It is an intriguing and ingenious book. It is the tenth and final part in a series on mythology, culture, paganism and consciousness, and how a “long history” with these still encroaches on us. If Roberto Calasso had not died earlier this year, I have no doubt that there would have been more, and I hope that posthumous works, however fragmentary, emerge.
Although I’ve read The Marriage Of Cadmus And Harmony, K, The Ruin Of Kasch, and The Celestial Hunter, I still have five to enjoy. Calasso was both editor and writer, and tribute has been paid to him saying that he had “decided to join the Heaven Publishing Department” where he will work on “a commentary on the Quran, which Dr. Calasso will revise himself.” even because there is no other expert available â.
In The Book of All Books, Calasso goes from Greek, Vedic and Paleolithic myth to the Bible. My idea that there could be more to come is slightly reinforced as it is actually mostly about the Torah and then about the nature of Judaism after Titus destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus, Paul and Stephen have more roles as extras. But each page has an observation, a turn of phrase or a careful reading that made me think “I never thought of it” or “it’s exceptionally weird” or even sometimes “it’s a bit of a jump” . But great minds leap, as Laurence Sterne reminded us.
Although author Lila Azam Nanganeh has called the Calasso a “literary institution in its own right,” there are authors with whom it shares a resemblance. In the eclectic nature of his thinking, he is a peer with Umberto Eco, although Eco is more mischievous; he could be compared to WG Sebald, although Sebald is more tinged with melancholy. If there was one characteristic that set him apart, it wasn’t the equally polymathic imagination, but a combination of being sharp and careful. Like any good reader, he tiptoes around the text. The book is a chimera, insofar as it partly re-tells the stories, and at the same time glosses them over. In an aside, he jokes about how this genre has become somewhat fashionable. But it has a long history of how the “Book” was read. The Midrash and the Commentaries have a family resemblance to this work.
The book has a very ordinary structure. You’d expect a book on the Bible to begin, well, with “In the beginning.” It does to some extent, but it intertwines the Genesis account with the cryptic mentions of “Wisdom” from Proverbs and Sirach. Calasso is not afraid to draw on other sources – rabbinical writings, the early Church Fathers, the Apocrypha and others – to qualify his image. But instead of going from Creation to the Fall of Noah to Abraham, he flies to the prophet Samuel and King Saul. The story goes back to the âfirst generationsâ, but there is a feeling that the story could not be told in a linear form. Indeed, we rarely read the Bible from cover to cover, so this way of pointing out strange symmetries over disparate centuries is actually closer to how the scriptures are actually encountered. It has a sort of intermezzo on Freud’s problematic late work, Moses and Monotheism, where Freud resurrected a Goethe duck that Moses was Egyptian and was murdered by the people of Israel. It’s pretty much debunked, but understanding why Freud pursued this wisp is fascinating. As always, it is more about Freud than what he studies.
At the heart of the thesis is a network of interrelated terms. How does blood, separation, ransom, substitute and mimic all merging? For example, Calasso notes that eating food that still contained blood – something non-kosher – contradicts the idea that the altar had to be smeared with blood. The idea of âââthe holocaust,â the burning of sacrifices, is also problematic, especially how the word turned into our gut reaction. That God âmake man in his own imageâ and then forbid the creation of images is another paradox. Where Calasso is particularly strong is in recognizing the contiguity between various stories, like the Flood, with Mesopotamian myths while being fascinated by what was different in this library. The first of these is the notion of sin.
At a time when all forms of religious observance are under pressure, Calasso displays a nod with optimism. With the Temple razed, the âburnt offeringsâ could not occur. As he notes, again slyly, the Temple must have smelled like a slaughterhouse. In the post-Temple period, the Talmud, in another substitution, puts the recitation on the slaughter of animals. âWhen you are tired of studying, you can devote yourself to household chores. But household chores shouldn’t be your main focus while you are spending your free time studying â. I can’t disagree with that. Religion has moved from obligation to dedication; from rehearsal to proofreading and proofreading.
It’s a wonderful end of career. Being lucid and intelligent without being mysterious or simplistic is a great gift, and one that we will miss. One thing that this pointed out to me is that in Ezekiel the wheeled and flaming chariots have the faces of an ox, an eagle, a lion and a man in the first chapter, and a cherub, an eagle, a lion, and a man in the tenth chapter. I’m going to suck a lot of pencils on that one. Explanations on a postcard please.
The Book of All Books, by Roberto Calasso, Allen Lane, Â£ 25
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