History is the Night
Perhaps I could begin with a confession. I don’t want to read Anne Carson’s new book Nox, I want to be read by it. I don’t want to open its pages, learn the lines, wonder at the fragments. I want to become this book. I’d like to be set into its pages, like the occasional photographs and cancelled stamps and letters that are never a correspondence. Call me exhibit A or exhibit R. Call me the reader. Couldn’t you paste me in there somewhere? Give me a place, a page amongst the ruins, so that I can warm myself in the company of these mementos.
When I found it looking back at me in Book City, one of the thousands of book stores no longer storing anything at all, it seemed like a graveyard built for one person. Perhaps that’s overstating the case. Perhaps I should just say: coffin. A little crypt. At this moment of digital riptide, as the very idea of the book recedes into mega-corporate mergers and vanishing establishments and not-so-great expectations, Carson’s handheld coffin insists that there are some experiences that the computer universe can not quite replicate. The feel of it, the uneasy girth and heft of the thing, the way it touches you back, all that announces: this is a book you need to hold in your hands. It weighs on its reader. This crypt of a book object is a funeral parlour where we might grieve both a prodigal brother and the Gutenberg revolution.
I open this tomb of a book, and I find the other part, the accordioned guts, waiting inside. It’s the word they use in the book biz, don’t you know, the guts. There’s two parts to a book, and they’re always printed separately. There’s the cover, and there’s the guts. And the guts come out of these covers clean and sharp and strangely uncut. I won’t cut him. Is that what this book is saying? I can’t cut my brother’s body, or I can’t cut him any more than I already have. All that is left of him are fragments, the already fading memories of him. And I’m going to wind them together in a single sheet, a single uncut shroud. To suggest, perhaps, some of the mysterious continuities that these broken pieces might possess. What is it that joins me to you? Or perhaps I should ask instead: why is it that the dead speak to me so loudly, while the living are too often a distant murmur?
“I wrote the book because when my brother died I hadn’t seen him for twenty-two years, and he was a mystery to me, and he died suddenly in another country, and I had a need to gather up the shards of his story and make it into something containable. So it’s a lament in the sense of an attempt to contain a person after they’re no longer reachable.” Anne Carson: Evoking the Starry Lad by Parul Sehgal, The Irish Times, March 19, 2011
There are two absences the book hopes to make good, or at least point towards. The death of the brother first of all, but also the long years apart that preceded his death. Their mother — in order to manage his unthinkable withdrawal from family life, his years of silence — decided that he was already dead. In other words, Carson reminds us, someone can die many times, and what is the act of mourning itself, if not a renewable death in slow motion? When my friend Mark died I made a film about him, and owing to its modest circulation, news of his death carried round the world for a couple of years, and I would irregularly receive posts from Australia or the Czech Republic from friends and distant relatives who had just received word. For them, Mark’s death was new, it happened only yesterday or last week. It was hard to escape the feeling that his dying was being kept alive. That when people watched the movie, they would see him die, and that this experience could now be transported and repeated, like a portable funeral service. Was this the point of the movie, or the hope of this book? To grant a form to the fact of this singular death? Or is it instead to conjure moments of a life? Is it on the side of life or death (or is there no longer any way to choose between the two, are they part of the same thread, the same question)? As I pick up this weighty book I can’t help thinking: if he were still alive, this wouldn’t really be necessary, would it?
Near the book’s beginning Carson writes, “History comes from an ancient Greek verb meaning ‘to ask.’” This seems like a radical way to think of the past. Not as a fixed vantage which we can return to and explore, but as something that is always a question, in question, something that will always exceed our abilities to return, to understand, to translate. There is always more where that came from. And if the past is a question, then surely anyone who is interested in history is also busy unsettling the tried and triuisms of the present. If the foundations are question marks, then what about the homes we build on those forever shifting grounds?
The historian asks not only so that they can carry away some prize of an answer, some final resolution, a story that will stitch together all the facts. What becomes clear, in Carson’s home-made scrapbook, is that it’s important that certain questions can be introduced and held, sustained, like a long note in music. Perhaps because an answer tidies up the question, with an answer the mind closes and becomes narrow with certainty. The case is closed, the mystery is solved. An answer is part of the act of forgetting, or moving on, while a question keeps something alive, even if we can’t quite name what that something is. Perhaps it changes over time. Twenty-two years is a long time not to see your brother.
Here is Adam Phillips on the question of answers, in a pair of books written five years apart. He sounds, at least in these extracts, something like a historian. Or at least a historian that Anne Carson might have lunch with. “Answers merely interrupt questions,” he writes in Terrors and Experts (1995). And then five years later, in a collection of his short essays called Promises Promises he quips, “The question gets obscured by its answers.” Later on, he quotes Gertrude Stein approvingly. “Suppose no one asked a question. What would the answer be.” (Promises Promises by Adam Phillips (2000) It can be difficult for the historian who is diligent in their digging, in their unearthing, in their restless searching, to hold open the place of the question. The dominant habit pattern, the reassuring and relieving impulse, is to find closure, to tell the story until it reaches its conclusion, its finale, its resolution. But our answers make something smaller, while our questions are opening to the endless horizon of whatever we may be asking about.
Why did he leave me? Why did my friend take his own life? When I was confronted with the friend of my death Mark, no wait, the death of my friend Mark, I was stunned. I remember meeting his mother at the evening ceremony, a heavily accented voice rang through the overcrowded living room, stuffed with those who had come to bear witness, and I heard the voice say, “I’m Mark’s mother.” The grain of it shattered, as if it wouldn’t last much longer. I found her and we walked outside, back to the parking lot where her partner and remaining son waited, and the nephew and niece. And as we walked she told me about Mark’s love of the Rolling Stones, and how he adored dancing but couldn’t really sing, and what his hair was like when he was a teenager. As we pulled away from the scrums she announced with a certainty I wondered if I’d ever feel again, that everyone gathered there knew why Mark had died. Everyone knows except for me, she said, and I hastened to assure her that this wasn’t true, that no one there knew at all, and that the question she was trying to hold – why did he die? – was equally weighing on everyone there. We saw each other with some frequency in the next year, though I felt always like the unwanted consolation, instead of their son Mark, this stranger arrives who knew him once, the reminder, the pointer, the one who has come to frame again the loss. All they can’t see is what they can’t see. And over the course of these visits their views hardened; their question, the unbearable question, proved too hard for them to hold, and so they answered it. As usual in these matters, the answer involved blame and finger pointing and namings. Someone has to hold the bad feelings, and so the answer involves a transference of these bad feelings to someone else.
I had never planned to make a movie about my fried Mark. It was never my hope or intention. I had been staying over at his place, at his widow’s request. Everything there felt charged with his presence, as if he had left his touch, his breath, on everything in the apartment. I asked if I might be able to make a few shots around the house. Here were dishes that hadn’t been washed since he’d eaten off them, a t-shirt he’d tossed to the floor. These objects felt talismanic and supercharged, the smell of him on an oversized Animal Liberation Front sweatshirt as I put it on was nearly overwhelming, as if I was wearing his skin. Or he was wearing mine. These video notings were not intended to be part of an inquiry or detective hunt, or even part of the public record, I was too shaken for that. I began to meet with a few of his close friends, and asked if they would talk to me on camera. And as one meeting led to another I realized, oh, it seems I’m part of a film. It seems there’s a film being made. Or at least that I’m following a path that I don’t seem to know very much about, though the next step seems clear. I could just see one step ahead of me in that darkness. We were all in the darkness then, or as Carson says, in the night. ““He lets in night at the eyes and the heart.” This is one of the ways she describes her brother, and then she names herself as part of this family of night, smuggling in a bit of self regard in her definition of the Greek word atque, which could mean simply “and,” but Carson adds to it this line “similiter atque ipse eram noctuabunda,” which she translates as “just like him I was a negotiator with night.” My brother and me. And me. And the night.
Is it too much to suggest that becoming the night, or recognizing those parts of us that belong with the night — the nox, as this book is called — means also becoming a question? Holding a question. Holding the potentially infinite darkness and unknowing that a question might contain? To ask, to plunge into this place of not knowing, doesn’t this mean, in Carson’s words, to become the night? To become a historian. This was my primary task in making the movie about my friend. The dominant habit pattern would be to construct a movie that would lay out his life as a series of recurring patterns set into motion by some childhood affliction, that would then be replayed on adult stages and lead, finally and inevitably, to his death. The struggle in making the movie was how to resist turning his life into his death. How to move away from the gravitational pull that insisted that everything in his life converged at that point, and that therefore it could be known, laid down on a long track and accounted for, part of an inexorable march towards his own hanging? How could I keep this openness to my friend, to hold a place for his mystery, even as he became a central topic of discussion, recollection, even obsession? How to allow his pieces, these moments of contact and memory, to remain pieces, and resist the theological impulse to wrap them all up into a single package?
In Japanese Zen culture they might use a different name for history and the historian. They might call it “beginner’s mind.” Here’s a riff from Shunryu Suzuki. “”In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” How to arrive at this moment as if another like it had never appeared before? In Zen’s typically paradoxical reasoning, it’s only with a lot of practice, that one arrive at this moment without a lot of assumptions. Suzuki cites the recitation of the Heart Sutra as an example. It is one of the shortest of the Buddhist sutras, and some feel it contains the entire dharma in its sixteen English sentences. Suzuki says that the first time you recite it, perhaps even the second or third time, you may speak it in a fresh way, as if you’d never heard the words before. But this is very difficult to do when you’ve recited it for the 101st time. And this is the point of practice, to keep this freshness, this openness.
“In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, ‘I have attained something.’ All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. Dogen-zenji, the founder of our school, always emphasized how important it is to resume our boundless original mind. Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice.
So the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner’s mind. There is no need to have a deep understanding of Zen. Even though you read much Zen literature, you must read each sentence with a fresh mind. You should not say, ‘I know what Zen is,’ or ‘I have attained enlightenment.’ This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very very careful about this point. If you start to practice zazen, you will begin to appreciate your beginner’s mind. It is the secret of Zen practice.” (Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki p. 22)
Does this seem like a strange way to undertake the practice of history? Can you imagine the deep dig, the unearthing of fragments, the setting into motion the act of the scroll, the scroll of his long nox, this long night, with its many Marks and markings, not in order to lay it out so that the answer can finally be told, so that the last word can be uttered, but instead to hold a space for the question, the mystery of my brother, my Michael, my lost family, my friend?
This is not the first book of Carson’s that makes mention of her brother. There is also Plainwater (New York: Random House, 2000), a tome that collects loss in a fantastical variety of forms. “It was late spring when he disappeared, for reasons having partly to do with the police, partly with my father—it doesn’t matter now.”
“Postcards came to us from farther and farther away, Vermont, Belgium, Crete, with long spaces of time in between them. No return address. . . . A card came from Goa, mentioning heat and dirt and the monsoon delayed. Then no more cards came.” (Plainwater p. 246)
Her brother is four years older but calls her “pinhead” or “professor.” He deals drugs, and in 1979 leaves Canada to escape arrest. He wanders through Europe and Asia, gets married twice, though it is another who his last wife claims is the love of his life. There are occasional postcards and letters, but never with a return address. In 2000 he reappears in Copenhagen and calls Carson in her office. He hopes that she’ll come to see him and his partner and their dog. They scheme it out together, and then a week before she’s going to get on the plane, she receives a second call from Copenhagen. He’s dead.
Years later she began work on a deeply personal scrapbook of translation and grieving. Part collage, it included lettered shards, postmarks, family snaps, maternal recollections, and a long form translation of a Greek poem written in the first century B.C.E. She doesn’t think of it as a book that others will read, it is a private project. I think this is crucial to her project. That she is able to do the deep work of grieving without having to contend with her status as a public writer, her reputation, her work’s reception. These matters too often require answers. Refusing, at least during the course of the work’s coming-into-being, any sense that it will be a public matter, is another way that Carson is able to hold (to sustain) the question of her brother.
In Germany she meets a publisher of art books who offers to make a copy of it for her, pictures, staples, and all, and she gives it to him. Her one and only copy. He makes off with the book and then vanishes. “He stopped answering e-mails,” Carson says. “I’d resigned myself that I’d created this thing, that ten or so people knew what it looked like, and that it was gone. And three years later it just reappeared in the mail from FedEx, with a note from his assistant saying, ‘We thought you might want this.’” (Anne Carson: Evoking the Starry Lad by Parul Sehgal, The Irish Times, March 19, 2011)
“Let me live, love and say it well in good sentences.” Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
If the historian’s task — if the task of the person who is trying to maintain beginner’s mind — is to ask a question, even to become a question, and not to lay down a certitude of facts, a storied and summarizing account, then what might history look like? What is left for the historian to do? For Carson, this raises the question of form. It’s not simply a matter of writing, but what shape will the writing take?
Anne Carson: “The ancients didn’t have a word for form, they had genres which arose out of vocations. If you were getting married you would hire a poet to make a wedding song. If someone died you hired someone to make a funeral lament. If you’re going to war you need a war song but there weren’t people sitting around thinking up forms like sonnets just to amuse themselves with language. But we have a completely different view of how poetic activity works and we don’t have those kinds of occasions anymore demanding certain kinds of language. So this all becomes an invention. Form now to me is a way of setting the thought free.” (Anne Carson on Poetic Forms, radio interview with Jim Fleming, June 14, 2012, To The Best Of Our Knowledge (nationally (US) syndicated radio program)
What form does Caron use to “set the thought free.” (Another way of asking this might be: how does she bend herself into a question mark, along with her brother?) Jacques Laçan adds, “The reason we go to poetry is not for wisdom, but for the dismantling of wisdom.” The dismantling of wisdom, the beginner’s mind, the question mark. In Nox, Carson returns to a ten line poem by Catullus who lived in the first century B.C.E. While he is in Italy, his brother dies in Troy, and he writes him a farewell memoriam. It is number 101 of his surviving 116 poems. Carson takes the poem apart word by word, she gives each one its own page, and offers long, beautifully digressive definitions. She labels all the parts, page after page, and then invites the reader to put the poem back together again. To gather the pieces. Perhaps this is what the work of mourning is after all, after one has come too late, arrived afterwards, to begin to gather up the pieces. She asks her reader to become a collaborator, to do some of this work with her. This is how she creates a form for the historian, for this very personal history making. This is how she hopes to hold open the question mark of her brother.
As usual, she takes her cue from the Greeks, she is a Classics scholar after all, and this time she turns to Herodotus, the father of history. Herodotus, she says, “trains you as you read.” In other words, as a historian, as someone who is engaged in the process, the verb, of asking, he teaches you how to ask. He engages you in the question that is history. What is history? Carson writes, “It is a process of asking, searching, collecting, doubting, striving, testing, blaming and above all standing amazed at the strange things humans do.” (Nox by Anne Carson, 1.3) The first element is asking. Then searching, collecting, and once the collecting has happened, there is doubting. Always this return to the asking, the questioning. What is beginner’s mind if not “standing amazed at the strange things humans do?”
On the left side of her book object there are translations of this old Greek poem about a dead brother. And on the right side of the page, singing from the other side of the spine, are recollections of her brother, fragments from a letter he wrote about the death of his beloved, family snaps (often with the photographer’s shadow thrown into the frame, a spot of night in the photo’s daytime), Carson’s storytellings and musings on history, muteness, night.
“I think that’s what poems are supposed to do, and I think it’s what the ancients mean by imitation. When they talk about poetry, they talk about mimesis as the action that the poem has, in reality, on the reader. Some people think that means the poet takes a snapshot of an event and on the page you have a perfect record. But I don’t think that’s right; I think a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page, and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action. And so his mind repeats that action and travels again through the action, but it is a movement of yourself through a thought, through an activity of thinking, so by the time you get to the end you’re different than you were at the beginning and you feel that difference.” (Anne Carson, The Art of Poetry No. 88, Paris Review interview by Will Aitken, Fall 2004)
I think what Carson is describing here, in a very touching and far ranging interview with writer pal Will Aitken, is that something happens to her “in real life,” and that when converting that into a poem, or a poem-book, she is paying attention to her process — How did it happen? How did it occur to her? — moment after moment, in a molecular way. And the task of her poem is to allow the reader to follow her process, to engage in her process, her molecular, moment after moment “groping,” so that “his mind repeats that action and travels again through the action.” And what is that action? In this instance, it is the action of grieving. And this grieving shuttles the reader between Catullus’s elegy for his brother, and Carson’s loss. This is so very different than a settling of accounts, a definitive story, a semblance (at least) of fullness.
I want to gather his pieces up in a single place, to shore up the work of mourning. On one side the pages will offer words and pictures. And on the other, the blank verso, there will be room for your words and reflections. Or is this emptied silence where I’ve kept the words I’ve been unable to say? Or should we read it as his silence, the long years apart, the letters never sent?
After my friend Mark died I woke up as if I was someone else, night after day. He had been the steadfastly reliable, emotional bottom of a video editor, and we had worked together on several feature length documentary essays and a thousand co-operative technical meltdowns and illnesses (mine,) and through it all he would always assure me, “No problem.” To each their own mantra. I wonder if he was able to say it to himself, or if some phrases are reserved exclusively for others. The last time I saw him he came to my apartment and loaded onto my computer editing software which meant that I would no longer need to hire him. He was always encouraging me to learn how to do it myself, assuring me that it would offer a rare pleasure and freedom. I hadn’t realized at the time that he was saying good-bye, and as I made the rounds of his closest and dearly beloveds, it seems there were scenes like this one replayed again and again in his last months. I wonder if he knew himself. You say good-bye to everyone you know, and then you say good-bye to yourself. I don’t know. That’s all I can say now, though the fantasy is that I arrive at his door on that night, at just the right hour, when he’s already got the leash in his hand and measured the distance he’ll hang from the steps. When he opens the door he would look up in surprise (What are you doing here?) and then I play my trump card. I ask him to help me, a request Mark always found impossible to refuse. He could help everyone but himself. We would walk together and then he could say in words what he meant to do in silence, in the night of himself, and being able to release it in words would render the action pointless and redundant. We would embrace and he would still be alive, and I wouldn’t feel bad about surviving him.
Carson describes the historian as someone who has survived. “One who asks about things… is an historian. But the asking is not idle. It is when you are asking about something that you realize you yourself have survived it, and so you must carry it, or fashion it into a thing that carries itself.” I guess that’s what I was doing while making a movie about my friend. Making my memories, and the memories of those who loved him, into a thing that could carry itself. It is a movie that refuses to answer the question that haunted his mother so deeply: why did he hang himself? Instead, it offers moments of sharing: a canoe trip, a tattoo, a punk ride, a life with cats. It may not be enough. It is certainly partial, there were so many I wanted to embrace without knowing how, so many tangents that couldn’t be fulfilled. But the remaining fragments hope to pose the question of him, to hold the question of him, his mark, the way he marked me, marked all of us.
“I remember that sentence driving at me in the dark like a glacier.” (Anne Carson, The Art of Poetry No. 88, Paris Review interview by Will Aitken, Fall 2004)