Check out Meghan O'Rourke's review of Anne Carson's new book, Nox, in which Carson mediates on mourning through a notebook she kept following the death of her estranged brother:
“Nox” is as much an artifact as a piece of writing. The contents arrive not between two covers but in a box about the size of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Inside is an accordion-style, full-color reproduction of the notebook, which incorporates pasted-in photographs, poems, collages, paintings, and a letter Michael once wrote home, along with fragments typed by Carson. The reproduction has been done painstakingly, and conjures up an almost tactile sense of the handmade original. A mourner is always searching for traces of the lost one, and traces of that scrapbook’s physicality—bits of handwriting, stamps, stains—add testimonial force: this person existed.
(click on the image to see more views of the book)
Carson's book, O'Rourke writes, is about mourning: Why do we do it? What good is it? Where does this impulse even come from? It seems that maybe "reading" Carson's "book" might be a great exercise for a civilization that currently seems so numbed by a seemingly never-ending cycle of war, natural disaster, eco-disaster and scandal that we just don't know how to respond. Should we mourn? Should we soldier on as though none of this is happening?
The mourning process for Carson comes not just through sifting through notes, photos of her brother and the rare letter from him, but through the translation of a Catallus elegy (Carson is a classicist as well as a poet). For Carson translation is, as O'Rourke puts it, about "retrieval" and "renaming."
Carson's "book" has come at the exact right moment for me because I've been thinking about how I could include the memo/story my grandfather wrote (see my previous two posts) into the book I'm writing. I take lots of notes when I read, and I don't throw anything away, so I have dozens of yellow legal pads and composition notebooks that are jammed full of ticket stubs, bar napkins, and scraps of paper with notes on them. I've been thinking about how all of these things might be arranged/presented to a reader--not all of them, of course, just the stuff that is pertinent to my project, like the lengthy handwritten transcript I took of a Jean Luc Godard film in grad school, and which is the basis for another chapter I'm working on. (I'll scan the transcript and put it up here for you to see--it's very Unabomber looking and gives great insight into my mental state in my last year of grad school.
As a college English major in the mid-nineties it was cool to go around quoting Eliot "we gather these fragments against our ruin"--at least I thought it was cool. Eliot's Modernist lament for tradition lost struck me as noble and profound. Nowadays, there's nothing noble about gathering fragments, it's just what you do all day long. There's no "ruin" that we're looking to stave off because as a culture (civilization?) we have come to accept that there is no capital "T" truth, or capital "T" tradition, it was always already just a bunch of fragments that had been smashed together and made to agree by dint of some patriarchal will to impose order.
I'm on a BIG tangent here--"skylarking," my 6th grade teacher Mr. Garner would say--but I think there's a way that a project like Carson's doesn't lead to some post-modern despair for how truly impossible it is to truly know anyone or anything. (Do people even despair anymore? Despair seems to be as passe these days as Tradition and Truth.) Instead, I think seeing book as artifact, or artifacts as book, returns us to an ancient frame of mind, a mind that might help us to see that the world and our experience in it has not really changed that much. Technology has certainly altered the ways in which we are able to search/ seek out truth, tradition, connection, happiness, etc., etc., but technology and scientific discovery have not so radically changed the human condition that we no longer yearn for these things at all.
Perhaps Carson's "book" is a necessary return to basics. After all, what is writing if not translation--finding the words that correspond, that vocalize the tangle of thought and feeling deep within us. Gathering the fragments of the world before us and trying to retrieve some meaning from them is an ancient and important practice, truth notwithstanding, because it creates in us a space for reflection--a place that is not reachable by search engine. This seems like very good thing because it asserts our independence from the machines and media that we seem so dependent on to help articulate what we're feeling.