John Knight: The Last Book I Loved, Eros the Bittersweet

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You’ve got to be good to write about love. You’ve got to be really good. Most of the time, when love is the task, a writer just gets carried away recycling impossible words and ends up a sap.

Not Anne Carson. While her most recent book Nox proves that she is more than capable of wielding the heavy and profound (it’s a memoir about her brother’s death), this earlier work, Eros the Bittersweet, is just as powerful.

Carson takes her departure largely from the Greek and Latin poets which makes sense because they did, after all, invent the whole idea of love. But Carson’s use of the classics show how relevant these texts still are today. What’s more, her translations prove she’s no sap—they are straight up criminal. For instance, Sappho’s fragment,

Eros deute m o’lusimeles donei,

Glukupikron amaxanon orpeton

is usually translated into something (sappy) like:

“Once more Love stirs me up, the limb-loosener,

a bitter-sweet baffling creature.”

But by Carson’s pen, we get,

“Eros once again limb-loosner whirls me

Sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up.”

When was the last time you saw love compared to a sweetbitter creature stealing up? These translations are almost the best part of Carson’s inquiry into this elusive thing we call love. You don’t even have to know ancient Greek or Latin to appreciate their poetic intimacy which is an insight itself into the versatility of the languages. On every page, Carson prods with these translations to produce observations that you’ve never thought of before but instantly know are true. For anyone who has even considered love, the reading experience is something like this: “Yes! … That’s right! …Yes! …Of course!…” Like every good book, Carson tells us a little of what we already know, and then pushes further.

For example, near the end of the book, she writes “As Sokrates tells it, your story begins the moment Eros enters you. That intersection is the biggest risk of your life. How you handle it is an index of the quality, wisdom, and decorum of the things inside you. As you handle it you come into contact with what is inside you, in a sudden and startling way. You perceive what you are, what you lack, what you could be….A mood of knowledge floats out over your life. You seem to know what is real and what is not. Something is lifting you toward an understanding so complete and clear it makes you jubilant. This mood is no delusion, in Sokrates’ belief. It is a glance into time, at realities you once knew, as staggeringly beautiful as the glance of your beloved.”

Carson is relentless. She packs the book with passages like these that demand contemplation and comparison to your own experience. This makes the book a serious read—the sort you can read ten pages from and think about for a week.

Bittersweet eros is, obviously, the central tenant of the book. Carson posits that erotic love is a triangle: the lover, the beloved, and the space between. It is this third point, this lack, where Carson spends most her time. The space between two people is at once an emptiness we desire to close and a void that can never be completely filled, else the desire to fill it, the force that pushes two people together, would disappear. In the erotic whirl, this void is both filled and unfulfilled, the lover satiated but yearning for more—sweetbitter.

In Carson’s hands, Eros is only sustained when each part of the triangle pulls and pushes on the other; if one side disappears the whole thing collapses. She explores how this love is manifest in poetry, fiction, theatre, and mythology while hinting all along that we still have plenty of our own discovery waiting. It’s a book heavy on the philosophy and the Greeks, yet insistent on the beauty of language. Most of all, it doesn’t back down from the formidable task of using words to think about something like Eros. Love is hard to talk, read, and write about but this is also what makes it our best subject. Eros will always leave us sweetbitter, savoring what we have while yearning for more, and Carson’s book ultimately suggests it is a matter of our own creation: the space between me and you is whatever we choose to make it.


John Knight is a freelance writer and the managing editor of Once Magazine in San Francisco. He lives on a sailboat. More from this author →