A digressive history on the ‘legitimacy of power’ and the ‘right to rule’, Penguin’s publication of this new translation of Calasso’s The Ruin of Kasch is timely. As Western capitalist democracies sweat on the drift away from pluralism toward tribalism, Calasso’s treatise is a difficult and wonderful analysis of how power is legitimised – or not.
Hailed as one of those rare books that persuade us to see our entire civilization in a new light, its guide is the French statesman Talleyrand, who knew the secrets of the ancien regime and all that came after, and was able to adapt the notion of “legitimacy” to the modern age. Calasso follows him through a vast gallery of scenes set immediately before and after the French Revolution, making occasional forays backward and forward in time, from Vedic India to the porticoes of the Palais-Royal and to the killing fields of Pol Pot, with appearances by Goethe and Marie Antoinette, Napoleon and Marx, Walter Benjamin and Chateaubriand. At the centre stands the story of the ruin of Kasch, a legendary kingdom based on the ritual killing of the king and emblematic of the ruin of ancient and modern regimes.