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The Forty-Nine Steps

2001
Author:

Roberto Calasso
Translated by John Shepley

The Forty-Nine Steps

The acclaimed cultural critic turns to an examination of contemporary thought.

Roberto Calasso offers a “secret history” of European literature and philosophy in the wake of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. Calasso analyzes how figures ranging from Gustav Flaubert, Gottfried Benn, Karl Kraus, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, Bertolt Brecht, and Theodor Adorno have contributed to, or been emblematic of, the current state of Western thought. The book’s theme, writ large, is the power of fable-specifically, its persistence in art and literature despite its exclusion from orthodox philosophy.

The Forty-Nine Steps consists of Roberto Calasso’s occasional magazine pieces and introductions to the books he has published at Adelphi Edizioni in Milan. His preoccupations are myth (“there is no language of a higher order than myth”) and the intellectual problems and surprises of Nietzsche, Flaubert, Freud, Jung, and Walter Benjamin, and among the less familiar names, Karl Kraus, Daniel Paul Schreber, Max Stirner, and Robert Walser. Twenty-one pieces of varying lengths and subjects, published between 1969 (when Calasso was 28) and 1990 (most, however, are from the 1970s), The Forty-Nine Steps is one of those collections that you wouldn’t think would reveal more of the author than his masterpiece, but it does.

American Book Review

Philosophy/Literature

The acclaimed cultural critic turns to an examination of contemporary thought.

In books lauded as “brilliant,”* “exhilarating,”** and “profound,”*** Roberto Calasso has revealed the unexpected intersections of ancient and modern through topics ranging from Greek and Indian mythology to what a legendary African kingdom can tell us about the French Revolution. In this first translation of his most important essays, Calasso brings his powerful intellect and elegant prose style to bear on the essential thinkers of our time, providing a sweeping analysis of the current state of Western culture.

“Forty-nine steps” refers to the Talmudic doctrine that there are forty-nine steps to meaning in every passage of the Torah. Employing this interpretive approach, Calasso offers a “secret history” of European literature and philosophy in the wake of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. Calasso analyzes how figures ranging from Gustav Flaubert, Gottfried Benn, Karl Kraus, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, Bertolt Brecht, and Theodor Adorno have contributed to, or been emblematic of, the current state of Western thought. The book’s theme, writ large, is the power of fable-specifically, its persistence in art and literature despite its exclusion from orthodox philosophy.

In its breadth and the nature of its concerns, The Forty-nine Steps is a philosophical and literary twin to the widely praised Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. Combining erudition with engaging prose and original insights, Calasso contributes a daring new interpretation of some of the most challenging writers of the past 150 years.

ISBN 0-8166-3098-4 Cloth/jacket £21.00 $29.95 CUSA
280 Pages 5 7/8 x 9 April
Translation Inquiries: The Wylie Agency

*New York Review of Books on The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony
**Times Literary Supplement on Ka
***New York Times Book Review on The Ruin of Kasch


The Forty-Nine Steps

Roberto Calasso is the author of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1993), The Ruin of Kasch (1994), Ka (1998), and Literature and the Gods (2000). He is the publisher of Adelphi Edizioni and lives in Milan.

John Shepley is a freelance writer and translator who lives in New York City. His translation of Pasolini’s Roman Nights and Other Stories won the first Italo Calvino Translation Award in 1987.

The Forty-Nine Steps

The Forty-Nine Steps consists of Roberto Calasso’s occasional magazine pieces and introductions to the books he has published at Adelphi Edizioni in Milan. His preoccupations are myth (“there is no language of a higher order than myth”) and the intellectual problems and surprises of Nietzsche, Flaubert, Freud, Jung, and Walter Benjamin, and among the less familiar names, Karl Kraus, Daniel Paul Schreber, Max Stirner, and Robert Walser. Twenty-one pieces of varying lengths and subjects, published between 1969 (when Calasso was 28) and 1990 (most, however, are from the 1970s), The Forty-Nine Steps is one of those collections that you wouldn’t think would reveal more of the author than his masterpiece, but it does.

American Book Review

The impression the reader is left with on closing The Forty-Nine Steps is of having observed an archaeologist of startling intuition, known deep in the excavated detrius of our libraries, picking up, here and there, bits and pieces of a shattered Eden to whose endless meanings are functions he attempts to render his audience attentive. This ‘formation of attention’ was Hannah Arendt (quoted by Calasso, of course) the true definition of culture.

Times Literary Supplement