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.

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