Triangular relationships that underlie desire


Triangular relationships that underlie desire

LOUIS GAIGHER creates meaning for us from a gifted writer's rich and elusive oeuvre.


“BRACKETS are exciting," writes classicist, writer, performer and artist Anne Carson. In If Not, Winter (2002), Carson's translation of Sappho texts, square brackets evoke the “papyrological event" of a weathered page surface and almost illegible text. Brackets allow the reader to participate in the drama of deciphering papyrus fragments — as small as a postage stamp or full of holes — and provide “a free space of imaginal adventure".

Sappho's poems are Carson's research material in her debut, Eros the Bittersweet (1986). It is an academic, lyrical and entertaining examination of presence in the midst of absence and the triangular relationships that underlie desire in the philosophy and literature of classical times.

The presence of that which is absent is one of the themes Carson has explored over nearly 40 years in 26 books in which genre boundaries are flexible and that offer readers “a free space of imaginal adventure" throughout. Operas, recitals, plays, readings and adaptations are also part of her rich and elusive oeuvre.

Despite the scope and diversity of her authorship, Carson recently told The Paris Review that sometimes it feels like she's been rewriting the same page her whole life: “It is a page with ‘Essay on Translation’ written at the top and then quite a few paragraphs of good, strong prose.”

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Wrong Norma, Carson's new book, contains mainly paragraphs — many of which deal with translation — and strong prose. Some of the pieces were published or recited earlier. In an associative style, Carson again juxtaposes personal experiences, speculations, imitations, observations, biography, obscurities, flights of imagination, fables, history, literature, etymology, social criticism, contemporary evils and aphorisms.

Like her other books since Nox (2010) — a facsimile edition of a handmade book with clippings and family album photographs of abandoned domestic spaces — Wrong Norma is an artefact that asks for more than the ability to decipher the Roman alphabet. The introductory text clipping of each piece emphasises the materiality of setting and printing and the writing process itself. A long, untranslated fragment in Arabic will also remain unintelligible for many Carson readers.

The Wrong Norma pieces are not equally successful. Sometimes, as with her recent beautiful but almost unreadable books — Antigonick (2012), red.doc (2013) and H or H Playbook (2021) — the reader should trust her as she trusts Gertrude Stein in Float (2016):

Often when reading Gertrude Stein, I have the gist and I ride along in good faith then all at once she switches tracks and there I’m left standing, as it were, at the station. She drifts out of sight:

 Farther and whether

Then she zooms back, intent on an ending and proud of her central contingence.

Susan Sontag, an early Carson fan, said she had “attention surplus disorder": “The easiest thing in the world for me is to pay attention." Carson may well be striving for that as well.

“To keep attention strong means to keep it from settling,” she wrote in Economy of the Unlost (1999).

In Economy, she also reads diverse writers of different eras, Simonides of Ceos and Paul Celan, to explore the value of words — economic, evocative, recording.

Celan, a survivor of a Nazi labour camp, met Martin Heidegger, philosopher and Nazi, in 1966 at Heidegger's mountain hut and in Wrong Norma's penultimate piece, “Todtnauberg". Carson imagines this encounter in a collage of minimal text, omissions, and evocative, tight and childlike line drawings.

Wrong Norma's opening, and a highlight in Carson's oeuvre, is “1=1". This almost conventional and rich short story serves as a receptacle of, among other things, impressions about open-water swimming and thoughts about refugees' experiences elsewhere but simultaneously. Carson goes much deeper than “some are born to endless night, some are born to sweet delight".

Unexpected phrases prevent our attention or empathy from ossifying:

What sense it makes for these two mornings to exist side by side in the world where we live — should this be framed as a question — would not be answerable by philosophy or poetry or finance or the shallows or the deeps of her own mind, she fears.

Notice how the absence of a question mark allows for a different setup and leads us to the last phrase. (And be sure to listen to Teju Cole's reading and his conversation with Deborah Treisman.)

According to Wrong Norma's blurb (attributed to Carson), the pieces are about “Joseph Conrad, Guantánamo, Flaubert, snow, poverty, Roget's Thesaurus, my Dad, Saturday night." She calls the book “wrong" because the pieces are not interlinked. Not that the reader necessarily has to believe the author. The fox makes her appearance sporadically and in various guises — from Carson's cover drawing to a pavement chalk drawing and a nod or two to Freud.

Carson increasingly grants herself the freedom to experiment and be obscure or wrong, as this smorgasbord proves. Earlier, wrongness or obscurity would run counter to the grain of an academic or writer at the beginning of a career with interfering word-pruner Gordon Lish as editor.

Wrongness, Carson now argues in The Paris Review interview, invites a certain looseness: “And once you can loosen, you can go on to think other things or wider things or the things underneath where you were.”

It is a great pleasure to encounter Carson's distinctive voice, sensibility and biographical data in diverse works but, she castigates herself in Economy of the Unlost, “there is too much self in my writing".

Her antidote is to adopt different personas. As Oscar Wilde, Carson during performances wears checked trousers, a long coat with white stitching and a red tie like Geryon, the main character of her classic Autobiography of Red (2000). Her recital style is deadpan and her productions, with her partner Robert Currie, slightly world-alien but anchored in ancient traditions. View the remarkable Wrong Norma piece, “Lecture on the History of Skywriting”.

In fact, “Anne Carson" is also a persona and representation. Despite her star status — she has won every notable poetry prize in the English-speaking world and  is represented by the same agent as Donna Tartt, Colson Whitehead and Valeria Luiselli — the biographical note in her books, those that do contain a note, reads: “Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches ancient Greek for a living."

In the example of thinkers such as Simone Weil — philosopher, activist and mystic — Carson finds strategies to lay off the self with focused attention and think anew. In 2005's Decreation (the title is taken from Weil's new creation meaning to get the self out of the way), Carson writes about Weil's groaning at seeing a landscape as if she weren't there — “but when I am in any place I disturb the silence of heaven by the beating in my heart".

“The self always wins," Carson admits in Wrong Norma. Momentarily, it is possible to leave it behind and enter another world of thought, a “free space of imaginal adventure", like the narrator of “1=1" when she enters a lake:

You have no personhood there. The irrational bowels, luck at cards, love of your mother, well-crafted similes, all are lost in the slide from depth to depth, pure, impure, compassionless.

  • Wrong Norma by Anne Carson was published by New Directions and costs R379 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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