Wednesday, June 21, 2017

he did you

As I was about three-quarters of the way through the end of Anna Moschovakis' 2011 book of poetry, You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, I thought of Charlotte Dacre again, remembering that the sources for various bits of her story would only occur to me after I had read a little way into them; so that I might go a whole page into the episode between Victoria's brother and the wife of his friend before I realised I was reading the tale of Joseph and the Potiphar household. Her contemporaries must have felt that pair of stories existing at the same time too; this sense of seeing two things at once, one of them familiar, the other one new but somehow already visible to the end. And the comparisons between Milton's Satan and Dacre's Zofloya were not made immediately. Eventually they were strong and you were convinced. These inspirations were abducted into the book and now they served its purposes even though they stayed unsubmerged. According to the plot, this Joseph-brother needs to be traumatised and thrown out by the friend so that he can flee to the Alps and become the banditti leader whose face is forever masked. Then his sister will not recognise him when Zofloya flies her there magically to escape the servants who have found her husband's poisoned body inside a trunk and the husband's friend Henriquez's sword-transfixed corpse on the floor of his bedroom in a welter of blood while the scandalously young orphan fiancé is first chained up in a cave with a leopard skin and then thrown into an abyss ("because he loved me more than he did you!" she points out to Victoria). And there is the story that will do the work for you, Joseph and Potiphar. It is Biblical but your book is good, fine, it has a moral, it fits.

Then here was Moschovakis, forthrightly telling you that she was about to refer to a chatbot named Anna, and then referring to it, discussing it, describing its conversations with lists, writing letters to it, putting its words into her poems, borrowing its identity, playing with it, etc, without any pretense of unconsciousness toward the source; also without the assumption that you would know that source automatically, as Dacre might have assumed that everyone knew Milton well enough to make the illustration of explicit directive arrows drawn in his direction seem unnecessary or redundant. When Proust writes about the milk boiling over during a metaphorical passage in The Guermantes Way then the description is so long and detailed (I am checking this in the Moncrieff/Kilmartin version, which is all I have on me at the moment) that I think he is writing about something that happened to him recently, possibly even on the day when the passage was written. It is like a diary entry, though he abstracts it away from himself by framing it as if it is a situation that happens to us all, and can be therefore used as a fruitful example of a common problem. It is only his description that makes it familiar, though. It was unfamiliar before he began. To return to Zofloya, the book's modern editor Kim Ian Michiasiw ends his introduction by pointing out that the name itself – "Zofloya" - has no precedent that his research could discover, that it had never existed before, no possible inspiration had been uncovered, and nobody knows why Dacre thought of it.

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