Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Quotes About Eros (Things Called Love, 3)

So:  the Eros tradition.  (I'd call it the "erotic" tradition, but that word has more purely sexual overtones now, and there's no reason to assume that there's any more sex involved in this tradition of love than in the companionate tradition.  In fact, arguably there's much less.  But I digress.)

Rather than try to compose my own longish, thoughtful post on the Eros tradition, I thought I'd assemble a bunch of quotes about it from various authors, limiting myself to a few at a time and posting several times on the topic.  That's an easier sort of blogpost to write, since I can steal a few minutes here and there to type things in when I'm too tired to think.  I hope it will be a useful sort of post for readers as well, since it will leave you with some handy passages to use and sources to follow up.

The locus classicus of thought about the Eros tradition, at least for me, is Anne Carson's aphoristic study of eros in love, in writing, and simply in thinking:  Eros the Bittersweet.  I encountered this book late in my dissertation writing, so there's not much in my own book from hers, but it's been very useful for me over the years in the classroom and in some work on popular romance fiction.  (My first PCA talk on romance, for example, was a piece on Emma Holly called "Holly the Bittersweet.")

"It was Sappho who first called eros 'bittersweet,'" Carson's book begins.  "No one who has been in love disputes her.  What does the word mean?" (3).

Now, the "word in question here is "bittersweet," not Eros--she's trying to get at why "a simultaneity of pleasure and pain is at issue" in the experience of Eros, which strikes Sappho in many poems as "an enemy" (4), since "love and hate converge within erotic desire" (9).  Still, a few pages into the book, as she moves into her explanation of this convergence, Carson does give us a handy definition:
The Greek word eros denotes 'want,' 'lack,' 'desire for that which is missing.'  The lover wants what he does not have.  It is by definition impossible for him to have what he wants if, as soon as it is had, it is n longer wanting.  This is more than wordplay.  [...]  Plato turns and returns to it.  Four of his dialogues explore what it means to say that desire can only be for what is lacking, not at hand, not at present, not in one's possession nor in one's being.... (10) 
As Carson goes on to point out, the Greek idea of eros doesn't simply apply to interhuman desires; rather, it also applies to the desire to learn, to know, to understand.  "There would seem to be some resemblance," she writes, "between the way Eros acts in the mind of a lover and the way knowing acts in the mind of a thinker" (70).

The American poet and polymath Guy Davenport, in a review of Carson's book, glosses these ideas very nicely.
What's bittersweet is Eros, the god of falling in love (being in love is another matter, involving other, wiser gods).  Gods and states of mind are contiguous in Greek thought; eros is the Greek for that giddy, happy, all too often frustrated conviction that another human being's returned affection and equal longing for you are all that's lacking to make life a perfect happiness. ("Eros, His Intelligence," in The Hunter Gracchus, 137)
It is the kinetics of desire that creates the euphoria of loving and of learning, of being alive.  We are largely ignorant of satisfied desire as the ancient Greeks understood it.  [...]  Satisfied desire is a fulfillment of some kind and as a subject belongs to housekeeping, child rearing, reverie; that is, to the world of order.  Desire and learning are by their nature disorderly, disruptive, agonizing:  bittersweet. (140)
You can probably already see why these ideas were useful to me in thinking about the many forms of "eros" in Holly's erotic romance.  The ideas of lack, of falling in love, of coming to know, and of the deferral of satisfaction (since that would mean the end of eros) all have implications at once for characters in a story and for the experience of reading one.  (Did I mention that we have a Call for Papers on Erotic Romance over at JPRS?  Would love to see some philosophical approaches in the mix.) 

OK, that's all I have time for now.  The last word goes to William Blake, who probably knew a thing or two about Eros and love.

A Question Answered
What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

Nice little commentary on the quatrain, by Robert Pinsky, here.


  1. "Satisfied desire is a fulfillment of some kind and as a subject belongs to housekeeping, child rearing, reverie; that is, to the world of order."

    I've been reading John R. Gillis's For Better, For Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present (1985) and he writes that:

    Love was regarded as something physiological as well as psychological. While natural enough to youth who "are hot and fiery by reason of the blood which boyles (boils) in their veines," it could be quite dangerous to the adult because "like a wild untamed beast it exceedes the bounds of reason [and] there is no misery which it brings not to the world, nor any disorder which it causeth not in our lives." While we expect married couples to act like lovers, in peasant and artisan society the passions expected of a suitor were to be avoided by a spouse. The love conjured in courtship was exorcised at the time of the wedding. Although husbands and wives were supposed to show consideration and respect, conjugal love was a means to marriage no its end. Too much conjugal affection was perceived as unnatural and a threat to the broader social obligations that came with the establishment of a household. Thus, the power of love, symbolized by the bride's garter, was ceremonially transferred to single persons who would require it to make their own marriages.
    The race for the garter took place on the return from the church as part of the final act of the big wedding, the installation of the new couple as master and mistress of their own household. (73-74)

    [Gillis is quoting from Lawrence Babb, "The Physiological Conception of Love in the Elizabethan and Early Stuart Drama," Proceedings of the Modern Language Association, LVI, no. 4 (December 1941), p. 1025.]

  2. That's a fascinating piece of cultural history, Laura. It reminds me of the discussion of early 20th century advertising in Eva Illouz's book "Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism," in which the emergence of an alternative model of marriage gets discussed.

    Illouz speaks about "the new anxieties about the future and stability of marriage that had emerged in the first few decades of the twentieth century and that were widely discussed in both academic journals and popular magazines," to wit: "that marriage was a fragile enterprise and divorce a likely outcome" (41). She continues:

    "To calm these new fears, the advertising industry recommended the consumption of intense romantic experiences and of seduction-enhancing products aimed at maintaining the original thrill of romance. In other words, ads began to present marriage as a naturally dull state unless one took appropriate measures to maintain the thrill of youth and seduction. [...] The home was no longer perceived as the altar to love and as the refuge from a 'harsh' word. Instead, it was threatened by boredom and as such was now open to the incursion of ego-expressive and leisure goods" (41).

    She summarizes the shift this way:

    "...between 1900 and 1940, advertising and movies, the emerging and increasingly powerful cultural industries of the period, developed and advanced a vision of love as a utopia wherein marriage should be eternally exciting and romantic and could be if the couple participated in the realm of leisure. [...] The association of romance and leisure enforced the idea that intensity could be maintained as long as one purchased the appropriate means" (41).

    It may be, she notes, that the shift begins a bit earlier, during the Victorian period, as couples begin to believe that "it was sexuality, rather than domesticity, that united and uplifted a couple" (40, but she's quoting here from E. Rothman, Hands and Hearts, Harvard UP, 1984, p. 267.) A shift in gods, as Guy Davenport might say!

  3. Interesting to think about these issues when coupled with all the press being given to Michael Cobb's new book: Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled.

  4. What's the connection, Jonathan? I haven't read the Cobb.

  5. The mythology/commodification surrounding romance and anxieties over marriage. What happens to the "family" or "marriage" or "love," when we begin to think about the "single"? Cobb's use of the single as "the most despised sexual minority," is this part of the romantic myth? This line sticks out in my mind and I will need to think this through further: "To calm these new fears, the advertising industry recommended the consumption of intense romantic experiences and of seduction-enhancing products aimed at maintaining the original thrill of romance."

    I have been thinking -- and writing -- about Cobb's book for a couple of weeks now. Once thoughts are more cogent, I will figure out what to do with them.

  6. Oh, and also on the physiological aspect of love, it may be worth noting that for a long, long time love (of the kind designated amor hereos) was considered a disease, to be cured by doctors. I posted about that a while ago.

  7. How true and how funny, Laura! Reminds me of a passing comment from Davenport that in Sappho's time, the whomping, shattering impact of Eros was considered "as normal as rapacious greed seems to 20th century Americans," or words to that effect.