Thursday, November 06, 2014

Roberto Calasso's lecture on “The Last Superstition”

Cynthia Haven, of The Book Haven renown, has helped me in many ways over the past few years of blogging. So when she recommended the René Girard Lecture at Stanford to be given by Roberto Calasso, I arranged to be there. In addition to finally meeting Cynthia (which was great and too short!), I got to hear an impressive, wide-ranging talk titled “The Last Supersition.” The event flyer about the event gave an overview of the lecture’s focus:
Until recently, humans lived with gods. Every society in history defined itself in relation to an invisible world. Only modern society is secular: it doesn’t believe in anything but itself. Why? And are we really less superstitious than our ancestors?

To cut to the chase, Calasso's answer is "No." I’ll point to his Wikipedia entry for a summary of his life and works, as well as taking time and space here in pulling a few quotes from his interview with the Paris Review (found here). The excerpts are long, but they will frame major sections of the lecture.

It’s strange, this desire to turn Adelphi—and yourself—into a political machine. In fact, you are far more interested in transcendence than in politics.

Not so much transcendence, but the perception of the powers in us and around us. People talk a lot about religion, but they might as well be talking about huge political parties. The most delicate point to grasp is that society itself has become the major superstition of our times. This is the pivot of the last section of L’ardore. What I mean is that the belief in society as the ultimate crucible of progress creates a vast amount of bigotry even in the so-called secular world. So in actual fact it’s difficult to find an intellectually rigorous atheist. Though I have met many secular bigots.

The notion of sacrifice lies behind almost everything in your work. The other striking theme is ebbrezza, which seems difficult to translate, as the word is polysemous in Italian.

All of my books have to do with possession. Ebbrezza, rapture, is a word connected with possession. In Greek the word is mania, madness. For Plato it was the main path to knowledge. For us it’s become the main path to the lunatic asylum. So you see that from Schreber up to La folie Baudelaire, the theme runs through my work. Even in my last book, L’ardore, of course. The Vedic people developed the most rivetingly complex theories and rituals about soma, the mysterious plant that provoked rapture.

Here is a photo of you and your late friend Brodsky. He wrote a wonderful essay on The Marriage where he talks about self-projection. He draws a parallel between mythology and television. The scales and parameters are different, but myth and TV are both ultimately about self-projection. The seat of both is one’s mind. The altar in both cases is a box. Sacrifice is the remote control.

That’s highly Brodskian. The point is, man has a surplus of energy which he has to dispose of. That surplus is simply life. There is no life without surplus. Whatever one does with that surplus, that decides the shape of a culture, of a life, of a mind. There were certain cultures that decided they had to offer it in some way. It is not clear to whom, why, and how, but that was the idea. There are other cultures, like ours, where all this is considered entirely useless and obsolete. In the secular world, sacrifice shouldn’t have any meaning at all. At the same time, you realize that it does, because the word has remained very much in use. In discussions of the economy, analysts speak all the time of sacrifices, without realizing what is inside the word. Even in psychological terms, sacrifice is a most usual word. It is considered illegal—for instance, if one celebrated a sacrificial ritual in the middle of London or New York, he would do something illegal, he would be put in jail. Sacrifice is connected to destruction—that is an important thing and the most mysterious one. Why, in order to offer something, you must destroy it. These are the themes of the last part of L’ardore.


I think it [sacrifice] is also central for you. Why is sacrifice so important?

Maybe it’s simply because sacrifice brings us into dealings with the unknown. In the act of sacrifice, you establish a relation with something that you recognize as enigmatic and powerful. Our collective psyche seems to have lost touch with it, although science is providing countless motives for being overwhelmed by the unknown. The unknown itself is in our own mind as well—our mind is in its largest part totally unknown to us. Therefore, it is not only a relation to the exterior world, it is a relation to ourselves. We establish a connection with the unknown through the act of giving something and, paradoxically, the act of destroying something. That is what is behind sacrifice. What you offer and what you destroy, it is that surplus which is life itself. …

After The Marriage, with Ka, you moved from Western myth to Indian thought. How did this come about?

To me, very early on, the Vedic texts seemed to go beyond whatever else one may read on certain points. If you want to have an inkling about two essential words like consciousness and mind, you must look into these texts. You never find anything as enlightening anywhere else. … Everything hinges on consciousness. They brought consciousness to the center way before our scientists thirty years ago hailed it as a great new scientific theme.

During the lecture Calasso delved into several topics (sources, trends, implications, and blindness resulting) centered on his argument that society has become its own, last superstition…replacing the role of the gods with a belief in 'society.' This could have been a depressing talk, but Calasso’s approach provided a light touch on weighty subjects. He didn’t let sacred societies off the hook, either, noting they have been most dangerous when they attempt to be organic. It was here that he quoted Jacob Burckhardt’s analysis on Spartan power:

"Power can have a great mission on earth; for perhaps it is only on power, on a world protected by power, that superior civilizations can develop. But the power of Sparta seems to have come into being almost entirely for itself and for its own self-assertion, and its constant pathos was the enslavement of subject peoples and the extension of its own dominion as an end unto itself."

So does the sacred society believe in something beside itself? Unasked, but not necessary given the rest of his talk, was the question if the non-sacred (or experimental, as Calasso termed it) society believes in something beside itself.

So what were some of the takeaways from the lecture that stick with me? Being an awful note-taker, I'll say there were more interesting topics than I can mention here, but I’ll take a stab at some of the more important and amusing points.

  • I *have* to read Calasso’s books. Many topics he raised felt like he was only scratching the surface of subjects he has gone into greater depth elsewhere.
  • Calasso has a great sense of humor. His responses to many of the questions showed a light touch, even when sharper retorts would have been excused.
  • Calasso framed his belief in the power of literature and ancient roots in this manner: “What describes consciousness better? The Upanishads? Or science?”
  • (I wish I had his quote on this topic, but a paraphrase will have to do.) There is a balance between information and memory. Increasing information means less memory.
  • ”Nietzsche is the axis around what [how] we think.” Calasso took great pains to point out that meant multiple lines of thought.
  • Calasso puts great faith in the roots of belief, asking (rhetorically) about the roots for functioning in a sacred-based society vs. the roots for functioning in an experimental society.
  • The literary references were fun to track in his lecture. While not a comprehensive list, I provide it as an indication on how fun it was to follow the tracks of the discussions: Homer, Sophocles, Nietzsche, Robert Musil, Simone Weil, Simone de Beauvoir, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Burckhardt, Franz Kafka, James George Frazer, and Émile Durkheim. Talk about a rollercoaster of thoughts…

Well, I look back on this and it’s not a great summary of what was discussed, but I hope it conveys the breadth and depth of Roberto Calasso’s lecture. You’ll be hearing more about him here as I work through his books.


scott g.f.bailey said...

I read Literature and the Gods back in 2009. I can't tell you a single thing that was in it, but I remember that I thought well of the book.

Dwight said...

It strikes me (and take this with a grain of salt since I've read a limited amount of his work) that fully understanding Calasso's subject matter before reading his lectures, which I think Literature of the Gods is, is the only way to make it stick.

I was reminded of Miklos Szentkuthy's Marginalia on Casanova when I was listening to Calasso, wishing I knew more about his references in order to better understand his commentary. As if I didn't have enough I wanted to read as it I have so much more!

Dwight said...

I happened to be reading The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods by Frank E. Manuel this past week. His closing has been stated in different ways, before and after his this late-1950s book, but I thought it appropriate for Calasso's lecture:

"Historians of the human psyche have warned that the mythic cannot be exorcised without danger to the soul of man and without his utter spiritual impoverishment."

Adapted for Calasso's lecture, it could be restated that after the destruction of the gods and of God, man had to find something to replace that core belief...and that was a mythic belief in society.

LMR said...

I read Literature and the Gods back in 2009. I can't tell you a single thing that was in it, but I remember that I thought well of the book.

If I remember anything of it, it's the amazing essay on the Comte de Lautreamont! I'm curious to read his book on Kafka one day.

scott g.f.bailey said...

"a mythic belief in society" Ain't that the truth? People continue to invent new gods, on a daily basis. I know people who pray every night before bed, hoping for the Singularity. Et cetera. I always think of Nietzsche writing about the death of the gods, and what damage that ritual killing-of-the-fathers does to the surviving societies. Claims that religion and superstition are idiocy are made by people who believe--for no clear reason--that computer programs will somehow "save" mankind from itself, ushering in a golden age, etc. Maybe everything we say or write or paint or build is a form of myth building, or portraits of gods we can't recognize. I have to find my Calasso and read it again.

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