A definite thread spun: temporal tantalisation in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red

autobiography of red final

Ralf Webb:

In the faculty lounge of the University of Buenos Aires, Geryon— the protagonist of Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red— asks a yellow-bearded professor: ‘What is time made of?’ The professor replies, ‘Time isn’t made of anything. It is an abstraction./Just a meaning that we/impose upon motion’. The question of time, and his relationship to it, troubles Geryon throughout Carson’s AoR, a long poem — or ‘Novel in Verse’— composed of verse fragments. But this questioning of time is more than a mere character trait. Within AoR, Carson has constructed an investigation, even a treatise, on the question of time, transition, and mortality.

Carson retrieves Geryon from Ancient Greek myth. Most frequently, as in Hesiod’s Theogony, Geryon is a bizarre, red-winged, multi-headed monster who owned a herd of red cattle. Herakles’ tenth labour required that he kill Geryon and take the cattle, signalling the ‘victory of culture over monstrosity’. Here, Geryon is nothing more than a signifier, a function in the code of Ancient myth; he possesses no agency.

Enter Stesichorus—the ancient poet of the Greek West— and his epic poem Geryoneis, which places Geryon in a central role. Carson opens AoR with a commentary on Stesichorus, remarking that ‘the extant fragments of Stesichorus’ poem offer a tantalizing cross section of themes, both proud and pitiful, from Geryon’s own experience’. By giving Geryon the dimension of agency, Stesichorus radically broke with tradition and convention. He shattered Ancient Greek mythic code – or, as Carson says, he ‘began to undo the latches’ and ‘released Being’.

By situating AoR in relation to the Geryoneis, Carson lays the groundwork for her investigation into time and mortality. She also signposts that AoR is concerned with transition, the breaking of convention, and the succession of new modes. The idea of transition becomes part of her method of composition; she compresses different textual forms and visual media—ranging from verse fragments to the novel, the photographic image to film—into the text.

The initial thematic step that Carson takes in this investigation is the metamorphosing of Geryon’s traditional story. She builds on the work of Stesichorus, but breaks with convention further by casting Geryon as sole protagonist, and transplanting him into a contemporary setting. We follow him from childhood until early adulthood— no longer a multi-headed monster, but a boy. Geryon retains his wings, but they come to represent his othered queer body, rather than savage monstrousness.

Importantly, Carson pushes Geryon beyond a coded death at the hands of Herakles; he first recognises this traditional death (as a child, he writes that ‘Herakles came one day/killed Geryon got the cattle’), and then blindly surpasses it (on meeting Herakles as an adolescent, they begin a tumultuous romantic relationship). Carson frees him from a diminished role in myth in order to give him agency, in order to make him a human character with relatable, realistic flaws. But alongside liberation into humanity, Carson subjects him to mortality: a pathetic and inescapable undertaking of the linear and unchangeable path from birth to death— conceptualized in Ancient Greek culture (and persistent in pop culture) as a definite thread spun by the Moirai, the Fates.


Photography: Into The Volcano


Geryon, freed from code and subjected to mortality—a pathetic and inevitable drive toward death—attempts to construct order over that mortality, to control and ultimately halt it. He does this through photography, a hobby he adopts in adolescence, later compiling his photographs to create an ‘autobiographical essay’.

In Camera Lucida, Barthes contests that the photograph is an authenticated certainty that an unchangeable past reality existed: ‘It is a prophecy in reverse: like Cassandra, but with eyes fixed on the past, photography never lies.’ When we judge a photograph as this static referent of the past, ‘the figures it represents do not move. They are anesthetized and fastened down’. Geryon shares this rather intuitive understanding of the photograph’s ability to depict and fix a past reality: ‘Much truer’, he thinks, ‘is the time that strays into a photograph and stops’. The creation of permanence, the rejection of transition and decay — this is Geryon’s project. He wants to escape his mortality through the photographic autobiography, by fixing and making permanent emanations of his own life — and in turn, bidding for a form of immortality.

It is remarkable that Carson articulated this drive to reject transition and decay via the photographic autobiography in 1998 — just a few years before the global saturation in social media. Now, Facebook’s Timeline function allows users—all 1.4 billion of them— to preserve, edit, and order representations of their past via the photographic image, and linger in the illusory permanence of those representations. As Bernstein notes in his essay The Art of Immemorability, in the age of ‘photographic and electronic reproduction… cultural memory is becoming more digital than letter’. Geryon’s photographs are physical rather than digital, but the fact that mass availability of digital devices has so suddenly resulted in this surge of ‘past-preservation’ shows that his particular bid for immortality is not unique, but articulates a much wider cultural condition. We potently experience, then, the tragedy created by Carson when she shows how Geryon’s bid necessarily fails.

The photograph does more than represent. Barthes allocates a photograph’s punctum— a particular detail in the image that affects the subjective viewer. One manifestation of the punctum is time as gesture-toward-death. The photograph necessarily signals death, because it contains within it: ‘an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me absolute past of the pose, the photograph tells me death in the future’.

Geryon’s gaze is repeatedly arrested by the punctum, as in the photograph of a ‘fly floating in a pail of water—/drowned but with a strange agitation of light around the wings’. The most visceral example of this arrest, one which drives home the futility of Geryon’s bid for immortality—is the photograph Red Patience (also the title of the verse fragment), which depicts a volcanic eruption. Everything about Carson’s description in Red Patience emphasizes death-as-anterior-future. Death is clinical and unfeeling in the image of ‘pines in the kill process’; death is organic and uncanny with ‘the trunk of one of the pine trees little red drops like blood’. Here, the monosyllabic staccato rhythm bolsters the image’s disquietude, and a sense of something eerily delicate hangs on that ‘little’.

Red Patience also interiorizes another aspect of the punctum: the monstrosity of time. Again, Barthes: ‘In the Photograph, Time’s immobilization assumes only an excessive, monstrous mode: Time is engorged.’ Like Geryon’s photograph of the fly, Red Patience is a fifteen-minute exposure:


                                     A photograph that has compressed
on its motionless surface
fifteen different moments of time, nine hundred seconds of bombs moving up
and ash falling down

Barthes might see Red Patience, an engorged fifteen minutes of death and destruction ‘compressed’ into one image, as a perfect of example of the photograph as ‘the dead theatre of Death, the foreclosure of the Tragic’.

But Carson’s volcano, paradoxically, also represents immortality. Toward the end of AoR, the character named Ancash tells Geryon of an ancient Peruvian myth, about ‘People who saw the inside of the volcano/And came back… as red people with wings,/their weaknesses burned away—/and their mortality’. Encouraged by this myth, Geryon flies over the Peruvian volcano Icchantikas:

                             He has not flown for years but why not
be a 
black speck raking its way toward the crater of Icchantikas on icy possibles


This description wholly contrasts Red Patience. In place of monstrousness, the tender ‘earth heart’, lead into by that soft-sounding ‘icy possibles’. Instead of bombs and ash, the volcano dumps ‘photons out her ancient eye’.

Here, Carson tantalizes Geryon and the reader with an alternative model of time, one where human fate does not careen senselessly toward death, but has the mythic — and reassuring — possibility of immortality. But the monstrous and gaze-arresting Red Patience lingers in the background; a brutish reminder of our mortality, a disavowal of myth. As Barthes writes, ‘we have an invincible resistance to believing in the past, in History, except in the form of myth’, but the photograph, as an emanation of past reality, ‘puts an end to this resistance’. Carson unfastens Geryon from his mythic code in order to make him human; in doing so, she unveils our tragic desire to be released from our mortality, and made mythic.


Fragments & Narrative


As well as its thematic and theoretic bearing on her investigation into time and mortality, Carson’s use of the photograph is also key to the composition of the text. Toward the end of AoR, the descriptions of Geryon’s photographs occupy entire fragments — titled Photographs — and thus become inherent to the text’s overall structure. The photograph is just one of several media that Carson ‘compresses’ into AoR, that, like the ‘pleats of an accordion’, frame and surpass each other. Through their respective histories, they foreground impermanence, transition, and the succession of modes. These other media are film, the novel, and verse fragments.

AoR is both composed of verse fragments—where a long prose-like line is consistently followed and broken by a short line—and titled ‘A Novel in Verse’. Adam Kirsch, reviewing AoR in New Republic, took issue with this: ‘the writing is quite clearly prose… with no strictness in measure or rhythm… Carson is writing free verse of a familiar sort— but a “novel in free verse” is too much like tennis with the net down.’ While Kirsch’s lax dichotomy between poetry and prose is aggravating, the outright denial of Carson’s supposedly fraudulent form closes him off to a more fruitful reading of what this double-medium achieves— it recalls the history of the verse fragment, and spotlights the narrative drive of the novel.

‘Time has dealt harshly with Stesichorus’, Carson declares in the foreword, acknowledging that the Geryoneis only exists as sparse fragments; acknowledging, in turn, that our artistic creations cannot escape decay and transition any more than we ourselves can. The use of the fragment also recalls the postclassical desire of speculative reconstruction of lost wholes. From the 18th century, the fragment was tainted with pathos, connoting loss, as the rarity of finding complete Classical manuscripts revealed that ancient literature mostly exists in fragmentary form, spurring a craze amongst scholars to collect fragments.

Rather than being an homage to the lost whole of textual antiquity, AoR—as a whole text composed of individual fragments, like a reconstructed vase, fractures still showing—anticipates its own impermanence. It contains within it the history of that pathos and loss, and understands that, like the Geryoneis, it too will ultimately and irrevocably fragment (or, the contemporary equivalent; AoR will go out of print, the remaining copies will decay).

This mirrors the failure of Geryon’s bid for immortality through the photographic autobiography; because Carson compresses Geryon’s photographs into the text—at times entire ‘fragments’—the anterior future of the photographic image (Death) and the anterior future of the text (irrevocable fragmentation) work in tandem to emphasize transition, mortality, impermanence.

The fragments are also intersected by the novelistic nature of AoR; they are ordered sequentially and form a cohesive chronological plot. This creates a linear narrative drive, conceptually equivalent to the Moirai’s spun thread. And the reader is implemented in this drive; with every fragment read, with every page turned, the reader tacitly ‘pushes’ Geryon through the narrative, propelling him incessantly forward, obliterating his attempts to halt transition and decay.


Film: A Tango In Buenos Aires


And so we arrive at film. In the foreword, Carson describes Stesichorus’ depiction of the Herakles-Geryon myth with what Monique Tschofen (in her fruitful paper ‘First I Must Tell About Seeing’) calls ‘proto-cinematic’ language: ‘We see his red boy’s life and his little dog. A scene of wild appeal from his mother, which breaks off. Interspersed shots of Herakles approaching over the sea…’. Tschofen implores us to ‘observe the language demarcating scenes, fade outs, zooms, crane shots, and slow motion’.

Carson’s language is permeated with filmic representation. Repeatedly, she establishes settings with the richly visual but necessarily minimalistic description used in screenplays: ‘Traffic was crashing past outside. Dawn had faded.’ She enhances these ‘establishing shots’ by shifting tenses from past to present: ‘Full moon sends rapid clouds dashing past a cold sky’, positioning the reader in a real-time relationship to the description. Tschofen recognises that because Carson joins cinematic representation with the invocation of Greek myth, she creates ‘a way of thinking in two different time frames at once, modern and ancient’. True – but Carson also creates a much narrower temporal binary.

Film, of which the photograph is the raw material, is the photographic medium evolved, surpassing photography in the history of its invention. By compressing both into the text, Carson once more highlights the succession of modes, further underscoring transition and impermanence. Throughout AoR, we are also impelled to think in terms of the still photographic and moving filmic image. This conceptual temporal juxtaposition serves to reinforce AoR’s narrative drive, further bolstering opposition to Geryon’s bid for immortality via the photographic image: the narrative sets the fragments in motion, just as film sets the photograph in motion.

But Carson’s evocation of film does more than spell-out the failure of Geryon’s bid for immortality. In order to heighten the pathos of Geryon’s mortality—and to involve the reader in that pathos—Carson again depicts an alternative temporal model, and then snatches it away. She does this through recreating the filmic genre of Noir in the fragment Tango, which follows a heartbroken Geryon at the dream-like zenith of his trip to Buenos Aires.

In Film Noir Fascination, Oliver Harris writes that there is ‘a nostalgic melancholy for a lost past instilled in us by Film Noir’, and because of this, ‘Noir itself is a fantasy’. Consider this alongside Noir’s typical genre codes— oneirism, complex narrational devices that often involve flashbacks (used to manipulate depictions of linear time)—and it becomes clear why Carson evokes it. Like the Peruvian myth, Noir is a temporal tantalisation for Geryon, a phantasmal escape from pathetic mortality. Carson also involves the reader emotionally by exploiting our nostalgic melancholy for that lost past.

Tango is rich with highly-stylized Noir-specific tropes and techniques. Geryon stumbles upon a smoky, dimly-lit bar at four a.m: ‘through the gloom he saw very old concrete walls lined with bottles and a circle/of tiny round red kitchen tables.’ Geryon’s internal thoughts evoke Noir’s snappy, moody narration: ‘Moon gone. Sky shut. Night had delved deep… Cobblestones grew slick. Smell of salt fish/and latrines furred the air.’ There’s also a bewildering shift from Geryon’s internal thoughts to third person narration, mimicking Noir’s disorientating camera angles, which contrast points of view in order to disrupt linear narrative sequences.

The scene is infused with a distinct oneirism, helping to dislocate Geryon from the linear narrative. Everything is surreal: ‘a gnome in an apron’ delivers an ‘orangeish drink to everyone/in a glass like a test-tube’, and an ‘ancient musician… flew up on a cloud and sank back down on waves’— that ‘ancient’ indicating the scene’s mystifying atemporality. Geryon drifts in and out of sleep, dreams about a night in his past, and awakens to find that no time has passed. Suddenly, night vanishes and ‘original daylight trickled/weakly’ through the windows.

Here, Geryon seemingly throws off the chains of ordinary being and becomes the protagonist of a fantastical existence, one which shifts seamlessly between past and present, and one that—like myth— abides by genre codes and conventions. But this comforting illusion is suddenly snatched away — the following fragment finds Geryon alone, sitting ‘on his bed in the hotel room pondering the cracks and fissures/of his inner life’, and then—in a gloomy turn—reading a self-help book (‘Depression is one of the unknown modes of being…’). The fantasy ends, the human fate remains, and the narrative drives onward in the same constitutive style.


Transition and the postliterate period


The last scene of AoR finds Geryon, with Herakles and Ancash, looking at the inside of a volcano through a hole in the wall of a bakery:


now time is rushing toward them
where they stand side by side with arms touching, immortality on their faces
night at their back


This is a final, fitting tantalization: do we believe the Peruvian myth, and understand this as Geryon’s attainment of immortality? Or do we remain in the bathos of the bakery, the glimpse into the volcano being a reminder of Red Patience, a glimpse of death? Through her investigation into time and transition, Carson shows that we want to believe the former, but we know the latter to be true, tragic, and human.

Beyond this, through AoR’s composition, Carson has created a text that subsumes the past and anticipates the future. She weaves a thread of contrasting form and media that surpass each other in their histories, foregrounding the impermanence of human creation. The once ‘substantial narrative poem’ of Stesichorus is now fragmented; AoR—as both text authored by Carson, and as Geryon’s ‘autobiography’—will ‘fragment’. Photography is surpassed by film; within film, there exist time-stamped genres that inspire nostalgic melancholy. And AoR-as-text has its own place in this history. Bernstein writes that:

‘[the] rise of mass literacy, late in the history of writing, has had the effect of putting the printed and bound book front and centre… as we enter the postliterate period, we can begin to see the book as the solid middle ground between the stage (performed poetry) and the screen (digital poetry)’

Performed poetry—the ancient form of oral epic—relied on code and convention to function as cultural ‘memory storage’. Our present age of digital poetry exists at a time when cultural memory increasingly relies on the image. At the juncture, there is the printed and bound book. AoR, published at the turn of the 21st Century, actively exists at this crux, engaging with the ‘middle ground’, and signposting that—like those past modes, and like the present bound book—the digital age is also impermanent. A dependency on image will, inevitably, be surpassed by something else, and fail in its bid to fix and make permanent our cultural artifacts, our artistic creations. While AoR-as-text is itself time-stamped, its revelations of forward-drive, transition, and impermanence are strangely atemporal.

AoR, then, does not linger in a lost past; Carson may depict such old modes, but only to reveal our tragic desire to return to them. This is why breaking with code, convention, and tradition is so valuable. If we constantly adhere to them, we exist in a kind of denial, hoping that they—like the photograph—will offer permanence and stasis. In this sense, Kirsch’s criticism of Carson’s form becomes the very proof of why that form is valuable. The adherence to a formal outlook on ‘strictness’ of measure and rhythm, the blank rejection of a ‘novel in free verse’, shows itself to be an attempt to permanently fix a definition or code of poetics, of art. This, Carson reveals, is not only impossible, but belies those tragic and pathetic elements of our human fate—a longing to stave-off our inevitable passage through time, to halt the spinning of the Moirai.

Ralf Webb

About Ralf Webb

Ralf Webb is reviews editor at Ambit magazine.