Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.02.39

Anne Carson, Economy of the Unlost: Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan. Martin Classical Lectures. First published in 1999. Paperback edition.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2002.  Pp. viii, 147.  ISBN 0-691-09175-7.  $14.95.  

Reviewed by Bruce Krajewski, Literature and Philosophy, Georgia Southern University (
Word count: 1565 words

In a prologue, four chapters, and an epilogue, Anne Carson entwines two poets who are usually not thought of in the same space or place. Celan (1920-1970) is not a figure that a majority of classicists would attend to, and likewise Celan scholars, for the most part, probably would not be familiar with Simonides (556-467 B.C.), "the smartest person in the fifth century B.C.," according to Carson (10). A case could be made that these two poets called out for attention, since their work has reappeared only recently on the scholarly radar in North America. For instance, we now have the "new" Simonides,1 and a host of English translations of Paul Celan's work, including a biography by John Felstiner.2 In her compellingly odd book, riddled with flaws and insights, Carson makes use of these two poets as occasions for thinking about a number of topics, including memory, negation, words, and poetry's connection to money and to space.

The pairing approach that Carson employs is forbidden to almost everyone except well-published scholars, poet/celebrities, and graduate students in Comparative Literature programs. On the one side, thinking means getting things right, being rigorous, knowing your philology, your history, your sources, your place. The classicist who knows her place does not venture far from the ancient world, or from languages that she commands. Comparative work over a great expanse of time will likely be viewed as hubris, or, at best a head-scratcher. On the other, almost anything can be a source for thinking, a film, a song, a headstone, the Golden Arches. No one on the latter side of the divide worries much about credentials, about incomparables, about the exactness of a translation. Call this a divide between some classicists and some English and/or Comparative Literature professors, or perhaps a version of the old conflict between philosophy and poetry. If you require evidence, look at two reviews of this book, one by Steven Willett, the other by Stanley Corngold.3 A reader is hard pressed to see that the two picked up the same book. Corngold concludes, "The Canadian poet, Anne Carson, is a continental treasure. I never wanted her book to end...." Willett is just as plain in another direction: "There is no thought in this book to justify the prose...," and I am impressed by his intensity for exposing the book's philological weaknesses.

Part of the reason for including Willett and Corngold is to show that the split in the two reviewers mirrors that of Carson herself, part classicist, part poet. The split is not symmetrical, any more than the subtitle of the book is. It is not Simonides and Celan, but Simonides with Celan. Simonides is the book's star, with Celan as the "something else" that we find in an opening justification for Carson's approach: "Sometimes you can see a celestial object better by looking at something else, with it, in the sky" (viii). Furthermore, Carson's ruminations and free associations about Simonides bear much more fruit than the explorations of the perplexities in Celan's work. The fumbling with Celan is exemplified in an unfortunate way when Carson tells the reader that Celan's most famous poem, "Death-fugue," "concerns the concentrationary universe..." (115). Who is far enough away from the German concentration camps to pass over that neologism without cringing? Carson knew the effect the word would likely have (134). Temporally, Simonides is a distant star, far enough away to speak about without the kind of worries that attach themselves to loose talk about Celan. "[S]tars, as you know, exist in their own time. Depending on your coordinates, you may be gazing at a star in the night sky whose actual fire ceased to exist millennia ago. Depending on your alphabet, you may be looking at a word in a poem that has already ended" (119). In her role as commentator on Simonides' work, Carson seems to view part of her task as unending those words that have ended, helping the reader to feel the fire that may have ceased to exist, a fire from a poet long dead. This would fit with one of Carson's definitions for a poet as "someone who saves and is saved by the dead" (74), and would work arguably as well as a definition for a classicist.

Another reason to include Corngold and Willett is to tie a few threads together. To appreciate where Carson slips on scholarly banana peels with respect to Simonides, read Willett, who is as focused as an executioner. Willett is wonderful in tightening the noose while Carson wants almost everything to be loose. He is not happy when "creative exploitations ... take precedence over careful reasoning from evidence." Willett would probably balk at Carson's "Essay on What I Think about Most," which includes the lines, "Lots of people including Aristotle think error / an interesting and valuable mental event."4 Willett finds Carson's errors objectionable. By contrast, Corngold shines in telling his readers about Carson's "magnificent and lovely essay." For him, reading Economy of the Unlost "is to begin walking a tightrope: you are as much interested in seeing how it will be done, as much concerned that it be done, since you are caught up on this rope-bridge with her...." Willett's rope and Corngold's are as different as the rope of Plautus's play and of Hitchcock's film.

Despite the obvious questions that her juxtaposition calls forth, Carson spills little ink in justifications, though she does devote a few lines to addressing the Willetts of the world. "I have struggled since the beginning to drive my thought out into the landscape of science and fact where other people converse logically and exchange judgments -- but I go blind out there" (vii). So, it becomes attention rather than accuracy that drives her. "Attention is a task we share, you and I. To keep attention strong means to keep it from settling. Partly for this reason I have chosen to talk about two men at once" (viii). Things that work in two directions simultaneously appeal to Carson, whether those things are poets or words. For instance, when she talks about Celan, she says, "[H]e lived in exile in Paris most of his life and wrote poetry in German, which was the language of his mother but also the language of those who murdered his mother" (28). "The language of the murderers" is a topos in Celan scholarship, and fits Willett's assessment that Carson's commentary on Celan sounds like "recycled Celan scholarship." With Simonides, Carson finds some push/pull words. "[X]enos can mean either guest or host, xenia either gifts given or gifts received" (18). This is a place in the discussion that Carson introduces Marcel Mauss on the gift, but leaves aside Derrida's Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, which is Derrida's reading, through Mauss, of the double-sided nature of gifts. It seems odd that Derrida does not figure in Carson's text at that point, given that Derrida is in her bibliography, and given her penchant for what Willett calls "derridean excesses."

The slippages in the section on xenia point up a larger absence in this book, that of a thoughtful, engaged discussion of economy, despite the references to Marx. The Marx she presents is a Marx without his politics. In gathering the resources for thinking about Simonides with Celan, Carson's articulates her commitments to poetry, to looking for absences, to attention, but she does not express larger ambitions for her project, certainly not ambitions on the scale of a Marx. In fact, she might side with Celan. "Celan is a man whose 'hopes are small.' His poems do not pretend to partake of happier process or positive change.... But that is not nothing" (99).

That negation, the "not nothing," is a leitmotif of Economy of the Unlost, which the "unlost" foregrounds. Her guide here is, surprisingly, Bergson rather than Hegel or Heidegger, even if a Heideggerian view of poetry permeates Carson's book. Rhetorically, it might have been wise to hide Heidegger, given the allergic reaction that move would have likely produced among some of the classicists in her audience. She values Bergson, "who characterized philosophic speculation as 'making use of the void to think the full'" (104). Carson puts her money on negation rather than affirmation, since it has greater cash value. "The interesting thing about a negative, then, is that it posits a fuller picture of reality than does a positive statement. So a person who speaks negatively can be said to command and display a more complete view of things than one who makes positive assertions" (102). While she counts the negative adverbs in Simonides' poems (page 100), she misses an opportunity to link more strongly this move in Celan, the poet who writes about "das Genicht," the noem, as opposed to the poem (das Gedicht). Celan figures poetry as a place that is not, but still a place to which one can go, in a similar way that Carson insists that "Simonides' poetic imagination conjures so vividly events that did not occur, people who are not present, possibilities that cannot be expected, that these come to rival the reality that is present and actual" (101). This way of talking divides people like Willett and Corngold and demonstrates the difficulty of being a scholar, like Carson, in between worlds, shuttling between a reality that is present and actual, and realities that are not present and actual -- what we call fiction.


1.   The New Simonides: Contexts of Praise and Desire, Ed. Deborah Boedeker and David Sider (Oxford UP, 2001). Part of the motivation for this book is the publication in 1992 of a fragment labeled POxy 3965, attributed to Simonides.
2.   See Felstiner. Paul Celan: Poems and Prose (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), and his Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (Yale University Press, 1995). A number of new English translations of Celan's poetry have become available, including Glottal Stop: 101 Poems, trans. Heather McHugh and Nikolai Popov. (Lebanon, NH: University of New England Press, 2000), and a revised edition of Michael Hamburger's translations of Celan's poems entitled Poems of Paul Celan (New York: Persea Books, 2002).
3.   Steven Willett's review appears in BMCR 00.02.28, Stanley Corngold's in Modernism/Modernity 7.2 (2000): 322-24. Compare as well Elizabeth Lowry's take on Carson in The London Review of Books (5 October 2000): 13-14.
4.   See Carson's Men in the Off Hours (New York: Vintage Books, 2000): 30.

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