Book Review

The Italian writer Roberto Calasso (“a literary institution of one” as the Paris Review has called him) has been guiding readers through the dense underbrush of world mythology for several decades, earning him international renown. In The Unnamable Present, he shifts his attention to the mythologies of the contemporary world.

The Unnamable Present is the ninth book in an ongoing project that has been suggestively referred to by Dominic Green as a “spiritual biography of the secular West.” Calasso, habitually digressive, brings great focus and intensity to the current work. The Unnamable Present centers on something deeply unsettling about our moment, which is not inaugurated but accelerated by the overtaking of experience by digital proxies. The apparent demise of liberal humanism, to mention just one of the many estrangements our era has witnessed, may have been inevitable. But it has clearly been hastened by remedies offered to ease the patient’s suffering. Our predicament calls to mind Nietzsche’s unforgettable description of the death of God from The Gay Science:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games have we to invent?

We have connived at secularization and its discontents, telling ourselves that the promise of the future is worth the loss of past, that speed is more important than substance. But the ugliness of what has grown up in the interim should give pause.

Calasso is a natural raconteur. But the story he tells here and in other books is neither history nor fiction but rather a kind of metaliterature—a philosophical anthropology in a minor key reminiscent of melancholic geniuses such as W. G. Sebald and Thomas Browne. The central preoccupation throughout Calasso’s work is time: how its passing shapes and defines human existence. In his view, the elaborate edifice of culture consists of a series of more or less ingenious and artful attempts to extend control over the invisible: ritual endeavors meant to placate the oldest of all the gods—the god of time, the unseen source of mortality. We dwell in three dimensions of space, but only time acts on our mortal substance. Days and years define our growth, flourishing, and eventual decline and disappearance. In his earlier Literature and the Gods, Calasso notes that the power of time to transform matter merely by passing reveals a singular mystery at the heart of things and is “the point at which history impresses itself on all that is.” Time passing shapes matter like clay on a potter’s wheel. The present is the slippery stuff under our hands.

The Unnamable Present is structured as a triptych, beginning with a lengthy aphoristic essay titled “Tourists and Terrorists,” in which the vices of the secular post-truth culture that has emerged recently in the West are starkly numbered. This is the part of the book that captivated me most. As an indictment it has a searing truth. Though dismissive of Marxist dogma and the regimes it spawned, Calasso shares the concerns of various prominent Marxist critics (most notably Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin) about the prospects of democratic liberalism. As recent upheavals suggest, the West does seem to be gripped by some increasingly debilitating form of vertigo. Many diagnosticians of our current malaise find fault too readily with the past, conveniently sparing us a reckoning. Surely it must be the rapacity and ignorance of our ancestors, the insatiable avarice of “dead white men,” which started this mess. Calasso turns that diagnosis its head, once again echoing Nietzsche: “We . . . ourselves” are the only ones able to answer the charges, blaming the dead for our predicament is mere equivocation. The world is bleeding to death under our disposable cutlery. Though modernity presents itself as progress and liberation for all, we must, as Adorno recognized, accept one hard caveat: “the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.” The Unnamable Present reminds us of this contradiction and the looming catastrophe it may portend, one that figures symbolically at the end of the book.

Central to the current crisis is a sense of instability and fragmentation inaugurated by mass mobility. “Tourists and terrorists” are twin avatars of a globalized order, its “deadly insubstantiality.” The terrorist’s violence is rooted in a sacrificial logic, while the origins of that violence lie in a deeply modern alienation, a trembling of the veil. “In its latest state,” Calasso remarks, “terrorism coincides with the spread of online pornography.” Pornography is the knife blade of secularism as it “tore away the whole structure” of sexual taboo—“what had been dreamt of and desired was suddenly there to be seen, easily and always available.” What has been fatally suggested by the release of libido from ancient restraints is that “nothing is true and everything is allowed.” Hannah Arendt once observed that totalitarianism’s origins lay in the reemergence of the very same “secret doctrine” with the collapse of the moral authority of Christianity between the wars, a period to which the second part of Calasso’s book, ominously titled “The Vienna Gas Company,” hearkens back.

Yet secular society’s most troubling symptoms are not the agonies inflicted on it by vengeful fundamentalists but its own prodigious, unchecked growth to the point where everything including nature is now subsumed by it. A colossal edifice—the built environment, real and virtual—circumscribes awareness and dwarfs reality. We find ourselves down a metaphysical blind alley. As Max Weber noted, secularism and rationality are not inherently benign. They lead not only to order but also to dissolution. So, for Calasso as for Weber, secularism constitutes a paradox. It is a longstanding attitude, once marginal, which has suddenly crested with a tsunami-like force. And it is not merely part of the contemporary condition but its essence: “the immanent frame,” as the philosopher Charles Taylor observed.

Far from banishing religion, secularism seeks to rival it. “Two thousand years after Christ,” Calasso writes, “secularism envelops the planet. This is not because it has conquered 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.” This condition fully took hold only in the mid-twentieth century, in a convergence of social and technological developments:

When can it be said that secularity finally took over? During the years when Adorno was writing Minima Moralia, therefore around 1950 in the United States. The word secularity was not in current usage and no one thought of celebrating its arrival. It was then that the world of detached houses with small fenced gardens, an improbable world until that time, became normality.

Our inability to fathom or accept the contingency of an order so recently created is one of the things that gives the age its surreal and tragic quality. The widespread belief that the present needs no justification nor any alternative is one of its most pathological features.

Some of this has a familiar ring. Calasso is certainly not the only disenchanted contemporary pressing forward a version of this argument. Besides the figures I have already mentioned, one recognizes an affinity with—if not the influence of—such writers as Michel Houellebecq and John Gray. Kulturpessimismus is much in vogue. The novelty lies in the scope of Calasso’s erudition and his elegant aphoristic style. Connections drawn between disparate times, places, and cultures—all of which appear to exist simultaneously in Calasso’s capacious mind—allow him to follow the contours of the dissipated attention and transitory lucidity that characterizes the digital age.

But then again, he seems to want us to ask: Is “digital age” really an adequate descriptor of our moment? Are we really the brave new denizens of an electronic millennium? Beyond the boardrooms and cafeterias of Silicon Valley and some top engineering schools, reality remains stubbornly analog. The wail of grinding gears offers a salutary reminder of mortal limits to riders of the New York subway. A glittering future beckons while our infrastructure decays. That may ultimately be the point. A gaggle of “accelerationists” and TED-ophiles promises better living through technology: quick and painless “emancipation” from need and want. The snake oil of artificial intelligence will allegedly end work, childbearing, even death as we know it. Yet the body remains mortal: dying as it lives, subject to time. Media vita in morte sumus (In the midst of life we are in death). This is the one true heresy of our age. As Adorno once remarked, heresy is the iron law of the essay. The Unnamable Present is Calasso’s finest foray in the genre to date.

About the Reviewer

Robert Huddleston is a poet, translator, and essayist. He teaches in the Expository Writing Program at NYU.