Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

The Man Who Reads

Roberto Calasso, The Forty-nine Steps.  Translated by John Shepley.  University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2001.

By John Bedell

When Roberto Calasso wrote The Ruin of Kasch, he made very little attempt to explain what he was doing, placed very large demands on his readers' knowledge of everything from nineteenth-century literary criticism to Hindu mythology, and generally made little effort to engage anyone beyond the most erudite intellectuals.  Nonetheless, the book was a great success, widely acclaimed a work of genius and selling tens of thousands of copies.

After this experience Calasso seems to have decided that he could write a book in which he explained nothing, placed gigantic demands on his readers' knowledge, and made no attempt to engage anyone at all.  The result is The Forty-nine Steps.  This book is dense and difficult on a positively Hegelian level, full of sentences like "Now, if myth is precisely a sequence of simulacra that help to recognize simulacra, it is naive to pretend to interpret myth, when it is myth itself that is already interpreting us." (This was picked out of the first paragraph I happened on.)  It contains few of the exotic and amusing interludes--African folk tales, scraps of publishing lore, jokes about Talleyrand and Lafayette--that lightened The Ruin of Kasch.  The subject matter is also dark and dense.

Despite all the difficulties and obscurities, a reader with patience will soon discover that The Forty-nine Steps is unquestionably about something, or rather two things.  A friend of mine recently remarked that she finds teaching the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries "almost unbearably sad;" Calasso seems to share her view, and in this book he tries to explain, by interpreting literary works, why this is so.  Calasso's second topic is the act of interpretation itself.  In form, the book is a series of short essays, each commenting on some European literary figure from the 1840 to 1950 era, and in these essays Calasso explores both the world of these writers and the act of exploring the world through reading.

The Forty-nine Steps begins with Nietzsche's last year of sanity.  Here Calasso raises what will be one of his themes, the relationship between madness and modern thought.  One might summarize Nietzsche's final philosophical position as, "thought, by itself, is a dead end-- we must somehow transcend thought and will a new civilization."  But what sane man can really will a complete break from the civilization in which he was raised?  Is creation, then, the province of madmen?  Several times in his books Nietzsche contrasted the "actor," who plays a role in which he does not believe, with the true creator, who would believe in his creation; but in the end, as Calasso explains, Nietzsche seems to have decided that we are all actors, none of us able to will ourselves past the reciting of lines.

A few chapters later Calasso again visits the theme of madness and creation, this time in the person of Daniel Paul Schreber.  Schreber was a German paranoiac who at times believed that he was the only living person in the world, and that all the others around him were dead souls animated by a sadistic God; the world could only be redeemed if Schreber could be transformed into a woman and give birth to a savior child.  Schreber's Memoirs, published in 1903, were used by both Freud and Jung in developing theories of paranoia and psychosis.  Jung in particular was fascinated by the relationship between Schreber and the authors of ancient myths, and he thought that the reappearance in Schreber's fantasies of certain mythic themes showed that those myths were rooted in the subconscious.  Interest in Schreber is still strong, a century later, although for a very different reason.  Schreber's legal battle against the doctors he thought were conniving in God's oppression of him has made him a convenient hero for psychiatry's enemies, most notably Foucault, who equated Freud's dismissive analysis of Schreber's thought with Schreber's imprisonment at the hands of his doctors.  Calasso has even found one professor who thinks Schreber "deserves a place among the great mystics and great utopian socialist philosophers."  It is a characteristic of our age, Calasso suggests, that we can neither tell the difference between a madman and a prophet nor even articulate what that difference might be.

The other authors Calasso takes up are drawn from the darkest and most alienated Europeans:  Marx, Heidegger, Max Stirner, Robert Walser, Frank Wedekind, Karl Kraus, Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno.  It is a grim crew.  Marx seems somewhat out of place, but the reasons for Calasso's interest in him become clear here as they never did in The Ruin of Kasch:  Calasso uses Marx to show that our economic prowess has not made us happy but only alienated us as thoroughly from our work as from every other institution in our world.  The rest are uniformly pessimistic about, if not outright enraged by, the world around them.  Calasso's discussion of Heidegger extends the darkness from literature and politics into the highest reaches of academic philosophy, where Heidegger's "fearful philosophical machine" grinds out "the monumental nihilism that has guided Western thought since its origins toward a glorious self-destruction."  As his choice for the most important novel of the period Calasso passes on Joyce or Proust in favor of Gustave Flaubert's Bouvard et Pécuchet, of which the author said, "I will vomit on my contemporaries the disgust they inspire in me."  The sense that western thought is a dead end dominates the book, from Nietzsche's collapse into madness at the beginning to Karl Kraus falling silent in the face of Nazism, near the end.

The authors Calasso takes up are more likely to be critics than novelists or poets.  In describing one of these critics, Calasso offers a few lines that are surely a self portrait:

By nature, Walter Benjamin was just the opposite of a philosopher:  He was an exegete.  The shameless boast of the individual who says "I think such-and-such" seemed basically foreign to him.  Instead, from the beginning, we see in him the disguised determination of the exegete, the gesture of hiding behind piles of material to be commented on.
It is from Benjamin that Calasso takes the title of this book, for Benjamin was fascinated with the Talmudic doctrine that every passage of Torah had forty-nine steps of meaning.  Texts, to Benjamin and also to Calasso, have messages beyond messages, and even the most trivial text can reveal the basis of the civilization that created it:  some of Benjamin's most important philosophical reflections are contained in a review of a book on the history of toys.  Calasso is one of our greatest readers, and in The Forty-nine Steps he pays homage to some of the other readers whose insights into books he admires.

What, though, is the point of all this exegesis, all this searching out levels of meaning?  Except for Nietzsche, no author gets as much space in The Forty-nine Steps as Karl Kraus.  Kraus, an Austrian satirist who worked between 1900 and 1936, thought he could read in Viennese newspapers and hear in the chatter of cafés the coming crisis that turned out to be Nazism.  To Kraus, every line of conventional wisdom, every stock phrase, dripped with the blood of innocents.  In the inanity of public opinion he heard the guns of total war.  Calasso seeks, it seems, to read as Kraus did, and to find in the words of book reviewers and academic novelists an understanding of the modern world and its woes.  He winces at the expansion of industry and the mass press, with their the gradual erasure of the unique; he recoils from totalitarianism.  He sees in books like Ecce Homo, The Castle or Being and Time a civilization in crisis because it had become a "republic of nihilism."

As much as I admire Calasso, I would have to say that I have always found Kraus's assertions irritatingly high-pitched and ultimately unbelievable.  The conventional wisdom and stock phrases of my own time strike me as stupid and cruel, as those of early twentieth century Vienna did Kraus, and I imagine that many sensitive people have felt the same way about public opinion in almost every society.  Stupidity and cruelty are nearly universal in our species. Yet, Hitlers and Stalins are rare.  I doubt that the books Calasso takes up, all the work of disaffected intellectuals, really communicate much about the soul of Europe.  On the other hand, they were right:  disaster did come.  Whether it came because of a peculiar nihilism that overtook Europe I consider an open question, but I think anyone interested in the question will find Calasso's approach fascinating.

So there is a summary of The Forty-nine Steps.  Yet such a summary does much violence to Calasso, however accurately it sketches the outline of his book.  He practices commentary, allusion, and quotation, not direct statement, and I doubt any series of direct statements could express his thoughts, which jump around through history and literature like molecules in brownian motion.  Any more than a series of direct statements could sum up the world; the complexity of Calasso's books makes them, in this sense, not more academic but more true to real life.  To take up just one other thread of the many one could extract from The Forty-nine Steps, Calasso weaves into it something of his abiding interest in myth.  Some of the authors he takes up were myth makers whose books create imaginary worlds, from the paranoiac Schreber to Kafka and Robert Walser, and hints of mythology appear in other contexts.  These reapperances of myth make a counterpoint of sorts to the sense of doom and ending that permeates so much of the book.  Whatever hope there is in the tale comes from this human power to create and love stories about the gods; despite everything, as he wrote in The Ruin of Kasch, "the world remained enchanted."

For Calasso myth represents, among other things, the changeability of the world:  the refusal of things to stand still and be named that has infuriated philosophers ever since Plato.  Calasso rebels against the modern drive toward predictability and sameness:  the Enlightenment obsession with giving things their proper names and placing them in great systems of knowledge, the industrial duplication of the same thing in vast quantity, the deadly stillness of dictatorship.  In the transformative potential of myth Calasso finds life amidst the sterility of the modern.  In a collection of lectures published last year as Literature and the Gods, Calasso explained somewhat more directly his own role an an exegete of myths, both ancient and modern.  "Whatever else it might be," he said, "the divine is certainly the thing that imposes with maximum intensity the sensation of being alive."  But where is a modern, European atheist like Calasso to search for the gods?  He has no temples, no rituals.  He can find them only in books:

And this, one might say, has become the natural condition of the gods:  to appear in books -- and often in books that few will ever open.  Is this the prelude to extinction?  Only to the superficial observer.  For in the meantime all the powers of the cult of the gods have migrated into a single, immobile and solitary act:  that of reading.
In reading, Calasso finds life at its most intense; by interpreting what he reads for others, he shares his ecstasies.  In his own myth, Calasso would be the hero of reading.  He would read every book in the world and ponder all their meanings.  Asked what he had learned, he might offer a few observations, some trivial, some profound.  He might call attention to a few books he thought particularly fine.  Finally, unable to voice his most secret knowledge, unable to condense his understanding into neat sentences, he would  point to the books and say, "make your own journey."

December 8, 2001

From the 
Commonplace Book

Apropos of Hitler, nothing comes to mind.

--Karl Kraus

On this prospect of motionless horror, the future has also opened.

--Roberto Calasso


Commonplace Book
On the Dead
About us


Archaeology Books

The Lucifer Principle

Piracy and Life


Misremembering the Civil War

Paul Revere

Easter Island

Why the Fires

The Forty-nine Steps

Standards of Learning

The Taliban and the

The Ruin of Kasch

The Cellar Hole

Keatley Creek and the
Meaning of Time