Autobiography of Red: A Response

Soaring high above the world, Geryon finds himself hungry and thinking about harpoons. He glides not on his red wings, which are red because he is red, but in an airplane bound for Argentina. Geryon keeps his wings bound under his clothing like a wound. He is hungry because the food cart hasn't reached him yet. The harpoons are a detail from his Fodor’s guide. To distract himself from his hunger (and the food cart that refuses to move), Geryon looks out the window and counts to one hundred. When finished, he looks back at the cart (still stationary) and finds that the thing he wants remains visible but beyond his grasp.

Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red is a self-proclaimed romance. It tells the story of Geryon, a young man navigating his desires, caged as they are by the circumstances of his life. Classically, Geryon is a red monster from Greek mythology who is doomed by the Gods to die by Herakles' arrow. In Red, he is a young artist with wings and red skin who falls for the transient and beautiful Herakles. Herakles pulls Geryon out of the dullness of his life and then, just as casually, lets him go. Like the food cart, he drifts out of reach.

Still confined to his airplane seat, Geryon wonders, “How people get power over one another, this mystery.” As a boy whose life has been muted by the absence of Herakles, the question is appropriately Geryon’s. It could just as easily belong to Carson, though. The idea seems to cling to her like a smell that washes off only to return each evening. (Versions of the same thought appear in her 2001 essay, The Beauty of the Husband.) The power Carson references seems bound to desire, specifically desire that moves more strongly in one direction. Through Geryon, Carson reminds us that desire is about the wanting of a thing, not the possessing of a thing, which is why it nests in the curve of the eye. And sight is the sense that Red indulges in most explicitly. Not simply viewing but re-viewing. Visual returns. Indeed, the book begins with one.

Through a series of introductions and appendices, Red begins with Carson’s thoughts on Stesichoros, a Greek poet famous for, among other things, a unique case of blindness. As Carson puts it, Stesichoros wrote a poem about Helen of Troy that began with “a bit of blasphemy.” As punishment, Helen took Stesichoros’s sight. Upon realizing his error, Stesichoros wrote the Palinode to Helen–a lyrical retraction of sorts–and found his sight returned. His unusual blindness, Carson suggests, begs the question: Did seeing cause Stesichoros’s blindness or did blindness allow him to see?

Not coincidentally, Stesichoros also authored Geryoneis, a poem that tells a version of the classical Geryon story. The poem is a unique portrait of an otherwise obscure figure in Greek mythology. It does not cast Herakles as the hero, as is typically the case, but as a careless brute who murders Geryon and his dog.

In Red, Carson rewrites Geryon’s story and allows Geryon himself to change his ending with a pencil and paper. Now he is a boy in love with Herakles, feeling the red breeze on his skin. Now he is an artist with a camera, filling his eye with the world.

Carson’s Geryon is aptly drawn to photography. Photographs pepper the novel. At times they are being composed. (“Geryon was focusing the camera on her throat.”) At times they transcend the frame. (“Geryon did not know why he found the photograph so disturbing.”) Throughout the book, though, it’s unclear if photographs are things to be trusted. (“Photography is a way of playing with perceptual relationships.”) Carson consistently uses photographs to question whether a working set of eyes truly grants one the ability to see.

The plane lands. Geryon moves through time. Then, in a Buenos Aires bookshop, after years of separation, Geryon bumps into Herakles and his eye is filled again. “How people get power over one another, this mystery.” Dependent on this idea, the way a knot depends on a rope, is the question of how people are freed from power’s bonds. At times I think this is the mystery Carson really longs after. Red suggests the answer lies somewhere between blindness and sight. In the final pages of the book, though, as Geryon approaches his answer, he turns away from his camera (“It is a photograph he never took, no one here took it”) and becomes the object of gaze rather than its subject. This shift allows the book to keep its final secret. From Athena. From Carson. From us.