By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Thematic: By Theory Possessed

Desire in the Cave

We seem to be both wanting and reflection.

Mary Townsend

Plato’s Cave (detail) by Miha Sarani; courtesy of the artist.

“If something is rotten or broken in me, it is my mind,” remarks philosopher Agnes Callard, recounting the story of her worst romance—an email-driven cycle of continual rejection she found herself unable to quit for several years. Quoting Socrates’s failed attempt to praise the love of someone who does not love, she locates her own problem in the madness of an Eros that is unreasoning yet violently intellectualized, the “perpetual thought” of obsession. Strung out by alternating periods of constant contact and unexplained absence from the beloved, she finds herself turning to charts, graphs, Internet stalking, PowerPoint, in order to thoroughly map and understand what on earth went wrong.11xAgnes Callard, “The Eros Monster,” Harper’s,

It sounds like a truly terrible sort of love affair—if love is the name of the phenomenon Callard has in mind. Sitting in a broken-down train during a snowstorm, she finds relief in Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s fundamental sense of distance from other people: She determines to foster in herself a “cocoon of distant politesse,” cutting short the spring of erotic energy with cold civility. This withdrawal from the romance finally allows her to recover. The burden of Callard’s tale is one with a venerable history, in which peaceful rational existence is overturned by dangerous loves; Callard’s Pessoan twist is to politely remove herself only so far lest complete absence push her back into obsession. The moral of her story, however, is clear: Eros is a monster, and there’s no way out on Eros’s terms.

But whether this is all of the story, or the only story, remains in doubt. “Rationality” as such is a notoriously untrustworthy narrator, and surely, part of the rational pleasure of calling Eros a monster is to have something definite to blame. Name-calling ought to raise our suspicions, since after all, monstrosity is not emotively neutral. And what do you do when the heart has its reasons that reason knows not of, as of course it often will? There must be a story about our human loves in which neither reason nor Eros is the hero of the tale, exactly—but what would that tale look like? And under what circumstances would we allow ourselves to tell it?

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