The Ruin of Kasch

The Ruin of Kasch


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A brilliant new translation of a classic work on violence and revolution as seen through mythology and art

The Ruin of Kasch takes up two subjects—“the first is Talleyrand, and the second is everything else,” wrote Italo Calvino when the book first appeared in 1983. Hailed as one of those rare books that persuade us to see our entire civilization in a new light, its guide is the French statesman Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, who knew the secrets of the ancien régime and all that came after, and was able to adapt the notion of “legitimacy” to the modern age. Roberto Calasso follows him through a vast gallery of scenes set immediately before and after the French Revolution, making occasional forays backward and forward in time, from Vedic India to the porticoes of the Palais-Royal and to the killing fields of Pol Pot, with appearances by Goethe and Marie Antoinette, Napoleon and Marx, Walter Benjamin and Chateaubriand. At the center stands the story of the ruin of Kasch, a legendary kingdom based on the ritual killing of the king and emblematic of the ruin of ancient and modern regimes.

Offered here in a new translation by Richard Dixon, The Ruin of Kasch is, as John Banville wrote, “a great fat jewel-box of a book, gleaming with obscure treasures.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374252106
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 01/02/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 571,734
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Roberto Calasso is the publisher of Adelphi Edizioni and lives in Milan. The Ruin of Kasch is the first book in an ongoing series that includes The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Ka, K., Tiepolo Pink, La Folie Baudelaire, and Ardor.

Richard Dixon lives and works in Italy. His translations include Ardor and The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso, and The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco. He is one of the translators of FSG’s edition of Leopardi’s Zibaldone.

Read an Excerpt



Mon cher,

Nearly a hundred and fifty years have passed since your meeting with that good man Gauthier, nearly two hundred since the storming of the Bastille, and I wish to give you some news. Followed by his comrades, now no longer in out-of-the-way provinces, but audacious and assertive in all worlds, which are moreover also on the way to liberation, Gauthier has never for one moment stopped talking. Indeed, he is anxious to talk to everyone he meets. Meanwhile, the Ligue des Compagnons has shown itself unanimously reluctant to be déniaisée. And if, from time to time, one of the female allegorical figures allows herself to be débauchée, she soon returns demurely to her duty. We wish they were all Ninotchkas, but even that physical type is not now one of the most frequent. Those massacres for the common good have been of no use. Not even those between brothers. The tide of good intentions continues to wash about among waves of tedium. The cause of justice and of the people still fixes its gaze on holy pictures, but never achieves their aesthetic tenderness. The adventurousness of the Good is still far from being found, after so many years in which we have been compelled to feed with the Iniquitous, with their extravagant lies and intrigues. Around us there is a stubborn insistence on changing the way we live, but with no clear notions about the facts of life. While you were writing Souvenirs d'égotisme with your automatic writing at Civitavecchia, you were hoping those pages would have been published ten years after your death. Twenty years after was already too late, you feared: once all the "nuances de la vie" had changed, the reader would have perceived only the masses. Then you wondered: "But where are the masses in these games my pen is playing?" Well, think Gauthier: that nuance of yours has become a mass — or a "multitude," as one school mistress once said when she wanted to avoid overcompromising herself with the words of the day. I send you my fondest wishes and look forward to seeing you this evening for whist.


* * *

It took forever, as usual, for the Prince of Wales to be dressed. To pass the time that morning, Laclos, aloof by nature, whose words had something dark and cold about them, fell into the trap that Tilly, an able man of the world, had prepared for him. "Monsieur de Laclos, who had no great tact at Court, but had all the gloomy impatience of a philosopher or a conspirator, preferred idle chatter instead of continually pulling out his watch and kicking his heels."

"How did Les Liaisons dangereuses come about?" ventured Tilly as soon as he saw him yield. And finally Laclos told him: a provincial daydream, the result of the long, tedious period spent on garrison duty at Grenoble. There was a fellow soldier, now a famous scientist, who had many stories about women: he was a born womanizer. Among these, a woman from Grenoble who vaguely resembles the character of the Marquise de Merteuil. They used to talk, and Laclos sometimes gave him advice on what moves he should make. He had also collected many other stories over the years, his poison chest: all he had to do was transpose them into the right setting, Paris. That's how it happened, more or less. Laclos broke off — and came to an abrupt end: "I improved the style as best as I could, and after a final few months' work I let my book loose on the public. Since then I've heard almost nothing about how it's doing, though they tell me it's still alive."

At that time, in the same way that Valmont had "worked" Cécile Volanges, Laclos was still "working" the Duc d'Orléans, in whom many people saw a terrifying Valmont of politics. From London, the Duke sent letters on strategy that he diligently copied from the drafts of his counselor Laclos. What crystalline intoxication it is to be the man who moves the man who is thought to move the conspiracy of the Revolution! From the military solitude of the Île de Ré, where Les Liaisons had been created, he had reached the delirium of the spider who thinks it can cover the world with its web! A few months later, Laclos claimed he was secretly moving not only the Duc d'Orléans but also the Jacobin Club. And it was partly true. Then the spider's web was swept away by the torrent of events. In a box at La Scala, the artillery general Laclos looked about him, disconsolate: nothing for him was "more tedious than an Italian opera buffa, except perhaps an opera seria." There, in the box of the military general staff, he was introduced to a red-cheeked dragoon, still a boy, timid and curious. Laclos's gaze finally "softened" when he learned that this Second Lieutenant Henri Beyle was also from Grenoble. From one province to another, he reflected, thinking of Milan, a city for him devoid of any charm, made of roads and houses. And perhaps it was the moment to go back to writing. One plan he kept close to his heart, for his old age: to write a work dedicated to "popularizing this idea: that the sole happiness lies in the family." It would have been no small thing: "It will be difficult to arrange events in the right way, and the almost insurmountable difficulty will be that of stirring interest without resorting to anything novelistic."

The jumble of styles and images of 1790 would soon be reduced to a unity fearful of contamination. Every hybrid is vice. In the streets, the frivolous variety of dresses disappeared, "the uniform coat of the new world was worn," a first sign of the civilian who doesn't wish to be noticed. And on the stage, as well, there was the unity of the most tedious Golden Age ever imagined by humanity. Chateaubriand, who during his recent American wanderings had experienced the rustle of virgin forests, Creole eroticism, and the "sublime disarray" of Niagara Falls, also heard the piping of the liberators: "While tragedy turned the streets red, pastoral poetry flourished in the theaters; every plot involved innocent shepherds and virginal shepherdesses: fields, streams, meadows, rams, doves, a golden age beneath the straw roof, brought back to life to the sighing of the flageolet before the cooing thyrses and the credulous tricoteuses leaving the spectacle of the guillotine. If Sanson had had enough time, he would have played the role of Colin, and Théroigne de Méricourt would have played that of Babet. The members of the Convention prided themselves on being the kindest of men: good fathers, good sons, good husbands, they went out walking with their children; nursed them; wept a tender tear as they watched their simple games; took those little lambs gently in their arms to show them the pretty horse that carted the victims to their execution. They spoke of nature, peace, piety, good works, innocence, domestic virtues; these espousers of philanthropy had their neighbors' heads cut off with extreme sensitivity, to make the happiness of the human race ever greater."

Paris air. Hegel wandered around Paris in amazement, and at the Palais-Royal, that "Paris within Paris," he dutifully followed the instructions in the Manuel desétrangers, though Victor Cousin laughed at him. To Marie Helena, who awaited him in Berlin, he was careful to mention the most notable things: "Today, for example, we went to an abattoir, a slaughterhouse. In what city of the world would I have gone to a slaughterhouse? But this is one of the remarkable things for which Paris is indebted to Napoleon, like a hundred other great things ... And earlier we visited the Stock Exchange, this also founded by Napoleon; what a temple!"

Let us try to remove Talleyrand from the picture of his age, let us wipe away all evidence of his footprints. What is now missing? Fluidity. What is left is the crudeness of revolutionaries and legitimists, of the Directory, of the Napoleonic period, and of the bourgeoisie. They beat, like rams, against the same wall. While every municipal partisan spirit was at last finding his metaphysics in the vision of the Party, Talleyrand maintained the indifference of the sky and the water: mutable, elusive, unscathed among many faiths.

Talleyrand was no lover of bons mots. The only behavior, he felt, that reached perfection to some extent was that of a person he barely knew: his mother. And Talleyrand's mother rejected bons mots as the bane of conversation. "Going to visit my mother, I chose the times when she was alone: in that way I could better appreciate her fineness of spirit. It seemed to me that no one ever had more charm in conversation than she. She had no pretension. She spoke just in undertones; she never used a bon mot: it was something too explicit. Bons mots get remembered, and she just wanted her words to bring pleasure and be lost."

"His manner, constantly light when dealing with the greatest matters ..." Talleyrand's lightness, and especially when dealing with "the greatest matters," is the characteristic that reveals the hidden role he has chosen for himself. There is no longer anything in the world that cannot be treated with lightness — this is his premise. Everyone is afraid to acknowledge it. Talleyrand accepts it and puts it into practice in his every action.

This is enough to create that immeasurable distance that many regard as monstrous between him and everyone else. Talleyrand is capable of using lightness because things no longer have a preestablished weight. They fluctuate, they are huge, poisonous bodies that do not rest in themselves. Nothing stands firm. There is nothing more incorporeal and empty than will. Nor can an immediately apparent bond be found between that silent emptiness, pure compressed energy, and the inordinate transformations that it provokes, often without allowing any lull before the devastation.



Talleyrand soon realized that disputes over power would no longer be fought out on a chessboard, where each move was made with slow ceremony, but in a current far stronger than all that it dragged along with it. This is the "torrent" he spoke of when describing the years of the Revolution — the same that we find in the pages of many of his contemporaries. Saint-Simon, when writing about the Regent, once said that "he could live only in the action and in the torrent of affairs": but that choice, tantamount to a drug for the man who had been "bored since birth," now dragged all and everything toward Amazonian cataracts. Torrentiality was not a prodigious accident that came to rock history before being reabsorbed by it: on the contrary, it was the expression of a new dominant character — the fever for experiment — that was grafted onto history, transforming it forever. Talleyrand would find it everywhere: under Napoleon but also under the Restoration, and finally under the bourgeoisie of Louis Philippe. And he would live just long enough to taste the first fruits of the petite bourgeoisie protecting the rise of Adolphe Thiers, an eager journalist who had come to Paris from the provinces. Seen with an unsympathetic eye, like that of Talleyrand, the Reaction and the White Terror followed hotfoot after the Jacobins: "I also wish to recall a decree of Count Wurmser, the Intendant General of the Austrian Army, to show just how great was the urge of the revolutionary spirit (I cannot describe it otherwise) of governments who declared they were waging war solely against the Revolution, in the person of Bonaparte." As Talleyrand would state in his note to the allies, dated July 31, 1815, the transition from the Revolution to Napoleon had been a transition from "l'esprit d'égalité" to "l'esprit de conquête." And it could be said that it was through the very bigotry of the Restoration that "l'esprit de conquête" had achieved its goal of infiltrating the whole of Europe.

One of the many illusions that Talleyrand does not harbor is that of order: he never sees order around him, even if he strives to create it. For Talleyrand, from 1789 until his death, the revolution never stops: and he predicts it will be a long time before it comes to an end. On the eve of July 1830, he wrote to Baron de Barante: "We are moving toward an unknown world with no pilot and no compass; only one thing is sure — that all this will end in shipwreck. The English Revolution lasted half a century. Ours is only forty years old; so I cannot hope in any way to see its end. I even doubt whether the present generation will witness it and, save for circumstances that are not to be counted upon, those who see it shall have no cause to rejoice. We are entering upon new adventures ..." For Talleyrand, an age becomes revolutionary when words and deeds, freed from all dependency and hurled like missiles, constantly distort life, shape it with rough fingertips, force it into reaction. The thrill of being part of an advancing movement — like a wave, not of the sea, but of personal will — was long seen as a fond illusion, yet in the end it nauseated clear-thinking minds (Baudelaire and Flaubert after 1848). Seen from a distance over two centuries from that magnificent beginning, it is an illusion that merits only disdain — and it still stirs the good conscience of the Western intelligentsia (though it's a West that binds the world like sticky tape). There is a continual yearning to "go to the people," which eventually ends with confinement in a torture chamber.

For Alexis de Tocqueville, too, the French Revolution is the start of a "permanent state," a new connection between doctrine and violence, which seemed likely to last. Meantime a new species of mankind was perpetually at work, offering the world a disruptive unity, in the same way that monks in their cloisters had once nurtured its invisible bonds between one invasion and another. It is "a turbulent and destructive race, always ready to demolish and ill-equipped to build; a race that not only practices violence, ignores individual rights and oppresses minorities but — and this is new — claims that this is how it must be; it declares it as doctrine: that there are no individual rights and, so to speak, the individual himself does not exist: there is only a mass, for the achievement of whose ends everything is always permissible." And, even if Tocqueville never sought to recount history but to speculate about it, his description strays in the direction of a Russian novel: "For the past sixty years there has always been a great school of revolution open to the public in whatever part of the world where all restless, violent spirits, men deep in debt ... would go for training and instruction." For example, Berlin University, where a penniless nobleman, Mikhail Bakunin, arrived with money borrowed from his friend Alexander Herzen, to taste the "voluptuousness of destruction."

The deadly "torrent" described by Talleyrand becomes a "blizzard" in Metternich's "confession of faith" in his letter to Alexander I from the Silesian capital, Troppau, dated December 15, 1820, a key text for every Reactionary. The last two sentences read as follows: "Every great State that is determined to survive the blizzard of the moment still conserves great prospects of salvation. A strong union between States on the principles set out here will defeat the same blizzard." Sonorous whirlpools were now replaced by a blinding tempest. Reality threatened to freeze its most ardent observer. A few days later, while traveling to the Congress of Laibach, Metternich saw as a strange blessing the "first gust from the South," which "in less than a quarter of an hour [melted] the ice that covered the windows of the carriage and had been half an inch thick at certain points." For a moment he went back in time: no longer as a prince, but as a servant, and yet happy: "I breathed in a new life, like servants who often inhale aromas when they open the doors of a drawing room." That moment of suspended intoxication was short-lived. The ice loomed once again: "Tomorrow we shall see the avalanche arrive, the sad avalanche of statesmen."

* * *

Chateaubriand is constantly playing, with cunning, malice, sleight of hand, with the exoteric and esoteric versions of his writing. This creates a meditative and visionary Chateaubriand that is, at one and the same time, his most ludicrous and his most sublime aspect, his most popular and his most covert aspect. We then have, on the one side, the Chateaubriand who has been the bane of so many French lycée students: the man who always finds a proper context, carefully arranges the objects onstage, adjusts the lighting, and then "launches" into one of his meditations, with the same ease with which an office clerk, during the coffee break, starts telling his colleagues about his car's engine performance. Thus he succeeds in keeping a proper distance from the battlefield of Waterloo in order to meditate calmly on the historical occasion, while cannons rumble in the background. And thus it is most rare, as he himself admits, for him to pass through "the silent and uninhabited halls of the Tuileries without offering some serious reflection." But the two levels of prose sometimes become juxtaposed: all of a sudden, during a piece of somber, lofty, and vague blather, a few sharp, disturbing lines appear, which then abruptly end — and immediately we hear the polite murmur resume. In one of his many meditations on graveyards, which are often interchangeable, like the discourses on moonlight that he used to repeat to guests at the home of Madame de Villeparisis's father, we find these phrases: "Is it certain everything is emptiness and absence in the realm of tombs? Will there not be existences of nothingness, thoughts of dust? Could those bones not perhaps have ways of life that we ignore? Who is acquainted with the passions, the pleasures, the embraces of these dead?"


Excerpted from "The Ruin of Kasch"
by .
Copyright © 1983 Adelphi Edizioni S.p.A. Milano.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Ruin of Kasch 1

Note for Lucien 29

Living in the Torrent 34

Exempla Voluptatis 38

The Grand Ball 40

Treacherous Trifles 45

Dismal Glory 49

"The Mysterious Force of Legitimacy" 60

Arcana Imperii 64

The Origins of Sweetness 64

Eulogius 70

L'Autrichienne 78

The Woodcutter and the Fisherman 82

Goethe in Venice 85

On Taste 96

Metamorphoses of Style 102

A Belated Nostalgia for Sorrow 110

The Languor of a Park in Berry 112

Around Port-Royal 116

The Ruin of Kasch 127

Among the Ruins of Kasch 136

Elements of Sacrifice 145

Law and Order 159

The Forest Doctrine 184

Archives and Will-o'-the-Wisps 195

Postcards from the Quaternary 200

The Demon of Repetition 201

Goethe's Birthday 221

Sacrificial Crumbs 222

The Antiromantic Child 235

Limits 239

Process 241

Glosses on Marx 242

Ricardo's Ruthlessness 257

Geldkristall 260

History Makes Experiments 267

The Artificial Barbarian 277

Un frisson nouveau 307

Behind the Glass 310

Bien-aimé 316

A Visit to Picpus 324

"The Organization Wouldn't Like That" 328

The Moscow Doorkeeper 334

Montaigne's Wake 337

The Wolf-Man Recalls 344

Voices from the Palais-Royal 353

Mundus Patet 360

Letter from Saint Petersburg 373

Notes 381

Index of Names, Places, and Works 405

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