Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mutations of Autobiography

Throughout Anne Carson's moving novel in verse, Autobiography of Red, Geryon uses various means to pursue his lifelong (?) project of an autobiography. This is the passage in which it is first ecountered:
That was also the day
he began his autobiography. In this work Geryon set down all inside things
particularly his own heroism
and early death much to the despair of the community. He coolly omitted
all outside things. (28)

However, later on his mother mentions on the phone that, at this stage in Geryon's life, his autobiography is a sculpture:
Geryon? fine he's right here working on his autobiography
. . . .
No it's a sculpture he doesn't know how to write yet (35, emphasis in the original)

Apparently, it is a tomato to which a ten-dollar bill has been attached to represent hair (35). Considering Geryon's own colour, his sculpture can be read as a self-portrait. This is the first stage of his autobiographical endeavour.

The next stage is reached once Geryon knows how to write. It is described in chapter "VI. Ideas," the subheader of which reads "Eventually Geryon learned to write" (37):
His mother's friend Maria gave him a beautiful notebook from Japan
with a fluorescent cover.
On the cover Geryon wrote Autobiography. Inside he set down the facts.

Total Facts Known About Geryon.
Geryon was a monster everything about him was red. Geryon lived
on an island in the Atlantic called the Red Place. Geryon's mother
was a river that runs to the sea the Red Joy River Geryon's father
was gold. Some say Geryon had six hands six feet some say wings.
Geryon was red so were his strange red cattle. Herakles came one
day killed Geryon got the cattle.

He followed Facts with Questions and Answers.

Questions Why did Herakles kill Geryon?
1. Just violent.
2. Had to it was one of His Labors (10th).
3. Got the idea that Geryon was Death otherwise he could live forever.

Geryon had a little red dog Herakles killed that too. (37, emphasis in the original; words that were set in capitals are now bold.)

Though it is not quite clear whether his teacher and his mother are talking about this text, it seems that Geryon's writing is not characterized by happy endings (38). This prompts Geryon to write a new ending:
New Ending.
All over the world the beautiful red breezes went on blowing hand
in hand.
(38, emphasis in the original)

Among the fragments of Stesichoros' writings, there is a highly similar piece entitled "XV. Total Things Known About Geryon," and the new ending corresponds to "XVI. Geryon's End" (14). This insinuates that somehow Geryon's "Autobiography" fell into the hands of Stesichoros (or it might have happened the other way around).

As the third and final stage is reached, we read about how Geryon plans his project and how long he has been (or: will have been?) pursuing it:
This was when Geryon liked to plan
his autobiography, in that blurred state
between awake and asleep when too many intake valves are open in the soul.
The autobiography,
which Geryon worked on from the age of five to the age of forty-four,
had recently taken the form of a photographic essay. (60)
From that point onwards, mainly individual photographs that are presumably integrated into Geryon's autobiography are described (see 62, 71 [inspired by "Red Patience," a photograph by Herakles' grandmother, 51-52], 72-73, 97, 115, 131, 136, 137, 138, 139-140, 141, 142-144). Additionally, there is one photograph, # 1748, "he never took, no one here took it" (145).

There is only one more explicit mention of Geryon's autobiography. Imagining the end of the world, Geryon muses with what seems like regret that "no one will see my autobiography" (70, emphasis in the original).

Based on the passages quoted here and the implications of Geryon's autobiographical venture, I now want to problematize the use of the term 'autobiography' and to spell out the consequences for our reading of Autobiography of Red. First, with regard to the title, considering the mutations of Geryon's actual (that is, intradiegetical) autobiography, his "photographical essay" cannot be identified with the novel we hold in our hands. This claim is further supported by how many other texts are attached to the main narrative. If we apply a strict understanding of 'autobiography,' it is a logical impossibility that the real, physical death of the autobiographer--who is at the same time, of course, the autobiographee--be part of any autobiography. Because of this, it comes as no surprise that the novel ends without Geryon dying.

When we consider that Geryon wrote of his death at Herakles' hands (and of later events, one might add) when he was about seven, it becomes crystal-clear that Herakles never actually kills Geryon in Carson's rewriting of their myth. Only a naïve reading of the novel would take the Stesichoros fragments and Geryon's own writing to imply that he was eventually killed by Herakles, even though this would add a considerable sense of closure to Autobiography of Red. But for all we know, Geryon might have become even older than forty-four, at which age he then would abolish his autobiography for reasons unknown. The question that remains is how the 'Herakles kills Geryon' story relates to the one that is told throughout the novel, featuring prominently Geryon's tragic love for Herakles.
  • Carson, Anne. Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse. New York: Vintage, 1998.

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