Posts Tagged ‘Dwight Green’

Roberto Calasso: “Society itself has become the major superstition of our times.”

Monday, June 15th, 2020
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Weapon of choice: Lettera 22

“I write with this pen. I have always written with a fountain pen. Always in longhand,” says Adelphi publisher Roberto Calasso, one of the world’s leading minds.

I for one didn’t know that anyone still worked with manual typewriters: “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.” What color is his ink? “Usually it’s black. Red for corrections. Then I hand the pages to my assistant, Federica, and she transcribes them on the computer.”

Calasso was the inaugural speaker for the René Girard Lecture Series several years ago – we wrote about that here. (I am also happy to say he is my publisher for the Italian edition of Joseph Brodsky: Conversations. Read about that here.)

Meanwhile, over at A Common Reader, my colleague and fellow blogger Dwight Green wrote about it way back then, too. He excerpted Calasso’s 2012 Paris Review interview with Lila Azam Zanganeh – lots of it is online here, but even more of it is behind a paywall. Fortunately, Dwight included excerpts from the whole, so I’m lifting his excerpts from 2014 below:

INTERVIEWER
It’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.

CALASSO
Not 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.

INTERVIEWER
The 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.

CALASSO
All 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.

***

“There is no life without surplus.”

INTERVIEWER
Here 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.

CALASSO
That’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. …

INTERVIEWER
I think it [sacrifice] 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. …

INTERVIEWER
After The Marriage, with Ka, you moved from Western myth to Indian thought. How did this come about?

CALASSO
To 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. … 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.

See? Almost everybody is reading Everything Came to Me at Once: The Intellectual Vision of René Girard

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017
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From Dwight Green on Facebook, with his son Nate:

Nate: “So according to René Girard, a great work of art is possible through an author’s existential downfall. How does that work again?”

Me: “I think Cynthia Haven at The Book Haven goes into more detail. Let’s see what she says…”

You, too, can find out about the author’s existential downfall, and how it comes about. Get your own copy of Everything Came to Me at Once: The Intellectual Vision of René GirardOrder it here. And stay tuned for my magnum opus, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, out next spring with Michigan State University Press.

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The “last superstition”? We think not…

Friday, November 7th, 2014
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(Photo: Erling Mandelmann)

(Photo: Erling Mandelmann)

I’ve known Dwight Green over at Common Reader for several years. Like so many cyberspace friendships, however, we’d never actually met face-to-face. That situation ended Wednesday night, when the book-loving fellow blogger made the trek all the way up from Morgan Hill to hear Roberto Calasso‘s lecture on “The Last Superstition.”

He blogged about it yesterday. An excerpt:

“During the lecture Calasso delved into several topics (sources, trends, implications, and blindness resulting) centered on his argument that society has become the last superstition…replacing the role of the gods with a belief in ‘society.’ This could have been a depressing talk, but Calasso’s approach provided a light touch on weighty subjects. He didn’t let sacred societies off the hook, either, noting they have been most dangerous when they attempt to be organic. It was here that he quoted Jacob Burckhardt’s analysis on Spartan power:

Power can have a great mission on earth; for perhaps it is only on power, on a world protected by power, that superior civilizations can develop. But the power of Sparta seems to have come into being almost entirely for itself and for its own self-assertion, and its constant pathos was the enslavement of subject peoples and the extension of its own dominion as an end unto itself.

“So does the sacred society believe in something beside itself? Unasked, but not necessary given the rest of his talk, was the question if the non-sacred (or experimental, as Calasso termed it) society believes in something beside itself.”

TinkerbellThe question-and-answer session was remarkable. One questioner, after a long, adrenalin-fueled rap about neuroscience, asked Calasso if he “believed” in science. Is this, rather than society, truly the last superstition? I thought the whole point of the sciences is that they didn’t require faith or belief, but rather proof. Is it like Tinkerbell – you have to clap to show you believe, or Tinkerbell dies? I’ll take my superstitions without water, thank you very much. Oh well, clearly I’m out of touch with the spirit of the times.

Read Dwight’s whole post here.