This new study by Anne Carson (hereafter C.) attempts to read Simonides and Celan reciprocally against each other by using a collection of diffuse concepts drawn largely from Marxist economics to explore where they converge or diverge in their treatment of the poet’s role, the function of language and the world. The very idea of comparing two different poets from radically different cultural backgrounds, one a holocaust-haunted Jew who has left us a large body of poetry in German and one an ancient, purportedly mercenary Cean who has left us through the vicissitudes of time a large handful of fragments in Greek, is the high point of originality in a very slim book. Brevity may normally be the soul of wit, but ominously slim books with grandiose titles like Economy of the Unlost (hereafter EU.) almost always suggest that academic subgenre, the “lyrical” meditation that rests on a few scholarly posts and often shows a distinct lack of interest in truth or lucidity. On the score of truth, I regret to say that the book displays a casual respect for care, accuracy, evidence and logical reasoning. On the score of lucidity, it was clearly hatched under the outspread wings of postmodernism. Although C. emphasizes Simonides’ precision of style, his
EU. falls into seven parts: (1) a brief Note on Method, (2) a Prologue, (3) four chapters entitled Alienation, Visibles Invisibles, Epitaphs and Negation and (4) an Epilogue. I will take them in that order, noting errors along the way. C. translates all the Latin, Greek and German except where noted.
The Note on Method begins with a quote from Hölderlin floating in splendid isolation at the top center of the page: “Nur hat ein jeder sein Mass.” The implication is that C. must go her own way according to her own individual standards. The book will unfold only in accordance with the slow uncoiling tension of the author’s wound-up spring. This will be the economy of its unlost mental energy in the jargon the author likes to affect. The following two pages present what amounts to an academic confession that is very important for understanding what she tries to do in the following chapters. She starts by contrasting the windowless room of aesthetic creation, where everything that is not apprehensible to immediate subjective experience must be removed, and the outer landscape of objective scholarship that deals in knowledge, facts and logic. She admits that her trainers opposed subjectivity strongly, but she has “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 there” (vii). Since writing in the abstract is supposed “to involve some dashing back and forth between that darkening landscape where facticity is strewn and a windowless room cleared of everything I do not know” (vii), she faces a dilemma with academic writing. If she clears the room of everything that she cannot relate directly to her own immediate experience, a large part of scholarship must be trashed. C. never explains how she clears her own room, since she declares the clearing a mystery, but suggests that only a certain amount of the material retrieved from the land of facticity will work its way into her writing. Thought, she says pretentiously, finds itself locked inside this creative pressure cooker, “fishing up facts of the landscape from notes or memory as well as it may — vibrating (as Mallarmé would say) with their disappearance. People have different views on how to represent vibration. ‘Names’ and ‘activity’ are euphemisms for the work. You may prefer different euphemisms; I guess the important thing is to copy down whatever vibration you see while your attention is strong” (vii-viii). If we unpack this statement, it tells us that (1) only some facts will be retained, (2) there will be little method behind their retention, (3) they will be employed capriciously as they excite attention and (4) “creative” exploitation will take precedence over careful reasoning from evidence. That is a good summary of what EU. gives us.
The Prologue notes that economic metaphors provide a trope of intellectual, aesthetic and moral value. The trope probably does not antedate the invention of coinage. From this position, she poses two questions: “What exactly is lost to us when words are wasted? And where is the human store to which such goods are gathered?” (3). These are leitmotifs throughout the book, but she never attempts to answer them directly. The obvious senses that (1) powerful, efficacious or incisive words are wasted when the recipient does not understand them and (2) weak, useless or inapposite words are wasted when lavished on important issues do not interest her. What does interest her is subjecting the two questions to a sort of metaphysical trial by poem where the normal meanings of words have no value. She begins by comparing Celan’s “Matière de Bretagne,” which combines a wide range of other poetic traditions focused on a single dramatic moment when the false sail appears to Tristan, with two citations from Simonides: (1) a passage from Plutarch’s Life of Theseus (17.4, fr. 550 PMG) in which Simonides says that the false sail which misled Theseus’ father was red and (2) a scholiast who reports the words of the messenger sent to inform Aegeus of the true story (fr. 551 PMG). Celan’s use of negatives and negative theology is well-known, but C. now argues that the negative in the first and the counterfactual in the second passage show that “Negation links the mentalities of Simonides and Celan” (9). They do no such thing. In the Life of Theseus, the statement that the sail was “not white” belongs to Plutarch’s prose, the statement that it was a kind of red belongs to Simonides’ poem.1 Whether Simonides used a negative here is unknown. The messenger’s speech, which says simply “I would have given you a benefit greater than life had I come sooner,” a structure which must fill many thousands of lines in Greek verse, is subjected to the following flight of fancy: “Why must the economy of the false sail be contrafactual [sic]? Because it is an impossible idea conditioned by the negative event that already exists. Two realities for the price of one. No profit in fact changes hands — but the idea of it, added to the account of contrafactuality [sic], multiplies pathos and learning [sic]. Aigeus’ salvation is both adduced and canceled in the messenger’s spare comment. You could have your sail and falsify it too, if words were true” (8). The idea, as she expresses it shortly afterwards, that “The redness of his red sail stains fact deeply with the fixative of counterfact” (8-9) is merely false cleverness. Such reasoning would require us to construe innumerable other cases of contrary-to-fact statements in the same way.
The Prologue is a prologue for much more and much worse distortion of the sort we see here. C. compares a complete poem with two disconnected fragments from Simonides, one three lines long (fr. 550 PMG) and one a single textually uncertain line (fr. 551 PMG). She manipulates punctuation to affect meaning. She squeezes metaphysical significance from a perfectly commonplace grammatical form. She translates
The four chapters that make up the body of EU. liberally indulge the biographical fallacy. C. accepts numerous testimonia about Simonides as if they are accurate indicators of his personal opinions about poetry, language, alienation, hospitality, god and morality to name just a few. She is also willing to accept virtually all the fragments attributed to Simonides — especially the epigrams and epitaphs — as genuine. While I’m sure she knows how unreliable the ancient testimonia can be and how much of Simonides is spurious, she elects to play a kind of Foucauldian game with her readers: the poet as author is everything that the tradition says he is. We can as it were roll all the disparate traditions, both the true and false, the probable and improbable, into one lump and apply it en masse to the ancient poet. This neatly eliminates the need to critically assess our evidence. She is, however, much more careful about hewing to biographical fact with Celan, who is too near us in time for the same treatment.
Chapter 1 details two types of alienation, that of Simonides and that of Celan. Simonides, whom C. places on the cusp between the old gift economy characterized by
In many ways chapter 2 (Visibles Invisibles) is the most befuddled in the book. C. argues that Simonides, as our first literary theoretician, held an aesthetics in which the
But if to you the terrible were terrible,
you would lend your small ear
to what I am saying.
Ah now, little one, I bid you sleep.
Let the sea sleep,
Let the immeasurable evil sleep.
And I pray some difference may come to light
father Zeus, from you!
The shift from second-person to third-person imperative in the verbs is supposed to indicate a shift from a literal to a figurative register of sleep that “conjures up the differentiating power of God” (58). The sleeping Perseus cannot hear his wakeful mother’s warning about the terrors that lie about them, so she must imagine a different kind of sleeping: ” ‘If to you the terrible were visible,’ says Simonides to his audience, ‘you would see God.’ But we do not see God and a different kind of visibility has to be created by the watchful poet” (58). God appears as it were because in l. 23 Danae prays that “some difference may come to light.” This is a grotesque mistranslation of
Chapter 3 (Epitaphs) is vitiated by C.’s willingness to pretend that all the epitaphs she discusses are genuine. She asserts for example that of the three stones erected at Thermopylae to honor the men who fell with Leonidas, all are probably genuine but fr. 6 FGE most certainly is (76). Page however disagrees: “It [=fr. 6 FGE] has the peculiar distinction of being the only extant epigram whose ascription to Simonides may be accepted with fair confidence” (196). Her uncritical acceptance of the blatantly spurious (probably late) fragment fr. 79 FGE with its commonplace that “We are all owed to death,” a sentence that is she assures us “an important one for Simonides himself and for the whole epitaphic tradition” (80), leads her into an embarrassing biographical blunder. She traces the idea that life is a loan back to a custom on Ceos that required every male citizen to drink hemlock when he reached 60 in order to conserve food supplies. That is supported only by a reference to Strabo 10.486 in 81n22. She imagines that Simonides got his actuarial obsession with a debt to death from all the years he lived outside Ceos counting his borrowed time. But there is no evidence to support the scenario. Tim Parkin, who has a book coming out next year on old age in Rome, has very kindly given me the relevant citations on the “custom.” He notes that Ceos had a long tradition of senicide, but whether the tradition rests on historical fact is impossible to tell. Senicide may, for example, have occurred during a siege and then developed into an anecdotal tradition over the centuries. Tim certainly does not believe the sources justify C.’s allegation that hemlock was drunk at 60 in Simonides’ time.
The silliest thing in the whole chapter, however, is her effort to read the six words of fr. 86 FGE, using the text of Edmond’s 1927 Loeb Lyra Graeca II.374 rather than Page, as they might appear in stoichedon with TOMB SPINTHER SET cut in red over a black THIS UPON SPINTHER DEAD. She explains in 82n25 that Page prints “a slightly duller text” than Edmonds, as if dullness were a touchstone of textual criticism, and prefers the latter’s text because it “seems closer in spirit to the otherwise rarely artless Simonides.” It seems to her as if the collocation of the two incised lines could “reinflect Spinther from dative dependence on death to double subjectivity in his own sentence — just for an instant Spinther’s Spinther imitates himself in a semantic friction that generates two lives from one death and two men from one name” (83).
For the rest of chapter 3, almost every Greek translation involves tendentious renderings, but the worst occurs in fr. 9 FGE where
Chapter 4 (Negation) returns again to Simonides’ negative theology (100-08). C. claims to find an abnormally high proportion of
The Epilogue, in a nice turn of economy, is the best part of the book. It explores the poet’s ability both to praise and to define reality with precision. Simonides’ frs. 542 (from Protagoras 339A-346D) and 541.1-9 PMG represent the power of words successfully to measure off the area of the given and the possible, while several works of Celan — most notably “Tübingen, Jänner,” Celan’s hymn to Hölderlin — represent his rejection of the notion that a modern poet can do what the ancient poet could do: differentiate accurately between good and bad, beautiful and ugly. The contrast of fr. 542 PMG with “Tübingen, Jänner” lets us view in close proximity an epinician poet who thought that his precision of language was juridical and a German-language poet who wrote a hymn to Hölderlin that ends in Salatwort, a kind of semantic silence. But even here there’s carelessness, which I’ve detailed in Appendix 3.
I have bothered to detail the flaws in this tiny book for three reasons. First, a major academic press has not seen fit properly to vet, edit, check and proofread the text. Second, the errors are of such extent and magnitude that they could seriously mislead someone not familiar with the scholarship, especially when Leslie Kurke assures us in the book jacket puff that it is a work of “meticulous scholarship.” Third, both the style and approach are an assault on reason, logic, language and humane studies by a writer who may have a “unique” form of scholarly discourse but is still held to the ordinary rules of evidence. Nor is this a case of playing my Orwell card against her Adorno card. There is no thought in this book to justify the prose, which no one could confuse with poetry. The expenditure of $29.95 on EU. is far worse than a zero sum game.
1. In 14n14, C. cites a fragment of Solon as fr. 13 West. It should be fr. 23, but she has used the older 1972 edition of M. L. West’s Iambi et Elegi Graeci Vol. II (Oxford, 1992) rather than the revised edition. The bibliography only lists the first edition, and incorrectly gives the date of both volumes as 1971. As a result, all references to West will mislead those who employ the revision. I see no reason to translate
2. In detailing the ancient belief that Simonides was avaricious and the first professional poet, C. translates a scholiast as follows: “Simonides was the first poet who introduced meticulous calculation into songmaking and composed poems for a price” (15). She cites the source in 15n18 as “Kallimachos fr. 222 Pfeiffer.” This is incorrect. The scholiast is on Aristophanes Peace 695ff. Immediately after the translated passage, he cites Pindar’s riddling words in Isthmians 2.1ff., but it is another scholiast on Isthmians 2.1ff. who reports that Simonides was the first to compose epinicians for a fee and then cites Callimachus fr. 222 as evidence. C. has also mistranslated the word
3. Between 15n18 and 15n19, C. quotes Aelian 9.1, Xenophanes and Peace 698-99 in several sentences on Simonides’ greed. Then in 15n19 she gives us a jumble of references to all the preceding quotations. It is normal practice for the material referenced in a footnote to bear on the sentence containing the footnote. Throughout EU. she tends to heap citations from several sentences into a subsequent footnote. This idiosyncratic practice makes it very difficult to coordinate citations with specific statements in the text, as 17n23 and 24 glaringly demonstrate. In the case of 15n19, she correctly attributes Xenophanes to the scholiast on Peace 697 (more properly 695ff.), but wrongly gives her very inaccurately translated quotation from Peace as 697 when it should be 698-99. Many footnotes contain a string of bare citations that possess only a hazy application to anything in the text.
4. In 16n23 C. cites Herodotus 3.131 for Democedes’ “annual” salary of a talent when it was his second year salary. She has also got the sequence of his financial progression wrong (16). Herodotus makes it clear he earned little or nothing in his first year on Aegina, one talent in his second year, 100 minae in his third year when hired by Athens and then two talents in the fourth year when hired by Polycrates.
5. C. is aware that it is hard to prove or disprove Simonides’ avarice (17), but having concluded that he suffered from economic alienation and “is like someone trying to live upright in an inverted world” (21), she forgets that and repeatedly attributes numerous opinions directly to him. The most egregious example is the subsection entitled “Grace and Hare” (19-22). She begins by citing the spurious Platonic dialogue Hippias Major 228c for evidence about how Simonides came to Athens, but the reference is to another spurious dialogue, Hipparchus 228bc (=Anacreon test. 6). It looks as though the reference to ” Hippias major” [sic] in 16n23 somehow migrated over to 19n31. Obviously, spurious dialogues cannot be used for Plato’s opinion. Next she quotes the story about the two boxes Simonides showed anyone asking him for a favor, one full of money and the other empty of favors. The citations in 19n32 take us through the scholiast to Theocritus 16 (it should be to Idyll 16.10ff.), Stobaeus 3.39 (it should be 3.10.38), Peace 697 (it should be the scholiast to Peace 695ff.) and several others. Stobaeus is clearer on the anecdote than the scholiast to Theocritus, which C. apparently used. Stobaeus says that when someone came to Simonides asking for an encomium or a favor but not offering any money, he then displayed the two boxes and explained their contents. Finally, with a little help from Marx C. performs an economic thought-experiment on the anecdote (20-21) that implies Simonides’ apparent greed was actually a political statement about the decline of
6. C. quotes the spurious epigram fr. 88 FGE on a snow-cellar in Thessaly as genuine and again distorts it with a direct personal application to the poet: Simonides is reminding his host “that certain rules of grace are in abeyance at this dinner table” (23). In 22n40 she cites it as “Simonides fr. 88
7. The biographical fallacy rises to a crescendo in pp. 24-27, where C. deploys other anecdotes about Simonides’ avarice and entirely fictitious fragments, again presented as authentic, to plumb Simonides’ mind. We have such statements as the following: “Simonides experienced this loss of context from the inside. In his relations with the patrons who were also his hosts, he saw decorum break down” (24); “Once again Simonides is pointing to a tension between two economic systems” (25 on Athenaeus 14.656d); “We have seen in the poems and anecdotes above that Simonides likes to play upon his own alienation” (25-26); “We know Simonides entertained these questions [about the monetary value of poetry and its measurement] and that he dealt sharply with anyone who presumed to answer them for him” (26 on Rhetoric 1405b, where high pay induces him to write about mules); “Characteristically, Simonides makes a double statement about the economics of his situation” (27 on the spurious frs. 84 and 85 FGE).
8. In a subsection called “Memory” (38-44), C. attempts to read Simonides’ mnemonic system as “a paradigm of what the poet does in confrontation with void [sic]. He thinks it and he thanks it, we could say (borrowing a phrase from Paul Celan’s Bremen speech), for it is the beginning of an immeasurable moment of value” (40). She mines this bizarre notion from (1) Cicero’s account in the De oratore 2.86 about the collapse of Skopas’ roof after he had halved Simonides’ fee and (2) some passages in Theocritus Idyll 16.8 Skopas violated the contract of money for poetic memory, so the gods punished him; he didn’t realize the value of the words he was buying, but heaven did and sent the Dioscuri to rescue the poet. When Simonides recalled the seating order of the banquet, permitting proper burial, he exceeded the original contract with Skopas by an act of grace reminiscent of the old hospitality now dying from Greece (43). That gives rise to a capping bit of Schwärmerei: “His alienation flows open as experience and paradigm. His memory construct … is not artificial: Simonides had sat in the room that becomes his theater of memory; he ate dinner amidst the data. This poet is someone caught between two worlds, remembering both. His flame in every grain. For him, memory is both commodity and gift, both wage and grace” (43). The illogicality of such reasoning is not helped by more citation errors: 40n76 on the Dioscuri cites ” Kypria fr. 6 Allen,” but Allen is not in the bibliography; 42n79 on Simonides’ mnemonic system erroneously cites Callimachus Aitia 21, when it should be 64.1-14. More serious is her mistranslation of
1. In 45n2 the citation of “LSJ s.v.” lacks a referent. This must be the bibliographical economy of ellipsis.
2. C. implies (46) that Longinus congratulated Simonides for his pictorial power in general, but Longinus only praises him for a specific poem.9
3. In 46n8 C. cites Pausanias 10.25.1 for Simonides’ Polygnotan inscription, but it should be 10.27.4. Rather more serious is her claim that Plutarch, in the Life of Themistocles 1.4, calls Simonides an authority on paintings in the town hall of Phlya. C. wants to argue that Simonides enjoyed the society and patronage of artists. Plutarch however merely reports that Themistocles, according to Simonides, paid for restoring and frescoing the Lycomid shrine in Phlya after the Persians burnt it.10
4. Gorgias fr. 11.51 footnoted in 49n19 has been incompletely and wildly mistranslated.
1. C. gets the Epilogue’s title of “All candled things” from “Die Ewigkeiten,” but only quotes the first five lines because (presumably) she wants to pull out “alles Gekerzte” without regard to its contextual meaning (121). Excerpting Celan is, as here, the surest way to distort his meaning.
2. In 124n8 fr. 542 PMG does not come from Protagoras 340A-348A but 339A-346A, a location that is clearly printed at PMG 282.
3. She states that Simonides’ fr. 542 PMG establishes the poet’s own epinician necessity “in sixteen negative and double negative formulations” (126). There are in fact a total of 14 negative particles. A slight difference, perhaps, but C. considers the number significant.
4. In her version of fr. 542 PMG, she mistranslates ”
5. C. bothers to note that fr. 541 PMG is an epinician fragment “attributed to Simonides” (127) when she has virtually ignored the issue of spurious poems from the start.
1. C. tries to avoid this unfortunate fact with a little slight of punctuation. In her translation of the Life of Theseus 17.4, she places her first pair of quotation marks before ” not white,” contrary to the texts of both Plutarch and fr. 550 PMG, to get the negative into Simonides.
2. Michael Hamburger, Poems of Celan (New York, 1988).
3. Hamburger 125.
4. See for comparison M. L. West’s version in Greek Lyric Poetry (Oxford, 1993) 163.
5. West 164 has “grant some sign of a change of thy will.”
6. See Hamburger 337.
7. Hamburger 78.
8. C. acknowledges in 39n73 how historically unsound it is to use Cicero and Theocritus as evidence, since they are hearkening centuries back to an icon of Simonides’ life derived entirely from literature and gossip. “But,” she concludes, “this icon is our subject.” Here in the decent obscurity of a footnote she admits for the first time what we’ve known all along: “Simonides” is anything and everything the tradition says he is. But she constantly forgets that fact and applies biographical interpretations to the historical poet.
9. See ‘Longinus’ On the Sublime, ed. D. A. Russell (Oxford, 1964) 125n15.7.
10. See Frank Frost, Plutarch’s Themistocles. A Historical Commentary (Princeton, 1980) 64.