Photography is a way of playing with perceptual relationships.
But you don’t need a camera to tell you that.
The girl at the Phoebe Bridgers concert keeping herself cool with a copy of Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red has remained in my mind as a pertinent ghost image.
Still struggling to sleep, perhaps as a side effect of medication, perhaps a side effect of still having a broken brain, when I do try to rest, it is Carson I have turned to ever since, drifting to recordings of lectures, readings and conversations on YouTube. There are not as many as I would like.
Thankfully, in my daze, I remember little of what is said, allowing me to relisten to the same readings again and again. Carson’s own fragmentary style, her renowned “short talks”, are themselves like images that drift and float through semi-consciousness, latching themselves onto the life I am rebuilding.
Other boys stood beside him
on the wall. The petals of their colognes rose around them in a light terror.
Meanwhile music pounded
across hearts opening every valve to the desperate drama of being
a self in a song.
There’s something about the ghost image from the concert that is resonating with the book itself. (Here I am thinking of Guibert’s “ghost images”: the treasured and quasi-photographic memories of photographs missed, not taken.) It is what Carson might call a “memory burn.“
The book is a (post)modern retelling of the story of Geryon, a three-bodied monster with a human face from Greek mythology. Carson draws on a poem by Stesichoros, titled “Geryoneis”, which is only available to us in fragments, and which tells the story of Geryon’s defeat at the hands of Herakles from Geryon’s own perspective.
In the book’s short opening essay she asks, “What difference did Sterichorus make?” Like so many writers of his time, particularly the pre-Socratic philosophers, these fragments are effusive and alluring, but most of what is pieced together of their true content seems to be second-hand.
Carson notes how Sterichoros was celebrated by critics, and it is intriguing that these critics themselves pay such close attention to his use of adjectives. Take Carson, for instance, quoting (and I assume also translating) Hermogenes: “What a sweet genius in the use of adjectives!” It is a strangely useful piece of praise, since often all we have in these fragments are single words, often only adjectives themselves, devoid of context, but still singular words that have been chosen.
For Carson herself, it is the persistent use of the word “red”, used to describe almost everything, from Geryon himself — “everything about him was red” — to “the red landscape”, “the red wind”, his “red dog”, “the red dawn jelly of Geryon’s Dream” on “another red day”. (How pleasurable and yet guiltily inapposite it feels to think of Taylor Swift at this moment…)
With this in mind, Carson emphasises the purpose of adjectives, asking explicitly:
What is an adjective? Nouns name the world. Verbs activate names. Adjectives come from somewhere else. The word adjective (epitheton in Greek) is itself an adjective meaning “placed on top,” “added,” “appended,” “imported,” “foreign.” 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.
What adjective might describe this ghost image I am so taken by, this image which is, in itself, a kind of particular appendage? It is the specificity of its disjunctive contents that enthralls; its resistance to the importing of meaning that makes it feel so important.
The proper nouns: Bridgers, Carson. The common nouns: venue, book, concert. The verbs: singing, wafting, reading. The adjectives? They feel elusive, lost to the haze of memory. They are unfixed, unlike everything else that makes up that moment, which is more easily verbed than adjectivized. But the moment was itself also red — the red heat; the unmistakable red dot I saw dancing on the book’s front cover; the memory of the red that likewise dominates Punisher‘s album cover, which I hold in my mind throughout; the actual red lights that sweep across audience and stage. Everything about it was red.
Though Stesichoros is praised by Longinus, Carson tells us, as the “Most Homeric of the lyric poets”, she nonetheless considers how this Homericism is hard for us to quantify. “Homer’s epithets are a fixed diction with which Homer fastens every substance in the world to its aptest attribute and holds them in place for epic consumptions”, she writes. Every adjective seems fixed, every substance predictably described. But what is established, in this sense, is a kind of worldly and wordy coding. Carson describes these epic poems as passionate, but asks “what kind of passion?” She quotes Baudrillard: “Consumption is not a passion for substances but a passion for the code”. A passion no less red, perhaps.
Stesichoros, however, meddles with the recipe. “For no reason anyone can name, Stesichoros began to undo the latches.” He “released being” from the Homeric tradition, unrooting the commonplace and re-activating the essence of poetry, in a way that Carson clearly finds resonant with the modern. I’m reminded of Jean Paulhan’s The Flowers of Tarbes, his anxiety and terror at the humiliating modern abandon of the commonplace, as if “we who do not have much are in danger, at any moment, of losing the little we have.” And yet, though Paulhan may turn to the ancient poets himself, who were unperturbed by a reliance on cliche, the commonplace, on tradition, it was already the pre-Socratics of Stesichoros’ time that developed a new passion not only for substance but its instability.
Blanchot, for instance, in writing of the literary “limit-experience” in The Infinite Conversation, turns first to Heraclitus and the problem of his modern translation. We use, perhaps all too readily, “the common nouns of the modern world” when attempting to make sense of his work, Blanchot argues. In doing so, “we already go against their meaning because modern nouns have not formed in the same way.” We are nonetheless struck by the same passion necessary to make this work relatable, and the very essence of Heraclitus’ work, which speaks so fluidly of change. The same river cannot be entered twice; the same poem can be translated in infinite ways into each new moment it is read within. As Blanchot notes in a footnote, commenting on the work of Clémence Ramnoux, her thesis on Heraclitus, like any other perhaps, is “a simple meditation, lively yet profound, and fascinating in that it responds to the force of fascination of texts that speak to us in words of evidency and obscurity of something essential.” Here again, we find that passion for the code, but also two codes, entangled with each other across time.
It is presumably for this reason that the translation of ancient texts enthralls Carson, who is a respected classicist with many translations to her name, as well as being that most contemporary of poets. This fascination with the ancient persists, as Blanchot says, because “we are obliged to translate (for it must be done); at least first in seeking the linguistic tradition and the kind of discourse in relation to which the invention of a new form comes to situate itself — a form that seems eternally new, and is yet necessarily in a relation of belonging and rupture with other ways of saying.”
The atemporality of the Phoebe Bridgers concert was most affecting in much the same way. Her world tour, coming to an end with two nights in Manchester and three in London, is framed as a “reunion tour”, a post-Covid coming-together to sing songs of solitude, which speak to another time and set of circumstances quite distinctly, soundtracking a very different world — a world of asociality and quarantine, drawn out and made new within the most collective of contexts, the concert hall.
There, I found her words taking on a new force, a new meaning. Punisher has become an album I am more appreciative of as a result, having much preferred her first album for a long time. Her lyrics hit differently now, having been allowed to do something else in this new context. Carson, echoing Gertrude Stein: “Words, if you let them, will do what they want to do and what they have to do.” Untethered, the words already known take on a new life of their own.
This is something already true of Bridgers’ lyricism, which is fragmentary, colliding images against one another. “Somewhere in Germany, but I can’t place it / Man, I hate this part of Texas” is one of the first and most obvious to come to mind. One of the more haunting is that from “Halloween” — the juxtaposition of love and violence in the short second verse:
Always surprised by what I do for love
Some things I never expect
They killed a fan down by the stadium
Was only visiting, they beat him to death
It is arguably this same juxtaposition that Carson plays with in Autobiography of Red, the murder of things loved, murder and love commingling. (And let us not overlook the juxtaposition of Bridgers and Carson themselves — pop meeting the post-modern; or two postmoderns, high and low, thrown together by heat and circumstance.) She translates a fragment from Stesichoros, when “Geyron’s death begins”:
Geryon walked the red length of his mind and answered No
It was murder And torn to see the cattle lay
All these darlings said Geryon And now me
Carson, too, spends time on the strange biographical detail often recalled about Stesichoros: that, in one of his poems, he insulted Helen of Troy, who blinded him, not returning his sight until he wrote a palinode. Stesichoros, it is presumed, had commented on Helen’s sexual misconduct, suggesting it caused the Fall of Troy. To pass comment on love and its complexities, especially disparagingly, is to welcome violence. Carson, beginning her telling of the tragic story of Geyron, calls it “a romance”. So many tragedies often are.
In Carson’s telling, the romance is also more literal: Herakles and Geryon are adolescent lovers, living in the American South. Adam Kitsch summarises the book usefully as follows: “In Steischoros, Herakles kills Geryon and steals his red cattle. In Carson, Herakles breaks Geryon’s heart and steals his innocence.”
Geryon is also a photographer. He is fascinated and disturbed, in particular, by a photograph shown to him by Herakles’ grandmother, capturing a volcanic eruption, taken in 1923. A fifteen-minute exposure, out in the desert. “Red Patience.” Herakles tells him there was only one survivor from the town nearby, a prisoner in the local jail. “What if you took a fifteen-minute exposure of a man in jail, let’s say the lava has just reached his window?” Prisoner punished. Volcanic punisher. I can’t keep Bridgers’ album cover out of my mind.
“Reality is a sound, you have to tune into it not just keep yelling.” I think of the moment the screaming stopped at the end of the Phoebe Bridgers concert, before we escaped the red and re-entered the black outside.
We walked around for an hour or so, in the rain, trying to find a bar where the music wasn’t too loud and the drunks weren’t too distracting. We found one eventually where the bartenders were charming and the music just right. It was worth the wander.
We went back to the hotel tired but I couldn’t sleep. I haven’t been able to sleep much since. Only write.
I attended an appointment with my GP a few days later, asking for help with anxiety and insomnia. Her notes were out of date. As far as she was aware, I’d taken an overdose the day before, instead of two weeks ago. I assumed my behaviour seemed drug-seeking, which I suppose it was, but to her it was in the worst way, rather than being fuelled by a desperate desire to get my life back to some sort of normality.
She tells me she’ll see me in a month and that I just need to grin and bear it. Those are not her exact words, although the sentiment jars with the abject experience of my depression. In fact, she says little which isn’t cold and clinical. The room itself is colourless. The colour of her voice is one of judgement and derision; the last time I saw her she seemed much more compassionate.
“In my notes it says you have been having a lot of casual sex. You could get tested for HIV and syphilis — any bloodborne viruses that can’t be detected with a urine sample.” It’s not a bad idea, but she isn’t listening to me. She sees me as the person in my notes; a person I do not recognise in myself. I wish I was still with the crisis team. They did not hesitate to prescribe something to help me sleep. Sleep is so important to your recovery, they would say. My GP leaves me in stasis, in purgatory, and signs me off work for three more months on the sick.
I plan a morning of phone calls with my flatmate, figuring out who best to talk to and what to say. I’m ranting and rambling in my frustration but she recognises the difference in me from a few weeks ago, when I was incapable of thinking practically about my own wellbeing, of expressing what exactly I needed to do. I have recovered the capacity to speak for myself, but I need to speak to people who will listen.
When Geryon is older, he travels to South America. He reads a self-help book in a bookshop in Buenos Aires:
“Depression is one of the unknown modes of being.
There are no words for a world without a self, seen with impersonal clarity.
All language can register is the slow return
to the oblivion we call health when imagination automatically recolors the landscape
and habit blurs perception and language
takes up its routine flourishes.”
At a bar in the Argentine capital, Geryon meets an academic philosopher who is in town to give a talk at a conference on ataraxia in ancient Skeptic thought — what the Greeks called the “absence of disturbance“.
“I want to study the erotics of doubt“, he says. “Why?” Geryon asks. “As a precondition… of the proper search for truth. Provided you can renounce… that rather fundamental human trait… the desire to know.” Geryon mutters to himself: “I think I can.“
He attends the conference and the soirée that follows. The philosophers all like jokes, like the he-demon Ted Hughes summons with his Ouija board, but the monstrous Geryon does not understand the punchlines.
Later reunited with Herakles and his new lover Ancash, the poem of Geryon ends at “Icchantikas”, a volcano in Peru. The word looks indigenous but is borrowed by Carson from Sanskrit. It is a Buddhist term for someone full of desire, someone possessed fully by their id, someone deluded, someone incapable of enlightenment. Geryon spreads his wings and soars above it.
“It is a photograph he never took, no one here took it.”