Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red
--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?
Carson presents 3 appendixes dealing with Stesichoros' biography. The first gives an account of the mythic blinding of Stesichoros by Helen, in response to perceived slights; the second presents translations of a "palinode", or a retraction written by Stesichoros to appeal for his sight back; the third attempts to "clear up" the question of Stesichoros' blinding with a long, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, ultimately inconclusive series of if-then statements.
Is this an essay?
Is this an essay?
It definitely inhabits a found form in a much more direct way than yesterday's section, but it likely qualifies more as "faux-critical apparatus serving a broader lyric or thematic purpose" than anything else.
What's valuable to an essayist here, then?
There's an easy humor to it worth imitating, and Carson's general presenting-as-academic-but-it's-not-really-academic move is likely to be of note or value to people who engage in the weird, slippery, formally playful stuff we talked about yesterday.
Suidas s.v. palinodia: "Counter song" or "saying the opposite of what you said before," E.g., for writing abuse of Helen Stesichoros was struck blind but then he wrote for her an economium and got his sight back. (15)
Note the simultaneous ease with which Carson slips us into an academic or critical framework. She drops an sv, an eg, a reference to Suidas (but no context as to who that is)--she tosses us into the world of the classicist, assuming that we can and will follow along (and generally speaking we can and we will, but for me at least the move feels simultaneously a little confusing and a little empowering, sort of an analog to be let in to the grown-ups table). But there's that easy, spare, casual quality to Carson's writing too: got his sight back is willfully easy and approachable, even though it exists alongside Suidas and sv and etc. Her willingness to toy with the critical mode here is fun (especially given that these Appendix sections are, well, sort of deliberately unhelpful, right? They don't aid a clear understanding of the events in the way we would expect or want them to--they push us into complexity and ambiguity instead).
For the fact is he began his poem "Helen" with a bit of blasphemy. (15)
Bit of blasphemy belongs in the same category of pleasing, casual understatement as big question.
When Stesicohors found himself blinded for slandering Helen he did not (like Homer) just stand there bewildered--no! on the contrary. Stesichoros was an intellectual. (16)
I love how Carson foregrounds or leans in to the no!, a sort of direct interjection that might seem try-hard or over-wrought or heavy-handed. But it works in large part because it re-directs us just in time for Carson's laconic style to take a wry bent: Stesichoros was an intellectual.
No it is not the true story.
No you never went on the benched ships.
No you never came to the towers of Troy. (17)
A nice, clear cut example of anaphora (repetition at the start of a line/sentence/paragraph/clause/whatever). Gives the palinode the quality of a plain-spoken, forthright lament. I may use this as an example next time I need to teach ananphora.
If Stesichoros' blindness was a temporary condition this condition either had a contingent cause or it had none. (18)
The if-then format (though Carson deliberately omits the word "then" from most, maybe all of these, interestingly) is a pleasing way of simultaneously inhabting and screwing with a form. It seems at first glance that this sequence might actually help us deduce what's happened, what the implications are--but of course, it doesn't, and that becomes increasingly obvious and willful as we continue. But even in the early ones the playfulness is there; this one sounds like a legitimate proposition, maybe, but look again: can a temporary condition *not* have a contingent cause? Can anything *not* have a contingent cause, save, like, Aristotlean notions of God?
If we are now in reverse and by continuing to reason in this way are likely to arrive back at the beginning of the question of the blinding of Stesichoros either we will go along without incident or we will meet Stesichoros on our way back.(19)
If we are fooled because now that we are in reverse the whole landscape looks inside out either we will find that we do not have a single penny on us or we will call Helen up and tell her the good news. (20)
Carson is leaning in to the forces of Stein quite hard in both of these passages, and I think it works--the elongated, drawn out syntax starts to feel almost word salad-y in a way which is good and perhaps even productive to Carson's goal of screwing around with the form she is inhabiting.
If we call Helen up either she will sit with her glass of vermouth and let it ring or she will answer. (20)
Vermouth! Of course Helen of Troy drinks vermouth, likely white and on the rocks. Hard to think of a detail more luminous. And note that it's deliberately a little unexpected, a little absurd, historically and mythically de-located.
If Stesichoros was a blind man either we will lie or if not not. (20)
An interesting, almost ominous note to end on before we begin the actual novel-in-verse, no? And notice again how Carson gives us a sense of involvement, of imperative: we showed up again quite forcefully throughout the whole the chain, trying to figure out our involvement in the question of Stesi's blinding.
Take a subject you know well (one you frequently essay about) and compose an if-then statement about it. Take one portion or aspect of that if-then and use it to draw out the chain. Repeat as much as you feel like. Avoid actually "helpful" logical/deductive work--lean in to ambiguity, to strangeness, to reader involvement, to the pull of the rabbit hole.
Next week we will do "I: Justice" and "II: Each" on Tuesday the 12th and "III: Rhinestones", "IV: Tuesday", "V: Screendoor", and "VI: Ideas" on Wednesday, May 13th. I will not be posting on Thursday of next week, because the 13th is my 31st birthday and I plan to spend the bulk of that evening eating Sichuanese takeout and playing obscure Japanese video games rather than working on Syntax Club; we will resume normal schedule the week after next.
Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery