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Roberto Calasso: A Man Possessed

(Rachel Cobb)

“Roberto Calasso passed away this year at the age of 80. There is no one quite like Roberto Calasso; perhaps there is no one remotely like Roberto Calasso.”

“For in the beginning of literature there is myth, as there is also at the end of it.”

– Jorges Luis Borges

“Never judge a book by its cover.” Or so we are told. It has been almost three decades since I came upon a remaindered copy of Roberto Calasso’s 1983 book The Ruin of Kasch. I had never heard of Roberto Calasso, but I was struck both by the title and the cover illustration—a detail from a fresco by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo of whom I was also somewhat ignorant of at the time. Having judged the book by its cover and in a leap of faith, I purchased it. 

Not judging a book by its cover seems to be a more specific derivative of a more general orientation to reality which suggests that appearances are deceiving, that the visible has no relationship to what is not visible. Certainly appearances are often deceiving. But how often? And if things are not what they appear to be, what are they? Little did I realize when I bought The Ruin of Kasch that I was entering a world which would confront these very questions.

There are few books like The Ruin of Kasch. I can think of no common category which contains it. It contains history, storytelling, philosophy, literary criticism, psychology, economics, and even gossip, yet it clearly is not simply the sum total of these categories. The Ruin of Kasch is all of these things and more. The Ruin of Kasch is the first in a series of books Calasso would insist are all interconnected. After years of reading Calasso’s books, I think it fair to say that The Ruin of Kasch is emblematic of all of his work. 

Calasso is a beautiful and provocative writer, and his erudition and breadth of knowledge are staggering. He bears reading, and rereading. Reading Calasso is like excavating the ruins of a once great city now swallowed over the centuries by jungle. With persistent hacking and digging, one fragment appears, then another, then perhaps an entire structure. And with time, all that seemed to be disconnected begins to appear as part of one great thing. 

Enchantment

We once lived in a world of what Ovid called “unending enchantment,” where one form transformed into another and where powers greater than ourselves were experienced and acknowledged. We named these powers, sang songs, and wrote stories about them. The great myths manifest enchanted worlds, and Calasso’s own retelling of Greek myth in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and Vedic myths in Ka embody this. 

One of Calasso’s great concerns is understanding the nature of enchantment. For Calasso, enchantment is not simply an individual state of mind. It represents a participation in the greater forces that pervade and animate the universe. To be enchanted is to be possessed by these forces. “All of my books” he declares, “have to do with possession” or what he calls “rapture” or “ardor” or even what the Greeks called “madness.” The etymology of the word “enthusiasm” (“to be possessed by God”) also suggests this experience, as does Nietzsche’s commonly misunderstood “will to power.” 

For Calasso, “possession is the origin of knowledge.” “To know one must burn…Otherwise all knowledge is ineffective.” Calasso immerses himself in the ancient literature of both the East and the West to understand their ideas of possession. He even teaches himself Sanskrit to read obscure Vedic texts in the original. The Sanskrit word tapas suggests this kind of possession.One must therefore practice tapas. Tapas means ardor—it means the heat within the mind but also cosmic heat.” Only by participating in this cosmic heat can we know reality, can we know the nature and origin of forms. Myths are the stories of the nature of these powers and the nature of our relationship to them. And ritual is a common historical way of embodying and cultivating ardor. 

One of the highest and most intense human manifestations of possession or enchantment is to be found in ritual sacrifice. Calasso almost single-handedly exhumes the world of ritual sacrifice from its academic oblivion. Especially influenced by ancient Vedic texts, he reveals sacrifice to be not simply so many superstitious rituals but, rather, a key to understanding the very functioning of human consciousness. To understand sacrifice is to comprehend both the nature of reality and the nature of the human mind. References to sacrifice appear in many of his writings and is itself a kind of cryptic key in understanding why Calasso would claim all of his works form a single whole.

Ritual sacrifice represents the elevation of consciousness itself to an intense level of awareness of how the human mind is a manifestation of the greater powers. This is a kind of knowledge only accessible to those who actually experience possession or ardor. “Ardor comes before thought. Thoughts are given off like steam from a boiling liquid.” To experience ardor is to understand how “the invisible acts on the visible.” Reality is experienced as enchanted when we experience it to be interconnected, all of the parts are related to the whole, or in Calasso terms, the discrete to the continuous. What appears is always related to what does not appear. 

Calasso may use the language of ancient religious texts, but everything he addresses remains intensely empirical. Even modern physics confirms what the Vedic rsis (“seers”) have known for millennia: We, humans, are configurations of energy evolved out of a greater universe of energy. All forms in nature, including all human ideas, are the manifestations of cosmic heat. To experience the “heat in the mind” is simultaneously to experience the cosmic heat. This means we can never know paradoxical reality by pieces or human concepts; we are part of the whole and can only know reality by analogy or metaphor. It is myth, Calasso insists, that is the highest form of knowledge.    

Disenchantment

Calasso’s concern with enchantment provides a ground for his concern with disenchantment. The rise of the modern secular world is nothing less than the story of disenchantment. When we lose a sense of connectedness to greater powers we enter into a wholly new kind of reality, which Calasso calls “post-history”:

“The societies we study about in books, the societies that make up the past and have left a motley heap of detritus or have vanished without a trace, like bird tracks, all obeyed the need to negotiate, clash, and be reconciled with what lay outside themselves. And from that Outside they drew the flower of their strength…the society into which we were born is the first in our planet’s history that strives to be sufficient unto itself and can compare itself only to itself.”  

Post-history represents the emergence of modern secular man. We see ourselves as self-aware, skeptical, empirical and beyond the naiveté of belief. We lose much of our poetic connectedness to reality. We no longer experience the unifying cosmic heat; the world appears to cool and fragment; all that remains are the now hollow idols of the past:

“It was once said, with satisfaction, that all of history was a tireless demolition of idols. Now that the operation was finally complete, it remained only to sell the idols.”

The story of disenchantment manifests as reason; skepticism and science predominate as our way of knowing reality. This is not simply a story of new ideas about reality but a story of a profound transformation of consciousness itself. Calasso observes that consciousness itself tends to reflect the two aspects of reality, the continuous and discrete, whole and parts. In the enchanted unified world of myth and ritual, both aspects function simultaneously. Modern secular man having lost the experience of ardor loses as sense of the whole, and what remains is a kind of hyperawareness of the pieces. 

The world appears to lose its unity, its meaning, but we are compensated with an apparent power over the pieces. We enter “the golden age of positivism, where Man is no more than physics plus chemistry, and consciousness is a byproduct of the higher functions, something nobody has time to be bothered with.” Our consciousness altered, we begin “atomizing reality in the harsh light of the dissecting room.” Knowledge becomes facts, propositions; modern science, as Martin Heidegger points out, becomes our way of “revealing” reality. 

We no longer know reality by analogy, by myth. As in Plato’s theoretic Republic, the poets are, in effect, banned or at least ignored because they represent, not reality, but a simulation of reality. Calasso calls this the “terror of fables.” Secular man, if not terrified, is quite averse to fables as a valid form of knowledge. Our age-old terror of fables is the fear of accepting ourselves as participants in a reality ultimately beyond human comprehension or control.

If indeed the world remains whole, then our fragmented knowledge reflects a kind of blindness. When it is all light with no shadows, forms tend to vanish as much as when it is all darkness and no light. The Enlightenment gives rise to many kinds of technological and social achievements but also, to what Calasso calls “a new species of bigots.” The champions of science and reason are “pious people, the bigots who are not even protected by ceremonial meditations, by the arcane pragmatism of a church.”

For Calasso, we remain connected as ever but, having lost our capacity for embracing ardor, the world appears disenchanted. Gods are names of forces, but, as we no longer experience these forces, we determine them to have been imaginary in the first place. The names refer to nothing. But, the gods do not die; they become invisible. “The gods dwell where they have always dwelt. But on earth, certain indications of those places have now been lost…” We remain as “possessed” as ever; only this time we are oblivious to or outright deny our possession. 

So the gods persist, which is to say, forces greater than ourselves persist; we yet “burn” but are unaware of the nature of our possession. “The gods have all taken shelter in the amorphous psychic mass.” We experience a new kind of possession: The rapture of connectedness is displaced with the rapture of disconnectedness or what Calasso calls the “rapture of nihilism.” 

The Religion of Society

Throughout his writings, Calasso tells the tragic-comic story of this disenchantment in the modern world. Individuals, movements, ideas from the last several centuries become characters, props, prophets, and priests in the great story of how enchantment becomes disenchantment. Calasso masterfully moves between Western and Eastern literary traditions as he tells his own idiosyncratic tale. The obscure Max Stirner becomes “the artificial barbarian,” “a petty clerk of Nothingness,” who would captivate Dostoevsky, disturb Nietzsche, and obsess Karl Marx. Marx and David Ricardo become “rival theologians” in competition for control of the “machine for demolishing limits.” Emile Durkheim, the father of modern sociology, becomes the “founder of a new cult” and his nephew, anthropologist Marcel Mauss, a Vedic rsis.

And the rise of capitalism itself is not so much an economic theory or and ideology but an “upheaval of the brain,” a radical shift in consciousness which sees fragments everywhere. “[O]nce reality is stripped of metaphysical veils,” writes Calasso, “and reduced to the naked process of production-circulation-consumption…it is precisely here that we see the great dance of ghosts, the final mutation of Geist into Poltergeist.” Hegel is turned on his head; the “spirit” that once united the world fragments. The “noisy ghosts” of industrialization run wild, chewing up the world, generating wealth, alienation, and “an insatiable need for fetishes.”

If we no longer understand ourselves as part of a greater whole, how shall we live, where shall we find meaning? In post-history, we no longer recognize ourselves in a relationship to powers beyond ourselves. Form, appearances, the whole grand hierarchal spectacle of reality turns out to be one illusion after another, an unending series of accidents of nature or history. Yet the problem of how to be in the world remains, how to organize a society. Post-history inevitably gives birth to what Calasso calls “the last superstition.”  

Modern secular man no longer thinks of society as in relation to greater powers but as a thing in itself, related only to itself. Society becomes a tabula rasa, a free floating entity enveloped by meaningless material forces only given form by human ideation. Emile Durkeim famously proclaimed that the social is now the religious. “What was left in the world was naked society,” says Calasso, “but invested now with all the powers inherited, or rather burgled from religion.” This is “the Religion of Society.”

When there are no greater powers that require acknowledgement, ritual sacrifice appears as a bizarre superstitious vestige of a long ago past. Sacrifice unites the part to the whole, but modern man is essentially concerned with manipulation of the parts, which is to say, modern man is concerned with experimentation. Reflecting a new desacralized understanding of reality, experimentation replaces sacrifice. 

The Religion of Society is then simultaneously The Experimental Society, where the world becomes “…a vast experimental surface, a laboratory wherein opposing forces each attempt to take control over the experiments.” What we call politics or ideology in the modern world is a conflict over control of the experimental apparatus. What we have also witnessed in the 20th century is what happens when one ideology gains “total” control of the experimental apparatus and man himself becomes the raw material of experimentation. The brutal history of the 20th century confirms that secular society is the most superstitious of all. “Secular society,” Calasso claims, “is the one that turns out to be less secular than any other, because secularity, as soon as it extends to everything, assumes within itself those hallucinatory, phantasmal, and delirious characteristics [found] in religions in general.”  

Suffocating Thought

These great total experiments have largely collapsed, but “the worm of secularization” continues to eat through our brains. In the latter part of the 20th century, so-called postmodernism leads a final assault on the last refuges of enchantment. Every form, convention, and claim to knowledge is to be “interrogated,” “deconstructed,” and “debunked.” All claims to knowledge are self-serving ruses of power. This newer “species of bigot” would convince us that even the poets are not connecting us to anything, rather, like everyone else, they are merely talking about themselves. 

These debunkers are not merely the masters of disenchantment; they are the PhD’s of disenchantment. Postmodernism is no more post modern than a man who claims to be perfect is post hubristic. Postmodernism is the perfection of disenchantment: a ruthless quest to actually know nothing. Irony becomes the new piety, and the world is smothered with a “poison blanket of parody.”  

Much of what today we call higher education turns out to be little more than a kind of initiation into Calasso’s “rapture of nihilism.” The Enlightenment bigot who believes he can know everything is complemented by the Anti-Enlightenment bigot who believes he can know nothing. Both are champions of the same dead universe; “ad men and debunkers,” observes Calasso, often “turn out to be the same person.”  

As the cosmic heat appears to cool, all binding power vanishes, and our consciousness fragments. We lose our capacity for wonder and our ability to embrace “the shock of the unknown.” This culminates in what Calasso calls a final “coup d’etat of the brain.” Our deconstructed brains are a felicitous adaptation to a deconstructed universe. We may no longer be awake, but we are now woke. And we remain as possessed as ever.

However, it turns out the universe is not simply the meaningless play of matter, chemicals, and atoms. The universe is indeed discontinuous, but it is filled with magical singularities we call data. In a single century, says Calasso, we have gone from “Dadaism to Dataism.” The universe is an infinite flow of bits of information. And, in physicist John Wheeler’s words, from all these “bits” come all of our “its.” 

We are now in the midst of what appears to be our third great totalizing experiment. Again, control of the pieces displaces any concern for the whole, which is to say, the digital displaces the analogical. Stupefied by the faerie dust of data we, ourselves, become so many algorithms to be absorbed into the infinite stream of Data. Our capacity for awareness of the continuous is a meaningless epiphenomenon, a final off-gas of a wholly disenchanted world. All that really counts is computing power, and our computing machines apparently know us better than we know ourselves.

Again, we dream of salvation, which is to say, escape from the burden of consciousness. We are possessed with the “deliria” of religion. “Information,” claims Calasso, “by encircling thought, basically suffocates it.” The bits displace the whole, “[a]nd the ‘rebels’ are now the scattered tribes of the analogical, with their vinyl records.”  

Re-enchantment   

Roberto Calasso passed away this year at the age of 80. There is no one quite like Roberto Calasso; perhaps there is no one remotely like Roberto Calasso. Calasso challenges our most elemental assumptions about reality; he turns the modern world upside down, or, more precisely, he rights the upside down modern world. “Contrary to the modern illusion,” writes Calasso, “it is the psychic powers that are fragments of the gods, not the gods that are fragments of the psychic powers.” Calasso restores human consciousness from an accidental epiphenomenon of nature back into being the essential aspect of the universe. And everything we think we know about art, science, religion, politics, history, and the like transforms. 

Nietzsche once observed that once everything is debunked we find ourselves back where we began—in the spectacle of forms and the world again becomes a fable.

All of Calasso’s disparate works constitute a kind of fable. He makes manifest a kind of knowledge we have forgotten or deny to be possible. Calasso does not lament the loss of the gods; he espouses no “theories” on how to remake society, and he does not simply lobby for a return to storytelling. His whole body of work does something much more radical and audacious: Calasso turns history into myth and myth into history with his own telling of the tale. We no doubt live in what Calasso calls “the unnamable present”; nevertheless, Calasso himself names the world; he demonstrates how the story of our disenchantment remains a part of the greater story of enchantment. In doing so, he pulls us out of the rathole of nothingness back into the wonder of experiential reality.

Calasso burns. Or, as Emerson would say, he is a mind on fire. Calasso is a man possessed, and he understands and accepts his possession. He trusts his own capacity to describe what he sees. He reconnects language to experience, makes manifest what is hidden, and shows how the visible is necessarily connected to what is not visible. Calasso confronts the grand spectacle of reality and—with what Vladimir Nabokov called “the passion of a scientist and the precision of an artist”—he demonstrates how things can simply be as they appear to be.

Chris Augusta is an artist living in Maine.

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