The Random Access History of Modernity


The Random Access History of Modernity

Roberto Calasso,
The Ruin of Kasch,
W. Weaver and S. Sartarelli, trans. Cambridge,
MA: Belknap Press, 1994.

The demise of ritual, magic, and the attendant ceremonial trappings, which accrued in the European tradition with the advent of the 1789 revolution, has generally been taken for granted by anyone reading Marx, (and perhaps Max Weber) and/or the collective critics and apologists following therein.

Roberto Calasso, seemingly to the manor born in regards to literary dilettantism, thus begins The Ruin of Kasch, his random access history of modernity (though this is commensurate to saying that an encyclopedia on CD-ROM begins with an entry on aardvarks) with the figure from European history whom he proposes last knew ceremony in all its permutations, and promulgations: Talleyrand.

Calasso explains this choice via a sometimes personal portrait of the slippery Talleyrand. In the course of this portrait he suggests that some of the master statesman’s skills could be traced from early childhood: a hobbled child is fodder for a man of diplomatic dexterity and nimble nicety. Like King Richard III, Calasso tells us, Talleyrand, not beautiful enough to prove a lover, proved a villain and fomented discontent instead. A dainty, bloodless discontent of style over substance, but a discontent that ruined lives nonetheless.

Calasso, in the first fifty pages of his book (which are not necessarily the “first”) is able, with astounding ease, to treat most all of the intellectual efforts at bridging the breadth of the post-revolutionary abyss left by the death of ritual and mystery – the abyss bridged so fluidly, for all his physical deformity, by Talleyrand. By doing so Calasso begs (perhaps “knowingly”) the question of whether that abyss exists, whether the fall happened, and whether it happened for good or bad.

Though he often treats as one piece the questions and the answers implicit in the differing schools of explanation, he means by his book no simple sophistry. Calasso’s style of historiography, fully postmodernized and deconstructed, is the literate and literal proof of the new era forged in revolution, crowned by Napoleonic will to power, and shattered in the 20th century into a million microchips of silicon. However, like his countrymen Italo Calvino, Paolo Pasolini, and others of the burgeoning, new Italian intellectual renaissance (perhaps it’s only “new” on this continent), Calasso’s refuge from the deconstructed nature of modern critique is the circular nature of human understanding, the circular nature therefore of human history. (How refreshingly different these thinkers’ work is from the linear progression of Weber-cum-Habermas which leads inexorably to the Iron Cage of the rational society, or the eternally recurring tragedy of Nietzsche and Wagner.) Calvino’s work celebrates the layering of myth and legend and storytelling; Pasolini’s retelling of the Scheherazade myth (The thousand and one nights) is more concentric but nonetheless telescopic. With these new artisans, it seems that the redemption which the earlier Italian renaissance found in artistic expressions of sublime beauty, has been rediscovered in the confounding nature of all storytelling. Thus Calasso’s Talleyrand performs rituals as an ancient, and yet like a modern is always conscious of those rites soullessness.

In contrast to all of us who have come along since, Talleyrand was, Calasso says, predictable: a man of his times. After Talleyrand, however, time as a formalizing structure does not exist, so what then shapes the people who live in our timeless present; who are the people of our modern abyss? Like the random access nature of Calasso’s work – intentional and not the accident of circumstance nor the result of unseen forces of inevitability (as he suggests that Talleyrand, et Bonaparte, et Saint-Simon, et Chateaubriand, et Tocqueville, et tout qui son “le deluge,” might have been) – the one certainty of modernity is the self-conscious nature of moderns: we do not arise, we are constructed.

The question of the nature of people thus self-consciously constructed, was asked and answered by Napoleon: what if we crowned ourselves? What would happen if we killed God (so Nietszche could write his obit.)? Napoleon discovered that if you crown yourself emperor you do not merely flaunt God and the papacy, but you become God and papacy in one. Thus found Zarathustra that there is no hiding place for the priest who kills God. In the modern era, the ritual and the sacrifice, the glory and the blame, all came to rest within these conquerors: this is the inheritance born by each of us in the age of modernity.

Calasso goes one step further down the road to self-consciousness as he details the most significant difference between the ancient age and the modern age – the two periods straddled by Talleyrand – it is not, he writes, the disappearance of ritual, but the beginning of a new period where ritual is twisted and folded back in on itself in the form of narrative. Modernity is experimental rather than cyclical. It is for this reason that the cyclical marker of the ancient life, ritual, has been supplanted, according to Calasso, by the cycle of the storytellers – Scheherazade, Far-li-mas (the storyteller of Kasch), etc. The stories are indeed cyclical, as ritual was, but where ritual was completely involving and encompassed an individual’s everything, the story, unlike ritual, is drowzying “hashish” that covers that same everything in a seductive haze. As we slip into the haze induced by the opiate that are these stories, we are each alone, each on our own, with no consciousness at all, aware only of our own existence, our own pleasured senses.

Our consciousness of self is not merely individualism, nor is it merely our alienation from all other human beings; instead our self-consciousness acts as a sort of starch-blocker and interrupts the flow of what technologists and social apologists call community affect (or the more vulgar, less warm and fuzzy, “class consciousness”). Thus we moderns are thrust by the artists and critics of this new renaissance, not into an Iron Cage, but onto a moebius loop which turns beneath us as the flat surface of the fitness club treadmill upon we which spend so many hours atrot seeking the euphoric release of endorphins.

Perhaps this, then, is the root of the apparent failures of Marxist experiments over the face of the globe – economic force applied by worldwide oppositional forces notwithstanding – class consciousness was supposed to replace all other forms of group consciousness, but in the modern era alienation is too complete and there is nothing to replace. Group consciousness has been, in Calasso’s terms, “usurped” by self-consciousness and all consciousness has been enveloped in the hallucinogenic cloud of the storyteller’s art.

The only question remaining is the limit and the robustness of this addiction.

Richard DeLaurell is an Assistant Professor in the Center for Communication Arts at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. His teaching, research and writing interests concern popular, philosophic and (especially broadcast) industrial notions of community.