History Reviews

‘The Unnamable Present’ review: The spirit of the times

In the middle of Roberto Calasso’s slender new book — the ninth in a loosely, but inextricably, connected series of explorations — titled The Unnamable Present, is an excerpt from a letter by German critic Walter Benjamin, wherein he writes: “the Vienna Gas Company has stopped supplying gas to Jews... because despite being the biggest consumers they did not pay their bills.” Then, as if pausing for effect, and allowing for all the anti-Semitic tropes from the 1940s to accrete into a spitball of prejudice, Benjamin’s sentence matter-of-factly continues, “The Jews preferred to use the gas for the purpose of suicide.” Calasso adds no further commentary to this letter. Nothing more needed to be said.

Well after the book is done, this fragment stubbornly persists, like love stains on a bed, producing a disquiet unlike any.

The villain here, in Calasso’s telling, is not death, or the Nazis, or even human despair — but the inexorable dehumanisation of the present. What is meant by dehumanisation is only suggested — for example, the reduction of humans into gas meter readings — but we get the drift. We are merely blips on the screens of other people. For Calasso however, this state of the world is a consequence of a deeper phenomenon that has been at work at least since the 18th century: secularisation.

Secularisation of the world

For much of 20th century, secularisation was understood — in the German sociologist Max Weber’s formulation — as a progressive abandonment of belief in religion, magic, the afterlife and so on. Rather than simply become irrelevant historical artifacts, even the most seemingly dogmatic of religions have proven themselves to be adept at shapeshifting. Old ideas have found new ways to emerge. Concurrently, the bastard progeny of secularisation — secular humanism, progressive ideas, and even democracy— all acquired the bells-and-whistles of religion. Instead of God, the object of worship became ‘society’; instead of magic, we believe in ‘causes’; instead of rituals, ‘process’ regularised experience.

As Calasso summarises, “if secularists are faithful to their beliefs and yet follow some form of ritual, however fragmented or idiosyncratic, then what separates secularists from religious believers?”

These questions which take him from ecstatic myths to dour social theories are not new to those who have read him before. Yet, unlike his swirling and dizzying books of the past, this one (translated elegantly by Richard Dixon) is précis of his thought after a life time of editing and reading as a publisher, author, and editor. In more ways than one, this work is also an iteration, a return to his decades-long meditation on a singular question: how did the world change when the gods receded upon the arrival of science.

Radicalising Germany

The allusive and provisional answers to these questions form the first part of this book (section titled: ‘Tourists and Terrorists’) where he mixes and matches his style which ranges from sentences with epigrammatic lucidity to occasional ponderous clunkers. It is in the second part (section titled: ‘The Vienna Gas Company’) that the “story telling” begins. In here, Calasso excerpts from diaries and letters written from January 1933 to May 1945, when Hitler seduced, radicalised, and convinced Germany to strap a bomb on its chest and walk into the comity of nations. The result of this excerpting technique is that we glimpse the inner worlds of those caught — Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Carl Schmitt and others — in between a vanishing 19th century and the emergent 20th century. While it is hard to discern what exactly do these excerpts add up in terms of an argument — what we recognise is something familiar: a secular atmosphere laced with the narcotic of authoritarianism.

The last part (section titled ‘Sighting of the Towers’) is an evocation of the 19th century French poet Baudelaire’s writings, in which he anticipates the falling of a great tower.

As the reader tries to make his way out of this hallucinatory fog emanating from Baudelaire’s pen, Calasso reminds us that when the tower collapse transpired in reality, much like Baudelaire anticipated, the nations of the world corresponded and commiserated with each other. The only difference now was “the towers were two — and were twins.” This foreboding in the minds of a poet defies reason.

It is this defiance embedded within reality that thwarts the conceits of secularisation. It is this rebellion against the tyranny of reason that Calasso suggests makes us human. It is this idea of humanity that he defends. One book at a time, over an illustrious life time.

The Unnamable Present; Roberto Calasso, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ₹1,415.

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