Somewhere below the surface of our minds, resides the power that literacy initially had on our consciousness. In Anne Carson’s book, Eros the Bittersweet, the author argues that it is through language that we were first awakened to imaginative possibility, desire, ourselves, and the edges between. In illuminating the work of Classical writers, poets, and philosophers, Carson investigates the paradoxical space between text and reality, pleasure and pain during the rise of literacy. To her, it all resides within the idea surrounding eros, the Greek god of passionate love.
"It was Sappho who first called eros "bittersweet. No one who has been in love disputes her." Carson opens up with this line, having translated Greek lyric poet, Sappho’s use of “sweetbitter” to “bittersweet”. She is referring to one of Sappho’s fragmented poems;
Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up.
Here Eros is seen as something uncontrollable and outside of the lover’s being . The creature loosens limbs-pervading not only the mind, but also the physicality of the victim. Her body turns to jello at the thought of the experience. Notice, it is not the desired that steals the lover’s heart, but the idea of love. Eros presents itself as a triangulating space between the lover and beloved. The poet acknowledges it as theft, knowing that the spark of this moment is ephemeral. Sappho’s use of “once again” could mean not only that she has experienced this feeling before, but that this new experience brings her nostalgically to her original self, or as she believes she is meant to be.
Queen Victoria wrote after the death of her Prince Albert; “No one contradicts me now and the salt has gone out of my life.”
Many Greek poets refer to eros as lack. It’s been called an attack, a splitting of the soul. It is in this moment that the individual is forced to hold two contradictory thoughts-one of the self as whole and one of the self as complete only with another person. Edges dissolve between the lover and beloved at points and then present themselves again as a reminder of objectivity.
There is a parallel between the desire for knowledge (logos) and that for the beloved. The archetypical lover’s want is to stop time and cement the “now” of Eros’ invasion. This is much like the way a reader likes to wish formulaic texts to be knowledge fixed upon page. It is the aim of the writer to nurture this belief and take the reader into a paradoxical state much like being in love. By creating triangulations through physical distance, more reasonable suitors, poor timing, the author leads us into the mind of the lover confronted by such obstacles. It is practicality up against the character’s desires. As readers, this division is what we are so drawn to. The story sustains our attention only when there is a dissonance, which we hope to find harmonious in the end.
An excerpt from Sophokles’ play, “The Lovers of Achilles” tells of the pleasure children find in holding ice. It is too cold to keep in the palms and will quickly melt if they continue to do so… yet, the experience is enjoyable. Sophokles uses this as an analogy of the lover swept away by eros. But only in writing, which we can continually return to, can a piece of ice melt forever.
To read something does not necessarily mean to “know” it. Our desire in reading though, is to reach beyond ourselves to something unknown, or maybe even unknowable. There is an edge between written text and the world around us, much like the edge between our idealization of our beloved and she in actuality. Plato says that the reach for knowledge is a process which is necessarily lived out in space and time. It is not to be found exclusively in books.
In Plato’s dialogue, the “Phaedrus”, a discussion takes place between Phaedrus and a characterized version of Sokrates. Phaedrus has just attended a recitation of a speech by Greek orator, Lysias on the matter of love. He runs into Sokrates who begs Phaedrus to share it with him. Throughout the speech, Lysias encourages taking up the same vantage point as a writer-removing oneself from the idea of eros. He promotes his listeners to choose a non-lover, that being someone who is guided on purely rational grounds. This serves to create an objective relationship that is constant and predictable. The tone of this speech takes on a more accepted Greek sentiment of stoic self-control. Lysias simply edits out the “now” of desire, dismissing it as mania.
At the end of Phaedrus’ re-reading of the speech, Sokrates pointedly exclaims that he is in taken over in ecstasy by the way in which Phaedrus recited the oration. Here I think Sokrates displays his disapproval for Lysias’ ideas towards love. Because Sokrates is so moved by the speech, he becomes the lover that the recitation warns against.
Eros marks the transmutation of the individual when faced with their possibilities. This is probably a change that Lysias refutes. He sees it as an end to oneself, while Sokrates identifies it as just the beginning. It is with good reason that one would adopt the inner austerity of Lysias in one in place of the pathos, or the high emotion that results from eros. Sokrates later attempts this attitude by questioning what the lover wants from time. Do they hope to stop time and forever possess a single moment of desire? He recognizes that this pursuit can only stunt the growth of the beloved. Through jealousy, the lover is coerced to prevent any intellectual development on behalf of the beloved in fear that it could grant them independence.
When reading, focus shifts from the external world to the internal atmosphere of the mind in thought. To comprehend written word, the senses must be cut-off to an extent. Time becomes relevant only to the text, because the writer synthesizes their ideas from various moments and edits the story into an exercise in language, in and of itself. So long as our eyes are on the page, we are taken out of time. The lover hopes to remain in this state as well.
What does the one who has been struck by eros truly want? In proximity to the beloved, the lover becomes completely vulnerable and anxiety-ridden. Sappho’s fragment 31 reads;
“That man seems to me peer of gods,
who sits in thy presence,
and hears close to him
thy sweet speech
and lovely laughter; that indeed
makes my heart flutter in my bosom.
For when I see thee but a little,
I have no utterance left,
my tongue is broken down,
and straightway a subtle fire has run under my skin,
with my eyes I have no sight,
my ears ring,
sweat pours down, and a trembling
seizes all my body; I am paler than grass,
and seem in my madness little better
than one dead.”
But I must dare all, since one so poor.”
In the calm composure of the beloved man, does Sappho see her own potential to control her desires? He is content with himself and listens to her quietly and from a distance. However, even her longing to take on his attitude is a desire to mesh with him. The revelation of her potential is seen through the filter of what she sees in him.
Pre-linguistic consciousness didn’t allow for the defining of thoughts and feelings in the way that we are now accustomed to. We didn’t think in words. With as much gained by the Greeks in becoming equipped with language, the device for identifying still inspired magical thinking. Much of our experience is ineffable, so with often-great command of language, authors try to harness desire through metaphor and symbolism. This of course leads to multiple meanings built upon each other, paradoxes we have to contemplate. But our imagination is far inferior to the imagination that can be found in nature, outside of us.
I have to admit though; I fell hopelessly for this book.
I wasn't able to add the footnotes from Word. Will work on fixing that.