Learning to Love Finally:
Notes on Eros, Trauma, and the Bittersweet

… learning to live is always narcissistic … one wants to live as much as possible, to save oneself, to persevere, and to cultivate all these things which, though infinitely greater and more powerful than oneself, nonetheless form a part of this little “me” that they exceed on all sides. To ask me to renounce what formed me, what I’ve loved so much, what has been my law, is to ask me to die. In this fidelity there is a sort of instinct of self-preservation.

— Jacques Derrida, Learning to Live Finally

In Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson begins by unfolding the tripartite structure of Sapphic desire. Rather than desire understood as a relation between two people, hopefully reciprocated, she insists on the inclusion of a third entity, eros itself.

For Carson, it is only when desire is represented “as a three-part structure” that its “radical constitution” is truly uncovered, as it is only from such a perspective that the role of the personified deity of Eros is made clear, activating “the structural components” of any relation: “lover, beloved, and that which comes between them.” This three-part structure is integral because it represents Eros in and as relation; not as three static points but as a movement or a dance, through which these “three points of transformation” are properly rendered as “a circuit of possible relationship, electrified by desire.”

It is an understanding of desire, borrowed from the ancients, that complicates a more contemporary and psychoanalytic understanding of desire-as-lack. This is to suggest that it is not necessarily the function of desire to lubricate the acquisition of what we do not have; we should instead understand desire as a force that moves through the spaces that exist between ourselves and others. Desire, in this sense, is an eerily entifying kind of attraction. It is magnetic; not absent, since it is clearly causal, but not present either, since it is an affect invisible and mysterious to us. But in setting ourselves within desire’s tripartite structure, we are nonetheless “[c]onjoined” with it, Carson suggests, at the same time as each of the three points of transformation are scrupulously “held apart”.

This very distancing thus becomes an active part of eros’s triangulated relation, since it “irradiat[es] the absence whose presence is demanded by eros,” which is where “perception leaps.” It is in this leap that a strange sort of vision is made integral to the functioning of eros, such that it becomes nothing less than a plane of difference upon which “what is and what could be is visible.”

Continuing her exploration of the Greek’s particular sense of eros, Carson notes how vision is itself an action through which various other affects come into play. It constitutes an affective movement, like when we speak of “being moved” by something or someone — an analogy commonly used wherever eros is near, especially when eros is represented as a winged archer. Describing how the throwing of an apple was once a “traditional missile in declarations of love,” for example, Carson adds that the “glance of the eye can be an equally potent projectile.” This is true not only of the ways that eyes themselves move; eyelids are important too. “From the eyelids may issue an erotic emotion that sets the interval between two people vibrating.” To flutter one’s eyelids becomes a flirtatious gesture precisely for the way it stutters and staggers a gaze, casting waves of vision upon the beloved, drawing attention to a gaze that excitedly flickers, that struggles to sustain itself, as if such a gaze generated an amorous heat that is far more inviting than a cold, hard stare.

This stuttering might well betray a certain vulnerability and self-consciousness as well: a “shamefastness”, as Carson calls it – what the Greeks called aidōs – which is a reticent reverence; a desire that interrupts itself for the sake of other virtues; an attraction that forestalls any ultimate conjoining. Aidōs, Carson continues, “is a sort of voltage of decorum discharged between two people approaching one another for the crisis of human contact, an instinctive and mutual sensitivity to the boundary between them”; it is “a very discreet way of marking that two are not one.”

But we would be mistaken to view aidōs as an affect of a nascent puritanism. Carson’s thesis is instead quite Derridean in nature, such that she suspends a Western logocentrism that sees lack and difference as the fallen opposites of possession and unity. On the contrary, as Greek vase-paintings make clear, “eros deferred or obstructed … is the favored subject.” Joy is found precisely in the in-between. Aidōs is thus at the heart of an “erotic code”, which is “a social expression of the division within a lover’s heart.” The question is thus how to chase and be chaste? Eroticism abounds in the contradiction; in the “sweetbitterness” at the core of all Sapphic desire.

It is for this reason that Carson describes eros as “an issue of boundaries. He exists because certain boundaries do.” She continues: “the boundaries of time and glance and ‘I love you’ are only aftershocks of the main, inevitable boundary that creates Eros: the boundary of flesh and self between you and me.” But what is most striking about eros, when viewed in this way, is the way that desire is rendered as a fractal, emanating forth in multiple directions — not only as an affect hurled outwards into the social, but that also work backwards within us, caressing the self.

Eros is everywhere. It is at work both within and without, taking flight along the precipice between the two that are not one. “The experience of eros as lack alerts a person to the boundaries of himself, of other people, of things in general”, Carson writes. What is lacked, then, is no so much the object of one’s desire but a more profound accessibility that fully links subject to subject, subject to object. Lack is not the fallen loss of what was once or could eventually be had, since lack is no less absolute than possession is itself. All is filtered through the thin film of self and flesh that keeps things subtly apart.

Eros skirts around all edges; it is all edges, which shift like lines in sand. It is an integral force that is paradoxically defined through its failure to define the very contours of being and a being-with others, such that “the moment of desire is one that defies proper edge, being a compound of opposites forced together at pressure.” It is this strange gap that Carson finds probed in all the ancient love poems she considers, in which eros “moves out from the lover toward the beloved, then ricochets back to the himself and the hole in him.” It is that very hole that is “the real subject of most love poems”, she argues. Thoughts of eros “turn toward questions of personal identity: [the lover] must recover and reincorporate what is gone if he is to be a complete person.”

And who has ever been so complete? Eros begins to look like what Reza Negarestani once called “a (w)hole complex”.

The absent presence of eros, and its quintessential sweetbitterness, resonates with post-traumatic experience. The ever-presence of a rupture mirrors eros in negative, and an evermore peculiar experience is produced when trauma is held aloft in the initial sketching of new relations with another self.

After one year on a waiting list, and a perfunctory assessment last week, I am beginning a course of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy this month. It has been shown that the rhythmic movement of one’s eyes, when accompanied by internal recall of traumatic memories, can help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD. When discussing the process with my new therapist, I was reminded of Anne Carson’s discussion of vision, of glances thrown across the amorphous planes of eros.

The ways I have dealt with traumatic experiences over the years have generally been subtle, albeit less so when living in close proximity with others. The typical night terrors, flashbacks and mood swings are only the most obvious ways that the unconscious struggles to sort through memories that that have not been properly processed; other coping mechanisms are related to a litany of self-soothing habits that are relatively innocuous but nonetheless restrict my daily existence and make for an eccentric movement through life as I attempt to live it. They are disruptive habits that I have nonetheless gotten used to, enacting them without thinking.

I was told that these habits produce diagnostic problems for various mental health professionals, especially when treating children. When a traumatic event is not necessarily remembered or shared by the child suffering, it has often been the case that PTSD is misdiagnosed as autism, as the behavioural profiles for both conditions share a lot in common. This new knowledge alone has allowed me to view myself with a lot more compassion than I had previously. Whereas awareness of the difficulties experienced by autistic people are now much more commonplace, the daily impact of PTSD is still generally more misunderstood, reduced to the Hollywood image of depersonalisation to the sound of choppers once heard in ‘Nam, whereas the presence of autistic traits becomes its own kind of generic catch-all for certain asocial behaviours.

For example, I’m reminded of a popular TikTok, making fun of older generations who are cynical of the growing number of autism diagnoses, suggesting autism was not “a thing” in their day. Meanwhile, the TikTok passes comment on older relatives who find conversation hard, make the same thing for lunch every day, and might also be really into model trains — the suggestion being that autism simply went undiagnosed previously, now that we recognise these symptoms for what they really are. But I am left wondering whether these older generations of men, who perhaps fought in one of the twentieth century’s many wars, were not simply suffering from PTSD and self-soothing in colloquially “autistic” ways. (We will, of course, never know.)

Where PTSD and autism differ, most obviously, is that the former is evental whilst the latter is developmental; the symptoms of the former follow a specific experience or set of experiences, whereas those of the latter emerge during cognitive development in infancy. A tension arises where one is seen as a condition to be managed and supported, the other a condition to be treated. In truth, both can be managed and supported in equal measure.

This is most apparent when someone struggling with PTSD makes (and asks for) allowances when it comes to relating to others. There is an attempt, in wrestling not only with mental illness but also non-normative forms of living. It is interesting, after all, that Carson’s Derridean approach to eros is explicitly Sapphic in nature, at once exploring love through ancient and (most implicitly) non-heteronormative ways of thinking. And what is Sapphic desire in the twenty-first century if not a more conscious preparation for “the crisis of human contact”?

Dating queer, as I have found over the last two years, is to be far more attuned to other people’s traumas. “It’s part of our culture,” as someone recently quipped to me, and the sweetbitterness of dating while queer and traumatised is more potent than I have ever previously known it to be. It can make for such wonderfully sad encounters.

As my first proper EDMR session looms, I have noticed that I have gradually made new space for the memories I hope to process, but have long repressed. The paradox of an therapeutic literacy, after all, is that it can make emotions more easily communicable if nonetheless still hard to control. Today, these emotions and memories sit apart from me, quietly vibrating, as I circle them and prepare to make my approach, or otherwise lead another person to the site of trauma in order to vulnerably share a truth that might one day be lovingly shared.

To develop a crush on a person and talk about it soon necessitates an attempt to make them aware of this “baggage”, as you also take the time to sit with their own. It is hard to sit still as this ritual is performed. It is, on the one hand, a warning to the curious: as intimacy is sought and established, it is a way of making the other person aware of the vulnerabilities that lurk behind the everyday self one presents to others. On the other hand, it is a forewarning that is always-already vulnerable in itself, as preparing for an approach is no less difficult than the approach itself.

In writing Narcissus in Bloom, I hoped to elucidate this kind of approach on a grand art-historical scale. In reflecting on that project, I have repeatedly returned to the Derrida quotation above. It is true that “learning to live is always narcissistic“, as the sharing of experiences and difficulties in one way in which we allow ourselves to newly live with ourselves and others, announcing that, in order to “live as much as possible, to save oneself, to persevere,” it is necessary we sketch out the particular contours that “form a part of this little ‘me’ that they exceed on all sides.”

But to date with trauma leads to a painful contradiction. “To ask me to renounce what formed me, what I’ve loved so much, what has been my law, is to ask me to die.” Yes, that much is true. But the painful stasis of a traumatised self is to feel death approaching when we recognise the ways we must overcome so much that has formed us to our detriment. “In this fidelity there is a sort of instinct of self-preservation.” But what if the self to be preserved is already knowingly flawed and afraid? We learn to live finally in so many ways, but to learn to love finally is more difficult a process than I know how to put into words. Self-preservation and self-dissolution come to define the whirlpool of eros, dragging all things torwards that “hole in [me]”, which wants to be filled, as much as I forbid anyone else to touch it.

The arrows of eros both penetrate these holes and make new ones. First contact is never easy.

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