In The Ruin of Kasch, Roberto Calasso throws down the entire gauntlet of the liberal arts tradition. Not to celebrate it like Bertrand Russell’s famous history but rather to grasp the nettle of reason and judge its claims of self-sufficiency in a manner that echoes de Maistre, Benjamin, Schmitt, Strauss, Gray and the author’s contemporary compatriot, Georgio Agamben.
Especially the latter, as Agamben, too, has digested the tradition (including, most impressively, its intensely Christian elements) if, mostly, to dissect and destroy its propositions. And while the Roman Agamben ultimately disposes to reconfigure society around conceptions of 'biopolitics'; a Foucauldian take on humanitas (bios is Greek for 'life'), his Florentine fratello prefers to look at the darkness behind the curtain, playing Dionysus to Agamben’s Apollo.
The reference to the pagan gods is apt as Calasso delves deep into the Hindu corpus to invoke and exalt several Vedic practices. Tossing big names (like Marx and Freud) as well as smaller ones (like the perverse egoist Stirner) under the bus in a series of shrewd epitomes, he hinges the text on an observation that classical peoples (such as the early Hindus) knew the act of sacrifice was irrational but also understood that it constituted a mystery which acknowledged and hopefully propitiated whatever agencies seemed to exist in the bigger enigma, an unknown external reality.
This history is held up as a mirror to the modern West; a society that still demands sacrifices, trivial and profound, ongoing and temporary, but dedicates them to unacknowledged (my emphasis) substitutes for gods like social and scientific experiments, who will reward society’s research and labour by peeling back the inexplicability of existence in a dark, satirical take on the God of the gaps. Indeed, so bad has the rot got argues Calasso in an interview with the Paris Review (No. 217) that, in secular society, people talking about religion
'Might as well be talking about huge political parties. The most delicate point to grasp is that society itself has become the major superstition of our time'.
His point is that modern society celebrates rituals (military parades, national holidays, war memorials, New Year speeches etc.) just as religion does i.e. to sustain, reaffirm or give credence to itself. Yet it fails to recognise its sublimatory role. While Durkheim reckoned society had produced the moral impulse that all religions hijacked but which subsequently could be secularised, Calasso inverts this recipe to show that secularism is saturated with the religious impulses it pretends to have supplanted.
It’s a point that reminds one of Baudrillard. To study the Frenchman is to immerse oneself in a torrent, a rapture. His, though, was not the heady ecstasy of St John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila, but a religious reading of a supposedly secular reality that comprised a new order of (empty) sacred symbols and institutions, most of which (cf. Simulacra & Simulation, 1981) refuse to point to an external religious reality and so empower themselves by forming a self-referential system that gains the numinous sheen it pretends to have banished.
Calasso’s framework is triple-jointed. In addition to the Vedics and what Walter Benjamin called the 'permanent catastrophe' of life after the Industrial Revolution, is the Renaissance. While Agamben looks to reconfigure society around the idealised end product of the Renaissance i.e. humanitas, Calasso is a more interesting figure in that he appears to have fallen into the same trap as some of the movement’s major progenitors such as Plethon, Ficino and Pico – each of whom assimilated Plato through a neoplatonic gauze (of the Iamblichean variety) that consorted with gnosticism, inadvertently muddling and scrambling Reason with Indiana Jones-esque mysteries (that turned on texts such as the Chaldean Oracles and Orpheus’ Hymns), theurgical rites and cabbalistic languages that required not just intelligence but initiation too.
Perhaps none of this should come as a surprise given Calasso’s PhD was on Sir Thomas Browne whose syncretism, esotericism and theory of hieroglyphs has traditionally led him to be perceived as less of a parallel to the rational Montaigne (or the similarly encyclopaedic Kircher) than a precursor to the dark underbelly of Newton’s thought. Indeed, the pessimism of gnosticism runs like capillaries through most of Calasso’s work, damning the world (which is horrible if it performs grim sacrifices to the Demiurge/Unknown and accursed if it doesn’t – through all the sublimated evils it effects) as a maleficent mechanism, and is at its most concentrated in the tale the title takes its name from: The Ruin of Kasch.
This, like many of the stories in the book, is cribbed from real sources (Walter Benjamin famously aspired to what Calasso has accomplished: a book consisting almost solely of quotations). And so the legendary African kingdom is lifted from volume IV of Leo Frobenius’ Atlantis. In brief, it tells of a kingdom that must perpetually and gruesomely sacrifice its kings on the whims of the stars or face ruin (telling themselves stories about how they’d ideally live). In other words, humanity was (and is, hence the utility of myth as a currency) stuck less between a rock and a hard place than a mince grinder and oblivion.
The result is less an erudite illumination of the past than a portrait of mankind’s mind sub specie aeternitatis. Its quiet thesis supposes that what holds folk together is not a system or hope that purges the darkness, but perhaps a subtle, humble acknowledgment that a broken world has engineered a similar mankind that is so damaged it is incapable of fixing itself or the world in a pagan rendering of original sin. Though (missing Adam) exactly what Calasso blames for creating a broken world is hard to guess. He lifts the curtain but daren’t breach the fire exit. Instead, he offers Vedic sagacity (in books such as Ardor, 2015), which whilst often deep and poetic ('to know, one must burn') is easily mocked as tattoo-parlour wisdom.
Indeed, for all of Calasso’s recondite references, the end game appears to be rather similar to Ecclesiastes’/Kohelet’s quip that 'There’s nothing new under the sun' (1:9). Which goes a long way to explaining his enthusiasm in later books to investigate and elaborate on all the historical mythologies he can get his hands on. These mythologies aren’t museum pieces but constellations of the symbolic imagination that can be reformatted to configure reality in a way that reflects the external mysteries. But this Jungian menu is all very far from any sort of philosophical programme. Instead, it can often seem a little glib and Tolkien-ish, with excitement about the first men, elves, gods etc. being thrown back into a real anthropological model.
His chief gripe seems to be that monotheism has deducted from the catholicity of human experience that’s better encapsulated by pagan systems. The Marriage of Cadmus & Harmony (1988) contained Greco-Roman myths that implied a greater depth and range of humanity than the Christian canon and Ka (1996), following in the same vein, appeared to mourn the end of an Indian paganism that was ushered off the stage (albeit temporarily) by Buddhism.
I suspect the animus of the former springs from Calasso’s gnosticism. Christianity fought tooth and nail to make sure the gnostics could call neither God nor earth evil (God calls creation 'good' four times in Genesis and Jesus calls God 'good' in Mark 10:18), while the author seems intent on resurrecting a dark unknown. Or perhaps he abhors the faith’s merger with Greek thought in the formation of the logos as both a soteriological and structuring principle in another betrayal of mystery.
Either way, the latter is more odd. Though Hinduism contains a more sacralised worldview than Buddhism (which is flecked with Manichaeism) and an awful lot more joie de vivre, both ultimately share the same idea of gaining release from life; of the apex of existence being its negation: in Hinduism, moksha (release) and Buddhism, nirvana (quenching).
Indeed, historically developed cultures in general seem to get a bad rap by Calasso. His outlook isn’t too dissimilar from early twentieth century German thought's kultur and zivilisation division, with the former, in Calasso’s thought, represented by the early cultures that reflected the fact they were connected (via consciousness) to a mysterious source of divinity, and the latter reflecting a loss of this truth, preferring a pretence to an independence that was in fact death by other means – as in Kasch.
This sentiment is ultimately why Calasso gets excited about a coterie of thinkers who noticed this silent credo of the Enlightenment and chose to reject its utopianism and hypocrisy. The shortlist of his pantheon includes Nietzsche, Baudelaire and Kafka (two of whom he’s written on), each of whom can be said to have built up what amounts to, in Calasso’s terms, an 'absolute literature'. In other words, a style or corpus that bypasses all of modernity’s claims to create a self-contained world (when, in the words of J. C. Heesterman, all it creates is a 'controlled catastrophe') that taps directly into wherever mankind gets its kicks from.
Calasso’s own gossamer style could be compared to Nietzsche’s aphoristic brio or Celine’s staccato outbursts. Indeed, he has a prodigal talent for avoiding linear development – a habit that causes frazzled critics to summarise his circumlocutory works as 'genius' or 'lazy'. Often described as bricolage, the elliptical manner in which he avoids explication, explanation or sequential elements can frustrate but it also mirrors how the fluttery mind typically works (throwing up occasional leitmotifs) rather than how most would like it to function.
The tempo is, somehow – I suspect leavening the copy with impudent opinions plays a large role – swift. And it’s this chuckle-worthy content (rather than any intrinsic pace) that prevents it from attracting unfavourable comparisons to similarly dense but much more impenetrable texts such as W. Gaddis’ Recognitions (1955). Many readers will also enjoy the fact there are no citation snail-trails (references are not numbered and thrown to the back) slowing Calasso down either. Instead, this eccentric thinker who, in Andrea Lee’s inspired turn of phrase, resembles a
'Glum faun in a trenchcoat… whose hair is curled around the edges of his balding head like a permanent wreath of laurel'
scurries around the warehouses of our minds, hurriedly (he’s almost 80) searching for the 'lost molds' of hundreds of our minds’ casts. By doing so though, he leaves himself worryingly open to the accusation of indulging in the genetic fallacy, as in reality, for Calasso, there is no misguided privileging of the fons et origo as first, 'there is no original myth, only variants' and, second, the gods do not die, they only take new forms and names.
But why bother? Perhaps, he is still inspired by a quote he’s fond of dropping from Roberto (Bobby) Bazlan’s Captain of the Long Course, a book he translated, edited and published in 1976, which observed that
'Once people were born alive and slowly they died. Now one is born dead and has to come to life'.
This was, after all, a pugnacious thinker (Bazlan hated writing, suspecting – far ahead of social media’s invention – that expression changed the act of being and that writing as pure expression was utterly impossible i.e. the act was itself a filter) who played with Calasso’s head. Despising intellectuals (who he surmised were quintessentially petit-bourgeois by nature), Bazlan revelled in the banal objects he was surrounded by, small talk and the inanity of artistic creativity. Deep down, it feels like Calasso, sensing the apophatic nature of truth and the necessarily mediated nature of the intellect, agrees…
Yet paradoxically can’t help but express it.