In Conversation Books

The reader is everybody, says Roberto Calasso

Ardor: Ardour ‘Good books are very rare. And good people too.’   | Photo Credit: Rohit Chawla

Roberto Calasso’s office in the publishing house of Adelphi in Milan is a labyrinth of books. Everywhere you turn there is a reminder that this is a man who lives in a cathedral of words. A conversation with Calasso unfurls in much the same way his books are written — helicoidal, one topic springing from another. You might begin with his friendship with Joseph Brodsky, will most certainly hit upon the Upanishads, and perhaps steer towards Kafka, Baudelaire, and the modern. We sit across from each other, drinking espressos. Frequently, he gets up to draw a book from one of the many shelves that line the walls. When he speaks, he taps his fingers against the desk as though he were playing the piano. Calasso does not think of a reader when he writes. The reader is everybody, he says. He is faithful only to the single sentence. In an age when the death of the book is constantly being announced, Calasso is resolutely optimistic that there is no danger of such an extinction. This is a man who acquires books not to read immediately, but to place on bedside tables and in nooks of rooms, knowing that in five, maybe ten 10 years, the very thing he’s looking for will be contained in the pages of one of these books. And this discovery will be the beginning of another book, another thought. Excerpts from an interview:

When and why did you become interested in Indian myths?

Very early I read what are the very first books one reads on India — the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, and very soon I realised that through that way you got to things which you don’t get to by other ways, and I think exactly this even today. Of course, what I discovered later, and in which I plunged in a way for years, was on one side that huge forest of myths which makes Hindu mythology probably the most complex in the world and, on the other, that special section of Vedic literature, which is the most disregarded and unknown, and that is the Brahmanas, to which I dedicated a whole book — Ardor.

I’ve been writing since the beginning of the 1980s a work in various parts, which by now is made of nine books, and even in the first one, The Ruin of Kasch, which is mostly about the French Revolution, you will see that on page three or four I write about ṛta, an essential Vedic word, which means at the same time, order of the world, and truth. So, since the beginning, India was there.

Can you talk about your approach to books? It’s very unique, not linear. All your books are part of an unnamed continuing project...

What I call my work in progress started around 1980. I had the idea of writing three books, which were supposed to be closely connected but self-sufficient, and then this plan changed. Instead of three books, there are by now nine, and I’m writing the tenth, which is presumably going to be rather big.

The book that is out now, L’innominabile attuale (The Unnamable Present, published in September 2017), was planned to be the third. So it took more or less 34 years for it to get ready. I didn’t know at the beginning that there would be a book on Kafka or one on Tiepolo, but at a certain moment I felt I had to do that because I realised they were on my way. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and Ka both belong to the forest of myths, so in a way they are twin books, as both La Folie Baudelaire and TiepoloPink are focused on modernity.

And Ardor has much to do with The Celestial Hunter. But every time the form of the book changes, as they respond to their different subjects. And every time there is a strong narrative element, because certain things can be dealt with only through stories. From each of these books starts another one. It’s a sort of spiral, and certain words you find all over the place — sacrifice, for instance, and consciousness. They are unavoidable.

Do you think countries like Italy and India, which have had ancient civilisations, seem to struggle more with modernity, because the burden of our brilliant past might make the possibility of reinvention more difficult?

It would be better if it was a bigger burden. People tend to forget a lot. Things simply get lost.

I don’t think that Italians in general have a clear idea of the Renaissance, which was the day before yesterday, if you think of the Vedic times. And we can’t say that the stories of Greek mythology are a part of their lives. India is a bit different, because some of their myths are part of everyday life, through certain traditions, habits, gestures, samskaras.

What is happening today is a shock for everybody because we live in a sort of experimental world, which changes at a very quick pace. India, as you know, has been submerged with money these last years, and that has changed many things, both in a good and in a bad way. The scene has been transformed in a dramatic manner. And it’s only the beginning. For instance, the present rise of Hindu fundamentalism is very much connected with the big quantities of money flowing into the country. And the word “post-colonialism” has produced many distorted consequences.

In La Folie Baudelaire you talk about how the image was crucial for Baudelaire. The image has been important for you as well, to create language from the image. You use this phrase “the greediness of the eye.” But we now live in an age of the bulimia of the eye, so how does this affect our emotion, our ability to reflect? What role can the image have now?

That expression you mentioned is an expression by Baudelaire, and it has to do with the fact that Baudelaire, who was a great thinker, not only a great poet and art critic, knew that thought doesn’t simply go through words. It goes through images and it has a non-linguistic side. So all his work is made of a combination of images and words, in a way that is rather unique. At the same time, you’re right. We are in a moment where in the whole world there is an overflow of digital images. That is deadening, simply. It helps us to lose the sense of what an image is. It’s an overwhelming phenomenon, which will become worse in the years to come with virtual reality. This process is good for making people lose the sense of many things, for instance of what the Latins called simulacrum, which may be at the same time a statue or a mental image. Baudelaire, more than anybody else in the 19th century, felt this sort of attraction for the simulacrum, which is simply the same attraction that explains the power of mythical stories. The mythical stories are a texture of simulacra, and unless you understand that, you are out of the world of myths. That is something which should never be lost, but it becomes opaque in this flood of automatic images which is around us.

And it extends to another question, which has to do with knowledge. Information is available to us in a way it’s never been available before, but personally I feel the more I read the less I know.

There are two words, which are key words today, and curiously we don’t know how to define them. One is information. The other is consciousness. If you want to understand something about consciousness, you have to go to Vedic texts, because they were the first who responded to that theme in the most enlightening way, especially in the Upanishads and in the Brahmanas. On the other side, information is something everybody uses and practices all the time. But the scientists themselves say they’re not able to define it in a persuasive way. What is sure is that these two words not only are not similar, but they go in different directions and are sometimes opposing each other. We live in an obvious inflation of one of these words — information. At the same time, consciousness was not considered a serious question for scientists up to 30-40 years ago, when they realised that something was missing in what they were doing, and started to work massively on it. So, today we have a “Journal of Consciousness Studies” and hundreds of books and articles with the word consciousness in the title. Still, the results are disappointing, up to now. So consciousness is called “the hard problem” by scientists today, first of all because they haven’t been able to say anything decisive about it.

Violence is something that has come to define humans, the underpinning of most civilisations, yet we haven’t learnt from it. Maybe other animals commit the kind of violence humans do?

There is no society which doesn’t start with dealing with violence. And that has much to do with one of the themes I’ve been writing about since the beginning, which is sacrifice. If you look at how it all began you see it’s connected very closely with hunting, and hunting is what makes a big part of human history. Hunting starts when men, who had been for some million years simply prey of predators, become themselves predators, and that moment happens very late. I wrote about that in The Celestial Hunter.

This violent change from prey to predator is inscribed in the most ancient stories. For instance, in the Rig Veda, you have Rudra, Prajapati and Ushas. Rudra is the hunter, wounding Prajapati, the Progenitor, in the moment when he is making love with Ushas.

This key passage from prey to predator is the background of some of the most important rituals, especially sacrifice.

Moving on to a different subject: today there’s an increasing expectation of writers to represent political opinions and ideas. What do you think of that?

There’s almost no impeccable example of that. I know of very few cases of really remarkable writers who did very good things in terms of politics. Very few. Simone Weil might be an example. It’s difficult to find something against her — both as a person and as a writer. I think it’s one of the rather tiresome and misleading tendencies today to judge a writer as if he had to be the ideal good citizen. It doesn’t happen. We are not made in that way. It’s already a lot if someone manages to write a good book.

Good books are very rare. And good people too. In Luke’s Gospel there’s a marvellous passage in which someone calls Jesus “good master” and he replies: “Don’t call me good. Nobody is good, except the one God”.

The interviewer’s latest book is a collection of poems, Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods.

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2021 3:54:08 PM |

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