Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The classicist and the randomizer

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Anne Carson

I haven’t read much by Anne Carson, but I think I’m in love with her. Sam Anderson’s recent profile of the acclaimed poet, best known for the hybrid novel Autobiography of Red, is one of the most interesting pieces I’ve read in the New York Times in months, and it’s largely because of Carson herself, who stands revealed as a prickly, intelligent, and uncompromising human being. I’d be predisposed to love her in any case, if only because she makes her living teaching ancient Greek and seems unusually attuned to the creative possibilities of randomness, both of which are subjects that are dear to my heart. But what’s really fascinating about Carson—and instructive for the rest of us—is that these two sides of her personality, the rigorous and the random, seem to arise from the same place. And reading this profile helped me understand, as if for the first time, why my own creative process has evolved to a point where it oscillates between these two extremes.

Let’s start with the Greek. Near the end of the profile, Carson and Anderson have the following exchange:

When I asked Carson what appealed to her so much as a teenager about Greek, she answered, “It just seemed to me the best language.” I asked her to elaborate. “It’s just intrinsic,” she said. “Just a different experience.” I asked her to describe the nature of that experience. “It’s just like what it is,” she said. “If it were like something else, you could do the other thing. It’s just like itself. I really can’t analogize.” This launched us into a five-minute circular conversation that felt like an allegory of the futility of all human language. “That’s as far as we can go with that,” she said.

Which doesn’t exactly clear up the subject. Yet  Carson’s words get as close as anything I’ve seen to what it means to learn ancient Greek. When you’re reading Plato or Homer with any degree of proficiency, you feel as if you’re seeing the world clearly for the first time, thanks largely to the fact that the process is so difficult: you really have no choice but to slow down and consider each word in relation to every other, until, as if by magic, a window opens, and you’re faced not with words but with tangible objects and ideas, expressed in language that manages to be compact, supple, and seamless all at once.

Red Doc > by Anne Carson

But there’s a problem with approaching poetry, or any other kind of creative writing, with the mentality of a classicist. Classics, at least initially, is about learning a complicated set of rules and exceptions, and there’s really no other way to approach it except through a kind of dignified drudgery: you’re memorizing endless conjugations and declensions and particles and the uses of the genitive absolute, and it takes about a year of hard labor before you can hope to read a page of text with any kind of fluency. There’s a reason why the field appeals to a certain kind of orderly personality—or to cast out those who lack that state of mind—and it tends to encourage further development along the same lines: Greek, like any super power, only amplifies tendencies that are already there. In my own case, years of studying Latin and Greek left me with good grammar and a habit of approaching literary problems as systematically as I could: breaking them down, looking for order, proceeding coldly and rationally. It’s an important part of what I do. But from a poetic or artistic perspective, it can be deadly.

Which is where the randomness comes in. A person, or an entire culture, founded on an ideal of rationality occasionally needs to tack sharply in the opposite direction, toward something like pure chance, in order to achieve a creative middle ground. It’s why the Greeks themselves were both the inventors of logic and users of lots and oracles, and Carson, the classicist and scholar, takes this to impressive extremes. The title of her new book, Red Doc >, is based on the default name the file was given by her word processor, and the form of the book itself was born of serendipity:

Most of the text runs like a racing stripe down the center of the page, with a couple of inches of empty space on either side. This form was also a result of an accident with the computer. Carson hit a wrong button, and it made the margins go crazy. She found this instantly liberating. The sentences, with one click, went from prosaic to strange, and finally Carson understood—after years of frustration—how her book was actually supposed to work.

And it’s hard not to read Carson’s embrace of chance as a classicist’s way of breaking through the patterns created by her own rationality. (Carson has also used randomization software to reorder the lines of the poem itself, which Nicholson Baker also tried with the chapters in his novel The Anthologist.) It would all be enough, as I’ve said before, to make me fall for her, if we weren’t both happily married. And her husband’s nickname, as it happens, is the Randomizer.

Written by nevalalee

March 19, 2013 at 9:50 am

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