The Ruin of Kasch by Roberto Calasso. Harvard University Press, 385 Pp., $24.95.
October 23, 1994        

Last year Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony appeared in English. Virtually everyone who’s read it, I would guess -- certainly everyone who’s reviewed it -- has been enchanted. In a leisurely, meandering fashion, Calasso retells Greek and Roman mythology, garnishing his account with piquant interpretations, ingenious speculations, and entertaining divagations, and weaving in a dazzling but never intimidating filigree of quotations from classical authors. Before appearing in America, the book took Europe by storm, winning many prizes and a large readership and making Calasso a major literary celebrity.

Previously he had been a minor literary celebrity, the head of a small but prestigious Italian publishing house and the author of a curious volume, La rovina di Kasch (1983). Though French and Italian critics admired Kasch sometimes intensely, it never achieved wide success. Yet it’s a more ambitious even if-- inevitably -- less ingratiating book than Cadmus and Harmony, so this English version by noted translators William Weaver and Stephen Sartarelli is welcome.

The Ruin of Kasch is a long meditation -- or better, perhaps, an assemblage of short meditations -- on loosely related themes from history, literature, philosophy, anthropology, and politics. Reviewing the book, Italo Calvino wrote that it “takes up two subjects: the first is Talleyrand, and the second is everything else ... all the things that have happened in human history, from the beginnings of civilization until today.” Well, not quite everything else, but a lot: sovereignty, legitimacy, ceremony, sacrifice, exchange, experiment, cybernetics; the Vedas, Pascal and Port-Royal, the Enlightenment, the ancien regime and the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre, Napoleon, Goethe, Chateaubriand, Bentham, Max Stirner, Durkheim, Sainte-Beuve, Celine, Benjamin, Levi-Strauss, and of course, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, among many other writers and topics. Nearly “everything else.”

What about Talleyrand? The Ruin of Kasch opens and closes with a lengthy evocation of this extraordinary figure: an eminent French aristocrat who joined the Revolutionary Assembly; a bishop who drew up legislation confiscating Church lands; Napoleon Bonaparte’s foreign minister, who nevertheless negotiated the return of the Bourbons; lame and a libertine, venal, witty, universally mistrusted and universally relied upon. For Calasso, Talleyrand is a prism, a perfect conductor, of nascent modern ideologies: with no convictions or loyalties of his own, he is transparent to them. “While every municipal partisan was discovering his metaphysics in the vision of the Party, Talleyrand maintained the indifference of sky, of water: mobile, elusive, intact among so many faiths. There no longer exists anything in the world that cannot be treated lightly: this is his premise.” Wholly disenchanted, free from all illusions, whether of tradition or progress, Talleyrand valued only ceremony, agility, lightness, grace.

In this portrait one may perhaps discern Calasso’s ideal. The legacy of modernity, he suggests -- that is, of political and philosophical disenchantment, the loss of the sacred, the eclipse of ritual and cosmic order -- is havoc. Or worse: a fanatical rationalism that rejects the wise humility embodied in myth, rite, and sacrifice in favor of the boundless arrogance of social engineering and revolution-mongering. (This is the moral of the anthropological fable that gives the book its title. An African kingdom abandons its ancient traditions at the behest of a charismatic storyteller; at first it flourishes, but its prosperity leads to its ruin.) To avoid, on the one hand, disintegration, and on the other, blind and excessive ambition, one must, like Talleyrand, see through everything, take everything lightly, and yet possess a vivid, instinctive appreciation for the beauty of tradition and the efficacy of the sacred.

Modernity is a poisoned gift: this-- ridiculously simplified -- is the burden of The Ruin of Kasch. It is no longer a very original message. Yet Kasch is an original book. In a recent New Yorker profile, Calasso says: “My idea is that the form of a book should reflect the theme, no less than any of the separate statements it contains. ... In every book, the form should be such that it is good for that book alone.” Obviously an impossible aspiration, in general; but something of the sort is achieved here. The fragmentary, allusive, opaque, ironic character of the book mirrors the contradictions, incoherence, and fractured hierarchies of modern life and thought. Themes and characters appear and disappear; voices and epochs change suddenly; the real and the fictional rub elbows. Like modern life, it is often stimulating, usually confusing, and occasionally highly stressful.

For all its richness, there is much to quarrel with in Kasch. Calasso’s style can be provoking: precious, obscure, and self-indulgent. “Why does thought need hypostases? Because it knows that within thought lie powers that surpass it. The hypostasis is an act of homage that thought offers to the realm of images. Those allegorical figures with their vacant, somber gaze, statues that circumscribe the precinct of the intellect, are the last heirs of the angels and the vast zodiacal animals, which once plundered thought without restraint. Even today they stand in a circle among the rank weeds, and soon everyone will forget that they ever served a purpose.” All too often, Calasso sounds like a metaphysically intoxicated George Steiner. Still, like Steiner, he has earned his self-indulgence with a really remarkable erudition and a genuinely fertile imagination.

Less forgivable is his facile disparagement of Marxism and the Enlightenment. Like many other European literary intellectuals, Calasso is much taken with the idea that a straight (or sinuous) line runs from Marx to the Gulag, from Bentham to Brave New World. It is a shallow idea. Marx and Bentham are no more responsible for totalitarianism than Einstein is responsible for nuclear weapons. The legacy of all three has been inestimably fruitful -- f or both good and evil, since those to whom they bequeathed it were both good and evil.

The exquisitely (or, if you prefer, exasperatingly) subtle Calasso may not be the right guide for everyone through the labyrinth of modernity. But for all its idiosyncrasies, The Ruin of Kasch is a poignant, fascinating document of contemporary European sensibility.