The last cultural European who unlocked the treasure of knowledge

Rarely have I read a book that focuses so much on the good listener, or rather: on the learned understander, who knows Greek mythology, knows the Indian Vedas, has kept up with classical Roman literature, and has read the necessary books of Freud. read. And then I forget the most important thing: Roberto Calasso’s ideal reader easily knows the biblical books, especially those from the Tanakh – popularly known as the Old Testament.

Calasso does not, and it is to his credit, because the Jews were in no hurry to write an introduction to the New Testament.

The reader has a whole bookcase poured out on him: it is benevolent, because someone who knows a ridiculous amount speaks here and also expects the intellectual effort of his audience; it’s also scary because a lot is assumed to be known, and all you have to look up and track as a reader is evidence of the gaps in your overall development.

Calasso could have participated in the election of the last European of Culture and had a good chance of winning.

The book of all books, the last Calasso of a ten-part series has been translated in exemplary fashion by Els van der Pluijm. The author died in 2021, but when he was alive he only entrusted his Dutch translations to van der Pluijm. Writers, especially essayists, speak of a ‘great grip’: Calasso is such an unashamedly great gripper, naturally connecting the foundations of European civilization with traditions outside Europe. The title The book of all books refers to the Tanakh; the original text of monotheism. In his book, Calasso also immediately hears the modern criticism of someone like Sigmund Freud, who contested the Jewish nature of Moses (he would have been Egyptian) and thereby also endangered the uniqueness of the Jews.

Calasso is someone who immediately questions Freud’s difficult relationship with religion in depth, and even speaks of his ‘stubborn a-religiosity as a psychic drama.’

Also read Michel Krielaar’s column after the death of Roberto Calasso

Publisher

Calasso came from a prominent Florentine family, where learning seemed almost hereditary for generations. In addition, he owned the Italian publishing house Adelphi. Reason enough to describe the man as ‘an institution of exactly one’.

Calasso does not comment on his own religious status in this book; he would find such a thing, I tend to think, banal. But all the more, he uses old stories and myths to look for new meanings and to test other interpretations than the usual ones.

Implementation of the adventure task i The book of all books is not the existence of God, but a reinterpretation of many biblical and mythical stories that have greatly shaped our modern consciousness.

Knowledge of the ancient books weighs much more heavily for Calasso than the religious form people give them. The astonishing thing for the frequent reader of Calasso must not have been that the secularization in Europe progressed further and further, but that the books on the divine, together with God, are also declared to be obsolete cultural heritage. Here speaks a man who wants to unlock old treasure chambers again to give them a contemporary urgency.

It helps enormously that Calasso effortlessly masters ancient Greek, Latin, French, English, German and has studied Sanskrit thoroughly. And in philosophy and literature Just a typical Calasso sentence: ‘In a letter to Gretel Adorno, Benjamin wrote that in Freud’s later style the ‘most important thoughts’ were passed off as ‘accidental’. Thus we can indeed read a passage from Moses which Freud himself considered extremely daring. An example of extreme Lamarckism (…)’.

Famous are: Gretel Adorno, Benjamin, Freud’s ‘Moses’, Freud himself and the teachings of Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck.

This would be in a rude form name drop may work, but Calasso’s enthusiasm for pairing the ancient and the classical with the contemporary is compelling: he doesn’t casually drop the names, he uses them one by one in his exhaustive cultural analysis.

Goethe’s chosen motto is eloquent: “Thus the Book of Books could prove to us, book by book, that it is given to us to try to penetrate it as in another world.” […].’

In Calasso’s life, the dead writers had a formidable influence; his “second life” in every way permeated his first, human life. It must have confused the intellectual that this made him more and more of a loner. What might be presumed to be known to a general educated public became more and more a rarity, a reading that is now more common freaky takes on.

First king

Calasso was late Book of books doesn’t start nicely with Genesis, he starts right off with Saul and Samuel like this: ‘Saul went up looking for some donkeys that had gone astray. Together with a servant he covered a considerable distance. But the donkeys were not found.’

An innocent, adventure scene.; These ‘lost donkeys’ are necessary to make Saul leave his familiar habitat, his immediate surroundings, and thus meet the prophet and ‘last judge’ Samuel. Samuel will make Saul the first king of Israel because the wayward flock of the Israelites yearn for a shepherd, a leader. The reference to the missing donkeys shines through.

But what seems like a choice, the kingship for Saul, in Yahweh’s eyes also means a degradation of his chosen people. “It would no longer be a priestly nation (…) They would become one of many nations (…) To desire a king is to desire evil.”

Immediately we are in the middle of the question that continues to this day: what does the election of the Israelites, of Israel as a chosen people mean? How much doom is associated with the choice that should lead to lamentations rather than jubilation? This explanation is ‘classic Calasso’: ‘Having a king meant conforming to everyone else. (…) The kingship was a kneeling that the priest Samuel made reluctantly. The anointing would in any case be a matter for the priests, just as the ksatriya in Vedic India had to be born from the Brahmins.’

Also read Pieter Steinz’s review of ‘The wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia’: Roberto Calasso’s uncensored version of the Greek myths; The lustful egotism of the gods

Ambiguity

This ambiguity continues because there are quite a few anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox in Israel who refuse to recognize the state of Israel, precisely on the basis of their oldest books.

And of course the Christians in particular have fought with God’s chosen people over the centuries: it was after all about the ‘offspring of Israel’, and not necessarily the later Christ-worshippers. It has of course previously given rise to anti-Semitic tendencies in Christian circles, equally imbued with jealousy, hatred and envy. Orthodox Christian circles still struggle with the existence of the state of Israel and its own messianic expectation of salvation. A Dutch organization like ‘Christenen voor Israël’ is both philosophically and unequivocally Christian, all underpinned by what is also called ‘Israel theology’.

That theology goes against the so-called ‘replacement doctrine’, also known as ‘supersessionism’: the central role of the Israelites ends with the birth of Christ, after which the Christian church embodies the chosen people. Calasso shows how that doctrine led to hatred of the Jews, especially in the past.

Calasso is at his sharpest when tackling Freud, especially his book The Man Moses and the Monotheistic Religion, usually abbreviated as ‘Moses’. Here, too, a form of substitute leather plays an important role.

Freud employs a reverse replacement theory in this: monotheism was not established by Moses, but was already standing practice under Pharaoh Akhnaton: Patriarch Moses was not Jewish and therefore did not ‘create the Jew’. Calasso summarizes Freud’s position: For many assimilated Jews of his time, “the impossibility of being religious went hand in hand with the impossibility of renouncing choice.”

Ethical heights

Because Freud argued that exclusive monotheism was not a Jewish creation and thus “robbed the Jews of their most important credentials,” some form of compensation had to follow—read: compensation. Freud attributes to the Jews ‘ethical heights’ which had remained unattainable to other peoples from antiquity.’ Perhaps not in a religious sense, but certainly spiritually, Jews had been pioneers for other peoples. Here, an old election was replaced with a new one, says Calasso.

In his works, Calasso problematizes the theme of the one, well-known poem by Paul Verlaine, with the title Le Bon Disciple. Opening line: ‘Je suis élu, je suis damné!‘; “I am chosen, I am cursed!” The poet describes himself in it as follows: ‘I am a martyr, I am a king’. Each time it is about the ambiguity of the choice; an ambiguity that appears not only in Jewish history, but also in the Vedas, Greek mythology, in Christianity, in all religious faiths that aspire to a reserved place, closest to god or the gods.

This story of selection, which currently appears non-religious in Western Europe, provides Calasso with his biblical and ancient religious sources.

The cliché says that God is dead. Calasso must have shrugged it off. So what? All the books, stories, myths and rituals to which we mortals consciously or unconsciously appeal work undiminished. The foundations of modern civilization must be grasped, not only by historians and theologians, but precisely by people who believe they have been led to modernity.

Without archaeology, or knowledge of the old, no understanding of the new.

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