Saturday, July 31, 2021

RIP Roberto Calasso

Roberto Calasso is my favorite philosopher, the one who asked most compellingly two questions I care deeply about: what is our relationship to the universe? and, how did our society get to be the way it is? Two of my reviews of his books are here and here. Calasso spent a lot of time wondering how a modern person without religious faith should feel about who and what we are, and what ancient myths might tell us about our contemporary predicament.

I'm about to get on the road for another journey, so in lieu of writing my own obituary let me pass on part of the one in the Times:

Much of Mr. Calasso’s writing stemmed from his lifelong preoccupation with ancient myths and their meaning, and with uncovering the common allegories and narrative threads across cultures, eras and civilizations. Fluent in five modern languages and proficient in three ancient ones, including Sanskrit, which he taught himself, Mr. Calasso was fascinated by the question of how humans create meaning through shared stories. . . .

He was perhaps best known for his vivid and poetic writing on Greek mythology in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1993), which braided together ancient myths into a novelistic, genre defying work of literature, philosophy, psychology and history. It found a wide international readership and was praised by Gore Vidal as “a perfect work like no other” in reimagining “the morning of our world.”

Mr. Calasso later published “Ka,” an exuberant exploration of Indian religion and philosophy, which The New York Review of Books praised for its “ecstatic insight and cross-cultural synthesis.” . . .

“Calasso carved out a new space as an intellectual, retelling myth as true, certainly as true as science,” Tim Parks, who worked with Mr. Calasso on the English translation of “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony,” said in an interview. “His implication is always that we are as subject as our ancestors were to the forces that find their names in Zeus or Venus or Yahweh or Shiva.”

In a 2012 interview with The Paris Review, Mr. Calasso spoke about humanity’s search for transcendence, be it through art, nature or religion, as his central intellectual pursuit. “All of my books have to do with possession,” he said. “Ebbrezza — rapture — is a word connected with possession. In Greek the word is mania, madness. For Plato it was the main path to knowledge.”

Of course Calasso never experienced rapture himself, and was never himself certain that it was any kind of path to knowledge, so his writing was always tinged, and sometimes haunted, by melancholy.

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