22 August 2008

Marvelously suggestive

James Pollock explores Anne Carson's Decreation at the Contemporary Poetry Review:
Carson has been for many years a professor of classics, she is a superb translator from ancient Greek, and in her own writing she returns again and again to the ancient roots, the classical and biblical origins of Western literature. These obsessions, self-consciously combined with her more fashionable interest in the new traditions of certain great innovators of the twentieth century like Paul Celan, Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein, enable her, at her best, to be truly original. Merely to rank her with “the triumphant march of the avant-garde,” in Zbigniew Herbert’s sardonic phrase—cultural amnesiacs endlessly shooting at the easy target of novelty—is to miss completely much of what is most interesting and valuable in her work. In fact, Carson has always been a writer in the Romantic tradition of the sublime, a tradition stretching back through Longinus to Sappho, Homer, and the Bible. And never more so than in her recent book, Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera.

The book explores, from a wide variety of perspectives, the theme of the sublime annihilation or decreation of the self. Carson borrows the term “decreation” from the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, for whom the purpose of such an act was to get out of the way of God, to let God’s will prevail over one’s one. Any student of religions will recognize this as a very old idea. But one way of understanding Carson’s focus on this theme is to think of her place in literary history: as a self-consciously post-confessional poet, she is concerned with finding ways to displace the self from the centre of the work. Not, mind you, in order to replace it with the cold, inhuman babble of Language, but rather to make way for “spiritual matters”. And this, as I say, places her squarely in the Romantic tradition of the sublime. “Not I,” writes D.H. Lawrence, in his “Song of the Man Who Has Come Through”: “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me.” The main difference is that where English Romantics like Shelley and Lawrence speak of “wind,” Carson often speaks of the still more traditional “God.” [...]

Lest we forget that the sublime is a concept that was applied in the eighteenth century especially to certain aesthetic experiences of nature, Carson’s third essay, “Totality: The Colour of Eclipse,” considers the sublime experience of the total eclipse of the sun. She describes it as follows: “You are now inside the moon’s shadow, which is a hundred miles wide and moves at two thousand miles an hour. The sensation is stupendous.” Carson takes her literary examples this time from Archilochus, Pindar, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Annie Dillard. Surprisingly, she finds the experience is often associated in these writers with copulation, marriage, questions and doubts about marriage, and, less surprisingly, with a feeling of wrongness; in a metaphor borrowed from her own essay in praise of sleep, she compares seeing an eclipse to “waking from a dream in the wrong direction and finding yourself on the back side of your mind.” Taken by itself, this is the slightest of the four essays; however, when read together with the other three its images and ideas help to link all four in marvelously suggestive ways. For instance, although she never makes the link explicitly, the image of a total eclipse of the sun is perhaps her most powerful metaphor for her central notion of “decreation,” which may be understood as a kind of eclipse or annihilation of the self.
I also recently enjoyed listening to Michael Silverblatt's conversation with Carson (from January 2007) about her translations of Euripides.

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