Reality and Its Alternatives   /   Summer 2019   /    Book Reviews

Homo Saecularis

Modernity is puzzling and unnamable precisely because of the death of God.

Jay Tolson

Detail from the Sacrifice of Iphigenia, House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii, Roman, first century AD; Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Campania, Italy/© Samuel Magal, Sites & Photos Ltd./Bridgeman Images.

Who is secular man, and why is he so unhappy?

Those are the questions animating The Unnamable Present, a short but wide-ranging book on the puzzles of late modernity and the ninth volume of Roberto Calasso’s extended commentaries on, among many other related topics, the mythical-religious wellsprings of human civilizations. Chairman of Italy’s distinguished literary house Adelphi Edizione, Calasso is too good a historian to say that Homo saecularis emerged only in recent centuries. The lineaments of the type have existed since Paleolithic times, present as what Calasso calls a “perpetual shadow.” The shadow has been cast by the figure dominating most of the human record, Homo religiosus, defined by the sociologist Mircea Eliade as one who “always believes there is an absolute reality, the sacred, which transcends this world but manifests itself in the world, thereby sanctifying it and making it real.”

What has changed dramatically in recent centuries, Calasso writes, is that “the shadow has been transformed into normal man, who finds himself a solitary, hapless protagonist at the center of the stage.” Unlike the many varieties of Homo religiosus—Calasso mentions Vedic man, born owing four debts, above all those to the Hindu gods—Homo saecularis “owes nothing to anyone,” stands alone, free to do what he wishes “so long as it is lawful.”

So why are humans in the secular age so unhappy? Calasso says it is because they find something ominous in the insubstantiality they feel both within themselves and in the world around them, an emptiness from which they began to recoil at the very moment secularity prevailed—“around 1950 in the United States,” Calasso declares with half-facetious but plausible specificity. Instead of being welcomed as release from burdensome obligations, the normalization of secularity was met with “muted rancor.” That anger quickly found expressive, even noisy, outlets: “When an international youth movement began to protest in the campuses and lecture halls against the system, that rancor was already beginning to be voiced, even if its targets could be illusory and misleading.”

Calasso is often described as a literary critic, but his work extends beyond literature and runs deeper than criticism. A blend of philology and philosophy in the Nietzschean vein, it glosses texts, artworks, and other symbolic artifacts to identify the primal longings, fears, and needs that have informed cultures across different civilizations and eras. The frequently visited sites of this investigation are the myths and rituals—the sacred stories, spaces, and practices—in which humans seek to locate their transient existence in an enduring order. Supreme among such practices—indeed, the primordial ones—are acts of propitiation that serve as acknowledgment of and payment for the gift of life itself, acts we call sacrifice.

Sacrifice is the leitmotif of Calasso’s nine-volume study, beginning with The Ruin of Kasch. For him, it is the great mythical-religious constant, whether in its most direct and grisly enactments (the slaying of animals or even humans) or in more symbolic and substitutionary forms. In the nameless present, sacrifice takes monstrous shapes that often go unnoticed for what they so horrifyingly are. “Islamic terrorism,” Calasso writes, “is sacrificial: in its perfect form, the victim is the bomber. Those who are killed in the attack are the beneficial fruit of the killer’s sacrifice.” Such terrorism is based on meaning, he elaborates, “and that meaning is interlinked with other meanings, all converging on the same motive: a hatred of secular society.”

But sacrifice is hardly restricted to the murderous acts of misguided jihadists. “To understand the transformation that sacrifice has undergone in the secular age,” Calasso writes, “sacrifice has to be swapped for the word experiment. Which is not only what happens in laboratories—and this would already indicate its immensity. But experimentation is what society performs every day on itself. And here the ambivalence of the word becomes even clearer, for the two supreme social experimenters of the twentieth century were Hitler and Stalin.”

Modernity is puzzling and unnamable precisely because the death of God, the loss of belief in a distant, invisible order behind the visible, physical world has led to the sacralization of things that we only slowly, if ever, recognize as misguided constructions of the sacred. Once we belatedly recognize the power we have bestowed upon these things—the folk, the nation, the super race, truly existing socialism, the market, the end of history, the digital dispensation, the Singularity—and once the often disastrous consequences of our idolatry have become clear, we proceed, after a brief chastening, to forget or even suppress what we have learned, in a pattern of learning and forgetting that repeats itself again and again in our amnesiac age.

The brilliance of Calasso’s thought and style cannot be reduced to general propositions. Many of his ideas have been advanced by others, and he generously acknowledges his debts to earlier thinkers, whether arguing with or against them in his digressive but always purposeful way. Discussing one of the great enchantments of modernity—that of “society” itself, particularly as formulated by the forefathers and founders of sociology and anthropology—Calasso explains how secular society, “without any need for proclamations, has become the ultimate repository for all meaning, almost as if its form corresponded to the physiology of whatever community, and meaning had only to be sought within society itself.” Passing through the formulations of Marx, Rousseau, and Saint-Simon—and their disastrous ideological heirs, Hitler and Lenin—Calasso asserts that the “worst disasters have come to light when secular societies have sought to become organic, a recurrent aspiration among all societies that develop the cult of themselves.”

The high priest of the “superstition of society” is Émile Durkheim, whom Calasso contrasts with Durkheim’s nephew Marcel Mauss. The latter was concerned with both the function and the nature of rituals such as sacrifice (“what sacrifice is, what risks it brings, with what it makes contact”), whereas Durkheim reduced all social ceremonies and rituals to nothing more than how they “served to preserve the balance and cohesion of a society.” The triumph of functionalism underwrote the deification of society itself, while “cohesion became the divine substance coursing through its body.” Calasso credits Simone Weil for seeing most penetratingly through Durkheim’s elision of the social and the religious, and also for understanding what fate will likely befall humankind if “the social is the only idol.” As the inadequacy of this idol became manifest in their alienation and quiet desperation, many secularists would turn either to the dangerous promoters of a more organic society or, in a solitary, individual quest, to the cafeteria of religious and spiritual offerings, arriving more at a sort of esoteric knowledge, gnosis, or what Calasso calls a “continual bricolage of knowledge,” than at real belief.

Calasso’s account of the rise of the cult of society lays the groundwork for the first and longest part of the book’s three sections, “Tourists and Terrorists,” in which he elaborates on the more influential “tribes” of modernity. In addition to the two named in the section title, he turns his bemused gaze on fundamentalists, transhumanists, digerati, hackers, and, of course, secularists themselves. His observations on these types are variously droll, gnomic, and scary—sometimes all three—but always penetrating: “Tourism has now skidded out of control and doesn’t necessarily seem to have any more to do with travel. Rather, it looks like a second reality, which happens to be the model of virtual reality. Depleted precisely because it is augmented.”

The second part of the book, “The Vienna Gas Company,” is a selective and revelatory reading of certain key moments and episodes from the dark years from 1933 to 1945, chilling vignettes that introduce scripts and types that will recur throughout the second half of the twentieth century and into our present one. We hear from Vasily Grossman, the Russian novelist, on arriving at Treblinka with the Red Army in 1944 and discovering bunches of human hair trampled into the earth: “Evidently these are the contents of a sack, just a single sack that somehow got left behind. Yes, it is all true. The last hope, the last wild hope that it was all just a dream, has gone.” We are also given Weil’s incisive, unsparing appraisal of the human predicament in 1943, when religion had come to exist only “for Sunday morning” and believers in everyday science were finding that their morality was “in contradiction with science no less than the religion of others.” As a result, she wrote, “today only unreserved adherence to a totalitarian system, brown, red, or other, can give, so to speak, a solid illusion of inner unity. This is why it constitutes such a strong temptation for souls in disarray.”

In “Sighting of the Towers,” the book’s closing section—no more than a short coda, in fact—Calasso gives the last words to the subject of one of his earlier books, Charles Baudelaire. On an unpublished, undated page from his archives, the great poet and connoisseur of modern evil relates a terrifyingly apocalyptic vision from “one of those dreams Baudelaire was accustomed to: those dreams that make you never want to sleep again.” Baudelaire’s vision of being trapped in an immense building before it and others around it collapse corresponds with one of the defining sacrifices of our unnamable present, albeit, Calasso injects, “with one single addition: the towers were two—and were twins.”

Baudelaire despaired of warning the “people” or the “nations.” He thought he could convey the import of his vision only to “the more intelligent,” but he was unsuccessful even in it that. Calasso’s warnings of a related but even more general calamity facing the nations have made their way into print, of course, but they still may not be heard or understood. Like all true prophecies , they point not to the future but, cryptically, to what is already here: in this case, to something still unnamed, an ominous absence.