Gathering Up the Symbolic Losses of Modernity

One of the philosophical problems which theism presents the believer, Alasdair MacIntyre writes in God, Philosophy, Universities, is the tangled relationship between revealed divine truth and rationally apprehended knowledge. In plainer terms, how do we reconcile truths which can be intelligibly communicated among all (or most) fellow humans with those which specifically require a heart open to the grace of the Lord? Or, plainer still, how do philosophy and theology engage one another? Augustine’s answer is as concise as it is practical: credo ut intelligam. Which Anselm formalized into the maxim “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand.” Belief completes knowledge—not in the simply additive way that a dessert completes a meal, but in the way that gasoline allows a fully-built car to move, or a heartbeat “completes” human life.

Nevertheless, an unbelieving knowledge can take us right up to the doorway of faith. Dante puts the virtuous pagans in limbo where their sole torment is to exist in a kind of deficient heaven, appropriately enough. Their philosophies are enough to bring them right up to the edge of heaven, but not enough to cross them over the threshold. Augustine understood the role of pagan philosophy in a similar way, but mostly serving a negative function as a corrective to philosophical mistakes within theology itself. “Philosophy on Augustine’s own view,” writes MacIntyre, “is a study preliminary to theology . . . By listing philosophy as a liberal art [in his Retractions] Augustine includes it among those studies whose skills must be acquired as a necessary preliminary to theological enquiry and as a helpful aid to the reading and interpretation of scripture.”

St. Thomas took philosophy’s separation from theology and emphasized the usefulness of its independence. MacIntyre once again explains that, for Thomas,

Philosophy begins from finite things as they are and from what belongs to them by nature. It leads us from them through an enquiry into their proper causes to knowledge of God. Theology by contrast begins from God and considers finite beings only in their relationship to God. So, although there are matters of which theology treats and philosophy does not and vice versa, they also have a common subject matter. Aquinas’s claim is . . . that failure to understand the universe of finite created beings inevitably issues in a defective knowledge of God.

Philosophy then serves two functions in relation to theology: It leads us towards theology even as it acts as quality control over specific theological statements. It is both an entrance and a barrier, as all thresholds are.

Certain figures inhabit this unique liminal space. The French mystic-philosopher Simone Weil, for instance, took on the role as permanent outsider in order to usher other outsiders into the Church. It was meant as an act of self-denial, however foolhardy (she was eventually baptized and buried in consecrated ground). And there are popular cultural figures such as Jack White and Martin Scorsese, Catholics who struggle with their faith, but in doing so, perhaps lead people to discover the existential drama of faith itself through their art. One of the most interesting figures who inhabit this peripheral, doorway, relationship with faith was the Italian writer and publisher Roberto Calasso, who passed away last summer. Eloquent in his writing and penetrating in his thought, Calasso was one of those rare trailblazing generational talents who guide people towards a deeper engagement with reality.

Born in Florence to a family of upper-class intellectuals, Calasso was idiosyncratic and out of step with the times from the start. At twelve (!) he met and became lifelong friends with Enzo Turolla, a professor at Padua University. And his doctoral thesis, on Sir Thomas Browne’s theory of hieroglyphics, was completed under the influence of hashish. Calasso’s unique and charming literary vision first found its footing when he became a founding editor at Adelphi Edizioni in 1962. The emergence of Adelphi onto the Italian literary scene cannot be understated. As fellow Adelphi editor Matteo Codignola told the writer Frencesco Pacifico in an interview for the New Left Review, Italian bookstores in the late 50s were dominated by the all-white color palate of the socialist Einaudi publishing house. The quality of the books was generally high, and you knew exactly what you were going to get, but the problem was that you knew exactly what you were going to get. The middle-brow, Leftist press left little room for the challenging, strange, exciting, and eerie. The very pulse of literature was missing. Enter Adelphi Edizioni. Pacifico explains:

Adelphi’s books “felt dangerous,” Codignola said, “as everything literary was extremely targeted at the time: people wanted to know what you were reading and they judged you for it—you were right wing, you were less right wing, you were a comrade, a bourgeois . . .” The relationship with the left-wing reader is crucial to defining Adelphi and Calasso’s impact on the Italian scene. Here’s how a major cultural player of the Italian left, Angelo Guglielmi, explained what the two meant to each other: Calasso is Adelphi’s “mirror image. Adelphi are very serious, find everything commonly known insufferable,” “they want nothing to do with any flatly pedagogical notion of publishing,” are committed to publishing “authors from cultures that are distant from the domestically humanistic tradition that rules Italy.” Calasso is just as “serious . . . he’s committed to what’s hard, and distrustful of what’s easy,” and deserves much credit for publishing those who have “made the Culture of the Modern,” showing Italian readers how Nietzsche let philosophy give in to the real pressure of the world, highlighting the “fragrance” of Adorno’s prose in opposition to the “grimness of the new dialectics,” the value of the “enraged aesthete and euphoric moraliste” Karl Kraus.

Calasso’s own literary output does indeed, as Guglielmi says, mirror the spirit of Adelphi Edizioni. Both embody a public philosophy regarding cultural output which is solely lacking today: the notion that if you create a unique and high-quality “product” (although surely it should not be thought of as such during the creative process), an audience will emerge around it. This stands opposed to the method typically used in contemporary America, to kowtow to an imagined audience in a kind of empty, solipsistic loop.

Calasso’s first real literary triumph came with 1983’s The Ruin of Kasch (translated into English in 1994). Ostensibly about the preeminent statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord—not only an advisor to kings and a diplomat, but a bishop as well—and how his experiences through the nineteenth century in many ways set the stage for what it means to be a “modern man.” The work also incorporates fiction, poetry, and an almost Ezra Pound-level patchwork of cultural references. As the critic John Flynn-York explains, “If this is fiction, it’s many other things, too: political theory, literary criticism, history, philosophy, all of these approximately, none of these precisely. It might best be called a treatise.” Under the pressure of this hefty synthesis, the autonomy of subjects and objects which in large part typifies post-Enlightenment thought is challenged and undone. What replaces it is not so much the usual opposition to Enlightenment thought—irrational romanticism—as the recreation of lost symbolic meaning.

The Ruin of Kasch was followed by The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and Ka. The former is a literary collage exploring Hellenic myth and the latter is a literary collage exploring Vedic texts. While not quite as discernibly political as Kasch, Calasso’s two following books nevertheless employ similar formal techniques. The thoughts and feelings of gods are imagined, poetry is embedded within literary analysis, and myths are retooled into modern vernacular. And so while quite different from Kasch in subject and purpose, these proceeding books nevertheless take on similar formal qualities, so that each text seems to interpenetrate the others. This mirrors the project of Adelphi Edizioni, where the entire published catalogue is considered, as Calasso suggests in his book The Art of the Publisher, as a single unified text. But it would be misleading to either interpret Calasso’s output as a unified and singular product, or a series of diverse but disconnected literary nodes.

Instead, it might be more useful when considering his work to bifurcate it into two major groups: sociology and mythology. On the mythological side, we have Cadmus, Ka, Ardor, and The Celestial Hunter. On the sociological side we have Kasch, K., Tiepolo Pink, La foile Baudelair, and The Unnamable Present. While the mythological texts plunge us into what feels like a chthonic and symbol-rich past, the sociological books puts similarly powerful language to the task of exploring why the modern world has largely been denuded of this orientation towards symbolic meaning.

In a certain sense The Book of All Books, Calasso’s last work to be translated into English after his death, combines both the sociological and mythological elements. It is a synthesis of a synthesis. Many had been waiting (this author among them) for Calasso to apply his literary technique to the Western monotheistic traditions, and though Books mostly focuses on the Old Testament and Talmudic traditions, the wit and reverence with which he treats his subject could easily be applied to Christian and Muslim themes.

Near the beginning of this new volume, Calasso writes “Wisdom was the artificer, the plane, the tool.” In the creation of what? Reality as we comprehend it. The text shifts, sometimes almost on an imperceptible inflection point, from a hefty symbolic mode (“Nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created, the Torah was written. How? With black fire on white fire. It was Yahweh’s only daughter.”) to a suggestive exegesis:

The elect are never simply those who accumulate merits. If that was the case, the world would be one very long very dull moral lesson. With its obsessive concentration on what it means to be chosen, the Bible sets in motion a powerful narrative tension. The elect are those who make stories happen, move history on. But this hardly guarantees that they always behave as they should or even that they be allies with each other. Saul and David were both chosen, but for a long time in all kinds of ways Saul tried to kill David. And was simultaneously irresistibly attracted to him.

In a chapter about Solomon, Calasso writes that “Someone asking for a sign is someone incapable of recognizing what they should.” This really gets to the heart of The Book of All Books, in which exists and implicit critique of our contemporary inability to understand and enter into symbolic logic. Symbols are, at their most fundamental use-value, how a community binds itself together, hence the etymology of the world itself. Symbols are the antithesis of solipsism. They bring us out of ourselves, out of the sensual experience of ourselves, and provide us a portal through which we can engage with a larger and richer reality.

One of the best companions to Calasso’s project is D.C. Schindler’s Freedom from Reality, in which he presents an exhilarating defense of the importance of the symbolic order by way of critiquing Locke’s notions of human freedom. We might consider the various parts of reality, Schindler suggests, as signs which indicate a common unity to the structure of reality without every fully exhausting their communicative potential. In other words, the book of life can be read as a series of symbols which allow us to communicate (using language, itself a symbol-system) with one another about the fundamental truth of reality, and without ever fully exhausting that essentially transcendent truth in the telling.

Keeping this in mind, we can understand how true human freedom can only exist within a symbolic order. Indeed, order itself can only exist symbolically. Schindler writes that, to understand freedom in symbolic terms, is to:

See it as a participation in goodness, which is to say, a sharing in the larger, ordered whole, a sharing that naturally tends to objectify itself in public realities, and thus to join people together, to join man and nature, God and the world. We might say, from this perspective at least, that the polis—the most complete political community—is itself a “cosmos” in miniature, a unity, and so an outward manifestation of the good, the unity of which is constituted through the relations between all the various members, parts, of various orders: the symbols.

And this is really what reading Calasso habituates you to experiencing: the heft of the real as expressed through symbolic order. As Schindler indicates, this kind of knowledge is fundamental to experiencing reality and freedom. But as Dante indicates with his placement of the Greek philosophers in limbo, the symbolic is only a preparatory movement towards the sacramental. Calasso might be able to usher you to the threshold, but only a heart and mind open to grace will compel you to cross.

Featured Image: Dura Europos synagogue wall painting of the Consecration of the Tabernacle including Aaron and male attendants, 3rd c.; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Scott Beauchamp

Scott Beauchamp’s writing has appeared in The Paris Review, American Affairs, and Bookforum, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books.

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