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Book Review: Ardor

By (November 15, 2014) No Comment

Ardorardor cover

by Roberto Calasso

translated by Richard Dixon

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

“They were remote beings,” Roberto Calasso writes at the beginning of his 2010 book L’Ardore, now given an English-language translation by Richard Dixon, “Remote not only from modern man but from their ancient contemporaries. Distant not just as another culture, but as another celestial body.”

He’s referring to the ancient Vedic people of northern India, whose leaders “ignored history with a disdain unequaled in the annals of any other great civilization.” We know them from the literature they left behind, the weird and multifaceted work of the Rgveda, and that literature is the subject of Ardor.

“Subject” being, in the case of virtually everything written by Calasso, intensely subjective. This author’s books are rhetorical equivalents of gas giants: their nominal subjects are the super-compressed cores exerting an unseen unifying gravitation, and the author’s enormous erudition, wide reading, and kitten-like distractibility form the layers and layers of roiling, chaotic, atmosphere extending for huge distances in all directions around the core.

Outside the farthest reaches of that atmosphere, in the hard vacuum of space, wait the critics, their laser canons primed and ready – for the simple reason that Calasso’s scattershot, sometimes hysterical, and (kudos to Dixon) frequently untranslatable scholarly woolgathering fails as often as it succeeds in, to further the planetary analogy, supporting life. His breakthrough book in the English-language world, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, is very nearly incomprehensible, but his book The Ruins of Kasch was boundlessly thought-provoking; his book on Indian mythology, Ka, was only faintly over-personal, but his book K., ostensibly about Kafka, might just as well have been about Scrooge McDuck or Axl Rose; his La Folie Baudelaire was superbly sensitive and sometimes beautiful, but his little ditty Tiepolo Pink was, to put it mildly, a conceptual failure from start to finish. His approach is as unpredictable as it is idiosyncratic, and that drives drives book critics, enamored of admonition, practically nuts. Neither they nor even Calasso’s legion of devoted fans ever know quite what to expect next.

His Italianate fans already know what, thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, his English-language monoglot readers now have a chance to discover: Ardor supports ample life – it’s an utterly fascinating mixture of textual criticism and philosophical investigation, with only the bare minimum of semi-delusional digressing.

Calasso understands that most of his Western readers will be unfamiliar with Vedic literature, and he does a very adroit job of simultaneously filling them in on the basics as he goes along and expounding – sometimes dreamily but always invigoratingly – on all of it. In his typically comprehensive way, he’s studied the Rgveda down to its last verse and chant, and he fills his book with the fruits of his analysis:

There is an immense variety of Vedic rites, but all – without a single exception – converge in one action: offering something in the fire. Whether it is milk or sap from a plant or an animal (according to certain texts, also from a human being), the final action is the same. For the Vedic ritualists, killing has not just to do with blood. For them – and they have persistently repeated it, time and again – every offering is a killing.

And the most satisfynig aspect of Ardor is Calasso’s tendency to let Vedic literature prompt associations in his mind with works far more familiar to the majority of his readers. A reference like that last one to offerings and killings, for instance, is bound to suggest a different story – and here, as elsewhere, Calasso displays a fine exegetical turn of mind:

The word offering or oblation appears for the first time in the Bible in reference to Cain. And Cain’s offering – “fruits of the earth” – can be interpreted as a gesture of homage of someone who offers a guest the finest that he has. At that time man was allowed only to feed on the fruits of the land. And so to offer it to Yahweh was a pious and evocative gesture, as if Yahweh wished to share those fruits with men.

The case of Abel is quite different. Until then the Bible had never mentioned the act of killing. And the eating of flesh had not yet been permitted by Yahweh. Is it therefore strange that Abel should feel the need to kill some of his animals to offer them to Yahweh.

In another parallel, he looks at the underpinning differences between the Vedic world and that of ancient Greece – differences which, for him, boil down to questions of authority:

Vedic India and ancient Greece mirror each other. In India: all texts are sacred, liturgical, of nonhuman origin, kept and transmitted by a priestly class (the brahmins). In Greece: all texts are secular, often attributed to authors, transmitted outside a priestly class, which does not exist as such.

Despite Calasso’s best efforts – and Ardor represents him at his best – the chants and hymns of the Rgveda remain somewhat obstinate for readers not among the millions for whom they are essential, foundational texts; they admit outsiders far less readily than, say, some of the stories of the Bible or the Koran. What Calasso does with them here is much more of a meditation than an explication, and it as often as not takes the form of summoning a lost world filled with great but precariously-maintained balance. This summoning is, admittedly, an easy trick (Calasso does it in almost every book; perhaps one day an autobiography will hint at the reason), but it can still be illuminating when it’s done well:

Nature, for urban man, is a barometric variation and a few leafy islands scattered across the urban fabric. Apart from this, it is raw material for manufacture and a scenario for leisure. For Vedic man, nature was the place where the powers were manifest and where exchanges between the powers took place. Society was a cautious attempt at becoming a part of those exchanges, without disturbing them too much and without being annihilated by them.

In Ardor he’s produced a book as odd and opaque and viscerally moving as his subject. The weather on Neptune is – for now, anyway – just fine.