Robert Waxler, whose paper began the discussion, comes at the topic with a sense of "the erotic "that goes back to the Greek idea of Eros. Eros is, simply by definition, desire for what you do not have. It means lack, or absence, it depends on a triangular structure comprised, on some fundamental level, of the desirer, the one who is desired, and that which stands between them. As Anne Carson puts it in Eros the Bittersweet, that third term “connects and separates, marking that two are not one, irradiating the absence whose presence is demanded by eros” (16). For what we might think of as companionate love, there are other terms, other gods.
The experience of Eros is always paradoxical, writes Carson, or at least oxymoronic--it's the simultaneous experience of pleasure and pain, love and hate. It's all about ambivalence, including moral ambivalence: our moral sense shatters at the impact of eros, she writes, paraphrasing Sappho (among others). Hence, in part, the reason why literature about eros returns again and again to morally touchy actions and impulses, from the "forced seduction" fantasies we've been discussing here recently to scenes and fantasies of murder or murder / suicide (cue Wagner, baby; it's time for our big liebestod duet). Eros is, therefore, an “issue of boundaries”: fundamentally the “boundary of flesh and self between you and me. And it is only, suddenly, at the moment when I would dissolve that boundary, I realize I never can” (30).
In the literary versions of "erotic romance" that Bob studies, this realization leads, more often than not, to tragedy. The effort to "dissolve that boundary"--to say "I am Heathcliff," and make it stick--drives the hero to all sorts of nasty behavior. In the erotic romance that emerges from the romance genre, however, it seems to me that things tend to turn out much more happily. Not just because of the HEA requirement of the genre, but also because the genre isn't really about this sort of metaphysical "eros" at all, except on rare occasions. (Emma Holly's Hunting Midnight may be one of them.) Rather, it's about sex, about libido as a many-splendored thing, in the characters and in the reader. But their libido romps or frisks or sulks or revives in a context--at first or eventually--of friendship, mutuality, and companionship. Those don't show up at all in Carson's account of Eros, and I have a hunch that any theory of love that derives primarily from that particular source will be unable to say much of interest or use about the popular versions of the genre.
In an email after the conference, Bob told me that he could not think of a text "that gives us a full vision of both soul and body (flesh--not bones) being resurrected and unified (even in the Gospels)" and no "significant" text that
gives us a sense of what it would mean to be a "total individual" (the full package) and a total social (if not Divine) being. There is always "a gap" (even with the Platonic ladder of love)--and there is never equality in this context--usually some hint of a sado-masochistic relationship, and a sense of incompletion (the mortal wound).Now, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure what some of these terms mean, especially the ones having to do with totality. Nor am I sure that equality and SM, at least in real life, are necessarily at odds. But I can think of some pretty significant texts of happy love, love comprised not simply of classical eros, but of some lively mix of libido, friendship, tenderness, and mutual esteem. ("Perfect esteem enlivened by desire," as James Thomson puts it in "Spring," from The Seasons, 1728) Let's see: there's the Song of Songs, Donne's "Good Morrow" and "The Sun Rising" and "The Ecstasy," and maybe even (with some bittersweetness) Paradise Lost as well. Pride and Prejudice? Persuasion? A flock of Victorians, I'd wager. And perhaps there are "texts" in other genres: paintings, music, etc? Says C. S. Lewis at one point, after all, "We are under no obligation at all to sing all our love-duets in the throbbing, world-without-end, heart-breaking manner of Tristan and Isolde; let us often sing like Papageno and Papagena instead" (The Four Loves).
Let's help a fellow RomanceScholar find his moorings! Who would be some of the authors and texts he should consider as he sails in search of other, less fraught, more "romance-novel-ready" traditions of love?