It was Sappho who first called eros “bittersweet.” No one who has been in love disputes her. What does the word mean?
Eros seemed to Sappho at once an experience of pleasure and pain. Here is contradiction and perhaps paradox. To perceive this eros can split the mind in two. Why? The components of the contradiction may seem, at first glance, obvious. We take for granted, as did Sappho, the sweetness of erotic desire; its pleasurability smiles out at us. But the bitterness is less obvious. There might be several reasons why what is sweet should also be bitter. There may be various relations between the two savors. Poets have sorted the matter out in different ways. Sappho’s own formulation is a good place to begin tracing the possibilities. The relevant fragment runs:
Ἕρος δαὖτέ μ᾽ ὀ λυσιμέλες δόνει,
γλυκύπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον
Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me
Sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up
(LP, fr. 130)
It is hard to translate. “Sweetbitter” sounds wrong, and yet our standard English rendering “bittersweet” inverts the actual terms of Sappho’s compound glukupikron. Should that concern us?
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It’s a difficult thing, attempting to articulate what so awed and intimidated and humbled you about a book you nonetheless love. I can’t possibly talk about Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet. It’s not a lack of desire—but ability. And, perhaps, strength of character. I cannot. So, well, I won’t. Not now. I know it’s impossible right now.
If you’ll allow me, what follows is a shamelessly shared chapter from this book, courtesy of the publisher, Dalkey Archive Press. The words are perfect on their own anyway, so why risk messing it up with my inanity?
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Eros is an issue of boundaries. He exists because certain boundaries do. In the interval between reach and grasp, between glance and counterglance, between ‘I love you’ and ‘I love you too,’ the absent presence of desire comes alive. But the boundaries of time and glance and I love you are only aftershocks of the main, inevitable boundary that creates Eros: 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.
Infants begin to see by noticing the edges of things. How do they know an edge is an edge? By passionately wanting it not to be. The experience of eros as lack alerts a person to the boundaries of himself, of other people, of things in general. It is the edge separating my tongue from the taste for which it longs that teaches me what an edge is. Like Sappho’s adjective glukupikron, the moment of desire is one that defies proper edge, being a compound of opposites forced together at pressure. Pleasure and pain at once register upon the lover, inasmuch as the desirability of the love object derives, in part, from its lack. To whom is it lacking? To the lover. If we follow the trajectory of eros we consistently find it tracing out this same route: it moves out from the lover toward the beloved, then ricochets back to the lover himself and the hole in him, unnoticed before. Who is the real subject of most love poems? Not the beloved. It is that hole.
When I desire you a part of me is gone: my want of you partakes of me. So reasons the lover at the edge of eros. The presence of want awakens in him nostalgia for wholeness. His thoughts turn toward questions of personal identity: he must recover and reincorporate what is gone if he is to be a complete person. The locus classicus for this view of desire is the speech of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. Here Aristophanes accounts for the nature of human eros by means of a fantastic anthropology (189d-93d). Human beings were originally round organisms, each composed of two people joined together as one perfect sphere. These rolled about everywhere and were exceedingly happy. But the spherical creatures grew overambitious, thinking to roll right up to Olympus, so Zeus chopped each of them in two. As a result everyone must now go through life in search of the one and only other person who can round him out again. “Sliced in two like a flatfish,” says Aristophanes, “each of us is perpetually hunting for the matching half of himself” (191d).
Most people find something disturbingly lucid and true in Aristophanes’ image of lovers as people cut in half. All desire is for a part of oneself gone missing, or so it feels to the person in love. Aristophanes’ myth justifies that feeling, in typical Greek fashion, by blaming the whole situation on Zeus. But Aristophanes is a comic poet. We might look, for a more serious exegesis, to more serious lovers. A feature of their reasoning will at once strike us. It is outrageous.