'Nox,' or the Muteness of Things

Charles M. Stang

In Review | Books Nox, by Anne Carson. New Directions, 192 pages, $35.

On the back cover of the box in which this peculiar book is housed, Anne Carson explains: “When my brother died I made an epitaph for him in the form of a book. This is a replica of it, as close as we could get.” Inside is an accordion of a text: a single ream of thick paper folded into a kind of codex. The pages unfold into a facsimile of an en face scrapbook: on the right one finds Carson’s own narrative—a pastiche of numbered entries, black and white photos, old stamps and postcards, the shreds of her brother’s letter home, single lines of verse typed on rectangles as if they were from fortune cookies, and various other scratches, scrawls, and swaths of color. On the left one unexpectedly finds Latin entries—single words, defined alone and in phrases or expressions. These Latin words—all sixty-three of them—constitute Catullus’s poem 101, an elegy for his dead brother, through which Carson has refracted her own memory, mourning, and melancholia regarding her brother Michael.

A photo of Michael as a boy is on the cover. In it, he is wearing large swim goggles, a bathing suit, and flippers, but is standing in the yard in front of a house. He is quite literally out of his element, and this is the impression given in a handful of Carson’s comments and photos. In another, he is seen at the foot of a tree house, where three older boys have pulled up the ladder to exclude him. We learn that as a young man he fell into dealing drugs, and rather than go to prison for his crimes, he fled Canada in 1978, and spent the rest of his life traveling and living abroad under aliases. During this long exile, Michael wrote and called infrequently, so that Carson seems to have known as little about his adult life as we do about Catullus’s brother from the first century BCE. Carson learns two weeks after the event that her brother has died, in Copenhagen, where he has left a widow, to whom she travels as if a pilgrim to see if she can peek behind the veil that hid his life from her. Nox is the epitaph for her brother and her failed effort to know him any more in death than she did in life.

But why has Carson given the name Nox, Latin for “night,” to this epitaph in the form of a book? On the first page, over her brother’s name scrawled six times, she gives a longer title, Nox Frater Nox, which already invites a question. Is she bidding her dead brother “goodnight” or is she addressing him as night, as light extinguished but still remembered? No doubt both, but as regards the latter, nearly all the Latin entries on the left define their words in relation to nox, to night and to nothing. For example, the first word of Catullus’s 101 is multas, “many,” but Carson includes the phrase multa nox with this gloss: “late in the night, perhaps too late.” Further on, in the entry on donarem, “I could give,” Carson includes the phrase nox nihil donat, “nothing is night’s gift.”

It is odd that nearly all Carson’s entries on Catullus’s poem 101 are bent toward nox, since it is not one of the elegy’s sixty-three finely chosen words. In fact, nox appears only once in the Catullian corpus, in poem 5, with its famous beginning, “Let us live and love.” Of the life of Gaius Valerius Catullus (ca. 84 BCE–ca. 54 BCE) we know very little, apart from the fact that he seems to have had an affair with an older, married Roman woman whom he addresses in his poems as “Lesbia.” In poem 5 he exhorts Lesbia to live and to love, because their lights have only one short spell in which to shine:

soles occidere et redire possunt;
nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.

Suns may set and rise again,
But we, with our brief light, set but once.
Night is a never-ending sleep.

Brevis though Michael’s lux was, it was equally bright and Carson is not content to let it slip into never-ending nox. She begins her own narrative, then, with this aspiration: “I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds” (1.0)—this in part as an homage to two women who loved him: “ ‘light of my life’ as his widow now says and oddly into me drops this expression my mother used also” (4.1). But it is a failed aspiration, because “no matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history” (1.0). From the very start, then, Carson signals that her elegy is “akin” to and suffers from the same ailment as history (1.1). Just as she wants but fails to fill Nox with lux, Herodotus—the so-called father of history—begins his Histories with an aspiration: “this [is] the showing forth, so that deeds done by men not go extinct nor great astonishing works produced by Greeks and barbarians vanish” (3.3, quoting Histories 1.1). Carson notices that “the first sentence of history has no main verb,” that the [is] with which Herodotus starts history is (and must be) supplied by English translators of Greek nominal sentences such as this. The result is that the hinge between the “showing forth” and the bulwark against oblivion is a weak one. It is not clear what action a historian’s “showing forth” can take against extinction. In other words, history begins by signaling the impossibility of its inaugural ambition, and in this regard is always already an elegy, that is, mourning a loss.

But neither the historian nor the elegist responds to the threat of extinction with silence. As Carson points out, “history” comes from the Greek verb histōrein, meaning “to ask” (1.1) or “to inquire.” For Carson, inquiries are how the historian responds to the threat of oblivion: by asking strange questions and receiving stranger answers. Having Herodotus in mind, she likens the historian to “a storydog that roams around Asia Minor collecting bits of muteness like burrs in its side” (1.3). The answers to the historian’s inquiries are mute insofar as they remain closed even as they open themselves to view. She plays the historian to the “muteness of my brother” (1.3), whose life refuses to open itself to full view. Our word “mute” derives from the Latin mutus or “silent,” which in turn derives from the Greek myein, “to be closed”—said of the eyes or the mouth. Other words like “mystery” and “mystical” are formed from the same stem, and, for Carson, all speak in one way or another of the refusal of persons, events, or facts to speak their whole truth. She appeals to Heidegger’s notion of das Unumgängliche, or “overtakelessness,” to capture the surplus on offer in all things: “that which cannot be got round. Cannot be avoided or seen to the back of. And about which one collects facts—it remains beyond them” (1.3). The historian responds to the threat of oblivion not by presuming to halt its advance, but instead by inquiring into things near or far and collecting answers that “show forth” how one cannot get round to the back of them. History and elegy are therefore apophatic or negative discourses insofar as both speak precisely so as to remind us or to show forth the “beyond” embedded in every person, event, or fact.

The same might be said of translation, and the beyond embedded in every word. Carson is an accomplished translator of Greek literature, including Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sappho. But if translation is no less apophatic than history or elegy, then its accomplishment is precisely to speak the muteness of every word. Carson offers a long reflection on her art and her lifelong effort to render Catullus’s Latin into English:

I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working on it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. . . . He does not end. . . .

Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light. Human words have no main switch. But all those little kidnaps in the dark. And then the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of them that hangs in your mind when you turn back to the page you were trying to translate. (7.1)

The lexical entries on the left of Nox are an attempt to put on paper this luminous web that hangs in Carson’s mind as she tries to translate 101. Each of the left-hand pages, after all, is an entry, a point of opening in which the translator is not so much looking for le mot juste as le mot muet. Carson never really delivers a translation of 101, but offers a literal—we could say “dumb” or “mute”—rendition:

Many the peoples many the oceans I crossed—
I arrive at these poor, brother, burials
so I could give you the last gift owed to death
and talk (why?) with mute ash.
Now that Fortune tore you from me, you
oh poor (wrongly) brother (wrongly) taken from me,
now still anyway this—what a distant mood of parents
handed down as the sad gift for burials—
accept! soaked with tears of a brother
and into forever, brother, farewell and farewell.

She has no more luck with her history of Michael than with her translation of Catullus. During his long absence he called so rarely (“maybe 5 times in 22 years”) that “I study his sentences the ones I remember as if I’d been asked to translate them” (8.1). But Michael remains mute and his few sentences as opaque as Catullus’s Latin. He is like Lazarus, then, not only in that he remains mute, but also in that his sister suffers his death twice (8.3–8.4).

On the heels of this analogy, Carson speaks for the first and last time in Nox about God. The script of 8.5 is nearly illegible, and obscures another numbered entry behind it—all this as if to perform on the page the muteness of which it speaks: “There is no possibility I can think my way into his muteness. God wanted to make nonsense of ‘overtakelessness’ itself. To rob its juice, and I believe God has succeeded.” To be honest, I am puzzled—I don’t know what the last two sentences of 8.5 mean. What does it mean for God “to make nonsense of ‘overtakelessness,’ ” the beyond embedded in every person, event, fact, or word? What does it mean for God “to rob its juice”? And how has God “succeeded”? My only recourse is to think of a parallel in negative theology: precisely when one confesses God to be beyond everything, there appears the acute possibility that this “beyond” will be reestablished on a new pedestal, as a new idol. To combat this idolatrous trigger within us, negative theology recommends what is sometimes called, rather flatly, the “negation of negation.” Through various means—denials, but also irony and indirection—we negate our negations, that is, we say “no” even to the beyond, to the muteness, to das Unumgängliche, so as to protect ourselves from worshiping a new idol.

Is this what Carson suggests God himself is doing by making nonsense of “overtakelessness”? Is God protecting her from making an idol of her brother’s inaccessibility? I don’t know. But consider the very last words of Nox: “He refuses, he is in the stairwell, he disappears.” If I am right, then this memory—of the last time Carson saw Michael—recalls not only the moment of his exile (his first death), and anticipates his earthly departure (his second death), but also perhaps anticipates the departure—that is, her release—of even his muteness. She lets him and finally even his muteness go. These last words on the right are paired on the left with an entry on vale—“farewell”—the final word Catullus utters to his dead brother in 101. Carson says that “the Greeks have no precise word for this (but we might call it ‘night’).” If I am right, then 8.5 suggests that God welcomes Michael into an even deeper night than muteness or “overtakelessness,” a nox impenetrable to any lux, a night into which Carson can only bid him, as Catullus did his own brother, ave atque vale, “hail and farewell.”

Charles M. Stang is Assistant Professor of Early Christian Thought at Harvard Divinity School. His first book, Apophasis and Pseudonymity in Dionysius the Areopagite, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2012.

Excerpts and images from Nox, © copyright 2010 by Anne Carson. Used by permission.