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
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.
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