Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Syntax Club: "Red Meat: What Difference Did Stesichoros Make?"

Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red

Welcome to the very first edition of Syntax Club! Please see here for a little more info on the origins of the project. Today we are talking about "Red Meat: What Difference Did Stesichoros Make?", the opening chapter of the work.

I'm going to structure these posts in this order: Frame (a symbolic repetition of our central questions), Argument (in the early modern sense--a brief summary of the major ideas of the text), Questions (thoughts and observations on the big picture items), Sentences (noteworthy lines with brief annotations), and lastly Exercises (ideas for generative sentence level content). Please post, either here or on Twitter or anywhere, really, your own thoughts/questions/sentences of note.

Let's go!


--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 provides a provocatively phrased explanation of the classical poet Stesichoros. She locates him chronologically between Homer and Gertrude Stein, notes that he had a solid reputation in his day, and that the some of the only surviving fragments of his work deal with Geryon, a monster slain by Herakles (i.e., Hercules). Carson argues that Stesichoros' use of adjectives is powerful, unique, and of significant aesthetic and metaphysical note.


What even is an essay?

Hardly anybody can give an answer that is both satisfying and uncontroversial; I have no intention of re-hashing the now somewhat trite "DID U KNOW THAT IN FRENCH IT MEANS AN ATTEMPT" bit; perhaps most useful is to say that essays are literary works which engage in a kind of operation that either foregrounds or depends upon somehow recreating the associative work of the human mind on the page; Montaigne's Essais use the phrase "consubstantial with its author" to describe the project at one point, and I think consubstantiality is an excellent word for essay-stuff; I generally think that the essay is as much a mode as it is a genre, and I think we may see inflections of this in Carson's work.

Is this an essay?

Oh, yeah, it's a more critical one for sure, but this is absolutely an essay; so thoroughly and obviously an essay, in fact, that it's probably one of the least useful sections to talk about as an essay per se.

What's especially good about this, the only 110% unquestionably so essay in the book?

I like the essay's ability to move both easily and audaciously from the arcane & historically specific to the expansive & ecstatically lyrical (it reminds me actually in a certain way of Annie Dillard, but with less nature and also less, well, Dillard, thank God; I know many of you love her but Annie gives me hives (especially that one book on suffering where she was unable to stick to a single system for transliterating Chinese names--why are you giving us Wade-Giles on one page and pinyin on another, Annie???(& no, I didn't write that Malcontent thing on her, but I'm glad somebody else did))).

I also like the essay's consideration of adjectives and the weird sort of moral complexity to Stesichoros' approach. It feels fitting that this particular ancient poet, who exists only now in cruel fragments, would be the one to get presented to us by Carson for this particular project.

How do we feel about adjectives?

Love em! I am often described as "baroque" and "deranged" and "gay", for example. I feel they are sometimes unfairly maligned because we are still getting over the combined hangovers of AP style & mid-century minimalist (aka mid-century misogynist) stylistic influences. Though also fanfiction has ruined them anew, maybe. Who knows. Point is: I am down to C O N S I D E R  T H E  A D J E C T I V E. Are you?


"He came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet." (3)

What an opener, what a sentence! Is there a more Caron-like sentence than this, with its combination of obvious fact, outlandish claim, and tight spare structure? 

Carson neatly lays out two poles for discourse: Homer the epic classical foundation and Stein the embodied field of lyric play; Homer the bard of wine-dark seas and Stein the sapphic monarch of salons; Homer the prodigious cataloger of ships & burning towers & men felled like oaks and Stein the master of repetition who so thoroughly suffused and bent that device that it cracked open and dropped out consciousness like a split pomegranate does seeds. And of course our boy Stesichoros, the source for much of this novel, comes in that "difficult interval", a period of some small ~2600 years.

The movement here is an interesting one. Carson gives us an obvious, "factual" tidbit (Stesi is between Homer and Stein, ok, sure) and than gives us something that seems absolutely wild--the claim that 2600 years is a "difficult interval for a poet", the same phrase another scholar might use to describe like an incredibly shitty 4-year period of the English Restoration where every artist was terribly overwrought and had syphillis and was constantly drunk in the un-fun way, or something.

Chaucer is about as far back as a modern reader can go and still feel like "yeah, that's kind of English if I squint" and that's a good 600-some years; the roots of pre-Norman Old English are maybe another 800 years before that, I think; Carson consigns the entire history of the English language, more or less, to about half of this "difficult interval", and I have a great deal of admiration for this absolute, unchecked power move.

But take a look too at the relationship between the semantic and the syntactic here. Caron's move--Obvious to Outlandish--is accomplished by a comma! There's no hedging, no grounding behind personal interpretation, no complex dependency systems, e.g., it isn't "which I find a difficult interval" or "which could be a difficult interval" or "a difficult interval because of XYZ" or anything like that. She appends the Outlandish portion on with a single comma, the same way a fiction author might append on a "textural" detail about hair color or a location being next to a coffee shop. Carson doesn't give us Obvious -> Outlandish or ObviousOutlandish (the dash is likely what I would have done in a first draftto draw out emphasis to the fact you, the author, are making a Bold Rhetorical Move). No, it's just Obvious, Outlandish. I'm reminded of the work the semi-colon does in Pound's In a Station of the Metro, where it serves as the hinge or pivot for a verb-free move from Exterior Appearance to Internal Image. Carson's deliberate withholding of any syntactic structure that might ease us in to her weirder moves is not only fun & funny & maybe even charming, but also forces us into the car with her: this is her ride, not ours, and our minds need to understand that if we are going to continue.

Interesting too that Obvious and Outlandish, the two categories I made up on the spot for this, are also obvious ones for a central concern: red. Be different if this were Bluets Syntax Club, I think.

"...among refugees who spoke a mixed dialect of Chalcidian and Doric. A refugee population is hungry for language and aware that anything can happen. Words bounce. Words, if you let them, will do what they want to do and what they have to do." (3)

This I found interesting because it is a gentler form of the above move; we get nice factual details about Stesi, we get a mildly-inflected commentary on refugee populations and language, and then we get the wild bits: bouncing words!

"So say of Stesichoros, 'this one was making adjectives' (4)

Notice the imperative; not "one could say of Stesichoros" or "to apply this to Stesichoros" or "I say of Stesichoros". Just "so say": you, dear reader, must do this. Once again we find ourselves along for the ride.

"Adjectives seem fairly innocent additions but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being." (4)

"For no reason that anyone can name, Stesichoros began to undo the latches. Stesichoros released being. All the substances in the world went floating up." (5)

The manner of expansive, mystical, quasi-philosophical movement in these two quotes is often what people either find interesting or insufferable about Carson. Similar in a way to the Outlandish, Obvious move. I'm definitely feeling it today. What are your latches of being, Syntax Club?

"This is a big question, the question of the blinding of Stesichoros by Helen (see Appendixes A, B,) although generally regarded as unanswerable (but see Appendix C)." (5)

I am a little bit of a sucker for playfulness, and this is a very playful sentence (especially in a few pages, when we see how deliberately unhelpful the Appendixes are for resolving this "big question"). "Big question" is normally a phrase I hear when I am substituting for a 5th grade class and a student is about to ask if they can go to the bathroom, or what my favorite food is. Rendering the mythical blindness of an author who now exists only in fragments as a "big question" is another power move.

"We see his red boy's life and his little dog...We see Herakles kill the little dog with his famous club." (6)

Carson's summaries of the Stesichoros fragments (the closest we ever get to Stesichoros proper in this book, actually) are appended with a nice example of parallelism. "We see" is a kind of bracketing here--but also, look again, when did "we" as a pronoun arrive on the page with such density and force, and what are the implications of that? An interesting move.

"You can of course keep shaking the box. 'Believe me for meat and for myself,' as Gertrude Stein says. Here. Shake." (7)

Again we get an imperative; the forces of history and the forces of Anne Carson's mind have made us some kind of Stesichoros-Stein box, and now we must shake. She's attempting to draw us readers in, as full and equal participants, into a mental activity which is maybe somehow "consubstantial" with all the forces (chance, manuscript, authority, moral complexity, repetition, meat and blood, loss, opacity, inscrutability) alluded to or invoked so far.


{this section is inspired in part by Chris Cokinos, a very talented grad school mentor of mine who had us keep sentence journals in which we imitated the syntactic patterns of certain well-written sentences using our own content; I found it a very helpful sort of approach, so our exercises for Syntax Club will be based around imitating particular moves Carson makes}

Obvious, Outlandish

Take a subject or theme or concern you know very well and compose a few sentences about it which follow this Carson pattern. Lead with something basic, factual, obvious, and follow immediately with your wildest, meatiest, strangest take. Avoid justification, explicit thinking-through, etc.

Imperative Involvment

Take a sentence or paragraph (or write a new one) where you make some kind of interpretive or rhetorical move and re-write it to use some kind of imperative form to instruct the reader to make or somehow participate in that move themselves. Avoid using "consider" as an imperative, because that is too easy.


Tomorrow we do "Red Meat: Fragments of Stesichoros."


Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery

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