Is Eros All?

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Having been here in London for a total of three days, I have come to the conclusion that if a play isn’t about sex, it isn’t going to show up on the London stage. Okay, I’ll amend that a little: if a play is about finding the perfect nanny, or battling orcs, it might sell a couple of tickets, although god knows why anyone would still be buying tickets to The Lord of the Rings. (Over the summer I went to see it with my two boys and it was bad, bad, bad. The only bad thing I’ve ever seen in London. Perhaps that is because it wasn’t about sex.)

But sex is clearly all. This occurred to me early, as well as often, beginning Saturday night, a few hours after my arrival, when I was directed to exit the Picadilly Circus underground station via the statue of Eros. Naturally, I was on my way to see The Country Wife, a restoration comedy about…. YES! Sex. What is there to say about The Country Wife? Let’s see. Wycherley has a low opinion of enduring married love. A low opinion of women’s fidelity. A really low opinion of what motivates men. (Do you really want me to tell you what motivates men? YES! Sex.) It was very funny, very cynical, and featured the guy I saw over the summer in a Harold Pinter play called Betrayal, Toby Stephens, as the rake who decides he will have better access to the women of the town if he lets a rumor go about that he is impotent. This is a plot device I wouldn’t have thought could work but, it turns out, this rumor gives him unfettered access to women, all of whom fall in his lap, as it were. I will say this — he was charming. I think he might have been wearing the exact same pair of jeans he wore in Betrayal. And yes, when I wasn’t laughing, I was wondering if they were his favorite jeans.

Last night I saw The History Boys, which was pretty great. You’d think that this play would be mostly about education, and how we learn, or at least that’s what I thought. In fact, it is mostly about the link between education and seduction. Its tragic turn naturally comes about because of misplaced passion.

It’s pouring here, and indeed it is pouring plays about sex. Tonight, I am going to see Shadowlands, which is about… what else? C.S. Lewis’s late in life marriage. Pouring it on, tomorrow, I will be seeing not one but TWO Harold Pinter plays and, no, they are not about finding the perfect nanny or battling orcs. And then, Thursday, best of all, I am going to see Much Ado About Nothing, which I am reading right now, and really enjoying for its depiction of a woman and man determined not to love. Shakespeare would agree that eros matters much, particularly in the comedies, where the failure to love properly is the focus of much of the action.

Which brings me to Wallace Stevens and Jane Austen, for whom the sex is all formulation was a bit complicated. I give these insights to you free of charge, particulary to those who are getting here via google because you have a paper due in English class tomorrow and you would love to be able to talk about Stevens and Austen and sex in the same breath. Let it never be said that I do not have sympathy for those who (a) procrastinate and (b) try to do everything.

Stevens seldom wrote directly about love and sex. And when he did, he observed not that sex is all, but that sex is not all that: “If sex were all, then every trembling hand/Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.” My conclusion is that this had much to do with his complicated and not very satisfying relationship with his wife Elsie, who seems to have entered a sort of spinster-ish old age very early in their marriage. There is something bitter about these two lines, which makes me think that if he is expressing something he believes to be true, then he is being less than honest with himself. And that is because sexual desire is very hard to deny, and cannot be dismissed so easily. When you do try to deny it, it just crops up in other places. I haven’t thought a lot about it (this is, after all, a blog), but I’m going to guess that Stevens simply transformed sexual desire into other sorts of passion — for some communion of word and life, for beauty, and for a hearty embrace of good food.

As for Austen, after reading Claire Tomalin’s terrific (and short) biography, I’m inclined to think that Austen and her sister Cassandra (neither of whom ever married) also answer, in their choices and lives, the question of where eros goes when it cannot find direct expression in one’s life. For Cassandra, as for Elsie Stevens, eros is tamped down by going early into old age. (And I’d question whether old age is truly a place where eros doesn’t live. Look at Harold and Maude.) For Jane Austen, who seems to have loved once, and been unable to marry the man she loved, and then refused to marry anyone else, eros lives in a series of remarkable novels, novels which explore how we love well and how we love badly.

In The History Boys, one of the students, the sexually precocious Dakin, says, “The more you read, though, the more you’ll see that literature is actually about losers . . . It’s consolation. All literature is consolation.” If literature is about losers, then we are all losers, of course, because we are all concerned with the great issues literature takes on, particularly the question of how to love well. And the things we learn about love in literature, whether it is that sometimes we have to bury our desires to survive them, and sometimes we love so badly we cannot continue, and sometimes we are lucky and learn to love properly, are the best sorts of consolations, because they show us that we are not alone in our struggle with this most important of all questions. That is a consolation I would not want to have to do without, and, fortunately, here in London, will not have to do without, as long as the statue of Eros is pointing the way to the theater.

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18 thoughts on “Is Eros All?

  1. You’re off to the theatre and I’m giving you a standing ovation! Fabulous post, BlogLily – it’s funny, insightful, clever, instructional and warm. All the qualities of a classic BL post. Thank you, and before you leave, could I have your autograph?

  2. Lovely post, I agree with all that charlotte said. I’m glad The History Boys was good, and I want to know how you like Shadowlands. I actually loved the movie version, and would love to see the play. Now I’m going to go re-read some Austen…

  3. oooooh doesn’t say what i want to say but i don’t know how to spell it. not oh, long, but closer to euuw without the e…

    yes, lily, you’re right about how important sex is, but i’m very angry all the same that this is thought to be / is so true. because sex is difficult to get right after the first grand passion of it all. I’ve now had my life sundered 3 times because of sex / attraction or lack thereof, and i dearly wish that there were something else that binds.

    couldn’t we rely on love? or tenderness? loyalty? or compassion?

    sex is important, vitally so, but also dangerous and undependable.

    if i had paid more attention to sex with my husband and less on love of my family, would i still be married? and who created a world where that’s even a question?

  4. Tonight, watching Shadowlands I had a similar thought, Gail. It was this: why is it that love and sex are all? Are there not other choices? May one not say no to all this? Austen certainly did. She chose life, which is to say she chose to write and be unmarried, rather than marry and be buried in married life. I also think it’s reductive to say that her subjects were love and married life. In fact, if you look at the novels closely, they are also about independence and thinking for oneself, about exercising choice, and about refusing to do what one is expected to do. And that is why they are so consoling — not because the women in them find love at the end.

    Dear Gentle Reader, Thank you. I’ll be interested to hear about your Austen re-reading. The biography was far quite powerful.

    Charlotte, that’s such a sweet thing to say. I am having a fun time — I guess that’s obvious, huh!?

  5. I’m in the process of reading a biography about John Calvin in preparation for a journey to Geneva next month. The life Calvin is about sex in the same way a desert is about water: one short season of marriage that was nice while it lasted but did little to change the overall nature of Calvin’s spiritual geography.

    Sometimes I think that the geography of Geneva may have something to do with Calvinist reserve: if the beauty of human intimacy were added to the overpowering (and very feminine) wonder of the Alps rising up over the lake, it might have overpowered Calvin’s somewhat feeble human frame.

    In London, where it is foggy and flat, he might have gone to the theater more often.

  6. Dear Lilian, It’s a tricky subject, isn’t it? That’s why I find it so amazing that it’s at the heart of so much theater here.

    Why thank you Cam. It’s so much fun to be at the theater alone. You can sit in silence during the intermission, eating your incredibly expensive little thing of ice cream, the one that costs a stunning six dollars, and think whatever thoughts you want to think. And at the end of the play, you do not have to turn to your companion and say anything, including “that was good.” You can walk to the tube and figure out what you really, really do think. It’s the best thing I’ve done in a long time, getting to be alone to really think.

    LK, There is a place for a box of dingdongs. In fact, Stevens was a huge lover of chocolate, but I’m guessing it was more fine chocolate than the kind that comes wrapped around and in a donut-like thing.

    Dear Ben, Have a great trip! As for the landscape, I’ve never thought of it that way. I’ve always thought it was more about the weather, which keeps people indoors here in England so much, and thus gives them a lot of time to consider what one might best do indoors.

  7. Yes, this is a wonderful post, dear Bloglily, and I just love the thought of you seeing so many plays and having so many marvellous thoughts about them. I can’t wait to discuss all this further with you!

  8. I wonder if SEX is so important in all our lives because, well, SEX is important. Literature is not about losers at sex but about real people with real struggles. Whether we are Martian or Venusian sex is a mainstay in our lives. The problems arise because evolution has given Martians a different take on sex from Venusians. This conflict may be at the root of all literature. Perhaps we need a movement towards honesty and some compromise so that we can all become happy little Earthlings.

    What an orgasmic outcome that would be – – –

  9. A pedant (not altogether irrelevantly considering the previous comments) speaks. It’s not actually Eros but his twin – Anteros! According to Wikipedia “Gilbert described Anteros as portraying ‘reflective and mature love, as opposed to Eros or Cupid, the frivolous tyrant.'” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piccadilly_Circus). And why shouldn’t sex be reflective and mature (as well as frivolous, hopefully)?

    Maybe it’s time I re-read Jane Austen? (And lovely to meet you yesterday. That was a first!)

  10. Ah, but Stevens is not dismissing the power of sex, bit acknowledging that, powerful as it is, there’s as least one field of aspiration for which it it proves insufficient; that what he might lament as a man, he could at least claim for himself as a poet, the one measure that matters: “finding the “wished-for words.”

    If it were otherwise, sex being what it is, anyone could make poetry, an ironic hint that perhaps, had he found erotic satisfaction, he wouldn’t need to write poems, as Mahler seems to have given up music for Alma after his famous stroll with Doctor Freud!

  11. U-Dad — NO! They’re going to have to do something about that sign, don’t you think? And it was lovely to meet you also — and what a nice lunch it was.

    Hello and Welcome Jacob, That’s such a great reading of those lines. I have always thought the “wished for words” were the dreaded “I love you.” I’m not sure I’m ready to give up that reading, but I love having your alternative, and also getting to check out your blog.

    Archie, I can only say I agree, and that’s pretty good, don’t you think, coming from a venusian?

    Dear Litlove, I’m supposed to be packing up my things — and it’s well after midnight — but I’ve had such a fun night at the theater that I can’t get myself to admit I’m leaving in the morning. It has been a lovely time.

    Hello Dorothy — I’ve loved all the theater, and have lots of things to say, when I get home and can finally return to a normal sleep and work schedule. xo, BL

  12. Bloglily,

    I grateful to have found your blog through litlove. But heavens!
    Those word’s COULD not be “I love you,” as that’s what any erotically engorged subject blurts out from their most primal mamnilian brain… Stevens is pointing out (ruefully, perhaps… had he an Alma to go back, he may not have even needed Freud!)… contra Romantic popular assumptions (and with no little anxiety, lest it not be so) … that poetry is driven by a source not so easily limited.

    … what he longs for, is something beyond Eros… but that he knows well enough, we will never be quite free of…

    It is the human that is the alien,
    The human that has no cousin in the moon.

    It is the human that demands his speech
    From Beasts or from the incommunicable mass.

    If there must be a god in the house, let him be one
    That will not hear us when we speak: a coolness,

    A vermilioned nothingness, any stick of the mass
    Of which we are too distantly a part.

  13. “any stick of the mass/ of which we are too distantly a part”

    I think of Kafka… the aphorism, that the “way” of man is like a rope stretched a foot above the ground, seemingly more meant to be tripped over than to follow.

    Kafka, too… is thinking of Eros… and trying not to.

  14. Dear Jacob, It’s utterly lovely to have such a careful reader of poetry share his views. Your reading of Stevens is very useful and has enriched my own (and revised it quite a bit, I might add). Thank you for that!

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