At the end of Henry Staten’s breathtaking Eros in Mourning we are left to stare blindly into the awesome face of that “thanato-erotic anxiety” (pp. xii, 102, 165) which is said to transfix the canonical avatars of Western man from the grieving hero Akhilleus (Achilles) in Homer’s Iliad to the death-driven psychoanalyst in The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Between these two paradigmatic transcriptions of mournful oral speech comes the unfolding of our own tradition’s relentless narrative strategies of transcendence whereby the devastating loss of the loved object, itself a premonitory glimpse of the inevitable death of the self-loved subject, may be ritually attenuated or overcome. The recurrent point of reference of Staten’s powerful readings is Plato’s Symposium where the prophetess Diotima turns the lover away from the mortal body of the beloved toward the immortal beauty of the soul and, still further beyond, toward the divine beauty of the idea: “And since divine eros is rooted in mortal eros, since, before it is the love of Ideas, eros is the sexual attraction of bodies, Plato/Diotima’s eroticization of thought points toward Freud” (p. 3).
Freud’s theory of the transcendence, or sublimation, of the libidinal affection and autoaffection of the human body furnishes the stage on which Staten struggles with the texts of our tradition in the aim of peeling away “every transcendental mystification of our erotic and organic fate” (p. xii). In the synoptic statement of his argument that is chapter one and in a series of seven deftly sequential chapters thereafter Staten steers us through the perturbations of the philosophical, religious, and literary strategies of transcendence from the agapetic abjurations of eros in Plato’s dialogues and the holy conjurations of death in The Gospel of John to the self-abasing lover’s lament of Dante, the melancholy soliloquys of Hamlet, the morbid ruminations of Adam in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the jungle shriekings and civil grievings in The Heart of Darkness by Conrad. The gathering darkness of one’s own potentially unmourned death is what the masculine tradition that Staten here condenses already espies in the carnal demise of the erotic love for a woman who can be lost—from Achilles’ Briseis to Dante’s Beatrice to Hamlet’s Beatrice and Ophelia to Adam’s Eve to the Intended of Kurtz to the objet petit a, das Ding, the ever-lost M/Other of Lacan and Freud. The great fear is of the Cruel Lady, “she who refuses to mourn me mourning myself for my inability to possess her” (p. 97).
The mournful sublimation of grief for the losable object-subject of the Platonic-Augustinian-Freudian tradition is the constant scenario Staten discerns in the foundational texts he critiques (p. 81). As an antidote to this dark obsession with melancholy gloom and mournful transcendence Staten offers the foudatz or erotic folly of the pre-Nietzschean “gay science” of the thirteenth-century troubadours (pp. 11, 78, 97), for Staten the best literary approximation we have to a fully corporeal, nontranscendent embrace of the irreducibly particularized pains and joys of mortal love. A Derridean deconstruction of all of these texts, however, an uncanny grafting of one upon the other, reveals under Staten’s acutely probing gaze privileged moments not only of melancholic and manic denigration and idealization of the ever losable object-subject of affective attachment but also of rupture with these same “thanatoerotophobic metaphysics” (p. 16) of the transcendence of mortal love. In these rare moments in John or Milton or Lacan the organic body of natural dissolution is acknowledged as identical with the ideal essence of divine love—or, rather, almost.
Staten self-consciously writes his book from the standpoint of erotic rapture (pp. 14, 97, 129), and he rages particularly at the Western tradition’s “thanatoerotophobic misogyny” (pp. 108, 175), the vengeful violence done to women by male warriors and writers unable to abide with the narcissistic wound of their beloved’s and their own impending deaths. One’s own immortality (p. 166), one’s own psychological and corporeal unity, is here the prime possession whose loss can never be made good, but in the “thanatoerotophobic tradition” (pp. 161, 182) traced by Staten the infliction of mourning on the women whom the hero leaves behind is the cruel consolation grasped at by our autogrieving authors from Homer to Lacan.
In The Iliad, at an historical moment that is still “before transcendence,” Staten finds that Achilles’ “penetration beyond the warrior ethos [of due compensation for aggrieved honor] unleashes the darkness of illimitable mourning in a way that sums up the stance toward death that Platonism and Christianity will come to relieve” (p. 21). Rejecting his community’s conventions of conciliatory reparation for the loss of his beloved Briseis and Patroclus, Achilles inflicts upon Troy a disproportion of killing—and hence of mourning—that is at the same time a resentful act of automourning for the one loss he no more than any man can ever avenge—the loss of his own life (p. 38). Foiled in the achievement of immortality by the mortal mark on his heel of his mother’s grasp, Achilles visits on the women of Troy the full force of his vengeful rage, but this attitude is by no means characteristic of Achilles alone: “As Nestor says, each Achaian must bed a Trojan wife in vengeance for Helen” (p. 37). For Staten the plight of Helen is the merest pretext for the imagined outrage done to the man’s own sense of self. Staten traces the vicissitudes of this “thanatoerotophobic complex” (p. 11) across a splendid series of readings of our most canonical texts down to the present. Alas we continue to see the selfsame strategies of aggrieved honor and retaliatory murder and rape not only in literature but in that other Troy that is Bosnia today. Staten’s Eros in Mourning helps us divine the undying dynamics of this lethal despair. We all will die, he repeatedly reminds us, so let us love one another while we can: “Eternal life is this very life that we live” (p. 63).