Ardor

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Authors: Roberto Calasso
Tags: Social Science, Essay/s, Anthropology, Cultural, Literary Collections
agreed, after having asked for a reward. When he returned, he said: “V ṛ tra is slain, do with the slain what you wish.” The gods rushed off. They knew that V ṛ tra’s body was swollen with soma , since V ṛ tra was born from soma. Each wanted to plunder the corpse, to take the largest portion of it. They realized that the soma stank: “Its pungent stench wafted toward them: it was not fit for offering nor was it fit for being drunk.” So once again they asked for V ā yu’s help: “V ā yu, blow over him, make him palatable for us.” V ā yu asked for another reward. Then he began blowing. The foul smell began to disperse. The gods deposited it in the smell of carrion that is in domestic animals. Then V ā yu blew again. Finally the soma could be drunk. The gods continued to squabble over its portions. Round about, the world was strewn with rotting carcasses. But the soma was also in them. People would be expected to remember this. If they came across them, they should not hold their noses.
    The ritualists were extremely demanding: the soma , the intoxicating plant that grows on Mount M ū javant, might have become less easy to find, it might have disappeared, but the rites that celebrated it would have continued in just the same way. A substitute would have been given for something that was unique. A fatal step. The rite would have been celebrated with another plant that lacked the powers of the soma. But the hymns remained. And if one day, roaming about, any humans were to come across the carcass of an animal, they were forbidden to hold their nose. Even in that rotting body, as in all bodies, the soma had once been deposited. Indeed, that repulsive smell was the “distinctive sign of King Soma.” The soma is Good in its raw state. Already intolerable in itself, it becomes all the more intolerable when it is mixed with the “evil of Death,” p ā pm ā m ṛ tyu ḥ . In that precise moment it has to be accepted, inhaled, left to penetrate into us. Good is something against which nature rebels. But nature has to be tamed. This is what rites are for. And not even this was enough for the ritualists. Thought must be extended even to chance. Even to a sudden encounter with the carcass of an animal while wandering off the beaten track.
    *   *   *
     
    That Self, ā tman , which “in the beginning existed alone,” had the form of a “person,” puru ṣ a , but was not simply a man. And it saw nothing outside. It sought pleasure, but “pleasure is not for someone who is alone.” It therefore decided to split itself in two: a female and a male being. “For Y ā jñavalkya has said: ‘We are each one half.’” Shorter and more abrupt here, in keeping with Y ā jñavalkya’s style—but the doctrine was the same as that which Aristophanes would one day put forward during the symposium recounted by Plato.
    Y ā jñavalkya’s observation has enormous implications. First, it explains why “the emptiness created is filled by the woman.” It was like this even in the beginning, because the Self, as soon as it split in two, coupled with that woman who had come out of him. “Thus men were born.” The first reference is made at this point to woman’s thought: “Then she reflected: ‘How can he have intercourse with me, after having produced me from himself? Come, I need to hide myself.’ She became a cow, he a bull. He joined with her: cows were born. She became a mare, he a stallion.” The gesture of the woman in flight (out of hostility? to seduce better? for both reasons?) and the zoological sequence are evoked with supreme rapidity. Strindberg’s war of the sexes and Zeus’s animal metamorphoses. They continue without respite: “Thus everything is produced that goes in couples, down to the ants.” And even though such stories of multiple and metamorphic coitus could be Greek, the detail of the ants is the hallmark of the Vedic author.
    *   *   *
     
    There is something about sexual

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