The man who would put to sea on a bathmat

Elizabeth Lowry

  • Economy of the Unlost (Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan) by Anne Carson
    Princeton, 147 pp, £18.95, July 1999, ISBN 0 691 03677 2
  • Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse by Anne Carson
    Cape, 149 pp, £10.00, July 1999, ISBN 0 224 05973 4

I am going to end up talking about love, but let me start by talking about money. Money, as Marx tells us, is the enemy of mankind and social bonds. ‘If you suppose man to be man and his relation to be a human one,’ he writes, ‘then you can only exchange love for love, trust for trust.’ Money, on the other hand, ‘changes fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, slave into master, master into slave, stupidity into wisdom, wisdom into stupidity. It is the universal confusion and exchange of all things, an inverted world.’ Money commodifies; it enables the exchange of like with unlike. It remains always potential, open-ended. What happens when love and money get mixed up? And can love be said to have its own economy?

In Economy of the Unlost and Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson has proposed answers to both these questions. Economy of the Unlost is a compact yet supple series of essays (first aired in the Martin Classical Lectures series delivered annually at Oberlin College) complementing her previous long essay on a classical theme, Eros the Bittersweet (1986). Erudite and entertaining, effortlessly able to play across a range of associations, the book traces a number of similarities in artistic approach between two writers who would seem, on the face of it, to have inhabited very different worlds: Simonides of Keos, a Greek composer of lyrics and epitaphs who was active in the fifth century BC, and the Jewish Romanian poet Paul Celan.

Simonides was an original. His epitaphs, designed to be cut into stone and punctiliously composed according to the width of each letter, were lapidary in the original sense of the word. ‘An inscriptional poet,’ Carson explains, ‘has to measure his inspiration against the size of his writing surface. Out of this material fact – which is also an economic fact because stones and stone-cutting cost money – evolved an aesthetic of exactitude or verbal economy that became the hallmark of Simonidean style.’ Simonides was also the original literary critic, the first poet to theorise about the concept of artistic illusion. Like his great predecessor Hesiod (who informs us, in his Theogony, that the Muses ‘know enough to make up lies/ Which are convincing’), Simonides understood that trickery and illusion are inbuilt functions of the written word, that any poetic representation of the world depends on a principle of selective economy that is pure sleight of hand – what he called apate. He was an early master of the mimetic economy of metaphor, and a brilliant manipulator of the synthetic properties of the poetic line. One of the strengths of Carson’s study is the microscopic attention it brings to bear on the physical dimensions of Simonides’ Greek, amply proving her contention that ‘Simonides requires of his reader a different kind of attention than we normally pay to verbal surfaces.’ The Simonidean line generates its complex effects much in the way that a modern Expressionist poem does, through the wrenching of its syntax, violent elision, and the juxtaposition of apparently unrelated elements. But Simonides was also economical in a literal sense, being the first writer in Western history to charge money for his output. Stories of his avarice abound in Greek literature. Xenophanes called him a ‘skinflint’. ‘That Simonides would put out to sea on a bathmat for profit!’ complains one of Aristophanes’s characters in Peace. To Aristotle he was an example of aneleutheria or miserliness. Exactly how much he earned is a mystery, which points to the fact, as Carson argues, that ‘Simonidean greed was more resented in its essence than in its particulars.’ Its essence was the very commodification later defined by Marx, the putting of a price on what had previously been (in Carson’s words) ‘a reciprocal and ritual activity, the exchange of gifts between friends’.

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