Anne Carson On the Snow LRB April 21, 2022


Odark and cold nightthere was a story about a knock on the outer door. Despite the cries of Yes! Yes! Coming! someone knocked again and the snow that had accumulated on the door was blown halfway up the door itself, with no meaning as to the blind knocks or the deep snow or why it didn’t come not stopped. I knew I had to write a simple story, or even a poem, but I didn’t. I should go back to words, I thought, clear words.

I had looked at the New Testament in an 1801 edition of Johannes Leusden’s side-by-side (Greek and Latin) version, which I had found on my bookshelf in a fragile state that did not allow for quick page-turning. Small spots have come off. I randomly opened it to 1 Corinthians 10, a letter from Paul on idolatry. The letter was about people wandering the desert eating “pneumatic” bread and drinking from a “pneumatic” rock – or so I was translating it in my head, the word to be “spiritual” tires in Greek, from pneumatic, ‘breath’. Can bread or rock be made of breath? Anyway, who can drink from a rock? A kind of gloom, like a heavy smell of coats, descends on the word “spiritual” and makes religion impossible for me. The page is turned. The spots fall.

Before turning the page however, I noticed that Paul’s text, in the verse following the pneumatic rock, endeavored to identify the rock with Christ (i.e. God) and to explain that the rock “followed” these people through the desert so that they could drink from it. How very embarrassing, I thought. I wondered why God couldn’t find a better arrangement of water for these people and why Paul couldn’t find a more gracious picture of God’s care. Presumably, Paul wants people to seek and cherish God’s care? But imagining the long-awaited Other bumping into your desert caravan in the form of a boulder just might make you glum or confused.

Confused and morose myself, especially with the constant knocking on the door, and needing a new idea, I reopened the New Testament and found Psalm 119:81-3. This seemed to be another text about people in the desert:

My soul fails for your salvation, but I hope in your word.
My eyes miss your word saying: When will you comfort me?
For I have become like a bottle in the smoke; yet I do not forget your statutes.

And all of a sudden, I recognized a passage there that I had worked on before, at a time when snow was not my problem – I had been invited to give a talk on (if I remember well) “the idea of ​​the university”, a subject I did not know much about, and so I started to compose a lecture more focused on the word “idea” than on the concept of “university” . I don’t know if I ever gave this lecture: I can’t find it among my papers. Three days before the date of the conference, my mother passed away. I fell to my knees in the kitchen. The amazement was like a silvery-white mist that seeped in all those days. I had visited him only a week before, the long train, then the bus, then the taxi ride. She seemed OK. Prohibited by her doctor from her evening glass of Armagnac, she had taken to dabbing it behind her ears. The word “idea” comes from the ancient Greek “to see”. Was there a way not to give this lecture, I wondered.

Psalm 119:83 is an outcry: ‘For I have become like a bottle in smoke; yet I do not forget your statutes in the King James version. In more modern versions, “I am like a skin of wine shrunken by smoke”; or ‘Though I am shrunken like a leather flask in the smoke’; or ‘I am useless as a discarded skin.’ The notion seems to be that without God the psalmist or his life becomes dry, sooty, wrinkled and worn, dark and gloomy, parched, disfigured, miserable, devoid of spiritual moisture. There’s a bit of lore that reads “frost” instead of “smoke,” but no one knows what to do with that. The same week my mother passed away, my boyfriend left. (Watch out for the conversation that starts: ‘Do you think people should be completely honest with each other?’) We had been together for several years but he was young and the nearness of death made him uneasy ‘easy. Do I blame him? I admit that I was not a very erotic person at the time. Well, my amazement quotient was full. He drove me to the funeral and more or less continued. I more or less said goodbye.

There was no doubt that I had to give up giving this lecture.

The weird thing is that I can’t remember if I did or didn’t (walk out of the conference). The timeline is blurry. I remember sitting in a chair, on the very edge of a chair, fists clenched in my lap, facing the professor of religious studies who had ordered the lecture. I pleaded for a cancellation or a postponement. He sat tightly content on the other side of his large desk. He was pale. Alarm. He may have been a priest. Tears streamed down my face. I told him about my mom’s weird little red pea coat. He was not a chaotic person. A great sense of dead end filled the room. Beyond that, I can only recover a few mental screenshots of me speaking over bottles and smoke to a dusty conference room of cross-legged people, but these may be shards of a dream anxious, not of a credible memory.

Historically, the first occurrence of the name “idea” in ancient Greek is found in an Epinician ode by Pindar (Olympian 10:103) praising an Olympic winner “beautiful in relation to his body”. idea‘, that is, in its appearance. Plato’s use of the word to refer to things as “the form of good” is familiar. A bit stranger perhaps, Demokritos’ choice of atom ideai (literally “uncut forms”) to designate the indivisible elements of his atomic theory. Best of all is Matthew’s formulation in the last chapter of his Gospel (28:3) to describe the gaze of the angel who descended from heaven, rolled down the door of Christ’s tomb and sat upon it:

ἦν δὲ ἡ ἰδέα αὐτοῦ ὡς ἀστραπή
(The idea of ​​him was like lightning.)

“And his garment was white as snow,” the Gospel of Matthew continues, reminding me to go to the door and see who was knocking – did it stop? – but there’s a sense of suspension in the night air, like that of a person not quite turning away to retrace their own footprints through the thickening snow. The snow can deepen quickly on nights like this. The reason I went to visit my mother the week before she died was a dream I had. A young man in red epaulettes tended to a room of restless guests who lay fully clothed in bathtubs. When I woke up suddenly (3 am), I knew the young man with red shoulder pads as the night watchman of the hotel where I was staying when I visited him. Strange choice for a psychopomp, I thought, as hours later the train slid westward in a faint dulling of dawn. There was ground fog everywhere and then the afternoon sun (the bus) so deep you could walk in like a lake. Finally a taxi passing people in their kitchens.

The weekend was spent watching her sleep, the oxygen turning on and off. When she was awake, she would glare, or eat little dabs of ice cream, or once spend a few minutes studying a photo I brought her (of myself at a posh artist’s retreat on Lake Como), then she said, ‘Why did you wear your glasses?’ “I wasn’t with her when she died. I guess the young man with the red shoulder pads showed up and let her wear her coat. She loved that red car coat.”

Last thing: one Sunday evening about a year before all this, we were on the phone, my mother and I; it was right after we sold the house and she moved into the facility, where she was entitled to a reasonable small room and some possessions. As we talked, I watched the snow falling in the dusk outside, counting her, one hundred five, one hundred six, one hundred seven, when out of a pause she said, “It’s funny not have a home” – be funny a funny word for what she meant. I say this now to remind myself how words can squirt aside, dumb and mad; you think they are tools, or toys, or tames, and suddenly they burn all your clothes and you stand there, burned and ridiculous in the flash of lightning. I hung up the phone. I watched the snow for a while. I guess she does too.

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