The Unnamable Present

Roberto Calasso
Allen Lane, London, 2019


by Filippo Pietrogrande, doctoral student in Philosophy, University of Groningen

When Italo Calvino reviewed Roberto Calasso’s first publication The Ruin of Kasch in 1983, he wittily claimed that it dealt with just two topics: first, Talleyrand; second, everything else. This ‘everything else’ is the boundless field in which Calasso has scrupulously developed his cultural project for the past thirty-five years. A project that, with inevitable generality, one could define as the attempt to trace the roots and the emergence of modern consciousness.

In an effort to describe the articulation of his intellectual itinerary, Calasso has recurred to the following image: books as episodes of one great saga whose different figures and themes, much like karst rivers, furtively surface in one place just to quickly sink back into the ground and then fully re-emerge somewhere else. It will be no surprise, then, to rediscover in The Unnamable Present – the ninth episode of the saga – a wealth of characters and topics which have already occupied either some pages or the entire space of Calasso’s previous works: from Baudelaire to Kafka, Benjamin and Weil; from sacrifice to the sacred, the process of secularization and digital society. But in this book, significantly, it is the title itself that takes centre stage: an expression that appears like a flash in the author’s first publication and here is brought into the spotlight, thereby connecting the debut of the whole saga with its provisional epilogue.

Thirty-five years ago Calasso described the contemporary epoch as post-historic. In Marxist terms, this indicated the experimental phase of history empirically founded on the rules of the global market; a phase within which society becomes the elective place of a constant reawakening and parodic application of archaic categories. Now, perhaps more cautious and seemingly unsatisfied with the sterility of every ‘post’, he rather prefers not to name this historical period – or, to name it by unnaming it. Calasso introduces the unnamable present as the long shadow cast by the short twentieth century, the outcome of the partially successful human attempt at self-annihilation between 1933 and 1945. Ineffable because fragmented and inconsistent; ungraspable because shapeless and erratic. In short: ‘the opposite of the world that Hegel had sought to grasp in the grip of the concept’.

At the centre of Calasso’s attention stands the paradigmatic species which inhabits this time: Homo saecularis. A rather sophisticated anthropological figure which accompanies history like a perpetual shadow, progressively becoming, in contemporary society, the protagonist at the centre of the stage, the normal man. Homo saecularis, claims the author, is the mirror image of the Vedic man: the latter was born with the burden of four debts (to the gods, to seers, to ancestors and to mankind in general) which were regularly settled through specific rituals; the former, instead, owes nothing to anyone as he has been able to loosen all the bonds which mediated the forms of his existence. Nonetheless, his victory seems paradoxical, insofar as he struggles to fully enjoy the pleasures of his hard-conquered self-sufficiency: his euphoria quickly turns into anguish, his lightness into inconsistency. Overall, homo saecularis seems to stand in front of a world which he is unable to come to terms with.


Sacrifice and terrorism

Despite what homo saecularis thinks, in the unnamable present most archaic categories are absorbed rather than completely erased. They simply present themselves in different forms, often deceptive, parodic or violent. Sacrifice, in particular, has always been one of Calasso’s obsessions and occupies a central place in his analysis. For a long time and within the most different civilizations, it represented the means to establish and cultivate a bond between the visible and the invisible. With the advent of modernity, the relation with the dimension of the sacred is progressively abandoned and the ritual practice excluded. What remains is society, the last superstition of homo saecularis, the ultimate reference of every meaning. It is within this totality folded in on itself that sacrifice undergoes a curious process of metamorphosis.

In order to begin to grasp the depth of this transformation, Calasso argues that one needs to swap the word sacrifice for the word experiment. In the most obvious sense, this is what homo saecularis carries out in the laboratory of society. Even and especially the entities from which he has just broken free (gods, demons, spirits, kings, values and so on) become rough research material, simple turmoils of erudition. But experimentation is, more radically, what society performs on itself. Calasso is then clearly pointing his finger to the unprecedented extension of the experimentable domain which led to the most dramatic events of the twentieth century. A quick look at Karl Kraus’ The Last Days of Mankind, which is largely based on documentary sources, is sufficient for him to confirm that already during World War I people were talking as much about ‘sacrifices’ as about military actions. In the war that followed some years later, sacrifice turns into sheer work of disinfestation (holokauston, ‘sacrifice by fire’); and Hitler and Stalin become the two supreme social experimenters of the century – the ‘gardeners of Europe’, to use an uncanny expression employed by André Gide.

A more recent metamorphosis of sacrifice is finally identified in terrorism. Calasso does not really plumb the psychological depths of the phenomenon, rather preferring to keep the whole investigation on a ‘metaphysical’ level, so to speak. He then highlights how terrorism, in particular in its Islamic version, manifests an evident sacrificial form, where the victim ideally is the bomber, while those who are killed in the attack represent the beneficial fruit of the killer’s sacrifice. The paradigm thus remains the same, but the sacrificial circulation is interrupted. While the fruit of the archaic forms of sacrifice was traditionally invisible, now it is frighteningly visible, quantifiable, photographable, as it consists in the multiplication of the victims of the attack.

What, then, is the inspiration, the power or the motive that stirs contemporary terrorism? Certainly, at first its meanings converge on a generalized hatred of the secular world. Hatred that, not casually, often hits society’s most symbolic places and preferably the forms of its collectivity. But today, Calasso suggests, terrorism attempts to escape from its sacrificial compulsion; it abandons its religious, political or economic motives. Indeed, it abandons meaning itself, rather finding its inspiration in an entity external to society: casuality. In this way, this ultimate variant of terrorism offers itself to the most different kinds of fundamentalisms and even to single individuals. And casuality, the only incalculable and uncontrollable power, takes revenge on society, emerging as its principal antagonist and persecutor.


Baudelaire’s tower

The synchronic analysis of the present carried out in the first part of the book is followed by a diachronic exposition of the past. These are undoubtedly the best pages of the book: through the juxtaposition of different writing experiences, Calasso composes an unsettling mosaic of those genocidal twelve years, from January 1933 to May 1945, which constitute the premise of the contemporary unnamability. These tiles have the crucial advantage of not being memories: they do not offer the reader a deceiving re-elaboration or re-categorization of the events, but rather instantaneous flashes of those moments.

This exposition flows into the brief and apocalyptic vision of the epilogue. An oneiric fragment by Baudelaire, re-emerged just a few years ago from the archives: the narration of a tower that is about to collapse, the impossibility of warning the people and the nations of the imminent catastrophe. Unlike Baudelaire, Calasso is able to warn us with this engaging book. Yet, he does not offer a way out of this situation, seemingly assigning the task to the reader (or to a following book?). The unnamability, as he has shown, might indeed represent an overwhelming and ineluctable condition. But perhaps it need not be just that. Here it is not a matter of recurring to that sectarian or uncritical excitement of which Calasso speaks in the first page, as if to justify his covertly pessimistic tone. Rather, it is a matter of seizing the unnamability for what it is: certainly, something enigmatic and indecipherable, but also, perhaps, an event harbinger of unforeseen possibilities.