"Some woozy sage slumped next to you catches your eye, cueing a directionless odyssey through time and space. The following morning, while drinking your coffee, you are at loss to say whether the man—it is most often a man—had really cracked some great mystery of the mind or was just five spliffs deep"
If you are a regular user of late-night public transport, you will have most likely had an experience akin to reading Roberto Calasso’s books on myth and modern consciousness. Some woozy sage slumped next to you catches your eye, cueing a directionless odyssey through time and space. The following morning, while drinking your coffee, you are at loss to say whether the man—it is most often a man—had really cracked some great mystery of the mind or was just five spliffs deep.
In the beginning, Calasso posits, during “the time of the great raven” when “even the invisible was visible”, man was not yet a predator. Man was born prey and it was through imitating the creatures that pursued us that we became hunters and meat eaters.
The theory that man “became a predator through use of imitation, until imitation led to metamorphosis” is beguiling. As someone who spends much of my time out in the wilds with either a fishing rod or a gun, I find attractive the notion that for hunters “the animal was yet another being, neither animal nor human, hunted by beings who were neither animals nor humans”. However, it is often not always wholly clear how Calasso’s lengthy tracts, on everything from Ovid to the Argonauts, substantiate or develop these theories. But there is a joy of sorts in reading an author who appears to be writing so unashamedly for himself.
The Celestial Hunter is not entirely dull. When Calasso veers away from the relentless passages on classical mythology, marvelous detail provides the reader with much-needed respite. In Ancient Egypt for example, Calasso reports that “the unintentional killing of a cat was punishable by death” a custom which resulted in the lynching of an unfortunate Roman official. A similar fate awaited anybody who intentionally or unintentionally harmed a sacred ibis; neither creature is protected by law in modern Britain. The Celestial Hunter draws impressive, tangible links between cultural epochs, noting for example that the equivalent of the grand tour for bright young things like Democratus and Pythagoras was a trip to Egypt. Rather than “sex, lemons, and Roman ruins”, however, they discovered austere, shaven-headed priests.
Calasso makes reference to the belief that the modern religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam are bound together by a “shared silent and continual war” against the animal. In the ancient world, by contrast, many creatures were viewed with wonder and awe. “What is true for animals is true for the countryside” Calasso writes, “we begin to think about it when it is already disfigured. And so animals begin to be thought about when they are no longer visible, except as pets”.
It would be a stretch to cite The Celestial Hunter as an environmental call to arms but the Italian author, who is also head of the great Adelphi Edizioni publishing house, believes that “a book is written when there is something specific that has to be discovered. The writer doesn’t know what it is, nor where it is, but knows it has to be found”. Perhaps what really needs to be discovered is the lost ability of the ancients’ to see the divine in the wild, which would bring with it an appreciation of the 26,500 species at risk of extinction.
Calasso’s reflections on Beatrix Potter are a welcome pocket of dry ground, after the swamps of a chapter on Odysseus. But my joy turned to disappointment when it became clear that the “literary institution of one” is not quite as au fait with the likes of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle as he would have you believe. Potter’s stories were all “based on one rigid omission”, he claims. “No human was allowed to set foot in that world. Humanity had been erased and replaced by animals, in every tiny detail”. The Germans really ought to come up with a word for witnessing a scholar getting things crashingly wrong while trying to intellectualise the everyday, for a bearded, Scots horticulturalist looms large in The Tale of Peter Rabbit. In fact, Mr McGregor—who is one of a number of human characters in Potter’s oeuvre—might recognise some of his own motivations for wanting to put Peter in a pie in Calasso’s theorising. When it comes to hunting, the old boys always say it’s the easy shots you miss. One hopes that on more recherché subjects such as shamanism and Gnosticism, Calasso does actually know his onions.
The Celestial Hunter
By Roberto Calasso
Allen Lane, 464pp, £25