Writing, Identity, & Queer Studies

In & Out, Either/Or, and Everything In Between

Tag: Autobiography of Red

Red Not Yellow

Synesthesia in Autobiography of Red

Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson, is an incredibly creative and original book of poems. The combination of a modern setting with Greek myth tells a highly unique story, but Carson’s inventiveness goes beyond the general plot and even into the specific lines and words she uses to paint a picture. Throughout the novel, Carson uses color to describe at least one thing in almost every poem. Certain colors come up more than others, including gold, and, of course, red. Carson does not simply describe objects with colors, but emotions, moods, tastes, smells, and feelings. For example, in the first poem, “Justice”, Carson writes, “the intolerable red assault of grass… was pulling him towards it”. This unusual use of color can be seen throughout the book as an example of synesthesia. Synesthesia is a rare disorder in which people associate stimulation of one sense with another (for example, smelling colors). Carson’s decision to use synesthesia could be a way of implying Geryon’s inability to fit into the world in the way others do. He understands things differently, but beautifully. Geryon, a little red monster, is special and unique for many reasons, one of which being his color.  Red is an incredibly stimulating color, and even those of us without synesthesia may associate redness with a lot of different meanings including love, anger, and lust. However, most of all, red in this book is a symbol of glaring difference in a black and white world. The inventiveness of this book, including the overall plot as well as the use of synesthesia, is symbolic of Geryon’s own uniqueness and difference.

Carson, Stesichoros, and Tradition

“He came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet,” (3) Anne Carson writes of Autobiography of Red’s supposed author, Stesichoros. In fact, what Carson’s book does innovatively is occupy that middle ground between tradition (Homer) and exploding tradition (Stein). Carson goes on to write of the Homeric epic, “being is stable and particularity is set fast in tradition.” Indeed, at least in Tender Buttons, tradition is what Stein sets out to wreck. Words are repeated until they have lost their meaning, the exact opposite of the stable being and set tradition established by Homer, whose “epithets are a fixed diction with which [he] fastens every substance in the world to its aptest attribute” (4). Carson describes this tradition as “the still surface” of a “code” (5), suggesting that Homeric tradition assigned words and objects specific connotative meanings (those same meanings that Stein set out to break in Tender Buttons).

Autobiography of Red differentiates itself from the styles of both of these poets, using synesthetic moments and anachronistic settings (combining the world of ancient Greek myth with modernity) to create a piece of writing that simultaneously draws from tradition and challenges tradition. Carson writes, “Stesichoros released being. All the substances in the world went floating up” (5), suggesting that, with the advent of “Stesichoros’s” style, suddenly words were free to take on new connotations. At the same time, Carson’s work does not obliterate tradition in the method of Stein. Instead, it draws from tradition in order to make something new, shifting what was already there.

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