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’.

The first part of Economy of the Unlost offers an elegant dissection of the gift economy of the ancient Greeks, and the shattering or ‘alienating’ effect on it of entrepreneurs like Simonides. As the earliest poet to demand cash for verse, Simonides deliberately sacrificed love to money: he has gone down in history as the first person to turn literature into a commodity. He was in fact born into a world which was slowly making the transition from an economy of guest-friendship or xenia to the cash economy which we know today. Xenia was a non-mercantile system of exchange, a ritualised form of hospitality which bound the ancient Greek world together in a mesh of personal alliances. It was a pre-monetary system in which the relations pertaining to kinship, marriage, hospitality and artistic patronage were expressed through the exchange of gifts. As a concept, xenia was linked with the idea of grace or charis, which constituted ‘the necessity’, as Aristotle tells us, ‘both to repay a grace done to oneself and also to initiate gracious action on one’s own’. This exchange was always governed by a certain noblesse oblige on the part of the giver: the idea was to maximise your own outgoings, not to make a profit by the transaction. Carson puts her finger on the crucial paradox that the Greeks regarded wealth as ‘a good thing to have but not a good thing to go after’. When practised in the right spirit xenia preserved a relationship of alternating but constant indebtedness. The stranger arriving at an unknown house and receiving charis could depend on his dual status as xenos – the word meant both ‘guest’ and (potential) ‘host’ – just as a poet might venture gifts of poetry to a powerful patron in exchange for lifelong protection and hospitality. The creeping shift to a monetary economy, after about the sixth century BC, muddied the waters of xenia. The rules of charity that informed the unitary reality of everyday social life began to fall to pieces. Carson’s summary of this bewildering collapse has a succinctness which Simonides would have envied: ‘Where love is the structure of hospitality, neither host nor guest withholds what is seemly from the other. But money changes the relations between people, makes a riddle out of human philia.’

Simonides at composition was forever ruling mental lines, cutting and paring. His professional success as a writer of epitaphs and his commercial approach to his output impressed on him the exact value, both in a financial and a literary sense, of each word. ‘Gold,’ he once wrote, ‘does not become defiled./And truth is totally strong.’ At the same time, he was profoundly estranged from the manners and mores of the society in which he worked, a society which was itself in a slow state of upheaval.

The concepts of poetic economy and alienation which Carson brings to bear on his life and writing turn out to be a fruitful starting point for her discussion of Paul Celan. Celan was born in Czernowitz (now Chernovtsy in the Ukraine), a part of Romania which suffered both Soviet and German occupation during the Second World War. Both his parents died in a concentration camp; Celan himself spent a year in a labour camp before Czernowitz came under Soviet control again in 1943. He moved to France in 1948 and settled in Paris, where he continued to write poetry in his native German. In 1970 he drowned himself in the Seine. Celan was not literally a poet of the epitaph, but there is a sense in which his poems, with their stress on negation, their hardbitten insistence on the transitory nature of poetic truth, are all epitaphs. Like Simonides, Celan is often presented to us in a series of anecdotes that allegorise his relation to his writing. Carson relates the most famous of these, the story of the removal of Celan’s mother and father:

One Friday evening in June 1942, so the story goes, when weekend deportation action had begun against the Jewish population of Czernowitz, Paul Celan tried to convince his parents to hide out with him at a factory on the edge of town. They refused. He left without them. Returning Monday morning he found the house sealed and his parents removed. He never saw them again. To confront an empty space, where there were people the last time you looked, may make you think very concretely about negation.

Writing in the aftermath of the Nazi death camps, at a time when the bonds of human philia had broken down, Celan commemorates the lost gestures of a spent world, a world of severed relationships. He does so in a pared down idiolect that is, as Carson says, ‘so extreme a formation it bears about the same relation to standard German as a crystal of granite to a range of hills’. He is a master of poetic apate, of elision, his dismembered words existing in critical relation to a linguistic community whose moral life has become fouled. Simonides was still able to believe in the truth-telling powers of language, to write that ‘truth is totally strong,’ and to put a value on it. Celan makes no such claims for his poetry. ‘Gold does not become defiled,’ Simonides wrote; in answer, Celan points to the gold taken from the mouths of the dead in the concentration camps (‘in every other/tooth-/cavity/awakes an unravageable hymn’). Always implicit in Carson’s comparison between the two poets is the notion that the commodifying spirit of Simonides had its natural outcome in the defining crisis of the modern industrial age.

Economy of the Unlost is a beguiling piece of work, both scholarly and persuasive. It is a shame, then, that it is prefaced by a staggeringly pretentious ‘Note on Method’ in which Carson apologises (entirely unnecessarily) for the fact that ‘there is too much self in my writing,’ assuring us: ‘I do not want to be a windowless monad … I have struggled since the beginning to drive my thought out into the landscape of science and fact where other people converse logically and exchange judgments – but I go blind out there.’ Don’t be fooled by this. Carson’s habit of interpretative free association, her ability to discern fresh and startling connections, is one of her most distinctive critical strengths. This disclaimer reads like a parody of the worst kind of academic preciousness: the sort of parody, in fact, that Carson has so brilliantly written in the appendices and afterword to her novel in verse, Autobiography of Red. The afterword purports to be an ‘interview’ between an earnest critic and Stesichoros of Himera, the seventh-century author of what is known to classicists as the Geryoneis or ‘Matter of Geryon’. The Geryoneis, a long poem in dactylo-epitrite metre, of which only 84 papyrus fragments survive, is a lyric version of the story of the tenth labour imposed on Herakles by the King of the Argives.

Ancient Greek legend has it that Geryon was a winged red monster with three heads who tended a herd of magical cattle, helped by an equally monstrous two-headed guard dog. Stesichoros repeats the story of how Herakles stole Geryon’s herd after killing him with an arrow, but he does so with a difference, preferring to locate his narrative perspective in Geryon’s own experience (and his apparently contented life on Erytheia – an invented island whose name means ‘the red place’), rather than in Herakles’. Carson provides a free ‘translation’ of 16 Stesichorean fragments, backed up by the spoof ‘interview’ with the author and three mock-sententious appendices relating to the tradition of Stesichoros’ blindness, but all of this is only a frame for the real matter of the book, which is her own plangent, updated retelling of the Geryoneis. ‘One critic speaks of a sort of concealment drama going on in your work,’ the interviewer pronounces glibly in the afterword. The joke is that nothing in Carson’s radical reworking of the Geryon story (which in its turn is a reworking of the standard legend) is what it seems.

‘Wings,’ Carson writes in Eros the Bittersweet, her fine collection of essays on representations of eros in ancient Greek culture, ‘mark the difference between a mortal and an immortal story of love.’ Carson’s Geryon is winged and, like her Herakles, immortal, but both also have a dual incarnation in Autobiography of Red as modern teenagers. Her Erytheia is a Canadian town, where Geryon’s biography unfolds in familiar stages: first kindergarten, then school, followed by a job at the local library. Carson’s rendering of the powerlessness of childhood, of its rigidly defined claustrophobic spaces, is all the more disturbing for describing a world which is both instantly recognisable and fantastical:

School was a long brick building on a north-
south axis. South: Main Door
through which all boys and girls must enter.
North: Kindergarten, its large round windows gazing onto the backwoods
and surrounded by a hedge of highbush
Between Main Door and Kindergarten ran a
corridor. To Geryon it was
a hundred thousand miles
of thunder tunnels and indoor neon sky
slammed open by giants.

That bush is a cranberry, of course, because Erytheia is red. At times the poetry seems bitten-back, at times sprawlingly inclusive, but its detail is never casual, operating consistently in the service of a double effect. Take this gothic close-up, a spare and utterly authentic blend of the mythical and the drably familiar, in which Geryon’s mother begins to nudge him out of the nest:

Outside the dark pink air
was already hot and alive with cries. Time to go to school, she said for the third time.
Her cool voice floated
over a pile of fresh tea towels and across the
shadowy kitchen to where Geryon stood
at the screen door.
He would remember when he was past forty
the dusty almost medieval smell
of the screen itself as it
pressed its grid into his face. She was behind
him now. This would be hard
for you if you were weak
but you’re not weak, she said and neatened his
little red wings and pushed him
out the door.

Geryon’s ambiguously typical suburban life implodes early on when the 16-year-old Herakles steps off a bus from New Mexico. In Carson’s poem Geryon is not slain by Herakles, or only metaphorically: it is the arrow of desire that Herakles looses from his bow (‘it was one of those moments/that is the opposite of blindness./The world poured back and forth between their eyes once or twice’).

As Geryon and Herakles become lovers and embark on a picaresque tour of a landscape that shifts seamlessly from the classical to the contemporary, the poem expands on a theme first introduced by Carson in Eros the Bittersweet: the idea that the perpetuation of desire depends on a principle of ‘triangulation’. The Greek word eros properly denotes ‘want’, ‘lack’, ‘desire for that which is missing’. Carson suggests in the earlier book that the economy of eros, as depicted in classical Greek literature, depends on three structural components: ‘lover, beloved and that which comes between them’. These three elements make up a triangle that guarantees the absence of the beloved, and keeps the tension of desire constant: eros triangulates. Autobiography of Red is faithful to this model in being a tale of pursuit and flight, the standard topos of Greek erotic poetry. By describing a lover who is both man and monster, Carson reminds us of the monstrous truth that erotic love often thrives on negation and despair. After seducing Geryon and taking him to visit his grandmother in Hades, Herakles dismisses him. Years later, they meet again by accident in Argentina, where Geryon, still besotted and bereft, discovers that Herakles has a new lover. Together the three complete a fraught journey to Peru. At the lip of a simmering volcano in the Andes, Geryon finally accepts that it is the nature of eros to be what Barthes has called ‘a pure portion of anxiety’. In doing so, he begins to come to terms with his own ambiguous nature. ‘We are amazing beings,’ he thinks, ‘we are neighbours of fire.’ It is a resolution of a kind for Geryon, but Carson resists helping herself to platitudes about the transfiguring power of love. As the lovers ‘stand side by side with arms touching, immortality on their faces’, we are also made to feel the pressure of the approaching ‘night at their back’.

Autobiography of Red is a compelling tale grippingly told, and is unusual among ‘verse novels’ in realising both parts of its hybrid nature equally well. Aristotle thought that metaphor was the one unteachable component of poetry. When reading Carson, one is often reminded how right he was. Herakles’ voice bounces through the lovesick Geryon ‘on hot gold springs’. The awkwardness of a group of adolescent boys at Geryon’s high school dance is perfectly conveyed in the observation that ‘the petals of their cologne rose around them in a light terror.’ In Geryon’s Argentinian hotel an ancient lift, descending, crashes ‘like a mastodon within its hollow cage’. Yet the rich poetic texture of Carson’s writing is never achieved at the cost of characterisation. Herakles’ grandmother, an eccentric cross between Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein, all gnomic utterances and cryptic reminiscences, is entirely convincing, as are Herakles, a casually sadistic playboy redeemed by moments of real tenderness, and the suffering Geryon himself. Carson writes in Eros the Bittersweet that ‘What the reader wants from reading and what the lover wants from love are experiences of very similar design’ – to be seduced, to be drawn on. In their musings on the exigencies of human greed and need, Economy of the Unlost and Autobiography of Red prove that she is one of the most seductive writers around.