When Thorne Smith liberated the gods from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the results were as disappointing as they were hilarious. His 1931 novel, The Night Life of the Gods, involves an eccentric scientist, a mischievous leprechaun, and the Greek gods set free from their pedestals to roam the streets of Prohibition-era New York. The story is witty, absurd, and strangely poignant. The gods are, at first, delighted by the joys of swimming pools, department stores, and illicit whiskey. Venus enjoys a good deal of attention, with and without arms, and Neptune is fascinated by fish markets. But in the end it is all too much for them, and for us. “In a world that has forgotten how to play there was no room for the Olympians,” muses Meg, the leprechaun. True enough. The gods become statues again. And so, in terms of interest, does everyone else.
Would they fare any better, now? The Icelanders are building their first pagan temple in a thousand years. One wonders what kind of welcome Thor and Odin would find on the streets of modern Reykjavik, if they were restored to life. Those who plan to frequent the temple hasten to remind us that the gods are merely metaphors, which seems a little unfair. These are gods without faces: they have no personalities, they demand no sacrifices. They are museum pieces: missing an arm here, a head there, stripped of their paint, cold, austere, damaged, and distant. What life the statues of Greek gods now have for us is in their material history: the hands that shaped the stone, the eyes that first beheld them. It’s something to meditate upon, certainly, although a place like the Metropolitan can overwhelm the imagination. But it’s not the same as what we’re looking for.
To live in a world that is charged with the grandeur of God is no light undertaking. The gods of Thorne Smith are both playful and terrifying. It is their playfulness that makes them terrifying and masks it at the same time. They are above consequences, even more so than their Homeric antecedents; they are also, of course, without consequence, because this is a comic novel, not an epic poem. But for Smith and his protagonists they are also alive in a world that has forgotten how to live. That is why we seek them out, desire their company, and overlook their terror. Unless we cannot, in which case we run the other way. No one in their right mind now would want to live among the Greeks, the Romans, or the Vikings, let alone their gods. Nor should we worship their statues, unless we are prepared to see their faces. But they can still remind us how not to be statues. Thorne Smith was right about that much.
It should be pretty clear that the gods will not save us from a world without God. One might say that they have had their chance. But one might also say that we are living in the Golden Age of mythology, and that is an interesting thought. The gods were never so free to be themselves as when they stopped having to be gods. Somewhere between statues and metaphors, they still roam free in the Metropolitan, and everywhere else. But with what faces they will meet ours in this present age remains to be seen.