Anne Carson's Eros the Bittersweet is a philosophical prose poem disguised as a work of literary criticism--and vice versa. Fortunately, both disguises are highly accomplished. Of the four books by Carson I've read (Glass, Irony and God; Plainwater and The Beauty of the Husband are the others, all poetry collections), this is the one I would most enthusiastically recommend. A fittingly elusive and allusive text about the paradoxes of desire, the book moves like its author's mind--poetically--as it presents readings (often impressively close) of texts from Sappho to
Plato and in the process throws off sparks that reach as far as 20th century literature and philosophy. The entire book might be fruitfully read in conjunction with Shakespeare's sonnets (unmentioned by Carson), Wuthering Heights (ditto), Proust (a startlingly unspoken presence in Carson's text), Lacan (mentioned only once in passing), and Derrida (unnamed). In the case of the last two, Carson's text appears to be (in her book's own terms) erotically 'wooing' Lacan and Derrida, coyly and indirectly invoking and implicitly critiquing their ideas. In her reading of a Sappho fragment, for example, Carson briefly (too much is too brief in this book) outlines a theory of the erotic genesis of self-consciousness--desire in grasping for an object knows itself as lack--that resonates with Lacan. More subtly, her repeated invocations of 'edge,' 'fold,' and (less subtly) 'difference' signal toward Derrida's texts (specifically, the essays in Dissemination) without mentioning his name. Likewise, the pointed absence of any direct reference to Jacques le Mort in her extended discussion of the Phaedrus (which no contemporary academic can mention without bowing to "Plato's Pharmacy") appropriately inscribes Derrida into her text as an absent presence. We might even argue that Carson's text constructs a highly paradoxical 'desire' for Derrida that can only be sustained by keeping him unnamed and thus 'outside the text.' The Great Deconstructor floats like Sappho's apple just out of reach, in the 'nothingness' of the very hors-texte which he famously claimed did not exist. This is a damn clever book.