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.