09 August, 2013

Eros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson [Simon, Central City Library]

Eros the Bittersweet was Anne Carson's first book. Its publication in 1986 announced the arrival of a thrilling new literary mind. On the one hand it is a scholarly work exploring the etymology of the greek concept of eros and the "bitterwseet" quality famously attributed to it by the greek poetess Sappho. On the other hand, those who have encountered any of Carson's work will know her books always shrug off conventional classification as easily as the archetypal "beloved" can shrug off the attention of the archetypal "lover." Her debut was no exception. It feels far too shot through with the authors own resignation at a phenomenon that is exclusively human; it is steeped in too much of the author's own sense of poetic timing for it to be read as a mere work of shcolarship. In some ways it is a collection of mini-essays that together form a maze of bittersweet mirrors. These mirrors reflect the bittersweetness of Eros back on the reader. They reflect the interdependence of desire and loss back on the readers own experiences of desire and loss. I am reminded of Nietzsche's aphoristic works by the way Carson walks such a careful line between neutral academic distance and aesthetically pleasing, authoritative style.

There is a run of five chapters in the first half of the book respectively entitled Finding the Edge, Logic at the Edge, Losing the Edge, Archilocus at the Edge and Alphabetic Edge. The chapter titles refer to that edge which forms a boundary between the lover and the beloved. "It is the edge seperating my tongue from the taste for which it longs that teaches me what an edge is." This five-chapter sequence gives a good indication of the way Carson works: she hones in on a concept and then she turns it over and over and over looking for that extra elusive insight. One senses her trying to find a loophole in what seems like insurmountable paradox. One senses her failing time and time again. In the end (but perhaps before she began to write Eros the Bittersweet), Carson bravely embraces the same irony and paradox that Sappho conjures up in her verses: "...greener than grass/ I am and dead - or almost/ I seem to me."

Title: Eros the Bittersweet
Author: Anne Carson
ISBN: 9781564781888
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Published: 1998 (2005 printing)

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