amongst books

amongst books

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Anne Carson Leads Me Astray

Anne Carson - Nay Rather (The Cahier Series Number 21, Sylph Editions, London, 2013) Text by Anne Carson with illustrations by Lanfranco Quadrio.

What I love about Anne Carson is her ability to lead me astray and yet somehow, everything comes together. In this chapbook we move from Homer to the the silences of translation when a target language isn't able to cover a reality that exists in the source language to the voices heard by Joan of Arc, to attempts to avoid narrative to Francis Bacon's painting of a scream without painting the horror to Paul Celan. 

All this in the first essay: "Variations on the Right to Remain Silent," while on opposing pages we have "By Chance the Cycladic People"  an essay about a civilization from the Neolitich Early Bronze Age where the order of the lines has been determined by random number generation. The essay is another example of Carson's modernization of myth or early human civilizations. 

The second piece is accompanied by drawings and goaches by Quadrio, an Italian artist known for illustrations of myth. When reading these side-by-side essays, I found myself having to stop with one train of thought & move to the other. A kind of disruption of the narrative, which was apropos for the subject of "Variations."

In "Variations…" Carson talks about the meaning of the word "cliché: "a French borrowing, past participle of the verb clicher, a term from printing to mean 'to make a stereotype from a relief printing surface.'" Since it is supposed to mimic the sound of the printer's die striking metal, it is not translatable in English.

Carson is concerned with two kinds of silences: physical, when parts of a manuscript have been destroyed, and metaphysical, when one language cannot be rendered by another. I found it very moving when she discussed Joan of Arc being forced to explain by her inquisitors where her voices came from. The voices were not explainable in terms that made theological sense to the judges. Joan did not speak Latin but Middle French and so her words were often mistranslated, to her detriment. At the same time, Joan rebelled against the narrative: "Light your fires."

Francis Bacon  also raged against the cliché, particularly, according to Carson, in his series of paintings of the pope screaming. Carson points out that while he is a representational painter, he is attempting to convey the facts differently: "By 'facts' he doesn't mean to make a copy of the subject as a photograph would, but rather to create a sensible form that will translate directly to your nervous system the same sensation as the subject."  

Bacon depicts people  screaming in a medium that cannot transmit sound. Once more the evocation of silence. "There is a tendency for story to slip into the space between any two figures or two marks on a canvas. Bacon uses colour to silence this tendency." …"Bacon has another term for this stopping: he calls it 'destroying clarity with clarity'. Not just in his use of colour but in the whole strategy of his compositions, he wants to make us see something we don't yet have eyes for, to hear something that was never sounded."

The essay goes on to discuss the idea of violence in Bacon's art, then the colour purple, which comes from the Greek porphura or purplefish. Its ancient Greek name kalkhē derived a verb and a metaphor that is troublesome to translate. The verb kalkhaienin, meaning "to make purple" also conveys the idea of profound and troubled emotion. This caused difficulty for the translation of Sophocles' Antigone by Friederich Hölderein who chose a literal translation: "You seem to colour a reddish purple word, to die your words red-purple." 

His translation of the play made him a laughing stock and he eventually had a nervous breakdown.  This leads to Carson asking a question about the relationship of madness to translation.

Her method of discussion, asking questions and then providing evidence is a compelling and forceful way to make an argument. Bacon threw paint at his paintings in the end as a gesture of rage. Carson refers to these as free marks and connects them to Eve's putting a free mark on Adam's apple. 

"Maybe she was catastrophizing. Adam had just performed the primordial act of naming, had taken the first step towards imposing on the wide-open pointless meaningless directionless dementia of the real a set of clichés that no one would ever dislodge, or want to dislodge -- they are our human history, an edifice of thought, our answer to chaos. Eve's instinct was to bite this answer in half."

The final section of the essay is devoted to a poem by Ibykos, from 6th Century BC and Carsons seven translations of fragments using only words from particular works: John Donne's Woman Constancy, Bertolt Brecht's FBI file, page 47 of Beckett's Endgame with the phrase, "Nay rather" used in all translations.

"In spring on the one hand" becomes
"In woman, on the one hand" [Donne]
"At a cocktail party attended by Communists, on the one hand [Brecht's FBI file]
"In your kitchen, on the one hand" [p. 47 of Beckett's Endgame]
"In the end, on the one hand, all those who sit behind us at cash desks"
[Conversations with Kafka by Gustav Janouch]
"At the excess fare window, on the one hand" [stops and signs from the London Underground]
"In hot snacks, and appetizers, on the one hand" [Manual of my new Emerson 1000 W microwave oven]

Anne Carson continues to be innovative with a firm foundation of the antiquities and the classics behind her thinking and innovations.

The second essay, on right-hand pages, "By Chance the Cycladic People" is a kind of echo of the first essay, feels like a translation, includes such objects as mirrors and stones. There's a stillness to the behaviour of the Cycladic People that mirrors the silence, the stops, the free marks of the Variations essay. 

At the same time the poem concerns the dying of a culture. In some ways, it feels as if Carson is still concerned with the notion of undoing as she wrote about in Decreation, her response to the work of Simone Weil. There are mentions of mirrors, handbags, honkytonk, cumberbunds, frying pans, William S. Burroughs and Proust. There is plenty of humour in this piece also. Anne Carson leads me astray. It bears repeating. How I love to be lead astray.

Reading "Nay Rather" has once more whet my appetite for Anne Carson and in particular: Decreation: Poetry. Essays. Opera (Vintage Canada, 2006)and Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (Vintage Books, First Vintage Contemporaries Edition, 2000)  I have always been a fan of how she blurs the boundaries of genre and the way she looks at history and culture with both the rationalist's eye and the poet's eye.


A word too about this gorgeous chapbook by Sylph Editions under their Cahier Series imprint. It is beautifully designed: 44 pages, 16 colour illustrations, the book is sewn and includes a dust jacket in fine paper, most likely bamboo, but I'm hypothesizing or just dreaming. The Cahier Series is a co-production of Sylph Editions and the Centre for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris. If I receive more royalties from my nefarious writing shenanigans, I will purchase more from Sylph Editions.

1 comment:

Ben Schiff said...

You put it beautifully. She does the same to my brain. So that I'm always wondering what's next. wondering in the silence, waiting for her to fragment it again. Reading Carson is like some kind of behavorial training exercise.

June Goodwin