The Unnamable Present by Roberto Calasso

The Unnamable Present
by Roberto Calasso
translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019

The Unnamable Present by Roberto Calasso

The Italian scholar and publisher Calasso is an hommes de lettres in the traditional sense, unattached to any particular political institution or ideology; with his scattershot specialties, his fingers plunged in every intellectual pot, he’s managed over the course of his writing career to move from a study of Kafka and involved rewritings of Greek and Hindu mythology to extensive treatments of the Italian rococo painter Giambattista Tiepolo and the nineteenth-century Paris of Baudelaire. Although The Unnameable Present marks the ninth entry in his multivolume attempt to resurface the forgotten roots of modernity, Calasso now seems to have turned his pen to a burlier beast—that is, postmodernity and the present’s “ubiquitous lack of substance.” Like so many of Calasso’s books, The Unnameable Present is at heart etiological; in palpating the past, Calasso hopes to discover the origin of the vertiginous sense of uncertainty that dominates modern life.

More than anything, the book seems an enfilade aimed at the smugness of secular humanism, which Calasso seems to view as a globalized folie à famille. Secularism has gained its ascendancy, in Calasso’s view, not because of its successful sidelining of religions, but because “it is the first, of all religions, to turn not to external entities but to itself, as a just and ultimate vision of things as they are, and as they have to be.” Homo saecularis, in Calasso’s diagnosis, has no debts, no obligations, no innate contracts, no compulsory rituals. And yet, despite this, modern individuals remain unhappy, fail to feel themselves relieved of any great burden. The decline of ritual and its disappearance from public life is only one facet of postmodernity’s malign influence; shoved into Calasso’s polyphonic plaint is also the distinction, cribbed from Benjamin, between knowledge and information. Taking these phenomena as a starting point, The Unnameable Present attempts to find an explanation for troubling trends like the decline of democracy and the rise of radical Islamic terrorism.

One of Calasso’s chief bugaboos is disintermediation, traditionally an economic term referring to the removal of intermediaries in a supply chain, but which can also be flexibly applied to changes, wrought by the internet, in the ways we take in information. Beyond simpler, superficial shifts, Calasso infers that disintermediation has led to profound changes in the art of knowledge-crafting itself:

On closer observation, disintermediation turns out to be based on a hatred of mediation. Which is fatal for thought. We don’t need to go back to Hegel to realize that not only thought but also perception exists only by virtue of mediation, therefore through continual adjustments and compromises, which are what mediation is all about.

His traditionalist objections, steeped in Hegel and German idealism, are the attempt of a well-read mandarin to apply his hoary wisdom to aggressively modern phenomena, and by and large they give the book much of its charm. In fact, his discussion of disintermediation’s manifold effects is one of the book’s fleetest and most convincing segments. Even the political sphere, Calasso shows, has fallen prey to this new mode of consumption; because “there is no longer a circumscribed and roughly regulated space in which politics is being carried out,” the musty Realpolitik ideal of a carefully elite-tended balance of power has become outdated, and ultimately impossible to maintain.

The book’s second section, “The Vienna Gas Company,” takes the form of a ragbag of perspectives sewn together by time and place. The separate journeys of Samuel Beckett, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and Robert frost as they tour Italy and Germany in the precarious interbellum period are detailed, while poignant conversations are culled from the memoirs of figures like Martin du Gard and Ernst Jünger. Aiming to provide a street-level view of the transition to war, this second section by and large showcases Calasso’s deft skill as a compiler; while the first section of the book, entitled “Tourists and Terrorists,” is meant to provide the book’s theoretical ground, the second’s collage of quote and incident is meant to deliver satisfying resonances, real-world evidence of Calasso’s sometimes abstruse cerebrations. And yet, it’s often unclear what Calasso seems to be suggesting with his correspondences. When he dwells on an article published by Goebbels during the war which contrasts the “rock-solid, refractory, impenetrable identity” of the National Socialists with the Jewish people’s “talent of imitation,” we understand that parts of the aside are meant to correspond to his diagnosis of the essential insubstantiality of modern personhood, but what precisely he wants the reader to surmise about this connection remains frustratingly unclear.

Calasso’s stance towards radical Islamic terrorism, which has the air of a parti pris, is another of the book’s flaws. In his treatment of the subject, he tends to employ a vaguely fulsome tone that flirts precipitously with Islamophobia, and though he’s usually careful to refer only to “Islamic terrorism,” he occasionally slips and begins broadly generalizing about Islam itself and its violent “spirit.” You get the feeling that Calasso, mediation’s great champion, has forgotten to take his own advice about making “continual adjustments and compromises,” that he’s not exactly walking the walk. This sort of slip-up is fairly common in the text, precisely because Calasso’s relatively unwieldy method of theoretical hopscotch leaves natural gaps in his argument through which counterpoints and contradictions easefully slip. While, for example, Calasso obviously finds fault with the ritualism that pervaded Nazism, at the same time he relies on a relatively mystical method of constructing The Unnameable Present. Calasso is committed to a forgotten text theory of history, dredging up old but presumptively pivotal texts that the world has forgotten about. In erudition is salvation, and the obscurer the knowledge the more power it contains—it is, in essence, a gnostic faith in the potentialities of arcana.

The Unnameable Present is a bright book, its insights glyptic and sharp, but its claim to epochal analysis is ultimately undermined by Calasso’s obsession with the obscurities of the past. Calasso’s restless yore-yearning puts him squarely in line with Benjamin, for whom the collector’s deepest drive was always “to renew the old world” by reassembling its bones. Despite his upbraiding of reality’s debasement to bricolage, a slide effected by the rise of the internet, his own structure falls short of true synthesis, and becomes just another collage, one that, in its mystical reliance on the all-powerful hand of the compiler, has its own authoritarian tincture. In the book’s second section, Calasso, describing an encounter Ernst Jünger had with an old conspiratorial companion, writes of the companion’s mystical inclinations: “It is the archaic system of correspondences that arises through the will of an individual who decides every detail.” It’s not easy to escape the feeling that Calasso might as well be quoting himself.

—Bailey Trela is a writer living in Bushwick.