Wanting What is Wanting

Anne Carson, Eros: The Bittersweet

The Greek word eros denotes “want,” “lack,” “desire for that which is missing.” The lover wants what he does not have. It is by definition impossible for him to have what he wants if, as soon as it is had, it is no longer wanting. This is more than wordplay. There is a dilemma within eros that has been thought crucial by thinkers from Sappho to the present day. Plato turns and returns to it. Four of his dialogues explore what it means to say that desire can only be for what is lacking, not at hand, not present, not in one’s posession nor in one’s being: eros entails endeia. As Diotima puts it in the Symposium, Eros is a bastard got by Wealth on Poverty and ever at home in a life of want. Hunger is the analog chosen by Simone Weil for this conundrum:

‘All our desires are contradictory, like the desire for food. I want 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.”

Emily Dickinson puts the case more pertly in “I Had Been Hungry”:

So I found
that hunger was a way
of persons outside windows
that entering takes away.

[…] Who ever desires what is not gone? No one. The Greeks were clear on this. They invented Eros to express it.

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