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Reflections: TWOOK — “A Reflective Educational Experiment (in times of illness)”: (click below)

TWOOK — “A Reflective Educational Experiment (in times of illness)”, 1-6.  (pdf file)

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(Note: FOR AN IDENTICAL PRESENTATION WHICH INCLUDES SOME PHOTOS, PLEASE SEE THE FOLLOWING: link )

1. Simple lines

Suppose you read the following brief poem about eros:

“I don’t know what I should do: two states of mind in me … (36)
I’m in love! I‘m not in love!
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!

Suppose you reread it. Such simple few lines composed with such few simple words. What would you tend immediately to think? Would this be a candidate for a Daily Deviation here at dA? It seems to me not, for a multiplicity of reasons. I believe dA is at times too sophisticated. I tend to think most of us would smilingly frown upon it; it sounds too juvenile. Perhaps we would even tend to feel a tad of sarcastic sympathy within, we might even mock the words a bit. We laugh a bit at them; though perhaps the joke is, as we shall see, on us. When one is not in love, irony towards the other rules; yet, when in love, such irony is the least of our concerns.

But back to this simple poem. We already know so much about love and the erotic that we might in fact fail to see, to touch, to smell, to conceptualize. More philosophically, we modern westerners tend to think we have truly liberated human sexuality to its fullest expression. But this might just be simply a dangerous illusion as Michel Foucault dramatically points out in the first volume of his powerful The History of Sexuality. Although he is one of the strongest defenders of postmodernism —-a movement which criticizes the tyranny of modern reason—— there Foucault radically criticizes the connection between modern sexual liberation and the false sense of overall liberation we assume we have reached from the deeper western roots found in our confessional practices.

But back to the poem. Does it not seem altogether naïve? These words seem more a youthful description than a poem; they merely recount a very personal moment which most of us keep to ourselves. But let us not be so quick to dismiss it; maybe its apparent simplicity demands of us an effort which goes unnoticed at the start. Line-art, as I have argued elsewhere, does so similarly. What, then, does this naïve poem demand? That we situate ourselves in the time of the lover who loves; that time is the now of our existence. To remember a love is not be in love. To demand a love to the future is not to love fully. We humans can only fall in love in the now, we can only love in the present presence of the now. But we ALL know this; so, what makes this poem so special? Why tell us about it? If I had written it, I would probably not have much to say. But here is the thing, it was written by a lover, perhaps the greatest woman lover of them all. These simplistic words were written by Sappho, one of the greatest poets in human history. Courageously, she has marked down these dramatic words to posterity so that we can situate ourselves in the “now” of the erotic. But besides, all her words carry an erotic charge which has not dissipated over the centuries. In her poetic lines she confronts us and reminds us of the complex nature of erotic life as expressed in our deepest longings and complex desires as humans.

But let us go back to the poem. Why then is this poem so famous if it is so elusively naïve, even premature and incomplete? Therein precisely lies its force. Its simplicity deludes us into thinking that no complexity is there to be found. Its simplicity masks purposely. This journal tries to investigate this simplicity. It briefly seeks to investigate some of the many questions regarding erotic desire and its puzzles as seen by Sappho. One could even go so far as to say that this type of exercise is required in order to deepen the discussion on sexuality in our societies. We constantly hear that we, as a society, have failed in our own erotic education. I truly believe we have failed and will fail, unless we take seriously the task of understanding desire beyond the technical and biological aspects we emphasize as moderns. That type of technical education and practice speaks thus: your sexual organs are such and such; they are located here and here; you put this there; you put this on like so; if you touch here, then ; have any problems? Take this… …. ; and so on.

Instead of defending such crass reduction, an investigation on the metaphors of erotic love becomes central to understanding ourselves; even to deciding what type of life we choose to live. For the questions around the erotic involve a choice of life. Such an investigation will touch on Sappho here as one of the representatives of the views of eros as defended by artists. But this investigation requires a much deeper understanding of the challenge to artists set forth by Plato’s and Aristotle’s combined understandings of desire. Art and philosophy are THE privileged avenues to desire. Exploring them both, opens us to ourselves in a broader, less illusory fashion. Women like Martha Nussbaum lead the way here with her important The Fragility of Goodness. But perhaps the tension between both areas will eventually lead us to defend and, actually live, altogether different erotic lives.

Shaken by coming to recognize that what we thought was an irrelevant poem, we want to take another chance with it. Don’t we also sometimes want to take another chance with an unforgettable lover? We want to let ourselves be opened by the poem, Sappho wishes to open us and close us repetitively, teaching us the motions of our desiring natures. We must be ready to open ourselves and close ourselves in the rhythm of her “simple” words. For her, we must be ready to love as lovers do. For her we must be ready to risk.

2. Deceptive simplicity

So let us return to these opening lines which we now know have a poetic backing like few others. The poem, once again, reads:

“I don’t know what I should do: two states of mind in me …
I’m in love! I‘m not in love
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!”

First she tells us, “I do not know what I should do.” Don’t you remember this? You might answer, “Yes, I do.” But unfortunately, I must tell you that, strictly speaking, you cannot.. “Why? What do you mean?”, you protest. Part of the reason is this: if you CAN remember, then you are NOT in love in this moment. For in love, says Sappho in this poem, you just do not know anymore! Perhaps this is why we can never quite remember how badly it went previously the last time we loved, when we ACTUALLY fall in love again NOW. Repetitive loses accumulate as we cannot grasp what is going on each time.

And moreover, if in fact you CAN remember having felt this, then —-really, really—- you don’t remember. What you are trying to say just means, most probably, that you are now in love. Only in being in love do these words touch you as they should, for in love you are no longer yourself. As Sappho says, in love you do not know what you should do. And if you think you do, Sappho thinks you might just be deluding yourself.

Or in other words, of course, when we are NOT in love, or when we think we are assured the love of another —–which is a very odd thing to think/desire— we simply shrug our shoulders when faced with such “immature” poetic words. “Yeah I know, I remember when I fell in love”, you say to yourself. But in doing so you confuse what you ONCE felt in the PAST with what it is ACTUALLY to be IN love NOW. By projecting the “then” of love into the present moment, you certainly feel secure. This is the characteristic of the worst of lovers, says Plato in his beautiful Phaedrus. Plato finds this tyrannical type of love exemplified in the story of King Midas. Everyone knows his story; he tried to control the temporality of love, and failed.

In seeking such security, the indecision of Sappho’s poem seems juvenile and unworthy. But, “not to know”; do you remember how this felt so as to liberate YOU to the full presence of the present instant of loving now? Stricken by the other’s enigmatic presence, Sappho allows us —or better yet, makes us— feel what this presence does to us through her words. What occurs in the “now” of the erotic according to Sappho?

In the appearance of the erotic other, I lose all possibility of thoughtful presence. This Sappho affirms. Little wonder we mock those in love; we humor ourselves through their lost capacities. This is nowhere more poignantly revealed than in The Damask Drum, a must read for anyone interested in erotic desire. This is a short play by Japanese writer Yukio Mishima in which a poor and old janitor named Iwakichi, claims to fall in love with a 20 year old beauty called Kayoko. The perplexing dynamic of their affair reveals much about the way we mock those who lose themselves in love. But be that as it may, we have ALL at one time or another actually mocked those in love. For, you see, they truly seem out of their wits! They actually seem irresponsive, as in a dream. They are slow to reaction and for this we taunt them. They can’t even keep in their saliva at times! Even their bodily functions are a total loss!

“Not knowing” in that moment of the erotic encounter; to be simply grabbed by the force of a presence which remains even when not there. The absence of the loved one does not mitigate in the least the feeling. And worse yet, “not knowing” carries with it crucial problems in real life. “Not knowing” ourselves, ceasing to be who we thought we were, our actions cease to be coherent. For responsible actions require some kind of identity that affirms such decisions. No wonder lovers are irresponsible! The planned coherence once available to answer the question “ who am I?” evades us in this instance. We are paralyzed as rarely we are. This is why Saphho adds that her not knowing involves primarily not knowing what I should do. Once you know what you should do, you have lost contact with Sappho’s poem. Perhaps you seek such security, but ironically such security erases the moment which held the erotic tension in its extreme possibility. You get back to the security of yourself, but perhaps this is precisely the way to lose yourself.

But this is odd, isn’t it? How come you do not know what you should do? Well, we feel like saying to the lover, “Just kiss him or decide not to kiss him. Or send him a denial. Just get it over with”, we are frequently advised by friends. But that, precisely, is NOT the point. In contrast, Sappho asks us to remain in the presence of the moment in which the other comes into our view as a lover we desire intensely. But to remain there, this is almost impossible in our first loves, for powerful enigmatic forces override us, as we shall see. Perhaps in reading and understanding Sappho, other more enticing possibilities might appear for us.

But remaining in that privileged instant, we are —- paradoxically— conscious we no longer are fully conscious of ourselves. I do not know what to do in that moment which many seek to avoid, to forget. To this we shall return. For captivated by it, we can no longer do anything as we did. In a sense, I know I should, but I can’t; in another sense, I know I shouldn’t’ but I find that can and I will. And a question arises; is Sappho speaking here of the moral limitations of social life? Not in the least. That is not her concern here. Her point, instead, is that eros is a kind of assault; we tremble, we feel uneasy, and yet –paradoxically—we desire to feel so. Eros pushes us besides ourselves, and in doing so we, says Sappho, risk our very own personal and uniquely created identity.

This is confirmed by the simple words that follow. The expression of this enigmatic and unexpected entrance brings about severe division and fragmentation. He who was once one, has NOW become two. Knowing yourself divided, a fall of consciousness that both opens the world to new possibilities, but risks the very foundations of who we have become. Sappho adds in the poem, as if to validate our previous words:

“I’m in love! I’m not in love!
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!”

To be crazy is to lose it, to lose one’s wits; to remain in the realm of the metaphoric as against the unerotic realism of the everyday real. What we have suspected above is revealed as true. Knowing she cannot act, she nonetheless begins by accepting this rupture and division. The penalty of not being ruptured lies in the constant immersion in the ordinary world of constant personal presence. Many of us live, prefer to live, without such disruptions all our lives. We can actually BE with another and yet not love as Sappho claims we should. But some of us chose not to live so. Such are true artists, such are true philosophers. Instead of the safety of the known, the artistic lover embarks in another type of self-affirmation which might end badly for her. The poetess knows it is unreasonable to do so, to “chose” to do so. That is why she cries out of two severed minds that she is in love and that she is not, that she is not crazy and that she is.

These words have the sound of a certain truth to them, they reveal the stance of the person who has fallen in love. To fall in love is indeed to fall; it is to become another who no longer is as he was. To be in love. To become two; to be unable to decide. In love we are and we cease to be. For we love and we long to be with another, and yet that other who beckons us makes us fear we will be utterly lost to ourselves. But without such erotic presence the loss might be double! Divided we stand as we long to be and not to be in front of her. How peaceful it was when time was not rushing forth in the now. How peaceful it is to simply remember as if one had once lived such a life and had gotten over it.

Emily Dickinson, also a woman, knew of this kind of love. In her No. 18 she points out to the very same dilemma of internal division and strife:

“Heart! We will forget him!
You and I —- tonight!
You may forget the warmth he gave —
I will forget the light!

When you have done, pray tell me
That I may straight begin!
Haste! Lest while you’re lagging
I remember him.”

Of course, Dickinson speaks once the affair has come to the painful realization of the final loss. Sappho cannot accept this. It is for her, in a sense, a kind of cheating. Instead, Sappho asks us to remain in the now of the moment in which the touch of the other’s caress reaches us and we are paralyzed physically, conceptually and metaphorically. This journal stems from such decisions in my life.

No wonder Sappho’s words endure in their utmost simplicity as the barest –in the sense of most naked— expressions of the erotic instant. Erotic desire as unnamable cannot be named in too many lines; Sappho reminds us of this. Her courage lies in not being capable of denial. Her courage lies in opening herself, and ourselves, with her erotically charged words to the presence of eros in our lives. If ever there was a force that could make us transform our settled dispositions, here we have found it at last. And how we yearn for such change, we artists and philosophers.

3. Erotic assault

Romanticism as an artistic movement saw nature as somehow intimately connected to our most basic human desires. It was in and through nature that we found the most complete fulfillment available to us as natural human beings. For the romantics we sought nature to become whole once again, to overcome the temporary division which separates us as humans from the rest of the natural world; even to overcome the divisions within ourselves between reason and feeling, between thought and creative expression. In a sense a contemporary and dramatic portrayal of this dream is the stunning documentary The Grizzly Man in which a young man seeks to become one with the bears of Alaska. Of course, there are different types of romantic positions available; from the naïve kind found in Goethe’s Werther, moving to more complex ones such as the one found in Wordsworth magically healing poetry. To repeat, to bridge the gap between us humans and the natural becomes the cornerstone of their position. (See Taylor’s Sources of the Self)

But Sappho thinks otherwise. Sappho’s poetry reveals , continuously, its non-romantic character and foundation. This is, I believe, why it touches us so deeply as moderns living a disenchanted world. Seeking a certain type of erotic fusion with the world and the other is something she believes is unavailable to us. Sappho, instead, focuses seriously —–makes us focus seriously—- on the real nature of desire as we experience it as the embodied beings we are. This stance is powerfully revealed by Sappho in her vision of eros as a woman caught in the grasp of love. In this respect, perhaps one of the most anti-romantic poems ever written on the nature of erotic desire is the following:

”Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me
Sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up”
(40)
http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/sappho/sape05u.htm

We have already encountered Sappho’s simplicity of word. And, as it clearly stands out, she remains firm to her decision. My own line-art has been deeply influenced by her. But once again, this simplicity is truly deceptive. We desire an encounter, an encounter with Sappho’s simplicity. But we must not be blinded into believing that simplicity obscures complexity. Rather, it might just be that in simplicity lies the most complex of all affairs. For don’t we ourselves sense how simple it was to fall in love? And yet, don’t we acknowledge much later the complexity of what we did not see in the beginning?

How does Sappho express erotic desire in this famous poem? Sappho answers with great awareness. Against our romantic notions of eros —–the lovers who hold each other dreamily in a kind of oblivion of each (e.g. Tristan und Isolde)—- Sappho speaks as a mature human does. First, what strikes one immediately is that for her Eros is not at all chosen. Instead, she claims that eros is a creature which steals up; as if in ambush, as if unseen. Eros, a predator. The mystery of eros cannot be controlled from within for it is an unexpected appearance from the outside, a sort of reptilian assault which steals up towards us. Eros is an external force we cannot will, just as one cannot will either birth or death.

Secondly, instead of a gentle touch, she demands of us to recognize things as they are. Eros is a limb-loosener, not in the first instance a limb-generator. Eros whirls and twirls. It has hurricane forces to it. As it appears from hiding, no rectitude remains. No assured rigidity can face up to its overwhelming presence. And, as we saw above, it cares little for the powers of assured identity. In contrast, as if in a kind of protest, Sappho knows of her body’s loosing itself; for we do indeed tremble when in the presence of the lover (even if through a computer!) Each and every single limb comes apart as the force of the external comes rushing though my bodily self-image. Sappho demands that we recognize that eros touches our body first, our minds only much later. To live erotically is to pay attention to the body that we as finite human are and will always be until our death. This is why in another poem she writes:

”Without warning

As a whirlwind
swoops on an oak
Love shakes my heart”.
(44, Barnard)

Eros without warning, impossible to fight off. Against it, no defenses. Or so it seems. But this is not altogether right. Of course, we ALL know we actually DO defend ourselves quite well. Even some of our modern marriages may try to become a kind of defense. But Sappho speaks not to those who claim such abilities, she speaks to the artists and artistically-minded humans who have the courage not to defend themselves from eros in irony, denial or multiple deflections. However, some of the consequences of such an open stance —–of the stance which sees something beyond the boring repetition of oneself in front of oneself—– may turn out to be dire. This is why in another short poem Sappho warns:

”Pain penetrates

Me drop
by drop”
(61)

Freud also knows of the strange enticement behind these words, as he shows in this studies on the phenomenon of sadomasochism.

But that is not all. We are not even close to the poem yet. We have barely felt its loosening power. We have barely opened ourselves to Sappho’s bodily words. This is revealed by looking more closely at the poem, just as we desire to look more closely at our lover. We become like the photographers of Sappho’s poetic lines. We photograph her, that is to say, we write her in the light of our own erotic understanding.

Magnification brings out a special word in the poem. The poem uses the Greek word <b>glukupikron</b> which is erroneously translated in English as “bittersweet”. But the order of Greek is quite different; it is the same order of the word in Spanish. No wonder Spanish culture is close to the erotic; full of serenades, and dance and such! For the Greek word literally translates “sweetbitter”, or as in Spanish, “dulceamargo”. But what is Sappho pointing out? She is struggling to point out the temporal ordering of desire. The sight of the beloved in the first instance is adequately perceived as bringing forth a certain desirable sweetness. Rarely do we think of our first loves as lemons, rarely do we play erotic games with acid limes. Usually we use chocolates, and sweet oranges and the like. Later, of course, that MAY change.

But, less literally, what could this word be pointing to? Primarily to the fact that the assault that whirls us around, is, in the first instance, not so intimidating. The first encounter is actually pleasant. Of course, if our loves have gone badly, then we tend to deny this first impression later on. However that may be —–and it is a VERY frequent and difficult issue— Sappho speaks primarily to those who, in opening themselves to themselves, are honest to themselves as regards their natural erotic capacities towards the pleasant. But alas, it is also true that lovers can DO what in another poem Sappho says is itself a chosen denial:

”But their heart turned cold and they dropt their wings.” (16)

But then again, for Sappho that was not erotic love at all primarily because eros is not chosen. .

And even when previous loves have failed, we cannot but feel the sweetness of a new encounter. We feel what Sappho speaks of, namely, that in love we sense we are never more alive, readier for challenges, readier to regain our health, readier even for certain types of battles and decisions. The world is another, it has become unrecognizable.

But there is still much more to this little simple poem. According to the powerful work of Anne Carson, the crucial aspect of this poem is a tiny Greek word which, when translated, comes out to mean “once again”. The word in Greek is deute. The fact that Sappho seems to have invented it speaks volumes of her poetic abilities and endurance. But what could such a little word hold? The word “deute” relates us to the temporality of eros. It is grammatically composed of two elements: “de” which means ‘once’ thus signaling to the unequivocally non-repeatable present moment of the erotic encounter. “De” signals vibrantly the now of desire.

The second composite part of “deute” is the word “aute” which turns out to mean “again”. In contrast, it points to the temporal repetition of desires which have come and gone throughout our lives. “Now” we feel the presence of Eros, but Sappho in her maturity recalls that this newness was there before and was somehow “conveniently” forgotten. To this we shall return below. But that would not be fair; for if we remember well, Sappho’s erotic assault is NOT up to us! It just isn’t! So in this combined magical word “deute” the temporal nature of desire springs forth. In it, intertwined, we encounter the “now “ that we are facing in this instant as we look at her eyes (or messages if on the internet!), but this now is traversed “again” by the repetition of the many already felt assaults which have come previously in a similar fashion. To put it simply one could say, this poem reveals how this “now” is traversed by the “thens” of love. (Carson, 165) Pulled within the now, we actually feel in love. Pulled apart by the “thens”, we feel the craziness of the whole thing. And yet we let ourselves fall in the now. For Sappho, herein lies our humanity.

Much more could be said about the attempt to control the temporal nature of desire. To those interested in these issues Plato’s Phaedrus is a must read. Just recall King Midas. But here I would like to focus on what is meant by the now of erotic desire. So I will tell you a little story of mine. One of the main reasons I returned to Canada for a third time, was to see, feel and touch snow. To you this must seem incredible. But if you lived in the hot tropics you would never cease to be amazed by snow.

This whole absurd idea is perfectly captured by our amazing Gabriel Garcia Márquez in his deep and hilarious novel Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude). If ever you intend on living in a “developing” country, this is required reading. In his famous book, Gabo shares one of the amazing stories of José Arcadio Buendía. The book itself even begins with these incredible words which could barely be understood by an inhabitant of Northern latitudes:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Upon death, Aureliano remembers the sensation of ice. I, for my own part, remember the sensation of snow. Gabo tells us the whole story a little later in the novel. José Arcadio ——Aureliano’s father—– exclaims after seeing ice for the very first time in his life: “It is the largest diamond in the world.”(We smile thanks to Colombian humour.) Just to touch the ice, means José Arcadio must pay a big sum of money. But the sensation suddenly brought upon him, sheds light upon the memory his son Aureliano will carry forth until his death. Gabo tells us:

” and so he placed his hand over the ice, and held it there for several minutes, while his heart grew swollen with fear and jubilation in contact with the mystery.”

Ice, a mystery; snow a mystery. But what could this mystery be? What is the mystery of ice? What is the mystery of snow? It’s a mystery that is not totally decipherable. You must grab an ice cube and experience it for yourself. What you find yourself stunned by, is the feeling of holding on to the effacing. The more you press, the quicker it melts. The harder you wish to hold on, the quicker it ceases to be. You desire not to let go, and yet you know you must if you desire to feel this novel pleasure extended in time. You are torn between letting go —–thus freeing what you wish were only yours—- and holding on to what brings an indescribable and unknown pleasure, thus necessarily destroying it in the process.

We are reminded of some of our loves. This is why some have compared the sensation of holding ice in your hands to eros. One of those who knows of this mystery is Sophocles. In a poem he writes:

“This disease is an evil bound upon the day.
Here’s a comparison –not bad, I think:
when ice gleams in the open air,
children grab.
Ice-crystal in the hands is
at first a pleasure quite novel.
But there comes a point–
you can’t put the melting mass down,
you can’t keep holding it.
Desire is like that,
Pulling the lover to act and not to act,
again and again, pulling.”
(See Anne Carson.)

Holding ice in your hands, you become more aware of the temporal nature of desire. You come closer to knowing, and thus truly feeling, the always fleeting now of human desire. Understanding this becomes crucial in order to give life to healthier desires within our erotic relations. For we also wish to hold on to our loves in this troubling way. Much more could be said, but perhaps now you better understand why I wanted to return to Canada and see, and touch, and melt snow in my bare hands. And perhaps now you better understand when Sappho exclaims:

“I don’t know what I should do: two states of min in me …
I’m in love! I ‘m not in love
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!

4. The metaphoric distance of our erotic lacks.

Simplicity, loss of identity, bittersweetness, the “now” and “thens” of eros; all mysteriously opened in the poetic words of Sappho. But even more stunningly, Sappho reveals the nature of our erotic longing in an unparalleled graphic poem. We ask: what precisely in us makes us desire what we have seen may lead to a deep destabilizing force in our lives? Sappho reveals that desire is moved negatively by the presence of a self-sustaining lack. In another very short poem Sappho adds to our previous considerations:

As a sweet apple turns red on a high branch
high on the highest branch and the applepickers
forgot—-
well, no they didn’t forget —were not able to reach.”

If desire moves us so deeply, it is perhaps because in part it reaches out to something we ourselves have not made part of our self-identity. We are not whole, but tend to desire some kind of wholeness; even desire an original wholeness previous to birth. Coming together sexually is perhaps the closest we may come to bridging this “physical” gap. This is brilliantly related by Aristophanes the comedian in the Symposium, perhaps another journal will provide the connections.

For what we do not lack seems not to move us in the least. If in fact we were completely self-sufficient, it seems our movements would cease; we would become something like strange bodiless gods. But we are far from such self-sufficiency, says Sappho. Science fiction does dream of bodiless existences, but even if it were so, Sappho would protest that such a life would not be a human life in the least. This sense of lack is then a powerful jump-starter, but a dangerous one as well. It does pull us out of ourselves, but it may do so primarily seeking its own fulfillment. Having my needs met by you —believing that this is possible— I fail to confront my needs which continue to go unnoticed within me. For perhaps in seeking not to face our lacks, we push them forth into others, specially and most dramatically into our lovers. We place in them the burden of our desire for original wholeness.

But how is all this connected to the poem at hand? Let us see. As we elevate our linguistic sight, we behold a very complete sweet apple turning on a high branch hanging above us. Focusing our eyes upon this apple we discover several things. First, and foremost, that we no longer see our surroundings. The tree which bears this apple has been lost to us, the other apples are no longer there to be seen. Is this not very much like the times we have become smitten by eros in our lives? Don’t we radically reduce our sight from a healthy wide-angled view to the most telescopic of lenses? Photographically speaking, we move from 10mm to about 600mm! Besides, we know Sappho has chosen an apple tree for obvious reasons. If indeed most of us westerners relate the apple to another myth, the myth of Adam and Eve, it is clear that for Sappho and the Greek lyrical poets in general, an apple is the metaphoric fruit of the beloved. Rather than the beginning of a sinful existence as in the Christian myth, it stands as the perplexing presence of an erotic longing which might make us fall as well, but in an altogether different sense. And even in our daily life we still correlate sweet apples with erotic desire; dA is full of such enticing photographs. Some photographs even portray this with no apple whatsoever!

Now, what was puzzling from the start, becomes even more so. If we were initially told that the sweet apple was on a high branch, we now are corrected by Sappho who stretches our sight almost beyond the visible. She tells us now that even the 600mm is not enough, we WILL need lens-extenders! Or so it seems. For this sweet self-sufficient, self-enclosed and silent apple is truly situated “high in the highest branch”! (For an amazing analysis of the Greek grammar which carries out this telescoping see Ann Carson). But how could we have been so mistaken! I mean, how could our eyes have not seen this coming? Perhaps they did not want to see, perhaps they saw what they wanted before them. And just like the ice we held, but somehow did not want to hold on to for it meant its dissolution, likewise we now look but do not want to look too hard for we might no longer have anything to look at!

Suddenly we are introduced to the true subjects of the poem: the apple-pickers who “specialize” in picking the beloveds of the world. Apple-pickers, men and women who seek out the fulfillment of their desires in another whose beauty primarily seems to appear as a sweetness which hides bitter possibilities. But what does Sappho herself tell us about them? First off, that they are many. Many, it seems, look up to the apple which awaits picking, many will have to “deck it out” for it. The whole thing is quite Darwinian! Secondly, that instead of picking —–which is what they are good at—- they instead are lost in the activity of seeing. As if charmed by the apple’s reddish presence, they have ceased any action. But this is not altogether true. Sappho tells us that what they have done is rather specific, they have decided to “forget”. We are told that in picking they have forgotten something altogether important. But what is it that they have forgotten? Their first action, was to pick, then they just stare, and now suspiciously they forget! And forgetting desire, how difficult a task that is according to Sappho! We continue reading and, fortunately, the poetess herself reveals it “all” to us. She clarifies the illusions behind the mysterious forgetting of the beloved.

Suddenly, as if pulling us back from the distance to the reality of the present, Sappho tells us that in reality the apple-pickers did not actually forget at all:

“well, no they didn’t forget —were not able to reach”.

What a stunning revelation of a conveniently comic decision! The sweet apple on the highest branch remains untouched by any of them; and yet, instead of recognizing their incapacity, they make a strategic move. They pretend to have not even seen it at all! For if they are indeed good apple-pickers, it would be to their detriment to have some apples actually escape into the freedom of their own erotic nature. So, just as we convince ourselves that the “now” of eros can be sidestepped, so these apple pickers convince themselves that they never saw anything! Faced with the desire to face their own lacks, they instead become forgetful of themselves so as to be able to desire this very same apple the morning after as they move around the orchard unchanged and truly unloved.

By thus moving us using this kind of photographic focusing of erotic desire, Sappho teaches us that the erotic lack we have as sexual beings pulls us outside ourselves into a distant reality. This erotic reality which hangs before us eludes us; we tend to deny it in disbelief as we approach it and learn, to our astonishment, that it continuously evades us. Lacking the apple we seek it, but if we actually came to possess it, the drive to jumpstart the search would be gone! And therefore, during the sleep of the night, these apple-pickers will convince themselves of events that did not occur. They will awaken the next morning to try to pick the sweet apple on the high branch, or rather, the sweet apple high on the highest branch. And they will forget once more, and they will begin anew the morning after. The apple, it seems, will never be reached, for in reaching it, we would cease to be humans altogether.

Perhaps Sappho allows us, through her poetry, to liberate our lacks into the honesty of their essential nature. In reading Sappho’s simple lines there might come a day in which we will not only not forget, but actually love the other as other for we will have come to know ourselves as lacking. And perhaps it is in a very similar way that we as artists relate ourselves to our own work. For we all know of the desire to create and yet somehow feel that once the work is created, once the apple has become real, the search for it is gone. And day by day we convince ourselves that there is a new apple we have not picked. It lies high in a high branch in a tree we can no longer see, and in this way we strive to give poetic word to those foundational lacks which conform us from the very start.

(A complete understanding of this dynamic would have to include several discussions of Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus, including their intimate discussions of wings and metaphors. Besides, a deeper understanding of the apple itself and its troubling intrinsic nature —–of this self-sufficient being which is the erotic beloved, which in modernity finds parallels in the idea of the “Lolita”—- in a sense requires readings such as Yukio Mishima’s stunning The Damask Drum, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Alba Lucia Angel’s Misia Señora and Gabriel Garcia Márquez latest book: Memoria de mis putas tristes, among many others.)

5. Erotic triangulation

Sometimes one should simply let a great poem speak for itself instead of pretending to understand it:

”He seems to me equal to gods that man
who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, a moment, then no speaking
is left in me

no: tongue breaks, and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead —or almost
I seem to me.”
(31)

(Do let me know if you have found the puzzle of triangulation within its mysterious lines. To be able to see it involves, among other things, learning to read erotically: http://amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7266768/ )

6. Conclusion

Sappho’s poetry is perhaps the single most important poetic work on the nature of eros in a pre-Christian era. Not giving in to romanticism, she faces the mystery of erotic desire head on. Thoughtfully perceptive to desire’s perplexing dilemmas, she encourages us with her courage to feel the nakedness of those simple poetic lines in which she remains open as perhaps the most erotic lover of all. Her poems provide a certain mature self-sufficiency which nonetheless remains open to the living eroticism of those with whom we come into contact as we move through our lives. Or in other words, through her decisions the poem is liberated to its inmost energetic possibility which in turn may radiate into the possibility of loving oneself –—and perhaps another—–in the intimacy of the created and creating word.

However, me must conclude by pointing to at least two great challenges to this very powerful view of human desire. One is the view of eros as defended by Socrates and later on Aristotle guided by a reconsideration of desire and the connection between true friendship, another kind of self-sufficiency, and a happiness beyond the mere sense of a personal feeling. (See my journals on Socrates : a) http://amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7640910/ and b) http://amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7696872/ ) The second view is the view upheld by a believer; for instance the one defended by Christians and their notion of “agape” (love of God) as expressed profoundly in Augustine’s <b>Confessions</b>.

We artists might feel secure in our own islands, but Sappho’s poetry at least teaches that openness alone guarantees the possibility of avoiding self-delusion. It is this very same poetic honesty which may allow us to return to the beginning of erotic love:

“I don’t know what I should do: two states of mind in me … (36)
I’m in love! I‘m not in love!
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!

I have been there. It does take much courage. It is rare.

(First published on the web on Feb 9, 2006 with accompanying art: http://www.amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7838058/)

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(Note: FOR AN IDENTICAL PRESENTATION WHICH INCLUDES SOME PHOTOS, PLEASE SEE THE FOLLOWING: link )

On trees, deep ecology and poetry

1. Introduction

Most of us, if not all of us, have a particular fondness for and connection to living things. And since each of us is unique, we have greater connections to some living beings over others. This connection is very difficult to articulate. For example, some people have a fondness for dogs; still others for tarantulas. Dali was fond of flies, though most of us aren’t. I myself have always had a particular fondness for trees. I cannot tell you why exactly; I can only say that my adolescence was close to them. I was lucky, I got to know MANY diverse trees. But many other living beings were also close to me, and yet my fondness for trees stands out. This journal tries to articulate this connection.

But, fortunately, I am not the only one. Here at dA many people are fond of trees and flowers. One need only check out the photography category Nature to find thousands upon thousands of photographs being uploaded constantly. And I ask myself, what are all these deviants trying to say? Of course, not all such deviations are artistic, but they DO show that artists and non-artists have a strong and deep connection with the living.

But for some, it is poetry which is THE privileged art that opens this connection with the living more primordially than any other. This journal is also about this connection with poetry, with a poem that tells about our connection to trees. Once, one such poem came to me. It is a poem about trees. I am sorry, I must correct myself. It is a poem about A very unique tree. These are the opening lines of this poem entitled A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds:

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow. ”

(Salvatore Quasimodo; Nobel Prize, 1959.)

Poetry uses such deceptively simple words! I mean, I am sure most of us know each and every single word just read. So much so, that we think we have understood these few lines. But then I wonder, why would Quasimodo receive the NOBEL prize if things are as simple as they appear? Surely there is a mystery brewing here. Perhaps our complex modern lives have made us a bit hasty. We know too much and rarely pause.

Instead, I propose we listen “intently” again to the poem as this peculiar pine listens intently to the abyss. But this is not easy; for I am not sure if our capacity to listen is at its best. How could we listen being surrounded, as we are, by so much noise pollution? How could we listen if we are always talking? Have we forgotten to listen in our hectic age?

But much more importantly, and these are the VERY difficult questions which guide this journal: if indeed we CAN listen to the world of living things —–if we can listen to their Being— what would it mean to be able to listen TO them? I mean something not too complex. I mean, in part, this; the latest I heard, trees just DO NOT speak. Or, more to the point, how exactly can a poem speak for trees in an age in which trees are becoming extinct because of our technological encroachment? How can we humans –specially artists and philosophers— let trees speak? Or, can/should we just shed our technological understanding of the world, an understanding in which trees have lost their symbolic enchantment? How, indeed, to let them speak without Imposing our anthropocentric voice unto them?

This journal attempts to be a very incomplete preparation towards new types of encounters. Mainly, it is shared so that together we can listen more clearly to our fondness for trees and other living beings. But like the twisted pine in Quasimodo’s poem, before getting to the poem itself, we must —unfortunately— make some preparatory twists.

2. A puzzle

The previous questions carry with them a very perplexing puzzle; it is a puzzle which is of particular interest to us modern Westerners for we alone have brought about the demise of a mythological understanding of the universe and the beings which inhabit it. To this we shall return; but for now, how to express better this puzzle which I feel so intensely?

In one of the most beautiful Platonic dialogues –—the Phaedrus, which deals with erotic discourse— Socrates says something altogether puzzling to us moderns. Phaedrus teases Socrates by telling him that he rarely leaves the city of Athens for the countryside. In the countryside Socrates seems to be totally lost. Socrates seems to not be much of a hiker, as we modern city dwellers in our polluted cities have become. To this teasing, Socrates responds:

Forgive me, best of men. For I am a lover of learning (philomathes). Now then, the country places and the trees are not willing to teach me anything, but the human beings in town are. But you ….” (230d; Translated by James H. Nichols; Ithaca, Cornell University, 1998) ” (on the web a lesser translation, see:
[link]

(In this regard see the striking lack of reference by Xenophon’s Memorabilia (Ithaca, Cornell University, 1994) to Socrates’ studies in natural philosophy, a silence which points to the puzzling relation, to say the least, between “natural philosophy” and “political philosophy”.)

Socrates is of the city, rather than of the countryside. What could Socrates be getting at? But, is this true? Don’t we have anything to learn from trees? Isn’t Socrates absolutely wrong here? We might think about this possibility: Socrates just simply did not foresee an age in which the very existence of the Earth would come into play because of the powers we have harnessed as humans caught in our technological grids. Of course, Socrates knew VERY WELL the Greeks could destroy themselves. But for US humans to destroy the Earth, that, I think, was a situation Socrates could not have foreseen.

And yet, might not there be some truth to Socrates’ important point? To see what might be behind his point just consider a very simple question once again: when was the last time you actually spoke to a tree, and it actually answered back? By the same token, recall the opening lines of the poem above. The tree in Quasimodo‘s poem is NOT the tree which I see through my window. I bet you, the tree outside does not actually listen to anything, for it just does not have ears! So after all, it seems, Socrates has a point. Trees cannot teach us much. But, is this true?

It is this ambivalent questioning which moves me to try to listen more carefully to what trees might say to us humans in an age in which trees are continuously fallen and seen as standing reserve ready to be cut, rather than as the wilderness of which we are an integral part. This is why, in contrast to Socrates’ words, I must let you listen to Tolkien’s words. In particular, we listen with deep gratitude to how Pippin tried to describe his encounter with the Ents, the oldest inhabitants of Tolkien’s symbolically rich world:

“One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking, but their surface was sparkling with the present; like sun shimmering on the outer leagues of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know but it felt as if something that grew in the ground –asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.” (BOOK II; ‘Treebeard’, pg. 77)

How could we not learn from such creatures? How could we not wish to become like them? I mean ; “enormous wells with ages of memory of slow thought and a sparkling present as surface”, who does not seek something like this before death arrives? We moderns in particular; how could we not learn from beings whose motto, Tolkien tells us, is “do not be hasty”?

It is the pull of these two views, summed up in the contrasting words of Socrates and Tolkien, that move me to write this journal. I am extremely fond of trees, but I do not want to simply project my fears upon them. If they do indeed have nothing to teach me, I prefer to know.

3. Two understandings of trees; secular biology and sacred wisdom.

To better understand this puzzle, which I myself find difficult to grasp and even to share with you, one can bring to memory certain stories. Think of the role trees play in two very important events in human history. One concerns the origins of Buddhism; the other, the origins of our modern scientific approach.

It is said that Siddhartha, at the age of 29, was forever transformed when he came upon the sight of four very special humans: an old crippled man, a sick man, a decaying corpse, and finally a wandering holy man. The sight of suffering and the search for a meaning to such suffering, became the meaning of his life. Years later, it is said that while sitting in meditation under a bodhi tree Siddhartha reached enlightenment and became a Buddha.

“But, what does all this have to do with trees?,” impatiently you ask. Very much. The Bodhi tree plays a central role in the story; Siddhartha could just as well have been meditating in the shower when he reached Nirvana. Or under an orange tree. But that is not how the story goes. Instead, there is something in trees, specially THIS tree, which brings us closer to certain fundamental and sacred truths about ourselves and the universe. No wonder in Buddhism the bodhi tree is considered to be THE tree of wisdom; it is both sacred and its name literally means “supreme knowledge”. ([link] ) Scientific nomenclature itself has been so struck by this that it calls the tree, using its binomial categorization, ficus religiosa! [link]

(If you come from a Christian background, as many of us do in the West, you might ponder about our very own initial myth, that of the tree of life and the tree of knowledge: “And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 2; 9; For a consideration see Thomas Pangle Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham[link] )

But we modern westerns also have another, very different story about trees. It is the story of Sir Isaac Newton’s tree. ( [link] ) It is said that the apple that hit Newton on the head allowed him to think anew our relation to the universe and its fundamental laws. The privileged realm above in the heavens could now be understood by the very same laws which were applicable to the natural world right here in our Earth. Of course, this might not have happened exactly as the story goes, but the myth has greatly become part of our understanding. And I ask myself, can you sense how different roles the trees play in each of these two very important stories? What Newton discovers is not wisdom in the company of a wise tree, but his universal mathematical understanding over and above any tree. For ALL trees are covered by the laws of gravity. In contrast, in Buddhism, NOT ALL trees are wise trees. Newton and Siddhartha sought the comforting shadow of trees for two VERY different reasons. [link] .

What this story reveals then, if I am right, is that we can no longer safely move without reaching into BOTH stories. Trees, in the West particularly, have definitely lost the strong symbolic powers which once attached to them and linked them directly to the Gods. It would seem that this is simply a loss. But I do not think so. The story of yet another tree may help us to understand the necessity of both discourses. It is the story of the neem tree.

On the one hand, ayurvedic medicine has known for centuries of its multileveled benefits. They are so many that it is actually called the “village pharmacy”. So a pre-scientific understanding has already gained much. But the biological-scientific understanding seems to provide the possibility for this tree ‘s playing a central role in the defense of complex ecosystems themselves:

“Of primary interest to research scientists is its activity as an insecticide. Many of the tree’s secondary metabolites have biological activity, but azadirachtin is considered to be of the most ecological importance. It acts by breaking the insect’s lifecycle. Research has increased in the past few years as the desire for safe pest control methods increases and it becomes apparent that this tree will be able to play a role in integrated pest management systems.“
[link]

It seems, then, that both discourses have MUCH to gain from their interaction. And yet, at the same time, we are overly conscious of the destruction of trees and rainforests in our world. We no longer have the confidence we once had that the solution to our technologically generated dilemmas can be cured by the use of technology itself. We recognize that something has gone wrong with this scientific-instrumental view of nature. We fear, rightly, that it does not have the tools to pull itself out of the dangers it generates.

And the tension of our initial puzzle, which I hope has progressively become clearer, returns. On the one hand it is WE humans who are disrupting the planet and therefore humbly must take into consideration the symbolic relevance of other living beings. But on the other hand, we somehow sense that WE alone have consciousness of the world and know what it would actually mean to SAVE or DESTROY this living world of ours. Perhaps if we try to understand more closely the dangers of instrumental reason we can get clearer still on this difficult puzzle. Here, the aid of some philosophers is much required.

4. Instrumental reason and deep ecology

To see how deep we are into this scientific model of understanding nature, we can do an exercise in memory. Biology courses provide a great example. For, it seems, we moderns take it for granted that the way we classify nature and seek to understand it, is THE primary way of access to the world. A standard biological definition of a tree reads: “A tree can be defined as a large, perennial, woody plant. Though there is no set definition regarding minimum size, the term generally applies to plants at least 6 m (20 ft) high at maturity and, more importantly, having secondary branches supported on a single main stem or trunk.” [link]

That we do not feel any uneasiness at this view of trees, should indeed make us a bit uneasy. This understanding of trees is quite unique and problematic. Don’t you see something odd here? First of all, it is indeed odd to even try to define trees. Of course, biology requires it. But, is this mode of access the PRIMARY access to trees we must adopt? What this model emphasizes is not without problems. We classify, categorize, measure and analyze. Don’t you feel you are objectively being told what a tree is, as if the tree were being observed from above, rather than the tree being a participant in a complex ecosystem? And such definitions usually continue by telling us what we westerners seem to love, they proceed to speak of superlatives. We are immediately told about the tallest, the widest, the oldest, constantly seeking in reality what we can quantify analytically. However, as for the height of trees, it is interesting that we are told: “the heights of the tallest trees in the world have been the subject of considerable dispute and much (often wild) exaggeration.”. Trees serve our purposes for recognition by others; we want to have the tallest tree near US, so we can stand out much taller than we actually are.

But how to quantify what for others is the sacredness of certain trees? The Bodhi tree does not seem to stand so much physically apart from all other trees as it does spiritually. To have been the one tree under which marvelous events occurred, what more could a tree wish for? A more comprehensive, a deeper, understanding of trees is required. Trees must be allowed a voice beyond their classification. Poetry, as we shall see, is such a possibility.

Many philosophers have likewise pointed out how strange this view of reason is; primarily because it begins its processing by severing our access to the world of living things. For it to work accurately and cleanly, it must begin by separating us form the world. This is a non-starter for many of us. This strangeness can be revealed as well in our modern maps. This type of reason is known in philosophical circles as “instrumental reason”: It has a complex history of its own connected to the rise of the new science defended by Bacon and Descartes. Among other things, when one speaks of instrumental rationality the idea is that we consider the means without thinking reflexively about the ends to which this means might lead us. Production must keep increasing even if there will in the end be nothing to produce with. We seem caught in this self-destructive dynamic. Underpinning this view of the world is the preponderance of a cost-benefit analysis and in general a utilitarian outlook to ourselves, others and nature. Taylor sums up the issue quite well:

“Instrumental reason has grown along with a disengaged model of the human subject, which has a great hold on our imagination. It offers an ideal picture of human thinking that has disengaged from its messy embedding in our bodily constitution, our dialogical situation, our emotions and our traditional forms of life in order to be pure, self-verifying rationality. This is one of the most prestigious forms of reason in our culture.“ (“The Ethics of Authenticity”, a MUST read for ANY artist, pg. 102)

Disengaging ourselves from trees, easily we topple them. We might say to ourselves: “They cannot engage in dialogue; so much the worse for them.”

To this position the Romantics, among many, revolted. They pointed out the dangers of this separation between humans and their natural world. Art became a way to bridge the disconnected parts which conformed a mechanical view of the universe. To make a very long story short, what has come out of such critiques is what is known as a stance called “Deep ecology”. This position stems from a reconsideration of what language reveals about ourselves and the world we inhabit. Under it, living things place a demand on us humans which moves us beyond our anthropocentrism into a view in which we “let things be”. In an article entitled “Heidegger, Buddhism and deep ecology”, Michael Zimmerman writes:

“Buddhism, Heidegger and Naess argue that puncturing the illusion of permanent selfhood would alleviate the infliction of such suffering by freeing one from the illusory quest for total control. Being liberated from the illusion of egocentrism also frees one from the spontaneous compassion towards other beings human and non-human alike. One ´lets things be´ not for any external goal, but instead simply from a profound sense of identification with all things” (pg 263-264)

It is not by chance that it is Buddhism which leads the way here. Siddhartha knew much about trees, or so it seems. Now, this perspective in itself is not without problems, but it stands as a powerful critique of the anthropocentric view which sees humans as dominators of nature, rather than as one of the highest expressive possibilities of the natural.

Deep ecology reconsiders seriously the role language plays in our relation to the world. Instead of using language to classify the world, words become the way to disclose things and allow them a voice beyond our own. Having language center exclusively on humans likewise makes it impossible to hear subtler languages which open humans to realities beyond their own anthropocentric paradigm. Our initial puzzle seems to have found a possible response. Although it is WE humans who have language, it is by changing the way we understand language, that we can hear the voice of the living things to which we belong. Something like this is what Taylor is trying to get at with the use of the term “epiphany”:
“what I want to capture with this term is just the notion of a work of art as the locus of a manifestation which brings us into the presence of something which is otherwise inaccessible, and which is of the highest moral or spiritual significance; a manifestation, moreover, which also defines or completes something, even as it reveals” (SotS pg 419)

Art in particular provides the human possibility in which epiphany can be realized. Perhaps now we are more prepared to listen to Quasimodo’s poem about a very unique tree.

5. A poem about a unique tree: “A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds”

Do forgive so many twists and turns. Now, finally, to Quasimodo’s complete poem. A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds, reads:

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow.

A refuge of nocturnal birds,
in the deepest hours of midnight it resounds
with the swift fluttering of wings.

Even my heart has a nest
suspended into the darkness, and a voice;
it, too, lies awake listening at night.”

Let’s listen to it a stanza at a time. We must remain open to see what poetry can reveal and transform as it reveals. It reveals complexities, even if made up of the simplest of words. As few other arts can, it reaches origins.
.
First Stanza

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow.”

The poem opens by distancing us from what appears is its main character. High on a cliff, far away, one sees a tree. But this tree is not just any tree. It could have been a maple, or a eucalyptus. But no. It is a pine. “Why a pine?,” you might ask. Only later shall we see. We must be patient and not skip the lines of the poem. We must not be hasty as Tolkien’s trees remind us. But then we puzzle a bit. This pine is no ordinary pine; it is instead, twisted. But tell me: have you ever seen a twisted pine? Aren’t pines the straightest of trees? Why does Quasimodo do this?

Perhaps that this special pine is twisted tells us something. It is a pine which has undergone a transformation. Its nature is no longer what other trees of its species take for granted. It has mutated. It stands out. And we imagine all other pines blushing somewhat at the sight of such abnormality. In contrast, Siddhartha would not have mocked this tree. .

Having described the tree and its location, we are now told what it actually DOES. Trees aren’t really the most active of creatures. But this tree is special. It is a listening tree. It listens with its twisted trunk. How does it listen? This tree listen INTENTLY. It is an intense twisted tree. What does it listen to? It listens to the abyss. It listen to the depths; to the depths of time and the darkness of origins.

And through the magic of words Quasimodo suddenly transports us from the distance on the high cliff afar, to a certain closeness to this tree. We are moved , with a few words, to focus on the shape of its trunk. The tree trunk provides the solidity of a tree’s very existence. Just remember the biological definition of trees. It is the trunk which holds the branches, not the other way around. Surely a tree without a trunk is like a person without a spinal chord. And this tree’s trunk has a special form; that of a crossbow. And we puzzle at Quasimodo’s choice of words. A crossbow for what? This pine intently listening is both a pine and a crossbow. Now we suddenly understand why it MUST be a pine. For a pine has the form of an arrow. This pine listening intently projects itself ready for flight as an arrow thrown from its very own being towards itself. But how can this be so? Have you ever seen a tree move? How can it move while remaining in its place? Trees seem to have a certain magic to them.

Second Stanza

“A refuge of nocturnal birds,
in the deepest hours of midnight it resounds
with the swift fluttering of wings.’

Quasimodo gives us pause to rethink what has happened. And while we do so, we return only to suffer a move towards the inside. This fantastic tree, shunned by other trees in their upright existence —–which does not mean this tree is not itself upright, only that it is so in a very different way— has a peculiar function. It is the tree chosen by the surrounding birds. It is a refuge for life. Bent, it can carry the birds which upright trees might not. These winged friends flock to it at night, when the light of day is gone and great perils arise. Waiting in time, probably remembering its own rings, suddenly this tree resounds in the darkest of moments. And we look carefully at Quasimodo’s choices upon the many which opened before him while writing. This tree “resounds”. Why not simply say that this tree “sounds”? Why emphasize that it RE-sounds. Perhaps because this tree has sounded before, and will sound again at midnight as long at it lives and there are humans to tell the story. Other trees seem soundless in comparison.

It resounds at a specific time; at the time in which much of night has gone by, and still much of night is still to come. One needs strength to survive until midnight and great hope to survive afterwards. For dusk is long past, and dawn is far away. How can we be sure dawn will in fact arrive? This tree has no songs of its own, though its rings have the memory of countless singing inhabitants it has outlasted. This unique tree resounds with the fluttering of wings. Swiftly the birds ——who take refuge in it as a home—– give it motion and musicality. Instead of simply lying asleep within the tree, they keep it close company. It is as if the birds —-in gratitude towards this special tree— want to take the crossbow which this twisted tree is, directly into flight. Unable to fly, this tree is now prepared, because of the presence of fluttering birds, to fly. For we are truly grateful to refuges; particularly to those refuges which took us in the midnight hours of our lives. Specially those refuges who gave us shelter based on the DIFFICULT maturity of true generosity. Grateful as Siddhartha must have been before he became another; a much better other.

Third Stanza

“Even my heart has a nest
suspended into the darkness, and a voice;
it, too, lies awake listening at night.”

And we catch our breath for we are heading towards the end. We began far way, only to enter into the very branches which hold these birds within. But now, suddenly, WE appear to ourselves for the very first time. The twisted tree OUT there in the cliff, the birds OUT there in the twisted tree, becomes the tree IN which WE live. We are not the tree, but we are close. Have you ever been close to a tree? Quasimodo tells us that even our hearts have a nest here. But we KNOW we are not birds If you have doubts, try to fly into the abyss. And yet, a bit like birds, we create our nests from the twigs and small branches of our lives. Furthermore, for Quasimodo the nest is not primarily for our brains, or legs; though it is ALSO nest for them. It is primarily a refuge for our hearts. This twisted tree is a refuge for artists who value our emotional human existence as a privileged way of accessing the world which surrounds us in constant immediacy.

Quasimodo is grateful as well; even HIS heart has a nest. This is why he shares this poem with us. He does not simply want a nest for himself, but rather a nest for US. But this nest, we are told, lies suspended. It lacks a firm grounding which guarantees total safety. Total and firm grounding is not a possibility for us moderns, as it was possible for earlier times. Our access to nature as moderns cannot have the grounding we once knew in earlier mythologies which allowed for a direct connection between trees and gods. We know of science and its understanding. This is why our nest lies suspended in the darkness. .A strong and compassionate refuge is required precisely in such times. It is in darkness that the generosity of shelter becomes a gift. Suspended in the darkness and close to the abyss, Quasimodo’s poem allows us to reconsider ourselves and our relation to the world of trees.

And then the MOST puzzling aspect of the poem appears as a lightning bolt. Quasimodo briefly adds “and a voice”. Not the tree’s voice. Not the birds’ voices. Not Quasimodo’s voice, for he could just as well have said “my” voice. And yet it is A voice. This voice does not have the presumptions of possession, but rather discloses, in the darkness, the possibility itself of a language in which things are freed unto themselves for us to hear them. And what does it say? Nothing; for our human voice may perhaps have said too much. Instead, it is open to the difficult activity of listening beyond our own speech. This voice is open to the disclosure of nature in the very words of the poem we are reading together.

In contrast to so many voices, this voice lies speechless; it awaits the time to speak, to open itself in renewed speech. It listens, as once the twisted tree we knew at the beginning of the poem did. Awakened, it has allowed this tree access to language. Our consciousness –liberated from pure instrumentality – becomes itself a crossbow which projects the tree as an arrow into the abyss. This voice, the voice of the poem itself, resounds ever again as we feel the pull to return to the beginning, to its origin. Perhaps in it, awake at night, we might feel the echoes of a faint refuge for us humans, specially of us artists. Instrumentality has seen the possibility of a depth beyond its dangerous limitations.

6. Conclusion

This has been, once again, a long journey. I am grateful if you have been a refuge to my weak words. Perhaps now we are more prepared to listen for calls which we might otherwise miss. Perhaps at least this call must be heard; the tree of life must be heard before we continue climbing up the tree of knowledge. For it seems we know much, but live well little. Perhaps together we are now better prepared to listen to Quasimodo’s deceptively simple words. Let’s listen intently:

A Refuge of Nocturnal Birds

“High on a cliff there’s a twisted pine;
intently it listens into the abyss
with its trunk curved down like a crossbow.

A refuge of nocturnal birds,
in the deepest hours of midnight it resounds
with the swift fluttering of wings.

Even my heart has a nest
suspended into the darkness, and a voice;
it, too, lies awake listening at night.”

(RIFUGIO D’UCCELLI NOTTURNI

In alto c’è un pino distorto;
sta intento ed ascolta l’abisso
col fusto piegato a balestra.

Rifugio d’uccelli notturni,
nell’ora più alta risuona
d’un battere d’ali veloce.

Ha pure un suo nido il mio cuore
Sospeso nel buio, una voce;
sta pure in ascolto, la notte
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PLATO AND FREUD:

EROTIC SUBLIMATION, TRUTH AND NARRATION

 

INTRODUCTION

Drawing up a comparison between Freud and Plato on the nature of our erotic life is a project that would require a long and attentive dedication to each thinker’s over-all perspective on human nature. Not being capable of undertaking such a massive enterprise, I propose instead to focus this comparative essay on the relationship between sexuality, sublimation and the human search for truth through narrative.

The comparison between both thinkers is primarily made possible because of the fact that Freud, in different parts of his work, alludes to Plato’s views on the nature of ‘Eros’. For instance, in his Group Psychology the German thinker writes concerning the centrality of sexuality in the overall picture of psychoanalysis:

“By coming to this decision, Psychoanalysis has let loose a storm of indignation, as though it had been guilty of an act of outrageous innovation. Yet it has done nothing original in taking love in this ‘wider’ sense. In its origin, function and relation to sexual love, the ‘Eros’ of the philosopher Plato coincides exactly with the love force, the libido of psychoanalysis” (GP, 119) (See also, 3ES, Preface 4, 43)

 

According to Freud the libido, that is to say, the “energy regarded as quantitative magnitude …… of those instincts which have to do with all that may be comprised under the word ‘love’” (GP, 116), is merely a reformulation of the Platonic understanding of erotic longing. However, this claim is so strong that it cannot but puzzle us. This is so primarily because it is not at all clear that Plato has anything like ‘THE’ theory of sexuality within his dialogues. Instead it is of the nature of the dialogues to provide avenues for reflection, but no absolutely clear end roads where human reflection would become an impossibility. Besides, the interaction between the different Platonic dialogues may actually provide varying, perhaps mutually conflicting views, on the nature of human eroticity. Given this multiplicity which Freud seems to overlook, one is lead to ask: when Freud talks of the Platonic ‘theory of love’, does he have in mind the Symposium, the Phaedrus¸ or perhaps the Republic? Or does he mean the three, somehow made commensurable? And even if he does indeed have in mind particularly the Symposium, does he take it for granted that Plato’s views are identical to those of Socrates’ speech founded upon the remembrance of Diotima’s words? If this is so, then what ought we to do with all the other speeches? Why did Plato take the trouble of writing them in that order, with speakers the character of which clarify the nature of their speeches, and moreover, in such dramatic, and lively, fashion?

Having this questions in mind, in order to get clearer on how precisely Plato and Freud stand as regards the transformability of sexuality into ever widening activities, relations and aims, I propose to look at the question of sublimation in general, but particularly as it rotates around the crucially important notion of truth as it appears in each thinker’s view. I will carry this out by dividing this essay into two sections which perhaps can stand as mirror images to each other. In the first I will try to shed some light on the dialogical nature of the Symposium. This involves, among other things, bringing to the fore what I take to be the central confrontation of the dialogue, that is to say, the always indirect battle of positions held between Aristophanes (and to a minor extent Alcibiades) and Socrates. In their confrontation, I take it, lies the most important Platonic contribution to the understanding of the complexities and difficulties one runs into in seeking to comprehend the nature of our erotic longing as human beings, and perhaps even as potential Socrateses. The difficult issue of truth comes to light not in the personal, steadfast, and perhaps even stubborn adherence to one of the speeches, but rather in the critical acceptance of the dialogical interaction between the participants who together let us know that Eros, and the narration of Eros, are two sides of the same coin.

In the second section I will proceed to consider, briefly, some of the issues in Freud’s treatment of the ever elusive concept of sublimation within his work, and its relation to the pessimistic claims which mark the latter writings centering on the status of civilization and its relation to our unhappiness. Having done this, I will proceed to look at how precisely sublimation can, in the specific case of the analytic situation, brings out the ‘truthfulness’ of psychoanalysis as the working through of perplexities and unconscious barriers in order to get clearer, through the dialogical articulation of the participants involved, about the history and meaningfulness of one’s own past. I will claim that by centering on the issue of the narrative character of psychoanalytic truth, i.e., the textuality inherent in case histories, one finds the closest possible linking bridge between the complex and quite different views held by both Plato and Freud.

 

SECTION I: ARISTOPHANES AND/OR SOCRATES? DIALOGICAL TRUTHS IN THE SYMPOSIUM

The Symposium is a Platonic dialogue. Now, this may seem like an obvious claim, one which truly reveals nothing that is not self-evident. However, this very narrative character of the Platonic writings, a character which varies within the different Platonic periods, is the one which makes of Plato’s work a truly living breathing work. In the case of the Symposium in particular it is this dialogical characteristic which makes it evident that the Platonic understanding of the role of Eros in our lives is not simply identical to that of Socrates. Perhaps we can even find in this dialogue a questioning of the Socratic adventure towards philosophical truth. This is nowhere clearer than in the silent confrontation found between the speeches of Aristophanes and that of Socrates. In order to see exactly what is at stake in their agonistic encounter I will center the discussion upon the words of the Greek comedian. In situating the comedian’s speech within the dialogue, I will try to situate myself within, what I take to be, Plato’s overall intentions.

But before doing so, one ought to keep in mind a parallel that constantly reappears between Aristophanes and Freud. Aristophanes covers up the tragic nature of his brief speech on the nature of human erotic longing with the temporary soothing elements of comic myth. In this sense Aristophanes shares, as we shall see, Freud’s own pessimism regarding the search for human happiness through a life centered fundamentally on the erotic intermingling between lovers. For Freud, “the weak side of this technique of living is easy to see … it is that we are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love” (CiD, 270). But before looking more closely at the way this pessimism finds expression in Aristophanes’ speech, we must seek to briefly situate the comedian’s words within the whole of the Platonic dialogue.

That this concern is central in trying to understand the comic’s speech can be clearly seen in that Aristophanes is mysteriously silenced by Plato at different crucially climatic points of the dialogue. The first of these occurs just after Socrates has finished recollecting Diotima’s complex words concerning the possibility of an ascent to “the beautiful in itself”. Diotima’s speech on the nature of the philosophical life not only explicitly mentions and rejects Aristophanes’ myth ———due to its distancing itself, allegedly, from the goodness of the lovers involved (206d-e)——– but also involves a starting point in the ascent that stands in outright conflict with the comedian’s understanding of what is involved in the “ordinary” erotic interrelation between lovers. For Diotima the initiate in erotic understanding:

“first of all … must love one body and there generate beautiful speeches. Then he must realize that the beauty that is in any body whatsoever is related to that in another body; and if he must pursue the beauty of looks, it is great folly not to believe that the beauty of all bodies is one and the same. And with this realization he must be the lover of all beautiful bodies and in contempt slacken this erotic intensity for only one body, in the belief that it is petty” (210a).

For the Diotimian lover, the uniquely beautiful body of the loved one is not only interchangeable with others, but is linked to a kind of brutishness unworthy of those engaged in ascending towards “higher ground” (and those who believe this bodily interchangeability is not so problematic, must grapple with the fact that it also holds for the individual soul of that human being which we love as no other (210d)). Now, what is extremely suspicious from the stance of the defender of Aristophanes’s speech, lies in that, once Socrates has finished speaking, we learn that the comedian does not only NOT praise it, but moreover is just about to speak when Plato silences his reservations via the entrance of the bodily beautiful and drunken Alcibiades (212c). Perhaps Alcibiades’ speech will retake elements of Aristophanes’s myth, but perhaps too Alcibiades will not fully express the comedian’s deepest reservations. Now, however that may turn out to be, it is likewise suspicious that towards the end of the dialogue Plato once again is quick to silence Aristophanes. In the culminating conversation between Aristophanes, Agathon and Socrates, conversation in which the latter is trying to “compel” (223d) the other two to admit that the tragic poet is also a comic poet, Aristophanes , by the magical hand of the author, is the first to be “put to sleep”. Socrates, in contrast, goes on sleepless to continue his contemplative activity at the Lyceum. How to understand this? Is there a hierarchy between the different speeches, Socrates’ being the culminating one? Does Socrates speech take up and complete Aristophanes’, just as Pausanias claimed to complete Phaedrus’? Does Aristophanes’ speech present itself not as a dialectical “stepping stone” for what is to follow, but rather as a sort of broken bridge which divides two different ways of living one’s erotic life? If this is so, then clearly Plato’s views on what sublimation and truth might be taken to be, are not so easily identifiable with Socrates’ own words.

The competition between Socrates, who is characterized by his ‘strangeness’ (215a), ‘outrageousness’ (175c) and ‘oddness’ (175a), and Aristophanes, is further made clear by the starting point each takes up in order to the clarify our erotic involvements. While Socrates, unlike in the Apology, claims to have “perfect knowledge of erotics” —— a knowledge expressed, in his youth, not by him but by Diotima (177d) ——– Aristophanes speaks from his own personal, perhaps lived-through, opinion (‘doxa’) (189c) (although it is also important to remember that Aristophanes, of all the speakers, is the only not paired with any other as lover to beloved). Moreover, both speakers seems to hold allegiance to very different gods. Socrates lets us know that Aristophanes’s “whole activity is devoted to Dionysius and Aphrodite” (177d). Aristophanes is concerned with two very particular Olympians: on the one hand Dionysius, the only god who knows of death and a subsequent rebirth, the god of wine and music (music being “exiled” from the dialogue, while wine is “moderated”; until the final entrance of Alcibiades), the god of excess which Agathon calls upon to judge the rivalry between him and Socrates (175e); and on the other hand, Aphrodite, the beautiful goddess of delicate feet born asexually from the genitals of Uranus after having been conquered by Cronos, the goddess who commits adultery with Ares and is made to pay for it by Hephaestus, to whom we shall return. These two gods, which are mysteriously absent from Aristophanes’s speech itself, stand in outright contrast to the Apollinian values of self-knowledge and moderation, values which partly characterize the behavior of Socrates.

Aristophanes’ linkage to the love of wine, and thus to Dionysius, is made clear from the very line which marks his entrance. Celebrating Agathon’s victory he drank not moderately, but rather like a human sponge, taking in so much that he has become completely soaked. (176b). Aristophanes is not by any means a measured Athenian gentleman. His disordering presence becomes even more evident precisely when his turn to speak arrives. If Socrates rudely interrupts by his bodily inactivity the dinner to which he is invited (174d), Aristophanes rudely interrupts (or perhaps is overtaken) by his bodily activity, thus changing the original order of the speeches. Just when Pausanias has finished his sophisticated speech on pederasty, Aristophanes reveals that hiccups have gotten the best of him. Hiccups, we are mysteriously told, due to “satiety or something else” (perhaps wine?) (185d). Eryximachus, the physician who had played a key role both in ordering the whole banquet (177d), and in moderating the dangerous effects of wine (176d), sets out to cure the poor comedian’s sudden illness. Medicine rescues the comedian by putting forward the strongest of cures known to hiccuping, the soaking outbursts of sneezing. Once Eryximachus’ “doctoral” speech come to an end (presumably with Aristophanes hiccuping and sneezing throughout), the comedian ironically challenges the doctor’s claims to understanding the nature and erotics of the body. He says: “so I wonder at the orderly decency of the body, desiring such noises and garglings as a sneeze is; for my hiccuping stopped right away as I applied the sneeze to it” (189c). That Aristophanes is not by any means thanking his doctor, is made evident by the laughter of all those present; a laughter which comes into conflict with the seriousness of the doctor who fights back by way of an aggressive challenge. Eryximachus will become the guardian of comedy; “you did have the chance to speak in peace”, he tells Aristophanes (189b). The comic poet becomes now the doctor who must cure the excessive anger which bursts easily from the moderate physician. Aristophanes seeks a truce claiming to want to start from the beginning: “let what has been said be as if it were never spoken” (189b). (An apology which seems to imply that the previous speeches have somehow gone wrong.) Eryximachus, in turn, demands that the poet give a rational account (‘logos’) of Eros; a demand which, if fulfilled, would reduce the speech of the comic to pure silence. Aristophanes will speak in another vein, it is one which involves story-telling, imaginative interaction and poetic creativity; much the same things we feel are necessary in speaking about one’s love for that other who makes us feel “head over heels”. Finally, the comedian shares with us his one big fear; Aristophanes is not afraid of saying laughable things, that is to say, things which can be shared by all of us who somehow feel ourselves identified with what is said —–things which, besides, represent a gain for the poetic Muse (189c)—— but he is afraid of saying things that are “laughed at”, that is to say, things from which we think we can distance ourselves and judge from a higher plane than that of our vulnerable and tragic condition (189b).

In trying to situate Aristophanes’ speech within the whole of the Platonic dialogue, I argued that he and Freud investigate the viability and shortcomings of the highly risky human possibility which centers the attainment of happiness on a radical emphasis in the life of erotic sharing between two individuals. But besides this similarity, what is more amazing still, is that we find in Freud a passage in which he makes us recollect Aristophanes’s own mythological comprehension of the power of Eros in our lives. For Freud:

“ a pair of lovers are sufficient to themselves, …… in no other case does Eros so clearly betray the core of his being, his purpose of making one out of more than one … (thus) we can imagine quite well a cultural community consisting of double individuals like this, who libidinally satisfied in themselves, are connected with one another through the bonds of common work and common interests …. but this desirable state of things does not, and never did, exist” (CiD, 298).

 

For Aristophanes, once upon a time, such state did “exist”, and his story stands as imaginative “proof”. It is a story which allows us to re-’collect’ the genesis of human erotic longing. Only through its understanding can we come closer to comprehending that force in us which strives to reach out for another’s physical and psychical partnership.

The brevity of the speech stands in stark contrast with its complexity. Too many issues are brought together and unfortunately, I cannot, nor know how to, deal with many of them. I propose therefore to zero-in more closely on one of these aspects, namely, the central issue which links Aristophanes to Freud’s ‘community of double individuals’, the issue of human ‘happiness’ and the nature of erotic desire.

Aristophanes claims that the power of Eros lies in its providing us with the greatest possible happiness any human being could ever expect to achieve in this world. As he puts it: “Eros is the most philanthropic of gods, the helper of human beings as well as a physician dealing with an illness the healing of which would result in the greatest happiness for the human race” (189c-d)”. According to Aristophanes we humans can allegedly reach happiness via erotic involvement, but it seems, not just with anybody. Eros represents this regressive possibility by allowing us to catch a glimpse of our ancient nature. Unlike the tragic results of the first operation by Zeus, operation which culminated in the painful death of the two newly severed parts which were left to cling unto each other, dying “due to hunger and the rest of their inactivity, because they were unwilling to do anything apart from one another” (191b), for us who are the “beneficiaries” of the second more complex Apollinian operation, sexuality has been brought to the fore. Having placed the genitals, the “shameful things” in Greek, in the front (191b), we can move beyond clinging by now engaging in sexual activity. Through the latter the previous oneness can be, only temporarily for sure, remembered once again. Eros’ power allows this, and it is because of it that we must thank, praise and sacrifice to this god’s, usually taken for granted, divine presence (189c). But sexual interaction with just anyone will not lead to the happiness which reminds us of our past protohuman “fulfillment”. We must permanently search for that other who matches the jagged features of our patched up bodies (191a). Eros is then “the bringer-together of their (that is to say, ‘our’) ancient nature, who tries to make one of two and to heal their (that is to say, ‘our’) human nature. Each of us is a token (‘symbolon’) of a human being ….. and so each is always in search of his own token” (191d). Ever since we become old enough to feel the erotic longing for another’s patches, we turn into permanent seekers of what in Spanish we call “mi otra media naranja”, that is to say, that “my other half-orange” who will complete our fruit like original nature in which we resembled the natural gods. The Greeks here preferred to speak of apples (190e).

And if ever we are so lucky as to be allowed by Eros to find that other who strikes us wondrously with friendship and erotic love to the point that, now, we “are unwilling to be apart from one another even for a short time” (192c), then human bliss seems to reach its highest possible peak. The other’s presence modifies one’s own self-perception and that of the world in a way in which both are mutually enriched; we feel ourselves enhanced in a world which suddenly opens itself to new, previously unseen, possibilities.

But Aristophanes and Freud seem to have reservations. Freud, we saw, centers his critique on the loss of the beloved. Aristophanes, though aware of this danger, provides a more devastating critique by looking at the problematic functioning of erotic desire itself. The lucky lovers who are finally able to reach each other, presumably following several painful misses and rather uncomfortable fits ——— for Aristophanes makes it clear that this reunion is not what normally happens at present (193b) ———- these lucky lovers nevertheless seem to desire something more. This something, Aristophanes jokingly says, one could not conceivably take it simply to be the delight of sexual intercourse with that other half which seems to fit, ‘just right’, in yourself: “as though it were for this reason —-of all things—– that each so enjoys being with the other… but the soul of each wants something else” (192c). But that elusive ‘something else’ which the soul of each wants for him/herself, that cannot be easily put into words. Just as it so happens when one is asked why one loves his/her, hopefully, ‘real’ other half, there comes a point where you cannot quite “explain”, and instead just feel like saying, “Can’t you see why?, well that is really odd”.

Nevertheless Aristophanes challenges this silence, the same silence which Plato forces on him, by providing us with a riddle to be solved. The riddle, like Oedipus’, concerns humans, but unlike the King’s, Aristophanes’s concerns a dilemma which is brought to light by looking at our desiring nature. The riddle is spoken by yet another Olympian god, Hephaestus, the weak god of fire and crafts/arts (techne). It is he who chained Aphrodite and Ares for having committed adultery; chaining them, not to bring them eternal bliss, but rather eternal boredom. Hephaestus seems, tragically, to seek welding as punishment (Od. 315). This god is made to ask us humans what we really want out of love, and, just as Zeus was perplexed with the attitude of the circular beings, so we humans stand perplexed by Hephaestus’ question (192d). He must therefore not only rephrase the question, but very directly answer it in doing so. Would we not really desire just to become one once again, our belly wrinkles giving way to a stronger sphericity? What more lovely than reaching this “golden state” capable even of denying the individual death of its members, so that even “in Hades you (that is to say, we) would be together one instead of two?” (192e). Would this not be the ultimate happiness, that which involved a shared immortality?

The riddle, and riddles one would think are so because they are, presumably, very difficult to answer, is to our perplexity immediately answered in the affirmative. It seems as though nothing would be more desirable for us, ill halves, than to permanently rejoin that other whom Eros has granted us, finally, to reach. However, we should remember that even the protohumans though fused to their extremities, nonetheless did not seem to have seen themselves as part of a Paradise in which nothing was lacking. Even asexual human sphericity finds itself lacking, striving to move beyond its original condition. Oneness reaches beyond itself, although of course it reaches out more powerfully with four arms, four legs, not just two of each. And moreover, what distinguishes our humanity lies precisely in that, like it or not, we will forever remain as halves in constant search for that which we lack. Desire flourishes precisely due to this incompleteness which moves us beyond ourselves. The feverish conditions which evolve out of the absence of the loved one seem to move in the same direction. If Hephaestus’ riddle were not only answered in the affirmative, but actually set in place, our human condition as we know it, fragile and ill as it may be, would come to a permanent end. Letting Hephaestus do his work would turn out to be a punishment much severer than that of Zeus who intended to break us down once more, leaving us “hopping on one leg” (190d). Seeking to become spherical again requires the death of Eros’ presence in our lives. And Aristophanes hints to this towards the end of his speech in a paragraph which links past, present and future possibilities: “our race would be happy if we were to bring our love to a consummate end, and each of us were to get his own favorite on his return to his ancient nature. And if this is the best, it must necessarily be the case that, IN PRESENT CIRCUMSTANCES, that which is closest to it is the best; and that is to get a favorite whose nature is to one’s tastes” (193c) (here a specific reference to the pederasts, but shedding light, I believe, into all the different kinds of relationships). Aristophanes qualifies his appeal to a return to oneness by continually using the hypothetical ‘if’, as in ‘if this is the best’. But as I have argued this undoubtedly is not the best desirable course for us humans to take. Our present circumstances cannot be done away with, no matter how hard we imagine ourselves to have been otherwise. At best we should seek out to reach the sweetness of that other who allows the growth of those beautiful wings characteristic of the highest kind of lovers in the Phaedrus (251e); but, at the same time knowing, or perhaps feeling, full well that Eros’ presence immediately sets us humans in the web of a dilemma which seems to promise much more that it can offer. Aristophanes laughs, and allows us to laugh at this all-too-human endevour.

Perhaps it is because of this dilemma, characteristic, of our ‘ordinary’ erotic life that Socrates takes a radically different starting point in his search for the desiring value of the beautiful in our lives. Attempting to analyze that speech in full would require taking up too many difficult issues, many of which I am uncertain. Instead, I would just like to, in order to complete this section, show how it is precisely Socrates who stands, in his daily living and acting, as the greatest challenge to the Aristophanean conception of lovers comically seeking to erase their split nature. It is by looking at Socrates’ way of life, a philosophical way of life which questions all others, that another perspective on erotic desire and its role in the achievement of truth becomes possible.

That Socrates is brought to court in this dialogue, though clearly in a different setting than that of the Apology, can be seen from the very start. As we pointed out above, Agathon has promised to take him to court about their wisdom with Dionysus as judge (176a). But clearly Agathon’s challenge seems to have been more forcibly made by he who has Dionysius as his God. It is Aristophanes, silenced throughout by Plato, who carries the greatest challenge to the Socratic philosopher and his demeening view of the body.

This ridiculing of any bodily knowledge is clearly exemplified, for instance, in Socrates ironic treatment of Agathon’s view of the corporeal transference of wisdom (175e). Furthermore the belief that in bodily contact there lies some kind of understanding, as Aristophanes seems to believe, is precisely what Socrates finds troubling in Alcibiades’ love:

“So if, in observing my beauty, you are trying to get a share in it and to exchange beauty for beauty, you are intending to get far the better deal. For you are trying to acquire truth of beautiful thing in exchange for the seeming and opinion of beautiful things; and you really have in mind to exchange ‘gold for bronze’” (218e)

 

The importance of bringing this to light, is that it is particularly in the confrontation between Socrates and Alcibiades where the conflict between perspectives achieves its highest point. Drunk Alcibiades, who acknowledges his love of fame derived from the dedication to the city and consequent self-neglect, (216a) tells Socrates: “I shall tell the truth. See if you allow it.” (215e). Philosophy, understood as the love of the truth, finds its Socratic response not only in an acceptance of the challenge, but in a demand to do so.

Leaving aside the claims of the beautiful Alcibiades, it is quite obvious that Socrates’ ascent takes place under very different conditions. Socrates, who as a young man was led by Diotima to the most perfect revelations (210a), understands this ascent as one linked directly to the search of a very different kind of truth. It is a truth of unquestionable nature, for as he tells Agathon, “It is rather that you are unable to contradict the truth … since it is not at all hard to contradict Socrates” (201c). Although Diotima doubted whether young Socrates could follow in her lead, it is clear that now Socrates is convinced of the path he was taught by her (212b). What the highest step in the ladder reveals is a contemplative reality which has moved radically beyond the eroticity of Aristophanes’ everyday lovers, and their particular sort of truth. Although it is defined negatively for the most part (211a), and only given to us in a glimpse (210e), it becomes clear that according to Socrates only herein lies full human flourishing and happiness through the exploration of the divine in us:

“only here, in seeing in the way the beautiful is seeable, will he get to engender not phantom images of virtue … but true, because he lays hold of the true; and that once he has given birth to and cherished true virtue it lies within him to become dear to god, and if it is possible for any human being, to become immortal as well” (212a)

 

In ascending, what was perceived as supremely important in the ascent, is relegated to lower levels of comprehension incapable of grasping the beauty of the whole. And Socrates, the embodied human being in love with philosophy, stands as palpable truth of this transformation both in word and action. He is a human being like no other either present or past (221c-d). Socrates is truly a weird character. Although utterly ugly in bodily terms ——so much so that he is likened to Silenus and Marsyas—— his ‘internal’ beauty (217a), and the speeches that flow from it (215d) are of incomparable beauty and eroticity. This human being ——— with unheard of courage in retreat (220eff), with unheard of capacity for sustained thought (220c), with unheard of lack of bodily necessities, not only in the most sensual of situations (219d), but also in the crudest of winters (220b)——– this human being dedicates his whole life to the undertaking of a way of life which severs ties with the richness and honors sought by the majority (216e).

But puzzled by the presenc of such disparate speeches we are led to ask, if Aristophanes and Socrates present such conflicting perspectives of the role of sexuality in the conformation of our life plans, then who does Plato take to be the ‘true’ path we as humans ought to follow? An easy way out, it seems to me, is to claim that Plato’s love of Socrates obviously leads to the primacy of the speech of his beloved teacher. However, what I have tried to argue is instead that Plato uses the narrative character of his dialogue precisely to allow us to develop the philosophical capacity of reflexive self-awareness. In engaging ourselves in the reading of the work as a whole, what are revealed are not straight unquestionable answers to our dilemmas and perplexities, but rather a presentation of the complexities involved in thinking about the nature of our erotic life. Plato, like Socrates and Aristophanes, loves the agon of words, over and beyond any tranquil acceptance of clear-cut positions.

 

SECTION II: REPRESSION, SUBLIMATION, AND DIALOGICAL NARRATIVITY

The Platonic and Freudian perspectives on erotic desire touch and differ in multiple places and aspects. On the one hand, one finds that the striking parallels between Freud and Aristophanes can be more fully appreciated if one looks more closely at the pessimism which permeates the former’s writings on the processes and mechanisms underlying civilized institutions and behavior. On the other hand, the parallel with the Platonic dialogue as a way to self-understanding is more closely bound, if one moves beyond the previous tragic perspective, to the liberating therapeutic value of the analytic situation.

As I argued above, the Aristophenean position represented a simultaneous comic and tragic perspective onthe nature of our everyday love affairs. For Freud, it seems at times, the comic aspect is completely overrun by the tragedy of our human condition. An example of this is the troublingly entitled work Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness. Providing us with a diagnosis of the modern condition, and not intended as a text for a particular kind of reformation (CSM, 55), it focuses rather on the characteristic repression of sexuality on which modern civilization, and for that matter any other civilization, is built. According to Freud: “we must view … all factors which impair sexual life, suppress its activity or distort its aims as being pathogenic factor in the psychoneurosis” (CSM, 38). What occurs at the level of the individual, namely, the supression of her instictual drives, is likewise the distinguishing mark of society as a whole which can survive only through an active taming of sexual and aggressive instincts. This suppression, which reminds one of Zeus’ operation in Aristophanes’ speech, involves for Freud, not the possibility of new paths, but instead primarily an impossibility of reaching human fulfillment. For him: “when society pays for obedience to its far-reaching regulations by an increase in nervous illness, it cannot claim to have purchased a gain at the price of sacrifices; it cannot claim a gain at all” (CSM, 54). This pessimistic trend, which hampers directly the human possibilities of achieving a full-fledged happiness, permeates as well Freud’s discussion of religion as it appears in his Future of an Illusion. There he once again reminds us that “the decisive question is whether and to what extent it is possible to lessen the burden of the instinctual sacrifices imposed on men, to reconcile men to those which must necessarily remain and to provide compensation for them (TFI, 186). Civilization imposes sacrifices, and according to Freud, we turn to religion as an illusory compensation for our incompleteness. However, the connection of this burden to the claims to happiness is more clearly explicited in Civilization and its Discontents. There Freud points out the different factors, both external and internal, which make it for us humans easier to realize that “unhappiness (for us) is much less difficult to experience” (CiD, 264). The eventual decay of our body and our death, the indifference and aggressiveness of nature towards us, and the unsatisfactory character of our relations with others, are for Freud the central conditions leading to our modern malaise (CiD, 329). This malaise, built on the repression of our instinctual nature, is made possible because of our experience of guilt. Freud intention, following Nietzsche’s analysis of the rise of consciousness in the Genealogy of Morals, is “to represent the sense of guilt as the most important problem in the development of civilization and to show that the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through a heightening of the sense of guilt” (CiD, 327). Freudian pessimism reaches its greatest height in the perception of the development of the super-ego which sets itself against the very being which gave rise to it. Its ruthless governing reveals that: “a threatened external unhappiness—-loss of love and punishment on the part of the external authority—has been exchanged for a permanent internal unhappiness, for the tension of the sense of guilt” (320).

However, this pessimism is balanced in psychoanalysis by its claims not only to provide a regressive diagnosis of our condition, but also to provide us with the necessary tools for therapeutic counteraction. This is why Freud writes that “an analytic of such neuroses might lead to therapeutic recommendations which could lay claim to great practical interest” (CiD, 338). Psychoanalysis, which seeks an education to reality (TFI, 233), aims at bringing forth the truth of our condition. Take for instance the reality of death and our unconscious denial of its presence. Towards the end of his short essay on our attitude towards death, Freud tells us that from his investigation, though undoubtedly regressive in some respects, nevertheless comes forth a realization of our human limitations. His analysis thus has the minimum advantage“of taking the truth more into account and of manking life more tolerable for us” (OAD, 89).

The tolerability of this condition can be further enhanced by the possibility of of sublimation. According to Freud through the redirection of instinctual energies, repression is avoided, or at least, somehow rechanneled. Sublimation:

“places extraordinary large amounts of force at the disposal of civilized activity and it does it in virtue of its especially worked characteristic of being able to displace its aim without materially diminishing its intensity. This (is a) capacity to exchange its originally sexual aim for another one, which is no longer sexual but which is psychologically related to the first aim…” (CSM 39).

 

By allowing us to reshape the drives towards sexual interaction and aggressive behavior, it becomes possible to move into the realm of ‘higher and finer’ cultural achievements. However, according to Freud this capacity can be actually developed by a few, and even in those intermittently (CSM, 45). And not only this, the transformation of the sexual instinct into these higher activities, such as those of artistic activity, intellectual inquiry, ethical comprehension and religious dedication, is constantly set within the above mentioned condition of inherent supression in the coming about of any civilization. But if this is so, how then can there truly be redirection which is not itself built upon renunciation?

One way of dealing with this problematic question, thus moving beyond its pessimistic overtones, is to retake one of Abramson’s central points, namely the idea that repression “is centrally the repression of ideas; it must be understood as the corruption of meaning as well as damning of energy” (86). Psychoanalysis re-comprehends our condition by bringing to light new ways of comprehending the way we see ourselves. Psychoanalysis leads us beyond repression by paving the way into consciousness and its hidden meanings. It is primarily in the analytic situation where analyst and analysand come to enact psychoanalysis’ truth. It is this truth, which involves the painful search and articulation of a liberating narrative, the one which can also bring us closer not only to comprehending the phenomena of sublimation, but likewise to understanding the most important and immediate bonding element between both the Platonic and Freudian discourses.

Freud claimed that psychoanalysis gave us truth. Getting clearer on what he could have meant by claiming this involves looking at psychoanalytic practice itself. According to Ricoeur, on whom I base the following remarks, psychoanalytic theory “is (should be) the codification of what takes place in the analytic situation and more precisely in the analytic relationship” (Ricoeur, TQoPiFW, 248). One is therefore concerned with specifying what will ultimately count as knowledge for this distinct situation. Analytic ‘facts’, for instance, differ fundamentally from the ‘facts’ of the natural sciences. Ricoeur provides us with four distinguishing criteria.

First, that which can be treated in the analytic situation are those experiences of the analysand which are capable of being said. The object of psychoanalysis is not instinct simply as a physiological phenomena. Desire is accessible to us only in its coming to language. It is in virtue of this that Freud can speak of translating or deciphering the content of instinctual drives. The facts in psychoanalysis are inherently language related; instincts remain unknown in themselves. Freud makes this explicit in his paper on The Unconscious:

“I am in fact of the opinion that the antithesis of conscious and unconscious is not applicable to instincts. An instinct can never become an object of consciousness —–only the idea that represents the instinct can. Even in the Ucs. an instinct cannot be represented otherwise than by an idea. If the instinct did not attach itself or manifest itself as an affective state, we could know nothing about it” (F, TU, Vol 11, 179)

 

Only what is sayable can become factual in psychoanalysis; by the same token only what the interlocutors in the Platonic dialogue say, can guide us towards a better comprehension of the text as a whole.

The second criteria for facts emphasizes the fact that in the analytic situation two subjectivities encounter each other. Desire comes to language not only for the sake of being said, but more importantly, because it is a saying directed to another. Intersubjectivity is built into analytic facts because desire itself is structured intersubjectively; desire is the desire of or for another. Without the existence of the other, desire would not be spoken. Consequently, the attempt to do away with speech by aiming at pure objectivity:

“misunderstands the essential point, namely, that the analytic experience unfolds in the field of speech and that within that field, what comes to light is another language disassociated from common language which presents itself to be deciphered” (FaP, III, 367)

 

The importance of intersubjectivity finds its highest expression in the phenomena of transference. The former, coupled with the peculiar character of the analytic situation as one in which the overpowering exigencies of the reality principle are temporarily set aside, allows a repressed desire to be heard. The recovery of this language involves a remembering which in turn is made possible by the curbing of the resistances in the analysand through new energies. It is the liberation of the latter which allow a re-interpretation of past events. (Remembering is not only a crucial factor in Aristophanes myth, but likewise marks the whole of the Symposium).

Here the central feature of transference comes to light. This is so for if desire is addressed to another as a demand, the other can deny this satisfaction. This inherent quality of desire allows the analyst, through he denial of satisfaction, to aid in he reconstituiton of the analyzand herself. Hence Ricoeur tells us: “the constitution of the subject in speech and the constitution of desire in intersubjectivity are one and the same phenomenon” (FaP, 387). This intersubjective reconstitution is clearly portrayed in the agonistic interaction between, but not only, Socrates, Aristophanes and Alcibiades.

A third crucial element in defining the criteria appropriate to psychoanalytic facts lies in the necessary differentiation between psychical and material reality. What the analyst “observes” is not an act, but instead an interpretation of an act which need not necessarily have occurred. The analyst’s inquiry is ultimately based on the interpretative value placed by the analysand on a given experience: “what is important to the analyst are the dimensions of the environment as ‘believed’ by the subject, what is pertinent to him is not the fact, but the meaning the fact has assumed in the subject’s history” (FaP, 364). The meaningfulness of psychical reality reminds us that the analytic space is one in which fantasy is played out. Likewise in the Platonic dialogue it is clear that the discussion of Eros involves many reinterpretations or events which conflict with historical reality. It is astonishing to find that the Symposium tells us erotic readers how Apollodorus conversed with a friend, “which reports a previous conversation of his own, in which he recalls a speech by Aristodemus, who reports (among others) a speech of Socrates, who reports a speech of Diotima, who reports the secrets of the mysteries. (Nussbaum, 167-8).

The final factual criteria in psychoanalysis according to Ricouer, concerns the aim which both the analysand and the analyst strive for, namely, the developing of what is capable of a narrative in the analysand’s experience. This is to say that the primary texts are individual case histories. In this fourth criteria one can clearly see the interdependence of the previous three. Narration is not a given but instead involves a creative process which could not even begin if desire were not accessible to us in speech. Likewise this work towards narrativity is the product of an intersubjective relation. Both analysand and the analyst are active participants in this reconstruction which requires the building up for forces to overcome resistances. The former are made possible by engaging in a process of remembrance through which a re-interpretation of one’s past is made possible. In narration lies self-understanding. I dwell in fantasy to find myself in reality. The Platonic dialogue, as act of the letrary and philosophical imagination, represents one of the most sublime of this recreations, one in which through words the world, and we ourselves, come to life once again.

Having looked at what it is that Ricoeur argues counts as a fact in psychoanalysis, and having briefly compared it to some elemental aspects of the Symposium, we can turn finally to a characterization of the psychoanalytic framework as a whole. Here we touch upon Freud’s tripartite definition of psychoanalysis. He writes in the first of two encyclopedia articles:

“Psychoanalysis is the name 1) of a procedure for the investigation of mental processes which are always inaccessible in any other way, 2) of a method (based on that investigation) for the treatment of neurotic disorders and 3) of a collection of psychological information obtained along these lines which is gradually being accumulated into a new scientific discipline” (Freud, TEA, 131, Vol. 15)

 

Psychoanalysis as a procedure for the investigation of mental processes which are always inaccessible in any other way deals particularly with the translation and deciphering of hidden and distorted meanings. This procedure is one which claims to give us a kind of truth of therapeutic value. In order to specify these truth claims, and the criteria of verifiability appropriate to psychoanalysis, Ricoeur returns to the four criteria for facts stated above.

First, analytic experience shows us desire coming to discourse. What is true or false consequently is what is said. Therefore, the truth aimed at is one which involves a saying-true rather than a being-true. Truth is not one that is observe, but one that is heard, In saying-truly the analysand guarantees self-reflection, she moves from misunderstanding to self-recognition. In this, Freudian discourse comes much closer to Platonic dialogue than to Socratic contemplation which, as we saw in the peak of its contemplative fulfillment seems to move even beyond language, the words of which seem inadequate in portraying the presence of a ‘being-true’ which is revealed by philosophical praxis.

Second, desire exists as desire for another. Truth claims are thus necessarily placed within the field of intersubjective communication. Pure objectivity becomes not only unthinkable, its imposition would imply the loss of speech. Both subjectivities which encounter themselves in analysis are engaged in a work which aims at the saying of truth. The joint effort of analysand and analyst aims at giving back a fantastical yet alienated realm to the analysand. The task of the latter is to incorporate this alienation through understanding. And as we saw in our first section, it is precisely this interaction which guarantees that one does not fall into a simplistic understanding of the Symposium, one in which Plato and the Socratic speech are unproblematically identified.

Here we already move beyond the second criteria for truth, namely the recognition of intersubjectivity, to the third criteria for facts of which we spoke before, that is, that what is psychoanalitically relevant is what the analysand makes of his fantasies. The aim of analysis is not the undermining of fantasy, but rather its recovery through self-understanding. The possibility of truth herein lies in something like this. In analytic experience I come to recognize my condition as human being. That is to say, I come to realize that I may not possibly realize the whole of my fantastical life. But at the very least I come to understand the reasons for this denial. By making myself responsible for my fantasy, I acknowledge the force of necessity. In the case of the Platonic dialogue, by realizing the tension between the Socratic and Aristophenean positions (to siganl out only two) I am borught to a realization of the impossibility of holding onto both simultaneously. It seems as though the Symposium is marked by an either/or dichotomy.

This last claim can perhaps be illuminated by looking at Ricoeur’s fourth criteria for facts, and the consequent truth claim appropriate to it. What is developed in analysis is a case history, a history of fantasy. A misunderstood past is made truly historical in virtue not only of my playing out my fantasy, but more importantly, by being appropriated as distinct from the real. Narrativity is critical and thus aims at this specific truth, the reconstitution of a subject through self-understanding. The analysand:

“is both the actor and the critiquer of a history which he is at first unable to recount. The problem of recognizing oneself is the problem of recovering the ability of reconstructing one’s own history, to continue endlessly to give the form of a story to reflections of oneself” (Ricoeur, TQoPiFW, 268)

 

Ultimately, the truth brought to light in analysis lies in the development of this unique case history. This is so for the fundamental precondition for the former’s existence is that the potential for self-reflection has been actualized. It is this very potential which Plato once actualized in his self-clarifying dialogues, an activity and a task which allows us to see in his dialogues a vivid reflection of his ‘sublimated’ love of words and truth. A passionate love to which the writings of Freud lead as well.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

1) PRIMARY SOURCES

 

Freud, Sigmund, On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, Volume 11 of the Penguin Freud Library, “The Unconscious” 159-210. (Edition 1984)

 

———–Civilization Society and Religion, Volume 12 of Penguin Freud Library, “‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness” pgs 33-55. (edition 1985), “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death”, “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego”, “The Future of an Illusion”, “Civilization and its Discontents” .

 

———–Historical and Expository Works on Psychoanalysis, “An Outline of Psychoanalysis, pgs 371-444.

 

 

Plato, Symposium, Photocopies given out in class.

 

——– Phaedrus, Penguin Books, Translated by Walter Hamilton.

 

 

2) SECONDARY SOURCES

 

Abramson, Jeffrey, Liberation and Its Limits, The Free Press, New York, 1984, Chapter 6, “Sublimation: A way Out?”

 

Carson, Anne, Eros the Bittersweet¸ Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1988.

 

Nussbaum, Martha, The Fragility of Goodness, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989, (1986). Chapter 6 “The Speech of Alcibiades” pgs., 165-195.

 

Ricoeur, P., Freud and Philosophy, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1970. Translated by Denis Savage.

 

———- Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,

“The question of proof in Freud’s Psychoanalytic writings” pgs 247-273.

 

Rosen, Stanley, Plato’s Symposium, Yale University Press, New Haven, (1968), 1987.

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ARISTOPHANES’ SPEECH IN PLATO’S SYMPOSIUM: A presentation

 

1) SITUATING THE SPEECH

 

  Just as Socrates covers up his physical ugliness through his unusual use of “fancy slippers” (174a), so Aristophanes covers up the tragic nature of his brief speech on the nature of human erotic longing with the temporary soothing elements of comic myth. In this sense Ar. shares, as we shall see, Freud’s own pessimism regarding the search for human happiness through a life centered fundamentally on the erotic intermingling between lovers. For Freud, as we already know, “the weak side of this technique  of living is easy to see … it is that we are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love” (CiD, 270). But before looking more closely at the way this pessimism finds expression in Aristophanes’ speech, we must seek to briefly situate the comedian’s words within the whole of the Platonic dialogue. In doing so we should keep in mind the fact that it is not Aristophanes the author of The Clouds who speaks, but rather Plato appropriating the comedian’s way of life for his own purposes.

  That this concern is central in trying to understand the comic’s speech can be clearly seen in that Ar. is mysteriously silenced by Plato at different crucially climatic points of the dialogue. The first of these occurs just after Socrates has finished recollecting Diotima’s complex words concerning the possibility of an ascent to “the beautiful in itself”. Diotima’s speech not only explicitly mentions and rejects Aristophanes’ myth ———due to its distancing itself, allegedly, from the goodness of the lovers involved (206d-e)——– but also involves a starting point in the ascent that stands in outright conflict with the comedian’s understanding of what is involved in the erotic interrelation between lovers. For Diotima the initiate in erotic understanding “first of all … must love one body and there generate beautiful speeches. Then he must realize that the beauty that is in any body whatsoever is related to that in another body; and if he must pursue the beauty of looks, it is great folly not to believe that the beauty of all bodies is one and the same. And with this realization he must be the lover of all beautiful bodies and in contempt slacken this erotic intensity for only one body, in the belief that it is petty” (210a). For the Diotimian lover the uniquely beautiful body of the loved one is not only interchangeable with others, but is linked  to a kind of brutishness unworthy of those engaged in ascending towards “higher ground” (and those who believe this bodily interchangeability is not so problematic, must grapple with the fact that it also holds for the individual soul of that human being which we love as no other (210d)). Now, what is extremely suspicious from the stance of the defender of Ar.’s speech lies in that, once Socrates has finished speaking, we learn that the comedian does not only NOT praise it, but moreover is just about to speak when Plato silences his reservations via the entrance of the bodily beautiful and drunken Alcibiades. (212c). Perhaps Alcibiades’ speech will retake elements of Ar.’s myth, but perhaps too Alcibiades will not fully express the comedian’s deepest reservations. Now, however that may turn out to be, it is likewise suspicious that towards the end of the dialogue Plato once again is quick to silence Ar. In the culminating conversation between Ar., Agathon and Socrates, conversation in which the latter is trying to “compel” (223d) the other two to admit that the tragic poet is also a comic poet, Ar. , by the magical hand of the author, is the first to be “put to sleep”. Socrates, in contrast, goes on sleepless to the Lyceum. How to understand this? Is their a hierarchy between the different speeches, Socrates’ being the culminating one? Does Socrates speech take up and complete Ar.’s, just as Pausanias claimed to complete Phaedrus’? Does Ar.’s speech present itself not as a dialectical “stepping stone” for what is to follow, but rather as a sort of broken bridge which divides two different ways of living one’s erotic life? Could one then not say that Ar. sleeps first for he somehow knows that his speech has already accomplished what Socrates is trying him to compel him to admit, namely, that comedy and tragedy are two sides of a circle eternally split for us humans who are continually torn between the bitterness of tears and the sweetness of laughter.

  The  competition  between Socrates, who is characterized by his ‘strangeness’ (215a), ‘outrageousness’ (175c) and ‘oddness’ (175a), and Ar., is further made clear by the starting point each takes up in order to the clarify our erotic involvements. While Socrates, unlike in the Apology, claims to have “perfect knowledge of erotics” —— a knowledge expressed not by him but by Diotima (177d) ——– Ar. speaks from his own personal, perhaps lived-through, opinion (189c) (although it is also important to remember that Ar., of all the speakers, is the only not paired with any other as lover to beloved). Moreover, both speakers seems to hold allegiance to very different gods. Socrates lets us know that Ar.’s “whole activity is devoted to Dionysius and Aphrodite” (177d). Ar. is concerned with two very particular Olympians: on the one hand Dionysius, the only god who knows of death and a subsequent rebirth, the god of wine and music (music being “exiled” from the dialogue, while wine is “moderated”), the god of excess which Agathon calls upon to judge the rivalry between him and Socrates (175e), and on the other hand, Aphrodite, the beautiful goddess of delicate feet born asexually from the genitals of Uranus after having been conquered by Cronos, the goddess who commits adultery with Ares, god of war, and is made to pay for it by Hephaestus, to whom we shall return. (It is noteworthy that Ar. seems to avoid Pausanias’ clever and complex split between the Uranian and Pandemian Aphrodites, a split which leads to controverial dualities such as those of beloved/lover, passive/active, body/mind and, their social expression in conventional roles such as those of the “machismo/marianismo” dichotomy in a Latin American context). These two gods, which are mysteriously absent from Ar.’s speech itself, stand in outright contrast to the Apollinian values of self-knowledge and moderation, values which partly characterize the behaviour of Socrates.

  Aristophanes’ linkage to the love of wine, and thus to Dionysius, is made clear from the very line which marks his entrance. Celebrating Agathon’s victory he drank not moderately, but rather like a human sponge, taking in so much that he has become completely soaked. (176b). Aristophanes is not by any means a measured  Athenian gentleman. His disordering presence becomes even more evident precisely when his turn to speak arrives. If Socrates rudely interrupts by his bodily inacitivity the dinner to which he is invited (174d), Ar. rudely interrupts by his bodily activity the original order of the speeches. Just when Pausanias has finished his sophisticated speech on pederasty, Ar. reveals that hiccups have gotten the best of him. Hiccups, we are mysteriously told, due to “satiety or something else” (perhaps wine?) (185d). Eryximachus, the physician who had played a key role both in ordering the whole banquet (177d), and in moderating the dangerous effects of wine (176d), sets out to cure the poor comedian’s sudden illness. Medicine rescues the comedian by putting forward the strongest of cures known to hiccuping, the soaking outbursts of sneezing. Once Eryximachus’ “doctoral” speech come to an end (presumably with Ar. hiccuping and sneezing throughout), the comedian ironically challenges the doctor’s claims to understanding the nature and erotics of the body. He says: “so I wonder at the orderly decency of the body, desiring such noises and garglings as a sneeze is; for my hiccuping stopped right away as I applied the sneeze to it” (189c). That Ar. is not by any means thanking his doctor, is made evident by the laughter of all those present;  a laughter which comes into conflict with the seriousness of the doctor who fights back by way of an aggressive challenge. Eryximachus will become the guardian of comedy; “you did have the  chance to speak in peace”, he tells Ar. (189b). The comic poet becomes now the doctor who must cure the excessive anger which bursts easily from the moderate physician. Ar.  seeks a truce (as in his work Peace), claiming to want to start from the beginning: “let what has been said be as if it were never spoken” (189b). (An apology which seems to imply that the previous speeches have somehow gone wrong.) Eryximachus, in turn, demands that the poet give a rational account (‘logos’) of eros; a demand which, if fulfilled, would reduce the speech of the comic to pure silence.  Ar. will speak in another vein, it is one which involves story-telling, imaginative interaction and poetic creativity; much the same things we feel are neccesary in speaking about one’s love for that other who makes us feel “head over heels”. Finally, the comedian shares with us his one big fear; Ar. is not afraid of saying laughable things, that is to say, things which can be shared by all of us who somehow feel ourselves identified with what is said —–things which, besides, represent a gain for the poetic Muse (189c)—— but he is afraid of saying things that are “laughed at”, that is to say, things from which we think we can distance ourselves and judge from a higher plane than that of our vulnerable and tragic condition (189b).

 

2) ASPECTS OF THE SPEECH

   

  At the outset  I argued that Freud and Ar. investigate the viability and shortcomings of the highly risky human possibility which centers the attainment of happiness on a radical emphasis in the life of erotic  sharing between two individuals. But besides this similarity, what is more amazing still, is that we find in Freud a passage in which he makes us recollect Ar.’s own mythological comprehension of the power of Eros in our lives. For Freud: “ a pair of lovers are sufficient to themselves, …… in no other case does Eros so clearly betray the core of his being, his purpose of making one out of more than one … (thus) we can  imagine quite well a cultural community consisting of double individuals like this, who libidinally satisfied in themselves, are connected with one another through the bonds of common work and common interests …. but this desirable state of things does not, and never did, exist” (CiD, 298). For Ar., once upon a time, such state did “exist”, and his story stands as imaginative “proof”. It  is a story which allows us to re-’collect’ the  genesis of human erotic longing. Only through its understanding can we come closer to comprehending that force in us which strives to reach out for another’s physical and psychical partnership.

  The brevity of the speech stands in stark contrast with its complexity. Too many issues are brought together and unfortunately, I cannot, nor know how to, deal with many of them. Therefore, I propose first to put forward some questions regarding a few of the most relevant aspects within the myth, and second,  to zero-in more closely on one of these aspects, namely, the central issue which links Ar. to Freud’s ‘community of double individuals’..

  Some of the questions one could  consider in trying to begin to understand the comic speech by Ar. are: i) Why are the circular gods of nature ——– the sun, the earth and finally the moon as intermediary between both—— gods from which the circular beings are born (male, female, androgynous respectively) (190b), quickly transformed into the anthropomorphic gods of Olympus whose origin is not even discussed (190c)? How to understand the needy nature of the Olympic gods (particularly Zeus) who wisely, after being perplexed, come to realize that by destroying the circular race of protohumans they will end up destroying their ‘other half’, namely, the one which honours and praises them? Is the Zeus mentioned here identical with the Olympian Zeus of tradition? And if so, then why so much emphasis on his deliberation (190c), his perplexity and his pity (191b)? Moreover, why, if Socrates has told us that Ar.’s god’s are Dionysius and Aphrodite, do precisely these gods not appear in the mythical narration of the genesis of eros and our permanent illness? Furthermore, why is Zeus made to speak three times in the present  “says” (190c), “supplies” and “rearranges” (191b), while the rest of his speech is in the past? Does this imply, as in Freud, that somehow the process of civilization, although comprehensible to a certain extent regressively, is nevertheless a process which has constituted us in a radically imperfect and incomplete way, a process that is, in other words, ‘here to stay’? Finally, is the process of what Ar. considers the unjust splitting up by Zeus, a split which seems to link sexuality to shamefulness,  comparable to the “unjust”  process of religion in Freud’s own perspective, a process which links sexuality to guilt? How could one link this new reference to shame, to the shame of the lovers of honour which one finds in Phaedrus’ speech? ; ii) How to understand the fact that the circular beings, who seem complete in themselves, nevertheless are, from their very mysterious conception, made to lack something so that they are taken over by “proud thoughts” which make them try to overturn, not the natural gods, but the anthropomorphic gods of Olympus (190b)? How do they end up getting this overwhelming desire for power into their heads in the first place? And if not their own fault, then why are they punished for something which presumably is not in their power to modify? Moreover, what is one to make of the status of the ‘androgynous’ original kind which has mysteriously disappeared, leaving only its reproachable name behind (189e)? Is it reproachable, not for Ar. who in the Lysistrata  reaches peace through a Panhellenic strike of wives, but for the Greeks in general due to their view that men are superior to women? Could one link this ‘androgynous’ type to Freud’s views on bisexuality, particularly as it finds expression in each individual?; iii) How can we understand Ar.’s intention of including in his speech a concern for all human beings by focusing on human nature in general (189c-d, 190d, 191c-d), and not just a few who have the ‘real’ key to loving? Does not Ar. then miss the fact that loving IS somehow or other inevitably linked to the customs (‘nomos’) within which it develops; so that for instance loving between Canadians, Latin Americans and Japanese is really quite different?; iv) What is the relationship between the, ironic, yet serious reference Ar. makes to pederasty as the only activity which prepares men to political office, but does so by setting aside the very procreation of the species and thus endangering the very subsistence  of the city (192a)?; v) Is Diotima’s critique concerning the ethical nature of lovers one that radically undermines Ar.’s position? (For instance, we think there is something odd in saying that Eva Brown was the ‘other half’ of Adolf Hitler) Moreover, don’t we conceive of lovers likewise as somehow seeking out to become friends in terms of character?; and finally, vi) given that each half of the circular beings, I think,  must have been generated simultaneously in time, and that in their original form they each had their  own set of everything, except for the head which was shared by the two opposing faces, could one not then somehow link these creatures to Freud’s notion of narcissim by looking at the following passage in which he discusses the relationship between love and hypnosis: “we see that the object is being treated in the same way as our own ego, so that when we are in love a considerable amount of narcissitic libido overflows onto the object. It is even obvious, in many forms of love-choice, that the object serves as a substitute for some unattained ego ideal of our own. We love it on account of the perfections which we have striven to reach for our own ego, and which we should now like ro procure in this roundabout way as a means of satisfying our narcissim.” (GP, 143). (one could also look at the Phaedrus  (252e) where the beloved becomes a mirror image of us, a divine mirror image that is) Would one not have to consider then the complex relation between self-love and the love of others?

   Not having the space, nor the understanding to even start to provide some answers to these questions, I would like instead to focus now on Ar.’s claim that the power of Eros lies in its providing us with the greatest possible happiness any human being could ever expect to achieve in this world. As he puts it: “Eros is the most philanthropic of gods, the helper of human beings as well as a physician dealing with an illness the healing of which would result in the greatest happiness for the human race” (189c-d)”.  According to Ar. we humans can allegedly reach happiness via erotic involvement, but it seems, not just with anybody. Eros represents this regressive possibility by allowing us to catch a glimpse of our ancient nature (also, but differently, Phaedrus 250 ff). Unlike the tragic results of the first operation by Zeus, operation which culminated in the painful death of the two newly severed parts which were left to cling unto each other, dying “due to hunger and  the rest of thier inactivity, because they were unwilling to do anything apart from one another” (191b), (a  reminder of the cicadas in the Phaedrus (259b)), for us who are the  “beneficiaries” of the second more complex Apollinian operation, sexuality has been brought to the fore. Having placed the genitals, the “shameful things” in Greek,  in the front (191b), we can move beyond clinging by now engaging in sexual activity. Through the latter the previous oneness can be, only temporarily for sure, remembered once again. Eros’ power allows this, and it is because of it that we must thank, praise and sacrifice to this god’s, usually  taken for granted, divine presence (189c). But sexual interaction with just anyone will not lead to the happiness which reminds us of our past protohuman “fulfillment”. We must permanently search for that other who matches the jagged features of our patched up bodies (191a). Eros is then  “the bringer-together of their (that is to say, ‘our’) ancient anture, who tries to make one of two and to heal their (that is to say, ‘our’) human nature. Each of us is a token (‘symbolon’) of a human being ….. and so each is always in search of his own token” (191d). Ever since we become old enough to feel the erotic longing for another’s patches, we turn into permanent seekers of what in Spanish we call “mi otra media naranja”, that is to say, that “my other half-orange” who will complete our fruit like original nature in which we ressembled the natural gods. The Greeks here preferred to speak of apples (190e).

   And if ever we are so lucky as to be allowed by Eros to find that other who strikes us wondrously with friendship and erotic love to the point that, now,  we “are unwilling to be apart from one another even for a short time” (192c), then human bliss seems to reach its highest possible peak. The other’s presence modifies one’s own self-perception and that of the world in a way in which both are mutually enriched; we feel ourselves enhanced in a world which suddenly opens itself to new, previously unseen, possibilities. Nietzsche captures this optimism beautifully: “the lover is more valuable, is stronger …. his whole economy is richer than before, more powerful, more complete than in those who do not love. The lover becomes a squanderer, he is rich enough for it. Now he dares, he becomes an adventurer, becomes an ass in magnanimity and innocence; he believes in god again. He believes in virtue because he believes in love; and on the other hand this happy idiot grows wings and new capabilities, and even the door of art is opened to him” (WtP #808) (The very same wings that the lover of the Phaedrus will grow in one of the most beautiful passages of all the Platonic dialogues (255ff.))

  But unlike Nietzschean optimism, Ar. and Freud seem to have reservations. Freud, as I have said from the outset, centers  his critique on the loss  of the beloved. Ar., though  aware of this danger, provides a more devastating critique by looking at the problematic functioning of erotic desire itself. The lucky lovers who are finally able to reach each other, presumably following several painful misses and rather uncomfortable fits ——— for Ar. makes it clear that this reunion is not what normally happens at present (193b) ———- these lucky lovers nevertheless seem to desire something more. This something, Ar. jokingly says, one could not conceivably take it simply to be the delight of sexual intercourse with that other half which seems to fit, ‘just right’, in yourself: “as though it were for this reason —-of all things—– that each so enjoys being with the other… but the soul of each wants something else” (192c) But that ellusive ‘something else’ which the soul of each wants for him/herself, that cannot be easily put into words. Just as it so happens when one is asked why one loves his/her, hopefully, ‘real’  other half, there comes a point where you cannot quite “explain”, and instead just feel like saying, “Can’t you see why?, well that is really odd”.

  Nevertheless Ar. challenges this silence, the same silence which Plato forces on him, by providing us with a riddle to be solved. The riddle, like Oedipus’, concerns humans, but unlike the King’s, Ar.’s concerns a dilemma which is brought to light by looking at our desiring nature. The riddle is spoken by yet another Olympian god, Hephaestus, the weak god of fire and crafts/arts (techne). It is he who chained Aphrodite and Ares for having committed adultery; chaining them, not to bring them eternal bliss, but rather eternal boredom. Hephaestus seems, tragically, to seek welding as punishment (Od  315). This god is made to ask us humans what we really want out of love, and, just as Zeus was perplexed with the attitude of the circular beings, so we humans stand perplexed by Hephaestus’ question (192d). He must therefore not only rephrase the question, but very directly answer it in doing so. Would we not really desire just to become one once again, our belly wrinkles giving way to a stronger sphericity? What more lovely than reaching this “golden state” capable even of denying the individual death of its members, so that even “in Hades you (that is to say, we) would be together one instead of two?” (192e). Would this not be the ultimate happiness, that which involved a shared immortality?

  The riddle, and riddles one would think are so because they are, presumably, very difficult to answer, is to our perplexity immediately answered in the affirmative. It seems as though nothing would be more desirable for us, ill halves, than to permanently rejoin that other whom Eros has granted us, finally, to reach. However, we should remember that even the protohumans though fused to their extremities, nonetheless did not seem to have seen themeselves as part of a Paradise in which nothing was lacking. Even human sphericity finds itself lacking, striving to move beyond its original condition. Oneness reaches beyond itself, although of course it reaches out more powerfully with four arms, four legs, not just two of each. And moreover, what distinguishes our humanity lies precisely in that,  like it or not,  we will forever remain as halves in constant search for that which we lack. Desire flourishes precisely due to this incompleteness which moves us beyond ourselves. The feverish conditions which evolve out of the absence of the loved one seem to move in the same direction. If Hephaestus’ riddle were not only answered in the affirmative, but actually set in place, our human condition as we know it, fragile and ill as it may be, would come to a permanent end. Letting Hephaestus do his work would turn out to be a punishment much severer than that of Zeus who intended to break us down once more, leaving us “hopping on one leg” ( 190d). Seeking to become spherical again requires the death of Eros’ presence in our lives. And Ar. hints to this towards the end of his speech in a paragraph which links past, present and future possibilities: “our race would be happy if we were to bring our love to a consummate end, and each of us were to get his own favorite on his return to his ancient nature. And if this is the best, it  must necesarrilly be the case that, IN PRESENT CIRCUMSTANCES, that  which is closest to it is the best; and that is to get a favorite whose nature is to one’s tastes” (193c) (here a specific reference to the  pederasts, but shedding light, I believe, into all the different kinds of relationships). Ar. qualifies his appeal to a return to oneness by continually using the hypothetical ‘if’, as in ‘if this is the best’. But as I have argued this undoubtedly is not the best desirable course for us humans to take. Our present circumstances cannot be done away with, no matter how hard we imagine ourselves to have been otherwise. At best we should seek out to reach the sweetness of that other who allows the growth of  those beautiful wings characteristic of the highest kind of lovers in the Phaedrus (251e); but, at the same time bitterly knowing, or perhaps feeling, full well that Eros’ presence immediately sets us humans in the web of a dilemma which maybe Sophocles, a tragedian, can better help us to understand. Eros is like ice, we delight in having it, yet its presence is a reminder of a painful reality, that of our constant neediness:

            “Like children that beneath a frosty heaven

            Snatch in their eagerness at icicles

            (First they are ravished with this latest toy;

            Yet soon they find it hurts their hands to hold

            That icy thing; and yet how hard to drop it!)

            Even such are lovers too, when what they love

            Tears them between ‘I would not’ and ‘I would’” (Lucas, 224)

 

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INTRODUCTION

 

  In the Myth of Sisyphus Camus retraces Hamlet’s famous words: “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”. The murdering king’s bloody desire for power must be uncovered, and a play within a play will allow this. Camus is also, like Hamlet, keen on desiring to catch and uncover. This can be seen in our tracing anew his commentary on the words by Ophelia’s vanishing lover: “‘Catch’ is indeed the word. For conscience moves swiftly or withdraws within itself. It has to be caught on the wing at that barely perceptible moment when it glances fleetingly at itself” (MoS, 77). Conscience eludes us, and yet we desire to get hold of it, somehow. Conscience is a task, not a given; it is there, but it is not.

  Eros, for the Greeks, was much like this. It too moves in flight: “flutters its wings amongst the birds of air” (Sophocles, Love, fr 855, Lucas 224). We humans of course do not fly. And this perhaps it is why desire is so hard to ‘catch’: “as a sweet apple turns read on a high branch/ high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot —-/well, no they didn’t forget — were unable to reach” (Carson quotes Sappho, 26). Eros  and Camusian conscience both evade us as soon as we attempt to ‘catch’ them. They are like red apples we cannot really bite, and yet we yearn to taste their sweetness.

  Writing a concept trace has to do a lot with all this. To leave a trace is to leave marks, a sign of something’s presence. But the marks stand there as a memory, what left the trace in the first is long gone. And we long for it; if not, then why trace it in the first place? And so we set out to trace that which left its footsteps, or better, its wing-marks. For this particular quest we reach out to the vestiges of desire as it traverses Camus’ lyrical philosophy.

  But to trace, we ought to remember, is not only to follow, or to track down. To trace can be like the hunter; but we do not want to hunt, that is, catch in death. Hunters seem to be fond of stones. But stones leave no traces, for they neither walk nor fly. (Stones are truly not ruins, like the ruins at Tipasa). To trace can also refer to a much simpler innocent act that, as children, we repeated again and again and again. To trace refers also to the act of drawing or copying with lines or marks. To trace, then, is to recopy. I set out then to recopy Camus’ words, listening intently for the appearance of such an elusive force as is desire, the Greek Eros. In this sense to trace is truly to plagiarize. And plagiarizing is not only always inevitable and desirable, but, it can, if done properly, also be liberating. Besides, plagiarizing Camus is remembering him again and again and again. And this is something to be desired.

  Our search along desires’ vestiges in Camus’ marks and lines will proceed in triangular fashion: i) by providing the general location of desire within it, albeit, given that this is just a tracing, briefly, incompletely, and sketchily, ii) by giving some specific locations in the work by referring to some pages where desire has been “caught” in words, pages which I will copy once again, that is trace, as I did as a child, and iii) by letting desire have its play through the desire to question which we feel governs us. Questions born out of desire as fragile sketches.

 

 

 

 

TRACING THE TRACES

 

I. CALIGULA

 

i) General location

 

            a) Drusilla’s death is the death of a loved one. Besides it is the death of a desired sister. Loss here is at once erotic and filial. Caligula’s refusal to face this desire as truly relevant.

            b) Caligula’s desire for the impossible as symbolized in the moon. His drive to physically possess the moon; to be sexually moonstruck. Sadistic desire to kill and to obliterate, out of love of power and of the impossible, the other, the human and the possible. Caligula as hunter. The forceful desire to teach his logical truth: “Men die and are not happy”.

            c) Caesonia’s desiring love of Caligula.

            d) Cherea’s desire for meaning and his hard-won respect for Caligula.

            e) Caesonia v.s. Cherea on love.

            f) Scipio’s love and admiration of Caligula. Scipio’s love of art v.s. Caligula’s solitude and rejection of the lies of art.

 

ii) Specific locations

 

            a) pages. 4, , 6, 6, 10, 15, 71

            b) 7, 8, 15, 40, 46, 49, 71

            c) 17

            d) 21, 58,

            e) 63

            f) 67, 65,

 

a) 71, “love isn’t enough for me; I realized it then. And I realize it today again; when I look at you. To love someone means that one’s willing to grow old beside that person. That sort of love is outside my sort of range. Drusilla old would have been worse than Drusilla dead”

b) 46, “she was coy to begin with, I’d gone to bed. First she was blood-red, low on the horizon. The she began rising, quicker and quicker, growing brighter and brighter all the while. And the higher she climbed the paler she became. Till she was like a milky pool in a dark wood rustling with stars. Slowly, shyly she approached, through the warm night air, soft, light, as gossamer, naked in beauty. She crossed the threshold of my room, poured herself into it, and flooded me with her smiles and sheen … So you see Helicon, I can say, without boasting, that I’ve had her”

c) 17, “ I needn’t swear. You know I love you”.

d) 21 “to loose one’s life is no great matter; when the time comes I’ll have the courage to loose mine. But what is intolerable is to see one’s life drained of meaning, to be told there is no reason for existing”

    58, “he forces one to think, there’s nothing like insecurity for stimulating the brain, that of course is why he is so much hated” (words said even after his condemnation of Caligula’s “corruption” of Scipio (56)

e) 63, “too much soul, that’s what bites you, isn’t it? You prefer to label it disease .. tell me Cherea, has love ever meant anything to you?”

f) 67, “I shall go away, far away, and try to discover the meaning of it all … Dear Caius when all is ended remember that I loved you”

 

 

iii) Some questions

 

Is Drusilla’s role simply secondary, as Caligula says? Why then did Camus not choose any lover? What is that only emotion Caligula ever felt, that “shameful tenderness for” Caesonia (70)? Why does Caesonia ask Cherea if he has ever loved? Is Cherea truly ‘loveless’ and ‘simple minded’? Does Caligula ‘really’ think he has possessed the moon? If so then why does he say “even if the moon were mine, I could not retrace my way?” (49) What could it mean that Caligula is still ‘alive’? Does desire have to do something with it?

 

 

II. THE MISUNDERSTANDING

 

i) General location

            a) Maria’s unconditional, bodily love for Jan; simplicity; loss of a world outside Europe in which together they were happy.

            b) Jan split not only between the desire to fulfill his duty to relatives and his love for his spouse, but also between the land of exile and the homeland.

            c) Martha’s longing for the wind of the sea. Her desire to breathe under the sun, even if this implies murder. Her asexuality, bodilessness and stone-like character. (Like The Commander for Don Juan, like Sisyphus’ stone, like the Gods).

            d) The mother’s fatigue of life briefly cast aside through the emergence of a late love. (Like Meursault’s mother’s love for Perez)

 

ii) Specific locations

 

            a) 81, 84, 128

            b) 88

            c) 79, 105

            d) 81, 124

 

a) 128 Martha: “What does that word mean (i.e. love)?”, Maria: “It means all that is at this moment tearing, gnawing at my heart; it means that rush of frenzy that makes my finger itch for murder. It means all my past joy and this vivid sudden grief you have brought me, yes, you crazy woman”

b) 86-87, “As for my dreams and duties, you’ll have to take them as they are. Without them I’d be a mere shadow of myself; indeed you’d love me less, were I without them” …. and ….. “One can’t remain a stranger all one’s life. It is quite true that a man needs happiness, but he also needs to find his true place in the world. And I believe that coming back to my country, making happy those I love, will help me to do this”

c) “What is human in me is what I desire, and to get what I desire, I’d stick at nothing, I’d sweep away every obstacle in my path”  ….. and ……. “ I have a very different idea of the human heart, and to be frank, your tears revolt me” (129) …… and ….. “Buried alive! No one has ever kissed my mouth and no one, not even you, has seen me naked. Mother I swear to you that MUST be paid” (122)

d) 122 “its no more than the pain of feeling love rekindle in my heart”

 

iii) Some questions

 

Is Maria simply a secondary character? Is Maria’s appeal to the Gods a ‘weakness’? Are these Gods the same stony one’s of which Martha speaks? Is Martha’s longing similar to Caligula’s? Is it just in a ‘minor’, much less impressive, scale? Can it not be seen instead as appealing to the contrast between the public and the private sphere? Politics and ruthlessness as against family and intimacy? Is The Misunderstanding really more familiar than Caligula? What is Camus’ idea in recovering the force of this play in The Stranger? Is this a little like Hamlet’s staging a play within a play? Is Jan at fault for not being straightforward? How to understand the dichotomies present in this work of mirrors: home/exile, dark/light, burning sun/sun of life, family love/erotic love, past/future, rich/poor, men/women? Can the absurd be seen as springing precisely out of their tension? Would it be too crazy to say that it is rather strange an odd that Camus chose the names of Maria and Martha as those of the central figures of the work? Is it not puzzling that their names, out of a million others, begin with the three letters which stand for sea in Spanish(i.e. mar)? Are not Maria’s tears which Martha repudiates born out of this sea? Can one see Maria’s encounter with Martha as a mirroring encounter? Like the different mirroring encounters Caligula has with himself? What does this mirroring have to do with our recopying Camus’ words in front of us? What of the words in The Stranger  which tells us of the sea that “it lay smooth as a mirror”? (54)

 

 

III. HELEN’S EXILE

 

i) General location

 

            a) Greek valuation of nature’s beauty. Socratic desire for limits and desire for admission of ignorance.

            b) Modern split between instrumental rationality, and expressive powers (Like Jan split duty/love)

            c) Hubris; desire of power (Like Caligula’s overstepping of limits)

            d) love of friendship (a healthy Scipio)

 

ii) specific location:

 

            a) 187

            b) 189

            c) 191

            d) 192

 

a) 187, “The Mediterranean sun has something tragic about it, quite different from the tragedy of fogs. Certain evenings at the base of the seaside mountains, night falls over the flawless curve of a little bay, and there rises from the silent waters a sense of anguished fulfillment. In such spots one can understand that if the Greeks knew despair, they always did so through beauty and its stifling quality. In that gilded calamity, tragedy reaches its highest point. Our time on the other hand, has fed its despair on ugliness and convulsions. This is why Europe would be vile, if suffering could ever be so”

b) 189, “we turn our backs on nature, we are ashamed of beauty. Our wretched tragedies have a smell of the office clinging to them and the blood that trickles from them is the color of the printer’s ink” (very different, of course, than that of Camus’)

c) 189 “Our reason has driven all away. Alone at last, we end up by ruling over a desert”  ……. and ……. 190-1 “Nature is still there, however. She contrasts her calm skies and her reasons with the madness of men. Until the atom too catches fire and history ends up in the triumph of reason and the agony of the species. But the Greeks never said  that the limit could not be overstepped” (Overstepping in a universe devoid of Gods)

d) 192 “we shall fight for the virtue that has a history. What virtue? The horses of Patroclus weep for their master killed in battle. All is lost. But Achilles resumes the fight, and victory is the outcome, because friendship has just been assassinated: friendship is a virtue?”

 

iii) Some questions

 

Is Camus’ view of Nature here truly romantic? Is not an appeal to nature as objective standard inaccessible to us moderns? Could one then relate this view of nature to our inner expressive powers? Nature reborn out of its transfiguration? Nature’s epiphany? Does Camus fall into a regressive desire for a land long lost for us, that is the Greeks? Is his a failure like Rimbaud’s  ambivalent Soleil et Chair? Or does he find a way to retrace this past era in a way that it opens, for us moderns, new possibilities of becoming? How to link Helen’s beauty with both a political project and an ethical outlook? Can Helen return form exile?

 

 

IV. RETURN TO TIPASA

 

i) General location

           

            a) longing love of the homeland; permanent exile (Like Maria and Martha, and Caligula, and Jan, and Camus, and us)

            b) love of water and the Sea God (a God in Camus!)

            c) love of light; its ephemerality

            d) love of what is, as it is

            e) split love again: beauty and the humiliated

            f) love of love; an ethics of overflowing giving

            g) strange love of paradoxical articulated secrets

 

ii) Specific location

 

a) 194 Medea “You have navigated with raging soul far from the paternal home, passing beyond the sea’s double racks, and now you inhabit a foreign land”

b) 195 “for five days rain had been falling ceaselessly on Algiers and had finally wet the sea itself ….. which ever way you turned you seemed to be breathing water, to be drinking the air” …. and …… 200-201 “before dropping into the sea itself. It is seen from a distance, long before arriving, blue haze still confounded with the sky. But gradually it is condensed as you advance towards it, until it takes the color of the surrounding waters, a huge motionless wave whose amazing leap upward has been brutally solidified above the sea calmed all at once. Still nearer, almost at the gates of Tipasa, here is its frowning bulk, brown and green, here is the old mossy god that nothing will ever shake, a refuge and harbor for its sons, of whom I am one” (The sea of Meursault’s flowing with Marie)(Tipasa, the loved ruins of our youth)

c)  199 “In the earth’s morning the earth must have sprung forth from such light” ….  and …..202 “O light! This is the cry of all the characters of Ancient Drama brought face to face with their fate … I knew it now. In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was an invincible summer in me”. (invincibility in Camus!)

d) 196 “disoriented, walking through the wet, solitary countryside, I tried, at least to recognize that strength, hitherto always at hand, that helps me to accept what is when once I have admitted that I cannot change it. And I could not indeed; reverse the course of time and restore to the world the appearance I had live” (dis-orientation)

e) 203 “yes, there is beauty and there are the humiliated, whatever may be the difficulties of the undertaking, I should like never to be unfaithful either to one or the other”

f) 201-2 “For there is merely bad luck in not being loved; there is misfortune in not loving. All of us are drying up of this misfortune. For violence and hatred dry up the heart itself … I discovered at Tipasa once more that one must  keep intact in oneself a freshness, a cool wellspring of joy, love the day that escapes injustice and return to the combat having won that light” (ethics of benevolence and artistic creation; good-fortune?)

g) 203-204. (a secret cannot be revealed)

 

iii) Some questions

 

Is the tension between beauty and the humiliated fully surpassable? Can one think of a longing to a rebirth of the world outside a Christian tradition? What is the relationship between Camus’ moving philosophical work and his moving and lyrical work? Are they complementary, in tension? Does Camus’ loving transfiguration of nature eliminate its silence? If not, then what does it mean to ‘leave everything as it is’?  (Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence)

 

 

V. THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS      

 

i) General location

 

            a) contradiction: desiring the end of desiring. Force of suicide and lack of meaningfulness

            b) a desire too move beyond nihilism as loss of meaning. Beyond exile and malaise.

            c) desire and nostalgia: modernity and homelessness

            d) Lovers’ dialogue: A: “What are you thinking of” B: “Nothing”

            e) death appears: mortality and the end of desiring

            f) Don Juan’s Love: like a platonic cicada

            g) The actor: the body is king

            h) Conqueror: desire for articulation, lost causes and self-conquest.

            i) desire for creation: ephemeral works of art

            j) loving and knowing

            k) desire to break stones; hatred of unhealthy rockiness

            l) desire for happiness

 

ii) Specific location

 

a) Preface, 3, 5 “It is confessing that life is too much for you, or that you do not understand it … It is merely confessing that it is not worth the trouble”

b) Preface, “even within the limits of nihilism, it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism”

c) 6, “in a universe suddenly divested of illusion and light, a man feels alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy (a logical contradiction with b?) since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting is properly the feeling of absurdity”

d) 12, “but if that reply is sincere, if it symbolizes that odd state of soul in which the void becomes eloquent, in which the chain of daily gestures is broken, in which the heart vainly seeks the link that will correct it again, then it is as if it were the first sign of the absurd”

e) 57, “the idea that ‘I am’, my way of acting as if everything has meaning, all that is given the lie in vertiginous fashion by the absurdity of a possible death”

f) 69, 71, 72, 76, 77  “the more one loves the stronger the absurd grows” ….. “this life gratifies his every wish and nothing is worse than loosing it. This madman is a creative man” …… “yet it can be said that at the same time nothing is changed and everything is transfigured. What Don Juan realizes in his action is an ethic of quantity, whereas the saint on the contrary, tends towards quality” ….  “what more ghostly image can be called up than a man betrayed by his body who, simply because he did not die in time, lives out the comedy while awaiting the end” ….. “the ultimate end awaited but never desired, the ultimate end is negligible”.

g) 80, 81 “the actor is the intruder. He breaks the spell chaining that soul, and at last the passions can rush onto their stage. They speak in every gesture, they live only through shouts and cries. Thus the actor creates his characters for display. He outlines or sculptures them and slips into their imaginary form transfusing his blood into their phantasms”

h) 84, 88 “don’t assume that because I love action I’ve forgotten how to think …. I can thoroughly  define what I believe. Believe it firmly and see it clearly and surely. Beware of those who say :’I know this too well to be able to express it’ For if they cannot do so this is because they don’t know or it is out of laziness they stopped at the outer crust” (biting the apple of desire?) ….  “conqueror’s sometimes talk of vanquishing and overcoming. But it is always ‘overcoming’ oneself that they mean”

i) 93, 94, 113, 114  ( 93-4)“it is certain that a new torment arises wherever another dies. The childish chasing after forgetfulness, the appeal of satisfaction are now devoid of echo. But the constant tension that keeps man face to face with the world, the ordered delirium that urges him to be receptive to everything leave him another fever. In this universe the work of art is then the sole chance of keeping his consciousness and of fixing its adventures. Creating is living doubly” ….. 113 “ this is the difficult  wisdom that the absurd thought sanctions. Performing these two tasks simultaneously, negating of the one hand and magnifying on the other is the way open to the absurd creator. He must give the void its colors”

j) 97, 98, 117  (97), “there are no frontiers between the disciplines that man sets himself for understanding and loving, they interlock, and the same anxiety merges them”

k) 120, “You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted towards accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of the earth”

l) 123 “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”

 

iii) Some questions

 

Is Don Juan just a step on the ladder to the conqueror? Is this not too Hegelian a view? In other words is quantity leading up to quality or are quantity and quality at the same level; even in constant interacting conflict? (like Dyonisius and Apollo in Nietzsche) Can one have a Doña Juana? Is loving and knowing at the same time really possible?  Can one not desire suicide under certain circumstances? How is Sisyphus’ stone linked to Christ’s cross? Does not Camus tend to see the Greeks and the Catholic tradition too much like each other? Can Sisyphus be really happy, or is he just fooling himself? Can one really move beyond nihilism starting from it? Why does Camus say yes and no?  How is it that the body and all we are ‘become’ conscious of its mortality? By reading Camus? By being sentenced to death? By external events; an accident? Is the Myth of Sisyphus simply related to an ‘individualistic’ retrieval of ‘consciousness’; if so then why does the conqueror say, “as for me. I decidedly have something to say about the individual. One must speak of him bluntly and, if need be, with the appropriate contempt” (84)? What then does the conqueror’s self-conquest imply? How is it that art becomes the sole possibility of keeping consciousness?

 

 

VI. THE STRANGER

 

i) General location

 

            a) Marie, lovely laughing living Marie. (Like in The Misunderstanding?)

            b) Salomon and his dog (Raymond and nameless girlfriend, a variation)

            c) Friendship; love of Celeste

            d) Love of ghosts: Marie’s traces

            e) Mother’s new love

            f) Love v.s. priest (Cherea v.s. Caesonia?)

            g) Love of life: love of ice-cream

 

ii) specific location

 

a) 27, 28, 29, 42, 56, 57, 78 

b) 52

c) 93

d) 75, 79, 80, 113

e) 120

f)118

g) 98, 104-5

 

a)  27, “ I let my hand stray over her breasts” …. I caught her up, put my arm around her waist, and we swam side by side. She was still laughing”, …..  41 “ One could see the outline of her firm little breasts, and her sun tanned face was like a velvety brown flower” …56 “for the first time I seriously considered marrying her” …. 78 “I remember Marie’s describing to me her work with that set smile always of her face”

b) 52 “I tried hard to take care of him; every mortal night after he got that skin disease I rubbed an ointment in. But his real trouble was old age and there is no curing that“ (Meursault’s reaction ‘a yawn’)

c) 93 “ I didn’t say anything, or make any movement, but for the  first time in my life I wanted to kiss a man”

d) 80 “ I never thought of Marie especially. I was distressed by the thought of this woman or that …. so much so that the cell grew crowded with their faces, ghosts of my old passions. That unsettled (desire unsettles?) me, no doubt, but at least it served to kill time” (compare to Don Juan “he is incapable of looking at portraits” (72))

e) 120 “and now it seemed to me I understood why at her life’s end she had taken on a ‘fiancé’. Why she’d played at making a fresh start”

f) 118 “and yet none of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair. Living as he did, like a corpse, he couldn’t ever be sure of being alive”

g) 104-5 “only one incident stands out; towards the end, while my counsel rambled on, I heard the tin trumpet of an ice-cream vendor in the street, a small, shrill sound cutting across the flow of words. And then a rush of memories went through my mind — memories of a life that was no longer mine and had once provided me with the surest, humblest pleasures: warm smells of summer, my favorite streets, the sky at evening, Marie’s dresses and her laugh. The futility of what was happening here seemed to take me by the throat, I felt like vomiting, and I had only one idea: to get it over, to go back to my cell, and sleep …. and sleep”

 

iii) Some questions

 

How does desire’s appearance relate to the idea that Meursault is simply a ‘passive’ character? Is not desire precisely where Meursault finds meaning in life? Is he not truly artistic in his meticulous descriptions of places and people; like Camus, in a sense? Is this a prearticulate sense of bodily activity and meaningfulness a more adequate path towards Caligula’s questioning and dismissal of Drusilla and consequent search for the impossible?  (Like enjoying ice cream, and the smells of summer, and favorite streets, and the evening sky, and Marie’s dresses and especially her laugh) Why did Meursault decide, finally, to marry her? What to say about Meursault indifference to his mother’s death,  to Salamano’s beatings, to Raymond’s beating’s, to his four extra-shots? Just chance? Just psychoanalysis? Just unethical? How do we in our everyday life become aware of the value of life; do we have to be sentenced to death? But is not reading this book a kind of death and a rebirth? How, if at all, can Meursault ever become a political being? Is there not a tension here?

 

 

We have in this way come to the end of some of the tracks left by desire in Camus’ words. But surely many other traces remain untracked, and if we are to follow the Conqueror’s conception of conscience, somehow we must be able to articulate what moves elusively in all these marks and figures. But for now, tending to believe that such a project is doomed to fail, let us remind ourselves of the ambivalent love of ice that Sophocles tells us children feel; that same love of ice, as of ice-cream, which triggered in Meursault the surest and humblest pleasures:

 

            “Like children that beneath a frosty heaven

            Snatch in their eagerness at icicles

            (First they are ravish with their latest toy;

            Yet soon they find it hurts their hands to hold

            That icy thing: and yet how hard to drop it!) —

            Even such are lovers too, when what they love

            Tears them betwixt ‘I would not’ and ‘I would’” (Sophocles, Lucas, 224)

 

Desire traced has come into our hands but it has melted; its gone. This is a feeling Camus knew all too well. It, too, is present in the gaining of our own self and meaning:  “For I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, If I try to define it and summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers” (MoS, 19).

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