sodomy and the stone

Part way through Economy of the Unlost, Anne Carson imagines a Greek flaneur rusticating in the fifth century B.C. who stops to read an epitaph carved in stone, a “talking stone.” Since lapidary inscriptions of the period generally left no spaces between words, the passerby, both for the practical reason of sounding out the sense and because silent reading was unusual, reads aloud, donating his voice to the stone writing of the poet. Like a shopwindow of the dead, before which a flaneur mentally tries on the clothing on display, trying out the attitude of the mannequin.

Anne Carson describes the recognition of the reader in his voice of the poet’s sense “as a sort of vibration,” the former pulling the words out of silence. In a footnote, this is added:

“It is fashionable to interpret this relationship between written text and a reader’s voice as a “question of power” […], wherein the reader is dispossessed of his own voice in order to facilitate realisation of the inscription, or even as a “point neuralgique” […], whose structure replicates the paedarastic model of dominance and submission that is presently seen to inform so many aspects of the ancient Greek cultural experiment. “La voix se soumettre a la trace ecrite,” says Svenbro, who characterises the reader’s service to the writer by direct analogy with the homosexual act of love and its dark emotions of use. […] The remarkable humourlessness of this line of interpretation seems to belie not only the terms in which the ancients themselves speak of written works of art (e.g., poiema, kosmos, charis), but also the spirit of freedom in which artists like Simonides play through the possibilities of meaning available conjointly to writer and reader within a piece of language. Perhaps exchange of power need not always mean abuse of power. Meaning, after all, exists to be exchanged.”

It helps that the epitaph Anne Carson adduces to in her example memorialises Spinther, a name which when read aloud can come out rightly wrong. Applaud her characterisation of a general “humourlessness” as you might, and Svenbro’s in particular, in his fashionable application of paedarasty as a rule of thumb when considering old Greek rocks, you can’t help but question the “dark emotions of use” genitively attached to “the homosexual act of love.” The exemplary homosexual act of love, since at least the term was coined, in 1856, is sodomy, a word with more than its fair share of dark if not Biblical associations. (Not entirely historically accurate: the medicalisation of same-sex love in the mid-nineteenth century produced the neologism ‘homosexuality’ but rather in reference to a categorical phenomenon than to acts or a specific act. It occurs first as an academic shorthand, a rubric, for evidence derived from direct testimony and statistical survey and only later comes out – of the textbook.) The question is, if this is the act you have in mind, should it be thought to connote “dark emotions of use”? Consider your local video store, stand at that “wailing wall,” as Christopher Hitchens pungently called it, where the act’s preponderance in heterosexual porn would seem to belie it as the root source of a gay bad feeling. But then pornography itself, as the text possessive of the maximum “sort of vibration,” however unsympathetic to it you claim to be, pulling dark acts into a light, the light, by invisible means, might be called an elegy to a Grecian urge.

But what of the abuse of power? (Let the feminist loudly protest in her silent reading of porn. When careful attention is paid, by means of exchange, to the meaning of erotic minorities, the fashion is nowhere in the passion.) Why now, isn’t it of a Marxian nature? A capital effect and in the nature of the medium of exchange? But if it were only there would meaning exist, after all, as Anne Carson writes, after all, to be exchanged? Since meaning is exactly that which the form of commodity exchange is said to exclude.

Perhaps “the homosexual act of love and its dark emotions of use” is a case of smuggling into the footnote a bit of fun against the grain of a general humourlessness. Because when you read it loudly enough to hear what it’s silently saying, you get the joke: 1) Anne Carson is quoting Svenbro indirectly, i.e. lending him her voice; 2) what is being talked about is caught in the act of leveraging what is being said. The re-inscription of the enunciated in the enunciation, as in the joke, raises bad feeling to the power of an abuse of power. To be fucked up the arse is in pop usage to be shafted and misused, if not abused, by the power. No wonder it attracts dark emotions.

Furthermore, ideology, as bad feeling or false consciousness, attests to the fact that for the powerful power is locked into its repetitive abuse, of itself – and this is the reason for calling its generative act sodomy: the ideological is a sort of auto-sodomisation. (You can’t help thinking of Salvador Dali, out of whose name Andre Breton made Avida Dollars, an exemplum of exchange, reduced at the last to minting his signature for currency in order to keep Gala in toyboys.) And should you have read that initial “perhaps” at the outset of the previous paragraph, having tried on regardless and tried out in the spirit of freedom the possibilities of meaning of this piece of language, think merely that you got it at rock-bottom rates rather than were the one who dropped and had to reach for the stone.