Ann Carson EROS THE BITTERSWEET (1998)


Would Anne Carson’s PhD thesis have made it today? It is exceptionally wide-ranging and ambitious. While being intimately grounded in the etymology, grammar and semantics of classical languages and well-versed with ancient Greek philosophy to boot, her ability to synthesise this learning and apply it to certain key questions which were circulating in American continental philosophy departments at the time is frankly overwhelming. As far as I can tell, her essay results from the convergence of trying to answer three broad philosophical questions. 1. What can we learn from ancient poetic and philosophic formulations of love triangles which might explain its inexorable ‘bittersweet’ quality? 2. To what extent is this theory of erotic triangulation analogous with the process of reading? 3. What is the impact of the deferral and stabilisation of meaning through the advent of writing on past and present literature and love? While these guiding questions can, with some effort, be elicited from Carson’s essay, to my knowledge, her answers largely retreat into what others have said before and leave it at that.

That is, if they are answered at all. At a 2015 talk in Buenos Aries, an interviewer clearly struggling with the logistics of a simultaneous live translation, wanted to know more about Carson’s ‘theory of love’ which she professed to admire. Carson was bemused. She explained how the work was drawn from a PhD and is pretentious, both in terms of its expression and its content. To try and come up with a theory of love is ‘a very teenage thing to do’, she quipped, and joked about how her husband hadn’t read it but kept a copy in the car in case he ever got trapped in a snowstorm. By way of apology, Carson emphasised how the essay was written over thirty years ago, and that she had very little idea of what it meant, and invited the interviewer to clarify it for her. There was an awkward pause before the next question. I find it interesting that Carson considers her own work pretentious. While clearly this essay wears its erudition on its sleeve, in her later works she takes pains to write with her sleeves rolled up, so to speak, while here, her whole hand is swallowed up in the wizard's sleeve of a formal gown. But what does it mean to classify a work as pretentious when it is a product of unquestionably serious scholarship and learning? Normally, to be pretentious means to allude to knowledge you do not know. I detect two main strands of it in this work. Firstly, there is her ebullient over-interpretations. A textbook example appears on page twenty six, where Carson reads Sappho fragment 105a as if the extant condition of the verse was in every linguistic detail deliberate and meaningful. What’s wrong with such a thorough close reading you ask? What else should we do but give our classical poets the benefit of the doubt and assume that every minute morphologic inflection carried meaning? Well, firstly there’s a sense in which such violent deconstructions seem more like a demonstration of the critic’s fluency with the quasi-scientific terminology of linguistics than an attempt to understand what the source might have meant, and then secondly, good intentions not being everything, there’s a kind of hubris in offering such microscopic analysis: you imply that Sappho needs your linguistic abilities to be fully understood, and that, indeed, Sappho wouldn’t fully understand herself until you came along and articulated what she really meant. Lastly, Carson’s speculative comparisons between variances in prosody and movements of the heart were once a staple of my own excited undergraduate essays and, in my view, that’s where they should happily remain. Any time you feel tempted to compare metric deviations to the rhythm of something more intimate, compare it to a brisk walk instead. It's usually just as good. To state this is not to opt for conservative readings of the classics. The second pretention in this essay is its failure to live up to the questions it poses. On the one hand, it tantalises us with the prospect of uncovering a theory of love which is based on triangulation, but in practice it retreats into academic arguments about the perspectival position of the lover in relation to the beloved in a way that, for this reader at least, is unsatisfying, and annoyingly coy. In a work tastefully kitted-out with references to brand-name French poststructuralists, namely, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, there’s not much by way of radical theories of the subject. In Carson, love is a three-way only insofar as we might occasionally imagine feeling pleasantly uncomfortable when someone eyes up our would-be partner, and if things do get difficult, there’s always the semantics of ‘eros’ to ponder over and bide time. Anyone hoping to find a Pierre Klossowski style ‘theory of hospitality’ replete with pretty illustrations from classical literature will be disappointed, and not bittersweetly. And Carson’s reticence, to me, misses out on a chance to explore what might have been a far more radically alternative notion of love in the ancient Greek world. Having said all this, Carson’s essay is commendable in its near total lack of moral censure for any human expressions of love. Nor does it court academics who would prefer to believe their research matters in proportion to the amount of political indignation they can legitimately muster, in the what might be termed the ‘now you've done your close reading, you can have your complaint’ school of tepid politicised journalism masking itself as literary analysis. If politics does still seep into Carson’s essay, then perhaps it comes from her inimitable voice, which implies a certain relation to the world which values sensitivity, wide-learning, honesty, and a certain sanguinity of temperament which makes studying the classics seem like a heroic, intrinsically worthwhile endeavour. And if, after the thorough breakdown of Plato’s ‘Phaedrus’ in the book's concluding chapters, Carson doesn’t quite live up to the Herculean task of drawing together the love of wooing with the love of knowledge, one never gets the impression she’s been wasting your time.