Saturday, December 11, 2010

Eros Is a Verb

"It was Sappho who first called eros "bittersweet."  --Eros Bittersweet by Anne Carson

While hard to translate when applied to ancient gods, for the woman poet, Sappho who wrote the surviving poem Sweetbitter, the Greek word glukupikron translated into English might be thought of as bittersweet. Meaning a sort of sweetness when applied to eros and then a disappointment, or "first sweet and then bitterness in sequence," writes Carson. She says, "Many a lover's experience would validate such a chronology, especially in poetry..." In Sappho's poem, she does not seem to be recording the history of a love affair as much as she seems to be speaking of its geometry.

Desire is from without; it "creeps up upon its object irresistibly."  Recording in her poem, not the love but the instant of desire, Sappho sees the desire as "neither inhabitant nor ally of the desirer." And often poets write of the resulting crazed feeling of the one who most ardently pursues the beauty of another. "Foreign to her will, it [desire] forces itself... Eros is an enemy. Its bitterness must be the taste of  enmity. That would be hate." The convergence of both love and hate in the same pole constitutes a paradox. It is somewhat cliche to say that hate begins where love leaves off. And yet hate is not the opposite of love.

"There is something pure and indubitable about the notion that eros is lack." In Sappho's fragment 31 she writes of this. Here the poetess creates a stage, mise en scene where the writer herself seems to step mysteriously into the situation, between the lover and the beloved, forming what is a triangle. An obvious answer is that this poem is really about jealousy. Many have thought this about it, while others have thought not. The word 'jealousy' comes from the Greek zelos, meaning zeal or fervent pursuit. "It [jealousy] is a hot and corrosive spiritual emotion, arising in fear, fed upon resentment." The jealous lover fears that another is preferred over them, and that their primary place in the beloved heart is under threat by another. "This," writes Carson is "an emotion of placement and displacement."  Thus the jealous lover covets a placement in the beloved affections, and is filled with anxiety that another will take it instead.

In Italy during the Renaissance period a dance became popular called Jealousy in which pairs of dancers separated during parts of the dance to join with others; at several stages in the dance, one of the dancers must stand alone while others move on. They then rejoin the others. "Jealousy is a dance in which everyone moves, for it is the instability of the emotional situation which preys upon a jealous lover's mind." In Sappho's poem, she does not covet the man's place, nor fear for her own. And she directs no resentment at him. She is simply "amazed at his intrepidness." Yet it is the beloved beauty that so deeply affects Sappho as one in the triangle. And while jealousy may be implicit in this poem, it does not explain the geometry of the piece.

Finally jealousy, it becomes evident, is not the point: "the normal world of erotic responses is beside the point." It is, says Carson, "about the lover's mind in the act of constructing desire for itself." No claim beyond that does the poet make. Sappho perceives desire as a three point function, a triangle. She argues that it's a radical, necessary construction of desire. "For where eros is lack, its activation calls upon a three part structure--lover, beloved, and that which comes between them. Desire moves, and eros is a verb.

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