Although I live in a geography, a Los Angeles, much of my thinking life happens across a different kind of geography—the skewed mirror of my reading. Anne Carson's 1999 book, The Economy of the Unlost has left me melancholy this morning. In this book-length exploration of Paul Celan and Simonides of Keos (the Greek lyric poet famous as the first Westerner to take money for poetic composition), Carson writes
I have chosen to talk about two men at once. They keep each other from settling….each is placed like a surface on which the other may come into focus.
And in four brief pages, Carson brought me into focus too. Carson's Prologue traces the history of the False Sail in myth—introducing us to Celan's poem, "Matiere in Betagne", in which Tristan, misinterpreting the sail-color on the ship of Isolte, dies of grief:
hands, in the gorselight, the
is heading for you.
Earlier, Carson reminds us of the Greek myth of Theseus, whose father, Aegeus, reputedly threw himself into the sea when Theseus forgot to hoist the white flag on his return from slaying the minotaur.
Broadened, the concept of the false sail, the "fear" sail, seems to me to be any sign or symbol whose interpretive act, or whose misinterpretation proves an unequivocal and unremediable hinge to the plot's tragic resolution: Madama Butterfly at dawn, the pathos at the end of Romeo and Juliet, even Ionesco's crossed couple in the Bald Soprano, or the letter that arrives too late. These moments of story remind us that the world is often a giant wood chest closed along the hinge of one or another misunderstanding. Or thrown perilously and anxiously open.
How many of my most important decisions have been based on False Sails? Must I always read symbols, read anything, with eyes hopelessly locked in their own self-ness?
Reader, sail on.