A Critique of Eros the Bittersweet by Thalia Rose

Eros the Bittersweet is a lyrical-esssayist novel by Anne Carson, published in 1986. It was included in the Princeton University Press. A fragment of Sappho opens the book: “Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me / sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up.” The epilogue is placed appropriately to the rest of the content, as this poetry fragment is essential to the thesis of Eros the Bittersweet. The description ‘sweetbitter’ is translated from ‘glukupikron’.
     Sappho’s usage of the Greek word glukupikron insinuates (upon translation), that sweet prefaces bitter. Sappho placed the character gluku- before pikron- as a statement on the nature of attraction. When an individual is infatuated with another, the sweet side is more visible than the bitter side, and the discovery of the opposite side of the coin is obstructed by the shallowness of face-value adoration.
Anne Carson claims that novels are interwoven with triangulation. Carson defines triangulation as the phenomenon of loving what another loves. The reader of the novel is in a formulation of Pascal’s triangle, where the characters in the text are the objects of cupidity. The two perspectives of the characters are dissociated from one’s own, and activate a sense of multifaceted desire.
     “To be running breathlessly, but not yet arrived, is itself delightful, a suspended moment of living hope.” Eros acts cognitively and emotionally to signify longing or the lack of something. Objects of cupidity are subject to bittersweetness, since Eros is interpreted through the reader’s own intuition and biases.
     The Velázquez painting Las Meninas is interpreted, in the novel, to be a model of triangulation. A young girl is illuminated in the center of the painting, surrounded by her attendants. Carson focuses on a miniscule detail of the background which possesses human, visceral ardor. Anthropomorphism is shown in the description of this Classical painting. This is also ekphrastic, as the visual art piece is taken into Carson’s body of work. It acts as a vessel of Eros.
     In Las Meninas, it appears that the people in the scene would be most directly involved in Eros, but instead, it is the outside scene that provokes Carson’s interpretation.Triangulation consists of three components: the lover, the beloved, and the obstruction. The blind point is the obstruction.
Eros is reflected in several entities, some as minor as ice, and others as grandiose as Ancient architecture. The lives of Sappho and Plato are essential to Carson’s inspection of desire. She argues that what people long for is to experience longing. Sένδεια (éndeia) is this desire and its correlation to deficiency – an individual can only experience desire for what is not in their own possession or being. Once what is desired has been obtained, the fixation disappears, and a new object of affection is chosen.
This differentiates it from non-cyclical love, affection with a foundation of contentedness. “Eros is an issue of boundaries. He exists because certain boundaries do. In the interval between reach and grasp, between glance and counterglance.” Plato’s Phaedrus, which is anatomized in the second section of the novel, pertains to this definition.
     Phaedrus is a dialogue between two philosophers: Socrates and Phaedrus. After hearing the speech of Lysias, a reputable argument writer or λογογράφος (logographos), the dyad discuss the matter of Eros. Socrates chronicles four types of ‘divine madness’, the last derived from Aphrodite and known to stimulate concupiscence. The argument affirms that controlling one’s prurience is an assessment that will grant ascension to Heaven.
     Socrates’ “Great Speech” is composed from the perspective of the lover. To establish parallelism, Phaedrus was created by Plato with the sole purpose of opposing the lover’s perspective. Phaedrus was a fictional antagonist of equivalent prestige.
     Carson extensively references a plethora of ancient texts and figures in lyrical essayism. Empirical circumstance is denied through defamiliarization. The reader is stripped of reality and human condition in the examination of the subject. It isn’t until the last page of the novel that humanity is addressed. Authenticity is translated through Greek mythology.The truth is based on the reincarnations of Eros through several subjects, not human experience. This assembles verisimilitude.
     “Now and again a man and a woman may marry and live very happily, as travelers who meet by chance at an inn; at night falling asleep they dream the same dream, where they watch fire move along a rope that binds them together, but it is unlikely they remember the dream in the morning.” Appetite creates the ambition and motive to persist. Carson states that if there were to be no desire, “The art of storytelling would be widely neglected.”
Thalia Rose, class of 2018

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