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Posted By David Morris On January 12, 2011 @ 6:00 am In Uncategorized | Comments Disabled
In the Library with the Lead Pipe welcomes David B. Morris. In between twenty years as a self-employed writer, Morris held professorships at the University of Iowa, at the University of Virginia, and at Stanford University. His wider understanding of books and lives owes much to his wife, Ruth, a technical services librarian and library administrator, now retired and incurably ill, who holds a PhD in library and information science from the University of Michigan. This essay is written in her honor.
“The book is perhaps the most charged, cathected object in Western civilization, representing, according to Freud’s analysis of his own dream of the botanical monograph, the Mother.”1
Anne Carson almost always eventually circles back to eros. Her brilliantly inventive first book, Eros the Bittersweet, published in 1959, traced in classical Greek philosophy and literature a triangular geometry of desire: lover, beloved, and the gap or obstacle or space that separates them. This triangle, she argues, is basic not only to the earliest erotic verse but also to the emergence of the modern psyche. Nox, her latest book, if book is the right word for this unusual, resistant, boundary-crossing text, indirectly returns to eros in what is ostensibly an extended elegy or memorial or (as she once calls it) epitaph on the death of her brother.
Nox (Latin for “night”) focuses on loss, but the death of Carson’s Canadian-born brother (in faraway Copenhagen) is not the sole focus. Almost half the text—on the left-hand or verso page—is given over to an extended glossary on every word (one word per page) in a famous elegy by the Roman poet Catullus on the death of his brother (in faraway Asia). Moreover, while Nox follows these two parallel tracks, or parallel lost brothers, it also moves sideways to meditate on related issues, such as how writers or historians can ever truly understand a disappearing past. The collage-like fragments, in their poignant incompleteness, lend to Nox a philosophical and poetic texture that invites a questioning or meditative response. They immerse us in a semantic night where clarities vanish and mysteries emerge. What does this single death have to do with questions about time, loss, desire, writing, and disappearance? Above all, why does the book take such an unusual, cumbersome, and inconvenient material shape?
For starters, Nox arrives in a box. Further, the box does not contain what you’d expect—a bound text—but the pages are printed as adjacent sides of one continuous accordion-folded sheet. Right from the outset, then, without attributing intentions to Carson, readers might wish to understand Nox as a book that calls attention to its place in a history of books from which it conspicuously diverges. The history in fact is rapidly changing. It appears that printed books may soon survive mainly in niche or boutique markets, kept like classical scrolls in special collections or brought out like the Torah for use on ceremonial occasions. As readers and librarians today can’t help knowing, digital publication is transforming both the social environment and the material process within which reading occurs. For example:
Nox—according to the meditative argument developed in what follows—is a book that in its material form stages an indirect but firm resistance to the disappearance of books.
A resistance to the disappearance of books in Nox coincides with the affirmation of what Carson once described as an “erotics of reading.” The circling back to eros has already begun. But what, exactly, is eros? This logically prior question, which deserves a response, can’t be answered with logic. Eros is the antagonist of logos. Logic and reason are its sworn enemies. Even when employed as a loose synonym for love or when merged with (its diminutive Roman counterpart) Cupid, eros entails a complex history that disrupts clear definitions. The early Greek poet Hesiod describes eros as the oldest of the gods: a primal cosmic creative force. In Plato’s Symposium several centuries later, eros has become a subject of debate—a debate interrupted, appropriately, when an uninvited, drunken lover breaks in looking for Socrates. Scholars today have reinvigorated the debate—after Freud’s influential opposition between eros and thanatos—but hardly settled it.4 The chief modern theorist of eros—librarian, writer, and polymath Georges Bataille—offers what he acknowledges is not a definition when he describes eroticism as like a life force: “assenting to life up to the point of death.”5
Eros—the center to Anne Carson’s wide circumference of multi-genre texts—is far easier to describe than to define, and Bataille offers two additional descriptions especially useful in thinking about Nox. First, he details how eros differs from animal sexuality in one crucial point: “it calls inner life into play.” It enlists consciousness, with its intricate deviations, in the service of libido. Second, Bataille exposes the dark and painful side of eros, where erotic pleasure and sexual passion, at their limits, make contact with various modes of destruction.6 “The whole business of eroticism,” he insists, “is to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in their normal lives.”7 From classical lyric to tragedy, eros disrupts the consciousness that it calls into play. It rips apart normal lives and uproots communities. Not only is eros not identical with romantic love, but Eros regularly shatters settled love relations with casual flings and disastrous betrayals. It persists in love’s absence or in the death of love. The authoritative epithet for eros that Carson borrows from Sappho translates literally as “sweet-bitter” (glukupikron). The bittersweetness of eros is, for Carson, inseparable from her responses to a brother’s fatal disappearance.
Nox—a title just three letters short of disappearance—confronts loss without consolation. Elegists traditionally counter loss with forms of solace, as when Milton links the drowned shepherd Lycidas with the natural cycle of setting and rising suns. Lycidas (“sunk low, but mounted high”) rides the cycle of consolation to join the heavenly host who “wipe the tears forever from his eyes.” Carson’s bleak title erases hope—recalling the line from a famous erotic poem by Catullus in which the poet (pressing her to yield) invites his coy mistress to imagine the nothingness after death:
Soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
The most famous translation of these lines is a gorgeous seduction speech in Ben Jonson’s dark jacobean comedy Volpone (1606):
Suns that set may rise again,
But if once we lose this light
‘Tis, with us, perpetual night.
Carson, as professor of classics, might forgive a small paroxysm of grammatical pedantry over a key word that disappears from Jonson’s translation: dormienda.
First-year Latin students, listen up. Future passive participles carry the sense of required action ahead: for example, agenda, from agere (= to set in motion, to do), means something that must be done. Dormienda (from dormire = to sleep) means not just sleeping but a sleep ahead that must be slept. Death for Catullus is no gentle goodnight, no Keatsian amorous embrace. It ends cycles. Zero heavenly host and zero regeneration. Death for Catullus is an endless (perpetua) unbroken (una) night that must be slept all the way through. Disappearance from the sunlit world (where to be is to appear) simply and utterly erases being. The enforced unending night thus permits no glimmer of hope or solace for survivors. Nox is not a writer’s inspirational journey through loss and grief to recovery. It is an act of resistance. Carson’s book, that is, takes a non-elegiac stand as a writer’s resistance to disappearance—disappearance of her brother, disappearance of books—in the form of a collage-like memorial built out of scraps and shards.
Nox resists disappearance not only in its collage-like compilation of semantic fragments but also, more important, in its material form. Readers must deal with Nox not only as a verbal text (signs woven into meanings) but also as a thing. “Things are what we encounter,” writes modernist Leo Stein, as quoted by the contemporary inventor of “thing-theory,” Bill Brown, “ideas are what we project.”8 What readers encounter, as we struggle with the thingy boxed continuous accordion-folded sheet, is less the projection of ideas than a book that cannot be opened. You can open the box all right, but not the text. The text can only be unfolded, like a classical scroll, or perhaps like meanings that cannot find a consensus, or like an endless night. We scroll down computer screens or flip virtual pages on e-readers with newfound ease, but nothing is easy about Nox. Nox shapes the experience of reading as an inescapable and radical estrangement from the familiar, everyday, previously unquestioned world of codex-style hard cover and paperback books.
The estrangement gets stranger as readers unfold the accordion-pleated text and encounter the facsimile of a scrapbook that Carson put together presumably with her own hands. Moreover, Nox employs advanced photo-technology to create the uncanny visual illusion that what we are reading is less a two-dimensional facsimile than a weirdly three-dimensional copy of the original scrapbook. Staples seem to poke up slightly above whatever material they affix. Pasted-on typed fragments of paper appear lifted slightly above the plane of the scrapbook page, with borders that look torn and textured, shadowed black on one side, white opposite, as if thick enough to catch the light. The rare accordion format, however, simultaneously calls attention to the secondary status of Nox as the cheap(ish) replica of a valuable absent original. Round black spots identify holes left when the scrapbook was un-sewn for photo-reproduction. The presence of the replica reminds us that something crucial is absent: a brother.
Nox as a material object also conveys what philosophers might call an implicit ontological argument: it shakes up our familiar idea of what books are. It is almost automatic to think of books as printed sheets (called leafs) folded and cut into pages and then fastened between covers. We also value books because of what we tend to think they are or do. Thus books often vouch for our good taste, knowledge, or skill. (Lawyers invariably choose law books as the backdrop for TV commercials.) Books provide self-help, religious truth, entertainment, whatever. Nox through its resistant strangeness (such as faux pages that won’t turn) helps to focus attention on books as material presences somehow caught up in an ontological dance, where words too are the trace of something absent: an idea, a meaning, a life. The insistent materiality of Nox includes vast blank grey stretches without print—a visual nothingness—that point toward disappearance, like the gaps in retouched Soviet-era photographs indicating where disgraced officials once stood. Nox in its imperfect material recovery of what is knowable about Carson’s shifty brother immerses readers (as meanings recede and questions grow) in an experience akin to what happens in a detective novel. Narrative threads emerge, vanish, reappear. Images turn blurry. Data is impossible to decipher. Nothing is quite what it seems. It is easy to get lost in the dense materiality of the text. Understanding becomes inescapably interruptive: a continuous process of negotiation with disappearances.
Carson is a connoisseur of disappearance. Disappearance in fact is a state that she invests with almost philosophical significance, albeit rooted in everyday life. Think of a lover watching the tail-lights disappear as his beloved slowly drives off into the darkness, forever. Disappearance marks a transitional moment—a unit of time, fast or slow—when something passes from presence to absence. It is similar to the relatively static state that Carson elsewhere calls “unlost.” Unlost, for example, is the epithet that she applies to an ancient figure known only in a brief epitaph composed by the poet Simonides of Keos. “Spinther,” as Carson gives us his name, “would have vanished utterly save for a single Simonidean line of verse.”9 The state of total vanishment—no trace whatever—is oblivion. Disappearance, by contrast, remains just this side of nothingness: identified mainly by the traces it leaves behind. It can encompass both the static twilight survival of an unknown figure such as Spinther (a name you can grow fond of) or the transitional movement as lovers drive away into the darkness, out of sight, out of memory, out of being. Disappearance and its traces always traffic with the border of total vanishment and of unending night. What fate likely awaits Carson’s undistinguished, semi-anonymous brother without a sister to slow his disappearance?
Disappearances in Nox raise the stakes higher than a sisterly desire to mourn and to remember a lost brother. The scrappy details evoke larger, even mythic patterns of family drama. Carson—writer, professor, international star—is the good child. Her brother is the archetypal bad child. Nox tells us that he fled abroad as a fugitive from Canadian law and in the next twenty years spoke with his sister barely five times, by phone. She recalls, with something less than sibling affection, how he addressed her as pinhead and professor. Which child—good daughter or prodigal son—did the mother love more? A scribbled note from her mother strongly suggests that Carson as good child composes this memorial for the family bad sheep whom his mother, we infer, preferred. (Sons and Mothers.) Here and elsewhere in her work, empathy is not the particular circle of eros that Carson inhabits. Her brother has been disappearing for years. Death simply makes his disappearance official. It also loads his pinhead sister (a MacArthur “genius” award recipient) with the familial or writerly obligation to save his memory from total darkness through a movement into the twilight realm of the unlost.
The lost brother of Catullus remains a total blank, as Carson explains in Nox, unknown except that Catullus addresses him (as “brother”) in a memorable poem. Through the poem, however, he is not utterly forgotten. Unlost, in Carson’s neologism. No, grief and family love aren’t strong presences in Nox but rather notable absences. Carson tellingly compares herself to historians or archaeologists, patiently patching together bits and pieces of a past that never yields full understanding. Nox offers its extensive glossary of cognate Latin passages illuminating every word—including et (“and”)—in Catullus’s elegy on his brother almost as a substitute for absent emotion, as if to assert the counter-claims of knowledge, even if knowledge always falls short of full understanding. In Nox, loss may be resisted but not overcome. Despite her word-by-word glossary, Carson makes it clear that knowledge and scholarship cannot convey the lost power of Catullus’s elegy. She includes her own translation largely, as she indicates, as a testament to the losses that no English version can hope to escape.
Loss and disappearance extend to books as well as to poems and brothers. Books are never directly addressed in Nox, but Carson’s text cannot escape its place within a landscape where the book as a historical, material invention linked to the Gutenburg revolution now faces imminent disappearance with the rise of electronic publishing. Arguably, Nox mounts a complex resistance to the disappearance of books, in that it appears irreproducible in digital format. Any future effort to reproduce Nox as an e-book will necessarily alter its material form and reshape the experience of the reader, much as when sculpture is reproduced in photographs. Readers of Nox—which in its tactile, sculptural qualities might equally be described as text-based art—cannot simply process words and unpack meanings. Nox exists only as a large accordion-folded sheet encased in a tomb-like box, creating an unwieldy, inconvenient presence that slows down and impedes understanding. Is it significant that you cannot, for love or money, buy a copy of Nox for your Kindle or iPad?
There is an unavoidable problem here, however. Suppose that Nox asserts an implicit or tacit claim for the indispensable presence of books in our lives. What significant purpose is served by a resistance to digital format? Machine-printed hard-cover or paperback books belong to a receding past as surely as do broadside poems hand-lettered on parchment (although small presses still produce limited runs for special occasions, of course). The poems of Catullus, which presumably circulated in the ancient world on scrolls, survive today only because someone transcribed them into a codex manuscript discovered in Verona around 1305. (This single copy disappeared again, but not before spawning two additional copies—one preserved in the Bodleian.) Only the transformation from scroll to codex saved the poetry of Catullus. Moreover, new technologies for reproducing texts often expand readership, as the printing press once did. If Nox stakes an implicit claim for books as material objects or presences, how is this claim much more than an expression of elitist nostalgia or luddite hostility?
Re-enter eros. The love of books is no platonic affair conducted purely on the plane of minds. Books and lives go hand in hand. Losses in one realm carry across the divide. What bibliophiles prize—rich paper, fine inks, colorful illustrations, artful dust jackets, hand-tooled leather—belongs securely to the realm of the senses. Equally important, books are irreducible to containers for thought. The historical circulation of radical ideas depended on the materiality of books and on their power to generate new forms of knowledge, much as the Encylopédie (with its alphabetic format, subversive cross-references, and defiance of state censorship) helped fuel the French Revolution.10 Contemporary poets have made the materiality of poems—as in sound poetry, concrete poetry, and so-called “found” poetry—integral to a new poetics.11 If philosophers seem very willing to disjoin meanings and arguments from materiality, Carson—philosopher and poet—refuses to separate sense and meaning from the poetic materiality of books.
The love of books as material objects, beyond any taste for fine bindings or costly first editions, includes for many people a feeling for their place as companions on the human journey: artifacts inseparable from their heft and feel, objects that follow us to each new residence, pushing us to buy or build cases to hold them like household lares and penates. Gerald L. Bruns argues, as he explores contemporary theories of poetry, that poems somehow address and enhance our connection to the world of things and indeed assert “an intimacy with mere things that defeats explanation.”12 Books too, in their thingness. Nox may well stimulate this intimacy. Who hasn’t felt a mysterious pleasure at holding the exact edition of a book you read as a child. The Little Engine That Could, say, in its 1930 red cloth cover with applied paper illustration by Lois Lenski. Dog-eared corners, under-linings, marginal comments, forgotten bookmarks, even faded cash register receipts signify how books intersect our lives at particular moments. Books as objects accompany us as we learn, change, and age. Brittle yellowed pages, beyond exposing the cheap paper used at a particular moment in the mass-production of consumable texts, also reflects a process through which certain old books become old friends. Some books we will never part with. In years gone by, the family Bible was more than a sacred text. It was a local register, a moral anchor, an heirloom. Resistance to the disappearance of books is the flip side of an erotic affirmation of everything (personal, social, historical) that books once stood for.
Fair enough. But e-publication holds significant and off-setting gains. The Dutch are currently embarked on a project to digitalize every book published in Dutch from 1470 to the present.13 No book published in Dutch will go out of print—or disappear into oblivion. Google books today are available online at the click of a mouse. College students like the convenience and lower cost of digital textbooks, updated regularly and shutting down the bone yards of obsolete prior editions. The Facebook and Twitter generations—natives of the photon—take to new media like virtual ducks to virtual water. Adults fifty years hence may remember with fondness books they read late at night tapping the screen of their iPads. If the material, social history of the book helps account for the particular writing that, say, Marcel Proust and Henry James regarded as possible, e-books create new conditions of possibilities for writing—and for reading—such as hypertext links or embedded programs (some already create textual changes each time we open the file). The future of reading will not cling to hard covers and cut pages but continue to change. Something more crucial than historical forms is at stake.
“Every time a poet writes a poem,” as Carson generalizes, “he is asking the question, Do words hold good: And the answer has to be yes….”14 This statement is unclear about what it means to say that words “hold good.” It is legitimate to ask what specific values words might affirm when they hold good. What particular breakdowns occur when words fail? The goodness of poetic language certainly doesn’t inhere in its truth, not even in its postmodern, pluralized, contingent truths. Few philosophers today would argue for a one-to-one correspondence between language and truth. The question Do words hold good? remains an open-ended provocation to thought, not a query in search of a note. A response appropriate to Carson might predictably circle back toward eros. “I would like to grasp,” Carson wrote in a rare autobiographical moment amid the comp-lit erudition of Eros the Bittersweet, “why it is that these two activities, falling in love and coming to know, make me feel genuinely alive. There is something like an electrification in them.”15
Falling in love and coming to know. Learning and love are for Carson parallel and related experiences. What connects them is the erotic impulse that imparts a feeling of aliveness. Words might hold good, in this context, when they make contact with eros and promote a feeling of aliveness. Eros against Thanatos. Words hold good, in an erotic sense, in their opposition to death and to what Coleridge called death-in-life. Eros against Nox. Writer against Disappearance. Primal opponents. Words that hold good would be inseparable from the electrifications of love and of knowledge. When words fail to hold good, they do nothing, perform no work, touch no one, or else play to everything that deadens us. When a writer’s words hold good, whatever else they do in Carson’s multi-genre poetics, they promote aliveness and maintain a vital contact with eros.
A love of reading inflects eros in a slightly different register than does the love of material books. Reading, although we think of it as personal and subjective, has a rich social history, now rapidly changing under the pressure of e-books. The term “visual reader” tellingly transfers the term reader from the person who reads to the electronic device, and such devices absorb the reading of books into the same environment as video-games, internet apps, and communicative functions, from text messages to social networks. People seem to be reading more today, thanks in large part to blogs and to various interactive opportunities that link writers and readers. Eros will doubtless inflect reading in new registers, as books lose their distinctive identity and swim or compete within a largely undifferentiated new sea of discourse. This sea, albeit still emergent, at least defines the fluid field against which Nox contemplates both a brother’s death and larger cultural disappearances for which books serve as a recent and potent metaphor. Science fiction has long imagined forms of instant communication far more certain and more erotic (in the power to convey feeling and to connect people) than reading. The speculation cannot be ruled out that reading too—a brain-based historical invention that is in fact neurologically distinct from it historical twin, writing—might one day disappear.
Disappearance, according to cultural theorist Paul Virilio, takes on special significance in modern societies characterized by a radical emphasis on speed. The extreme pace of change introduces not only specific new inventions but also a personal and cultural experience of continual vanishings.16 Witness the rapid disappearance of land-line telephones, typewriters, letters home, virginity, drive-in theaters, diseases, nations…. The disappearance is not total or immediate. Some phenomena (from the Greek root meaning to appear) linger among the unlost, in museums or old movies, much like 1950s Chevrolets cruising the streets of twenty-first century Havana. Virilio sees developed economies as creating what he calls an “epileptic consciousness”—a jolting experience of gaps and absences as things vanish before our eyes, not even waving goodbye. Like Carson’s brother. Suddenly gone. This epileptic consciousness of vanishment, whatever its psychological costs and benefits, at least creates the conditions basic to what Carson describes as the triangular geometry of desire. Disappearances—like a lover’s absence—are custom-made for the appearance of eros.
Eros thrives on imagining what isn’t there, which is of course the entire project of Nox. What is erotic about reading (or writing), as Carson puts it, “is the play of imagination called forth in the space between you and your object of knowledge.”17 Eros for Carson is inseparable from desire, and desire always implies absence and lack. The literal absences and gaps in the text of Nox keep firm or full knowledge always just beyond reach, while the resistant materiality of the book affirms its own paradoxical presence. Presence, as Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht writes, identifies a realm beyond meaning.18 In contrast to a postmodern focus on meanings and on cognitive indeterminacies, presence gestures toward a crucial dimension of embodied human experience that interposes a space between know-ers and the objects or knowledge. Nox in effect calls forth an erotic play of imagination in the space that presence opens up—as in dance or music—where meanings are less important than their inadequacies.
An erotics of reading may provide an effective description of the engagement with language in which words, for Carson, ultimately hold good. Words hold good, it appeared, when they make contact with eros and promote a feeling of aliveness. Now it is possible to add, more specifically, that words hold good when they are sufficient to spark the electrifications that Carson describes as falling in love and as coming to know. These particular electrifications, however, do not require material books in codex form. Audiences fall in love with the electronic images of movie stars, just as lonely singles fall for attractive faces on Match.com, where presence and absence take a different configuration than in books. The darkness of movie theaters has long constituted an erotic space that lovers enjoy as much as film buffs do, and of course the internet has as its most popular feature the uncensored access to online pornography. Eros shifts and freewheels easily across media. Arguably, John Donne and Wallace Stevens lose nothing in meaning or power—and they may gain much from hypertext notes and online comments—when their poems appear on a screen instead of on a paper page.
Sappho is Carson’s prime exemplar of the electrifications of falling in love, but the erotics of learning for Carson finds its exemplary figure in Socrates. It was Socrates who famously claimed that eros was the only subject he knew anything about. Plato’s Symposium and Phaderus are the dialogues in which Socrates most fully develops his views on eros, and as Carson works through the sometime paradoxical details in Eros the Bittersweet she emphasizes the Socratic argument that eros and desire necessarily plunge lovers into the world of time and of matter. You cannot engage eros, despite the many fruitless attempts to do so, from a position of cool detachment. Eros assures that you cannot avoid getting your hands dirty, your heart broken. Count on it. There is no insurance policy to protect you—whether you are a world-famous writer or merely her unknown brother—against death and unending night. Socrates is most relevant to a reading of Nox, however, less for his specific arguments about eros than for his embodiment of what Emerson called “man thinking.” It is his passion for thought—not his specific ideas—that for Carson connect Socrates with the electrifications of eros. As she pinpoints his erotic character: “He loved, that is, the process of coming to know.”19
How exactly does coming-to-know constitute an erotic activity? And what does coming–to-know as an erotic activity have to do with Nox? “In any act of thinking,” Carson writes, “the mind must reach across this space between known and unknown, linking one to the other but also keeping visible their difference. It is an erotic space.”20 Thought electrified. Electronic reproduction cannot convey exactly what the mind must encounter as we hold and peruse a copy of Nox in its strange and resistant material form. True, an erotics of coming-to-know is already breaking new ground as words and images and sound combine on the screen in previously unimagined hybrid creations. Yet, as twenty-first century minds reach across the new space opening between the book as we once knew it and a more rarefied new-media materiality of silicon and of electrons, elegiac voices remind us of the losses and seek ways to resist it. “Please,” implores musician and memoirist Patti Smith on receiving a 2010 National Book Award, “no matter how we advance technologically, please don’t abandon the book. There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book.”21 Eros is notorious for its attraction to beauty. Suddenly gone. Against a backdrop of endless night, Anne Carson—through a book, if it is a book, that resists the disappearance of the printed book—is left to think the abrupt, irreversible disappearance of a brother who wasn’t, truly, much of a brother and whose memory is fading fast. Will her words hold good?
My deepest thanks for their help to Brett Bonfield, Kate Chieco, Brian Dietz, Paula Levine, Christopher Morris, Kenneth Reckford, and Markus Wust.
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