The Forty-Nine Steps
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The first treatment of contemporary thought by the acclaimed cultural critic.
In books lauded as "brilliant,"* "exhilarating,"** and "profound,"*** Roberto Calasso has revealed the unexpected intersections of ancient and modern through topics ranging from Greek and Indian mythology to what a legendary African kingdom can tell us about the French Revolution. In this first translation of his most important essays, Calasso brings his powerful intellect and elegant prose style to bear on the essential thinkers of our time, providing a sweeping analysis of the current state of Western culture.
"Forty-nine steps" refers to the Talmudic doctrine that there are forty-nine steps to meaning in every passage of the Torah. Employing this interpretive approach, Calasso offers a "secret history" of European literature and philosophy in the wake of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. Calasso analyzes how figures ranging from Gustav Flaubert, Gottfried Benn, Karl Kraus, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, Bertolt Brecht, and Theodor Adorno have contributed to, or been emblematic of, the current state of Western thought. The book's theme, writ large, is the power of fable-specifically, its persistence in art and literature despite its exclusion from orthodox philosophy.
In its breadth and the nature of its concerns, The Forty-nine Steps is a philosophical and literary twin to the widely-praised The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. Combining erudition with engaging prose and original insights, Calasso contributes a daring new interpretation of some of the most challenging writers of the past 150 years.
Roberto Calasso is the author of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1993), The Ruin of Kasch (1994), Ka (1998), and Literature and the Gods (2000). He is the publisher of Adelphi Edizioni and lives in Milan.
John Shepley is a freelance writer and translator who lives in New York City. His translation of Pasolini's Roman Nights and Other Stories won the first Italo Calvino Translation Award in 1987.
Western thought, the origin can be invoked as a reference either to nature or to a prirnz~m[hat is both chronological a n d metaphysical. Kousseau a n d l'latci stand as leading spokesmen for these tlvo paths. In Krails, o n the other hand, the origin does n o t have a clear ancestry. although o n c can recognize the Hebraic phylogeny in ir:'I-his origin, which is only "the in which the word dissolves its ~ ~ ~ isi lnor t , only extraneous but hostile t o conceptualization, 218 .A (Ilrinese
buying and selling rhat is fonle~lted by "dissolving money." (Scheidemiinzc, usually, is "loose change"; b u t s~heiden."to reparite," a n d Scheide. "vagina." Thus. in o n e of the most strained passages in Ljrpitai "Ancient society d c n o u ~ l c e sit [money] as Scheidemunze o f its economic a n d m o n l oder."l7 and the whole p l s n g e 68 . r DPesses entretenues resented 69 T h e "production of commodities" is thus not only a historical phase but history itself as internally
communities end, at the points where they enter inro contact with outside communities or with members of such communities. But once things have become commodities in relations with the outside, by the same token they become such in the community's internal life. . . . From that moment on, the division is fixed, on one side, the utility of things for immediate needs, and 011 the other, their utility for exchange."'* Both for the individual and far the naturii~iihig commu~iity,the collision with
Sroreroon~,signaling Hiding Places . 185 the displace men^ of objects, ncw arrivals, unexpected disappearances. O n c e in a while these articles so~undedlikc dry, inexorable orders of expulsion: O n e need only read his revirws of Max Hrod's Knfki~and Theodor Haecker's Virgil to see once and for all how to demolish a book. But obviously such messages would not have come only from current topics: It was necessary to rummage a m o n g travel diaries a n d ghostly classics; a m o n g the papers
to be cancel-ned o111ywith opinioils in ordcj- to make his way t 1 1 r 0 ~ i ~their h g h Ariadne t . will be language. Indccd, jumble and capture ~ h ~ ~ ~His Kraus's relations with language mighi only be told as an 21-otic epos: I do not rule language, bur language rules me complerel~~. For me, she is nor rhc handmaiden of my thoi~ghrs.I livc with her in a relationship thar lets me conceive thoughts, and she can do with Inc what shr likes. For the fresh thought leaps out ar nle from words, and