When conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s birth certificate first started, they must have struck some people as absurd. It seemed unlikely that Obama was hiding something as easily verified as the place of his birth. And indeed, he produced evidence that he was born in Hawai’i. Yet the controversy refused to die; instead, it gained steam, to the point where Obama produced a second piece of evidence, his “long-form birth certificate,” a sequence of words which, if there is any grace in this world, we will never have to hear on the evening news again. Even so, there are people who still believe Obama wasn’t born in the United States. It’s utterly clear this was all an underhanded tactic—a brilliant one, because it raised the unanswerable question which haunts every government and social order: Are you legitimate? Or, put another way: What gives you the right to rule?
“A dangerous question for every sovereign is his origin,” Roberto Calasso writes in The Ruin of Kasch. “Sovereignty can be attacked by tracing back to its origin, but sovereignty wins its contest when it refuses to give an account of itself, except to something (‘Diou’) on which no one can reckon. This is the origin of that arcane truth formulated by Disraeli: ‘Never explain.’”
Legitimacy, and where it derives from, is Calasso’s animating concern in this work. He probes at the question from every angle imaginable. The central figure is Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord—ambassador, bishop, adviser to kings, conniving statesman, and key actor in the history of political legitimacy—known to all simply as Talleyrand. Calasso lightly fictionalizes Talleyrand’s life, in the sense that he puts thoughts into Talleyrand’s mind and produces scenes in which Talleyrand moves about and sometimes speaks; but references to real-world events and quotations from books abound in the text, and if this is fiction, it’s many other things, too: political theory, literary criticism, history, philosophy, all of these approximately, none of these precisely. It might best be called a treatise.
Calasso begins with Talleyrand in his salon with a party going on around him. In a sequence that sets the scene while neatly recapitulating the changing French political landscape in the nineteenth century by way of home décor, Calasso writes: “At the entrance, the delicious stuccoes of the ancien régime. By the exit, the bourgeois dining room. At the center, the hypnotic beasts of the Empire stare at us from armchairs. And in rooms to the side we greet the guillotine and the American forests.” And Talleyrand himself? “From every corner Prince Talleyrand’s mots echo among the guests. […] The meanderings of his life and of his salon will become the context for a cruel performance repeated over and over again, though in changeable sequences, in place of the myth that society has forgotten to repeat.”
But soon, Calasso is diverging: into Goethe’s letters, Pascal’s Pensées, John Von Neumann’s lecture on “what was now happening between machines that calculated by themselves.” The style of the writing is captured by Calasso’s own description of the literary critic Saint-Beuve’s works: “an immense hallucinatory serial novel, packed with voices, allusions, fragments of recollections, gossip, fleeting images, recurring sounds and echoes.” So, too, The Ruin of Kasch, which is filled with voices in conversation, resounding off the walls of the salon where they keep each other company. These echoes become one of the book’s organizing principles: words like “legitimacy” and “douceur” and “sacrifice” appear again and again, linking passages to each other through a dreamlike play of associations, compounding and complicating our understanding of each term and, by extension, the work Calasso has undertaken.
Although it all revolves around Talleyrand—his statecraft, his fluidity and mutability, his efforts to legitimate a sequence of French governments—the sheer number of characters, who often enter stage right and exit stage left in a single passage (sometimes only to reappear many pages later), can be overwhelming, as can the range of Calasso’s references and the knowledge this book presumes. A familiarity with nineteenth-century French history is almost a prerequisite, and acquaintance with the origins of and major thinkers in Continental philosophy is highly recommended.
At the same time, Calasso’s writing is entrancing, at once a shadow play of powerful figures and an attempt to examine the light that throws these shadows: “Beneath Talleyrand’s every gesture is a hint of the sacramental origin of power,” he writes, presaging the book’s turn to more theoretical concerns. And Talleyrand is indeed left behind in his salon once Calasso relates the—myth? parable? legend?—of Kasch, a story of an empire brought down when its ruler no longer followed the ancient laws.
This ruin happens thanks in no small part to the appearance of a storyteller, Far-li-mas, whose stories entrance the king and his court, and eventually the masses. The power of his words—to lull and transport, not merely their power to persuade—convinces the king to abandon the practice of sacrificing himself when the priests declare the appropriate time has arrived. Calasso unpacks the hidden meanings in this simple parable: “The story of the kingdom of Kasch teaches how sacrifice is the cause of ruin and also how the absence of sacrifice is the cause of ruin. This pair of simultaneous and contradictory truths points to a single and darker truth, which rests in the stillness: society is the ruin. And from this obscurity we are pointed to something else, in the background: society is the ruin because it reverberates the sound of the world, its incessant devouring whirr.”
From there, Calasso unspools the history of (Western) civilization, as refracted through some of its myths and thinkers: the Vedic seers of the Upanishads, Buddhism, Jesus; Hegel, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche. This portion of the text is, in a word, difficult. With Talleyrand absent for long stretches, there is little concrete action, and Calasso’s writing can be inscrutably abstract. Even so, the occasional bon mot—another phrase Calasso frequently returns to—enlivens the experience. He derides Jeremy Bentham as “an obtuse, insolent child who could harbor no doubts since he had no experience (nor would he acquire any).” Leibniz “rested his feet in the realm of the heavens and put the planetary variants together in his mind, seeking for the first time not to forget a single one of them.” Freud is “the man who had the peculiar quality of recapitulating the whole of Western history in each of his moments of anxiety.” Novelists, too, come under Calasso’s scrutiny. “Literature doesn’t even need to talk about sacrifice,” he writes. “In one of its forms—that’s to say, absolute literature (a genealogy of decadence: Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Gottfried Benn; or Flaubert, Proust)—writing takes on the features of a sacrificial offering, which implies a certain destruction of the author.”
Like Freud, Calasso seems to be recapitulating Western history, with moments of anxiety replaced (or supplemented) by analysis. His glosses on various thinkers are sometimes quick and dirty, sometimes poetic to the point of obscurity, and sometimes deeply considered, with his treatment of Freud being perhaps the most vital. It’s a long way back to the question of legitimacy, but it is, all of it, at last, relevant. Always the concern of how power is attained, and where the weakness in it lie; always the concern of what is lost, what is gained, what is sacrificed. Always the question: What gives you the right to rule?
If this is not fiction, precisely, it is at least something related: an account of the subconscious of storytelling, or, if you prefer, a metaphysics of the word. “In storytelling there is something profound that resists the sentence of death, that goes beyond its coercive aspect, that escapes the downward thrust of the knife. Storytelling is a way of moving ahead and looking back, a surging movement in the voice, a perpetual breaking down of borders, a way of circumventing sharp spears,” he writes. “The ruin of Kasch is the origin of literature.”
John Flynn-York writes fiction, essays, and book reviews. He is a co-founder and editor of Automata Review, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside–Palm Desert.