Idols, Part I. The Marriage of Pygmalion and Baudrillard

Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is a book that’s genuinely profound in parts.

Calasso, an Italian author described as a ‘one man publishing house’ has written books about everything from the world of Kafka to Indian mythology to the rise of the modern nation state. In Cadmus and Harmony, published in 1988, he gave Greek mythology a web of previously unconsidered connections – taking the figures and tropes many are familiar with and connecting them in unusual ways. At times, Calasso links the myth to real history – the lifestyles of the early palaces, the lives of the philosophers and their writings – but most of the time the book is an inspection of the mindset of ancient Greece.

It’s a more abstract, more nebulous exploration of the ancient Hellenic mentality, just like The Great Cat Massacre I already talked about.

Many people, when describing myths to each other, like to give some background to the purpose of the myth. They use the natural explanation – that is to say, the explanation of nature. So, Mt Etna erupts because in time forgotten, Zeus trapped the monstrous Typhon underneath it. Floods are a result of Poseidon’s rage. If you’re unlucky in love, it’s because Eros dislikes you. And so on and so on.

Rarely do they mention that language informs most of this outlook, and for example, the Greeks never used to have a name for the colour blue. They had no concept of ‘blue.’ Hence, Homer’s frequent reference to the ‘wine-dark’ sea in the Odyssey. 

Explanations and definitions of myth so rarely go past the most obvious and natural examples that Calasso’s take on things is really refreshing. He writes in an odd, disjointed and not-quite-short-enough-to-be-aphoristic style that seems odd and pointless at first, but as more is revealed the substance of the work kind of coalesces. You’re not really done understanding what Calasso has to say until the final page.

In Cadmus and Harmony, Apollo and Dionysus are enemies; they represent opposites. Helen is a symbol of duality, and she is also obviously a simulacrum; Homer and Plato are engaged in a kind of battle to keep the idea of uniqueness sovereign, or to produce hundreds of copies, as Plato teaches hundreds of young disciples. Helen’s eidolon, her perfect copy that remained in Troy to sustain the war, is the subject of a very long and very confusing paragraph that recalls Baudrillard’s idea of the simulacrum:

‘Behind what the Greeks call eidolon, which is at once the idol, the statue, the simulacrum, the phantom, lies the mental image. This fanciful and insubstantial creature imitates the world and at the same time subjects it to a frenzy of different combinations, confounding its forms in inexhaustible proliferation…it has all the features of the arbitrary, of what is formless, born in the dark, the way our world was perhaps once born. But this time the chaos is in the vast shadowy canvas that lies behind our eyes and on which phosphenic patterns constantly surge and fade. This occurs in us every instant. But…when the phantom takes over our minds, when it begins to join with other similar alien figures, it begins to fill the whole space of the mind in an ever more detailed concentration. What initially presented itself as the prodigy of appearance, cut off from everything, is now linked, from one phantom to another, to everything.

There’s one thing that Calasso doesn’t cover, though, at least beyond a few lines; the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea.

The myth of Pygmalion and Galatea has always interested me. A masterful sculptor, Pygmalion, constructs a statue of a woman and falls in love with it. At a festival to Aphrodite, he wishes for a partner exactly like the statue, and returns home to find that it has come to life.

Apart from being the progenitor for the concept of the ‘waifu’ so upheld by the more unfortunate members of our modern society, proving once more that the Greeks and Romans had already thought of everything before we ever could, the story of Pygmalion raises some points.

Baudrillard, in his 1981 essay Simulacra and Simulation, argued that modern society had replaced all substance with symbols and signifiers instead. These ‘simulacra’ are aspects of culture, television, film, writing and so on, that inform our worldview.

He divided the process of this replacement into four stages. The sign is made, it represents reality. The sign then becomes an unfaithful copy of reality, and we know that it is an unfaithful copy – a false representation. On the third stage, Pygmalion and Galatea sit and laugh – now there is a copy with no original.

The fourth stage is what Calasso wrote about in the passage I copied out above. The simulacra multiply and interact only with each other to fill our minds, essentially; to replace reality with a collection of signs and symbols that relate only to each other. The culture drops all pretense of reality, and only interacts with other aspects of itself – other symbols. Any relation to the human experience is gone.

What I’m saying is the Greeks had already figured out Baudrillard, thanks to their conception of the eidolon and how it related to Helen and Galatea. Helen was stuck on the first level, meaning she had a perfect copy, while Galatea represented something much darker – despite the story being one of the few genuinely happy ones in Greek myth.

That the story comes with a happy ending is itself a note of warning in any Mediterranean myth; the notion that Pygmalion is allowed to escape scot-free from an encounter with divinity does raise my eyebrow a fraction. Of course, it’s easy to interpret the story differently. Depending on personal values we can see the man’s future with Galatea a complete disaster or a literal heaven-sent conclusion. One thing is absolutely certain, though; she is a simulacrum.

The Greeks, perhaps unintentionally, are making the point that the simulacrum can only be the same as the real thing through divine intervention; that without Aphrodite taking pity on the lonely sculptor, Galatea would have remained nothing more than a representation – and the mere fact that she is able to live doesn’t mitigate the fact.


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