Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.06.31

Ingela Nilsson (ed.), Plotting with Eros: Essays on the Poetics of Love and the Erotics of Reading.   Copenhagen:  Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2009.  Pp. 292.  ISBN 9788763507905.  $66.00.  

Reviewed by Tomás Hejduk, University of Pardubice (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This collection, edited by Ingela Nilsson, deals with ancient Greek conceptions of the erotic and the evolution of those conceptions in the course of many centuries. Individual essays focus on the interconnection of the erotic with narrative from the very beginning in ancient Greek texts, through Roman writers, to pagan and Christian literature from both the eastern and western traditions, down to the time of Goethe.

In the tradition of experiencing the erotic in narrative and vice versa, (as, e.g. in Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva or Anne Carson), Nilsson and all the contributors to the volume emphasize the "interrelatedness of the erotic and the literary" and might agree with Kellman's thesis: "That all literature ... is inherently erotic is the burden of a pervasive trope that maintains that the experience of literature ... is analogous to, or even a species of, lovemaking." (10) All writing (philosophical, Christian, historical, poetic, epic etc.), is understood by the authors of the volume as an aspect of the erotic: the text does not reflect some erotic plot, but is an integral part of it. The book can be recommended to people interested in literature as such. Each study is valuable in the cadre of the text which it deals with (Philosophy, Religious Studies, Classics, Byzantine Studies and Literature). And, of course, everyone who admits that love and narrative are essential parts of the life of human beings will have profit and pleasure from reading this book.

The understanding of literature as lovemaking is central to Iordanoglou and Person's study dealing with Socrates' (Diotima's) speech in the Symposium and focusing on the role of Eros as mediator. According to the authors, this must be explained as a "temporal" manifestation of the erotic. Thanks to the passage of time, Eros has a double nature. This temporal oscillation is behind Eros' ability to connect human beings with divine qualities of good and beauty. The authors then suppose a fundamental connection between philosopher and Eros and speak about an "erotic philosophy". (To the extent that they speak not only of Diotima's concept of philosophy, but of Plato's as well, thorough argumentation is lacking.) The basic question of such a philosophy is how to overcome the elusiveness of insights and contacts with good and beauty.

Öhrman shows how Catullus' relationship with Lesbia is reflected in his explanation of the Laodamia myth. The paradox of the myth can be seen in the fact that Laodamia, in love with Protesilaus, is not really erotic-- not in terms of her ascent on the ladder of love (Symposium). Catullus as erastes is the moralist who blames his beloved for such non-eroticism because she cannot develop their relationship any further. According to Öhrman, Catullus' retelling of the myth is intriguing because it includes "an alternative scenario of what could have been" (48). Two potential, alternative endings are offered in the Laodamia myth. If we really wanted to preserve the "erotic ambiguity", then we should read the story as perpetually ambiguous rather than having two potential endings.

Öhrman's theme of eroticism between the poet, his beloved, his reader and the heroes in his story, is further developed by Skoie, who adds a scholar's angle to this polygon -- should not we speak about an erotic polygon rather than about an erotic triangle?. She understands the scholar's commentaries as new narratives competing with the original story. Skoie analyses commentaries from the Renaissance, when the narrativising (emplotting) of Sulpicia's poems is first encountered, to the reading of Trankle (1990), where, on the contrary, it can be seen how difficult it is to avoid narrativity. In any case, Skoie's essay shows that the "scientific reading" as well is rooted in a narrative urge and she thus accomplishes her aim: "to break down the assumed barriers between passionate poets and painstaking scholars" (80).

Iordanoglou's and Höschele's essays focus on the epigrams of the Anthologia Palatina. Eros is depicted as in need of pharmakon, "a drug and a cure," from the Muses (96). This integration of the poetic, the erotic and the remedial is characterized mainly by the ambiguity of all its parts: the fullness of life is intertwined with death. Höschele studies erotic narratives in epigrams, i.e. the disclosure of "texts of maximal closure." (She also endorses the interrelatedness of epigrams and describes Meleager's technique of textual concatenation when creating his anthology, 100-1.) In Meleager's poems on Heliodora, Höschele looks for a fragmented love story of the poet and his beloved, i.e. "how the Heliodora poems work as a cycle and how they are embedded in Meleager's Garland" (103). These more concrete questions and explanations should throw light on rather more general questions about the openness of epigrams, their cohesion, etc. For instance, the idea of "Heliodora's sweet name being mixed into the wine" refers to the way "her" epigrams are to be mixed into the rest of the anthology. (107-8)

Whitmarsh shows the dynamism of Greek novels which is created by two contradictory principles: an impulse toward an end, such as a marriage (closure narratives), and a desire for endless wandering (the multifariousness of novelist discourse, for example on the level of intertextuality). In this context, Whitmarsh uses Freud's terms: when reading a story we desire both to reach the end (Thanatos) and at the same time, not to reach it at all (Eros). Nevertheless, the plot can be seen from the viewpoint of another alternative embodied by the goddesses Tuche and Aphrodite who represent endless episodicity and closurality, respectively. The domination of one side in every situation described does not lead to life without tension; even if Thanatos dominates over Eros, Tuche still remains and if Eros is dominant, he is still accompanied by Aphrodite. In other words, there are two basic forces operating in a novel: firstly, a non-closural force working as a syntagmatic mode of reading, i.e. events are not perceived in their position in the masterplot, but as aggregated in a seemingly random order. Secondly a closural force, paradigmatic in operations, i.e. allowing the reader to make sense of each event by locating it in a larger plot.

The eleventh-century Persian epic poem Vámiq and 'Adhrá builds its plot on the Greek novel Metiochus and Parthenope. Hägg and Utas read these texts, both preserved only in fragments, simultaneously and "take a look at the differences and similarities in the descriptions of love in the two texts" (174). Can anything of the Greek Eros be found in the Muslim context? Even Greek novels do not have much in common with the archaic or classic Eros and like the Islamic version, their symposium shares with Plato only the title and some motifs or stories. The new context is different and decisive: "Love remains a central power in those poems, but nothing is left any more to distinguish them from the Muslim mainstream. So on our way East this is where we have to wave farewell to our Greek Eros as a personified god of love."

Westberg analyzes the work, development and transformation of Eros in Procopius' Declamations from the viewpoint of its literary technique, motifs and strategies. He concludes, "Procopius' ambition is not to set out erotic philosophy in a systematic manner, but to explore the various single manifestations of Eros and the erotic power". (211) According to Westberg, Procopius' descriptions (of spring, flowers etc.) are not realistic but literary - and mainly in these terms his work is erotic as well. Given that the erotic mythology in general and erotic metamorphoses in particular play a central role in Procopius' writings, Westberg wants to stress the otherwise marginalized or useless otherness of primordial Eros in comparison with "our greeting-card Cupid" (Thornton).

Bourbouhakis argues that a very significant part of Niketas Choniates' historical or political narrative is "pleasure". The author studies novelistic elements in the History of Niketas and accentuates the role of the work's literary form because without the understanding of that, the contents of Niketas' narrative cannot be properly understood. In this sense he claims that "it is not the contents alone of these erotically charged stories I wished to emphasize, but their formal character..." (214). Again, Eros is shown as fundamentally linked with reading and writing, and Bourbouhakis stresses "the narrative value of all things erotic" (233).

Nilsson also explores the importance of narrativity and erotics in other texts than novels. She "examines to what degree the functions of eros were taken over by new texts" (239) and concludes that regardless of how metaphorical or allegorical (Christian) writings are, "the discourse itself still has an inescapable erotic significance" (244). In other words: "erotic experience is close to sanctity", and "all eroticism has a sacramental character" (247). Nilsson tries to think in terms of a long erotic and narrative tradition which begins in Antiquity and can be traced in Byzantine and other Greek cultural contexts: "eros constitutes a link between Platonic dialogues, ancient and Byzantine novels, and different kinds of hagiographical writings, and it is both metaphorically and explicitly expressed throughout this long narrative tradition." (260)

Cullhed focuses on the tradition of courtly love which he traces from Dante and Petrarch to Goethe. He singles out two aspects of male literary desire present at the beginning of the courtly love tradition: a love triangle (jealousy, rivalry) and love as a discipline to be learnt and mastered.

The choice of contributors, their erudition and coherence is one of the main benefits of the book. A trans-disciplinary study of this type was missing on the market. The use of the same terms in very different contexts: e.g. "love" in the context of Greek or Islamic novels and in connection with the tremendous and majestic, non-prettified, non-infantilized Eros of archaic or classic Greece might be perceived as problematic.1 Similarly problematic are the "obvious" theses which probably cannot be avoided in such a wide and trans-disciplinary cadre: e.g. the thesis that Eros in archaic or classic Greece means sexual violence, promiscuity etc., and that this Eros' manifestations "formed the basis of his reputation in Antiquity" (216). It is self-evident that later Christian authors had problems with such sexually violent Eros, but the question why they do not accept the Eros who is defined as a desire for the good and the beautifulis in fact much more interesting. Moreover, the connection of archaic or classic Greek Eros with sexual lust is not common at all, which is supported by the fact that Eros does not appear in sexual scenes depicted in vase paintings until the late classical period.2

Table of contents:

1. Ingela Nilsson, "Introduction, The Poetics of Love and the Erotics of Reading"
2. Dimitrios Iordanoglou and Mats Persson, "In the Midst of Demons, Eros and Temporality in Plato's Symposium"
3. Magdalena Öhrman, "The Potential of Passion, The Laodamia Myth in Catullus 68b"
4. Mathilde Skoie, "Reading Sulpicia, (Em)plotting Love"
5. Dimitrios Iordanoglou, "Is This Not a Love Song? The Dioscorides Epigram on the Fire of Troy (Anth. Pal. 5.138)"
6. Regina Höschele, "Meleager and Heliodora, A Love Story in Bits and Pieces?"
7. Tim Whitmarsh, "Desire and the End of the Greek Novel"
8. Tomas Hägg and Bo Utas, "Eros Goes East, Parthenope the Virgin Meets Vámiq the Ardent Lover"
9. David Westberg, "The Rite of Spring, Erotic Celebration in the Dialexeis and Ethopoiiai of Procopius of Gaza"
10. Emmanuel C. Bourbouhakis, "Exchanging the Devices of Ares for the Delights of the Erotes, Erotic Misadventures and the History of Niketas Choniates"
11. Ingela Nilsson, "Desire and God Have Always Been Around, in Life and Romance Alike"
12. Anders Cullhed, "Celebrating Angels, Ladies, and Girls, Aspects of Male Literary Desire from Dante to Goethe"


1.   Rosenmeyer, T.G.: Eros-erotes, Phoenix 5, 1951, pp. 11-22.
2.   Ludwig, P. W.: Eros and Polis, Desire and Community in Greek Political Theory, Cambridge University Press 2002, pp. 11 ff.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2010
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010

HTML generated at 15:40:12, Wednesday, 30 June 2010