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Eros the Bittersweet

Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay

Anne Carson
Copyright Date: 1986
Pages: 202
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  • Book Info
    Eros the Bittersweet
    Book Description:

    The insights presented in the volume are many and wide-ranging, recognizably in tune with the subtlest modern discussions of desire (such as triangulation. or loving what others love), yet offering new solutions to old problems, like the proper interpretation of Plato's Phaedrus. On the frequently discussed effect of literacy on Greek civilization, the book offers a fresh view: it was no accident that the poets who invented Eros were also the first readers and writers of the Western literate tradition.

    Originally published in 1989.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5795-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Abbreviations
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. Bittersweet
    (pp. 3-9)

    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...

  6. Gone
    (pp. 10-11)

    Perhaps there are many ways to answer this. One comes clearest in Greek. The Greek worderosdenotes ‘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 no longer wanting. This is more than wordplay. There is a dilemma within eros that has been thought crucial by thinkers from Sappho to the present day. Plato turns and returns to it. Four of his dialogues explore what it means to say that desire...

  7. Ruse
    (pp. 12-17)

    There is something pure and indubitable about the notion that eros is lack. Moreover, it is a notion that, once adopted, has a powerful effect on one’s habits and representations of love. We can see this most clearly in an example: consider Sappho’s fragment 31, which is one of the best-known love poems in our tradition.

    ϕαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν

    ἔμμεν’ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι

    ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ ϕωνείσας ὐπακούει

    καὶ γελαίσας ἰμέροεν, τό μ’ ἦ μὰν

    καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν,

    ὠς γὰρ ἔς σ’ ἴδω ϐρόχε’ ὤς με ϕώναισ’ οὐδ’ ἔν ἔτ’ εἴκει,

    ἀλλ’ἄκαν μὲν γλῶσσα †ἔαγε...

  8. Tactics
    (pp. 18-25)

    The ruse of inserting a rival between lover and beloved is immediately effective, as Sappho’s poem shows, but there are more ways than one to triangulate desire. Not all look triangular in action, yet they share a common concern: to represent eros as deferred, defied, obstructed, hungry, organized around a radiant absence—to represent eros as lack.

    Mere space has power.L’amour d’loonh(‘love from a distance’) is what the canny troubadours called courtly love. We have seen Menelaos haunted through his empty palace by “absences of eyes in the statues” (Aesch.Ag. 411). With this vacancy we might compare...

  9. The Reach
    (pp. 26-29)

    A space must be maintained or desire ends. Sappho reconstructs the space of desire in a poem that is like a small, perfect photograph of the erotic dilemma. The poem is thought to be an epithalamium (or part of an epithalamium) because the ancient rhetorician Himerios alluded to it in the course of a discussion of weddings, saying:

    It was Sappho who likened a girl to an apple… and compared a bridegroom to Achilles. (Orationes9.16)

    We cannot certainly say whether Sappho composed this poem for a wedding and intended it as praise of a bride, but its overt subject...

  10. Finding the Edge
    (pp. 30-31)

    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....

  11. Logic at the Edge
    (pp. 32-38)

    When I desire you a part of me is gone: your lack is my lack. I would not be in want of you unless you had partaken of me, the lover reasons. “A hole is being gnawed in [my] vitals” says Sappho (LP, fr. 96.16-17). “You have snatched the lungs out of my chest” (West,IEG191) and “pierced me right through the bones” (193) says Archilochos. “You have worn me down” (Alkman 1.77PMG), “grated me away” (Ar.,Eccl. 956), “devoured my flesh” (Ar.,Ran. 66), “sucked my blood” (Theokritos 2.55), “mowed off my genitals” (?Archilochos, West,IEG99.21),...

  12. Losing the Edge
    (pp. 39-45)

    The self forms at the edge of desire, and a science of self arises in the effort to leave that self behind. But more than one response is possible to the acute awareness of self that ensues from the reach of desire. Neville conceives it as a “contraction” of the self upon itself and finds it merely strange. “How curiously one is changed,” he muses. He does not appear to hate the change, nor to relish it. Nietzsche, on the other hand, is delighted: “One seems to oneself transfigured, stronger, richer, more complete; oneismore complete…. It is not...

  13. Archilochos at the Edge
    (pp. 46-52)

    Archilochos is the first lyric poet whose transmission to us benefited from the literate revolution. Although evidence for the chronology of both poet and alphabet is uncertain, it is most plausible that, educated in the oral tradition, he encountered the new technology of writing at some point in his career and adapted himself to it. At any rate someone, perhaps Archilochos himself, wrote down these early facts of what it feels like to be violated by Eros:

    τοῖος γὰρ ϕιλότητος ἔρως ὑπὸ καρδίην ἐλνσθεὶς

    πολλὴν κατ’ ἀχλὺν ὀμμάτων ἔχευεν,

    κλέψας ἐκ στηθέων ἁπαλὰς φρένας.

    Such a longing for love, rolling...

  14. Alphabetic Edge
    (pp. 53-61)

    What is so special about the Greek alphabet? Other forms of script, both pictographic and phonetic, were at hand in the ancient world, for example, Assyrian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs and various Near Eastern syllabaries. Yet the Greek alphabet came as a startling novelty and revolutionized the human ability to set down thoughts. How?

    The Greeks created their alphabet by taking over the syllabic sign-system of the Phoenicians and modifying it in certain decisive ways sometime in the early eighth century b.c. It is standard to say that their chief modification amounted to “introducing the vowels.” Vowels were not expressed in...

  15. What Does the Lover Want from Love?
    (pp. 62-69)

    On the surface of it, the lover wants the beloved. This, of course, is not really the case. If we look carefully at a lover in the midst of desire, for example Sappho in her fragment 31, we see how severe an experience for her is confrontation with the beloved even at a distance. Union would be annihilating. What the lover in this poem needs is to be able to face the beloved and yet not be destroyed, that is, she needs to attain the condition of “the man who listens closely.” His ideal impassivity constitutes for her a glimpse...

  16. Symbolon
    (pp. 70-76)

    We began our investigation of bittersweet Eros by countenancing a mistranslation of Sappho’sglukupikron. We assumed that Sappho putsgluku- first because Eros’ sweetness is obvious to everyone, his bitterness less so. We then turned our attention to the bitter side. These judgments were shallow, as we are now in a position to see. Eros’ sweetness is inseparable from his bitterness, and each participates, in a way not yet obvious at all, in our human will to knowledge. There would seem to be some resemblance between the way Eros acts in the mind of a lover and the way knowing...

  17. A Novel Sense
    (pp. 77-82)

    Imagination is the core of desire. It acts at the core of metaphor. It is essential to the activity of reading and writing. In the archaic lyric poetry of Greece, these three trajectories intersected, perhaps fortuitously, and imagination transcribed on human desire an outline more beautiful (some people think) than any before or since. We have seen what shape that outline took. Writing about desire, the archaic poets made triangles with their words. Or, to put it less sharply, they represent situations that ought to involve two factors (lover, beloved) in terms of three (lover, beloved and the space between...

  18. Something Paradoxical
    (pp. 83-85)

    Critics of the novel find paradox to be “a principle of the genre” and note the frequency with which the romances speak of situations as “new and strange” (kainos) or “against reason” (paralogos), or “unthought of” (adokētos) (Heiserman 1977, 77 and 226 n. 4). Techniques of paradox enrich these stories at all levels of plot, imagery and wordplay. Paradox is especially essential to their emotional texture. This can surprise no one familiar with the lyric precedents of erotic fiction. “I’m crazy! I’m not crazy! I’m in love! I’m not in love!” said Anakreon in the sixth century b.c. (413PMG)....

  19. My Page Makes Love
    (pp. 86-90)

    A few examples are in order. The novelist Longus (second-third century a.d.) prefaces his novelDaphnis and Chloewith a bold statement of the triangular tension that is its structure and raison d’être. He was moved to write the tale, he tells us, because he encountered “a painted image of the history of Eros” that struck him as the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Longing (pothos) seized him to “create a rival image in writing” and he set to work on the novel. There are three components in Longus’ opening conceit. There is the painted icon of Eros,...

  20. Letters, Letters
    (pp. 91-97)

    ‘Letters’ (grammata) can mean ‘letters of the alphabet’ and also ‘epistles’ in Greek as in English. Novels contain letters of both kinds, and offer two different perspectives on the blind point of desire. Letters in the broad sense, that is to say the floating ruse of the novel as a written text, provide erotic tension on the level of the reading experience. There is a triangular circuit running from the writer to the reader to the characters in the story; when its circuit-points connect, the difficult pleasure of paradox can be felt like an electrification. Letters in the narrower sense,...

  21. Folded Meanings
    (pp. 98-101)

    From the time of its earliest use the technique of writing and reading was appreciated by the ancients as an apparatus of privacy or secrecy. All communication is to some extent public in a society without writing. Certainly a message sent by herald and declaimed in the open air is a less private communiqué than a letter written for your eyes alone to read. Early readers and writers seem to have been intensely aware of this difference. There is an ancient riddle, attributed to Sappho, that expresses their attitude:

    ἔστι ϕύσις ϑήλεια βρέϕη σῴζονσ᾽ ὑπὸ κόλποις

    αὑτῆς, ὂντα δ᾽ ἂϕωνα...

  22. Bellerophon Is Quite Wrong After All
    (pp. 102-107)

    Although embedded in an epic genealogy, Bellerophon’s is a story of erotic triangles, ideal matter for a novel. We do not know where Homer got the story; presumably it reflects an extremely ancient Lydian layer in the epic tradition from which he drew, dating from a time long before his own (supposing we place Homer in the eighth century b.c.). It was a time when some form of reading and writing was known to the Aegean world, or at least to the people of Lykia where the story is set. No one knows what system of writing this was. Homer...

  23. Realist
    (pp. 108-110)

    It is nothing new to say that all utterance is erotic in some sense, that all language shows the structure of desire at some level. Already in Homer’s usage, the same verb (mnaomai) has the meaning ‘to give heed, to make mention’ and also the meaning ‘to court, woo, be a suitor.’ Already in ancient Greek myth, the same goddess (Peithō) has charge of rhetorical persuasion and the arts of seduction. Already in earliest metaphor, it is ‘wings’ or ‘breath’ that move words from speaker to listener as they move eros from lover to beloved. But words that are written...

  24. Ice-pleasure
    (pp. 111-116)

    The blind point of Eros is a paradox in time as well as in space. A desire to bring the absent into presence, or to collapse far and near, is also a desire to foreclose then upon now. As lover you reach forward to a point in time called ‘then’ when you will bite into the long-desired apple. Meanwhile you are aware that as soon as ‘then’ supervenes upon ‘now,’ the bittersweet moment, which is your desire, will be gone. You cannot want that, and yet you do. Let us see what this feels like.

    Below is a fragment of...

  25. Now Then
    (pp. 117-122)

    The experience of eros is a study in the ambiguities of time. Lovers are always waiting. They hate to wait; they love to wait. Wedged between these two feelings, lovers come to think a great deal about time, and to understand it very well, in their perverse way.

    Desire seems to the lover to demolish time in the instant when it happens, and to gather all other moments into itself in unimportance. Yet, simultaneously, the lover perceives more sharply than anyone else the difference between the ‘now’ of his desire and all the other moments called ‘then’ that line up...

  26. Erotikos Logos
    (pp. 123-123)

    Phaedrus is in love with a text composed by the sophist Lysias. It is an “eroticlogos” (227c), the written version of a speech delivered by Lysias on the subject of love. Its thesis is a deliberately repugnant one. Lysias argues that a beautiful boy would do better to bestow his favors on a man who isnotin love with him than on a man who is in love with him, and he enumerates the ways in which a nonlover is preferable to a lover as erotic partner. Desire stirs Phaedrus when he gazes at the words of this...

  27. The Sidestep
    (pp. 124-129)

    Lysias’ speech is designed to alarm standard sentiment and displace preconceptions about love. It aims to be powerfully, seductively subversive. Yet the speech is simple, for it owes all its insights and shock value to one mechanism: Lysias takes up a particular vantage point on time. It is this temporal point of view which differentiates all that a nonlover feels and thinks and does from what a lover feels, thinks or does. It is a point of view that no one who is in love could tolerate. Lysias looks at a love affair from the point of view of the...

  28. Damage to the Living
    (pp. 130-133)

    Damage is the subject of this dialogue. Plato is concerned with two sorts of damage. One is the damage done by lovers in the name of desire. The other is the damage done by writing and reading in the name of communication. Why does he set these two sorts of damage beside one another? Plato appears to believe that they act on the soul in analogous ways and violate reality by the same kind of misapprehension. The action of eros does harm to the beloved when the lover takes a certain controlling attitude, an attitude whose most striking feature is...

  29. Midas
    (pp. 134-137)

    Sokrates drives home his point about Lysias’ bad writing with an analogy from the grave. “It is very like the inscription on the tomb of Midas the Phrygian,” he says of Lysias’ discourse, and proceeds to cite the inscription:

    Χαλκῆ παρθένος εἰμί, Μίδα δ’ ἐπὶ σήματι κεῖμαι.

    ὄφρ’ ἂν ὓδωρ τε νάῃ καὶ δένδρεα μακρὰ τεθήλῃ,

    αὐτοῦ τῇδε μένουσα πολυκλαύτου ἐπὶ τύμβου,

    ἀγγελέω παριοῦσι Μίδας ὅτι τῇδε τέθαπται.

    Bronze maiden am I and on Midas’ mound I lie.

    As long as water flows and tall trees bloom,

    Right here fixed fast on the tearful tomb,

    I shall announce to all...

  30. Cicadas
    (pp. 138-140)

    Cicadas also spend their lives starving to death in pursuit of their desire. These insects enter the dialogue somewhat tangentially, as Sokrates is passing from one topic of conversation to another and notices them singing in the branches above. He points them out to Phaedrus:

    καὶ ἅμα μοι δοκοῦσιν ὡς ὠν τῷ πνίγει ὑπὲρ κεφαλῆς ἡμῶν οἱ τέττιγες ᾄδοντες καὶ ἀλλήλοις διαλεγόμενοι καθορᾶν καὶ ἡμᾶς.

    … and the cicadas appear to be staring down at us, singing away in the heat over our heads and chatting with one another…. (258e)

    Phaedrus is curious about cicadas so Sokrates goes on...

  31. Gardening for Fun and Profit
    (pp. 141-144)

    It is an image of gardens (276b-77a). Lovers and writers and cicadas are not the only ones who find themselves at odds with time. Gardeners also have occasion to wish to evade, manipulate, and defy temporal conditions. The occasions are festive ones and, according to Sokrates, on such occasions gardeners become playful and gardening does not follow serious rules. Plato introduces the subject of gardens in order to make a point about the art of writing, whose seriousness he wishes to put into question. Let us consider first the play of gardening and then the play of writing. Plato brings...

  32. Something Serious Is Missing
    (pp. 145-146)

    The static blooms of Adonis provide us with an answer to our question ‘What would the lover ask of time?’ As Plato formulates it, the answer brings us once again to the perception that lovers and readers have very similar desires. And the desire of each is something paradoxical. As lover you want ice tobeice and yet not melt in your hands. As reader you want knowledge tobeknowledge and yet lie fixed on a written page. Such wants cannot help but pain you, at least in part, because they place you at a blind point from...

  33. Takeover
    (pp. 147-150)

    Plato presents Lysias as someone who thinks himself able to control all the risks, alarms and inebriations of eros by means of a prodigious emotional calculus. The Lysian strategy of life and love applies to real erotic events a set of tactics that are by now familiar to us. The Lysian nonlover steps aside from the moving current of his beloved’s life and places himself at a point of aesthetic distance. It is the vantage point of the writer. Lysias’ insights on eros are a writer’s insights, and the theory of control he expounds treats the experience of love as...

  34. Read Me the Bit Again
    (pp. 151-153)

    But Sokrates keeps insisting on the beginning. After Phaedrus has read Lysias’ speech to him once through, he asks him to reread the opening words:

    θι δή μοι ἀνάγνωθι τὴν τοῦ Ανσίον λόγου ἀρχήν.

    Come on, read me the beginning of Lysias’ speech.

    … (262d)

    And then he asks him to reread it again:

    βούλει πάλιν ἀναγνῶμεν τὴν ἀρχὴν αὐτοῦ;

    Please, will you reread his beginning one more time? (263e)

    Phaedrus is politely reluctant. He knows there is no beginning to be found in it, and he says so:

    Eἰ σοί γε δοκεῖ· ὃ μέντοι ζητεῖς οὐκ ἔστ’ αὐτόθι.


  35. Then Ends Where Now Begins
    (pp. 154-158)

    On the observable facts of erotic experience Sokrates and Lysias are in rough agreement, but there is a world of difference between the readings they give to those facts. The facts are that eros changes you so drastically you seem to become a different person. In conventional thinking, such changes are best categorized as madness. What is the best thing to do with a mad person? Write him out of your novel, is Lysias’ answer. It is an answer that would make some sense to his contemporaries, for his version of eros proceeds from thoroughly conventional premises. It conceives of...

  36. What a Difference a Wing Makes
    (pp. 159-164)

    Wings mark the difference between a mortal and an immortal story of love. Lysias abhors the beginning of eros because he thinks it is really an end; Sokrates rejoices in the beginning in his belief that, really, it can have no end. So too, the presence or absence of wings in a lover’s story determines his erotic strategy. That miserly and mortalsōphrosynē(256e) by which Lysias measures out his erotic experience is a tactic of defense against the change of self that eros imposes. Change is risk. What makes the risk worthwhile?

    On the negative side, the Phaedrus gives...

  37. What Is This Dialogue About?
    (pp. 165-167)

    ThePhaedrusis an exploration of the dynamics and dangers of controlled time that make themselves accessible to readers, writers, and lovers. In Sokrates’ view, a truelogoshas this in common with a real love affair, that it must be lived out in time. It is not the same backwards as forwards, it cannot be entered at any point, or frozen at its acme, or dismissed when fascination falters. A reader, like a bad lover, may feel he can zoom into his text at any point and pluck the fruit of its wisdom. A writer, like Lysias, may feel...

  38. Mythoplokos
    (pp. 168-174)

    Imagine a city where there is no desire. Supposing for the moment that the inhabitants of the city continue to eat, drink and procreate in some mechanical way; still, their life looks flat. They do not theorize or spin tops or speak figuratively. Few think to shun pain; none give gifts. They bury their dead and forget where. Zeno finds himself elected mayor and is set to work copying the legal code on sheets of bronze. Now and again a man and a woman may marry and live very happily, as travellers who meet by chance at an inn; at...

  39. Bibliography
    (pp. 175-182)
  40. Index of Passages Discussed
    (pp. 183-185)
  41. General Index
    (pp. 186-189)
  42. Back Matter
    (pp. 190-190)