It’s the Poor …

Malcolm Bull

Roberto Calasso is an Italian publisher who writes erudite works of non-fiction so elegantly self-indulgent they can be marketed as novels. He is working on a trilogy, or perhaps tetralogy, of which The Ruin of Kasch is the first part, and The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (which preceded it in English translation) the second. According to the author, the former deals with history, the latter with myth. But whereas The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony was a delightful recreation of the lost art of mythography, The Ruin of Kasch does nothing comparable for historiography, and isn’t really about history at all.

Indeed, nobody seems too sure what it is about. The best guess is generally held to be Calvino’s, that ‘The Ruin of Kasch takes up two subjects: the first is Talleyrand, and the second is everything else.’ Calasso seems happy to go along with this non-interpretation, and at the close of the book offers a description of Chateaubriand’s Vie de Rancé that may well be meant as self-referential: ‘It was his final surrender to free – even wild – association, a perverse rummaging in his own memory that stirred up shadows among the ruins of time ... The prose juxtaposes facts, quotations, and recollections like so many stones that are held together only by their moss. Utterly lacking in coherence and consistency, it ranges from lulling gentleness to cruel, sharp insights.’

The Ruin of Kasch is not pure bricolage, however. Calasso may move effortlessly from Pol Pot to Goethe, or from discussion of the Vedas to Richard Cobb’s favourite uncle, but in the process he is always rehearsing the same ideas about sacrifice, revolution and modernity. The crucial question is whether the repetition of these ideas in so many different contexts reinforces or diffuses their significance. Calasso distinguishes between two types of repetition: that which ‘converges toward a single meaning (death)’, and that which eventually ‘makes it lose all meaning and leaves it at our feet like the opaque shell of a sound’. In his own writing, he suggests, repetition has the latter function: just as Talleyrand was repeatedly returned to power but never in the same government, so, in The Ruin of Kasch, every repetition is a death-defying but ultimately meaningless novelty. There is, he implies, no continuous line of thought: ‘Any judgment here is a thread lost in the tangle of the carpet, and its sole claim is that it has added its faint colour to the texture of the whole.’

Much of the pleasure of Calasso’s text derives from its skilful deflection of the impulse toward meaning. As in a good detective story, the determination of meaning is so deferred that only the idiot policeman (and his double, the reader) imagines himself as able to feel its momentum. Even so, the idiot policeman’s reading, in which every repetition points toward convergence, should not be lightly dismissed. Seen from his perspective, Calvino’s description appears doubly misleading. Talleyrand is merely a connecting figure in the meditations on the French Revolution that form ornamental scrolls around a text which, far from being unfocused, proves to be a closely argued, if digressive, essay on ancient sacrifice and its modern successors.

Calasso’s sources also appear less eclectic than some have claimed. His references reveal a heavy reliance on a few hand-picked desperadoes of the 19th-century counter-Enlightenment – the sadistic reactionary, Joseph de Maistre, the young-Hegelian egoist, Max Stirner, and the masochistic Catholic, Léon Bloy. With these maniac accomplices, the policeman may begin to suspect that Calasso is less the innocent gathering flowers than the underground man who snatches the innocent away.

How does this suspicion affect our understanding of the story of Kasch? The tale is taken from the collection of the German Africanist, Leo Frobenius. Four kings rule the great realm of Kasch. The richest of these is the king of Naphta, but he reigns only for a limited period, for the priests of Naphta are nightly studying the stars to discover the auspicious moment to kill him and appoint a new king in his place. King Akaf is troubled by the thought of his impending death, and he summons a slave named Far-li-mas to distract him. Far-li-mas’s stories act like a drug; Akaf and the other listeners lose all fear of death, and fall into a dream-filled sleep. The priests eventually come to hear these remarkable stories for themselves, and they, too, fall asleep. After listening to Far-li-mas for several nights in succession, the priests lose track of the movements of the heavens. Alarmed, the high priest challenges Far-li-mas to demonstrate that his gift is the will of God. Far-li-mas speaks once more; everyone falls into a deep sleep, and when they awake all the priests are dead. Akaf lives out his natural life and is succeeded by Far-li-mas. During his reign, Naphta enjoys unprecedented prosperity; but after his death, the neighbouring kings make war on Naphta, and Naphta is utterly destroyed.

Calasso’s interpretation of the story is characteristically opaque: ‘The legend of Kasch teaches us that sacrifice is the cause of ruin, but that the absence of sacrifice is also the cause of ruin. This pair of simultaneous and contradictory truths hints at a singular and more obscure truth which lies in tranquillity: society is ruin.’ But he offers one further clue, a hint so broad that it defies one to take it seriously: that de Maistre is a priest of Naphta. If we take him at his word, everything falls into place, and the story of Kasch becomes a straightforward parable about the transition from the Ancien Régime to modernity. Drugged by the grand narratives of the Enlightenment, the moderns put an end to sacrifice, and the old order was destroyed. But the benefits of the new regime prove to be equally transitory and still more illusory, for when the magic of the new stories ceases to work, modernity faces a ruin more complete than that which befell its predecessor.

On this reading, The Ruin of Kasch becomes yet another diatribe against modernity and its ‘alliance between Good Causes and Stupidity’. Nevertheless, Calasso’s anti-modernism has certain distinctive twists. He follows René Girard in believing that sacrifice secures social order, but unlike Girard he suggests that the Enlightenment simultaneously denied and re-established its practice: ‘Henceforth, the name of the new sacrifice will be experiment. The sacrificial attitude continues to operate in it, but it operates invisibly, unwittingly.’ Just as scientists ‘sacrifice’ animals in the course of their experiments, so, beginning with the execution of Louis XVI, social experimenters have sacrificed millions to advance their plans for human betterment. The experimental society may appear to be about ‘establishing new procedures in factories, offices, banks, rural areas’, but behind this is the unacknowledged re-enactment of a cruel and archaic rite.

Although The Ruin of Kasch can be interpreted as a wide-ranging attack on modernity, there are indications that its targets are more precisely defined. Take the almost paraliptic neglect of Italian authors. Calasso disdains to argue with, quote, or even mention, any of his compatriots, but he allows the French to speak for, and to, them. As an example of the revolutionary forebears of Lenin’s ‘experimental society’, he cites the provincial Jacobins who called for ‘a Machiavellianism of the people’ that would ‘wipe all that is impure from the surface of France’ and, in the process, ‘exterminate one third of the population’. The quotations come from Taine, but the thought that underpins them is Croce’s, for Croce famously called Marx ‘the most notable successor of the Italian Niccolò Machiavelli; a Machiavelli of the proletariat’. By framing the absent Marx with echoes of the Red Terrors, however, Calasso challenges the very point that Croce was seeking to make: namely that Marx, like Machiavelli, did not try to tailor the complex realities of social life to fit an abstract theory, but to illuminate the truth about society through approximation and paradox.

Croce is probably not the main target, however. It is difficult to read Calasso’s repeated identification of modernity with experiment, and experiment with sacrifice, without recalling Gramsci’s conviction that ‘the experimental method separates two worlds of history, two epochs, and begins the process of the dissolution of theology and metaphysics and the development of modern thought, whose crowning is Marxism.’ And since, in the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci used the ‘precocious Jacobinism of Machiavelli’ to develop the concept of ‘the Modern Prince’, who is not an individual but a proletarian political party expressive of the collective will, Calasso’s critique of the Machiavellianism of the Marxist experiment can hardly be read as anything other than an attack on Gramsci and his successors. Gestated in the Seventies, when the PCI seemed to be on the threshold of power, The Ruin of Kasch subjects the ideal of a pragmatic, technological Marxism to sustained and hostile criticism. The instrumental and the experimental are associated only with death; sacrifice, it is implied, was just as central to Eurocommunism as to the Khmer Rouge.

For Calasso, the problem with people like Gramsci is that in attempting to do away with sacrifice, they commit themselves to its continuation. Believing that ‘collective disasters come about because no attempt was made to avoid useless sacrifices, or no account was taken of the sacrifices of others,’ Gramsci sought ‘to extirpate the criminal habit of neglecting to avoid useless sacrifices’. But the goal of eliminating unnecessary sacrifice could only be realised if the sacrifices necessary to achieving it were accepted. As Gramsci wrote: ‘The proletariat cannot maintain its hegemony if it does not continue to sacrifice ... immediate interests for the sake of the general, permanent interests of its class, even after it has assumed power.’ From Calasso’s perspective, such thinking ‘appropriates the whole apparatus of sacrifice, exploiting it to establish an order that denies the metaphysical foundations of sacrifice’. The sacrifice required to end sacrifice, like the war needed to end wars, inevitably proves the most destructive of all: it demands not just sacrifice but self-sacrifice, and so, Calasso observes, ‘it seems fitting that the most widespread massacres have taken place in Soviet Russia, where the Pauper for many years has persecuted himself.’

Although he is clearly wary of socialism, Calasso does not indicate how the cruelties of modernity are to be prevented. According to Max Stirner, the way to avoid such self-inflicted injuries is unrestrained egoism. In The Ego and His Own, Stirner laments the ‘innumerable sacrifices’ made for the sake of the future benefits offered by religion or its modern equivalent, the state. This process, he argues, always involves ‘sacrificing my ownness to sacredness’. But to the egoist, nothing is ‘so sacred that he would sacrifice himself to it’. The economic consequence of this doctrine is that, rather than waiting ‘for what the board of equity will bestow on you in the name of the collectivity’, the individual should simply take whatever is required. ‘With this,’ Stirner proclaims, ‘the war of all against all is declared. I alone decide what I will have.’

In The Ruin of Kasch, Stirner is celebrated as the critic of ‘the ubiquitous tendency to tell society what the Good was and force it to adhere to the prescription’. And if his extreme individualism receives only tacit endorsement, it is nevertheless possible to discern its place in the argument. According to Stirner, the distribution of property is like two dogs fighting over a bone: the bone belongs to the dog that takes it rather than the one who gives it up, and it is senseless to say that the loser deserves a bone as well, because the loser has, by definition, already renounced the claim. Calasso suggests that the essential failing of modernity is that ‘in its pure form, the Modern wants to eradicate the Pauper.’ But if, as Stirner argues, ‘the poor are to blame for there being rich men’ because they have let goods be taken from them, it is the poor themselves who perpetuate their poverty.

Hence Calasso’s belief that the chief obstacle to modernisation is ‘the Pauper who wants to go on being poor’. The social engineers of modernity are forced to eliminate such willing victims of the struggle for life because, like all contented losers, they are the natural enemies of revolution. So in Calasso’s account, Marx and Engels’s heavy-handed criticism of Stirner in The German Ideology becomes a proletarian onslaught on the voluntary paupers of the lumpenproletariat – an attack which prefigures the murderous Soviet attempt to make ‘the Pauper eradicate the Pauper’.

Allowing Stirner’s voice to be heard in Calasso’s text enables one to identify more clearly what is meant by sacrifice. In Calasso’s opinion, all social order is ‘founded on an expulsion’: ‘order must be smaller than the matter it orders,’ and the excess is sacrificed. The poor, the surplus of the socio-economic order, are ‘the most insolent expression of the resistance of matter’. For Calasso, the tragedy of modernity is that, rather than accepting poverty as the minimum sacrifice required for the existence of society, the experimenters have sought to do away with it, and so introduced another, more terrible form of sacrifice – the elimination of poverty by killing the poor.

The ideas that lead towards this conclusion may be an idiosyncratic synthesis of Stirner and de Maistre, but the conclusion itself is a secular crystallisation of Léon Bloy’s febrile theology. Bloy, who was so enamoured of suffering that he regretted its absence from paradise, found in poverty more than a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice for man: poverty was itself the blood of Christ, a necessary condition of salvation. The socialist goal of eradicating poverty and suffering would, Bloy claimed, create ‘une société de pourceaux insolvables d’une hideur indicible’.

If, as Calasso’s alignment with Bloy suggests, The Ruin of Kasch is a paean to the socially redemptive properties of poverty, his complaint that ‘progress forgets sweetness’ has a sinister resonance. The sweetness Calasso savours is the lost fragrance of pre-modern sacrifice, the aroma of the victim’s flesh burning on the altar. That sweetness, it transpires, is the irremediable suffering of the poor. Perhaps the thrill experienced in reading The Ruin of Kasch is less that of the detective novel than that of another genre, horror: the deliciously postponed realisation that your charming but elusive companion wants to sink his teeth into your neck.