Early in this book, material for which originated in a highly successful Notre Dame course now available on iTunesU, philosopher and classicist David O’Connor puts the point of the investigation in direct and practical terms:
Is what you want a kind of intimacy with another person, an intimacy that creates within us a fearfulness, a fearfulness because we’re being taken somewhere we don’t control, and whose end we do not see, an end for better, for worse, till death? If that is what is in our heart when we find another human being erotically potent for us, then the question of how we can open our heart enough . . . to live that path, to move that way, becomes a central question for us. It’s not just a philosophical question. It’s a question that has to be made palpable and maybe even delightful for us to take it seriously.
Adopting the claim from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein that the limits of our language constitute the limits of our world, O’Connor dissects the brittle, reductionist, and unimaginative discourse of love in the contemporary world. The deterioration of our language petrifies our experience of love, as our longings are deepened and enhanced by rich articulation. Noting that our vocabulary arises primarily from bureaucratic, medical discourse, he observes that we have turned the sublime activities and transforming experiences that the ancients connected with the presence of divinities (Eros and Venus) into dull, dispassionate, clinical descriptions. So eros is now understood as a transactional activity called sexual intercourse, and the etymology of Venus now surfaces in discussions of venereal disease. By contrast, in the classical tradition eros is connected with experiences of awe and ecstasy. It mediates between the human and the divine.
Perhaps especially in the area of love, what we need by way of articulation is not analytical argument. Indeed, the Plato of the erotic dialogues, most notably the Symposium and the Phaedrus, is as concerned with rhetorical speeches, stories, and examples as he is with dialectical arguments. While attending to the philosophical arguments, O’Connor focuses on the literary features of the dialogues. In Plato’s Symposium, which consists of a series of speeches about love, Socrates asserts that there is nothing concerning which he has more expertise than erotics.
The book is organized around a reading of the Symposium, one of the most famous speeches in which is that of the comic poet Aristophanes, who constructs a myth to explain the origin of eros. Our desire for union with another, our neediness and longing for completeness, is a quest for a reunion with our lost other half, from which we were severed by the gods as a punishment for human hubris. Aristophanes’ comic myth proposes that we were once half of a whole, a rounded union of two. Aristophanes thus treats the couple as having an ontological primacy and sees us now not as whole individuals seeking other whole individuals but as ontological and emotional halves striving for reunion.
In Aristophanes’ myth, there are similarities to the creation story in Genesis, which highlights the oneness of Adam and Eve, a story on which Jesus would later comment: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and the two become one flesh.” Yet, in the Genesis account, “humanity has not yet fallen” and “incompleteness is not a punishment.” Our human desire for a partner is natural, writes O’Connor; indeed, it is part of “human perfection.” When Eve is brought before Adam in the garden, “the experience overwhelms him, and his language, an expression of the pure joy of finally understanding what he needed all along, is a barely grammatical exclamation: ‘Now this at last, bone from my bone, flesh from my flesh.’” O’Connor calls this the most erotic line ever spoken.
Of course, the story of the creation of Adam and Eve sees in their gendered complementarity an image of God (“in His image He created them; male and female He created them”), as is their gendered capacity to procreate (“God blessed them and said, ‘be fertile and multiply’”). The notion of fertility and pregnancy as the inevitable and desirable result of the consummation of eros is also present in the Symposium. In Socrates’ famous speech about love, the content of which he claims to have learned from a woman, Diotima, the lover seeks to penetrate and become one with the beloved and to bring forth offspring — whether on the physical or the spiritual plane.
By contrast with the ancient linking of eros and procreation, contemporary romances, especially in film, isolate and diminish the power of eros, rendering it merely an intimacy between two individuals. An exception can be found in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film series. Arwen, daughter of Elrond, is a half-elven who can choose either the immortality of the elves or the mortality of humans. After she falls in love with Aragorn, Elrond warns her on the basis of a vision he has of her future that a life with Aragorn will bring “only death.” She counters that his vision is incomplete: “But there is also life. You saw there was a child — you saw my son!” O’Connor comments, “Her vision has revealed to her that the bitter harvest of mortality brings with it a most sweet fruit, the fruit of a new life, sprung from the union of the two lovers.”
Our truncated understanding of eros leads to a strange asymmetry. Commenting on a scene of near sexual assault in Andre Dubus’s short story “Out of the Snow,” O’Connor wonders at the way in which our legitimate horror at assault finds no parallel in a positive expression of awe or reverence for the fulfillment of sexual attraction. He asks, “Shouldn’t the seriousness of our dread and revulsion of a beating, a rape, a murder, find its full complement in the seriousness of our joy and gratitude for a caress, for lovemaking, for conception of new life?” He adds, “The laws of symmetry require the exaltation of the loving body to match the degradation of the broken one.”
Far from offering solutions to the problems of eros, O’Connor follows the philosophers and artists who contain and entertain diametrically opposed visions of eros. It would have been easy to write a book that contrasted the contemporary linguistic and imaginative bankruptcy concerning love with, say, a film such as Babette’s Feast, which reconciles bodily and spiritual appetite, the desire for beauty and the love of others. And O’Connor does offer an illuminating commentary on that film.
But his focus is rather on the tensions and paradoxes of love, which he finds most ambitiously investigated in Plato and Shakespeare. There is, first, the experience of falling in love, a phrase indicative of a loss of self-control, something that at best makes one look comically foolish and at worst puts one in a precarious and potentially self-destructive position of vulnerability. O’Connor examines these tensions not just in Shakespeare’s plays but also in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which probe the loss of self in erotic love and explore whether there are better and worse ways of losing oneself in love.
There is, second, the question of whether the idealism often involved in the lovers’ vision of one another is an illusion best checked by rational self-defense or best welcomed as an invitation to transcendence of one’s current state in favor of the self one previously could not have even dreamt of becoming. O’Connor puts the options thus: “When as lovers, we see something in our beloveds that goes beyond anything they usually can see in themselves, is this a vision — a glimpse of a wonderful truth that usually escapes us — or an illusion — a mere wish fulfillment, in which we pretend to see what isn’t there at all?” If it is the latter, then it would be best to avoid love. But if it is the former, if the “real you is that divine and sacred self that the lover discovers in an inchoate experience of erotic restlessness, then this projection is no mere fantasy. It is the vehicle of your self-knowledge, the ecstasy of finding yourself more truly and more strange in a mythic exemplar.”
O’Connor does a magnificent job of interweaving reflections on philosophy, literature, and film into a series of readable and practical discussions of love, discussions in which readers will discover dramatic displays, both tragic and comic, and eloquent articulations of their deepest passions and aversions, attractions and fears, in the arena of erotic desire. The book is a welcome and delightful corrective to our impoverished discourse about love.
– Mr. Hibbs is the dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was published in 2012.