Challenging, erudite, and unsettling observations on civilization and its plethora of discontents.


A fragmented, meditative inquiry into sacrifice, revolution, and modernity.

Published in Italy in 1983, and in English translation in 1994, this allusive compendium is the first book of a series by Adelphi Edizioni publisher Calasso (The Art of the Publisher, 2015, etc.), all published in the 1990s, that includes philosophical and literary excursions into Greek myth, Kafka, Indian religious texts, and Baudelaire, circling the same themes: the meaning of sacred ritual, the nature of authority, and the culture of modernity. A new translation by Dixon introduces Calasso to a generation possibly unfamiliar with the earlier volumes. The author takes his title from a legend of an African kingdom where kings were ritually sacrificed by order of the priests until one ruler finds a storyteller so mesmerizing that the priests fall under his spell. The end of the sacrificial ritual, though, proves the downfall of the kingdom. Sacrifice, Calasso concludes, “is the cause of ruin,” but also, “the absence of sacrifice is the cause of ruin.” Society itself “is the ruin because it reverberates the sound of the world, its incessant devouring whirr.” Throughout the book, baffling expressions contrast with lucid judgments, such as the author’s remark that history “can be summed up as follows: for a long time men killed other beings, dedicating them to an invisible object; and then, from a certain point they killed without dedicating this act to anyone.” Only killing itself remains. Calasso is critical of modernity, peopled, he maintains, by nonbelievers who “deny the existence of anything supernatural. These include the harshest bigots.” Karl Marx (“a prisoner of the Enemy he is attacking”), Nietzsche, Freud, Goethe, Pascal, Levi-Strauss, and assorted French modernists appear among a huge cast of literary and political figures whose writings and opinions Calasso juxtaposes and glosses. Serving as a guide through the thorny landscape of cultural transition is Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand (1754-1838), the wily statesman and diplomat influential during and after the French Revolution.

Challenging, erudite, and unsettling observations on civilization and its plethora of discontents.

Pub Date: Jan. 2, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-374-25210-6

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2017

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.



Rootin’-tootin’ history of the dry-gulchers, horn-swogglers, and outright killers who populated the Wild West’s wildest city in the late 19th century.

The stories of Wyatt Earp and company, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Geronimo and the Apache Wars are all well known. Clavin, who has written books on Dodge City and Wild Bill Hickok, delivers a solid narrative that usefully links significant events—making allies of white enemies, for instance, in facing down the Apache threat, rustling from Mexico, and other ethnically charged circumstances. The author is a touch revisionist, in the modern fashion, in noting that the Earps and Clantons weren’t as bloodthirsty as popular culture has made them out to be. For example, Wyatt and Bat Masterson “took the ‘peace’ in peace officer literally and knew that the way to tame the notorious town was not to outkill the bad guys but to intimidate them, sometimes with the help of a gun barrel to the skull.” Indeed, while some of the Clantons and some of the Earps died violently, most—Wyatt, Bat, Doc Holliday—died of cancer and other ailments, if only a few of old age. Clavin complicates the story by reminding readers that the Earps weren’t really the law in Tombstone and sometimes fell on the other side of the line and that the ordinary citizens of Tombstone and other famed Western venues valued order and peace and weren’t particularly keen on gunfighters and their mischief. Still, updating the old notion that the Earp myth is the American Iliad, the author is at his best when he delineates those fraught spasms of violence. “It is never a good sign for law-abiding citizens,” he writes at one high point, “to see Johnny Ringo rush into town, both him and his horse all in a lather.” Indeed not, even if Ringo wound up killing himself and law-abiding Tombstone faded into obscurity when the silver played out.

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21458-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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