Tuesday, June 10, 2014
"It was as if everybody were suddenly tired of doing things that had meaning. They wanted to sit down, in the grass or around a heap of smoldering logs, and listen to stories.'' Roberto Calasso's gloss on the epic intricacies of the Mahabharata, the longest story in the world, might also stand as a caption to his own new book, sleepless in its storytelling. But we should not be disarmed, for the book, ingeniously translated from the Italian by Tim Parks, is equally quick with meanings.
The third in a planned five-volume work, ''Ka'' -- which the publisher describes as ''stories of the mind and gods of India'' -- follows the high torsion of ''The Ruin of Kasch'' (1996), which evoked the emergence of the modern from the collapse of the past, and the more languorous seductions of ''The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony'' (1994), which subsumed the whole of Greek mythology in a single meditation.
To read ''Ka'' is to experience a giddy invasion of stories -- brilliant, enigmatic, troubling, outrageous, erotic, beautiful. Yet ''Ka,'' like the two previous books, is not a novel. Calasso's form-defying works plot ideas, not character. A writer with philosophical tastes, he thinks in stories rather than arguments or syllogisms. The two epigraphs to ''Ka'' announce this style: Spinoza's remark that ideas are only narratives or mental figures of the real world and, from the Yogavasistha, a definition of the world as being ''like the impression left by the telling of a story.''
''Ka'' is the emotional and philosophical nub of Calasso's five-volume project. His acutely nominalist temperament finds its ideal home in the stories of India, especially those early stories of the Aryans, which affirm always the power and sovereignty of mind. As Atri, one of the seven rsis, or seers, of the Aryas (the people that migrated from central Asia to India and became the upper castes there), says, ''Every true philosopher thinks but one thought; the same can be said of a civilization.'' The one crystallizing insight of the Aryan intellect, as Calasso sees it, is that the existent world ''only exists if consciousness perceives it as existing. And if a consciousness perceives it, within that consciousness there must be another consciousness that perceives the consciousness that perceives.''