Roberto Calasso and the Progress of the Novel

Modern radical Islamic terrorism began in a church basement in Greeley, Colorado around the middle of last century. Sayyid Qutb, a minor Egyptian government official on scholarship to learn English, initially thought he had found paradise in the small Western town: material abundance, rule of law, and the bleeding edge of technological innovation. What else could anyone want? But a few flashes of skin during after-service dances at some of the local churches left Qutb with the realization that he was in fact suspended in the gaping jaw of the Beast. The easy satisfactions of the West were simply allurements meant to hide the fact that its anti-culture was a vector for nihilism. You can call it secularism. Qutb called it a disease.

Back in Egypt, Qutb became a political figure with clout. When after the revolution the choice came between supporting either the military or the Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb picked the loser and was imprisoned by the junta. Like any incarcerated man with a message, Qutb used his time in jail to write, among other things, Milestones, a tract which became the guiding light for generations of radicalized youth. Among the book’s admirers were the Ayatollah Khamenei, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Osama bin Laden. After Qutb was eventually released from prison and told to leave the country, he refused. His obstianance was considered a capital crime, and when his death sentence was read aloud, Qutb announced, “I performed jihad for fifteen years until I earned this martyrdom, shahadah.” He was hanged on August 29, 1966.

When Qutb’s body dropped on the hangman’s scaffold, it fell with the full force of gravity. Both the gravitational pull of the Earth and the cold sense of necessity that Simone Weil meant by the word. As she wrote in Gravity and Grace,

When we are the victims of illusion we do not feel it to be an illusion but a reality. It is the same perhaps with evil. Evil when we are in its power is not felt as evil but as a necessity, or even a duty.

In Weil’s terms, Qutb’s falling body exerted the same pressure as did Mohammad Atta’s, laying on his modest bed in the Clarion Inn hotel in Portland, Maine on September 10, 2001. Both exerted the same force as the planes which hit the towers, and the same force with which Osama bin Laden’s body ruptured the surface of the Indian Ocean during his impromptu burial at sea. Each vessel, each body, shared the unreal heft of the contemporary. The inescapable phantasmagoria of what Roberto Calasso calls in The Unnamable Present, the “cult of the deified society”. Even its presumed enemies are enmeshed, unable to imagine an “ultimate repository of meaning” outside of society itself. 

Knowing this, understanding the “cunning passages, contrived corridors” of history, as Eliot put it, and all the ways we deceive ourselves into thinking that we are innocently uninvolved with the things which we oppose, make Roberto Calasso one of the shrewdest living writers. Understanding this and still attempting nonetheless to tunnel his way, book by book, out of the prison of secular thought makes him the most ambitious living writer. What he is searching for in his escape is not freedom so much as meaning itself.

Any brief biography of Roberto Calasso would not do justice to the scope of his ambitions. Born in Florence in 1940 to an upper crust Italian family, Calasso seems in many ways fated to have become a “literary institution of one,” as The Paris Review called him. Learning a handful of languages at a young age, he precariously befriended his father’s colleagues at the University of Florence before he was even a teenager. He eventually earned his own doctorate under the guidance of Mario Praz, writing his dissertation on Thomas Browne’s hieroglyphs while smoking pungent clouds of hashish. Calasso has always seemed to associate knowledge with an expansion of consciousness—saturating his mind in ideas as if they were narcotics and dabbling in drugs as if they were bringing the news of the day.

It is that same courageous, almost reckless, attitude that he has brought to Adelphi Edizioni, the publishing firm he has worked for since its founding in 1962. And yet nothing in this thumbnail sketch of Calasso anticipates his massive, unnamed project to chart the development (or decay, perhaps) of human consciousness across the longue duree. Bookended chronologically by the homo sapiens switch from a vegetarian diet to meat scavenging and the advent of the internet, Calasso’s project blends anthropology with myth, and cultural criticism with fiction, to weave a vast tapestry of human thought and experience. The most important discovery of Calasso’s project is that all the things we have collectively forgotten as a culture also happen to be the very things that keep us human. 

One of those things is the meaning of sacrifice. In The Unnamable Present, Calasso writes that “the heredity of sacrifice” had to result in something, and that something was a world war. An “excess of armed power” ensured that development along those lines would either stagnate or result in nuclear annihilation. And so terrorism gained ascendancy, “sporadic, ubiquitous, incessant killings, performed ever more casually, which keep the sacrificial fire alive.” Comparing terrorists to “automata,” Calasso says that they operate in “a workshop that has two departments: one heavenly and one infernal.” It is, Calasso tells us, the exact inverse of the Indian Vedic doctrines of sacrifice, a topic which runs like a bright seam through all of his works. He goes on to write:

To understand the transformation that sacrifice has undergone in the secular age, sacrifice has to be swapped for the word experiment. Which is not only what happens every day in laboratories—and this would already indicate its immensity. But experimentation is what society performs every day on itself. And here the ambivalence of the word becomes even clearer, for the two supreme social experimenters of the twentieth century were Hitler and Stalin. It is no coincidence that Stalin invoked the “engineers of human souls.” But they were more like certain ruthless lobotomizers, acting always in the name of science. All ravagers of the unknown.

If we feel the nihilism of empty experimentation viscerally, it might be because we so acutely feel the loss of meaningful sacrifice. In his books Ka and Ardor, Calasso recounts the Aryan invasion of Northern India and the Vedic text and rituals which arose from the cultural pollination, a “golden age of ritual.” It was a world, Calasso writes, which:

Involved a cult, closely bound up with texts of extreme complexity, and an intoxicating plant [soma]. A state of awareness became the pivot around which turned thousands and thousands of meticulously codified ritual acts. A mythology, as well as the boldest speculation, arose out of the fateful and dramatic encounter between a liturgy and rapture.

The most important Vedic ritual was the sacrifice. It’s original purpose was to “redress a balance that had been upset and violated forever,” when humans first learned to stalk, hunt, kill, and devour the flesh of other animals. In order to become a hunter, man had to imitate animal predators. Unable to catch and kill with his bare hands, he required prosthesis which called into question the essential nature of his identity and the mysterious source of his mimetic powers. This first imitation is bound up with the guilt of the kill, and it requires ritual in order to “resolve through action what thought alone cannot resolve.”

Longing for ritualistic resolution also echoes as a theme throughout Calasso’s book on Greek myth, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. Here he traces the intimate relation between ritual and the narratives of myth. The profound connection between sacrifice, ritual, guilt, and the ability of stories to, not simply express the nature of meaning, but to actually demonstrate how our minds apprehend significance:

We enter the mythical when we enter the realm of risk, and myth is the enchantment we generate in ourselves at such moments.  More than a belief, it is a magical bond that tightens around us.  It is a spell the soul casts on itself . . . In Greece, myth escapes from ritual like a genie from a bottle. Ritual is tied to gesture, and gestures are limited:  what else can you do once you’ve burned your offerings, poured your libations, bowed, greased yourself, competed in races, eaten, copulated? But if the stories start to become independent, to develop names and relationships, then one day you realize that they have taken on a life of their own.

So our stories themselves originate from a kind of excess of meaning of the very rituals we use to acknowledge the gratuitous nature of life.

And if in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony those stories are beginning to live independently of their context, to break free from their origins, then in Calasso’s books on our modern moment—K., Tiepolo Pink, and La Folie Baudelaire—our myths have become lost and dejected. Something has fundamentally changed in the way that we make and understand meaning. Something vital has been forgotten. As Calasso describes it in The Unnamable Present, “It is as though, after millennia, imagination had been stripped of its capacity to look beyond society in search of something that gives meaning to what is going on within society.” Forgetting the negligible, the extraneous spark of life which cannot be dealt with through thought alone, the world deifies itself. And so “society appears condemned to a new and elusive superstition: the superstition of itself.” And so theology and myth become politics. And sacrifice becomes experimentation.

Sacrifice versus experimentation can be conveniently personified in Simone Weil versus Jeremy Bentham. Weil was, in many ways, the mystic philosopher of the smudge, the remnant, the negligible. In other words, she was a metaphysician of that gratuity which returns the luminousness to life. Bentham was an idolater of false exactitude. The difference between the two comes down to the question of whether to be human means to recognize and honor the surplus which defines reality, as in the case of Weil, or whether it means ignoring that surplus in a bid to seek control over reality, as Bentham did.

In The Celestial Hunter, Calasso quotes Weil writing in her notebooks, “Two experiments should never give identical results. We overcome it through the notion of the negligible. But the negligible is the world.” Calasso then elaborates that “This last sentence corresponds with the vision of the Vedic ritualists: the residue is the world.”

Bentham, on the other hand, was “searching among human feelings and impulses for something that could be measured. He found it in utility.” And utility could be measured, of course, as money. The entire heft of the world could be abstracted and reduced to money. Calasso writes in The Unnamable Present:

It was the pretext for political economy . . . to take over the whole of humanity, feeding all of its components into its calculations, like market commodities...Economics...would soon become the supreme discipline on which everything else depended, and its countless representatives, up to the algorithmicians of today, would practice it . . . And economics, like the world that came to be governed by it, was particularly eager to apply itself. To everything.

Something about society and the “black magic” of it becoming the entire of the world, is a point of contact between Bentham and bin Laden. Both are obsessed with, ensnared in, the prison of secular reasoning. One adores it. Another despises it. Both are trapped within it, cut off from a sense of the transcendent. Don DeLillo wrote in Mao II that, “I used to think it was possible for an artist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory.” Terrorists are the new writers, in other words. And the novel has not so much been killed by them as made irrelevant within the anemic logic of literalism. The presiding spirit of Silicon Valley and the terrorist training camp, both.

But despite what critics like Joseph Bottum might argue, the novel has always stood in opposition to its literalist, iconoclastic, enemies—namely, society. The novel, beginning with Cervantes and Rabelais, was always intentionally out of step with the predominant social forms of the modern world. As Gabriel Josipovici has shown, the novel was in its origins a response to the flux of modernity, the chaotic internal churn of a world which had recently begun to deify itself.

There is no particular form to the novel because the novel simulates the excess of life. At their most meaningful, novels are a reminder of this excess and so take on whatever variety of forms appropriate to the occasion. The insistence that novels adhere to some calcified 19th century psychological realism, itself of course an invented literary form and not some privileged glimpse into the essential, is to misunderstand what novels want.

Novels want, counterintuitively, to return to us the full weight of the world. They are just the mental prosthesis we use to remind ourselves that reality is always a bit more vast than either our common sense or ideologies would have us believe. Anyone who argues that the novel is dead is either deifying society themselves or not reading Roberto Calasso. Likely both.

Gabriel Josipovici compared the novel to a toy we play with in order to discover more about the world. It is also a prosthesis we use to navigate that world. The novel is a cane, or an arrow, or a spear. There is a direct connection between the novel and man’s development as a hunter. Calasso writes in The Celestial Hunter that:

Hunting starts as an inevitable act and ends as a gratuitous act. It elaborates a sequence of ritual practices that precede the act (the killing) and follow it. The act can only be encompassed in time, as the prey is encompassed in space. But the course of the hunt itself is unnamable and uncontrollable, like intercourse. No one knows what will happen between hunter and prey when they face each other. But what is certain, prior to the hunt the hunter performs acts of devotion. And after the hunt he feels the need to offload a feeling of guilt. He welcomes the dead animal into his hut like a noble guest. In front of the bear that has just been cut into pieces, the hunter murmurs a prayer of vertiginous sweetness: “Allow me to kill you even in the future.”

If The Unnamable Present takes us to international terrorism and the internet, The Celestial Hunter moves in the opposite direction, using a mixture of anthropology, fiction, and literary criticism to explore the effect that our turn to scavenging and killing meat had on human consciousness. For hundreds of thousands of years, Calasso tells us, man was essentially a grazing vegetarian. Until one day (or dusk, most likely) he decided to imitate the hyenas he saw licking the marrow out of split bones.

It would have only been scavenging the dead at first, and so had a weird psychological resonance with cannibalism, since to that point man had only been prey himself. But he also had to imitate another animal in the process, which he did quite successfully. Hunting, essentially an act of imitation using a prosthesis, was close at hand. Calasso argues, mirroring Rene Girard’s insights on the imitation of desire, that:

For people to hunt, they first had to imitate. To dance the step of the partridge, of the bear, of the leopard, of the crane, of the sable. To become predators, they had to take on the gestures of the predator and the prey. In this way imitation led to killing. And hidden within killing was imitation.

But man cannot kill prey effectively with his bare hands. For that, he needs to imitate the tooth and claw of the predator, while protecting his own fragile flesh. He needs a spear or an arrow. Calasso explains that:

The unprecedented factor that distinguished Homo from the animal kingdom was not in the killing, but in that form of imitation involving the use of prostheses. By likening himself to another category of animals, Homo was showing that he had no fixed and well-defined nature of his own. He was showing an inclination to metamorphosis.

This, even more than killing, is the true transgression: imitation and extension. This is the closest that Calasso gets to reverse-engineering original sin. And according to him, it is a process which continues into modernity:Western philosophy, starting from Descartes, is seen as a pros-thesis, an apparatus to be placed over the mind so as to bring order into the world. The apparatus can be innatist, empiricist, idealist, materialist, etc. Each apparatus has its own outline and its own character. Each has vast consequences in the ways in which the subject onto which the apparatus is superimposed will deal with the world.

The wonder of the novel, especially Calasso’s, is that it’s a prosthesis whose purpose is, by reading it, to remind us of the distance we put between ourselves and the true nature of the world. It is an oblique strategy—one which Calasso himself excels in. Italo Calvino remarked on Calasso’s The Ruin of Kasch that it is about two things, “the first is Talleyrand, and the second is everything else.” Of course Calvino eloquently zeros in on the excess which Calasso honors. And all of his books are like that, about the thing they are about and then also about everything else. Hunting and everything else. Terrorism and everything else. Kafka and everything else. If life is present in any novel, it spills over. It introduces the non-systematic negligible into the comparatively orderly and controlled symbolic system of language. Words crack open with wonder and meaning, not just legibility, is invoked.

There is always a remnant to understanding, the smudge left behind by human intellect. The Vedics called this “life” and honored it with ritual and verse. Calasso calls it “meaning” and stalks its blood trail across thousands of pages of text. It is a miracle, by any term. Gratuitous like grace.

Featured Image: Augustus Leopold Egg, The Travelling Companions, 1862; Source: Wikipedia 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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