“what’s the point of literature?”

So I had my first-year writing literature classes read excerpts from Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. And my students had a difficult time understanding the content as well as its arrangement. The most common initial responses to the reading were “What’s the point?” or “Why did she even write this?” I tackled this in class, but since it came up towards the end, I tried to wrap up the discussion online in the following post. This was drafted in 30 minutes on the NJ Transit train, so it’s less polished than I would have liked, though it did end up modeling the kind of writing I encourage in their Zero Drafts.

Autobiography of Red: Why we read it & why Carson might have written it.

As I said in class, the reason people cite concerning literature they don’t like or find confusing seems most often to be a version of “I don’t get it.” This can be because of a stylistic element in the piece that’s throwing you—dense language that’s difficult to understand, or a subject that’s particularly obscure. You may be having difficulty understanding why the author placed words, sections, and so on in a certain sequence, or you might recognize that a certain symbol (say, the color red) carries a lot of weight but can’t quite pinpoint its exact significance. This time the question seemed to be “Why?”—as in, “Why did Carson write this?” In other words, what’s the point?

Let’s consider the character in mythology. As we discussed in class, Geryon was a monster who guarded a herd of red cattle, and thus played an important role in the labors of Hercules (or Herakles). To accomplish this labor, Herakles had to kill Geryon and bring the cattle back. Long before Carson, Stesichorus (640-555 BC) imagined Geryon’s life, his humanity, and the fact that he may have been a victim, as seen in the first part of the excerpt we read.

Then in Autobiography of Red, Carson re-imagines the character, elaborating on Stesichorus’s work and giving Geryon not only experiences that are all the more human for their mundaneness, but also a profound interior life. Carson’s Geryon is introspective, richly creative; he loves language and obsesses over even the most basic words, such as each, using them to explain the circumstances of his life to himself; he sculpts, writes, and photographs the world around him in an attempt to understand…what? His difference? His creative impulse? His sexuality? His love for a man who he knows is destined to “kill” him? Perhaps the questions raised by Carson’s character are meant to speak to a larger universal dilemma, about figuring out our place in the world. Or perhaps they speak to the idea of the tortured artist, who is “different” precisely because of his/her artistic impulse and rich interior life. Or perhaps it’s about sexuality and the numerous things it brings to light.

But at its heart, Autobiography of Red is certainly a narrative of self-destruction and eventual healing. Where Stesichorus’s Herakles destroys Geryon physically, with an arrow through his neck, Carson’s Herakles destroys Geryon by breaking his heart. There’s a parallel being drawn between love and destruction, as well as love and freedom, as we see Geryon compelled towards the things that will hurt him or keep him in captivity—his brother’s abuse of him, Herakles, his idea of himself as a “loveslave.” Herakles is portrayed as straightforward, hardly a deep thinker, and so he doesn’t “get” Geryon in the ways Geryon needs and wants to be understood, perhaps reinforcing Geryon’s desire to hide his creative impulse, or make it voiceless, as we see him giving up speech at the moment he takes up photography—an exchange of sight for sound, if you will.

This character in particular is ripe for this kind of reimagining precisely because there is so little known about him, and his situation—inherently gray area, neither monster nor victim or both at the same time—presents possibilities we find compelling. We can project themes onto this story: of victimhood, betrayal, what it means to be human (or monster), what it means to be different through appearance and/or through, and so on.

In other words, because Stesichorus’s Geryon exists between categories (monster/human, monster/victim, a creature of deep thought/a creature capable of action and battle), he offers us a means for understanding other universal emotions and circumstances we face. This is what Carson draws upon most in her reimagining of the character. She shifts the focus from destruction at the hands of another to self-destruction. She brings in identity crisis, the notion of tortured creativity, the idea of physical (and mental) difference both within and without our families, how we attempt to compensate for our difference, issues of love and sexuality, and art as a means of coping with these issues, to name just a few of the ideas at work in this narrative. He exists as a kind of Everyman extrapolated from Greek myth, a representative of people in a particular circumstance, to raise a certain set of issues and get us to think about them.

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