Economy of the Unlost (Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan) by Anne Carson,. Princeton University Press, 1999 (hardcover, $29.95) and 2002 (paperback, $14.95).
As Reviewed By: Ethan Paquin
Just because one can write something, one doesn’t necessarily have to write it.
This might likely be the general impression left when one finishes Anne Carson’s latest, a document of poetics/historics in which the lives and sensibilities of Simonides and Paul Celan collude and co-mingle. The great Greek poet, one of the first bards to accept payment for his work, and the German Holocaust survivor, indeed make for interesting biographical studies; however, it’s anyone’s guess why Carson decided to pair these poets. “Negation links the mentalities of Simonides and Celan” (9), “…for Celan, as for Simonides, … alienation countoured his relations with other people” (33), “Celan, like Simonides, is a poet who comes to us wrapped in anecdotes that allegorize his relation to the world” (108) and “Celan, like Simonides, had an inclination to take negativity further, to construct a moment of negative attention within words themselves” (113): these are concise and intriguing ideas, ideas that Carson devotes many careful and stylish pages expanding upon.[private]
“Economy,” as one would gather, is a key word in the relationship between these two ghosts: their writing styles are indeed literally economic, and most importantly, Carson claims, spring from the idea of economy–the “gift culture” of Simonides’s day, and the concept of self as object/commodity as something Celan refracted against in his modern era. Here, Carson paints the two poets as outsiders, seeing in them the possibility to draw parallels between economic and linguistic transactions:
…Simonides’ alienation began with his historical situation–on a cusp between two economic systems, gazing at both and all too aware of their difference: like someone listening to simultaneous translation of a text that lies before him in the original. He is anologous to Paul Celan…who uses language as if he were always translating.
Translation as if an act of exchanging dollars for change. Interesting. Carson seems to say that Simonides and Celan are parts and parcels of, and reactors against, the economic and societal conditions of their times; that they exploded the concepts of commodity and “self” (in itself a commodity, as the word seeks to quantify or place value on the physical body) by getting “lost” in something resembling a Zen-like relinquishment (see below) of all they were prescribed to “be” or to “have” (those being verbs of the marketplace, after all): the self, one’s identity, one’s language.
Apart from this tantalizing if obscure thread, how many other writers could be grouped by the kind of traits cited above? Carson’s are tenuous links at best, connections that provide fertile pasture for her incessantly perplexive, grazing-cow-of-a-mind to chew on, but leave the reader wondering whether he’s being toyed with. After all, why not pair Frost and Eliot if one is to examine the interplay of negation, identity and language? Why not marry Verga and Pavese, given their topoi of impersonality and isolation? Why not synthesize the socio-personal allegory of Rilke and Bloch? At least these literary duos have some sort of sloppily tangible connections in terms of time and/or experience.
This is not to say that similarities between a group of writers should not be explored because they have been disconnected by history; after all, they can’t be faulted or punished for being born at point x instead of point y. We can still discuss Emerson and Abbey in the same breath, though one lived at a time when the Utah canyonlands were unknown to most but the native peoples and the other wrote hard against the “civilization” of that landscape, because there is a torch being specifically passed between the two–the idea of the spiritual and physical worth of terra incognita, and how to reconcile with and approach it as ethical beings. However, nowhere is it explicitly claimed that Celan was influenced by Simonides, or that Simonides provides the ultimate model for a poet of “economy” and “negation” and that Celan can be seen as his modern-day counterpart for adhering so closely to said model. It is also a stretch to think of Simonides, a sort of po-biz pioneer with a fancy toga, loads of drachmas and probably a legion of young followers, in the same sentence with the haunted yet stoic Jew who made it through Nazi brutality and the utmost in human horror. The feeling is that, no matter the level of Carson’s awe-inducing scholarship and wordsmanship, the pairing is much too random, resulting in a gratuitous if not perfectly-crafted act of academic prowess.
If we are able to put aside our puzzlement at the idea of yoking an ancient poet from several thousand years ago with one who experienced an era of machination, savagery and inhumanity, we might see some intriguing if overlooked similarities. Again, both poets’ idea of nothingness and emptiness–Celan’s “speaking that includes fullness and void, No and Yes, clockface and shadow”, and his coinage of noem, as well as Simonides’s plentiful play with “no” / “nothing” / “not even” / “never”–harkens to a Zen aesthetic. These poets see themselves and the language they use as insufficient–perhaps materially inexistent–transient and aethereal vessels. As Carson writes, it is interesting to note Celan’s use of the asterisk as a “mark on the page that pulls its own sound in after itself and disappears” (119). In Celan’s and, conversely, Simonides’s world, even symbols morph from being mere components of an Alphabet (i.e., language, commodified) to being “coordinates” for navigation through the great Nothing (i.e., a world without falsely created economies, markets and values). Perhaps, in the end, Carson is suggesting that each poet is an example of an artist existing outside of time; that though they knew each other not, they are inexorably linked by “the instinct that makes a poet a poet” (94).
Rigorous, strange and wholly unique, Economy of the Unlost–as well as its reader–benefits and suffers from its ambition. It is just too much to have to ask oneself to take seriously the similarities between an apple and an orange. Apart from the seeds, there’s not much else that warrants comparison–and so it goes with Simonides and Celan when it all boils down.[/private]