Book review: “Eros the bittersweet” by Anne Carson

How do we study something through fragmentary and partial remains? This latent question seems to pester scholars of antiquity like the horsefly sent to trouble Io. It seems also to animate Anne Carson’s method in “Eros the bittersweet,” a study of Eros and eros in ancient Greek poetry and philosophy and of the scholar studying Eros and eros in ancient Greek poetry and philosophy.

Carson begins with a paradox: Kafka’s philosopher endlessly chasing a spinning top that, when caught, ceases to spin. By definition, desire fulfilled ceases to exist. Each chapter is a short but deep dive into literary remains of an oral culture (paradox), each section stopping where the next one should begin (cyclicality).

She parses grammar and how it functions to mirror unfulfilled desire, analyzes words and their layered meanings showing how form and content reinforce each other. I could easily spend 10 minutes staring at two pages, thinking about the ideas Carson delicately teases to the surface. She never lets us forget about boundaries, between moderns and ancients, between ancient Greek and modern English, between lover and beloved, between known and unknown.

If you insist that this book behave like a modern piece of scholarship, you will probably miss what it has to offer: an inquiry into an experience that we can never have but can only circle around. It’s the difference between watching a frog frolicking in its natural environment and studying a frog that has been soaked in formaldehyde and dissected, its parts pinned to a board, neatly arranged and labeled. A study like Carson’s is not designed to reveal the inner workings of frog infrastructure, but strives to illuminate the frog in motion, animated and elusive. If what excites you about studying frogs is the latter, then I would recommend this book.

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