to Calasso’s project than the one above. Myth, be it Greek, Indian, Mesoamerican, or any other, awakens something in the human spirit that brings us closest to the divine. That art is the manifestation of the what it greatest about the human spirit is something that many of us believe and continue to believe, especially in these troubling times. But myth is just that: myth. It’s a human creation inspired by a ceaseless spirit and resilience. The human spirit aspires to be more than the flesh and bone in which it is initially housed. In The Inhuman (1992, Stanford University Press) Jean-Francois Lyotard asks the following question: “Can thought go on without a body?” Although it takes some time for Lyotard to unpack the question, the answer is (it seems to me) simple: it can. Myths, stories, go on long after we’ve turned to dust. But not only that: Calasso has shown and continues to show us that story evolves and takes on new meaning with each generation. It’s meaning does not solidify into something numbingly deadened by the pontification of so-called experts. Instead, myth is always alive within us, passing through us and moving us.
Adelphi Edizioni sits on the quiet, narrow Via S. Giovanni sul Muro, just a few hundred yards away from the Cairoli metro station and the busy and touristy Via Dante. The building that houses Adelphi is so inconspicuous that one can easily pass by without noticing. In fact, on my first day in Milan while I was walking around searching for my hotel on the Corso Magenta, just off the Via S. Giovanni sul Muro, I was about three building away, but didn’t realize it. Two days later, with the address in my head I went in search of Adelphi late in the evening. When I came upon the building in the failing light it was dark except one lighted window in the upper right hand floor. I stood for a while across the street in the doorway of a closed antique shop, feeling very much like Harry Lime. I stood there for several minutes taking a few pictures and waiting, for what I don’t know. I fantasized about meeting Calasso if he should emerge and what I might say. It was close to nine in the evening and I had read that he often worked until that time. Suddenly the lone-lighted window went dark. I waited for several minutes more and when no one emerged I figured it was the cleaning crew and continued on my way toward the Via Dante looking for a glass of wine and something to eat.
Milan is a beautiful city, with more than enough buildings and historical sites to keep the visitor occupied for days. While most people come to see the Duomo or La Scala, I made it a priority, perhaps the priority to seek out the building that houses Adelphi. I walked past it several times on my way to and from my hotel, but never managing to catch a glimpse of the man responsible for making the publishing house what it is today. No matter. I breathed in the same air and walked the same streets as Calasso, and I hope that some of his genius has attached itself to me.