The Unnamable Present

The Unnamable Present

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Overview

A decisive key to help grasp some of the essential points of what is happening around us.

The ninth part of Roberto Calasso’s work in progress, The Unnamable Present, is closely connected with themes of the first book, The Ruin of Kasch (originally published in 1983, and recently reissued by FSG in a new translation). But while Kasch is an enlightened exploration of modernity, The Unnamable Present propels us into the twenty-first century.

Tourists, terrorists, secularists, fundamentalists, hackers, transhumanists, algorithmicians: these are all tribes that inhabit the unnamable present and act on its nervous system. This is a world that seems to have no living past, but was foreshadowed in the period between 1933 and 1945, when everything appeared bent on self-annihilation. The Unnamable Present is a meditation on the obscure and ubiquitous process of transformation happening today in all societies, which makes so many previous names either inadequate or misleading or a parody of what they used to mean.

Translated with sensitivity by Calasso’s longtime translator, Richard Dixon, The Unnamable Present is a strikingly original and provocative vision of our times, from the writer The Paris Review called “a literary institution of one.”

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"[A] tremendous achievement . . . in Mr. Calasso’s kaleidoscopic series of investigations into the spiritual biography of the secular West. . . . Mr. Calasso is not a lecturer or a literalist. He does not write straightforwardly, but shuffles between ideas and episodes, treating all thought as contemporaneous. He handles the events of the past with the reverence of a priest, rather than the dispassion of a historian." —Dominic Green, The Wall Street Journal

"Deeply learned . . . a tour de force and among the most memorable things Calasso has written over the course of his series . . . Admirers of contemporary European literature and continental philosophy will find this engaging and provocative." —Kirkus

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250251213
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 07/21/2020
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 648,712
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

TOURISTS AND TERRORISTS

For we who are living at this moment, the most exact and most acute sensation is one of not knowing where we are treading from day to day. The ground is brittle, lines blur, materials fray, prospects waver. Then we realize more clearly than before that we are living in the "unnamable present."

* * *

In the years between 1933 and 1945 the world made a partially successful attempt at self-destruction. What came after was shapeless, rough, and overpowerful. In this new millennium, it is shapeless, rough, and ever more powerful. Elusive in every single aspect, the opposite of the world that Hegel had sought to grasp with the tongs of concept. Even for scientists it is a shattered world. It has no style of its own but uses every style.

This state of things may even seem exciting. But it excites only sectarians, convinced that they hold the key to what is going on. The others — most — have to adapt. They follow the advertising. Taoist fluidity is the least common virtue. One is continually assailed by the contours of an object that nobody has ever managed to see in its entirety. This is the normal world.

The Age of Anxiety was the title W. H. Auden gave to a long poem for several voices, set in a New York bar toward the end of World War II. Today those voices sound remote, as though they came from another valley. There's no shortage of anxiety but it no longer prevails. What prevails is a ubiquitous lack of substance, a deadly insubstantiality. It is the age of the insubstantial.

* * *

Terror is founded on the idea that only killing guarantees meaning. All else seems feeble, uncertain, inadequate. On that foundation are built the various motivations used to justify the act of terror. And connected also to that foundation, in an obscure way that involves a metaphysical element, is blood sacrifice. As if, from age to age and in widely different places, there were some compelling and irrepressible need to perform killings that might otherwise seem gratuitous and unreasonable. An ominous mirror-like resemblance between the origins and the present today. A hexed mirror.

* * *

Islamic terrorism 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. At one time, the fruit of the sacrifice was invisible. The whole ritual machine was conceived to establish contact and interchange between the visible and the invisible. Now, instead, the fruit of the sacrifice has become visible, measurable, photographable. Like missiles, the sacrificial attack is aimed at the sky, but falls to earth. And so there's a prevalence of attacks by suicide bombers who blow themselves up. Or in any event, the attackers are expected to end up getting killed. Setting off some remotely controlled explosion obfuscates the sacrificial nature of the attack.

The prime enemy of Islamic terrorism is the secular world, preferably in its collective forms: tourism, entertainment, offices, museums, bars, department stores, public transport. The fruit of the sacrifice will not just be many killings, but will have a wider effect. Like every sacrificial practice, Islamic terrorism is founded on meaning. And that meaning is interlinked with other meanings, all converging on the same motive: a hatred of secular society.

* * *

In the latest stage of its formation, Islamic terrorism coincides with the spread of online pornography in the 1990s. What had always been dreamt of and desired was suddenly there to be seen, easily and always available. At the same time it tore away the whole structure of their rules relating to sex. If that negation was possible, everything had to be possible. The secular world had invaded their mind with something irresistible, which attracted them and at the same time mocked and undermined them. Without the use of weapons — and, moreover, without assuming or needing the presence of meaning. But they would go further. And beyond sex, there is only death. A death stamped with meaning.

* * *

Since the time of Sergey Nechayev we have known that terror can take other paths. It was then called nihilistic terror. Today an alternative version of it can be conceived: secular terror. Understood as a simple procedure, available therefore for all kinds of fundamentalism, which would each give it a specific coloring for their own ends. Or for individuals, who can thus give vent to their own obsessions.

The power that stirs terrorism and makes it so vexing is not the power of religion, or politics, or economics, or the furtherance of some cause. It is the power of chance. Terrorism exposes the hitherto untarnished power that rules everything and lays bare its foundation. At the same time it is an eloquent way of revealing the immense expanse of all that surrounds society and ignores it. Society had to reach the point of feeling self-sufficient and supreme before chance could emerge as its principal antagonist and persecutor.

* * *

Secular terror first seeks to escape from its sacrificial compulsion. To cross to pure murder. The result of the operation has to seem totally fortuitous and scattered in anonymous corners. It will then seem clear that chance is the ultimate sponsor of these acts. What is more frightening: the significant killing or the casual killing? Answer: the casual killing. Because chance is more widespread than significance. In front of significant killing, what is insignificant can feel protected by its own insignificance. But in front of the casual killing, what is insignificant finds itself particularly vulnerable, precisely because of its own insignificance. In the end, terror no longer needs a collective instigator. Instigator and perpetrator can be one and the same person. He can be a solitary individual, no less than a state or a sect, obeying one self-imposed commandment: to kill.

Significant terrorism is not the ultimate but the penultimate form of terrorism. The ultimate is casual terrorism, the form of terrorism that most corresponds to the god of the moment.

* * *

In its first issue of September 2016, Rumiyah ("Rome"), the ISIS multilingual online magazine that replaced Dabiq, indicated the path of casual terrorism in an article titled "The Kafir's Blood Is Halal for You, So Shed It." And it delved into detail, offering a prime list of possible targets: "The businessman riding to work in a taxicab, the young adults (post-pubescent 'children') engaged in sports activities in the park, and the old man waiting in line to buy a sandwich. Indeed, even the blood of the kafir street vendor selling flowers to those passing by is halal." There are no distinctions of class or age, except for the case of the young athlete, who must be post-pubescent.

* * *

The figure of the suicide killer is certainly not a recent invention. In Islam, it began with Hasan-i Sabbah, the "Old Man of the Mountain" of whom Marco Polo writes, a figure whose legend grew around that of the Ismailite strategist who for years had hatched conspiracies from the fortress of Alamut. According to contemporary sources he was strict, austere, cruel, and reclusive. According to Marshall Hodgson, the most authoritative historian on the sect: "He is said to have remained continuously within his house, writing and directing operations — as it is always put, during all those years he went only twice out of his house, and twice onto the roof." Meanwhile, envoys of the Old Man of the Mountain, scattered around the Seljuk kingdom thatHasan-i Sabbah was seeking to destroy, killed powerful men, generally with daggers, before getting themselves killed. They were fida'iyyan, "those who sacrifice themselves" or "assassins," a word that meant "consumers of hashish," as Paul Pelliot has definitively proved.

Two centuries later, when the fortress of Alamut was a ruin, destroyed a few years before by the Mongols of Hulagu Khan, and the sect of the Assassins was just a memory, someone told Marco Polo the story of the Old Man of the Mountain. Odoric of Pordenone would repeat it, unvaried, several years later.

According to both, the Old Man of the Mountain "had made, in a valley between two mountains, the most beautiful and the largest garden in the world." And "in it were noble youths and damsels, the most beautiful in the world, who best knew how to sing and play and dance. And the Old Man had them believe that this was paradise." But there was one condition: "In this garden no one entered except those he wanted to be an assassin."

When the Old Man chose to send someone on a mission, he made him fall into a drugged stupor and sent him away from the garden. "And when the Old Man wants to have any person killed, he chooses the one who is strongest, and has him kill the one he wishes. And they do so willingly, so as to return to paradise ... And in this way no man survives before the Old Man of the Mountain, if he so wishes it; and I tell you he causes dread among many kings for that fear."

The Old Man of the Mountain had given his guests the taste of paradise. Centuries later, it would be enough to offer the assurance that paradise is reserved for martyrs of the jihad and is brimming with pleasures, as is written in the Koran. But first it was necessary to discover the pleasure of death.

* * *

The Old Man of the Mountain, as he appears in Joinville and other medieval chronicles, was a well-known and legendary presence, like Prester John. It was assumed the reader knew who he was. But it was clearer to Nietzsche than to anyone else. "When the Christian Crusades fought with that invincible order of Assassins, that order of free spirits par excellence, whose lowest grades lived in an obedience such as no monastic order has ever attained, they managed to get some inkling of that symbol and that motto carved on wood, which was reserved only for the highest grades, as their secretum: 'Nothing is true, everything is allowed' ... Well now, this was spiritual freedom, in this way belief in truth itself was cancelled ... Has a European, Christian free spirit ever managed to lose itself in this proposition and its labyrinthine consequences?"

* * *

"Nothing is true, everything is allowed": where had Nietzsche read that fateful phrase? In Geschichte der Assassinen, a dense, ambitious, and invaluable work, published just after the Congress of Vienna and unanimously disparaged by later Islamologists, Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall had written: "That nothing is true and everything is allowed remained the foundation of the secret doctrine, which was communicated, however, to very few and hidden under the veil of the strictest religiosity and devotion, all the more since worldly submission and self-sacrifice were sanctioned with a reward of eternal glorification."

* * *

The epigraph to Betty Bouthoul's Le Vieux de la Montagne, a book from which William S. Burroughs found his obsession for Hasan-i Sabbah, contains a few lines from Nicolas de Staël, who had killed himself three years earlier: "Murder and suicide, inseparable and so distant at first view ...

"Murder, projected shadow of suicide, which incessantly blur like two clouds that are immaterial and atrociously alive ...

"To kill getting killed ..."

* * *

Conspiracy is born with history. So also the phantom of a hidden center that governs events. Suicide attackers are traced back to Osama bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora, who is traced back to Hasan-i Sabbah in the fortress of Alamut. There are some forms that don't die out. They change, they become filled and emptied of meaning according to the circumstances. But one subtle thread always binds them to their origins.

* * *

Nature has come at least once to the assistance of those seeking to impose the universal rule of the shari'a, opening the way without even the use of terrorism. In December 2004, the province of Aceh, on the tip of Sumatra, was struck by a tsunami that destroyed everything and left just one mosque standing. It meant starting again from nothing, a situation that every utopia yearned for. And so an enclave of the shari'a has been set up. Its conspicuous custodians are the Guardians of Virtue: "They have green Islamic uniforms, Malacca whips and hearts of stone. They come from the countryside and know exactly how to treat the people of the city. At Banda Aceh they are usually to be seen on a Friday, before prayers. They go round with a megaphone and a pickup truck, also of greenish color, on which are the words Wilayatul Hisbah: shari'a patrol. They are not many, a dozen, but they turn up more or less anywhere and when you're not expecting it." They comb the cafés, public gardens, roads, bedrooms. Arrests and punishments are immediate. Canings performed in the public square.

* * *

Islamic terrorism regards a Coptic church or a Scandinavian department store as targets that are equally appropriate. The sole need is to demonstrate a rejection of the West in every aspect, from Christianity to Secularity, by an organism far cruder than the West itself. The hatred has to be concentrated in one place, ideally somewhere teeming with life. But that resentment is not new. It already existed fifty years ago. Why only now does it take on such forms? A theorist of the Web would immediately say it is one of the many results of disintermediation. And of the fact that the world is tending to become instantaneous and simultaneous. Those who kill themselves while killing others are a supreme model of disintermediation.

* * *

At the close of the millennium, in Islamic countries throughout almost the whole world, people could access in just a few seconds a limitless number of images of naked women performing sexual acts. It was a source of both extreme outrage and irresistible attraction, more than in other countries. And it was also a powerful incentive for any kind of acting out.

* * *

Sayyid Qutb docked at New York in November 1948, appalled by a young half-dressed woman who had knocked on his cabin door asking for hospitality. He was a government official from Cairo who had come to America on a scholarship to study English. He observed America as he moved from place to place, then settled in Greeley, Colorado, which seemed at first like a paradise. But he soon had second thoughts and roundly condemned the American way of life, especially after certain Sunday evening parties he had attended when college refectories were closed and foreign students would go to various churches where, after the service, there was food and people sometimes danced. They dimmed the lights and Qutb saw legs straying ("naked," he added), arms draped around waists, chests swaying — and a song played from an Esther Williams movie. Enough was enough.

* * *

Back in Egypt, Qutb was soon a leading political figure. When Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power, he appointed him head of the Editorial Committee for the Revolution. But it didn't last long. In Egypt then, as later in Algeria, there were only two paths: either military or the shari'a, supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. And Qutb represented the latter. In 1954 he ended up in prison, was then released, and was invited to run the magazine of the Muslim Brotherhood. This too was short-lived. He was rearrested. He was often ill and had to be moved to the prison hospital, where he spent ten years, during which he wrote an eight-volume commentary on the Koran. But his incendiary work was Milestones, whose manuscript was dispatched little by little from prison. The book provided instructions for the "advance guard," who had to conquer the world in the name of Islam by rescuing it from jahiliyyah, from the pernicious "ignorance" shared by those Muslims who didn't obey the shari'a and by all other living people. This guided the actions of another Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and his comrade Osama bin Laden, as well as the man who would later become Ayatollah Khamenei.

Qutb was once again released. The authorities were now prepared to let him leave the country. But Qutb consistently refused. He was eventually put on trial and sentenced to death. One of the three judges of the tribunal was Anwar Sadat. When the sentence was read out, Qutb said: "I performed jihad for fifteen years until I earned this martyrdom, shahadah." He was hanged at dawn on August 29, 1966.

* * *

If so many human tribes have celebrated sacrifices in so many different places and ways, there must be some deep reason for it. Indeed, a tangle of reasons that can never be unraveled. The secular world has certainly never approved of the celebration of sacrifices. But this was one aspect of the past from which it didn't know how to free itself. One look at Karl Kraus's The Last Days of Mankind, much of which reports what newspapers were writing and what was being heard in the streets, is enough to confirm that during World War I people were talking as much about "sacrifices" as about military action. But that wasn't enough. There had to be another war — and, within it, a vast and horrifying operation of disinfestation, once again to pay off the sacrifice. But even this was not enough. After centuries of quiescence, during which it seemed to have lost its spirit, as if it had been sapped by the wonder of its earlier bloom, something within Islam had been roused. From the mouth of Sayyid Qutb came a call for new "healthy values" to counter the corruption of the West and the confounding of Islam itself, caused above all by a gradual yielding to Western ways of life. So some began to kill themselves, in small numbers, in order to kill many others, in the greatest number possible.

(Continues…)


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