Tag Archives: beauty

The place of beauty in scholarly writing

[Update: Cross-posted on the Scholars’ Lab blog]

I’ve just returned from two thought-provoking days of conversations about assessment and authority in new modes of scholarly production, the second in a series of three SCI meetings on the topic. We’ll synthesize the key outcomes and insights into a report very soon. For the moment, though, I want to think a little more about a question that occurred to me after the meeting: What is the place of beauty in academic writing? While this wasn’t something the group discussed directly, it did seem to be an undertone of certain threads of conversation.

I got home from CHNM on Friday evening feeling pretty brain-dead from the hybrid (and quintessentially #altac) work of wrangling meeting logistics and absorbing stimulating and thoughtful discussion. Ready to relax, I sat down to watch Pina and was entranced within minutes; the film is stunning. The clips of Pina Bausch’s dance company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, are mesmerizing; they are made even more compelling by Wim Wenders’ directorial work. Something about the visual beauty of the film and the dance it portrayed helped me to think about the preceding conversations about scholarly work in a new light.
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On not fully understanding Anne Carson

I received an absolute treasure of a book in the mail this past week: Anne Carson’s new translation of Antigone (called Antigonick). The hardcover book is hand-lettered by Carson, and many of the pages of text are preceded by sheer vellum pages with gorgeous and beguiling illustrations by Bianca Stone. It is a beautiful, beautiful book. (There’s a good preview of it here.)

And I do not fully understand it. I don’t really understand many of the illustrations; I don’t always understand the changes Carson has made to the text. The effect is no less captivating.

This feeling is not isolated to Antigonick; I often feel a sense of disorientation from Carson’s work. Looking through some notes on Autobiography of Red (which I simply loved), I realize the same feeling occurred there: I was utterly puzzled by certain elements and choices. (Especially the final “interview” with Stesichoros–I would love to know how people read that.)

But I relish this feeling of confusion. Carson’s work is so deliberate and intoxicating, that each choice she makes feels like a stone to be worked over in the palm of the hand–slowly, slowly. Not many writers make me feel this way. More often, readerly confusion is indicative of sloppiness on the writer’s part, or else of ego and purposeful obfuscation. The confusion I feel reading Carson draws me in, rather than pushing me away.

So, Antigonick. Why that red spool of thread unwinding over a page that lists “Kreon’s nouns” (“Adjudicate Legislate Scandalize Capitalize”)? Why the domestic images of stove, kettle, rug when Kreon sentences Antigone to death? Why Kreon’s arrival by powerboat? Why, for that matter, Nick? I’ll confess, I don’t know. But I will keep turning those questions over and over in my mind, as I do with so many of her works.

Luckily, I now have a great excuse to spend a lot more time thinking about Carson’s writing, since my paper proposal for MLA13 was accepted. I’m looking forward to giving her work the serious attention it deserves.