Patrick Mackie | Singular books by Roberto CalassoLRB August 6, 2021


The delayed and busy Tokyo Olympics were well under way when Milan-based publishing house Adelphi announced the death of Roberto Calasso. He could have nodded bitingly on time. Few writers have spun their work so confidently believing that the old cultural totems of Olympian gods and heroic fervor remain not only valid points of reference, but ubiquitous and hungry presences.

Calasso was among the founders of Adelphi in 1963 when he was still in his early twenties, and in 1971 he became managing editor. Adelphi’s first major engagement was the great critical edition of Friedrich Nietzsche by Colli and Montinari which further transforms the understanding of his thought. Joseph Roth’s edition was an early success that meant a lot to Calasso; the Vienna of the turn of the century of Freud and Karl Kraus has remained a heart for him. He did a doctorate on Thomas Browne and had written two books before the publication in 1988 of Cadmus’ marriage and harmony, the massive, complex and plunging meditation on Greek myths that transformed him from a pillar of Italian culture into an unexpected star of international letters.

He had been preceded by the most helpless extravagant The ruin of Kasch, in which French diplomat Talleyrand is an elusive focal point for riffs on 19th-century history, the anthropology of modernity, and much more. Calasso thought The ruin of Kasch as the first in a continuing string of linked books. But it was with Cadmus’ marriage and harmony that he learned to thread his indefatigably cosmic mind through the eye of a single subject, and to lift his sometimes burlesque style of intellectual exuberance with a more pleasant openness to the narrative and the senses.

Cadmus and Harmony’s wedding feast was believed to have been the last time the gods sat down and mingled with mortals “in colloquial terms”, so the title of the book is in a sense lamentation. At the same time, the burgeoning momentum of Calasso’s writing is an open invitation to the imaginative reconstruction of possibilities that are never truly lost in his narrative. The added twist is his recognition that it might be better if they could be. No one has done more to show how horrors permeated the glory and seduction of the mythical world.

Christopher Logue’s harsh and dazzling versions of Homer are based on a similar duality. The hearty and twirling classic engagements of Anne Carson too; the figure of Simone Weil stands behind her and Calasso, and beyond her is Nietzsche. For Calasso, you cannot live with the gods and you cannot live without them. Trying to lure them back into the human city can lead to disaster as surely as attempting to ignore them. He comes to a conclusion that turns ambivalence into flamboyance: “You might assume that these dangerous invitations were in fact invented by the gods themselves, because the gods miss men who have no fuss. .

A passionately but erratically adventurous flow of books followed, on topics ranging from Tiepolo to the ancient Vedic religion. He continued not only to run but to define Adelphi, his life as a publisher nourishing his writing, as if an immersion in the workings of the literary enterprise could oil the most ambitious flights. In his essay “Singular Books”, he enunciates a credo both vast and extremely modest: “A singular book is a book in which it is clear that something happened to the author and was put in writing. But his singular passions have always been generative and serial. The books he published were meant to form links in a chain of affinity and value; the books he wrote are twists and turns of an ongoing serpentine argument about storytelling, sacrifice, and the possibility of wisdom.

Two late books have yet to appear in English. In one, he keeps the appointment with the biblical corpus which must have weighed on all his concerns. His writing is captivating, incredibly ambitious and at times very annoying. I learned more from the title of his essay “Adorno’s Mermaid” than from any other critical theory seminar, because it suddenly brought out so much that had guided these seminars from the beginning.

The more mannerist and feverish elements of his writing were in part ways of recording the tension exerted by the story that surrounded him, but they also fed on the sense of spectacle instilled by his market transactions. Especially if they came from a certain basic exuberance or a surplus of energy; the excess may indeed have been his deepest subject. As it turns out, the brilliant sprawl of Calasso’s major project as a writer has developed as an eerie parallel over the years the internet has flooded our world. But his writing is much faster and more inclusive and more varied in his connections than this hardworking juggernaut.

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