Roberto Calasso’s writing is, at its best, propulsive. At its worst, it’s performative, inconsequential, wandering, and meaningless.
But it’s better to attain the heights Calasso was able to, even if that means writing so much nonsense.
So in The Book of All Books, one can skip the chapter on Freud. That makes it better than The Celestial Hunter. Perhaps one day, I’ll edit the Celestial Hunter down to the hundred pages it should be.
The Book of All Books is a retelling of the old testament.
The three most interesting ideas from the old testament are election, sin, and sacrifice. Everything else of interest follows from this.
To be chosen by God is to be elevated, defined, and then ground down.
The rise and fall of Saul, David, and Solomon mirror the rise and falls of Israel. Saul is chosen and then abandoned. David is chosen next by God and then forgets him. Divine kings are tempted by riches, power, and women. Largely women.
At once the young man follows her “like an ox led to the sacrifice.
Israel worships Yahweh and then becomes distracted again and again. As Yahweh says in Isaiah:
I brought up children, raised them / and they were unfaithful to me.
What is an election? God selects someone to play a role in his purposes. This choice is not communicated from afar, but nearby from a close and personal distance. God becomes, apparently, invested in his elect.
The prophet plays a different role from the king. Some roles are completely arbitrary.
Abraham, is, in a sense, the most fortunate and faithful of the elect. He is chosen to start a great people. Job, is in a sense, the most unfortunate of the elect. Of this Calasso says “Beings touched by grace find their mirror image in just men who suffer for no reason.”
The tribe of Israel acts in an arbitrary manner that mirrors God’s. Partners find and choose each other. What does it say about the Jealous God that he created the promiscuous tribe?
It’s strange that they could reject a God that was right there. How could they turn to idols when this was the age when Gods were so much closer?
God says to Cain:
Why are you grim and why has your face fallen? For sure, if you do what is right, you will raise yourself up. But if you don’t do what is right, sin is lurking behind the door; it desires you, but you can master it.
Even though the voice of God is there, Cain kills!
Sin is never mastered. The prophet brings the people close to God. But they always move away. Only to return, disheveled.
The final theme is sacrifice. After the destruction of the temple, sacrifice is no longer necessary:
For the Jews there was only one place where the liturgy could be performed, the Temple. Once that was lost, everything must become pure mental gesture.
Calasso suggests that it’s harder to return to God once ritual sacrifice has been removed. The Neoplatonist Salutius apparently wrote: “Prayers without sacrifices are just words, prayers with sacrifices are living words.” Sacrifice must be replaced by study.
The book doesn’t end neatly. It emphatically asserts on one page and raises unanswered questions on another. Recommended for fans of Calasso or philosophical retellings of the old Testament. Otherwise, stay away.
The heir of the Temple was not the synagogue, but the yeshiva, the house of study. The synagogue could never be anything more than the place where the community met together. It would always be lacking the smoke of burned animals and the blood smeared on the four horns of the altar. The yeshiva was an empty room, where nothing was lacking, so long as there was a scroll to read.