Roberto Calasso speaks on “The Last Superstition” – Wednesday, Nov. 5, at Stanford


A one-man literary institution

In a 2012 interview, The Paris Review wrote this about Italy’s Roberto Calasso: “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.

Now he’s here. As part of the René Girard Lectures, Calasso will be speaking on “The Last Superstition” at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 5, at the Cubberley Auditorium on the Stanford campus. The event is free and open to the public. Read more about the event here.

The lectures honor Stanford’s René Girard, one of the major thinkers of our time and a member of the Académie Française, by bringing bold minds to speak in Paris and Stanford, Girard’s two intellectual homes. The 2012 event in the series featured Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands. The Calasso event is co-sponsored by the Stanford Department of French and Italian, Imitatio (a project of the Thiel Foundation), and the Cultural Services of the Consulate General of France in San Francisco.

This excerpt of Calasso’s thought from The Paris Review interview shows some affinities with René Girard’s interests:

kaschCALASSO: …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.

INTERVIEWER:  You have said that Lévi-Strauss was afraid of the notion.

CALASSO: He 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.

cadmusINTERVIEWER: But Bataille tackled it.

CALASSO: Bataille 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.

INTERVIEWER: I think it is also central for you. Why is sacrifice so important?

CALASSO: Maybe 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.

kaINTERVIEWER: Descartes speaks of man as “maître et possesseur de la nature.”

CALASSO: Well, 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.

Read the whole thing here.

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