THE BOOK OF ALL BOOKS
By Roberto Calasso
Translated by Tim Parks
“The Book of All Books” is one of the last in a series of studies of myth by Roberto Calasso, who died in Milan this past July, at the age of 80. For much of his career Calasso owned and ran the distinguished Italian publishing house Adelphi, but he also managed to bring forth a dazzling array of essays and book-length studies on such subjects as prehistoric humans, modern thought, the publishing industry, Tiepolo, Kafka, Baudelaire, Hitchcock, Central Europe, Freud and the Indian Vedas — as if there were no limits to his curiosity or his knowledge.
Moving with confident ease through texts in French, English, Spanish, German, Latin, ancient Greek, Sanskrit and Hebrew (not to mention his native Italian), Calasso is among those rare people, ever diminishing in number, who can persuade you that it is still possible to grasp almost the whole of human culture. It is something of a conjuring trick, of course, but an impressive one. At its best, as in his celebrated 1988 study of Greek myth, “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony,” it is thrilling.
The subject of “The Book of All Books” is the Hebrew Bible, and Calasso’s principal technique, as in “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony,” is to select and retell a great many stories. This is more interesting than it sounds, in part because his selection is cunning and his narrative gifts considerable.
Calasso begins not, as we might have expected, with Adam and Eve in the garden; that story doesn’t come until Page 287 of almost 400 pages of text. He begins instead with Saul, David and Solomon, and in retelling their stories he indulges in some of the pleasures of fiction-making: “It was one of the first days of spring and David was napping on the roof after lunch. Then he got up and began to look around. He heard water splashing, but couldn’t work out where. He leaned out and saw ‘a woman taking a bath, and the woman was very beautiful to look at.’” It is not unreasonable to surmise that, as he walked on the roof, David’s attention was drawn by a sound of splashing, but the account in II Samuel says only that “from the roof he saw a woman washing herself.” So too the details of the first days of spring, the nap, the lunch, the puzzlement about where the sound was coming from, and the leaning out in order to see are all surmises. As Calasso puts it, “The Bible has no rivals when it comes to the art of omission, of not saying what everyone would like to know.” He undertakes repeatedly to fill in the blanks.
But the principal interest of “The Book of All Books” lies not in its fictional embellishments but in the stories themselves. Most of us have lost the practice of daily Bible reading that characterized earlier generations, just as we have lost the deep dive into ancient Greece that was once a standard part of secondary school education. I think of myself as reasonably familiar with the Bible, and yet I found myself checking again and again to be sure that Calasso was not making it all up: “When he climbed up to Bethel a swarm of boys surrounded him, jeering: ‘Climb on up, baldie! Climb on up, baldie!’ Elisha looked up, sent them a withering look, and cursed them. Then ‘two she-bears came out of the forest and tore apart 42 of the boys.’” The “withering” is a tiny invention — in Hebrew, as far as I can tell, Elisha just gives them a look — but otherwise it is all there in II Kings 2:23-24.
Apart from remarking that “not everyone considered him a benefactor,” Calasso relates this little story about the prophet Elisha without comment. It appears, along with other anecdotes, to convey both the power and weirdness of the Hebrew prophets. “These men,” he remarks, “shared a certain spitefulness, spoke with great vehemence and as a matter of principle deployed only two registers: condemnation and consolation, vast deserts of condemnation, that is, relieved by rare oases of inconceivable sweetness.” Their character traits reach a climax in the weirdest of all the prophets, Ezekiel, and it is with Ezekiel’s supremely strange visions that Calasso’s book approaches its end.
Ezekiel brings fully into focus the key principles that, in Calasso’s view, weave together all the diverse stories that he retells and that define the destiny and the identity of the Jews. (Notably, it is as Jews — not as Hebrews or Israelites in their historical and geographical particularity — that he identifies the figures in his book.) The first of these principles is separation. Yahweh insists that his people be different, and zealously maintain this difference, from all the surrounding peoples, just as he insists that he, Yahweh, be their only god. All manifestations of the desire to be like others — for example, to have kings, the way the surrounding peoples do — arouse his blinding wrath.
In a chapter-length digression, Calasso gives an account of Freud’s late essay “Moses and Monotheism” as a tormented attempt to undo this founding separation, Freud argued that Moses was himself a foreigner, an Egyptian marked in the ancient custom of Egypt by circumcision. What had seemed like the defining Abrahamic sign of tribal distinction for all males was in fact a sign of assimilation. “Assimilation came before separation,” as Calasso sums up Freud’s argument, “and that separation had been introduced by an Egyptian, hence the Jew had no real nature of his own.” But try telling that to Ezekiel.
On one occasion, Yahweh told Ezekiel the story of Jerusalem as if it were the story of a woman. Yahweh took the woman out of the filth and blood in which she had been tainted at birth, washed and anointed her, dressed her in fine clothes and bedecked her with jewels. And what did she do? She opened her legs to any stranger who passed by. “You prostituted yourself with the sons of Egypt, with their big members, whoring more and more to vex me,” Calasso writes, taking on the voice of Yahweh. Now, the prophet declares bitterly, the consequences of this gross infidelity have been made clear: Jerusalem has fallen to its enemies and the people of Israel have been carried into captivity in Babylon.
Exile from Jerusalem means exile from the other great principle on which, in Calasso’s view, the whole of Jewish identity was founded: sacrifice. Yahweh has always demanded sacrifice — the practice appears as early as the story of Cain and Abel, and was renewed when Noah’s ark reached dry land. But after the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, there was one place and one place only where the Jews could fulfill their obligation to offer Yahweh his daily holocaust — the priestly killing of the designated animal, the draining of its blood over the altar and the burning of its body. Pagans could sacrifice to their worthless gods anywhere they wished; if one site was unavailable, another would always do. But for the Jews — and for their one true god — there were no alternatives.
Calasso’s insistence on the centrality of sacrifice is the key to an organizing thread that runs half-hidden through his sprawling book. That thread is what in Christian theology is called supersessionism, that is, the notion that the Hebrew Bible is the “Old Testament” and that Jesus Christ, as disclosed in the “New Testament,” has superseded the Mosaic covenant. The separation that marked the Jews off from the rest of humanity has been healed by Jesus’ message of universal salvation, and the sacrifice — the killing of the innocent creature in keeping with God’s implacable demand — has been at once abrogated and fulfilled by the Crucifixion and by the ritual consumption of the Savior’s blood and body. If we wonder why Calasso’s imagination lingers over the bather, it is because she figures in the genealogy of Jesus. And if we ask ourselves why Elisha, the baldie, makes his odd appearance, it is because he brought back to life a dead child, just as Jesus brought back to life the dead Lazarus.
That the last chapter of Calasso’s book is called “The Messiah” is therefore not surprising. Jesus has been hovering just below the surface — and occasionally rising into visibility — throughout the vast array of stories. What is surprising is that the final pages are not about the Messiah at all. Rather they are about what the Jews did after Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and therefore, made it impossible to continue offering the daily sacrifice to Yahweh. They turned to reading. The Jews did not imagine that the daily recitation of the Torah was a burden that would be lifted at the longed-for end of days. On the contrary, the coming of the Messiah would mean only that there was more time for the Torah, without any vexation or interruption. “To substitute sacrifice with study”: This was the great innovation of rabbinical Judaism, an innovation that committed the Jews to the dream of a life centered on ceaseless, boundless study. It is not difficult to glimpse the polymathic spirit of Roberto Calasso drawn to this dream.
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