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The Celestial Hunter by Roberto Calasso review – the sacrificial society | Books


Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden wearing animal skins to hide the shame of their human flesh. “The Lord God made clothing” from the skins “for Adam and his wife”, Genesis 3:21 tells us. In a few Biblical pages, Creator had metamorphosed into Original Skinner. The Italian intellectual Roberto Calasso takes a dim view of this in his latest meditation on the roots of modernity in ancient myth. “Christian revelation is responsible not only for the declining reverence towards the cosmos … but also for a certain new, summary and almost brutal way of dealing with animals.”

Calasso doesn’t have only Christianity in his crosshairs. What unites Judaism, Christianity and Islam, he thinks, is not just an “obsession about divine oneness” but “the silent sacrificial war against the animal”. He finds that war prosecuted on the Rue Saint-Jacques in 18th-century Paris. An abbé recorded what happened when a pregnant dog rolled over at the feet of Cartesian theologian Nicolas Malebranche. “The Philosopher gave it a great kick, for which the dog let out a cry of pain and M Fontenelle a cry of compassion. ‘O, really,’ said Father Malebranche coldly, don’t you know that it feels nothing?’”

That war continues today, Calasso argues. The law requires that livestock be stunned before slaughter. “But the animal suffers above all before being killed. Tormented, constrained, goaded toward death, so that it doesn’t misbehave, doesn’t cause delay.” Each animal follows its Way of Sorrows to a personal Golgotha. “Stunning serves to dull the sense of the one who is willing rather than the one being killed. It is a euphemisation of death. Its purpose is to persuade the killer he is killing a creature that is already almost dead.”

These thoughts arise in the ninth volume of Calasso’s project. His series of staggeringly learned books started in 1983 with The Ruin of Kasch, which considered the rise of nationalism and totalitarianism through the prism of diplomacy’s shapeshifting survivor Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord; it will conclude next year with The Book of All Books, a monumental retelling of the Old Testament. In between there have been virtuosic studies of Baudelaire, Tiepolo and Kafka, as well as The Unnameable Present, a book that suggests that we in the 21st century live in a world of unfixed meanings and constant dread, which certainly resonates with me today. When complete, the series will amount to the testament of a man out of temper with our age of science, progress, material accumulation and Anthropocene hubris.

But the 78-year-old’s most abiding concern has been with myth – Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Vedic. In The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1988), still the best introduction to his work, Calasso wrote: “A life in which the gods are not invited is not worth living. It will be quieter, but there won’t be any stories.” There are two kinds of knowledge, he insists, scientific and mythological – and while he doffs the fedora occasionally to the former, it’s the latter that has made his life worth living and his books worth reading, especially when, as in this latest book, he narrates some captivating passages about divine slap and tickle.





The Birth of the Milky Way by Rubens (c1636)




The Birth of the Milky Way by Rubens (c1636) Photograph: The Art Archive/Alamy

One day, for instance, the infant Heracles was sucking passionately at Hera’s breast while she slept. She awoke, understandably vexed and shook him off, causing spilt milk to spatter across the cosmos. Hence the Milky Way. Then there is Minos who ejaculated scorpions, serpents and centipedes, poor chap, until kindly Procris treated his ailment with a root that grew from the black blood of a dead giant. You’ll be hard pressed to get that on prescription.

The Celestial Hunter thus reconstructs a lost world before we turned into what Hegel called “sick animals”, uber-predators who ruined the planet. Palaeoanthropology tells us that things used to be otherwise between us and other creatures. Indeed, there was no us and them. “Everything, from spiders to the dead, occurred within a single flow of forms. It was the realm of metamorphosis,” Calasso asserts. And when hunting began, it was not clear who or what chasing and who or what was being chased. Ovid’s Metamorphoses depicts then an age when we were mutable rather than sick.

Man’s detachment from the animal world “was the great event among all events in history”, Calasso writes. “Man for a long time was a primate among many and, as such lived for a long time in terror of certain predators, knowing that he was one of their favourite foods.” In this, Calasso is exploring similar terrain to the philosopher Timothy Morton, whose 2017 book Humankind considered what he called “the Severing”, the moment, 400 generations ago, when we started considering ourselves separate from nature. Calasso supposes that the Severing occurred when human prey started to imitate its predators.

We first imitated hyenas who could crush bones with their jaws, using flints and hammers to achieve the same end. No other species kills without touching. For Calasso, we moved from the era of metamorphosis into the age of the prosthesis. We still live in that age, with drones as our latest means of remote-control killing. “The western way of knowledge was the way of the prosthesis. Technology is nothing less than its culminating moment.”

Calasso cites Herodotus’s claim in the Histories (3.108) that lionesses give birth only once because unborn cubs tear uteruses with their claws. “But if this didn’t happen predators would multiply and would wipe out other animals,” writes Calasso. The suggestion is that this is an example of divine providence. Well, it might be if it were true, but Aristotle and modern zoology are united in suggesting Herodotus’s claim is ridiculous. Nonetheless, humans have done what lions could not; we have become the most formidable of all predators and indeed, as William James put it, “the only one that preys systematically on his own species”.

All this is fascinating enough. But The Celestial Hunter also offers beguiling if abstrusely digressive essays on Plato’s Laws, the nature of Eleusinian mysteries, Zeus’s last night on Earth, Egyptian statuary, the neo-Platonist Plotinus’s disputes with Gnostics – all infused with the enviable learning of Calasso, whose favoured mode is incontrovertible assertion, sweetened with some lovely poetic passages.

He is most compelling when he writes about a favourite theme, sacrifice. Calasso considers sacrificing animals as Sisyphean nightmare whereby the atonement eternally recapitulates the crime. “Blood sacrifice was blood poured over a wrong to heal it – an operation that always had to be repeated since the wrong was always repeated.”

Today, he thinks we still live in a sacrificial society, except we have become sacrificial victims too. Sacrifice “now means the acceptance of loss by an individual, of some monetary benefit to assist the wellbeing of society as a whole”. But in changing what and why we sacrifice, we have become hopelessly divided against ourselves: the “choice is between a secular society but one that continues to perform acts of devotion (though now directed to itself) and a society devoted to some divine object which it can no longer recognise”. We may suppose we are better than animals and that we have gone beyond our irrational ancestors, who were steeped in myth, rituals and sacrificial blood. Calasso is vital because he elegantly argues otherwise.

The Celestial Hunter is published by Allen Lane (RRP £25).

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