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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Roberto Calasso

The Forty-nine Steps by Roberto Calasso (University of Minnesota Press) The first treatment of contemporary thought by the acclaimed cultural critic.

In books lauded as "brilliant," "exhilarating," and "profound,"Roberto Calasso has revealed the unexpected intersections of ancient and modern through topics ranging from Greek and Indian mythology to what a legendary African kingdom can tell us about the French Revolution. In this first translation of his most important essays, Calasso brings his powerful intellect and elegant prose style to bear on the essential thinkers of our time, providing a sweeping analysis of the current state of Western culture.

"Forty-nine steps" refers to the Talmudic doctrine that there are forty-nine steps to meaning in every passage of the Torah. Employing this interpretive approach, Calasso offers a "secret history" of European literature and philosophy in the wake of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. Calasso analyzes how figures ranging from Gustav Flaubert, Gottfried Benn, Karl Kraus, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, Bertolt Brecht, and Theodor Adorno have contributed to, or been emblematic of, the current state of Western thought. The book's theme, writ large, is the power of fable-specifically, its persistence in art and literature despite its exclusion from orthodox philosophy.

In its breadth and the nature of its concerns, The Forty-nine Steps is a philosophical and literary twin to the widely-praised of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. Combining erudition with engaging prose and original insights, Calasso contributes a daring new interpretation of some of the most challenging writers of the past 150 years.

Literature and the Gods by Roberto Calasso (Pantheon) From the internationally acclaimed author of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and Ka, a stunning summation of his lifelong study of the role of the gods in the human imagination. Based on the prestigious Weidenfeld Lectures Roberto Calasso gave at Oxford in May 2000, Literature and the Gods traces the return of pagan divinities to Western literature from their first reappearance at the beginning of the modern era to their place in the literature of our own time.

Calasso sets out to uncover the divine— godly or otherwise—in specific texts, and finds it in what he calls "absolute literature." With its roots in early Vedic verse, absolute literature reached the apex of its expression during the period beginning with the German Romantics in 1798 and ending with Mallarmé's death in 1898. But Calasso also discovers the divine in the work of Valéry, Auden, Yeats, Montale, Borges, and Nabokov, and he reveals how these writers, in their own very particular ways, were articulating the same unnameable thing. Finally, he delineates the timeless, ever-mysterious laws that surround the creative act itself.

With Literature and the Gods, Roberto Calasso profoundly deepens our understanding of our literary tradition. It is, itself, a literary masterpiece.

Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India by Roberto Calasso (Pantheon) (PAPERBACK) The eagle Garuda is on a mission to steal soma--an intoxicating liquid that was to the gods of India what ambrosia was to the Olympic pantheon--in order to ransom his human mother, Vinata, from the snakes who have held her captive since she lost a bet and became her sister Kadru's slave. He reflects to himself, "So many things happening, so many stories one inside the other, with every link hiding yet more stories...."

There is no distance between writer and subject matter; Calasso simply launches into the tale of creation as though he were present in the universe to witness it. He portrays Prajapati the Progenitor, whose secret name is Who?, or Ka, as a surprisingly lonely being who is burdened by uncertainty about his own identity and the gods' annoyance over the presence of Death. Each metaphysical story that Calasso relates reflects some aspect of the nature of the mind, the eternal question of reality versus illusion, or life's "ceaseless mutability." Calasso works his way through the classic Vedas, the epic poem "Mahabharata," and the sutras of the Buddha, thus embracing in one extravagant text the entire complexity of India's spirituality. This riveting performance (rendered beautifully into English by Tim Parks) is the fruit of a union between serious scholarship and a mercurial imagination

And so it is with Ka, Roberto Calasso's treatment of Indian mythology from the creation of the universe to the spiritual awakening of the Buddha. Employing the same fragmentary narrative techniques as in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Calasso builds his story by adding image after image, teasing out the hidden connections and submerged themes. He draws amply from the Vedas and the Mahabharata, "three times as long as the Bible, seven times as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey put together." Tim Parks's translation preserves Calasso's sensitivity to the visionary power of language, presenting the reader with a pathway that leads through dizzying awe to gradual recognition of a more familiar world.

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso (Pantheon) (PAPERBACK) A stunning journey back to ancient Greece with Italian author Calasso, who, in a first US publication, takes apart the old myths to discover the birth of history and modern thinking amid timeless patterns of behavior. Ranging as widely as one of the peripatetic Olympian gods he describes, Calasso moves effortlessly between the legends and the poets and writers--like Homer, Ovid, and Sophocles--who gave their own spin to the old stories. He begins with the rape of Europa, and ends with the marriage of Cadmus to Harmony. The first story reveals the Olympians under Zeus, already withdrawing from the world, manifesting themselves only in forcible interventions like rape; the last marks the final occasion when the gods and men had ``been on familiar terms; after that remote time, to invite the gods to one's house became the most dangerous thing one could do, a sign of the now irretrievable malaise between heaven and earth.'' As Calasso recounts the classic stories in between these two events, he not only divides the relationship between man and the gods into three stages--the third being the modern one of mutual indifference--but also gives accessible lessons on ancient history, religion, and philosophy. Central to the narrative is the death of Odysseus, which ends the ``long chain of stories that predate history. After Odysseus, our life without heroes begins; stories are no longer exemplary but are repeated and recounted. What happens is mere history.'' Action, the hurly-burly of man encountering gods in extraordinary ways and stranger places, is ended with Cadmus' gift of the alphabet to the Greeks. Henceforth, religion--the gods--``will be experienced in the silence of the mind, no longer in the full and normal presence.'' But the meanings of the myths linger on--a myth, Calasso asserts, ``is the precedent behind every action, its invisible, ever-present lining.'' Here, the past not only comes vibrantly alive but connects to the present in a virtuoso display of scholarship and insight. A remarkable feat.

The Ruin of Kasch by Roberto Calasso (Harvard University Press) examines the rise of the modern state and the origins of romantic nationalism, whose sick fruit has been harvested in places such as Bosnia, Chechnya, and East Timor. Roberto Calasso locates the transformation in the French Revolution, when a frivolous monarchy evaporated before a government that valued order, bureaucracy, and above all secrecy. He also attributes it to Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838), who was perhaps the first professional civil servant. Ever selfish, Talleyrand proved the perfect servant to the Napoleonic Era; as Napoleon said, "Principles are fine; they don't commit you to anything." The Ruin of Kasch is about Talleyrand, but also, Italo Calvino notes, "about everything else." It's a whirlwind of a book, sometimes maddeningly so. It is one to pick up, ponder, put down, argue with, and then resume reading until the next argument pops up a page or two later.

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