A couple of weeks ago, I was in my local curry joint rereading Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll, and had just come to the passage where two characters discuss Sappho's invention of the word "bittersweet," when "Bittersweet Symphony" came on the restaurant stereo. Then I went home and saw that one of my Goodreads friends had put a book by Anne Carson called Eros the Bittersweet on her to-read list. What a collision of serendipity! I took it as a sign that I should read that book too.
Eros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet begins as an examination of what classical Greek poets had to say about eros (romantic desire), but expands into a meditation on time, metaphor, imagination, the distance between self and other, and what makes life worth living. In modern times, we think of romantic love as the emotion that makes you want to settle down and create a family with somebody, but the Greeks felt very differently. To them, eros was overwhelming, disruptive, and more to be feared than welcomed. And yet, they kept desiring, and reflecting on their desire, and writing about it in poetry and prose.
Carson provides English translations of all of the Greek passages she quotes, but she also prints the original Ancient Greek text. I therefore decided to take the opportunity to teach myself how to sound out Ancient Greek. I found a chart of the Greek alphabet online, printed it out, and taped it into the back cover of the book for reference; eventually, I got to the point where I could sound out the Greek without referring to my alphabet cheat-sheet. As for the words I was sounding out, many of them remained incomprehensible, yet it was worth it for the times when I recognized Greek roots that are also used in English, and had a holy-shit-I’m-reading-and-understanding-something-that-was-written-two-millennia-ago moment. Reading a line of Aeschylus (the first playwright!) that goes “eumorphon de kolossoi,” and understanding how it means “well-shaped statues” – well, that’s an amazing feeling.
Indeed, there’s a lot of stuff in Eros the Bittersweet about the connections between eros, learning, reading, and writing. Our imaginations, and our reach that exceeds our grasp, spur us to fall in love and also to pursue academic interests. This idea really resonates with me – after all, two of my favorite authors are Tom Stoppard and A.S. Byatt, whose plays and novels often focus on the connections between eros and education. But if you don’t get a quasi-sexual pleasure out of learning and knowledge, Eros the Bittersweet is probably not the book for you.
My biggest complaint about Eros the Bittersweet is that it doesn’t devote enough attention to Greek drama. Carson extensively considers the formal qualities of ancient Greek lyric poetry, novels, and philosophical dialogues, but she does not analyze Greek theater in the same way. For a work so concerned with paradoxes and the relationship of eros to time, this seems like a major oversight. After all, theater has an inherently paradoxical relation to time: a script can endure for millennia, but a performance is ephemeral. At one point, Carson analyzes a passage of Sophocles (calling it “Sophocles’ poem,” ignoring the fact that it comes from a stage play) that compares desire to “ice-crystal in the hands / […] you can’t put the melting mass down / you can’t keep holding it.” Isn’t the ephemeral pleasure of theater similar to the ephemeral pleasure of melting ice?
It is to Carson’s credit, however, that her book inspired me to want to learn more, to forge new connections, to exercise my imagination and have new thoughts of my own. Which means that – by Carson’s own definition – it’s a book that inspires love.
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