Eros the Bittersweet, by Anne Carson, is a short and curious set of essays about the nature of desire. That sentence alone captures very little of the scope and character of the book: Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet is a reflexive, paradoxical, expansive and narrow work. It is fine as filigree in its craftsmanship, and Anne Carson, as always writes in an easy, conversational, endlessly approachable style. It is, I can see, a great scholarly work, a great piece of thought, but it is unfortunately not a book I particularly enjoyed.
Let me explain. Anne Carson starts the book with a fragment of a poem by Sappho:
Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me
sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up
The rest of the book is devoted to exploring what this phrase Sappho has coined—sweetbitter*, or as we more commonly refer to it, bittersweet—really means. Where does it come from? What is this dyadic, split experience we have of desire? Her explorations of the bittersweet nature of Eros take her through the lyric poets of Ancient Greece, through the novelists of Ancient Greece, through paintings, through ice, through insects, through modern novels. The breadth of sources Anne Carson marshals in her scholarly inquiry of Eros’ bittersweetness is sweeping. The point of desire becomes first flexible, then reflexive—what we desire, she argues, is the act of desiring. Then, she employs this lens to literature, to the alphabet itself, to the act of reading and writing. She poses the reader of a work of fiction as a lover (one overcome with Eros), but poses the writer of a fiction as a nonlover. The ideas are rich, endlessly rich. Sometimes the work borders on wordplay, but even then Anne Carson is a clear-eyed enough thinker that you go along with it.
Ultimately, though, what was most interesting to me about the book were the things it did not address. The whole frame of the book is from the lover’s perspective—a perspective Anne Carson (and Sokrates, and Sappho, and Aristophanes) claims is a position of utter loss of self-control, of selfishness, of personal obliteration. It is a position of devotion to the beloved, but really just the idea of the beloved and really just as long as the beloved is out of reach. It is clear, to me, where the bitterness of love comes in: the mismatch between the lover and the loved. A mismatch, it needs to be pointed out, that currently and has historically manifested as violence wrought on women’s bodies. Emotional violence, physical violence, sexual violence, all of it. This consistent idea of loss of self-control, of Eros as a force beyond ourselves that we can’t (and Sokrates claims we shouldn’t) fight against is the root of rape culture we can trace all the way back to ancient Greece. And, excepting Sappho and a line or two from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, the voices Anne Carson uses and engages with throughout the text are those of men. Yes, sometimes a great beauty can come from desire. Sometimes it’s reciprocated. But the destructiveness of it when it’s not reciprocated is haunting to me, and that’s something that Anne Carson deftly seems to sidestep.
Related to this is the fact that the beloved in Anne Carson’s many triangulations of desire never becomes a subject in their own right. This is a point made more than once very explicitly—Anne Carson dissects desire and comes to the conclusion that the beloved as a reality (as a real person) matters very little. The beloved is only ever a symbol for something the lover wants but can’t have. And I would agree that in many cases, especially in terms of infatuation, which seems to be what she codes as Eros, this is true. But the effect of it combined with the continual assertion that under the spell of Eros one has no control is to dehumanize the beloved. The beloved has no voice, no relevant needs, no respected boundaries. In terms of Freud, whom Anne Carson invokes more than once in the text, the beloved is always and statically an object to the one who loves them, and never a subject. There is embedded in this the idea that once the beloved is real enough, three-dimensional enough, to become a subject they loose the seductive quality that infatuated the lover in the first place. How lonely that is if it’s true.
It was a strange book for me to read. As you can see, I struggled with the structure of her arguments and their precepts. Confusing me further was that the book reads, to me at least, as a celebration of the powerful whirlwind that is erotic desire. The last chapter discusses how empty and bland a city without Eros would be. Earlier in the book, she discusses Phaedras, who argues with Sokrates about the merits of a speech by Lysias concerning whether it’s better to be in love and try and freeze time and the beloved even while knowing to do so will end in disaster or to love dispassionately (as a nonlover) and allow the beloved space and room to grow. And the thing is, I like boundaries. I like companionate love, the safe and stable kind where each person involved is a subject, where there is room to grow. I have always been leery of the intoxication of love, of the idea that infatuation is overwhelming and inescapable. There are levels of desire, multiplicities of love, but Anne Carson here defines love and desire very strictly and very narrowly in ways that never sit comfortably with me as I read the book.**
It’s possible I’m misunderstanding her or misreading the text. I am no classicist, and many of her references went over my head. I do believe, and will admit, that I took a more literal approach the to question of erotic desire than she presented. I was unable to loose erotic desire from sexuality in order to climb the abstract slopes with her. I was unable to pull erotic desire out of its cultural-historical contexts, and despite drawing from so many times and places this is not a book overly concerned with cultural-historical contexts. That said, the book ends with this:
It is a high-risk proposition, as Sokrates saw quite clearly, to reach for the difference between the known and the unknown. He thought the risk worthwhile, because he was in love with the wooing itself. And who is not?
I finished the book, and all I could think was this: I’m not. I am not in love with wooing; wooing makes me endlessly nervous. I am in love with having already wooed, having already learned the unknown.
*If you ask me, Sappho had the right of it: ‘sweetbitter’ has a better cadence and a more pleasing ring to it than ‘bittersweet.’
**And this is peculiar because in Autobiography of Red and it’s companion piece Red Doc> she explores the variegations of love with such finesse and nuance.