When the Italian writer and publisher Roberto Calasso died last year, he was more widely admired than understood. When he is praised in the Anglophone world, it is usually for being erudite. Meanwhile, in his native Italy, Calasso is better known as a publishing impresario, because of his leadership of the independent publishing house Adelphi. Calasso’s great work, a capacious 11-part series that he began in 1983 with The Ruin of Kasch, and ended in 2021 with The Tablet of Destinies, is often said to be indescribable. Actually, it is rather straightforward once you have the key. Calasso is writing gnoseology (a word he uses often)—that is, an examination and history of esoteric knowledge.

“What matters is not outward but inward form.”

This helps to explain what can be one of the more confounding elements of his work. Critics never fail to mention the bewildering mixture of genres one finds in Calasso. On a single page, you can find myth, fiction, history, and essay abutting each other. For Calasso, all of this material exists on the same plane. From the esoteric perspective, the myth of the flood is of the same type as a scrap of an essay from Novalis, which is of the same type as a biting remark from Talleyrand. What matters is not outward, but inward, form.

In each part of his opus, Calasso recounts passages from the history of esoteric truth. We now call such histories myths. Myths, for Calasso, aren’t merely fairy tales meant to amuse children and divert scholars. They are true histories of invisible events that have taken place and continue to take place outside linear time. The myths of all cultures are refractions of these supra-chronological events. The first event of this kind of which we have knowledge is the creation of the world.

The creation of the world was simultaneously a marriage and a suicide: the splitting of matter and spirit simultaneous with their intermingling on earth. (This is symbolized by the separation of darkness and light in the Torah, and by the slaying of Tiamat by Marduk in the ancient Sumerian corpus.) As Calasso puts it in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1988): “In the beginning, the primordial man would copulate and kill himself at the same time. Men recalling this feat could hardly emulate it if they wanted to survive and were thus forced to divide it into two phases: killing and copulation, sacrifice and marriage.” In the early age of man, all actions were oriented toward consciousness of this simultaneous marriage-suicide. Such consciousness was the basis of the universal ritual known as sacrifice. In this lens, we can understand how apparently brutal ancient acts were understood to be holy. For Calasso, all ancient ritual represents sacrifice in one way or another.

The final work, The Tablet of Destinies, differs from the preceding volumes in its brevity and in the fact that unlike the others, which come with engrossing notes, it cites no texts. Perhaps this was merely due to Calasso’s failing health. But all the same, it has the effect of sending off the project with simplicity and quietness—as though the facts no longer matter, the big hulking apparatuses we have used for our supposed “studies” can be dispensed with, and all that is necessary now are the stories themselves.

“All that is necessary now are the stories themselves.”

The Tablet of Destinies recounts the myths of the ancient Sumerians. To the modern reader, the most familiar source for these myths is The Epic of Gilgamesh. Less well-known are a series of tablets discovered at Assur, near modern-day Mosul in Iraq, between 1903 and 1913 by German archaeologists. These tablets contain passages that might be startling for Christians: It is clear that the story of the disappearance of the god Marduk, who is brought to trial beside a common criminal (later released), and whose crypt is later found empty, prefigures the story of Jesus Christ. Calasso would appear to be working from these sources for his narration of Marduk’s disappearance:

“You’ll be judged as a criminal, not as a god,” they told [Marduk]. Outside the crowd was rioting. Many bore grudges against this most recent god. Marduk was dragged down to the riverbank, as was the custom for the worst offenders. They had torn off his ceremonial robes and his body bore witness to the beatings he had taken. Only Ishtar said she felt sorry for him and for Nabu. But she couldn’t stop the gods. They brought a common criminal to stand beside Marduk. This man, too, was to be judged.

But Calasso begins his book with a more familiar tale, from the Arabian Nights: Sindbad the Sailor, shipwrecked by a great storm. Sindbad finds himself in Dilmun, a land quite different from all those he has previously discovered. Dilmun is a sacred place with parallels to the Garden of Eden as described in the Torah. There Sindbad meets Utnapishtim, who was chosen by the god Ea to build a ship to preserve the human race, and who obviously parallels the man known in the sacred Hebrew texts as Noah.

In Calasso’s telling of the Sumerian flood myth, the reason for the deluge is not man’s sinfulness. Rather, it is a reason that will likely be familiar to all parents of small children. The gods, known here as the Anunnaki, find that the men they have created to populate the earth are making too much noise. “Men just went on multiplying,” Calasso writes, “and the noise they made was ever more irksome.” Only one god opposes the divine genocide. That god is Ea, who can be identified with the imperious Yahweh of the Torah. And so Ea warns Utnapishtim of the coming floods and instructs him to build the large ship with which humanity will be saved.

One interesting detail from the Sumerian version of this story, which otherwise closely parallels that of the Torah, is that Ea gives Utnapishtim a task to complete before constructing his ark. As Utnapishtim explains it to Sindbad: “And in a ditch in Shuruppak I hid the scriptures, those clay tablets that would bear witness to what happened before the Flood. Few know this part of the story. Those whose task it is to pass on the scriptures. Of whom you, Sindbad, are only the most recent.” (Shuruppak, the site of modern day Tell Fara in Iraq, is the place of origin for the Instructions of Shuruppak, which contains admonitions paralleling the Ten Commandments and constitutes some of the oldest written literature in existence.)

Utnapishtim, who has been living alone in Dilmun, is eager to talk to Sindbad. In fact, the gods had picked Utnapishtim as guardian of Dilmun precisely because he was a born storyteller. Long ago, it was Utnapishtim whom the gods had picked to explain to the great hero Gilgamesh that, despite his heroic prowess, he must die, as must all men. “When the gods fashioned men,” Utnapishtim explains, “they assigned them death and kept life for themselves.” Having explained this to Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim then begins to wonder what his own purpose is: “After the apparition that was Gilgamesh, there was a long, interminable period in which nothing happened.” Then comes the arrival of Sindbad, and all becomes clear. The gods, Utnapishtim realizes, “wanted a voice to tell the stories that had happened before the Flood. And I was the only one still alive. I had been part of those stories, or they had been told to me…. That’s why I have gone on speaking to you. Sometimes I had the feeling I was speaking to myself. But now I know that those stories, or at least splinters of them, and always with big gaps between one and another, are alive in you, too. Like me, they have escaped death.”

One of the last tales told in this final book of Calasso’s series concerns the titular Tablet of Destinies. At one point, the Tablet is stolen from the great god Enlil by the monster Anzu, and the gods stage a fearsome duel in order to regain control of it. “What was written on the Tablet of Destinies?” Utnapishtim asks rhetorically, “Order. So long as the Anunnaki had control of the Tablets they knew how to celebrate the rites and implement the law. If they didn’t have it, things fell apart.” On Earth, ceremonies at the beginning of each New Year celebrated the fixing of the destinies by the gods. But even after the gods regained the Tablet, elements of its irrevocable law remained outside their control. The gods had fixed it in the stars, but it was always in danger of collapsing. This is why gods and men obsessed over order and followed their ceremonies with such painstaking attention. “The Tablet of the Destinies,” Utnapishtim explains, “concentrated in the smallest possible horizontal space the axis that traversed the heavens…. But it was always a precarious order. The celestial bond might fade away.…” This is Calasso’s central subject: the precariousness of man’s connection to the divine. It is also the eternal plotline of myth, through which we are all living, whether we acknowledge it or not.

As a matter of fact, the Tablet of Destinies did eventually fall from its fixed place in the sky. Either that, or the human race lost sight of it. One version of how this happened is explained in the myth of the Four Ages in ancient Indian literature. As Calasso writes in Ka (1996), the third book of the series, “the approach of the last age began to make itself felt. This was the Age of the Losing Throw, the kaliyuga, when one development became clear to all: Sacrifice was no longer effective.” This story of decline has parallels in Hesiod and especially in Ovid’s four ages—Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. For Calasso, we are living in the kaliyuga, or Iron Age, the worst and most degraded of all the ages. In this age, there are strange new rules for contacting the gods. Those rules can be summed up in one word: literature.

What this means, for Calasso, is that the gods have exited the world of men and entered the world of stories. This probably sounds like figurative language. But for Calasso—and for any writer or reader who has read deeply enough that he can no longer return to the mundane world without feeling it to be lacking—this is not only a concrete truth, but an ultimate one. It may be that this moment can’t be located in historical time. It should rather be located in eternity. To quote Sallust: “These things never happened, but are always.” This line serves as the epigraph to Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. In fact it can be understood as the key to the entirety of Calasso’s oeuvre.

Calasso tells this tale most straightforwardly in the story that is at the heart of his first book, The Ruin of Kasch, and he returns to it again and again. In The Ruin of Kasch, the tale is told in the form of an ancient African myth compiled by the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius. The story goes like this. Once upon a time, the Nap of Naphta in Kordofan (modern-day Sudan) was the wealthiest man in the realm. But the king had little time to enjoy his riches. While he reigned, a cabal of priests would spend their waking lives studying the stars—ceaselessly praying, studying, and sacrificing. Eventually, the stars would communicate to the priests that the king’s reign was over. And so the Nap of Naphta would be sacrificially murdered, along with a few close confederates of his choice, and a new king selected to replace him.

In Kordofan, it had always been thus. But one day, a man named Far-li-mas, renowned for his storytelling, entered the kingdom. The current king, Akaf, liked Far-li-mas. And so he chose Far-li-mas to accompany him in death when the time came. King Akaf also chose his virgin sister, Sali, to accompany him in death. But Sali fell in love with Far-li-mas. She decided she didn’t want to die, and she especially didn’t want Far-li-mas to die. So together they hatched a plan. They would use Far-li-mas’s stories to distract the priests whose job it was to monitor the stars for the date of their death. The priests agreed to listen to Far-li-mas’s stories, but cautioned that they would have to leave and attend to their duties when the stars came out. Yet Far-li-mas’s story “was like hashish, which blurs and entrances. His story became like hashish, which leads to languor. His story became like hashish, which induces a fatal swoon.” The priests failed to observe the stars. The king, along with Far-li-mas and Sali, lived. Thereafter, no more kings were killed in Naphta. Akaf died a natural death, and he was succeeded by the storyteller Far-li-mas, whose bride was Sali. And yet the fame of Far-li-mas aroused jealousy and hatred in neighboring regions. Savage peoples plundered the great kingdom. And it never recovered from this ruin.

This story could be summarized in three words: The gods withdrew. After a certain point, there are no longer specific, prescribed rituals that summon them. Contact with the gods becomes a more difficult prospect. And yet, paradoxically, the varieties of ways they might be contacted becomes infinite. This infinity of ways is called literature. Or, as Calasso calls it, absolute literature. Why absolute? For two reasons: “because it is a knowledge that one assimilates while in search of an absolute, and that draws in no less than everything; and at the same time it is something absolute, unbound, freed from any duty or common cause, from any social utility.”

“Literature is not the cousin of rhetoric; it is the child of ritual.”

Literature is not the cousin of rhetoric; it is the child of ritual—in particular, the brutal sacrificial rituals we read about in textbooks with terror and disbelief. Like them, it has no earthly use. What was the social utility of Yahweh’s demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac? What was the social utility of the ancient Mesoamaerican ball game, known variously as Pok a Tok or Ulama, after which the winners were beheaded? Or what is the social utility of suicidal acts of religious terror? Of course, these occurrences have various effects, but these are only byproducts. These rituals are a way of acting out man’s knowledge that he is connected to something outside social utility. This is what French surrealist George Bataille famously called the “accursed share”: “Beyond our immediate ends,” Bataille wrote, “man’s activity in fact pursues the useless and infinite fulfillment of the universe.”

Calasso dates the birth of modernity to 1797, but the identity of the apostate who inaugurated it is unknown. That was the publication date of an anonymous essay, “The First Systematic Program of German Idealism,” that called for “a new mythology.” This was the birth of the age of absolute literature that culminated in the late 1800s and gave a last gasping hurrah in the 1900s with the movement anachronistically called modernism. Beginning in 1797, society creeped in upon the religious rituals which allowed men access to the gods. So artists cut secret little paths through the thicket: This was literature. No two paths looked the same or required the same gear in order to pass through. But they all led to vistas looking out on the same beautiful and terrible scene.

“Global digitality leads to global homogeneity.”

Might a similar process be taking place today, in the age that began with the invention of the internet? The same way that society once crept into the crevices of religion and rotted it, it now creeps into the crevices of literature. The Soviets had a dream of burning all writing that was not useful to their cause. But as always, the result is more easily achieved in the distributed manner of modern capitalism than through top-down autocracy. Today all the dust jackets still speak of literature as though it really exists. But that is not what one finds between the covers. Instead of literature, books are filled with information, data. Somehow the mystery has been stripped away. We know precisely how well each genre sells, we know the ugly personal lives of the authors, we know who gives the best blurbs. And, more deadly than all that, we know that portraying certain groups in a negative light, or exploiting information to which the author isn’t entitled by dint of his identity, is dangerous for society—the one remaining and totalizing taboo. Global digitality leads to global homogeneity and swallows up all the secret roads that led to the gods.

The taboo of absolute literature consisted in its apostasy from organized religion. The only taboo remaining today is apostasy from society, from global homogeneity. What is the curse, the poisonous shibboleth by which one keeps homogeneity at bay? The answer is both ugly and resplendent. It is the rejection of society’s basic mandate: digitality, the interchangeability of anything for anything else, otherwise known as the principle of equality. Equality is the fundamental concept behind our modern world order, whether capitalist or communist—the idea that any person or thing can be substituted for any other person or thing. To deny this dogma opens up doors to strange vistas. It leaves you in the place of the artist in the early 18th century: a ridiculous reject, a crank, a madman. And only from this spot outside society’s magic circle can literature’s true work be done.

Noah Kumin is the founder and editor in chief of the Mars Review of Books.


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