BMCR 2006.07.30

Erotikon: Essays on Eros, Ancient and Modern

, , Erotikon : essays on Eros, ancient and modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 338 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226038386. $29.00.

Bartsch and Bartscherer’s Erotikon derives from an interdisciplinary seminar held at the University of Chicago in March 2001 (organized at that time by graduate students Thomas Bartscherer and Katia Mitova and run under the aegis of the Committee on Social Thought). The book of this event has changed markedly from the symposium, note Bartsch and Bartscherer. The original seminar has transformed itself to provide what is now a long cast of mostly very well known, in some cases very famous, contributors. Included in this published version of Erotikon are Shadi Bartsch and Thomas Bartscherer, Susan Mitchell, Glen Most, David Halperin, Catherine Edwards, David Tracy, Valentina Izmirlieva, James I Porter, Richard Wollheim, Ingrid Rowland, Anthony Grafton, Mark Strand, Robert Pippin, Eric Santer, Jonathan Lear, Slavoj Zizek, Martha Nussbaum, Philippe Roger, Eric Marty, Tom Gunning, and Nobel prize-winning novelist, J.M. Coetzee. The majority are, or have been, associated with the University of Chicago.

The contributors, by and large, are non-classicists. Some of those classicists who do contribute, however, are well known for their comparative work (Halperin, Porter, and Nussbaum) and play that role here. Contributions themselves vary from scholarly articles (Bartsch herself), to essays (the majority of contributions), to fiction (Coetzee), to poetry (gathered by Strand), to prose poetry (Mitchell), and to visual stills from cinema (from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo). To reflect the original seminar mode, a number of the contributions take the form of responses to other papers: so Halperin on Most on Platonic eros, Edwards on Bartsch on “Eros and the Roman Philosopher”, Izmirlieva on Tracy on Augustine on eros, Wollheim on Porter on love of life in Lucretius and Freud, Grafton on Rowland on erotic Baroque Roman architecture, Santer on Pippin on eros and Nietzsche, Lear on Zizek on Lear on Freud on eros, Brooks on Nussbaum on Proust on the ladder of love, Marty on Roger on Roland Barthes, the novel and eros, and finally Pippin on Gunning on Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The aim of this very diverse collection, Bartsch and Bartscherer explain (p.1) is as follows: ” Erotikon draws together innovative and influential scholars and artists from many domains, including classics and art history, poetry and philosophy, theology and film. We have sought out thinkers with bold transdisciplinary agendas, writers who reach a large and diverse audience.”

The compass points for the collection are Plato (the Symposium more so than the Phaedrus), Freud ( On the Pleasure Principle), Nietzsche, and Marcel Proust. Using one or another of these writers as their basis a number of the contributors to Erotikon attempt to illustrate, after the manner of the Symposium itself, how it is that, in real life or in art, erotic desire and longing in their “quest for wholeness” can lead to transcendent experience. This is, therefore, not a book on Foucaldian eros, nor is it a book to investigate the strategies that are used, or not used, to embody sexuality (in the gendered sense) within humans of various eras. The book does not periodize eros. Rather its focus is comparatist (in the literary sense — its witnesses are drawn from “elite” literature) and, because of the parallels drawn between writers as diverse as Plato and Proust, it tends to be universalizing.

The combination of transcendence and universalizing are keynotes of the collection. But, unless your eros is something akin to corporeal candy, then you may view eros, lust, and falling in love as emotional states that border on the psychotic, rather than as states that may lead to a higher form of consciousness or “wholeness”. Vertigo‘s Scottie or Dido or Swan or Anna Karenina or Catullus are not healthy (nor normal, nor to be admired, nor to be aspired to) in their obsessive and perhaps trivial attachments. This combination of the psychopathological and the trivial is nicely summed up by Robert Pippin in comments on Vertigo when he quotes Proust in Scott-Moncrieff’s version (p.281) on Swann’s remark about Odette near the end of Swann’s Way : “To think I have wasted years of my life, that I have longed for death, that the greatest love that I have ever known has been for a woman who did not please me, who was not in my style”.

As for universalizing: it may well depend on your scholarly perspective. When encountering an epitaph such as the very moving CIL 6. 09213 (Viccentia dul/cissima filia / aurinetrix q(u)ae / vixit [an(nos)] VIIII m(enses) VIIII), I like to imagine that this child laborer Viccentia, had she lived a century or so earlier, might have produced the sort of ornaments or gold-embroidered fabrics that a Clodia might have enjoyed and a Catullus might have admired. Who knows? Certainly Viccentia’s possible involvement in the eros industry precluded participation, even if she had lived long enough. My point or, better, my query is a simple one. Are erotic attraction, erotic obsession, and even falling in love historical accidents, luxuries of privilege, part of the upper class world of Dido or Swann or Anna Karenina or Catullus, but not of Viccentia? Lust may be an historical constant, rather like a taste for eating sweet things, but falling in love may be an historical accident dependent on class and on privilege and on living long enough. (The eros of Erotikon seems to fall somewhere between lust and falling in love). As for eros, art, and transcendence, I wonder if young Viccentia could read?

But do not be mistaken, Erotikon offers a very interesting collection of high quality essays on a subject of more than usual interest. My comments on transcendence and universalizing should be taken as collegial queries rather than as criticisms. As is the case with much current work that comes from classics in Chicago, Erotikon offers a very striking demonstration of the relevance and importance of our discipline as a catalyst for contemporary debate.