In Ruth Padel’s review of Anne Carson’s “Autobiography of Red,” Padel writes that “Carson is interested in Geryon’s survival through art” (“Seeing Red”). Survival through art is a constant theme throughout this novel, which follows its protagonist Geryon as he processes his life by constructing an unusual autobiography. Though Geryon’s autobiography is textually relayed through Carson’s poetry, within the story Geryon primarily uses photography and other visual mediums as forms of expression.
Geryon begins to create his autobiography after being sexually abused by his brother, which occurs before he has learned to write. He turns to this autobiography as a means of processing trauma and relaying his story: “Inside is mine, he thought… In this work Geryon set down all inside things” (Carson 29). As the novel progresses, we see photography become a lifelong way for Geryon to capture memories and moments in time. He begins to see the world through his photographic lens even when his camera is not present; in one instance he “[memorizes] / the zebra so he could make / a photograph later. ‘Time Lapse’” (Carson 115). The use of the words “memorization” and “make” are unusual in the context of photography, since a photo is something that is taken, without need of being committed to memory beforehand (Carson 115). This unusual phrasing seems to suggest that Geryon views photography not just as literal snapshots of time, but also as a figurative method of creating and considering memories. He continues to take imaginary photos (as well as real photos) throughout the story, even attributing names to moments in time as if they are photographs. Through moments such as these, it becomes apparent that Geryon’s life and the medium he uses to process it have become almost interchangeable.
This intersection of art and life comes to a head towards the end of the story. Chapter titles begin to be named after photos Geryon has taken, with each corresponding chapter detailing a specific moment in time that Geryon has captured through photography. These chapters reveal how inseparable Geryon’s life is from his art. While Geryon’s photography can be viewed as a form of memory, expression, and survival, he also casts it in a negative light by thinking “I am disappearing… / but the photographs were worth it” (Carson 135). Is he disappearing into the photographs, as his life becomes interchangeable with the autobiography he is crafting? Or is he losing himself to them for some other reason? While there doesn’t appear to be a clear answer, this complicates the already charged relationship between art, life, and survival that is presented in this novel.