Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Adam Kotsko reviews The Fire and the Tale

Giorgio Agamben. The Fire and the Tale. Trans. Lorenzo Chiesa. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2017. 160 pp.

Review by Adam Kotsko

The Fire and the Tale, the essay collection Giorgio Agamben published as he completed—or, in his words, “abandoned,”—the Homo Sacer project, hearkens back to the aesthetic and literary themes of his earliest works, much like The End of the Poem, the essay collection that he published at the start of that project. Yet we are not dealing with a simple return; the analysis in The Fire and the Tale is enriched by his intervening studies, particularly in the areas of religion and mysticism. The latter theme proves particularly insistent, beginning with the title essay, which argues that literature points back to an originary mystical experience. The modern novel is no exception, even novels that “show a life that has entirely lost its mystery, as in Emma Bovary’s story.” In such cases, the novel still represents “at the same time loss and commemoration of the mystery” (p. 4). Indeed, as he argues in the second essay, “Mysterium Burocraticum,” it is precisely ordinary, everyday life, as exemplified in the figure of Eichmann, that represents the most unthinkable mystery. Here there is an echo of the opening meditation on everyday life in The Use of Bodies, albeit in a more sinister key.

The themes of these first two essays—mystery, art, and life—set the terms for the most ambitious among the later chapters: “What Is the Act of Creation?,” “From the Book to the Screen,” and “Opus Alchymicum.”  Taken together, these essays amount to a powerful reflection on the paradoxical relationship between the artist and the artwork, and more than that, on the complex dynamics of potentiality, actuality, and inoperativity that are always at work in artistic practice and its products. This is of course familiar territory for readers of Agamben, but it is striking how much easier these concepts are to grasp in an aesthetic context.

The remaining essays are more miscellaneous in character, often representing suggestive gestures rather than fully developed arguments—a characterization that Agamben presumably would not object to. For long-time readers, there are also several novelties: one of the first explicit discussions of Simone Weil (pp. 126–28), the topic of his unpublished doctoral dissertation; a more extended engagement with Deleuze than we have seen since Potentialities (pp. 33–35); a lengthy meditation on alchemy (“Opus Alchymicum”) that sheds light on his reading of the alchemist Paracelsus in Signature of All Things; and an uncharacteristic reference to modern technology, including (almost unthinkably!) iPhones and Kindles (p. 107).

Overall, as with many of his recent shorter publications, The Fire and the Tale is hardly an indispensable contribution to Agamben’s body of work, but it is characteristically enjoyable to read and casts interesting light on his project from a variety of angles.