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Sunday, May 12, 2019

Remembering George Economou (1934-2019): The Magic in the Gaps between the Words and Worlds

Today, we take a moment to remember George Economou, poet, literary scholar, and translator, who passed away in early May at the age of 84.  George, who was quite unusual in his broad range of scholarly endeavors (poetry, translation, medieval literature, modernism, and classical Greek), produced a fascinating work, Ananios of Kleitor, which we contemplate here, along with his life.

George Economou
A conversation about Sappho
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with George Economou one evening when I was visiting his wife,  Rochelle Owens, and him in Philadelphia.  I had taken the train that winds its way down the Hudson River from Albany, New York, where I was living and working at Excelsior College. I had just completed a study of Classical Greek and Latin literature and had been immersing myself in Sappho.  It always surprised me that the classicists could fawn over Sappho when all that remained of her manuscripts were very small fragments and scraps.

“How can anyone possible assess the merit of the poetry of disconnected scraps, fragments, partial phrases and words?  And, how do you know which goes with which?  Do any of them actually go together?  Are they from separate pieces of parchment or papyrus?”
George went into a long discussion of how it was possible assess the poetic merit of a work even if all you had were disconnected, disjointed bits of distressed papyrus.

Scraps of papyrus and a rediscovered minor Greek poet
This conversation took place a few years before Ananios of Kleitor was published. He was, I believe, working on it… Ananios of Kleitor was (in theory) an extremely scholarly investigation of long-lost papyri, found by German investigators working in Egypt in the 1930s. The fragments were assembled on the page of the book to represent how the scholar had pieced them back together. In doing so, Economou discusses the life, times, contexts, and accomplishments of an ancient Greek poet, Ananios of Kleitor, with bawdy details as well as technical preoccupations. The poem fragments, when rendered as a full poem, turn out in some cases to be erotic (even pornographic), you would never guess it by looking at the minimalist layout of seemingly random words and letters.  The overall impression reminded on of the early 20th century DaDa and concrete poetry. 

But, back to the question, which George had clearly been considering in-depth for some time: “How do you know what goes in the gaps?  And, how do you know if it’s any good?”

The introduction to Ananios of Kleitor explains just how the gaps (and even intellectual lacunae) are filled; he describes the way that people attach well-known narratives or quotes from anecdotes in the cultural consciousness to a quote. The extreme exigesis reminds one of Borges and Nabokov.

Supposedly, the provenance of the papyri was a German library’s special collection, and one immediately thought of the Vermeers and other classics collected by the Nazis (along with a number of brazen forgeries). The layer upon layer of ontological uncertainty is intriguing for many reasons. I was reminded of the prolific schizophrenic forger of renowned artists’ minor works, and when finally exposed (he made the mistake of forging the same work five or six times, and then gifting them to different museums, not thinking about how they might issue press releases that would make some recognize they had the same gift), he had duped more than 40 museums in the United States. 

George did not go as far as to fabricate papyri or have extensive photographic plates in his book (or on the publisher’s website), but I suppose he could have done so.

Classical Greek, Medieval, and Modernist / Postmodernist mergings
In doing so, Economou gives a living example of the rhizome-type quality of texts (those which appear in on the page and those which remain in what Derrida might call the “trace” of signification).  But, instead of being incredibly obscure, Economou made the abstract deconstructivist notion a living, organic example.

The rhizome has interconnected roots beneath the surface, just as the fragmentary piece of a well-known quote or extract from song, literary work, folklore, or even quotes from drama or film, will trigger what is in the mind(s) of the audience. It is the mechanism behind the dialogical imagination as described by Bakhtin.

And, even as you erase the words between those in a well-known phrase, you leave the “trace” and full erasure is never possible.

Economou, who loved the intertextualities between periods of literature (even when the relationships were antagonistic or appropriative), was extremely rigorous in pointing out all the references and inter-textualities in Dante and Piers Plowman, not just to other works of literature or antecedents, but also to religious and philosophical belief systems. The tension between appropriation and appreciation were always a matter of the political realities of the day. Dante, Boethius, and Rabelais were just a few of those who spent some uncomfortable moments in prison for the various ways they subverted authority. It was interesting to see in Dante, in particularly, how the blend of Greek and Christian personae led to layer after layer of interpretative possibilities (and their subversions and reversals).

Lifework: Translating Piers Plowman
In addition to working with medieval and 20th century texts (which often resituated themselves in the medieval), George was a prolific translator.  In one course I took from him, we examined theories of translation and took “translation” to anything that is transported from one side to another. In doing so, we looked at Lawrence Venuti’s ideas about translation, which could be considered “interpretation” and thus a work of art as viable as the original.  Such was obviously the case in many of the translations of Dante.

Now we live in a world of Google Translate, and I believe there is a privileging of the literal, rather than the artistic or interpretive version. Economou, who was a friend of Louis Zukofsky, pointed to Zukofsky’s homophonic translations of Catullus, which focused only on the sound of the words, and rejected altogether any sense of denotative meaning.

In doing so, Zukofsky forced a return to the actual sound of poetry; the meanings we spontaneously weave from the sounds when they hit our verdant minds.

And, in the gaps in the texts from Ananios of Kleitor, we have a chance to return to what our own minds contribute to the meaning-making process. Those gaps are filled in with projections from our own mental libraries and emotional repositories.

What is fascinating about Ananios of Kleitor is that we see the process of gap-filling, as Economou creates ruptures in the text itself, opens up gaps, lets the reader mull the gaps, filling in from his or her own repositories. Then, the reader is able to see the filling-in process of the author himself, in his notes, findings, inter-textual discoveries, and scholarly detective work. All is a construction, and the suggestion is that both construction and the disruption of meaning are intentional – until they’re not.

I’m very sad that Dr. George Economou passed away. He touched my life in many ways, first as a refugee from the earth sciences who for some odd reason wanted to follow my Bachelor of Science degree with a Master of Arts in English.  Dr. Economou was the chair of my thesis committee, and then when I followed with my Ph.D., he was the chair of my dissertation committee.  More than that, he and Rochelle were deep friends, guides, and inspirations. Dr. Economou placed in my hand the keys to a locked door that, once unlocked, changed my life with an infinitude of tools and texts.

And, deep abiding admiration and friendship. 

Susan Smith Nash
Tulsa, Oklahoma

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