Roberto Calasso’s legacy as a thinker, writer and publisher has yet to be truly reckoned with in our times. After his passing in July 2021 at the age of 80, numerous posthumous translations of his later works are beginning to appear in English.
The Book of All Books (FSG, 2021) is the tenth entry in a gripping, sprawling, untitled series of tomes exploring connections between mythology, literature and the modern world. The series began in 1983 with the publication of The Ruin of Kasch, which creates a timewarp between an archaic African folktale and the French Revolution. Subsequent volumes examine everything from the Vedas and Greek Mythology to Baudelaire and Kafka; and Calasso now turns his attention upon the Hebrew Bible.
If you take the time to read the volumes of Calasso’s gigantic magnum opus [and no, they don’t need to be read in order -jump in where your interest lies!], you will discover certain important and recurring themes, actually obsessions, to which Calasso always returns. These include: that which is left unsaid/unwritten, erotic potency and intimate intensity, hidden connections and esoteric logics, echoes of mythic events which recur in world history, and most importantly, the central role of sacrifice. Such as when Yahweh came down after the flood to the roasting smell of Noah’s burnt offering, the first holocaust. The text centers around who offers what when, and how those offerings are received.
“The firstborn are the first fruits, the surplus of life, the most precious part, which must be offered to the divine, because one cannot approach the divine with empty hands.” (183)
“To belong to Yahweh meant to disappear from the world, as happened when a body was completely burned up.” (125)
Readers familiar with Calasso’s oeuvre are probably as excited as I am to read this master applying his eye, pen and laughter to a text as layered and significant as the Hebrew Bible, and – true to form – he slices, dices, magnifies and problematizes the text. He begins by telling the transition from the system of judges to the lineage of kings in Samuel’s sudden anointment of Saul, proceeds through David and Solomon, and then works from Abraham to Moses and from the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel to the foretold Messiah. Throughout, Calasso listens to the Hebrew Bible for resonances, repetitions, discrepancies and divergences both internally and externally, with other contemporaneous mythic and epic canons.
Perhaps the most important emphasis Calasso brings is on the differing relationships Yahweh establishes with different human beings throughout the narratives included in the Hebrew Bible. He pays attention to what specific observances and offerings are required of different individuals and stages of society, and what the apparent contradictions between these rule lists and acts of favoritism imply about the deity who has altered world history more substantially than any other. Who promises what, and what do they receive in return? To whom does Yahweh bring forgiveness, and to whom wrath? For example, Calasso examines why Yahweh may have tolerated King Solomon’s open and official pursuit of polytheism – including goddess worship – despite the face that in almost all other cases, even tolerance of polytheism – let alone actively participating in and encouraging polytheistic worship – was treated as unforgivable and tantamount to anathema.
This wrestling with the biblical document is of tremendous importance because it does not submit to later Christian or Jewish dogmatizing of the texts – the emergent orthodoxies labored for hundreds of years to create readings of these texts that explain or erase the inherent and fundamental difficulties, violence and trouble we find there. Calasso’s commentary references the New Testament either to show how radical Jesus and his disciples were in their interpretations, or to cite them among other talmudic and midrashic sources in the layers of interpretation.
“God of the invisible, averse to every image of the invisible, Yahweh spoke to Moses only of what happened on earth, in people’s lives, before their deaths. Death was the ultimate barrier, beyond which nothing certain was told.” (206)
“Divine justice can only be an exchange of surpluses, from the invisible toward the invisible.” (135)
Calasso, always given to diversions, digressions and otherwise spellbinding yarns, includes a large excursus on Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism which is both a critique of Freud’s argument that Moses “invented” the monotheism of Yahweh, while also generously ceding to Freud the stance of modern prophet – with Freud, the ethically Jewish professed atheist, wielding that same unique insider-outsider stance that the prophets of the tradition of Elijah and Ezekiel wielded in the era of Kings. And though Calasso’s treatment of Freud is intriguing, I would suggest that The Book of All Books is closer to the vein of Carl Jung’s Answer to Job, a text which boldly, bravely and heretically treats of the psychological development of a god – Calasso here treats the actions of that god within the context of his relationships with his chosen people and his holy book.
The hardback edition by FSG is nice, although mass produced, and hence affordable. The paper has a linen quality. Calasso’s convention is that citations are not in footnotes or endnotes, but instead placed in a supplemental appendix at the back of the volume, with references paginated by line of text. This may take some getting used to for readers new to his work, but this convention serves Calasso’s digressions and semi-aphoristic writing style quite well.
Roberto Calasso is not exactly a philosopher, not a theologian or mythographer; he is something both much more and much less: a truly profound writer, an interlocutor worth walking with for many miles and many lifetimes.
The eleventh (and final) entry in Calasso’s series is a treatment of the Enuma Elish entitled The Tablet of Destinies and is due in English translation through FSG in July 2022.
Calasso’s untitled magnum opus/series
I. The Ruin of Kasch (1983)
II. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1988)
III. Ka (1996)
IV. K. (2002)
V. Tiepolo Pink (2006)
VI. La Folie Baudelaire (2008)
VII. Ardor (2010)
VIII. The Celestial Hunter (2016)
IX. The Unnameable Present (2017)
X. The Book of All Books (Eng. trans. 2021)
XI. The Tablet of Destinies (Eng. trans. 2022)
Recommended Additional Reading:
Robert Alter – The Hebrew Bible (2019)
Susan Niditch – Ancient Israelite Religion
Carl Jung – Answer to Job