An Editor Has Her Say


What is a quote? A quote…is a cut, a section, a slice of someone else’s orange. You suck the slice, toss the rind, skate away… .To loot someone else’s life or sentences and make off with a point of view, which is called “objective” because you can make anything into an object by treating it this way, is exciting and dangerous. Let us see who controls the danger. [1]


Anne Carson’s experiment on the essay, “Foam,” dares comparisons among what she calls documentary texts. To document, she insists, is to quote, “to loot” even. Carson’s insistence is not an objection as much as, for her, a fair statement of the case. After all: “The Sublime,” she opens, “is a documentary technique”: the danger derives from the means to its artistic ends.

Carson leaps deftly from chapter 20 of Longinus’ On the Sublime, in which he extols the effect of the violent verbiage of Demosthenes, a Greek orator, to extracts of an interview with Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, discussing his early directing techniques. Carson quotes Longinus quoting Demosthenes—quotes Antonioni quoting actress Lucia Bosé. The Sublime, “passionate moment is shared…quote by quote.”

Antonioni’s loot is the visual quotation of his subjects, actors who are at times not acting at all, but whose gestures are documented by the camera nonetheless. As when in an interview for Corriere della Sera (quoted by Carson), the filmmaker admitted to physically manipulating—adjusting the psychology—of his actors. Camera rolling, Lucia Bosé took (literal) blows to achieve the emotional heights of the final scene of Story of a Love Affair. Direction? Documentary? Temps morts?

Critics too, at their best, are danger-makers.

Foam is the sign of an artist who has sunk his hands into his own story, and also of a critic storming and raging in his own deep theory. [2]

Foam is a kind of spit on the lips. It spills, Carson explains, from the sublime expression to the experience of it. Spillage dampens the audience, but not without engaging it with the spiller’s condition.   

In her preface to the 1973 reissue of the The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing described the extent to which her novel, following its first publication in 1962, had been misunderstood by some as a preliminary manifesto for the women’s liberation movement. Others read the novel’s overriding politics of Marxism as terms for its praise, or condemnation. Still other groups narrowed the theme of breakdown to read mental illness.

Hysterical, feminist, communist, sicko.

It is not—has never been—unusual (nor undesirable) for books to be read and interpreted so variously. To be fair, Lessing’s book does encompass each of these themes, and some overtly so. The book’s timing further complicated its reception. Published less than a decade before what is historically referred to as the women’s liberation movement, just following the decline of McCarthyism, the beginning of the end of the excitement provoked by Freud and Marx…

But what disturbed Lessing into writing The Golden Notebook, and its later preface, was ironically what she observed to be the critical (and creative) tendency to compartmentalize. Her book is a reaction to this tendency, by artists and critics alike, and yet this central theme—breakdown, dissolution, formlessness—is precisely what her Notebook’s first reading public missed.

This business of seeing what I was trying to do—it brings me to the critics, and the danger of evoking a yawn. [3]

For Lessing, as for Carson, critics also control the danger, albeit too often to narcotic effect. In hindsight, one might explain Lessing’s case this way: critics approached her Notebook with an expectation to read it as documentary evidence (or quotations) of specific political and intellectual trends, and not as a controlled experiment in watching these trends dissolve together—a dangerous combination.

Lessing’s novel is as much about sex politics, Marxism, and mental illness as it is about the danger, the excitement, of breaking down the novel’s form. Carson’s “Essay with Rhapsody” has a similar effect on a reader’s expectations: reading Antonioni alongside Longinus’ ancient philosophical treatise, we experience as she does the spillage of technique from one compartment to the other.

Documentary, fiction, ancient unfinished text.

Carson does not conclude that either of her subjects has reached a sublime moment—though she does catch each with a bit of spittle on his chin, a sign of his raging attempt. She quotes, she documents, objectifies—but consciously, in an attempt to create a context where previously there was none, and to do so in an appropriately inventive form.

In a conversation with Thomas Frick, Lessing came up with a somewhat cleaner metaphor (but with a similarly slippery appeal) for the aims of her writing:

I like to think that if someone’s read a book of mine, they’ve had…the literary equivalent of a shower. Something that would start them thinking in a slightly different way perhaps. [4]

The editors of this magazine present you with a document, or let’s say, with documentary materials suggesting that creative minds are in fact creating, and that a public is reading, quoting, criticizing. Put even more simply, our hope is to provide a venue for work that understands the importance of its context. That is, without tossing the rinds and skating away.


[1] Anne Carson. “Foam (Essay with Rhapsody): On the Sublime in Longinus and Antonioni.” Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera. (Vintage Canada, 2006). 45.

[2] Ibid. 47.

[3] Doris Lessing. The Golden Notebook. New York: Bantam, 1973.

[4] Thomas Frick, “Caged by the Experts.” [187] Doris Lessing: Conversations, ed. Earl. G. Ingersoll (Princeton: Ontario Review Press, 1994). 164.


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