When I was going through the material I published on my old web site I found my review of one of my favorite books, Roberto Calasso's, The Ruin of Kasch. I wrote it a long time ago, and since then I have read several more of Calasso's books, and my old review no longer satisfied. So I wrote a new one.
A character in one of Saul Bellow's novels comments that he hates facile "explanations" of the Holocaust; such an event, he says, could be explained "only by explaining everything at once." In The Ruin of Kasch
Robert Calasso had a go at doing exactly that: explaining the horrors of the twentieth century by explaining the whole course of human civilization.
The Ruin of Kasch (1983, English translation 1994) is a maddening, intentionally difficult book about what the human world is like, what it used to be like, and how it changed. Calasso is not interested in a statistical, factual understanding of history, nor in any kind of linear story. Instead he gives us a strange mixture of quotation, gnomic utterance, striking juxtapositions, narratives of obscure incidents, brief biographies of the moderately famous, and cutting analysis of various theories that purport to explain something. His attention jumps around in time and space, with no transitions or explanations. His examples are sometimes so obscure that even experts in whatever period he is writing about may not recognize them. Some of the book makes no sense. Yet by the end I at least was left feeling that I been led through a dark wood to a well of deep and profound understanding.
Calasso begins with the era of the French Revolution. But this, perhaps the only conventional choice in the whole book, is immediately twisted by his decision to focus his narrative on the character of Talleyrand. Talleyrand, a son of one of France's oldest families, was a survivor, a relic of the old regime who prospered through all the transitions and upheavals of the epoch and emerged at the end as a kingmaker and one of the most powerful and hated men in Europe. Why Talleyrand? Because, I think, of his cold distance from the events he helped to shape. He helped create the new rituals of the Democratic age – tricolor flags, national anthems, independence days – but they made him queasy. Contemplating the future from the first celebration of Bastille Day, he wrote, "I see streams of blood."
In the short term the Revolution was cut short by reaction, dictatorship, empire, and wars that dwarfed any the continent had seen in centuries. Instead of the Brotherhood of Man, Europe got the great divide between Left and Right that is still with us. After Waterloo the forces of reaction managed to bottle up the genies of revolution and nationalism for a time, but it could not last.
The Tale Told in the Desert
From the Age of Revolutions Calasso jumps with no transition to the legendary past, retelling an old story called "The Ruin of Kasch". The tale was recorded by the German anthropologist Leo Froebenius in the early 1900s, told at the edge of the Sudanese desert by an old camel driver who waited to tell his own tales until all the other, lesser speakers had exhausted themselves. You know nothing of stories, he said to them, before embarking on the tale of Naphta, a grand ancient kingdom ruled by the guidance of priests who studied the stars. They decided, among many other things, when the king would be sacrificed and a new king crowned. Each king therefore ruled only on their sufferance, awaiting the day when the stars would decree his death. One privilege the kings had was that of choosing their companions, who would accompany them in life and in death.
A certain king named Akaf grows sad and cannot stop brooding on his upcoming death. He hears about a great storyteller known as Far-li-mas who came from Kasch in the far east, perhaps Arabia or India. Akaf summons Far-li-mas, who tells such wonderful stories that the dawn comes before anyone realizes that the night is passing, and the king forgets his sorrow. The king's sister Sali also hears the stories, and she and Far-li-mas fall in love. Unwilling to leave their fate up to the stargazing priests, Sali and Far-li-mas challenge the old way. Sali says,
Great are the works of God, but the greatest is not his writing in the sky. It is life on earth.
Sali lures the priests to the court he hear Far-li-mas, and he tells his stories like hashish, so that all the listeners fall asleep, and the priests cannot watch the stars. After some nights the priests realize that they are losing track of the stars and tell the king that Far-li-mas has destroyed order and must be killed. The king summons all the people to the great square of the city so that God may decide the matter. Again Far-li-mas tells his stories, and in the morning the priests are all dead. The old way of sacrifice is abandoned. King Akaf lives until he dies a natural death, and Far-li-mas reigns after him with Sali as his queen.
But upon the death of Far-li-mas, the neighboring kingdoms abandon the oaths of friendship they had sworn to the great Akaf and make war on Naphta. The kingdom is destroyed, the cities abandoned, and the desert covered its once broad fields of grain.
Calasso tells us,
This is a story about the passage from one world to another, from one order to another—and about the ruin of both. It is the story of the precariousness of order: of the old order and the new. The story of their perpetual ruin. (139)
Although Calasso is not impressed by modernity, he is equally unenthralled by the ancient world. No society has really found a solution to the problems of being alive. What he seems to hate about modernity is that we keep proclaiming that we have, in fact, done so, while the ancients at least realized that this was beyond our powers.
Blood sacrifice is one of Calasso's constant themes, and he often makes it a sign of the difference between us and our ancestors: they carried out sacrificial rites, and we do not. This might seem odd, since blood sacrifice disappeared from Europe more than a millennium before the modern age. When I first read The Ruin of Kasch I did not understand where he was going, but after reading his other books and coming back to this one I have some theories. For one, Calasso makes the rite of sacrifice stand in for all the ways we destroy in order to live. He sometimes describers slaughterhouses as sites of industrial sacrifice, and he writes that with World War I human sacrifice returned to Europe on a grand scale.
More subtly, Calasso seems to regard sacrifice as a way of defining human consciousness, not neurologically, but it terms of experience. The sacrificer beholds the other, the animal to be killed, and recognizes it as something separate from himself; and yet they are also connected, since the victim is actually standing in for the sacrificer, one life for another; he is thus aware than one thing can stand for another, as a word for a thought; he feels guilt over the death he must cause, and yet feels also that it must be done; he thinks of other sacrifices, those he remembers and those he knows of from stories, including stories of how the gods first established sacrifice at the dawn of history; he feels himself part of this long chain of killings; yet he is alone with the knife in his hand, confronting a deed he must do. When the animal is killed there is at first a katharsis, a release of tension, but after that comes more guilt that must be atoned for with yet more sacrifices, creating an unending chain of killing and guilt. Sacrifice, Calasso writes, does not expiate guilt; it is guilt.
Consciousness is built up out of these constant recursions, the thoughts and feelings that loop back on themselves over and over, from the self to the other and then back to the self, bringing in memory and myth and connection and separation. Sacrifice is an act of separation, a killing, but it is also a connection that ties the sacrificer to the divine. In terms of history, we might say that the ancient attitude made consciousness a holy thing, consecrated to the gods through sacrifice, through all the loops of thought that run through divine law and divine story. We used, like Homeric heroes or Old Testament patriarchs, to see the Gods and even walk beside them, but we left them behind. Calasso, it is important to note, did not believe that this change happened at any particular point in time; to Calasso it is still taking place, in all of us.
The wise man, he suggests, can accept neither the religious postulates of the ancients nor life without them. On the one hand there are the fantastic rituals of the Indian Vedas, too complex to ever be enacted in every detail, yet all said to be essential for existence to continue. On the other there is only Bentham's utilitarianism, represented to Calasso by his dried-up mummy, still kept in London. One cannot be believed, the other is inadequate to our needs. "We are in the middle, wavering."
Goethe Beholds the Paintings
Here is one of the stories Calasso tells us, without much in the way of preamble or explanation, as if saying, "make of this what you will." It concerns the wedding of the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette to the future king of France, but not as a political or diplomatic event. Calasso instead describes the pavilion built in the middle of the Rhine at the exact boundary of French and Austrian territory, where Marie would be handed over from one nation to the other. There she was stripped completely naked and then dressed anew in clothes made entirely in France before she passed into her new home. As it happens the poet Goethe visited the pavilion before the princess passed through, and he observed the elaborate paintings that covered every wall. To his horror, he realized that they depicted the story of Jason and Medea. This is monstrous, he exclaimed to his companions; how can this wedding pavilion be painted with scenes of history's most disastrous marriage? There is no need to worry, said his companions, nobody pays any attention to the subject matter of paintings. Only the style matters.
The Young Hegelians
Already in the heady days of the French Revolution we meet one of the key figures of modern history, the metaphysicians of Terror, the men who believed that utopia was within reach if we could only remove the enemies blocking the way. Calasso cites several of these men, most of them utterly obscure, but perhaps more frightening because they were otherwise such ordinary people. Like a certain Monsieur Baudot, who wrote,
The egoists, the thoughtless, the enemies of liberty, the enemies of all nature, must not be counted among her children. . . . Let us destroy them completely.
One of these writers called for the extermination of a third of the population. People at the time saw this as an old enemy, religious fanaticism, with the people in place of God, and the nation standing in for the church. But the language was new, and the belief that utopia could be built by human hands, without divine aid.
Two generations later a new wave of utopian thinkers emerged from among the students and followers of Hegel. Marx is the most famous, but there were many others, young men who thought that Hegel had taken philosophy as far as it could go as thought: the only way to move forward was through action. Philosophy must shift, one wrote, "to the absolutely practical terrain of the will." Through the will, philosophy will achieve, as Bakunin put it, "a complete reconciliation with reality in every area of life." Calasso calls this the "fatal shard of the Hegelian legacy." (256) The world – that is, society – must be made to conform to philosophy in every particular.
If Calasso were in favor of cancelling things, which he is not, he might have inserted here: if we are going to silence anyone, it should not be the trolls or the cruel jokesters but the suave philosophers who want to twist the world until it fits their visions of perfection.
At around the same time that the young Hegelians were turning philosophy from thought into "praxis," the other great strain of modern thought received new impetus: nihilism. Nihilism was given its most perfect form early on by Stirner, a contemporary of Marx, who wrote that all metaphysics was "mad raving," and that nothing really existed but the brute facts of animal life. Everything else was a mere "ghost" – "spook," his most recent English translator renders this – a story told to frighten us and keep us from knowing the truth. The stage is thus set for two great divisions of modernity, the grand ideologues and the believers in nothing. The rest of us have to make our way between them.
Once, Calasso says, there were rules about how things had to be done. There were rules about sacrifice, about worship, about planting and harvesting, about marriage, about kingship, even about war. Through repetition these rules become part of the very fabric of our consciousness, the way we imagined ourselves and the world. Then we threw them away. Our science taught us that they were false, not divinely ordained but invented by other men, perhaps for their own enrichment. Our political revolutions taught us that we could cast them all aside and be free.
And yet somehow it has not worked out as we hoped. Instead of a free and happy time Europe entered an era of tyranny and war, and the sentiment hung everywhere that were it not for the shreds of the unfree past we still maintained, things would have been even worse. How did it happen? In simple terms, the old regimes imposed limits on the rulers as well as the ruled, and when we swept them away we freed tyrants to dominate us far more cruelly than kings ever could. Yet the loss penetrated much deeper, into the structure of our minds. "Every obligation was a root," Calasso writes, and having cut away the chains that held us down we find ourselves cut off from what sustained us and too easily blown this way and that, from the extremes of devotion to Party and State to extreme indulgence and narcissism.
It is a remarkable picture, and one to which Calass added in many other books before his death in 2021. But is it true? I find myself of two minds. One way to think about the twentieth century is to say that the cruelty is not new at all, just the technology; if medieval kings had had tanks and secret police forces they would have been just as awful. But if that is not true, if there is something about Hitler, Stalin and the Holocaust that is genuinely different from the woes of the past, then Calasso's analysis is the only one that makes sense to me.
You might think that since Calasso hated totalitarians of every stripe, he might have thought better of the pleasant contemporary era. Not really. At least the ideologues dreamed of something grand; we dream of the trivial (finding ourselves naked in high school, say). When we look at the past, we feel inadequate; when we look to the future, we are afraid. We are free but do not know what to do with our freedom. In the future, his mouthpiece Talleyrand suggests, "everything will be regarded with indifference, except pleasure and business."
Yet Calasso never despaired. We may no longer believe in myths, but we can still lose ourselves in them. We can escape our Benthamite age by reading. Calasso was one of history's great readers, causing reviewer after reviewer to marvel that he had ransacked whole libraries for his material. In books he found insight, understanding, and uplift for the spirit. Above all he found myth. In ancient myths he saw a changeability, a refusal to stand still and be named, that is the opposite of the modern drive toward predictability and sameness, of the dead hand of dictatorship, of Stirner's cynicism and the revolutionaries' bloody certainties. To mass death, he opposed old stories of gods and goddesses, and also modern novels in which we make our own myths.
Perhaps we cannot believe in the old myths, but then we are not so certain that anyone ever did believe in all of them. The disenchantment of the world, Calasso wrote, has been proclaimed for two centuries, but it has not happened. Despite everything that has been done and said, "the world remained enchanted."