Ruin of Kasch Notes
Notes while reading Ruin of Kasch
(page numbers from the Belknap Press paperback edition, second printing, 1994.)
My initial reaction can be summed up in one word: joyless.
Talleyrand's strategies and tactics (legitimacy, convention, artifice, complication rather than simplicity, deception, mistrust, elitism) tended to have the side effect of leeching joy out of everything. [It's not that it's Talleyrand's fault: growing up on the receiving end of contempt from everybody, even your Mom, leaves all kinds of psychic scars; plus, he was a busy man, and back in the day insurance didn't cover therapy.] The book celebrates joylessness; and moreover, Calasso's choices for the book mirror these strategies and tactics brilliantly -- which is extremely impressive, but also joyless.
Not only wouldn't I want to be Talleyrand, I don't really want to hang out with him.
Joylessness and Form
I see Calasso's choice of form as mirroring Talleyrand's preferred strategies and tactics: in the literary and philsophical world of 1983, with the ancien regime of modernism saw itself as locked in a struggle with the various self-proclaimed "revolutionary" approaches of post-modernism who were (at the time) clearly bent on an intellectual Terror.
The late modernist style Calasso is using here thus epitomize legitimacy and convention, as well as artifice and complication. The first paragraph of the book makes the point about deception better than I could: "TALLEYRAND: .... And I speak, as always, to deceive" -- and the mix of fable and fact, as well as quotes from multiple (untrustworthy) sources, often unattributed by our (clearly-untrustworthy) narrator, reinforce the message that there's absolutely nothing to trust. As for elitism, on every single page of the book Calasso is reminding us that he is both smarter and more knowledgable than us.
Talleyrand and Terror
p.100: "history, from now on, will have to choose between two main paths -- that of Talleyrand, and that of Terror" p.181: "There is no essential reason for history to be distinguished from literature."
Of course Talleyrand and those who think like him wish us to believe that the only other possibility is Terror, but this is nonsense.
This presumes a duality (always wrong) -- and a patently false one at that, since there are clearly multiple other paths possible. They may not be fully successful, but since neither Talleyrand's path nor Terror is particularly successful, they may well be better.
In any case, history doesn't make choices. People like Calasso make choices about how they want to present and interpret history (and then as with all literature, the viewpoints and backgrounds of the reader(s) and enironment modify the meanings). If he wants to explain the world as a self-limiting choice between two failed options, that's fine, and as he shows it can be a useful lens. [It's still not clear to me whether he's doing this only as a pedagogical exercise, whether he's attracted by the elitism (and power of the manipulator), or whether he's just so frightened by the alternatives that he buys into this no-win duality. (Any of these could explain the joylessness.)]
But that doesn't mean any of us have to buy into this self-limiting world view.