The Terrible Slopes of Time

Once Geryon had gone

With his fourth-grade class to view a pair of beluga whales newly captured 

From the upper rapids of the Churchill River. 

Afterwards at night he would lie on his bed with his eyes open thinking of 

The whales afloat

In the moonless tank where their tails touched the wall – as alive as he was 

On their side 

Of the terrible slopes of time. What is time made of? Geryon said suddenly

Turning to the yellowbeard who

Looked at him surprised. Time isn’t made of anything. It is an abstraction. 

Just a meaning that 

We impose upon motion. But I see – he looked down at his watch – what you mean. 

Wouldn’t want to be late 

For my own lecture would I? Let’s go.

Autobiography of Red, 90  

The moment before this passage, Geryon sees a list of names belonging to “professors detained or disappeared” hanging on the wall, and tries not to focus on any one of them in particular. He wonders, “Suppose it was the name of someone alive. In a room or in pain or waiting to die” (90). This thought plunges him into the memory of his fourth-grade field trip, and Geryon sees a connection between missing people, “alive… in a room or in pain or waiting to die,” and the captured whales, who are also alive, in an enclosed tank, their freedom taken from them, waiting to die. I struggled to understand the lines “as alive as he was/on their side/of the terrible slopes of time,” but I think they show Geryon identifying with the whales and their lack of freedom, and places him at the same point as the whales in their respective timelines. I imagine “the terrible slopes of time” as a mountain, or a roller coaster – beginning at the bottom with birth, climbing to the peak, and falling downward towards death. If Geryon is as alive as the whales are, and he is on their side of the slopes of time, does that mean that both he and the whales are on the downward slope, heading toward death? Is that how Geryon imagines his life progressing, as a fourth-grader lying in bed late at night – a captive in a cage, already falling down the “terrible slopes of time”? I’m reminded of the moment earlier in the text when Geryon, his brother, and their babysitter are discussing weapons, and Geryon says his favorite weapon is a cage (33). At various moments throughout the text, Geryon seems preoccupied with cages and captivity, and here he connects that feeling of being caged with ideas about time. 

Geryon’s thoughts suddenly jolt him back to the present moment with a question: what is time made of? I think there is a connection here between time, cages, and queerness, and “the yellowbeard” helps to put it into words. “Time is an abstraction,” he says – time is just a concept, with no meaning beyond that which people impose upon it. This imposed meaning, however, is central to existence within a cis- and heteronormative society. The yellowbeard’s next comment shows that although he recognizes time as an abstraction, he is still bound by its practical purpose: “‘But I see – he looked down at his watch – what you mean./Wouldn’t want to be late/For my own lecture would I? Let’s go.” The yellowbeard, like the vast majority of people, experiences time as a practical measurement of motion, which he has to adhere to for his own sake and the sake of others. I think Geryon, on the other hand, experiences time in a less straightforward, more queer way. In “In a Queer Time and Place,” Halberstam argues that queer experiences of time oppose a ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ timeline of birth, marriage, reproduction, old age, and finally death – Geryon’s “terrible slopes of time.” To a fourth-grader witnessing “newly captured” whales and suddenly aware that they will likely spend the rest of their lives in captivity, this ‘normal’ timeline may feel like a cage. However, the moments of Geryon’s adult life that Carson presents align with Halberstam’s ideas about queer time: “queerness as an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices” (Halberstam 1). Autobiography of Red shows Geryon as an adult whose future timeline does not conform to “those paradigmatic markers of life experience – namely, birth, marriage, reproduction, and death” (Halberstam 2); rather than settle down, get married, have children, and eventually die, Geryon travels the world, asks strangers what time means to them, captures his life in photographs, and outlives the end of his biography.

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.