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Book description
Taking as his focus the periods immediately before and after the French Revolution but making occasional sallies backward and forward in time - from Vedic India to the porticoes of the Palais-Royal and to the killing fields of Pol Pot - Calasso recounts, elucidates, and interprets the downfall of what Baudelaire was already calling the Modern. This downfall came as a sequel to an earlier and opposite collapse: that of the archaic societies which were regulated by the movements of the stars and the rituals of sacrifice. At the center of the work stands the story of the ruin of Kasch, a legendary African kingdom whose annihilation becomes emblematic of the ruin of the ancient and modern worlds. The genius of Calassos book is that, in its illuminating blend of literature and ideas, it establishes a genre all its own. Its form is a rich blend of anecdotes, quotations, analysis, digressions, aphorisms, dialogues, historical discussion, and straightforward storytelling that beautifully mirrors its subject matter and evokes the protean spirit of Modernism. It is a sumptuous literary feast. Calasso brings to his stage a vast gallery of characters, including Laclos and Marx, Benjamin and Chateaubriand, Sainte-Beuve and Levi-Strauss, Max Stirner and Joseph de Maistre. And presiding over them all is the French statesman Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, who knew the secrets of both the Old and New regimes and who was able to adjust the perplexing and cruel notion of legitimacy to the modern age. Cynical Talleyrand - who showed that success in the new era depends on agility, fluidity, and a consummate sense of style - serves, fittingly, as the master of ceremonies throughout the book,which is at once a meditation on the origins and nature of power and a breathtaking synthesis of Western cultural history. It is an extraordinary reading experience.
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