Decreation by Anne Carson

It’s a long time since I’ve gone out of my way to read a book of poetry (which this isn’t quite exactly, but poetry enough); Anne Carson has kind of jumped into my head, one of those mental worms that wriggles around and wriggles around until you can’t ignore it anymore. Fortunately one of the libraries I raid had two books by Carson: The Beauty of the Husband, which is pure poetry and very very good, and Decreation which is a blend of poetry, essays, opera and screenplay and other forms I can’t even name. The Beauty of the Husband is very good, but Decreation, perhaps because of its blend of different forms, is something else entirely.

The theme ‘decreation’ stems from an idea of Simone Weil’s, a way of “undo[ing] the creature in us” as a method for removing the self so that the Being can properly encounter God’s light. As Carson explains:

“Decreation us an undoing of the creature in us – the creature enclosed in self and defined by self. But to undo self one must move through self, to the very inside of its definition.”

The idea of decreation is nebulous, intentionally so as Weil offers neither a single definition nor a clear view of how to achieve it or how to recognise it when you do, though I suspect it is something we all recognise in some way. I have experienced what I would recognise as ‘decreation’ through reading certain books, for example. A moment when my self seemed to dissipate and I was open, blank and receiving. I would not, personally, interpret this as being ‘exposed to God’s light’ as Weil does, but I think I understand what she means. But it is nebulous, and such nebulous terms are fertile territory for a wild poet’s mind. Carson explores this idea ‘decreation’ in various different forms. Decreation through sleep. Decreation through art. Decreation through madness. Decreation through eclipse (the decreation of sun and moon). Decreation through love. Decreation through exposure to God. The exploration of sleep, the way Carson explores life from the ‘sleep side’ is absolutely fascinating. In it Carson uses Woolf and Homer to explore how we decreate via sleep, how sleep enables us to enter a different state of being in which the usual forms of logic, the usual methods of dealing with the world, no longer apply. None of this is particularly surprising, but the way Carson breaks it down is. For example, in exploring Socrates dreams in the days before his death, Carson reveals:

“As if he had slept in the temple of Asklepios, Socrates emerges from his dream “seeing with both eyes.” And he does not hesitate to trust what the woman in white has let him see, though Krito dismisses it. The woman in white will turn out to be correct. Socrates is inclined to trust, and to be correct about trusting, different sources of knowledge than other philosophers do – like his crazy daimon, or the oracle of Apollo, not to say the good sentences of sleep. Socrates also puts a fair amount of faith in his own poetic imagination – his power to turn nothing into something.”

Here she shows how trusting in ‘sleep side’ or alternative sources of ‘knowledge’ is a strength in those willing to trust it, that accepting one version of reality alone is to accept a limited source of knowledge and, thus, miss the fullness of knowledge that’s available to you. Socrates may die that day or in two days time, this is irrelevant. How he approaches his death is his power, and the point, really, of Plato telling us about him at all.

Each of Carson’s explorations takes a different form, though the essays were most interesting to me and a long form poem on a work of art called Seated Figure With Red Angle by Betty Goodwin which includes such arresting lines as:

“If body is always deep but deepest at its surface.

If conditionals are of two kinds factual and contrafactual.

If you’re pushing, pushing and then it begins to pull you.

If police in that city burnt off people’s hands with a blowtorch.

If quite darkly coloured or reddish (bodies) swim there.

If afterwards she would sit the way a very old person sits, with no pants on, confused.

If you reach in, if you burrow, if you risk wiping in.

If a point that has been fed over years becomes a little bit alive.

If the seated figure started out with an idea of interrogation.

If there was a quality of very strong electric light.

If you had the idea of interrogation.

If interrogation is a desire to get information which is not given or not given freely.”

And so it goes on, exploring, burrowing, digging into the mind. There’s an abstract and a concrete element to Carson’s poetry, some of it is hard to follow but it is always rhythmic and the depth and inventiveness of it is extraordinary.

One of the things I noticed as I read was how many of Carson’s influences, the other writers she explores, were female. She cites Woolf (extensively, making me need to read The Haunted House), Dillard, Weil, Sappho and a 12th Century French mystic named Marguerite Porete who, on account of her ‘heretical’ writings, was burned at the stake. But she also references Homer, Plato (exploring Socrates), the movie director Antonioni, Keats (who appears to be a regular influence, his hand hovering over all of The Beauty of the Husband), Beckett. Her gaze is wide ranging and interrogative, and her expression controlled and yet daring. I think this is the most glaring thing about Carson’s work, its sheer daring. She observes, in the fourth part of a three part essay, that the women – Sappho, Porete and Weil – all of who sought to decreate to bring themselves closer to ‘God’ had an extraordinary sense of daring, that they had “the nerve to enter a zone of absolute spiritual daring”. Yet I would argue that Carson, too, has entered a zone of intellectual and linguistic daring into which few can follow. Hopefully, unlike her counterparts, she is not burned as a ‘fake woman’ but even if she was I do not think she would care at all. Carson is on a different plane to the rest of us, her mind dances and connects and forms beautiful works of art with words in whatever form seems most appropriate: essay, poem, opera, rhapsody. It is bewildering and exciting, incomprehensible at times but aspirationally I think repeat readings would reveal more and more if its beauty and meaning. A book to return to, which is pretty much the qualifier for me of whether poetry is good or not. Carson is good. Read her.


About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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7 Responses to Decreation by Anne Carson

  1. It’s been a long time since I’ve read any Anne Carson, but you’ve made me want to revisit! Lovely piece.

  2. JacquiWine says:

    Lovely review, Belinda. I keep hearing great things about Carson – this sounds like a very thought-provoking read.

    • bookbii says:

      It really is Jacqui, and it’s innovative in the way she approaches both the theme and the form for exploring the theme. I’d definitely recommend her. It’s also given me a long list of other things I need to read: Sappho, Woolf’s Haunted House, the Iliad, possibly the Odyssey again. Not brilliant in my current restrictive approach to reading but I may manage to slip them in somehow.

  3. SimplyMe says:

    Decreation was, for me, an incredibly rich read; once again, thanks for the gift, Bi. Anne Carson’s bold leaps in thought were reminiscent of my first read of Dillard; there is something of a kindred spirit between these two, with Carson using literature as her leaping off platform while Dillard uses nature. Philosophically, the lack of resolution regarding “nothingness” and mysticism aligned in my mind with my first read of Samuel Beckett. Add Sappho and the Greeks, Simone Weil and company into the mix and the resultant creative tension reaches a symphonic level in this book. I ought to have been wearing an evening gown (if I had one) and pearls while engaging Carson’s work. It would have been an appropriate gesture of respect.
    “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form”. This is a classic statement from the Heart Sutra, a basic Buddhist text. It took me over a decade to even begin to set aside my Western mindset sufficiently to begin to grasp it. I remember my sense of wonder (it remains with me to this day) when I first encountered the fact of atoms composing all material (What? this table before me is both solid AND not?). Or, as Liz Gilbert of Eat, Love, Pray fame once wryly observed, “I think as humans we can handle some paradox”.
    Two final comments, the first being a brief aside: Simone Weil and Simone de Beauvoir studied philosophy at the same time, placing first and second in their graduating class (I think Weil placed first, but I don’t recall confidently). I’ve often wished I could have been there!
    And finally, I appreciated Carol Flinders’ ( a North American Hindu practitioner who has written a few books in various fields) observation that there is a danger for women in the emphasis on negation of self (paraphrased from At the Root of this Longing). Simply put, without a strong sense of self, female mysticism feeds patriarchy.

    • bookbii says:

      I love the idea of you reading Carson in an evening gown and pearls 🙂 it feels totally right too, I know precisely what you mean. I’m so glad you got so much from reading this. It is a beautiful, dense and stunning read and, as you say, mystical without being negating. I completely agree with you about the danger for women in the negation of self, sometimes it is such a powerful message that the self almost disappears and I wonder, in the case of Simone Weil, if that is how it was but I’m not familiar enough with her philosophy to make a judgement on that point. Thank you for reading and for your very considered views Jan. I have an itch to read more by Carson (Eros: the bittersweet and Men in the Off Hours both appeal greatly) but I’m having to refrain for the time being as my library don’t have any more of her books, sadly.

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