Thursday, May 29, 2008


Sweetbitter things today:

Our youngest daughter graduates from elementary school.
Our eldest daughter didn't make a high school team she tried out for and she's been talking through it with friends and family.
Our son is home from college but looking for work as he hears that one of his good friends may need a heart transplant.
We've had to say goodbye in a memorial, a true celebratory tribute, to a friend and colleague who passed away from injuries from an auto accident just last month.

reminding me that, in his Symposium, Plato has one of his characters, the man, the physician, saying:

στι δ
χθιστα τ ναντιώτατα, ψυχρν θερμ, πικρν γλυκε, ξηρν γρ, πάντα τ τοιαὰῦτα·

Now the most contrary qualities are most hostile to each other--cold and hot, bitter and sweet, dry and moist, and the rest of them.

It's almost as if we cannot change. As if we're in denial about something that Sappho sings. Here's how she and Anne Carson put that:

It was Sappho who first called eros "bittersweet." No one who has been in love disputes her. What does the word mean?
____Eros seemed to Sappho at once an experience of pleasure and pain. Here is contradiction and perhaps paradox. To perceive this eros can split the mind in two. Why? The components of the contradiction may seem, at first glance, obvious. We take for granted, as did Sappho, the sweetness of erotic desire; its pleasurability smiles out at us. But the bitterness is less obvious. There might be several reasons why what is sweet should also be bitter. There may be various relations between the two savors. Poets have sorted the matter out in different ways. Sappho's own formulation is a good place to begin tracing the possibilities. The relevant fragment runs:

ρος δατ μ λυσιμλες δνει,
γλυκπικρον μχανον ρπετον

Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me
sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up
_____________________________(LP, fr. 130)

It is hard to translate. "Sweetbitter" sounds wrong, and yet our standard English rendering "bittersweet" inverts the actual terms of Sappho's compound glukupikron. Should that concern us? If her ordering has a descriptive intention, eros is here being said to bring sweetness, then bitterness in sequence: she is sorting the possibilities chronologically. . . But it is unlikely that this is what Sappho means. . . Love and hate bifurcate Eros. . . . Paradox is what takes shape on the sensitized plate of the poem, a negative image from which positive pictures can be created. Whether apprehended as a dilemma of sensation, action or value, eros prints as the same contradictory fact: love and hate converge within erotic desire.

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