There’s a moment in the opening pages of Autobiography of Red when Anne Carson pauses to consider the nature of adjectives:
What is an adjective? Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives come from somewhere else. The word adjective (epitheton in Greek) is itself an adjective meaning “placed on top,” “added,” “appended,” “imported,” “foreign.” Adjectives seem fairly innocent additions but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything int he world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being.
In the verse novel that makes up the bulk of this book, one adjective matters more than others: the red of the title, the color that identifies the particularity of the protagonist Geryon (“strange winged red monster”), one that is such a “latch of being” that it stops simply latching and becomes a being itself. An adjective becomes a noun–the subject of an autobiography–just like the word adjective, which is not usually considered one itself, in spite of the etymology Carson traces.
It’s perhaps surprising that their aren’t so many others. The text is relatively poor in adjectives. The ones that stand out also stand together, as in the above description of Geryon or in phrases like “long silk ears,” “bare sandrock mountains,” “big deadweight blocks.” Adjectives come in pairs, like they often do in conversation, and they are used sparingly. More memorable than these are some dazzling verbal inventions–a woman “rhinestoning past on her way to the door,” two boys who “recognized each other like italics.” Or collections of nouns, things uniquely assembled:
Geryon’s mother made their favorite meal, cling peaches from the can and toast
cut into fingers for dipping.
Lots of butter on the toast so a little oil slick floats out on top of the peach juice.
Nouns name what is and verbs describe their animation: these seem to be Carson’s main concerns, beyond how beings and actions are latched together.
In this sense, Carson’s world in Autobiography of Red seems to resist the particularity that she associates with adjectives. One of Borges’s best stories is “Funes the Memorious,” and in it the protagonist suffers the unique inability to forget, which means also that he lives in a perceptual world of adjectives, always awash in details. His world is nothing but latches opening onto other latches, never a door or a window. The world Carson paints for Geryon isn’t like that. He asks big, abstract questions like, “What is time made of?” And the conversation that ensues when he does shows the impossibility of arriving at an answer:
…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.
Geryon addresses his question to his philosopher interlocutor, who assures him, basically, that time is just how we create continuity among events. Time is what we get when we wick away the particularities of adjectives and remain with solid, durable nouns put in motion by verbs. But then he looks down at his watch and it’s time to go: we’re back in the realm of particularity and practice, the experience of time, not its abstraction. And I think that experience is what Geryon really wants to know about, which is why he doesn’t ask what time is, but rather what it’s made of. It’s made of experiences like this, even if it is not strictly coextensive with them.
Another way of putting Geryon’s question might be, “Why aren’t there more adjectives here?” This doesn’t mean that his world is lacking in detail–he inhabits a fascinatingly odd landscape. But still, it’s missing latches–points of inflection that might help us see how we’re simultaneously in the realm of Greek myth and also at an outdoor café and then a philosophy conference at the Universidad de Buenos Aires. The globe Geryon treks over is unified as much in time as it is in space; it’s a world abstracted from the particularities of history even as it suggests them all the time. What’s missing are the latches, the openings that allow Geryon to handle and manipulate the materials of time himself.