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Erotic Edge

for ejec

To be contracted by another person
into a single being--how strange.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves

Nietzsche says on being a lover:

One seems to oneself transfigured, stronger, richer, more complete.... It is not merely that it changes the feelings of values; the lover is worth more.
Whence does this kind of transfiguration occur in the lover? How is it possible?

One may be inclined to guess that the bliss experienced in eros merely changes the perception of the one who loves (and perhaps is loved). Anyone familiar with the feeling of falling in love will attest to this: that the fall in itself is experienced as a lightening of being. As any other experience, eros is a lived experience of consciousness--an experience which is internalized in the side of the lover which elicits certain (pleasurable) sensations such as joy, enhanced sexuality, elation, etc. These sensations flood the lover's consciousness, and being conscious of its elated self, it likes what it sees and feels. With such a self-perception, the lover then thinks that he is changed; and the cause of this change was the desire for the beloved. Hence, the lover seeks the beloved ever-anew; he wishes to maintain and heighten the experience of eros not (yet) because of the beloved per se but because of the (pleasurable) lived experience of consciousness on the side of the lover. If love is first--and necessarily so--a feeling, then the lover in seeking the beloved does not seek the beloved herself but the capacity of the beloved to produce in the lover certain heightened feelings that make the lover "feel good about himself." I then love the/my feeling of eros and not (yet) the beloved. Or better: I then love my self (feeling my self in love). For Jean-Luc Marion, this is called the autism of love.

But Nietzsche maintains that it is not just one's perception (or feeling) that one has changed. "It is not," he says, "merely that it changes the feelings of values." He insists that the transfiguration of the lover is not a change of self-perception or self-valuation (because of heightened feelings) which is the product of a self-assessment by a consciousness conscious of its heightened self. "The lover is worth more." Thus the lover just does not feel or perceive himself to be more but is in reality worth more.

Nietzsche here does not depict himself to be the lover in this instance but an observer of a lover. He tells us objectively that the lover is truly worth more. The feeling of one's value, which is dependent on one's own perception and held hostage by one's shifting moods, is not what is in discussion here. It is ironic because Nietzsche discounts the lover's self-valuation but at the same time insists that the "lover is worth more." For value is always a valuation based on one's perception: what I value, e.g., this necklace or that car, may not have the same value for another person who sees in my necklace cheap gold or in my car too much mileage. But worth is based upon the register not of perception but of its own self; it is not beholden to one's taste or another's opinion. So Nietzsche tells us that the lover is really transfigured into something that is all of a sudden worth more. Worth more than what?

Worth more than what he was before. How? He becomes "stronger," "richer," and "more complete" than he was. Again, these are not subjective self-valuations on the changes in one's feeling, but, if you wish, a real essential change. The essence (what he is) of the lover is transfigured. To be transfigured is to change in appearance and form, that is, to be transformed. The lover transforms and becomes more of what he already is--"stronger," "richer," etc.--and becomes what he is not--"complete." How does this transformation come about in the lover? And what is it in eros which is able to offer such a change?

The Greek word eros denotes a "want," a "lack," and thus a desire for what is missing. Eros is the desire in the lover to have what it lacks. But this is already a tautology: for one cannot desire something that he already has. The absence of what is desired constitutes eros itself. It is a present absence. Ironically, eros as such ceases to be eros once what is desired is made present and absence totally ceases. In order for eros to remain its self, absence must be maintained. Simone Weil chooses hunger as an example of this paradox:

All our desires are contradictory, like the desire for food. I like the person I love to love me. If he is, however, totally devoted to me he does not exist any longer and I cease to love him. And as long as he is not totally devoted to me he does not love me enough. Hunger and repletion.
Thus the lover in desiring what it loves wants to grasp what it cannot reach. The reach itself defines the lover: it reveals the lack from which the reach begins and points toward what may fulfill that lack. This moment and movement of reaching is crucial. Because in order for the lover to begin to reach what it desires, it must before that know what it lacks and this through the knowledge of what he already has. Either the lover "accounts" or "takes stock" of what he has and then reaches for what he realized he does not have, or the lover realizes what he lacks when what could (possibly) be desired is put up against what he already has. But both of these moments amount to the same thing: eros reveals the lover to himself--negatively in revealing his lack and positively in revealing what he has. Eros marks the limits or the edges of the lover within which what he has and without which what he lacks both become defined. By eros, the lover is limited to its new-found edges but at the same time tries to transcend them in the reaching of the reach.

Hence the paradox that the lover finds himself in finding out what cannot be found in himself. If there be any logic in love, it must be nothing else than the gathering (logos) of the lover's self into its self--now demarcated by the edge of desire (eros). And this gathering is both contraction and enlargement. Contraction because the lover recognizes the edges of his self and is thus defined by such edges. Here he experiences them as a limitation. And enlargement because the self now defined is then magnified by the erotic edge. He here experiences the edges as what is his own-most, and thereby revealing his own-most possibilities of what he can become--"stronger," "richer," etc. The lover, a bifurcated self hitherto, is now transformed into the whole it was supposed to be or the whole it could possibly be; now he is "more complete."

But the erotic edge does not rest merely by contracting and enlarging the lover. In order for it to remain as such, eros must continually erase the edges it forms in the lover by constantly reaching for what the lover lacks, i.e., what is not within its edges, which is nothing else than what he desires for. Eros transgresses the edges that it itself forms by reaching toward what those edges do not or cannot contain. Like power, eros is the eternal recurrence of transgressing what it already has in order to reach what it doesn't but in doing so maintains and heightens what it has. To maintain itself as eros, it has to suspend itself in its transgression. Thus suspended, the lover perpetually desires what he loves. Anne Carson describes the suspension of the reach as thus: "The reach of desire is defined in action: beautiful (in its object), foiled (in its attempt), endless (in time)."

But eros can only remain suspended infinitely only if the reach never reaches its object of desire or only if the reach is not withdrawn. The end of eros: either the lover finally possesses what he desired or until he stops desiring and stops loving, for one reason or another, and thus becomes disqualified as lover. This is why the noble knights who practiced courtly love would prolong their courtship of a maiden in fear of the maiden loving the them back--and thus consuming and ending all desire. This is also what the Latin tristia amoris evokes in the experience of that profound sadness when the object of one's desire is finally possessed or consummated, e.g., post-coital melancholy.

A contradiction by itself, eros gathers the lover within its edges but in its transgression of those edges, it brings with it the possibility of once again disbursing the newly-defined lover. The lover stakes and leaves behind his contracted and enlarged self, his worth, in a word, everything, in his erotic transgression and attempt to reach the beloved.

Carson says that this is why eros was first thought by Sappho as glukupikron or "sweetbitter." Or as we would say, love is bittersweet: sweet as the apple which the lover sees perched upon a tree and bitter as the attempt to reach it in vain. It is also no wonder why Cupid, a babe with wings, has first to pierce the flesh of a lover with an arrow from his bow before the lover is to love. One has to bleed before one loves. Love is the arrowhead's edge which cuts the skin, opening a wound and exposing the contours of the heart. And it is that very wound which bears the heart, enabling it to finally emerge from itself and. . . finally love. But at the same time it is that wound, in preventing itself from closing in order to continue to love in that opened suspension, which screams of a pain with no name.

Carvaggio's Amor Vincit Omnia


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