The point is, man has a surplus of energy which he has to dispose of. That surplus is simply life. There is no life without surplus. Whatever one does with that surplus, that decides the shape of a culture, of a life, of a mind. There were certain cultures that decided they had to offer it in some way. It is not clear to whom, why, and how, but that was the idea. There are other cultures, like ours, where all this is considered entirely useless and obsolete. In the secular world, sacrifice shouldn’t have any meaning at all. At the same time, you realize that it does, because the word has remained very much in use. In discussions of the economy, analysts speak all the time of sacrifices, without realizing what is inside the word. Even in psychological terms, sacrifice is a most usual word. It is considered illegal—for instance, if one celebrated a sacrificial ritual in the middle of London or New York, he would do something illegal, he would be put in jail. Sacrifice is connected to destruction—that is an important thing and the most mysterious one. Why, in order to offer something, you must destroy it. These are the themes of the last part of L’ardore.
Roberto Calasso is a literary institution of one. He has directed Adelphi, Italy’s most prestigious publishing house, for forty years, while publishing twelve books of his own, including an international best seller on Greek myth titled The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. In a country where intellectuals like to complain, perhaps more than elsewhere, that literary culture has fallen by the wayside, Calasso has come to stand for a lost ideal: a writer on esoteric topics, a book collector, a translator of Nietzsche and Karl Kraus, and an editor who oversees the publication of some ninety books a year, in every domain from the scientific to the poetic, with a fiction list that ranges from Nabokov and Borges to Kundera and Bolaño.
Last January, despite a transportation strike and an early-morning earthquake, I found Calasso sitting behind his desk at the Adelphi headquarters in Milan, studiously ignoring an old telephone, which he lets ring a dozen times before he picks up. On the first afternoon, we drew a conversation chart for the days to come. The next morning, we began the interview proper at his home, a sober and elegant apartment in the city’s historical center that houses a part of his famous book collection, including first editions of Spinoza and Giordano Bruno and the 922 issues of Kraus’s magazine, Die Fackel.
Calasso expresses himself, in both Italian and English, with extreme precision and touching generosity. Although he has a reputation for being remote and forbiddingly intelligent, he comes off as approachable, affable, even funny. He reads novels and essays quickly for work and slowly for pleasure, takes very tidy notes on nearly everything (at any given time he may extract a notebook from his jacket and jot something down), and his prodigious memory in matters great and small is almost discernible in the swift movement of his eyes.
There was some discussion over how to classify this interview, as Calasso’s productions do not fall easily into traditional categories. His one novel, L’impuro folle (The Impure Fool, 1974), is also a work of erudition, a haunting vision of the famous Schreber case, on which Freud based his theory of paranoia. In 1983 came the still less classifiable The Ruin of Kasch. In a glowing review of the book, Italo Calvino wrote that it dealt with two things: first, Talleyrand; second, everything else. Notably, Calasso’s “everything else” covered the structures of storytelling and the origins of the modern world. In 1988, he published The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, which draws a pluralistic and polyphonic vision of Greek myth and is still his most popular work. Gore Vidal said of The Marriage, “I have no idea whether or not Roberto Calasso is a genius but I do know that The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is a perfect work like no other.” Eight years later, Calasso published Ka, a personal summation of Indian myth.
His next three books were, ostensibly, on modern subjects: Franz Kafka (K.), Tiepolo (Tiepolo Pink), and, most recently, La folie Baudelaire, a meditation on mid-nineteenth-century Paris and modernity. In 2010, he published L’ardore, about Vedic civilization and sacrifice. He has also published a series of essays, The Forty-Nine Steps; Literature and the Gods, his Oxford Weidenfeld Lectures on pagan imagery; and La follia che viene dalle Ninfe (The Madness That Comes from the Nymphs), a collection of variegated essays ranging from nymphets to Rita Hayworth.
Both critics and admirers have called Calasso a “neo-gnostic,” a master of secret knowledge. By his own admission, he has a fascination with the “unknown” and our dealings with it, or lack thereof. We may no longer eye the world in mystical or mythical terms, but, Calasso writes in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, “the truth is it is the myths that are still out there waiting to wake us and be seen by us, like a tree waiting to greet our newly opened eyes.”
—Lila Azam Zanganeh
CALASSOI started writing my memoirs when I was twelve. The first line was about the sound of a tramway, which changed with the onset of summer. It read, “L’estate la sentivo arrivare dal viale.” Viale means “avenue.” We were living on this wide avenue. Now it’s a highway of sorts, but back then there were marvelous linden trees, and through the middle ran the tramway. At night I heard it race toward us—number 19. The book covered my years between four and seven.
INTERVIEWERYou were born in Florence.
CALASSOYes, in 1941, in the middle of the war. Probably the most desperate year in the history of Europe, with the Nazis in Paris still thinking they were going to win.
INTERVIEWERWhat did your father do during the war?
CALASSOMy father was a professor of the history of law at the University of Florence, and he was known as an anti-Fascist. In 1944, the philosopher Giovanni Gentile was assassinated. Gentile was an important philosopher, but unfortunately he was very much involved with the Fascists. He was killed in front of a villa near Florence by two partisans. In reprisal, three professors on a special list of anti-Fascists wanted by the government were arrested and condemned to death immediately afterward. One of them was my father. Florence was under the grip of one of the most ferocious chiefs of the Fascist militias—Carità was his name. As it happened, my family, especially the family on my mother’s side, was connected with Gentile. They were close friends. So two sons of Gentile immediately went to the police to talk them out of killing these three men. It was an act of great generosity.
INTERVIEWERDid it work?
CALASSOThe Fascists warned that if anything else happened at the hands of the partisans, the three prisoners would be shot. They remained in jail for a month, every night thinking they might be executed the next day. In the end they were freed thanks to the consul of Germany, an exceptional man named Gerhard Wolf. He knew one my father’s fellow prisoners well—Bianchi Bandinelli, an eminent scholar of Greek and Roman art. And Wolf remembered that when Hitler visited Florence in 1938, he saw the Uffizi. The man who was chosen to accompany him was Bianchi Bandinelli. Hitler was enthusiastic about this guide and remembered him. So Wolf told Berlin that Bandinelli was going to be killed, and that was decisive. The Fascists liberated all three men.
Following their liberation, my father of course had to disappear, and so did we. The danger was that we might be taken hostage. For a while we were hidden by a very brave woman in her attic on Via Cavour, right in the center of Florence. My haziest, very first recollections are from around that time. I was three. I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor, and I remember trying to climb up to a window because we heard people shooting in the street. But my first precise memories are from a villa in San Domenico Fiesole, near Florence, where we stayed later on in the war. I remember where the limonaia was, and the wisteria on a crumbling balcony.
INTERVIEWERAfter the war, you went back to Florence?
CALASSOYes, we stayed in Florence until 1954. Then we moved to Rome because my father took a position teaching there and later became dean of his faculty. My mother had written her Ph.D. on one of Plutarch’s Moralia and later worked on the translations of Pindar by Hölderlin. But although she was very talented in her field, she preferred to care for her three children.
INTERVIEWERWhat are some of your fondest memories of Florence?
CALASSOMy best friend was the son of a doctor who had a great passion for Wagner. We were able to go to the Teatro Comunale every Sunday because he had three orchestra places, and he would take us boys. It was the time when all the great ones were conducting. I remember at my first concert the conductor was Hermann Scherchen, a legend. Later on, Bruno Walter, Mitropoulos, Fricsay, so many others. The great pianists as well, Benedetti Michelangeli, Backhaus, Fischer, Kempff, Gieseking.
INTERVIEWERDid you have access to books?
CALASSOThe house was lined with books, mainly the primary sources on which my father used to work—texts in the theory of law published between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Rather impressive folios, many of them, and mostly in Latin. Just to see them around, with their obscure titles and authors, was far more useful to me than reading so many other books later on. On the weekends I used to go to my grandfather’s house. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Florence. He was also the founder of a publishing house, La Nuova Italia, which still exists. On its backlist you can find a lot of Hegel and some of the greatest classical scholars.
INTERVIEWERDid you enjoy living in Rome?
CALASSOI loved Rome. I had a sort of mania for the cinema at that time—I went once or twice a day instead of doing schoolwork. It was exciting going to these big, dark, smoky halls in the city center. I had a real passion for Marlon Brando. He fascinated me as an actor and a sort of mutant—when he first appeared he looked like a new anthropological specimen. The films, too, I loved. I knew all of them by heart. It sounds comical today, but I saw On the Waterfront at least seven times. I found all Hollywood genres alluring in their own ways.
Around this time, I also wrote a screenplay based on Lord Jim, which I loved.
INTERVIEWERWhat are your memories of high school?
CALASSOI had a superb professor of Greek and Latin. A terribly lively, intelligent, quick woman named Maria Di Porto.
INTERVIEWERWere you already interested in ancient Greece?
CALASSOAmong many other things. When I was twelve I met the man who was to become the great friend of my life. Alas, he died some time ago. He was the most remarkable reader I have ever met—his judgment on books was perfect. His name was Enzo Turolla. The Folie Baudelaire is inscribed to him. He was a marvelous man, and I met him, of all places, on a soccer field in the Dolomites during a vacation. He was ten years older than me, but we hit it off right away. He heard me say that what Croce wrote on Baudelaire was not so great, and we started talking and never stopped.
INTERVIEWERWas he a professional intellectual?
CALASSOA bit in the way of those Oxford dons who publish half a dozen articles in their lives. He taught for years at the University of Padua. His family had a very charming house in Venice, and I used to go there often for long stays. We would go around talking until four in the morning. When we met, he was plunged into Proust.
INTERVIEWERA passion he transferred to you?
CALASSOYes, the Recherche had just been published in three volumes in the French Pléiade, so I asked for it as a Christmas gift. Proust became a great love, and he is still one of the writers I return to often.
INTERVIEWERWhat was your Ph.D. about?
CALASSOThe theory of hieroglyphs in Sir Thomas Browne—to my mind, the best English prose of the seventeenth century. Borges loved him—he was one of his favorite authors. And he was also a favorite of my supervisor, Mario Praz.
INTERVIEWERWhat attracted you to Browne to begin with?
CALASSOEverything. He was a great writer. A sort of lesser English parallel to Montaigne, but esoteric. Hieroglyphs—the idea of a language made up of images—are connected with all my work. For a long time, this language was considered more important than the language of words. Certain writers or scholars, like Thomas Browne, believed that they were a secret language. That was the beginning of many things for me. The doctorate was also a good pretext for going to London. Mornings in the British Library and afternoons in the Warburg Institute. Or the opposite. An ideal life. It was the sixties, the beginning of the Beatles and so much else. Naturally I postponed the end of my dissertation as long as I could. In the end I wrote it in less than a month, smoking hashish every night. I had some American friends in Rome back then, experts in all sorts of drugs. Rather astonishing when I think about it now.
INTERVIEWERAnd you were already working with Adelphi?
CALASSOYes, the first books by Adelphi appeared at the end of ’63. Roberto Bazlen, the man who originally conceived Adelphi’s program, was staying in Rome as well, so I saw him a lot.
INTERVIEWERThen you worked at Adelphi from the beginning?
CALASSOSince my twenty-first birthday, in 1962. That was the day on which Bazlen told me that a publishing house was going to start where we might publish the books we truly liked. It didn’t even have a name yet. The books in my room at the publishing house are what remains of the large and precious library he had—it was the library of a man who bought the novels of Kafka and Joyce when they appeared because they were the young writers around. He is the one who really discovered Svevo, for instance. He ordered his friend Montale to read this totally obscure writer.
INTERVIEWERBazlen helped you navigate the world of letters in your youth?
CALASSOBazlen was a great Taoist master. He taught me more than anyone else, without teaching anything. He was rather against writing, he didn’t think one should necessarily write. He thought one ought to try to be in some way, without necessarily writing about it. He had a stupendous line, which is published in his posthumous writings—“Once people were born alive and slowly they died. Now one is born dead and slowly has to come to life.” In 1965 Bazlen died, and Adelphi had its first big financial crisis. But we managed to survive. In 1968, I realized I had to come to Milan, and I officially became the editorial director in ’71. From then on, I always did the same things—reading, choosing, and preparing books.
INTERVIEWERYou had a passion for it.
CALASSOAlways. For me, it was absolutely natural. As natural as writing.
INTERVIEWERDo you write on a computer?
CALASSOI write with this pen. I have always written with a fountain pen. Always in longhand. For many years I used to copy the final text on a Lettera 22. By now I have three Lettera 22s. One is mine, one Bazlen’s, and the other one is Brodsky’s, with a Cyrillic keyboard. We were the closest friends. I treasure it.
INTERVIEWERWhat color is your ink?
CALASSOUsually it’s black. Red for corrections. Then I hand the pages to my assistant, Federica, and she transcribes them on the computer.
INTERVIEWERDo you recorrect?
CALASSOThere may be no further corrections, or endless ones. I have never written a book, except maybe L’impuro folle, from beginning to end. It is always a mosaic, if you will, in which I write page 80, 30, 315 in any given order. And I never know where the final place of what I am writing in the book will be. It’s the same with every book. I also have thousands of Bristol cards. I use them for detailed notes on the books I read, and more general notes as well. I call this “the material.” It’s whatever may be useful one day. Sometimes these cards contain fragments of my future books.
INTERVIEWERYou never compose on a computer.
INTERVIEWERDo you have a daily ritual?
CALASSOIn the morning I try not to have much to do with the publishing house. I prefer to simply write, to work on my books. Then, around three thirty, I go to Adelphi and I stay there until seven. Well, in truth, that is how things should be, but they are disrupted practically every day. Every morning I am called, I have to call, there are e-mails coming, so I never feel totally separated from the publishing house. Thankfully I have such bright collaborators, people with whom I get on very well, and we don’t have those endless meetings that are the torture of publishing life. So I can’t complain. I am very happy it works this way. For a house that publishes by now eighty to ninety new titles a year, it is indispensable.
On Friday, before you came, we had one of those rituals called a “sales conference,” and I had to talk about twenty-eight books, giving each roughly three minutes, so that our eighty salespeople would go off and speak for thirty seconds to the booksellers about each of the same books. It is rather harrowing.
INTERVIEWERHas e-mail disrupted your writing and your intellectual life?
CALASSOIt disrupted my life as a publisher very much because I used to rely on delays of the post and I can’t anymore. Agents now torture you by sending a PDF and giving you thirty-six hours to decide. In the past, you could easily take two or three months. Now you have multiple submissions, dozens of things to read all at once, manuscripts often by virtually unknown authors. And sometimes the very best things are there.
INTERVIEWERHow did you come to write your first—and, so far, only—novel, L’impuro folle, whose protagonist is Schreber, a German judge on whose case Freud founded his theory of paranoia?
CALASSOI had always been interested in psychoanalysis. One day I was in London in a secondhand bookshop, and I noticed a copy of Schreber’s memoirs, in an English translation. I was curious because I’d read the essay by Freud on Schreber, which Freud had based on these memoirs. So I started reading, and it was one of the great shocks, a phenomenally powerful book. Schreber, a former judge, was sent to the lunatic asylum and published, at his own expense, his nightmarish memoir of his visions and his treatment there at the hands of renowned psychiatrists. The book was obviously a shame for the relatives, so they destroyed all the copies they could lay their hands on.
INTERVIEWERBut you have a copy right here, in your library.
CALASSOIt’s one of the very few surviving copies. If we continue down this part of my library, it could last for hours, because every book here has a story. There are some works you really don’t expect. Take a look at this for instance—does it remind you of the Adelphi books? It’s a design by Aubrey Beardsley, a publicity brochure for an English publisher in 1896, and we borrowed it for our most acclaimed series, the Biblioteca Adelphi. And this is the first book that Kafka ever published, Betrachtung. There were eight hundred copies. In one of his letters, he mentions having gone to a bookshop to see if anyone had bought the book and realizing that, of the eleven copies sold, only one had been bought by someone other than him.
INTERVIEWERYou were thirty-three when you published L’impuro folle. That was your first book?
CALASSOYes. I had already translated Ecce Homo, followed by a very long essay on Nietzsche, a book of sorts, which is now part of The Forty-Nine Steps. I was writing in magazines as well. Then I introduced Karl Kraus and translated three books of aphorisms by him. Kraus was the first great mind on the media. But it was terribly difficult to translate him. Ah, look, here are the complete issues of Die Fackel, the magazine he wrote practically alone for thirty-seven years.
INTERVIEWERYour very first essay was on Adorno, whom you knew. How did you meet him?
CALASSOIt was at the house of Elena Croce, the daughter of the philosopher. In her house one could meet many of the important writers of the time. Adorno was invited for a lecture in Rome. I went to Elena’s for a party, and of course Adorno was there, and I started talking with him.
INTERVIEWERWas it then he said, “Remarkable, this young man. He knows all my books, even those I haven’t written yet”?
CALASSOIt’s an anecdote people like to tell.
INTERVIEWERWhat do you suppose you told him in the conversation that impressed him so much?
CALASSOI think he understood that I knew his work. There was a rumor that he was writing a book that was to become Negative Dialectics, his last important work. So I inquired about that, and he was likely extremely surprised that I even knew.
INTERVIEWERHow did you find the drive to decipher Adorno while learning German, without falling asleep in the process?
CALASSOOh, it was highly exciting. I was dying to read the Dialectic of Enlightenment, which was not available at that time, not even in Germany. My dear friend who was teaching me German—she was an East Germany lady—followed line after line with me.
INTERVIEWERHow many languages do you speak?
CALASSOItalian, French, English, Spanish, German. Latin and Greek I learned in school. Sanskrit I studied on my own.
INTERVIEWERWhen was the first time you tried to publish something?
CALASSOIt was when Lolita appeared in the States, in 1958. I was immediately attracted by it, by the turmoil it had already provoked in Europe. So I read it and loved it. And wrote what I suspect might have been the first Italian review about it. It described Lolita as a great work on passion, connected with the notion of eternal obstacle in the literature of love. My father knew Arnaldo Bocelli, the official critic of Il Mondo, the liberal weekly magazine. I went there and said, There is a novel that has just been published in the States, and there is a certain amount of discussion about it, and I wrote a review. He was very kind, he took it and said, We will let you know. After some days he said to my father, No, we can’t do it, the book and its author are totally unknown, and we can’t afford to publish something about an author we’ll never hear of again.
INTERVIEWERIt’s quite rare, the enormous success enjoyed by The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, your book on Greek myth.
CALASSOOn the day the book came out there was a rave review on the front page of Repubblica. That was the beginning.
INTERVIEWERIt’s rather unusual for such a serious book to take off immediately. Do you think it helped you that you were the publisher of Adelphi?
CALASSOIt’s a disadvantage in the end. The publisher is considered, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, a rather eccentric entrepreneur or impresario—a businessman in a very improbable field. But if he is successful, then he is a good businessman. The author is the successor of the saint, everyone respects the author. So to put the two elements together is highly suspicious in a way, especially in the rather moralistic Protestant countries. In the Latin countries, less so.
INTERVIEWERHas anyone ever given you a hard time for publishing yourself?
CALASSONot much, in fact. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If the book is good and you publish it yourself or with another house, no difference. If the book is bad and you publish it with another house, it is a shame anyway.
INTERVIEWERDo you ever get negative reviews in Italy?
CALASSOOf course I do. Some critics are like affectionate friends who never waste an occasion to write against me.
INTERVIEWERIt’s what Lacan used to call “la haine amourée.”
CALASSOPossibly. Some cannot bear my books, while others cannot bear Adelphi, and I’m afraid some confuse the two.
INTERVIEWERWhy can some not bear Adelphi?
CALASSOBecause we have gone against many things here. Because we have said no too many times. In the beginning, the publishing house was considered elitist, aristocratic, which was a big insult at the end of the sixties and the onset of the seventies. Then—publishing the same authors—we were accused of being too commercial. So it went from one extreme to the other. There has been no dearth of arguments against us.
INTERVIEWERAre you yourself considered by some Italians as a reactionary?
CALASSOIt’s almost impossible not to be considered a reactionary by someone. Originally, the word referred to those who, after the French Revolution, wanted to go back to the ancien régime. But I do not wish to revert to anything. At the same time, I can’t say I feel a particular kinship to what I have around me. Like Groucho Marx, I would not want to be a member of a club that would include myself.
INTERVIEWERDo you consider yourself a man of the Left?
CALASSOI wonder what that means today. Certainly the success of Adelphi began, among other things, with the extreme Left. For instance, Joseph Roth, who was one of our great authors, was embraced by the people who were in the movements of the seventies. Yet Nietzsche was never considered terribly orthodox by anybody. Evidently we have managed to upset lots of people, from the Red Brigades to the Opus Dei. I’ll give you just one rather surreal example. In 1979, the Red Brigades published in their magazine, Controinformazione, which was available at the time at all kiosks, a long and detailed article in which Adelphi was presented as the spearhead of a powerful multinational organization whose first aim was to annihilate all hopes of a proletarian revolution. The proof was that we had just published a large selection of prose and poems by Pessoa.
INTERVIEWERIt’s strange, this desire to turn Adelphi—and yourself—into a political machine. In fact, you are far more interested in transcendence than in politics.
CALASSONot so much transcendence, but the perception of the powers in us and around us. People talk a lot about religion, but they might as well be talking about huge political parties. The most delicate point to grasp is that society itself has become the major superstition of our times. This is the pivot of the last section of L’ardore. What I mean is that the belief in society as the ultimate crucible of progress creates a vast amount of bigotry even in the so-called secular world. So in actual fact it’s difficult to find an intellectually rigorous atheist. Though I have met many secular bigots.
INTERVIEWERThe notion of sacrifice lies behind almost everything in your work. The other striking theme is ebbrezza, which seems difficult to translate, as the word is polysemous in Italian.
CALASSOAll of my books have to do with possession. Ebbrezza, rapture, is a word connected with possession. In Greek the word is mania, madness. For Plato it was the main path to knowledge. For us it’s become the main path to the lunatic asylum. So you see that from Schreber up to La folie Baudelaire, the theme runs through my work. Even in my last book, L’ardore, of course. The Vedic people developed the most rivetingly complex theories and rituals about soma, the mysterious plant that provoked rapture.
INTERVIEWERAfter the paranoid peregrinations of Schreber in L’impuro folle, did you ever have the desire to write another “conventional” novel?
CALASSONot so much. I like telling the stories of people or beings who already exist somewhere—as gods or men or historical characters. In The Ruin of Kasch there is a mixture—the protagonist is Talleyrand, but some of the characters are invented. In certain cases I didn’t even mention their real identities. For instance, there is someone called the Senator from Saint Petersburg. That’s Joseph de Maistre. I think a good reader will grasp it, even though he talks like a fictional character. There is also a letter by Talleyrand to a certain Lucien, who is the Lucien Leuwen of Stendhal. There are many such games. But that doesn’t apply to The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, where the material all comes from Greek mythology.
INTERVIEWERDid people receive The Marriage as fiction or as nonfiction?
CALASSOHalf and half. Half of the best-seller lists were in fiction and half were in nonfiction. Likewise, half of the review sections were in fiction and half in nonfiction. This was true both in Italy and America.
INTERVIEWERIs one classification more correct than the other?
CALASSOI think fiction is more correct, especially for The Marriage, because it’s a book made of mythical stories. Of course, the book tells a story, then stops and reflects on it, but this happens in novels, too. Tolstoy, one of the great masters of the form, stops sometimes and thinks about what a war is, what history is. That is part of the physiology of the novel. There is nothing that cannot be part of a novel. What’s more, I prefer the essay to be hidden somewhere between the lines of a narrative.
INTERVIEWERBut leaving aside L’impuro folle, your books aren’t novels, are they?
CALASSONo, I would never use the word novel, except for L’impuro folle, but I would use narrative. They are narratives. What is decisive is the pace of a book, il passo—pace and the fact that what dominates is the story, not the theory about the story. The story is the most important element and it implies all the theory. Take, for instance, the story of the ruin of Kasch, which is a legend I borrowed from an African camel driver, who recounted it to the anthropologist Leo Frobenius. If you try to understand the elements of it, you wind up writing The Ruin of Kasch—an entire book that weaves in many wider themes connected with the legend of Kasch in all its details. You have the priests of Kasch, you have the king, you have the storyteller. And in various ways, the stories he tells eventually morphed into a whole new book, which is The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.
INTERVIEWERIt feels as though your work grows organically, like a live creature.
CALASSOWhen I started writing The Ruin of Kasch, I had conceived a work in three parts. I foresaw even the dimensions of these books—two rather long, about five hundred pages, and the third one rather short. In the end, the third one was never written. Maybe I will never write it. It was supposed to be on “the unnamable present,” something that seems to have eluded, up to now, the claws of literature.
INTERVIEWERAnd in this imaginary trilogy, the first volume was The Ruin of Kasch?
CALASSOYes, and the second one was The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. Then it all changed because I wrote Ka. When I was writing Ka I had no idea that the next one would be K. When I was writing K., I had no idea that the next one would be the Folie Baudelaire, although both Kafka and Baudelaire had already appeared in The Ruin of Kasch. Then, the book on Tiepolo was a part of La folie Baudelaire—was extracted from it, in fact.
INTERVIEWERWhat drew you to Baudelaire?
CALASSOBaudelaire is the first non-Italian poet I truly read. In my grandfather’s house, there was a very large library and a beautiful studio. Before the studio, there was a room lined with books, and in the center was a big table with papers. As a kid I was there very often, looking at things I didn’t know anything about, and there I found a copy of Les fleurs du mal, in a fine edition done by Crès in the twenties. Crès was a very elegant publisher from a typographical point of view. I stole the book from my grandfather. It is the first and only book I have ever stolen. My grandmother noticed it because she had an eagle eye—besides, the book was inscribed to her by my grandfather. So she did something slightly perverse. She gave it as a gift, not to me, but to my mother. My mother, in her very last years, gave it to me. So there are three inscriptions in the book, and the last one is rather recent.
When I stole it, I must have been twelve. I was starting to learn French and, of course, I was attracted by the title—it was irresistible. I always had a special sense for Baudelaire, which I never had for any other poet—something more direct, more intimate. And I have to admit that the Folie Baudelaire was the book I wrote with the most ease.
INTERVIEWERHow long did it take you?
CALASSOIt took some time, because what you read now is only a part of the whole—I took out so many things. The book is not only about Baudelaire, but about the wave that, influenced by him, ran through France in the nineteenth century, both in literature and in art. Baudelaire was far more than a great poet. He established the keyboard of a sensibility that still lives within us, if we are not total brutes. The Tiepolo book was a big branch of this tree, and the branch detached itself because I felt it was a book and it had to be alone. So Tiepolo Pink was published before the Folie. I can’t judge exactly how long it took, perhaps around five years.
INTERVIEWERThat’s not exactly a rush.
CALASSOConsider that L’ardore, my latest book, is something that has gone on with me since Ka, so more or less fifteen years. No other book of mine has taken so much time.
INTERVIEWERYou constructed the Folie Baudelaire around the dream of the “brothel-museum”?
CALASSOYes, the whole book converges toward that story—this strange creature, if you will, which is the brothel-museum dream, and where one finds all the strands of Baudelaire. But here’s an important point—that dream corresponds to a real and rather magical place in Paris, the Palais-Royal eighteenth-century garden and colonnade. At the end of The Ruin of Kasch, there is a part called “Voices from the Palais-Royal,” where the Palais-Royal is presented as an ultimate image of our world—where everything concentrates and anything can happen. At once paradise and hell. The Palais-Royal notoriously housed prostitutes but also coffee houses, political meetings, science laboratories, and gambling parlors. And it was the place where Diderot used to sit on a bench and fantasize. It is an outside space, and the brothel-museum functions like a Baudelairian mirror world inside.
INTERVIEWERImagine if you had written all these books without narrative—it might have amounted to a sum of forbidding theories.
CALASSOMaybe I’m inclined to what Nietzsche called “impure thought,” that is to say, a kind of thought where abstractions are so mixed with the facts of life that you can’t disentangle them. I feel thought in general, and in particular what is unfortunately called “philosophy,” should lead a sort of clandestine life for a while, just to renew itself. By clandestine I mean concealed in stories, in anecdotes, in numerous forms that are not the form of the treatise. Then thought can biologically renew itself, as it were.
INTERVIEWERWe are sitting in your study in Milan. Will you describe it?
CALASSOThis room where we are sitting is for me a tolerable approximation to paradise. You need to have a very big table first of all. A friend of mine designed this one. You must have many things on it. All the books you see here are what I need for the work I’m doing right now. In one corner there are papers connected with the publishing house. And here are many dictionaries. On the wall in front, it’s all Greece and Rome. On the wall behind, all India. It’s good to feel that you are in a room that contains a substantial part of the Loeb Classical Library and the Belles Lettres.
INTERVIEWERHow do you organize your library?
CALASSOA proper answer would imply writing an autobiography. It reminds me of a delightful work by a seventeenth-century French scholar, Gabriel Naudé, Advis pour dresser une bibliothèque. For me there are several criteria—practical, aesthetic, capricious. The essential thing is to obey what Aby Warburg called the “law of the good neighbor.” When looking for a book, you may discover that you were in fact looking for the book next to it. It’s the principle on which the marvelous Warburg Library in London is based. And of course the positions of books change in the course of time. They become like a geologic system of layers. In my case, alas, the books are in different places—around twenty thousand in the basement of the publishing house, and more yet in another apartment.
INTERVIEWERYour own books are, in a way, tributes to great poets and storytellers. Are there a few writers who accompany you always?
CALASSOProust. Kafka for sure. Baudelaire absolutely. Nietzsche. John Donne. And I wouldn’t want to limit myself to the West, so Yajnavalkya, Chuang Tzu. Yet I feel so unjust to so many if I start drawing lists.
INTERVIEWERHere is a photo of you and your late friend Brodsky. He wrote a wonderful essay on The Marriage where he talks about self-projection. He draws a parallel between mythology and television. The scales and parameters are different, but myth and TV are both ultimately about self-projection. The seat of both is one’s mind. The altar in both cases is a box. Sacrifice is the remote control.
CALASSOThat’s highly Brodskian. The point is, man has a surplus of energy which he has to dispose of. That surplus is simply life. There is no life without surplus. Whatever one does with that surplus, that decides the shape of a culture, of a life, of a mind. There were certain cultures that decided they had to offer it in some way. It is not clear to whom, why, and how, but that was the idea. There are other cultures, like ours, where all this is considered entirely useless and obsolete. In the secular world, sacrifice shouldn’t have any meaning at all. At the same time, you realize that it does, because the word has remained very much in use. In discussions of the economy, analysts speak all the time of sacrifices, without realizing what is inside the word. Even in psychological terms, sacrifice is a most usual word. It is considered illegal—for instance, if one celebrated a sacrificial ritual in the middle of London or New York, he would do something illegal, he would be put in jail. Sacrifice is connected to destruction—that is an important thing and the most mysterious one. Why, in order to offer something, you must destroy it. These are the themes of the last part of L’ardore.
INTERVIEWERYou have said that Lévi-Strauss was afraid of the notion.
CALASSOHe couldn’t deal with sacrifice, it destroyed his whole theory. I have much admiration for Lévi-Strauss, and I learned a lot from him. But there are certain things, like ritual and sacrifice, that made him nervous, because they disrupted the architecture of his thought.
INTERVIEWERBut Bataille tackled it.
CALASSOBataille is the opposite. Bataille wrote of sacrifice all his life. His best book on that was La part maudite, a very audacious work. But Bataille was not a rigorous thinker. He wrote too much and had a terrible habit—ressassement, endless repetitions. Yet in a way, he put the question at the center of everything.
INTERVIEWERI think it is also central for you. Why is sacrifice so important?
CALASSOMaybe it’s simply because sacrifice brings us into dealings with the unknown. In the act of sacrifice, you establish a relation with something that you recognize as enigmatic and powerful. Our collective psyche seems to have lost touch with it, although science is providing countless motives for being overwhelmed by the unknown. The unknown itself is in our own mind as well—our mind is in its largest part totally unknown to us. Therefore, it is not only a relation to the exterior world, it is a relation to ourselves. We establish a connection with the unknown through the act of giving something and, paradoxically, the act of destroying something. That is what is behind sacrifice. What you offer and what you destroy, it is that surplus which is life itself.
INTERVIEWERDescartes speaks of man as “maître et possesseur de la nature.”
CALASSOWell, you find that notion already in Genesis. But that has its own consequence—guilt. Guilt lies at the root of sacrifice. Sacrifice is not a way to avoid guilt or to excuse guilt, it is a repetition of guilt. In a sense, it’s a reinforcement of guilt. The first guilt is the very fact of making things disappear. Killing is only one of the ways of achieving that. Eating is another.
These actions are all very closely connected and they reach very far back into prehistory. They have gone on for hundreds of thousands of years and have thus left their traces in our minds. You can take them into account or ignore them. Our world attempts to ignore them, it considers all of these things as very remote. In my books, I try to unearth them.
INTERVIEWERHave you seen Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog?
CALASSOYes. The things we are talking about are simply a way to come near the mystery implied in the Chauvet cave. One great dividing line between our world and theirs is our relation to animals. Going from hunted to hunter. The other is metamorphosis. In one world, metamorphosis is taken for granted, as a sort of basic experience. In the other, it is taken for granted that it doesn’t happen, that it’s a pathological phenomenon, as, for example, the werewolf. But we were all wolves in a sense. Or rather, we became wolves, that was part of the metamorphosis.
INTERVIEWERYou mean predators?
CALASSOPredators. The wolf is an animal who kills and is a danger to men. But Apollo was, among other things, a wolf. Then you had the girls who in Athens were trained in the temple of Artemis to become little bears. You see how the Chauvet themes mingle with mythology. You cannot understand mythology without this notion of metamorphosis. Ovid is, I think, the last great tragic and epic poet of that era because he tells the story of a world where metamorphoses happen all the time—but then stop. The stories he tells are stories of a girl becoming, for instance, a tree or a plant, but not reverting to being a girl. She remains a tree, and that, of course, is tragic.
INTERVIEWERYou write in The Marriage, “We enter the mythical when we enter the realm of risk, and myth is the enchantment we generate in ourselves at such moments.” What does this mean?
CALASSOThis comes from Plato, from the Phaedo. Socrates says that precisely. Within the realm of myth, you wander into this danger zone, and that is the zone of the unknown. What you can do there is, first of all, utter or sing a carmen, a word that is usually translated as “poem” but primarily means “enchantment.” That is the best weapon at our disposal.
INTERVIEWERBut when do we enter the realm of myth?
CALASSOWe are already there. As Sallustius the Neoplatonist wrote, the world itself is a myth. So no matter what we are doing, we are in the midst of a fable. And fables are by definition what enchant us. The only question is whether we perceive it or not.
INTERVIEWERAfter The Marriage, with Ka, you moved from Western myth to Indian thought. How did this come about?
CALASSOTo me, very early on, the Vedic texts seemed to go beyond whatever else one may read on certain points. If you want to have an inkling about two essential words like consciousness and mind, you must look into these texts. You never find anything as enlightening anywhere else. And in The Ruin of Kasch, you already find the Sanskrit word .rta, which means “order of the world.” The entire book is about that, although at first glance it appears more like a book on the French Revolution and what happened afterward. But at the center are the stories of Far-li-mas, a mysterious storyteller who made the priests of Kasch forget about their duties and cause the ruin of their kingdom.
Now, to me, there are no stories as enchanting as the stories of Greek mythology, of which only a tiny section is known in our literary tradition. So I plunged into that forest of stories, and after Kasch came Cadmus and Harmony. But that turned out to be only a prelude, because then I felt the need to leave the forest and step into a jungle. The jungle was the Indian stories, which are even more maddeningly complicated. It lasted seven years—that move—and I had to learn a bit of Sanskrit. At the end, there was Ka, which, in a way, is a parallel book to The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.
INTERVIEWERIn Ka you wrote that you agree with the Indians who say that whatever is there in the world is in the Mahabharata, and if you don’t find it, it is nowhere else.
CALASSOAnd just as you get lost in the world, you need to get lost in the Mahabharata. So I got lost, and I took some strands of the stories and brought them together in Ka. Everything hinges on consciousness. They brought consciousness to the center way before our scientists thirty years ago hailed it as a great new scientific theme.
The connections are obvious and very fascinating between Indian stories and Greek stories, but I didn’t want to produce a comparative study. The Greek stories speak for themselves and the Indian stories speak for themselves. But if you look at the stories of Helen in Greece and Saranyu in India, the affinities are blatant, and you can go very far into them.
INTERVIEWERDo you think these stories came from the East and were slowly retold and rewritten, or is the fact that various civilizations come up with similar narratives an epistemological mystery?
CALASSOI tend to think we simply don’t know and will never know. And it shouldn’t be so important. I think they belong to the fabric of the world, these stories. Myths are not invented, they are there. You cannot say a myth starts at a certain moment.
And myth is never a single story. It is always a tree with many branches. Unless you take into account all possible variants, you don’t truly understand it. What I tried to do in The Marriage was conjure a sense of that from the very beginning, with the story of Ariadne. You realize after a while that you must keep all these stories together in your mind, like a constellation, because the story where she is seduced by Theseus, where she is abandoned, where she becomes a star in the sky, where she is killed—they all belong together. The novel, unfortunately, doesn’t have that power. It is a great thing, but it is one single story.
INTERVIEWERThere are themes and variations running through your own work, as in a series of concentric circles. The Ruin of Kasch, for instance, is already about sacrifice.
CALASSOI am, in a way, compelled—it is not a choice, I cannot avoid it. Even the concentric circles happen naturally, so to speak. In La folie Baudelaire the center is Baudelaire’s dream of the brothel that is also a museum, which opens onto all the rest. In The Ruin of Kasch, the center, which doesn’t necessarily appear in the middle of the book, is the African legend about the end of the kingdom called Kasch. In the Marriage you have the story of Europa and Cadmus, which appears at the beginning and reappears at the end.
INTERVIEWERAre you aware of any other writer who uses that technique?
CALASSONot in that compulsive, manic way. Of course I find affinities in all directions, but the pattern of all my books is always a surprise, even to myself.
INTERVIEWERDo you consider yourself religious? Surely you cannot write about these themes without being somehow connected to the unknown yourself.
CALASSOHaving mentioned so many gods in my books, whatever I might say could hurt a few of them, so it is better to keep silent. What is certain is that I would never say they are a cultural phenomenon. They are there more than we are. The point is to ascertain whether we are something, which is not so simple.
INTERVIEWERDo you think it might be possible to say that we and the gods are the same thing?
CALASSONo, definitely not. But we partake of something, which is the divine. The divine is that mysterious thing that you can totally ignore or that can more or less lead your life—what Plato called tò theÄ«on. The gods come afterward. In India the gods are latecomers. First there is Prajapati, and we just don’t know who he is—and he doesn’t know either, which is the disquieting point. Then come the rishis, the seers. Then finally come the gods—and they are not taken so seriously. Indra, who is the king of the gods, is made a fool of very often in Indian myths. This happens far more often in Indian lore than for his equivalent in Greek myth. At the end of all are animals and men.
INTERVIEWERYou likely feel just as comfortable in a church as in a temple in India.
CALASSOI feel perhaps more comfortable in India than here, but I have a singular sensation: one of the great things in Greece is that you have Orthodox chapels, very often closed, in the most remote places, usually the most beautiful ones. It is good to feel that in such places they have a little chapel with an image of a saint or the Virgin. I like that.
INTERVIEWERDo you fear death?
CALASSOYes, why not? I suppose we don’t know much about what it is, and fear is part of everything.
INTERVIEWERJung had a near death experience—he went all the way up in the air, saw India, and entered a Buddhist temple. It is rather weird and wonderful. Have you ever meditated?
CALASSOIt’s embarrassing, because I think I’ve done something of that kind throughout my life without fully knowing it. Though of course I wrote L’ardore and Ka based on stories and texts that have much to do with meditation. But that doesn’t mean I practice anything. Or likely, I have developed a very personal way of doing it.
INTERVIEWERWe talked about a possible definition of happiness, and there is so much ecstasy in your Tiepolo book. Is a Tiepolo painting a possible definition of happiness?
CALASSOHe definitely emanates happiness from his characters—and that is his real secret. If you compare him to the other great painters of his time who were working on expressing that same emotion—Fragonard, Watteau—Tiepolo moves beyond them still. The reason is mysterious, but even when he draws a farm or a lady walking, there is something astonishing about it.
INTERVIEWERWhat is happiness for you, as a writer and creator?
CALASSOHappiness? I try not to speak of it. I feel it should belong subterraneously to life. It doesn’t want to be talked about too much, I think.
INTERVIEWERPerhaps there are two species of creators and writers—the ones who are essentially tortured and unhappy as they are doing it, and the others. And it seems as though your entire life’s work is a form of meditation, it nourishes you enormously.
CALASSOCertainly it keeps me going. It’s tied to that word we were talking about this morning—ebbrezza. There is a sort of wondrous fever that can go on, and that is very near a feeling of happiness. The Sanskrit word tapas, “ardor,” is deeply connected with this.
INTERVIEWERWhich part of your work do you think will be remembered?
CALASSOI see this body of work in seven parts—the eighth one I’m writing now—as a whole. So it might be nothing or everything.
|Calasso & Soulmate|
Every year, on a certain Tuesday in October, worshipers of the Golden Goddess, Paidi Talli, gather in a grove of trees somewhere outside the small town of Vizianagaram in southern India. Which grove is chosen depends on the goddess, who will have appeared to her main priest in a dream and announced to him: “I am growing as a tamarind tree in such and such a place.” Always the instructions are specific and detailed.
They lovingly apply healing turmeric to the goddess-tree, which (or, rather, whom) they then cut down after exposing her roots. She is carried into the town and lies there, in the street, worshiped by passersby, fermenting internally, and maturing for some days before she is attached to a wooden cart-like contraption called the Sirimanu.
During her festival, the priest, now embodying this goddess, will sit on a wooden seat fixed at the end of the tree-pole, and will be bounced high into the sky while some half a million devotees throw bananas at him-her. “Why bananas?” we asked during the festival in 2003. The answer we received was: “Do you think we should be throwing coconuts?”1
Quite similar, and not by chance, is the ritual of choosing the tree that will become the sacrificial post, yūpa, to which the animal victim is tied in the ancient Vedic ritual that marks the beginning of Indian civilization. As Roberto Calasso tells us in Ardor, this highly important act reveals the “mystery of election.” Why this tree and not another? We can be sure that the choice is immensely consequential. The ritualist is directed by the Vedic text to choose a tree “on the nearer side of the farther” and “on the farther side of the nearer.” The phrases ring out with the characteristically enigmatic, almost teasing tone of the Vedic ritual system. Calasso rightly wonders, “Where in the forest does the farther begin? Where does the nearer reach its limit?” Once the choice has been made, the tree is informed: “We favor you, O divine lord of the forest.”
It is an axiom of what we call Hindu religion that it has always been, and still is, utterly informed and shaped by the Veda, a continuous, and continually self-transforming, tradition going back over three thousand years. There is an impressive link between the ancient post for sacrifice and the Golden Goddess-as-Tree of Vizianagaram. In fact, neither of the two is really conceivable, or intelligible, without the other. One still thinks with the Veda, perhaps unconsciously, more often within some unstated set of powerful ideas and images, insofar as we can understand the tantalizing conceptual universe that found expression in the ancient Vedic hymns and ritual acts.
These works, beginning with the collection of 1,028 hymns to the gods in the Rig Vedaand continuing into another three such collections, and then into the Brāhmaṇa texts on ritual performance, the Āraṇyaka “Forest Books,” and the famous meditations on reality known as Upanishads, collectively comprise the Veda, literally, “knowledge.” They are ascribed, first, to visionary sages, rishis, who “saw” the preexisting texts, which are by definition authorless, in their hearts. The later strata are the work of ritualists, highly articulate, astonishingly creative thinkers concerned with mapping and making sense of the ancient rites—and, by doing so, with offering us a ramified grid of theories about the way the cosmos came into being and about the evolving faculties, perceptions, and yearnings of the human mind.
These two—cosmos and mind—are organically related, each both reflecting and enacting the other. The entire corpus was preserved orally with razor-sharp precision for three millennia, as if it had been engraved in the neurons of the Brahman families committed to reciting and preserving it. Much of early Indian science, above all the hypertrophied development of linguistics, was generated by the need to stabilize the text of the Veda and its ancillary materials, including the rules for ritual performances that lay at its heart. By the early centuries of the first millennium BC, the basic corpus existed in something very close to its present form, and the Vedic sciences were already working out their rules of operation.
At the heart of the Vedic world we find a highly structured system of sacrificial offerings of animals (cattle, goats, the occasional horse, or their various substitutes) to the gods. The simplest, prototypical offering is the twice-daily pouring of milk into fire; and the mysterious, hallucinogenic soma plant, crushed, “sacrificed,” and squeezed of juice that was subsequently imbibed by the participants, is also a central element in the rituals. The potent juice is strongly linked to the composition of Vedic poetry and to riddle-like contests among the poets who had drunk it. The system evolved from very ancient roots, some common to both protohistoric Iran and ancient India, in the course of the second millennium BC and assumed its classic form in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent when Sanskrit-speaking tribes gradually migrated there from somewhere to the north, perhaps from the Iranian plateau and its Central Asian extensions.
We know rather little about the political order in place in early Vedic times—probably it was built around bands of mobile, nomadic warriors—but by the time the details of the sacrifice were recorded in the surviving Brāhmaṇa texts there were royal figures who patronized and paid for the rites and priests who specialized in the intricacies of ritual performance. These priests were further defined according to their distinctive roles: one chanted the mantras of the Veda, others were charged with various pragmatic tasks, including making the libations and taking the life of the animal or plant to be sacrificed; a critical, somewhat haunting presence was that of a priest referred to as the “Brahman” who silently witnessed the proceedings, mending in his mind whatever was not carried out to perfection.
The strong link thus established between the royal patron, the yajamāna, and the priest who masterminded his patron’s ascent to the world of the gods and safe return to earth in the course of the sacrifice was later replicated in the mutual dependence of kings and Brahmans in the classical Indian state. Together these two figures constituted the structural core of Indian politics. Vedic sacrificial rituals—invariably with vegetal substitutes for animal victims—continue to be performed by Brahman specialists even today, mostly in relatively remote parts of India, but the more complex rites, including the Agnicayana, the building of the sacrificial altar, have become exceedingly rare.
Roberto Calasso, well known for his lyrical meditations on Greek mythology (The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony) as well as on Baudelaire, Kafka, and Tiepolo, offers us in Ardor a reading of the Vedic metaphysical world, which he somewhat romantically thinks is the most remote culture from our own and no less remote from the cultures of its ancient contemporaries. He has also written a book dealing with classical Indian mythology, Ka—somewhat less successful, in my view, than this brave attempt to come to grips with the Vedic mind. “Brave” because, as he rightly says, in the world of Vedic ritual “everything was always too much.” Is it even possible for us to penetrate deeply into this system of strange metaphysical equivalences, calledbandhus or “knots,” and intricate ritual acts driven, it appears, by a life-and-death urgency? Calasso cites the greatest modern scholar of the Veda, Louis Renou, addressing the relentless seriousness and inner tension that color all of these texts: “The Veda moves in a state of panic.”
To the uninitiated, and even to the initiated, the Vedic sacrificial ritual, as recorded in the Brāhmaṇas and Upanishads, reveals a mind-boggling complexity and an often elusive inner logic. It may well be the most complicated ritual system ever documented. The great fire altar built in the shape of a huge bird as the acme of the sacrificial order was composed of over 11,000 bricks, each one of them meticulously situated in a metaphysical plan meant to model the cosmos and to reconstitute the fragmented body of the creator god, Prajāpati, who fell apart in the course of creating our world.
So mysterious are the explanations offered by the texts for acts such as building the altar that another perceptive and experienced modern scholar, the late Frits Staal, came to the conclusion that these rites were entirely devoid of meaning. In his view, they were performed in relentless detail and compulsive repetition simply for their own sake, as if following a kind of mathematical or musical score. There is no way that Staal could have been right about this, but anyone who has read the texts can understand the temptation to give up any attempt to ferret out their meanings.
Calasso tells us that his original plan was to write a commentary on the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, the “Secret of the Hundred Paths,” the longest and most detailed of all the Vedic ritual texts and no less baffling than any of the others. In place of that probably impossible commentary, a gesture worthy of Borges, we have the present book. Calasso articulates, through a lengthy set of shifting perspectives, some of what might be called the incorrigible assumptions, or the primary intuitions, motivating Vedic ritual praxis. His insights are of great value, and often moving to read: “How can we know something that doesn’t let itself be known? In only one way: by becoming to some extent that thing itself.”
Here is, without doubt, one operative principle at work throughout the sacrificial system. One knows, in nonmechanical ways, by embodying what is there to be known—the universe, for example, with its inherent and devastating tendency toward entropy, toward losing connectivity; or the god who is that universe as well as the latent self of the ritualist at work and, indeed, of every woman or man. An underlying principle of profound unity between cosmos and the self contends with a no less radical sense of continuous incipient fragmentation. Calasso has got it right—no small achievement when it comes to the Veda.
Let me mention a few more of the intuitions Calasso has cogently formulated. “Pouring milk into the fire—every morning, every evening—meant accepting that what appears disappears and that what has disappeared serves to give sustenance to something else, in the invisible.” “In front of the fire, the sacrificer [undoubtedly both the patron, observing the rite carried out on his behalf, and the ritualist who actually performs the offering] feels he is being observed, stared at. The eye that is studying him is the eye of the fire. Before he himself formulates a desire, he feels it is the fire that desires him, his flesh…. The sacrificer offers food to avoid becoming food himself.” Sometimes we are given by Calasso laconic aperçus that cut through centuries of elaborate commentary: “Divine omniscience does not extend to itself.” “Alongside an I there will always be a Self—and as well as the Self there will always be an I.”
The single most enduring, eternally unresolved problem of classical Indian thought is all there in this last statement. Who are we anyway? And who is God? In a well-known Vedic hymn as understood by the commentators, this interrogative pronoun, “who” (ka), actually becomes the god’s true name: “Who is the god we worship.” Note the space that opens up in the mind with a name that is itself an open-ended question. When the Vedic ritualist performs the sacrifice, his patron ascends—literally—to the world of the gods, defined as the domain of truth.
He does not, however, want to remain there. He wants to live a long life on earth. Each time he ascends to heaven, he creates another small part of what will become his daiva ātman, his “divine self-body” that will patiently await his arrival there after death. Meanwhile he descends back to our world, the domain of untruth, where he is told to utter the necessarily paradoxical words “I am who I am.” Saying these words in thisworld, he is, by definition, speaking a sort of true lie, like the Cretan liar; if the words are true, they must be false (but not necessarily vice versa). He is, like all the rest of us, a volatile amalgam of godly and ungodly words and parts, though for a fleeting moment he had managed, in heaven, to coincide wholly with truth. Strange to say, that moment barely leaves a trace in his awareness, just as listening, say, to Bach generally, and surprisingly, fails to make us other than who we are, at least in any lasting way. As Calasso nicely says, “Truth is an unnatural state for man.”
You can see what an interpreter of the Veda is up against. As Calasso puts it, theseBrāhmaṇa texts “give instructions above all about ceremonies whose inner meaning, already obscure, often becomes even more obscure due to the explanations the Brāhmaṇas seek to provide.” One has to learn how to read them; and Calasso is a very good reader. I’m no specialist in the Veda, but at some points he seems to me to go off track. Like scholars before him, he thinks Vedic sacrifice holds within it a principle of “metaphysical evil, inherent in everything that is forced to destroy a part of the world in order to survive.”
That is: although the sacrifice is said to keep the world on course, it requires killing some living being, thus taking away something from the living whole; and exactly the same idea holds for the everyday business of eating something that was once alive in order to go on living ourselves, a process explicitly classed as a “sacrifice” to the fire burning within the stomach. As a result, Calasso suggests, the ritual itself is riddled with guilt; taking life in an act of sacrificial violence must require expiation—and indeed, the ancient texts offer various modes of ridding oneself of the substantial moral burden that builds up in the patron of the rite, the yajamāna.2
Jan Heesterman, one of the most original of the modern Vedic scholars, developed a plausible theory around this problem; he suggested that the oldest, original form of Vedic sacrifice required a continuous alternation in roles between the patron and the officiant, who passed back and forth the dark residue called pāpman, the unwelcome side effects of sacrifice—the unavoidable burden of killing—just as they would repeatedly exchange between themselves the beneficial results of the rite, śrī (wealth, cows, royal power). Thus in any given sacrificial ritual, one of the two ends up with śrīwhile his partner is laden with pāpman; in the next—and each sacrifice necessarily generates another—the roles are reversed.
According to Heesterman, a calculus of moral action rooted in sacrifice eventually led both to the theory of karma—the notion that each act, indeed every word and passing thought, has consequences for the actor and may pursue him or her through more than one lifetime—and to the revolutionary notion of the renouncer who leaves the world and all social bonds behind him and heads for the wilderness to meditate or mortify himself in order to escape this unending cumulation of unwelcome metaphysical weight. The wilderness is the proper setting for such ascetic innerness, defined as tapas, literally “heat,” a calculated intensification of the fire always burning within us—hence Calasso’s apt title, Ardor.
But “evil” and “guilt” may be the wrong words. They are saturated with familiar, rather gloomy, Mediterranean-monotheistic associations. The deeper problem is not that we load ourselves down with evil just by eating other beings, to say nothing of the harm we inflict on the world by plowing the soil and going to war and cultivating hatred in our hearts. The Veda, especially in its later strata, like all the classical Indian schools, is fascinated by questions relating to freedom, of various kinds and intensities. One could argue that the Upanishads are largely concerned with activating and realizing modes of an inner freedom that is ours a priori, though we do everything in our power not to know it.
Given this fundamental perception, there is much to be said for the rituals that are organized, in some sense, to address the human dilemmas of amhas, “confinement,” the inability to move or breathe or grow, and, of course, of mortality itself. Sacrifice makes a little room, momentarily holding the cosmic entropy at bay and reordering our lived reality, and it does so by taking life. The cost is apparent, indeed in some sense overwhelming, but to class it as “guilt” is to drastically reduce its meaning and to distort the impulse driving the ritual order as a whole. Later philosophers of the Mimamsa school, who struggled to think through and systematize Vedic ritual and its axioms, asserted that sacrificial killing is not actually a form of violence, hiṃsā, at all.
Should we feel guilty because we are not as free as we should be, or because the world closes in on us and robs us of space? I doubt it. It would be more fitting to feel sorrow—that constant fire within us—as the Vedic poets clearly often did. We might also sense that there is something not very right, or easy, about a world, external or internal, that keeps taking itself apart and needs to be continually put back together. But is this “evil”? When the sun sets each evening, we are told, it shatters into millions of fragments, which we see in the fires that each household lights at night.
At dawn the Vedic ritualist reassembles these splinters of sunlight into a whole by the meditative and pragmatic business of offering milk into the flames—and because the ritual is performed each day by all those who tend the fires, the sun indeed rises in the morning. Who are we to say that this vision of reality is untrue? Who are we to doubt the goodness of reconnecting the broken pieces of our own selves in the patterned and effective ways the ritual makes possible?
We are faced with an arcane, archaic system strongly oriented toward a pragmatic program for producing change in the cosmos and, as a necessary correlate, in our own minds or selves. Can we make sense of the language in which this project is couched? I am sure we can, if we listen attentively. (In our generation, Charles Malamoud has certainly come the closest.3) As we saw, the Veda insists on formulating “knots” orbandhus, that is, links between items on one plane of existence and corresponding items on some other plane: “The sacrificial post is the sun.”
A world that constantly falls apart requires these knots if it is to have any hope of becoming whole, for at least a moment. It has to be tied together, from the inside, by the reflective mind in action; the Vedic world has no external boundary, no Archimedean point of reflexive observation that is outside itself. What it does have is holes, rips, tears, wobbly connections, loose and frayed ends in its existential fabric; things fall apart, heaven and earth become separated, and we no longer recognize the linkages that should hold the multiple dimensions of reality together.
The ritualist sets out to repair these gaps. The knots he ties in order to do so are, as Calasso recognizes, in no sense symbolic or to be understood as “metaphor.” In enacting the mechanics of Vedic sacrifice, they are something one needs to know, indeed to meditate upon and explore, because they are true, and because they work. Knowing them enables one to heal a god or a goddess, to reassemble him or her, and this entirely pragmatic and realistic endeavor also helps in healing the engaged and ritually active mind.
Knowing, however, frequently has a more specific resonance in the ritualists’ texts. “He who knows thus,” ya evam veda, is repeatedly promised many happy results, such as (always temporary) immortality. But what exactly is one supposed to know? It is likely that Yitzhak Freedman has now resolved this question, usually thought by scholars to imply discursive metaphysical axioms (such as “The Self contains all” or “A person is made up of five concentric sheathes”).4
In practice, the person most likely to become immortal is the one who knows how to perform the sacrifice correctly, overcoming the panic that Renou rightly knew to be integral to action in this mode. We have to put aside useless labels like “magical thinking” and, for that matter, even the attempt to elicit structured philosophical arguments from the labyrinth of these ancient techniques. The ritualist, as Freedman shows, is laboriously modeling his cosmos in mind and deed and thereby acting upon it, taking it apart under laboratory conditions, exploring it, playing with the terms and vectors of its composition, and at last putting it together again. But one has to know how to do it.
One could also possibly reformulate the workings of the Vedic system as a kind of grammar, with its attached syntax, as Naphtali Meshel has recently done, with deep insight, for ancient Israelite sacrifice.5 Such a grammar would, I think, have room for skeptical and paradoxical statements, for irony, and above all for the tension built into nearly all forms of speech in classical India—between an overpowering urge to express the self, vivakshā, and a no less powerful resistance to speaking and to the necessary inadequacy of the word. In his “Essay on Time,” the great Sanskrit philosopher of language Bhartrihari, in the fifth century AD, called these ever-present contrary vectors “readiness” (abhyanujñā) and “blockage” or “occlusion” (pratibandha). One could also think of them as an intense hunger for meaning and a simultaneous fascination with the supra-semantic, wordless languages of music, desire, and tears.
I can’t help mentioning two minor quibbles. After so much eloquent exegesis, it is disconcerting to read a version of the common fallacy that the Vedic Indians (and maybe all subsequent Indians) “ignored history”; they were happier, it seems, with their eternal rites and myths. It’s high time we went beyond such simple-minded notions, which have a veritable antiquity, from al-Biruni in the eleventh century right up to the present. The Veda is not a work of historiography, but this hardly means that its authors were uninterested in the past, or in facts.
In addition, we have the occasional recurrence, even in this finely crafted work of meditative prose, of the kind of barbarisms and arcane diction that mar so many translations from ancient Indian texts. Relative pronouns are particularly endangered. Again and again we read sentences such as “You will not know he who created these worlds.” Hopefully, the Italian original has its syntactic bricks in the proper place. I was also dismayed to read that Sanskrit manas, “mind,” is “neutral,” rather than neuter. A well-known orally circulated Sanskrit verse makes the point:
They told me “mind” was neuter,
so I sent mine to my beloved.
Now it’s making love to her
and won’t come back.
Never trust a linguist.
For trustworthy linguists, we can now recommend the new philological translation of the entire Rig Veda by Joel Brereton and Stephanie Jamison, a monumental achievement of modern Vedic scholarship, though in its own way, like the Veda, a little daunting for ordinary mortals.6 What tends to be missing from scholarly translations of the Veda is the unsettling, often surreal poetic force of the verses and the no less vivid expressive power of the narrative parts of Vedic prose. The great translator A.K. Ramanujan told me, not long before his death, that he was intending to produce a volume of poetic translations from the Rig Veda; such a book would have been a revelation. I doubt that there is anyone who can do it today.
But to my taste, Calasso has truly captured something of the unearthly resonance that these ancient texts offer even, or especially, to a modern reader. He has also, perhaps alone along modern scholars of India, grasped the essence of what is meant by “writing” in this culture—that is, writing not as a technical act of inscribing on palm leaf or stone or on the pathways of the mind but as fixing a word or an utterance in eloquent gestures unfolding in open space. He thus knows that the “flavor” of theŚatapatha Brāhmaṇa
lies first of all in the uninterrupted sensation of thinking the gesture at the very moment when the gesture is performed, without ever abandoning or forgetting it, as if the spark of thought might be released only at that moment in which an individual being moves his body in obedience to a significant course. It would be hard to find other cases where the life of body and mind have coexisted in such intimacy, refusing to detach themselves for even a single instant.