Book reviews 2018 - #6 Ardor
Ardor, by Roberto Calasso
Almost exactly four years ago I found myself in the basement of a bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. I’d been led there by a pair of binoculars. More accurately, I'd been led there by the lens cover on a pair of binoculars. Well, not ‘on’ a pair of binoculars; they weren’t ‘on’ the binoculars, that was the problem. I had lost one of the lens covers and was about to visit Corsica and never having had to source a single lens cover for a pair of binoculars I decided that the cluster of shops selling electronic and photographic equipment on Tottenham Court Road would be my best shot.
No-one, I discovered, sells lens covers for binoculars, either singly or in pairs. I shall have to make one myself (using a piece of medium-weight cardboard, a pencil, some scissors and some Sellotape). To relieve my exasperation, and knowing that I have not yet finalised my choice of books for the journey, I wander into the bookshop and head downstairs to seek a second-hand gem.
The title ‘The Ruin of Kasch’ arrests me. I can’t remember why. I pull it from the shelf, flip it over, and Italo Calvino’s opinion tops the blurb:
“The Ruin of Kasch is about two things. The first is Talleyrand. The second is everything else.”
Calvino enjoys exalted status in my literary pantheon: praise of this kind from such a source is akin to a divine intervention. I immediately purchase the book for £1.99 and begin reading it twenty four hours later on the train out of St Pancras. (Eurostar from St Pancras to Paris; walk across Paris; TGV from Paris to Marseille; overnight ferry from Marseille to Ajaccio.)
Talleyrand? The name rang a bell, but its toll told me little. Turns out he was a civil servant-cum-diplomat. But not just any civil servant-cum-diplomat. He was Napoleon’s civil servant-cum-diplomat. And not just that – he was a leading civil servant-cum-diplomat before, during and after Napoleon. Wikipedia says:
“Some regard him as one of the most versatile, skilled and influential diplomats in European history, and some believe that he was a traitor, betraying in turn the Ancien Regime, the French Revolution, Napoleon and the Restoration.”
Huh. And here I am en route to Ajaccio, Corsica, where Napoleon was born...
But what about ‘everything else’?
Welcome to the world – the mind – of Roberto Calasso, author of The Ruin of Kasch. It really is about ‘everything else’. And once you’ve started with Calasso, you just have to keep going.
Not too quickly, mind. Any given Calasso is – how shall we say – a meal rather than a snack. And not just any meal: this is top end, gourmet stuff, as far away from ‘normal’ literature as Heston Blumenthal is from normal food.
I figured I could handle one meal a year.
So 2014 was The Ruin of Kasch (together with the connection to Talleyrand, Napoleon and Corsica); 2015 was The Ruin of Kasch again (it was difficult to take everything in the first time around) (Kasch, by the way, is a city that may or may not have existed somewhere in the upper Nile before the ancient Egyptians and which may or may not have been the location of the original Thousand and One Nights story); 2016 was The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (which is about the relationship between Greek myth and the modern mind and which sent me to Athens); and 2017 was K (about Franz Kafka) (and a trip to Lake Garda, where Kafka set and wrote his short story The Hunter Gracchus).
Which means 2018 – and this review – is about Ardor.
First thing to say is: if you are thinking of reading some Calasso, do not start with Ardor. It’s about the Vedics, a civilisation that occupied the Indus valley for a thousand years or so and whose texts provided the foundational myths for both Hinduism and Buddhism. It is not an easy read. Not only is it standard issue Calasso-weird: its subject matter is such that there are many and frequent references to gods, stories and language from far beyond the western canon. There are few easy anchor points for the ignorant reader such as I.
To add to the challenge, and being Calasso, he has of course done his own translations of the Sanskrit in which the Vedic texts were originally written. Sometimes he spends a page or three discussing exactly what might have been meant by a particular Sanskrit word, comparing others’ translations with his own interpretation and exploring the etymology of various elements of compound terms, to the point where what starts to happen (at least, what started to happen in my brain) is that you begin to rely on the Sanskrit rather than the English.
And I can’t think of too many people who’d jump at the opportunity to read something where they have to become familiar with your basic Sanskrit in order to get on with the book.
(There is of course another entire level going on here, namely the fact that Calasso is Italian, and wrote Ardor (and Kasch and K and Cadmus etcetera) in Italian and I’m reading it in English so I am not only enormously grateful to Richard Dixon (for Ardor) and William Weaver and Stephen Sartarelli (Kasch) and Tim Parks (Cadmus) and Geoffrey Brock (K) but will also be returning to this theme for an entire blog post in a little while.)
Meanwhile, the Vedics have spent a thousand years or so poo-pooing things like buildings and painting and pottery, and even things like crockery and weapons, because these physical items are not their concern. The external world, they seem to have decided, is not especially important. The interior world – the world of the mind – is the stuff that matters.
As in: matters. To the exclusion of all else. Calasso is of the view (and since I have read no other sources on the matter, and I trust him completely, I believe it) that the Vedics are unique in the history of major human civilisations. All the others – the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Sumerians, the Chinese and so on – looked outward. They observed, they chronicled, they measured, they enumerated. They begat astronomy, mathematics, science, which in turn begat the Enlightenment, which in turn begat ‘the West’.
The Vedics, by contrast, looked inwards. (They took lots of drugs, too: they called it soma.) (That’s where Huxley got the word for Brave New World.) They developed rituals to help them probe their own consciousness. They wrote hymns and poems (that’s how we know about them) which they used in their rituals. They invented meditation and yoga. They developed bewilderingly complex sacrificial ceremonies (and the meaning of ‘sacrifice’ is a central theme for Calasso).
They left no artefacts. (Such things didn’t bother them.)
They did this for a thousand years. (Roughly. It’s difficult to say. They left no evidence.)
A thousand years working away at the nature of mind.
So as well as the challenging style, and the difficult proper nouns, and the Sanskrit, Ardor also sets profound philosophical challenges. Indeed, that is the main point. Calasso’s purpose (he admits this towards the end of the book) is to make the point: all the philosophies we have in the West have derived from their foundational civilisations. As a result, it doesn’t matter too much whether you’re engaging with Plato or Heidegger, with Descartes or Kant, with Locke or Hegel or Nietsche or Wittgenstein. All inevitably and unavoidably use what we call ‘thought’ in a form that is grounded in those Greek and Egyptian and Chinese roots.
Vedic thought is fundamentally different from this. It doesn’t, for example, recognise the notions of ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’. Everything is atman: and it is merely either ‘manifest’ or ‘unmanifest’.
What if – Calasso invites us to wonder – we could better appreciate this kind of thinking? (These people did, after all, and in their millions, use minds precisely equivalent to ours, for a millennium, to work a few things out.) Perhaps that might throw valuable and refreshing light on some of our current problems?
So this is daunting stuff. Weird style, difficult nouns and proper nouns, lots of Sanskrit, unfathomable ceremonies based on the extraordinary notion of sacrifice, heavy duty philosophy and a fundamental challenge to the very notion of ‘thinking’ with which we’ve become so familiar we can barely see it. That’s why I say: if any of this sounds remotely appealing – don’t start here. (Start with Cadmus and Harmony, which is easier to read, includes names and characters you’ll recognise and is even, in some places, funny.)
All that said, Ardor is absolutely stupendous and probably requires that I travel to the Indus valley to sit somewhere symbolic and take strong hallucinogens.
Alternatively, how about this, where Calasso brings us up-to-date:
“Waking up each morning, rain or shine, and knowing there are no duties to follow. Making coffee, looking out the window. A feeling of blankness. Indifference. To reach this state, various millennia had passed. But nothing remained of it, apart from an opaque curtain, on all sides. No one celebrated this fact as an achievement. It was normality, reached at last. A characterless state, prior to desires. A mute foundation to existence. There would be no shortage of time for whims, plans, survival strategies. And this was the central point: time was not taken up, measured, assailed by obligatory gestures, without which there was a fear that all might fall apart. This might well have produced a feeling of exhilaration. But it was not to be. Indeed, the first sensation was one of emptiness. And with it, a certain tedium. The metaphysical animal looked around, not knowing what to grasp hold of.” pg 346
That paragraph punched me in the solar plexus. I tried to laugh, cry, shout and scream at the same time. Various millennia! ‘Whims, plans, survival strategies’! There we are, in a single paragraph, pinned to the page like a dead butterfly.
And yet – ardor.