The book of all books by Roberto Calasso


THIS posthumous publication by Italian editor/writer Roberto Calasso is his last in a series of ten books about the gods. In it, he skims through much of the Hebrew Scriptures, taking the text at face value. He is particularly interested in the concept of election (“where some are chosen, others must be lost”). Throughout, he has his eye on the New Testament. Large sections of text are cited verbatim, with sources listed in an appendix.

Calasso begins with Saul meeting Samuel, a case of “luck and fate” merging into one person. It follows the tension of the love-hate relationship between Saul and David, both chosen – “those who make the stories happen, keep the story going”. Of the reign of Solomon, much is made of the visit of the Queen of Sheba, of the Song of Songs—”a shard sunk in chemically foreign geological strata”—Ecclesiastes, and foreign influences.

Calasso follows the monarchies of divided kingdoms and their endless wars. It compares and contrasts the work of the prophets and the verdic seers, and concludes with Josiah’s reading of the Book of the Covenant. At this point, he turns to the patriarchs.

The illogicality of Yahweh’s call to childless Abraham to be “the father of a great nation” is well highlighted, as is the need to go: “without separation there can be no of Jews”. In an imaginative aside, Calasso acknowledges the relationship between Abraham and Job, noting that with regard to “the mystery surrounding the fortunes of the wicked and the sufferings of the righteous. . . men must live within this mystery without expecting to be told what is behind it.

In the account of Moses, Calasso identifies three important themes: primogeniture, on which rested the battle between Moses and Pharaoh; blood, central to the sacred life of Israel; and the role played by images. It manages to integrate Zipporah’s circumcision of her son with the surrounding narrative in a novel way.

Given its methodology, the author’s discussion of the Genesis Prologue is the least satisfying. He draws on ancient documents from the Near East, but notes “the Bible’s unique assertion that the founding act of world history was sin.”

The book ends with a discussion of Ezekiel’s prophecies of judgment and restoration, the destruction of the second temple and the consequent “modernization” of Judaism through the loss of sacrifice, and a note on the Messiah.

Calasso has a genius for dramatizing stories that bring them to life. They are, after all, some of the most exciting literature ever written; nor is he afraid to challenge scholarly performers by slipping on difficult material. Last but not least, its references to thinkers such as Goethe, Freud, Darwin, Weil and many others inform its discussion.

Despite his awareness of the critical approach to the Old Testament, Calasso’s reliance on taking the text, with all its inconsistencies, at face value inevitably created difficulties for him. However important “the ultimate editor of the Bible, most ignored and decisive of all its authors”, there is no alternative to the patient and critical study of the text – a concept now almost out of date – to reveal how it reached its present form and how it has been constantly re-presented to serve new generations with new problems and a new understanding of the nature of their God. As so often in life, it is ultimately a matter of both/and, not either/or.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of the King’s School in Canterbury.

The book of all books
Roberto Calasso
Allen’s Alley 25 €
Church Times Bookstore £22.50

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