David's Reviews > The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, Amended and Enlarged Edition

The White Goddess by Robert Graves
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's review
Jul 23, 2010

it was amazing

All right, let me honest and start by saying this was totally my favorite book in the entire universe when I was, like, 11. Hands down. It gave me my first sense of what scholarship might be - if it were actually fun.

Now I did end up becoming a professional scholar, and one who probably does have too much fun for his own good, so perhaps a word here is in order.

Those people who say the book provides zero evidence for its points - all I can say is, "yeah, that's right. It's kind of a joke. Or... well, Graves does insist that poetic truth is not a totally different truth, not to be judged by prose criteria of truth, but that it should always be at least true on the prose level and also something more (that something more being magical, profound, etc etc). But the question is always: is that very assertion part of the joke as well. Because what is magic? It's something that's both true, and a fraud, a trick, but it's true because you can carry it off. And what makes Graves so much fun is that he can always carry it off. When he says that he's solved some ancient mystery - why are fish used as a symbol for Christ - by time-traveling in a poetic trance and overhearing a conversation between two Roman literari c100 AD, he's obviously not asking to be judged by normal scholarly standards. He's having fun, and saying, "well, tell me it _isn't_ true!"

What I love about Graves is that he writes about religious devotion, of utter subordination to a terrifying entrancing but ultimately destructive goddess-muse, in such a way as to imply absolute subordination, but in fact, turns it into a license to do absolutely anything he pleases. His biographers always seem to miss this, presenting him as a sort of pathetic wimp in the sway of all these headstrong domineering women. In fact, you read books like this, or even more perhaps his essays on poetry, and you meet someone utterly different: someone who is having more fun than any professional scholar would ever be allowed to, sounding off on any topic in a way that's simultaneously outrageous, ground-breaking, profound, world-shattering, and probably, on some level, also, ridiculously untrue. What's the real game and what's his aim in playing it? That's half the fun. You can never be completely sure. But like any great theorist (and to be honest, I sometimes think Deleuze and Derrida, etc, are really doing exactly the same thing) the point is not to spend the rest of our lives deciding whether we adore him like a god or revile him, but to take it as a demonstration that it's possible to have just as much fun ourselves. That's what I did, without ever realizing that's what I was doing. And in retrospect, I'm not sure my career was better for it, but my writing was, and probably, arguably, the world is - if only slightly.

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message 1: by Dylan (new) - added it

Dylan Tomorrow A scholar that is actually having fun? With such a fascinating topic? Fuck, I need to read this! :D Also, great review :).

GeraniumCat Thanks for your insightul comments. I love TWG and find it inspiring, not as a work of scholarship but as a ludic exercise. And I absolutely agree about Derrida doing the same thing.

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