Ironically, we are living in the undefinable present that urges us to give up courage, make cowardice a virtue, and see that both real and virtual war doesn’t end. There is no denying that we are living in anxious times, not knowing where we are treading from day today. What prevails is a ubiquitous lack of substance with a deadly insubstantiality, which has left us with a painful sense of inadequacy. Much evolved though it may seem, both the society and the systems have instead invoked Nietzsche’s fateful phrase ‘Nothing is true, everything is allowed’.
It is the truth that beholds onto us, that revives the echoes of W H Auden’s The Age of Anxiety. In this context, Roberto Calasso’s The Unnamable Present is a brutal but meditative inquiry into the undefinable present that urges us to give up courage, make cowardice a virtue, and see that both real and virtual war doesn’t end.
Pulling nuggets from literature and philosophy of the recent past, the book examines the ongoing project of dehumanization that has blurred the distinction between the tourists and the terrorists. Aren’t both out there to destroy the creation of nature, he asks? With algorithmic information eating into human consciousness, mythomania has become the new normal. We only need a plug into it to ensure its constant supply. I found compelling reasons to agree with Calasso’s proposition that, much like the world that made a partially successful attempt at annihilating itself during the Second World War, our unnamable present too is hurtling towards a murderous path. When was the last time we were shown such a hexed mirror?
Discomforting and disquieting, The Unnamable Present leaves a lot unsaid that the discerning reader can find strewn between the lines. One thing is clear that the past continues to haunt us. What may be seemingly been foregone returns in a different form.
Rightly said, people may have got rid of Hitler and Stalin but not the society that created them.
Creation of democracy as an antidote to dictatorship has come to reflect a wishful nothing, extending to everyone the privilege of access to things that are no longer there, which lugs within it the seeds of self-destruction. Not an easy read though, but The Unnamable Present should be credited for raising new questions on the obscure process of transformation happening in our society.
The Unnamable Present
by Roberto Calasso
Allen Lane, New Delhi
Extent: 193, Price: Rs. 799.
First published in the Hindustan Times, issue dated Dec 21, 2019.