|Roberto Calasso, The Ruin of Kasch. Translated
by William Weaver and Stephen Sartarelli. Belknap Press, Cambridge
University, 1994. (Italian original 1983)
Reviewed by John Bedell
This magnificent, bizarre, frustrating and illuminating book has renewed my faith in the intellectual approach to life, affirming that after 2500 years of the western tradition a bookish thinker can still offer profound insights into our world. Through a strange mixture of quotation, gnomic utterance, striking juxtapositions, narratives of obscure incidents, brief biographies of the moderately famous, and direct exposition, Calasso offers a vision of the human condition and a dissection of its modern variant that I find completely captivating and mostly true.
Calasso seems willing to take up almost any topic, from the arcades of Paris to the great indexes of western literature, and he creates the impression that he has read everything. He finds his evidence buried in the most obscure documents, from Sudanese folk tales to passages Marx deleted from the published version of the German Ideology. He gives us, not just an account of the strange wedding of Marie Antoinette, but the story of Goethe's reaction to the tapestries that were hung in the marriage hall. Amidst all these baroque gestures is buried, I think, a thesis: the source of our modern crises, the root cause of Hitler and Stalin, is our abandonment of sacrifice. A sacrifice was performed because somebody felt that it had to be done; and it had to be done in exactly the right way, at the required time, or the Gods would be displeased. In the modern world we no longer feel that there is anything we have to do, or any particular way we have to do things. But, says Calosso, "every obligation was a root," and our freedom has been simultaneously our uprooting, leaving us not sufficiently attached to anything to avoid the traps of tyranny and world war.
Calasso focuses mainly on the century after the French Revolution, but he does not claim that the process he describes was enacted in any particular interval of time. Blood sacrifice, after all, disappeared from the west a long time before the Bastille was stormed. Calasso's argument sets up a tension between two extremes: to the nihilism of Max Stirner and the emptiness of Bentham's utilitarianism he opposes the sacrificial system described in the Indian Vedas, which teaches that not only the welfare of the worshipper but the rising of the sun, even the very existence of the universe, depends on the exact performance of impossibly complex rituals. Calosso seems to be saying that the habit of sacrifice and the belief in ritual perfection lingered in Christianity and Buddhism after the slaughter of sheep had been abandoned, just as the reverence for kings lingered in Europe after the execution of Charles I.
In Calasso's vision, the French Revolution banished the sense of obligation from political life, so that henceforth we would be governed however the powerful chose. Monarchy and aristocracy had been overthrown in the name of the people, but the people were not the obvious beneficiaries. Art also suffered; deprived of the sustenance of faith, it put forth showy flowers but no nourishing fruit. The dynamism of technology and business has made us rich, but it the same time it has impoverished us, crowding out community, family, and meaning. The more chains we have broken, the less desire we have felt to struggle, and the more we have been free to do, the less we have wanted to do it.
Calasso is not an apologist for religion or obscurantism. He is as much a child of the Enlightenment as any of the philosophers he criticizes, and he can no more turn off his critical mind than Hume or Stirner can. As he writes:
One must ultimately ask the most ingenuous and the most important question: Are the Vedic connections true? In studying them, we gradually reconstruct their marvelously intricate web, which spreads over everything. And from the moment we enter the world, we are forced to look at them as at an immense cathedral of matchsticks, perfect and superfluous. We know that life reproduces itself anyway, even without their help. Yet we are also irresistibly attracted to that all-enveloping layer of resonances. And whatever we think, at a certain point we realize that we are unwittingly using a corner of that submerged cloak. The only form of life that succeeds in totally rejecting the Vedic connections is that of Bentham, our pharaoh, today a mummy in London. An unknowing life. The Vedic connections are grandly superfluous, and Bentham is grandly inadequate. We are in the middle, wavering.Is Calasso wrong? Take up his challenge. Refute nihilism. Show how twentieth century politics have been better for the average European than those of the seventeenth. Find a rational way to limit the ambitions of the powerful and secure the rights of the weak. Show how our freedom from the obligations of sacrifice has made us happier. Better yet, don't make arguments: live. The only true and final way to refute Calasso's argument and escape from the trap he describes is by living well: by finding meaning despite the withdrawal of the gods, by knowing and making beauty despite the disappearance of heaven, by treating our obligations to family, country, and the truth as sacred, even though we know there is no divine punishment for sin.
Calasso has so much to say, so many enlightening asides to offer, that there is no way to sum up his amazing book. Perhaps it is best to close with a prophecy that Calasso puts into the mouth of his occasional narrator, Talleyrand:
I see a time approaching when the libertines of the mind will cease to be esteemed and emulated, and will be judged to be as insistent and tedious as our priests are today. This will not be because their ideas are viewed as abhorrent, but because everything will be regarded with indifference, except pleasure and business.Is that what we are?
"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."