Eros the Bittersweet

I asked my gf to talk to me about the erotic and she handed me Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet. It was perfect, actually, and allowed me to think about the erotic as a combination of love and frustration, something I wouldn’t have gotten to on my own because I hate to be frustrated.

The title is a reference to Sappho, who called eros bitter sweet. Despite a long career in lesbian letters, I’d neglected to read Sappho or even learn anything about her at all until Em first read her aloud to me during one of our early dates at the Brooklyn library. As luck (or the Dewey Decimal System) would have it, the Russians (my fave) and Greeks (hers) were in the same aisle on opposing shelves. It was perfect, we spent the afternoon trying to seduce the other through our favorite authors.

I read Daniil Kharms to her, specifically the one where Gogol and Pushkin keep tripping over each other. I think it’s delightful, though admittedly not traditionally romantic.

Em, being Em, meaning practically a troubadour, picked the love poems of Sappho. Specifically Fragment 31, which I now understand to be her most famous love poem. I have to confess I didn’t really get the allure at the time. I hate to sound plebian, but the fragments thing was lost on me. What’s the use of reading half a poem? Don’t worry, I’ve since come around about Sappho and classical poetry in general even though Em still turns her nose up at Russian absurdism.

Anyway, Anne Carson got me thinking about the pleasure/pain principle and the erotic. We’re used to discussing pleasure/pain as a physiological response, there are plenty of discourses on sadomasochistic desire, the transcendent experience of physical pain/ecstasy, altered states, etc. But if you ask me, eroticizing emotional pain is way more hardcore.

In 31, Sappho looks at her love object from afar, the girl is talking to a man and Sappho is in some sort of erotic agony. She feels “almost dead.” It’s seriously painful to read.

Here’s Carson’s translation, which for the record is more beautiful than any translation I’d previously read:

He seems to me equal to the gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead — or almost
I seem to me.

But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty…

OK, so poor Sappho, I mean, ouch. Greener than grass? Almost dead? Sounds awful. She is sick with love, dying of ecstasy. She certainly doesn’t seem jealous, though Carson says that’s a common misinterpretation. Forget it, that’s not jealousy. It’s more like she is in some kind of religious fervor. It seems pretty obvious to me that she’s getting off on it.

We get the concept of eroticism from the Greek myth of Eros. Eros was the god of love and sexual desire. Typically depicted as wreaking havoc with his pointed arrows–shooting them willy-nilly into unsuspecting bystanders–Eros was apparently a mischievous little prick. He wounded everyone unscrupulously–the catch being that some arrows caused their target to feel desire and some caused indifference. Thanks to Eros, everyone was always running around in some painful yet delicious state of unrequited love.

Hence Sappho calling him bitter sweet.

Eros as a concept is most easily explained as the drive for sexual and romantic love. The Greeks had a thought or two about it. The Symposium, has the meaning and purpose of eros as it’s central subject. Freud conflated eros with libido, and Bataille described it as a psychological quest–a higher pursuit than simple sex.  Then again, Bataille was so freaky he got kicked out of the Surrealists. Imagine being too weird for the Surrealists. Bataille got especially hot for the idea of beheading. He even volunteered to be beheaded but he couldn’t find anyone willing to do it. It’s probably a good thing he didn’t have the internets.

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