The Unnameable Present, by Roberto Calasso
There is something worse than ignorance, and that is the pretension of having knowledge. If the author had been an essayist whose approach was a sign that the author recognized that there was a lot more to what he was writing about than that he was willing or able to write, and who made the partial aspects of his writing openly acknowledged, this book would be easier to appreciate. As it is, though, this book has a lot of leaps of logic where the gulf between A and Z is not only not obvious to anyone other than the author (and those who for some reason find him to be insightful), but there are a great many areas where it is obvious that there is a lot more going on that what the author wants to write about, but the author does not acknowledge these aspects but rather pays attention only to that aspect of contemporary reality as it relates to the context of terrorism and the crisis of postmodernity that came about as a result of the horrors of World War II. And while there is certainly some connection between the book’s parts, the author is more content to write as if he was painting various impressionistic sketches rather than write a coherent and unified book.
This particular short volume of a bit more than 150 pages is divided into three very unequal parts in length. The first part of the book consists of the author’s discussion of tourists and terrorists, seeking to connect the Muslim terror to the loss of faith and the rise of pornography in the West, as in the author’s mind the level of rejection of Western cultural mores that is necessary to retain one’s faith also tends to make one a religious extremist. Also, the author seems to have some contradictory views concerning the lack of faith value that one can find in all forms of secularism except for the author’s own preferred gnostic position. After that there is a second essay that looks at the Veinna Gas Company and seeks to give a look at the views of European artists and tourists about their travels in Germany and Austria as Hitler’s regime approached World War II, showing in many ways that such thinkers were not very aware of the near future that was coming upon them. Finally, there is a very brief essay on the two towers that looks at the Twin Towers as being symbolic of the strength of the West.
In reading this book I was puzzled by the blubs in the back that called the author insightful and transcendent when it was really lazy and impressionistic. There is value in this particular book, to be sure, but only if you come to this book with a large degree of contextual knowledge about the way that many contemporary Islamists were appalled by even the conservative religious culture of America in the postwar period, as well as about the various roots of Muslim terrorism and the support it receives or does not receive from various populations. Perhaps the self-blaming aspect of the book appeals to self-hating contemporary Western leftists, and that accounts for their adulation of this incomplete work, but anyone who comes to this book with enough context to understand the connections that the author is trying to make is also going to know more than the author says, and thus will find this book to be somewhat pointless except in demonstrating the author’s own fondness for allusive prose and paradox bordering on if not fully crossing the line into laughable contradiction.