Economy of the Unlost

Economy of the Unlost: (Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan)

Anne Carson
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 160
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  • Book Info
    Economy of the Unlost
    Book Description:

    The ancient Greek lyric poet Simonides of Keos was the first poet in the Western tradition to take money for poetic composition. From this starting point, Anne Carson launches an exploration, poetic in its own right, of the idea of poetic economy. She offers a reading of certain of Simonides' texts and aligns these with writings of the modern Romanian poet Paul Celan, a Jew and survivor of the Holocaust, whose "economies" of language are notorious. Asking such questions as, What is lost when words are wasted? and Who profits when words are saved? Carson reveals the two poets' striking commonalities.

    In Carson's view Simonides and Celan share a similar mentality or disposition toward the world, language and the work of the poet.Economy of the Unlostbegins by showing how each of the two poets stands in a state of alienation between two worlds. In Simonides' case, the gift economy of fifth-century b.c. Greece was giving way to one based on money and commodities, while Celan's life spanned pre- and post-Holocaust worlds, and he himself, writing in German, became estranged from his native language. Carson goes on to consider various aspects of the two poets' techniques for coming to grips with the invisible through the visible world. A focus on the genre of the epitaph grants insights into the kinds of exchange the poets envision between the living and the dead. Assessing the impact on Simonidean composition of the material fact of inscription on stone, Carson suggests that a need for brevity influenced the exactitude and clarity of Simonides' style, and proposes a comparison with Celan's interest in the "negative design" of printmaking: both poets, though in different ways, employ a kind of negative image making, cutting away all that is superfluous. This book's juxtaposition of the two poets illuminates their differences--Simonides' fundamental faith in the power of the word, Celan's ultimate despair--as well as their similarities; it provides fertile ground for the virtuosic interplay of Carson's scholarship and her poetic sensibility.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2315-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Note on Method
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. PROLOGUE False Sail
    (pp. 3-9)

    Humans value economy. Why? Whether we are commending a mathematician for her proof or a draughtsman for his use of line or a poet for furnishing us with nuggets of beauty and truth, economy is a trope of intellectual, aesthetic and moral value. How do we come to take comfort in this notion? It is arguable that the trope does not predate the invention of coinage. And certainly in a civilization so unconditionally committed to greed as ours is, no one questions any more the wisdom of saving money. But money is just a mediator for our greed. What does...

  5. CHAPTER I Alienation
    (pp. 10-44)

    Simonides of Keos was the smartest person in the fifth century B.C., or so I have come to believe. History has it that he was also the stingiest. Fantastical in its anecdotes, undeniable in its implications, the stinginess of Simonides can tell us something about the moral life of a user of money and something about the poetic life of an economy of loss.

    No one who uses money is unchanged by that.

    No one who uses money can easily get a look at their own practice.Ask eye to see its own eyelashes,as the Chinese proverb says. Yet...

  6. CHAPTER II Visibles Invisibles
    (pp. 45-71)

    Money is something visible and invisible at the same time. A “real abstraction,” in Marx’s terms. You can hold a coin in your hand and yet not touch its value. That which makes this thing “money” is not what you see.¹ When the ancient Greeks talk of money, adjectives for “visible” and “invisible” occur inconsistently. Money can be found categorized as “invisible” when contrasted with real estate, for example; as “visible” when it means a bank deposit that is part of an inheritance.² Modern scholars have been unsuccessful in efforts to abstract a stable definition for these terms from ancient...

  7. CHAPTER III Epitaphs
    (pp. 73-99)

    No genre of verse is more profoundly concerned with seeing what is not there, and not seeing what is, than that of the epitaph. An epitaph is something placed upon a grave—a σ̃̃ωμα that becomes a σήμα, a body that is made into a sign. Already in Homer there is mention of a σήμα or tomb heaped up high over a dead warrior so that some passerby in later time will stop and remark on it.¹ The purpose of the monument is to insert a dead and vanished past into the living present. Not until the seventh century B....

  8. CHAPTER IV Negation
    (pp. 100-119)

    “Nothing” is a good place to begin thinking about the economics of negation. It needs close thought. “But for want of that for which I am richer” is how Shakespeare’s Cordelia puts it, after an argument with her father in which the two of them trade “nothing” back and forth five times like a bad coin.¹ “Nothing will come of nothing,” Lear advises her²—but in fact a great deal comes of it before the end, and then nothing comes too. The word lends itself to scary word play, to unanswerable puns, to the sort of reasoning that turns inside...

  9. EPILOGUE All Candled Thi ngs
    (pp. 120-134)

    As a child Paul Celan liked to draw burning candles. To capture with pen and ink the successive phases of flame and extinction preoccupied As him intensely.¹ “I did not loveit,I loved its burning down and you know I haven’t loved anything since,” says his protagonist Klein near the end ofConversation in the Mountains. To witness the mortal flame, burning and burning down, is a poet’s work. Celan refers to this work, in a poem written on his birthday in 1967, as:

    Lesestationen im Spätwort,


    am Himmel. . . .²

    [Reading stations in the late


  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 135-144)
  11. Index
    (pp. 145-147)