How do you analyze the form of something that is seemingly formless?
Universe of Convolution
At first, Anne Carson’s Float presents itself as an enigma to its readers. Contained within its clear plastic box are twenty or so thin pamphlets that can be read in any order. The writings in the box range from prose reflections on mortality, poems and short plays, sonnets addressed to famous figures, essays on figures such as Homer, Alberto Moravia, and Jean-Luc Godard, among others. The pamphlets vary slightly in color, ranging from navy blue to teal and light green. And while some are longer than others, when one looks at the pamphlets from the outside, these differences in length are rendered nonexistent by the plastic box which compresses them all together.
Given these formal similarities, a reader like myself may ask, How do you analyze the form of something that is seemingly formless? The truth is that, at least collectively, you don’t. Each pamphlet’s content and form makes sense on its own, but collectively there is no intended structure. In his essay on Proust, Walter Benjamin writes, “When we awake each morning, we hold in our hands, usually and loosely, but a few fringes of the tapestry of lived life, as loomed for us by forgetting… For an experienced event is finite—at any rate, confined to one sphere of experience.”1 These pamphlets, therefore, can be seen as some of the “fringes of the tapestry of lived life,” and with them Carson shows us the finitude of experience. Each pamphlet represents one sphere of experience; their variety and incoherence demonstrates the disjointed nature of existence. Accordingly, this finitude of experience and memory is why there is no chronological structure to the pamphlets. Similar to the way that our memories and experiences remain confined in our minds with no given composition, the pamphlets are confined to a plastic box and can be read in any order, with the connections and relationships that we see between them being perfunctorily rendered by our need to give structure to our structureless existences. In this way, the reading of Float becomes memetic of the act of living itself; regardless of the trajectory that a reader takes through Float, she still gets a sense of the human that inhabits them all.
Another reason that the lack of chronology is so integral to Float is because it presents a more clear vision of how the mind functions, as it does not privilege one piece over the other. If the pamphlets were structured, we would be presented with a version of the mind that the author most wants to show us. This leads us to Carson’s epigraph, which is on the front cover of the box: “Reading can be freefall.” When delving into these pieces we do not have the comforts of linearity to support us. But this epigraph is also commenting on the trust that a reader must have in an author. Even beyond an experimental work such as this, the act of reading is a dive into the mind of another human being, with the hope that the author will help us land somehow enriched by the experience. In this sense, despite Carson’s formal experimentation, the relationship that a reader has to Float is not much different from the relationship she has to any other text.
Something else these brief pamphlets accomplish is showing what Virginia Woolf describes in “Street Haunting” as “the variegations of the self.” When writing about finding connection with other people, Woolf says, “Let us go in search of this person—and soon it becomes apparent that this person is ourselves… Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others.”[2.Virginia Woolf, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (New York: Harcourt, 1974), 33-35.] Within Float, we find writings that are at times deeply personal, comical, esoteric, and academic. The autobiographical pieces remain personal for obvious reasons. But even when she is writing an essay on Gertrude Stein, for example, some aspect of Carson’s personal self shines through. One of the most important aspects of Float is its recognition that each literary form is ultimately a means of personal expression. This is because all writing is ultimately a search for some means of connection with ourselves and others. So, in academic writing, “we go in search” of understanding some other person and their work and through this “it becomes apparent that this person is ourselves.” It is for this reason that so much of Float is dedicated to understanding the minds and works of influential artists and thinkers.
Moreover, the pamphlet form itself is important as it shows the ephemeral flimsiness of our ideas and memories. Unlike a bound book, which is intended to last a long time, a pamphlet is made of cheap paper that is easily discarded. Similarly, the thoughts and memories contained within our minds can easily be lost or forgotten in time. There is, however, a tension here. Despite being composed of little pamphlets, Float remains an expensive art book. I cannot comment upon any intent of the author or publisher here, but can only address my personal relationship with the copy of Float I own. Unlike the sea of paperbacks which line my bookshelves, (each of which still hold some emotional and sentimental value to me) Float retains a special significance because of its aesthetic physical qualities. For books hold value not because they are representations of experience, but because they are the places where readers have experiences of their own. In another of his essays, “Unpacking My Library,” Walter Benjamin writes that a book collector’s relationship to their books is one, “which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value—that is, their usefulness—but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage, of their fate… To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves.”[3. Benjamin, 60-64.] Since I have so much personal investment in my books, with a book like Float I fastidiously preserve its pamphlets the same way I preserve my own memories.