Italian polymath and publisher Calasso (The Art of the Publisher, 2015, etc.) continues his multivolume exploration of the origins of modernity and the modern world.
In The Ruin of Kasch (1983), the author examined the rise of nationalism and its twin, totalitarianism. In the present, comparatively slender volume, he looks at the world that has resulted, a world of unfixed meanings and constant dread. At midpoint comes a remark on artificial intelligence in the form of a programmer’s quip about gorillas fashioning humans and then realizing they are still gorillas. How to keep the machines from taking over? Calasso answers: “Create doubt, uncertainty in robots. Make them humble. Teach them not to follow programs too literally.” So it is with humans, whose various quests for meaning have led to fundamentalism here and agnosticism there. These days, we fight not over things that lie beyond and above society “but at society itself,” abandoning norms, substituting new ones, arguing over what is politically correct and not. Meanwhile, well, suffice it to say that Calasso rejects aspects of relativism, certainly those that defend Islamic extremism. His reasons are subtly developed and delivered episodically, more akin to Hitchens than Fallaci: “The freedom of the shari‘a,” he writes, “is not compatible with that of the Founding Fathers.” Sometimes the author’s argument can be a little scattershot and even obvious, as when he introduces tourism into the modern mix and then complains that no tourist would dream of wearing silly tourist garb at home. Mostly, though, the book is a deeply learned if allusive disquisition that brings in Walter Benjamin, Leibniz, the Bhagavad-Gita, and various TED talkers. The two-page ending, turning on a dream of Baudelaire’s, is a tour de force and among the most memorable things Calasso has written over the course of his series.
Admirers of contemporary European literature and continental philosophy will find this engaging and provocative.