Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet

Book Cover
Eros the Bittersweet, by Anne Carson. 1986

In the beginning, there was Paradox. The end won’t resolve this. It can’t, for obvious reasons. When we’re no longer able to hear the ex-lover cry, the tree fall, or remember the all too familiar trajectory of sweet to bitter, the Paradox remains. Anne Carson, in her beautiful meditation on Sappho, Socrates, Desire, and bridges to more bridges, takes us on a journey to Paradox, and gently, sweetly leaves us wanting more. More Sappho, more love, more.

Which is the key to it all. Or is it?

Wanting, longing, loving, or taming and overcoming these things? Carson presents a battle of competing methods, ideals and philosophies, with a focus on Sappho’s fragments and Plato’s Phaedrus, where she uncovers links to (potentially) bridge internal and external gaps. Doubling, tripling those gaps and bridges, through space and time, Carson uses Socrates and Sappho to mediate between the written and spoken word, lover and beloved, and denial or embrace of the passions. 

In the chapter entitled, “Finding the Edge,” she says:

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.

We are Edge without Form, Boundary without Shape. We constantly seek to cross over, but retain. Retain us. Who we are. At least enough of us, of our self, to remember why and with whom. In the midst of the greatest passions, we want these edges and these boundaries to disappear, though some humans want to further complicate matters with yet more Impossibles: break through those edges, those boundaries, that form in others, while losing none of these things ourselves.

Love can be predatory, and in so many of the ancient Greek myths, it is. Carson reminds us that seeking knowledge may have similar intentions.

And then there is Time. Being in or beyond it. Distanced or overwhelmed by it.

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 to be ice and yet not melt in your hands. As reader you want knowledge to be knowledge and yet lie fixed on a written page. Such wants cannot help but pain you . . .



Sweetbitter love gives us the trajectory, the flow of life too, and teaches us the futility of avoidance, the perverse logic of indifference, the tragic fate of living in Either/or land. Both/and seems preferable, overall. I’ll dive in now and (perhaps) write deathless prose about it later. Standing on the cliffs, inside my own head, inside my delusions of indifference and control, is no way to run a railroad. No matter what we do, no matter how hard we try to remain above the fray, the river flows on, Eros laughs — mindfully, if he’s in the mood.


Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet
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