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Deadpan Sexy: Anne Carson's "Eros the Bittersweet"

Anne Carson writes books that refuse to be just one thing. Autobiography of Red is a verse novel framed as a work of classical scholarship; fittingly, its hero is a hybrid, part ancient monster and part modern man. The Beauty of the Husband, subtitled “A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos,” is actually a book-length poem sequence. And so on. Sometimes she crosses one genre too many; sometimes she calibrates her blends precisely. I have a special passion for her first book, Eros the Bittersweet (1986), a critical study of ancient Greek poetry that doubles as a treatise on desire.


It may also be a deadpan love letter. Whenever I read it, I suspect the author wrote it with some particular person—lost or unattainable—in mind: it has exactly that quality of stoic melancholy. “It was Sappho who first called eros ‘bittersweet,’” the first line reads. “No one who has been in love disputes her.”

Eros pursues its elusive theme in a style both dogged and chaste. Carson is less concerned with the glandular than the geometric: she dissects the love triangle with Euclidean exhaustiveness and analyzes the “blind point” at which our understanding of desire fails. Slyly she suggests that this is the same point at which figurative language begins:

Let us keep these questions in mind as we consider another point on the landscape of human thinking, a point which is also a verb—moreover a verb that triangulates, haunts, splits, wrenches and delights us each time it acts. Let us consider the point of verbal action called ‘metaphor.’

Another scholar of triangles, Pascal, once wrote: “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.” The flat mathematicality of Carson’s tone is partly a parody of “reason” in this second sense. It’s also the dryness of someone who’s been burned by desire and lived to tell the tale—though not, of course, straightforwardly. Carson sustains this tragic monotone throughout all her books; she is the Nico of contemporary authors.

Every so often, though, her pitch rises slightly, to beautiful effect. The last chapter of Eros begins with a prose poem reminiscent of Calvino’s Invisible Cities:

Imagine a city where there is no desire. Supposing for a moment that the inhabitants of the city continue to eat, drink and procreate in some mechanical way: still, their life looks flat. They do not theorize or spin tops or speak figuratively. Few think to shun pain; none give gifts. They bury their dead and forget where. Zeno finds himself elected mayor and is set to work copying the legal code on sheets of bronze. Now and again a man and a woman may marry and live very happily, as travellers who meet by chance at an inn; at night falling asleep they dream the same dream, where they watch fire move along a rope that binds them together, but it is unlikely they remember the dream in the morning. The art of storytelling is widely neglected.

Too widely neglected itself, Eros the Bittersweet would make a worthy Valentine’s Day gift for anyone who finds understatement sexy. That is, for a worthy valentine.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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The brains of two genetically edited babies born last year in China might have enhanced memory and cognition, but that doesn't mean the scientific community is pleased.

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Surprising Science
  • In November, Chinese scientist He Jiankui reported that he'd used the CRISPR tool to edit the embryos of two girls.
  • He deleted a gene called CCR5, which allows humans to contract HIV, the virus which causes AIDS.
  • In addition to blocking AIDS, deleting this gene might also have positive effects on memory and cognition. Still, virtually all scientists say we're not ready to use gene-editing technology on babies.
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Dinosaur bone? Meteorite? These men's wedding bands are a real break from boredom.

Manly Bands wanted to improve on mens' wedding bands. Mission accomplished.

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  • Manly Bands was founded in 2016 to provide better options and customer service in men's wedding bands.
  • Unique materials include antler, dinosaur bones, meteorite, tungsten, and whiskey barrels.
  • The company donates a portion of profits to charity every month.
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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
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  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

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