Posts Tagged ‘Roberto Calasso’

Conversations with Brodsky – in Italian from Adelphi!

Thursday, October 8th, 2015



Heraclitis observed that ‘the dry soul is wisest and best.’ Joseph Brodsky would have agreed, at least in principle. But no one who reads these interviews will fail to note his passionate engagement with the world – the very world from which, as a poet, he was always trying to detach himself. The development of the poetry and the development of the human animal writing the poetry are often distinct – yet in Brodsky’s case, the overlap is poignant. Certainly his psyche turned to darkness as his body betrayed him – another force driving him to seek the absolute lucidity and infallibility of a mathematical axiom in his poetry, another level of his eternal combat between grief and reason. The struggle is evident in this volume.”

brodsky2– From the introduction to Joseph Brodsky: Conversations

With great pleasure we announce that Joseph Brodsky: Conversations is now available to Italian speakers, thanks to Italy’s premier publishing house, Adelphi in Milan. (We’ve written about Adelphi’s publisher and founder Roberto Calasso, who visited Stanford last year, here and here.) It’s a great honor to be part of Adelphi’s eminent family of authors. We at the Book Haven are chuffed beyond words – even if “we” means Humble Moi sitting alone at my MacBook Pro, surrounded only by stacks of books and papers and a pile of sharpened pencils.

The book was originally published in 2002 as part of the University Press of Mississippi’s Literary Conversations series, but given the Russian poet’s famous love of Italy, it should find a natural home in lovely Milano.

Thanks to all who made this possible, especially including Maria Sozzani Brodsky. Grazie mille! We’ll be running excerpts from the reviews as they roll in.

What’s that you say? You don’t speak Italian? Try looking for the English language edition on Amazon (here), which features a stunning photo by Richard Avedon on the cover.


Roberto Calasso’s Ardor: the Vedas, the mind, and the “inescapable role of violence”

Sunday, December 21st, 2014

Super-compressed cores exerting an unseen unifying gravitation…

Roberto Calasso, one of Europe’s leading intellectuals and founder of Italy’s premier publishing house, Adelphi, frequently mentioned the Vedas was he was in town last month (I wrote about his visit here). No surprise, since the ancient Sanskrit texts have held a long held a fascination for him, throughout his career. Its verses and hymns are also the subject of his most recent book Ardor, which is reviewed by Pankaj Mishra in today’s New York Times Book Review and by Steven Donoghue in Open Letters Monthly. Donoghue offers a warning:

This author’s books are rhetorical equivalents of gas giants: their nominal subjects are the super-compressed cores exerting an unseen unifying gravitation, and the author’s enormous erudition, wide reading, and kitten-like distractibility form the layers and layers of roiling, chaotic, atmosphere extending for huge distances in all directions around the core. Outside the farthest reaches of that atmosphere, in the hard vacuum of space, wait the critics, their laser canons primed and ready – for the simple reason that Calasso’s scattershot, sometimes hysterical, and (kudos to [translator Richard] Dixon) frequently untranslatable scholarly woolgathering fails as often as it succeeds in, to further the planetary analogy, supporting life.

Calasso tosses Talleyrand and Tiepolo, Proust and Prajapati into his polymathic salad, along with many, many others (Kafka, for example). His guiding preoccupations: “the power and sovereignty of the mind and its relationship to the world, the basis of political and social order and the inescapable role of violence.”

An excerpt from Mishra’s review:

The Vedic Indians did not build great empires or monuments. Rather they sought an intense “state of awareness” that “became the pivot around which turned thousands and thousands of meticulously codified ritual acts.” Calasso is aware that most of his readers would regard the ritual of sacrifice as barbarous. But he sees in this contemporary recoiling an uneasy confession: that “this world of today is detached from and, at the same time, dependent on all that has preceded it.” Sacrifice was the means to acknowledge and contain violence through religious ritual and practice. But secular society with its frenzied worship of the new gods of money and power still consumes many victims without being aware of its sacrificial nature.

Calasso’s prose … demands familiarity with a very different intellectual tradition than the one manifest today in the pieties of radical, liberal and conservative thought. It assumes that the modern world can no longer explain its extraordinary violence and disorder in its own terms, and that we ought to understand the supposedly primitive customs and institutions, such as sacrifice, that linger invisibly in even postmodern societies.

ardor-coverOne of Calasso’s many interlocutors in Ardor is the religious anthropologist René Girard, who believes that mimetic desire — the desire to own what others possess — or envy, rather than transcendental authority, now underpins social order in secularized societies. But the mutual hatred and possibility of an “all against all” war it seeds is still defused by periodic scapegoating, the identification of internal or external enemies, whose violent suppression releases the tension built up by frustrated desire and unappeasable envy.

As Calasso sees it, modern warfare cannot rid itself, even despite a sophisticated machinery of killing and high death tolls, of the “lexical legacy of sacrifice,” which now includes words like “victim, self-denial, consecration, redemption, trial by fire.” The closing pages of Ardor echo the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen’s belief that “the submission of the individual to society — to the people — to humanity — to the idea — is a continuation of human sacrifice.” This has been continuously reflected in the catastrophic programs of social re-engineering from imperialism’s civilizing missions to Stalin and Mao’s socialist utopianism, and the more recent attempt to bomb whole countries into democracy, or shock-therapy them into free-market capitalism.

Today, the nation-states of Asia and Africa re-enact, in their pursuit of Western-­style modernity, human sacrifice on a vast scale and more pathological form. Calasso anticipates his reader wondering, “What can be the relevance of all we read in the Veda?” He is right to answer that such “microphysics of the mind” can bring about an “abrupt and disorientating shift of perspective” and, perhaps, snap us out of both naïve reverence for and smug disenchantment with the modern world. It is “now high time,” Goethe wrote in the early 19th century, “to envisage a humane global philosophy with no regard for nationality and creed.” Ardor outlines, in its own quirky way, that long-overdue and genuine intellectual cosmopolitanism.

Read the whole thing here. Or check out the Open Letters Monthly piece here. Or both.

The “last superstition”? We think not…

Friday, November 7th, 2014
(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.

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

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

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.