Roberto Calasso’s ‘The Unnamable Present’ Review: Sacrifices at Modernity’s Altar

By Dominic Green (WSJ)

May 10, 2019 5:03 p.m. ET

Terrorism turns murder into meaning. Strikes on public spaces target the archetypal locales of secular society.


By Roberto Calasso

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 193 pages, $26


Roberto Calasso is our foremost interpreter of the mythology of modern life. This is a tremendous achievement, because modern life is not supposed to have a mythology. We are supposed to live in what Max Weber called a disenchanted world, with rational systems all around us, and above us, as John Lennon said, only sky. The history of the secular West, however, proves this frame of mind to be neither tenable nor rewarding. We remain Homo religiosus, and those who believe in nothing keep falling for anything.

“The Unnamable Present” is the ninth in Mr. Calasso’s kaleidoscopic series of investigations into the spiritual biography of the secular West. Like its predecessors, “The Unnamable Present” (translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon) is aphoristic in exposition, allusive in interpretation and uncompromising in erudition. Mr. Calasso’s previous volumes include anthropological reflections on sacrificial motifs in myths from Greek (“The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony”), Vedic (“Ardor”) and Hindu (“Ka”) texts. He has explored the religion of art in Tiepolo (“Tiepelo Pink”), Baudelaire (“La Folie Baudelaire”) and Kafka (“K”). He has also produced the genre-defying “Ruin of Kasch,” which traced the rise of secular politics in the decades after the French Revolution, as well as “Literature and the Gods,” a small 2001 volume to which “The Unnamable Present” might be considered a companion.

In “Literature and the Gods,” Mr. Calasso traced the fateful convergence in the late 18th century of German Romantic philosophy, secular politics and the search for a new, eastward-looking “mythology” that might replace Christianity. His touchstone was a document called “The First Systematic Program of German Idealism”—dated to around 1797, written in Hegel’s hand, and attributed either to Hegel or Schelling: “So long as we are unable to make our ideas aesthetic,” its author asserts, “which is to say mythological, they can be of no interest to the people. The two long essays in “The Unnamable Present” examine the effects of novel and often dangerous mythologies—democracy, nationalism, Darwinism, race theory—in 20th-century Europe.

A historian being a prophet in reverse, Mr. Calasso proceeds from present to the past. His first essay, “Tourists and Terrorists,” describes the “deadly insubstantiality” and ahistoric confusion of our globalized present. Our world of digital interactions, he suggests, has generated an odd couple of nihilists. Secular man is a post-Christian tourist of the floating world, perpetually mobile and perpetually unsatisfied. His antagonist, the Islamic terrorist, hates secular civilization and seeks to restore meaning by sacrificial violence. These two imaginations, Mr. Calasso suggests, are secret sharers, and not just because murder is the “projected shadow of suicide.” The terrorist’s strikes on semi-random victims in cafes and public spaces target archetypal locales of secular society. Terror turns murder into meaning. The globalization of Islamist violence in the 1990s, Mr. Calasso notes cryptically, “coincides with the spread of online pornography.”

We cannot name our present, Mr. Calasso argues, because we are unwilling or unable to comprehend it. We dismiss the invisible as immaterial, and incorporate all life, religion included, within the utilitarian logic of “society.” And we seem incapable of facing the failures of “humanist secularism.” We attempted to substitute a Darwinian “lay morality” for Christianity, he suggests, and saw the resurgence of thwarted religiosity in fascism and communism.

“How can people in a secular society, trained to ignore the invisible, go back to recognizing it?” Mr. Calasso asks. “In what form?” This incapacity, Mr. Calasso believes, is compounded by the legacies of Europe’s catastrophic attempt to transcend the discontents of secular life through totalitarian politics. His second essay, “The Vienna Gas Company,” finds premonitions of our predicament between 1933 and 1945 in the letters and diaries of European writers, many of them heirs to the European Romantic tradition, and also collaborators with fascism.

“The Vienna Gas Company” takes its title from a June 1939 event recorded by the German Jewish writer Walter Benjamin. The Gas Company had ceased supplying gas to Viennese Jews because it was no longer profitable. When Jewish customers used the gas to commit suicide, they left unpaid bills. This seems like simple utilitarian logic, but Mr. Calasso implies, in a characteristic way, that it somehow served an occult sacrificial logic. For the Nazis, it was not enough to expel Jews from European society. If Romanticism was a pagan revival, Romantic politics made it necessary to make meaning from murder.

This may make sense as a theory of Nazi metaphysics. But it reduces anti-Semitism from a core Nazi principle to a mere means to a ritual end. It also unsettlingly implies that, like the tourist and the terrorist, Jews and their killers were fated to their roles by greater forces. This logic follows German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s own plea, after the war, for reduced culpability. It also resembles the Darwinian and technological determinism Mr. Calasso rejects.

As ever, Mr. Calasso’s witnesses, including Louis-Ferdinand Céline and André Gide, are aesthetically impeccable. The best can, like Samuel Beckett, Simone Weil and Thomas Mann, name the evil that is massing in the 1930s. The worst are greedily enchanted by fascism’s gloss of power. Most of the better stylists are, in any case, ethically enfeebled before the supposed forces of science.

In September 1937, French journalist Robert Brasillach revels in the “supernatural” rituals of the Nazi rally, admires the “almost Mycenaean architecture” of the Nuremberg stadium and regrets that, due to “democracy,” similarly “great feelings are now incomprehensible for France.” In April 1939, German author Ernst Jünger hacks worms with his shovel as he digs a garden path, ponders biological morality, and concludes that some “certain types” of beings attract “atrocities.” Gide, whom the author calls “a far less expert gardener,” is more candid. Hitler, he writes in January 1941, wants to be “the great gardener of Europe,” but his dream is “too superhuman to be achieved,” and will leave nothing but “grief and devastation.” Yet in the same year, Simone Weil sees that modern science cannot fill the spiritual gap left by religion, and that, disastrously, only “unreserved adherence to a totalitarian system, brown, red or other, can give . . . a solid illusion of inner unity.”

Mr. Calasso is not a lecturer or a literalist. He does not write straightforwardly, but shuffles between ideas and episodes, treating all thought as contemporaneous. He handles the events of the past with the reverence of a priest, rather than the dispassion of a historian. Material facts are the tangible aspect of hidden truths.

As an acolyte of the Romantic revival, Mr. Calasso admits its failure. The “atomized society” we inhabit is preferable to the “organic” alternative, but only just. The villains of this book include not just amoral aesthetes but the prophets of market liberalism, atomizing individualists like John Stuart Mill and his successors, as well as today’s transhumanists and TED-talking preachers of technological reunification.

The total system of our time, Mr. Calasso believes, is that of digitized commerce. The internet, fulfilling Weil’s insight, compels us to unity by the “endless expansion and reiteration of images and brands that become wedged in every category of the mind.” We will become blind to “any perception of the unknown”and, he suspects, to a design flaw that will threaten the next apocalypse: our “stubborn, lethal misinterpretation” that equates information with consciousness. In Mr. Calasso’s cosmology of ritual and repetition, even those who remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Powered by technology and democratic “rancor,” our pagan ideal moves catastrophically toward a revival that destroys itself.

—Mr. Green is Life & Arts editor of Spectator USA.