What is Anne Carson doing on The L Word?
Anyone who watched the debut of The L Word, Showtime's highly anticipated drama about lesbians in Los Angeles, witnessed an oddly erotic exchange about a book. The book wasn't The Diary of Anaïs Nin, either. It was a scholarly work about ancient Greece called Eros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson, a middle-aged Canadian poet. Just hearing Carson's name makes Jenny, the show's sole straight heroine, blush with feeling. "I think those books practically changed my life," she tells Marina, a chic restaurateur, as the camera lingers on her wet lips. Minutes later, she and Marina are making out in the bathroom, unbeknownst to Jenny's boyfriend.
In the past five years, Anne Carson has somehow become a culture hero—the "anti-bourgeois" variety of icon that, as Susan Sontag once noted, appeals by being "repetitive, obsessive, and impolite." That Carson is serving as a catalyst for an L Word moment of erotic connection—and as a signpost for the audience the show plainly expects to draw—is not, for those who have been following her career, entirely surprising. But what vision of love and relationships is an invocation of Anne Carson supposed to telegraph, exactly—and how did it come to be noteworthy enough for television?
Once upon a time, Anne Carson was an obscure academic with a small cult following. Eros the Bittersweet, the quirky academic treatise that marked her debut, was published by Princeton University Press in 1986. It is a remarkable piece of writing: a wittily epigrammatic analysis of the role of Eros in Greek culture. Carson marshals examples from Sappho, Plato, and lesser-known Greek poets, deftly explicating their vision of erotic love as temporary, contingent, and characterized by a thrilling sensation of lack. (As Emily Dickinson pithily put it, centuries later, "So I found / that hunger was a way/ of persons outside windows/ that entering takes away.") Well-received among classicists, Eros quickly percolated into the living rooms of literary essayists—perhaps in part because it offers a plausible and pleasingly intellectual framework for a post-marriage society. Carson was singled out as a bracingly original writer by figures like Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, and Annie Dillard.
Then, in the mid-'90s, Carson (in her 40s) published two utterly assured books of poetry in quick succession—Plainwater and Glass, Irony and God—and arrived like Athena full-born on the scene of English-language poetry, intriguing readers with her riffs on television and historical esoterica. Bloom chose one of her poems for an anthology and suggested that other poets plead for a "transfusion" of her wit. The poem, "The Life of Towns," uses fragments to explore "the illusion that things hold together somehow." It is characteristically gnomic—and oddly punctuated—but also characteristically ironic in style. (Take life in the Town of Luck: "Digging a hole./ To bury his child alive./ So that he could buy food for his aged mother./ One day./ A man struck gold.") In short order, Carson was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur genius grant. With the publication in 1998 of Autobiography of Red, a novel in verse, she also won crossover recognition: The book—not, in fact, a memoir at all—sold approximately 20,000 copies, charming readers with its coming-of-age story of homosexual love between a red monster named Geryon and a modern-day teenager named Herakles. In 2000, at the age of 49, Carson was adoringly profiled in the New York Times Magazine.
It's not hard to see why. The subjects that preoccupy Carson—sexuality, irony, the media—are trendy ones. So is her stable of reference—Gertrude Stein, Sigmund Freud, Antonin Artaud—and her approach: postmodern juxtapositions of the old and the new ("TV is hardhearted, like Lenin"), oblique hints at dark intimacies ("Show me yours/ and I'll give you something good") and Sapphic themes: She's not a lesbian, but Autobiography of Red sympathetically imagines the loneliness of having to cloak one's identity. (If Not, Winter, her most recent book, is a translation of Sappho's poems and fragments.) Predictably, all the attention inspired eye-rolling and worse among the more traditional academics and critics. In 2001, an essay in a Canadian magazine argued that her work must be a fraud, a kind of literary Sokal Hoax—the sententious concoctions of a writer intent on an exposé of excruciatingly allusive postmodern work. In 2002, when Carson won England's T.S. Eliot Prize for The Beauty of the Husband, a British critic, Robert Potts, set off a nationwide debate, attacking Carson in the Guardian as a tuneless mountebank whose book was merely a "self-pitying account of marital unhappiness."
This backlash is a shame. Carson certainly isn't a traditional lyric poet, and plenty of her work misses its mark. But at its finest—as in "The Glass Essay" and sections of Plainwater and Autobiography of Red, among others—it is much more daring and austere, even primitive, than any poetry merely propped up by postmodernist theory. It casts a cold eye on the wrinkled cloth of the human soul (a word she dares to use) and discerns a range of human maneuvers most of us never glimpse. It has a transparency whose levels of complexity are hard to parse.
On the one hand, here is a poet who seems to be an advocate of baring all. The manner is exposure and raw disclosure; the tone is clipped, detached, knowing: "When Law left me I felt so bad I would die./ This is not uncommon," she writes in "The Glass Essay." (Law is her lover's name.) On the other hand, her impulse to disclose is less a confessional outpouring than an icily penetrating inquiry into the impasse between the mind and the animal life of the body that encloses it: "Everything I know about love and its necessities/ I learned in that one moment/ when I found myself/ thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon/ at a man who no longer cherished me." What is notable about these lines is the utter absence of complaint. They're not about a search for sympathy or solace. They're inviting us to face up to our human dilemma: "There was no area of my mind/ not appalled by this action/ no part of my body/ that could have done otherwise," Carson continues.
Given this impasse, Carson's impulse is to clear away mental space and solitude. Ultimately, the subject of "The Glass Essay" is this: Presented with the option to love, to be human, to be transfigured by love, it is best to walk away. In a sense, it's an alienating stance, yet invigorating because it goes against the grain of a culture that emphasizes emotional fulfillment as the route to individual happiness (and therapeutic cures for every existential woe). But Carson is fully aware that desire is addictive and that subjection is (literally) the most compelling state of mind, driving us toward something we can't grasp. It is—no surprise—an intellectual model as well as an erotic one. In her most autobiographical poems, one gradually realizes, Carson is interested in her own erotic life primarily as a way of accessing the sibylline recesses of the human mind— "The Glass Essay" is as much a reflection on the Romantic anger of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights as it is on the poet's loss. In the end, Carson, like the finest literary self-explicators, uses herself as a way explaining of the world, rather than vice versa. Hers is a stringent ethic of self-control as a means of comprehension.
This stringency is what's funny about The L Word's embrace of Carson. The show presumably alludes to her for two reasons. The first is a kind of literary pun. Eros the Bittersweet opens with an analysis of Sappho, the poet-mother of lesbians who seems to have charmed slews of important philosophers and poets with her impassioned poetry. Sappho, having reportedly slept her way through many men as well as women, fits to a tee the requirements of a show that has chosen to eschew representations of "butchy dykes" for "lipstick lesbians" living in a highly cultured urban niche. The second reason involves a misreading of Carson's primary subject. Her intensely pitched intimacies can make it seem that she is essentially a representative of boundary-challenging alternatives to domesticity—and a crusader for the right of women to be eccentric. Because Carson writes a lot about love, but not much about who's doing the fair share of dishwashing, she's become a kind of post-Plath for an age that's left the haunted housewife paradigm behind.
In this sense, The L Word mistakes Carson's expansive, anthropological interest in desire for its own self-dramatizing, gender-bending-as-identity-exploration, anti-commitment tack. (Jenny, the young woman whose life Carson "practically changed," justifies her infidelities as the natural outgrowth of being "interesting" and a "writer.") The mistake is easy to make: The energy of Carson's writing makes it look heroic that her characters are usually all alone in the end. But that's not its point. She may write about extremity, but she's not trying to justify to man the ways of alienated, self-regarding young women. Fortunately, unlike Jenny, Carson understands that the version of our life in which our happiness is more important than anyone else's is a fraudulent one.
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.
Illustration by Charlie Powell; still from The L Word by Carole Segal © Showtime.