Roberto Calasso is amazing. I’m surprised that his penetration into American culture has been so shallow — looking around for people writing on him I don’t see very much. I think he is the most exiting thing to happen to the humanities since George Steiner. Maybe that’s why he is so little commented — he shows everybody else what we are doing wrong. When we read him, and then go and read other criticism, we can see what a shit state the discipline is in. Composed of tawdry ideas copied from one Wikipedia page to another (or what amounts to the same thing, from one Britannica page to another.) I am still in shock over the crap that I payed $3000 a quarter for at the University of Washington.
Rather than that distressing and deadening experience, Calasso offers a view of a game such that “If we no longer accepted its terms now, literature would really be that poor thing that so many zealots are so eager to despise.” Something that exists separate from and in opposition to what the humanities have become in the United States.
He exists in specific refutation of Nabokov’s ideas about “ideas” in literature. I also like the way his work defies classification. What is it — philosophy? essay? intellectual history?
Roberto Calasso moves through ideas as if they were a landscape he was walking through. A travelogue of the intellect. The way he recognizes features and shapes in others writing, and draws it into his own. One cannot summarize what it is that he said — nor would you want to. He is not “indicating” anything, like so many writers do — Marx is good or Freud is bad or whatever, he is actually getting into the pure shimmery stuff of their thought and looking around. And he is a relentless researcher — across his books he focuses on notes scribbled in margins of books, or letters, or prefaces to obscure editions. He takes it all on as if it were a vast single land of thought, and then he describes what he sees when he goes there. And he seems to see nothing wrong with taking a living fragment out of an otherwise tedious work, and addressing the work as if that one living fragment was the point.
Nabokov complains about “novels of ideas” because there is no originality to them. You are often looking at one persons summery of several other peoples summaries of an idea. Calasso digs into authors who are almost tired out from the point of view of contemporary scholarship, and gives us a fresh image of, say, the publisher returning the draft of Spengler’s work, or what Marx’s apartment looked like. Or Piaget’s office. He creates a living foothold in what would otherwise be a tedious reading list (tedious if it were not engaged, or read as living text.)
And all of that with a fluid beautiful style, which would justify the writing even if the range of thought contained within it were not so vast.
A lovely review of Calasso’s essays can be found here.
I was going to be offended by this review, but if you are the kind of person who needs to know what it is about, then the misconceptions and misreading contained therein are as close as you will ever get — and as good as you deserve.
If you in fact deserve better then look here.
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