Eros as a Hermeneutics

Here is love’s tension, love’s politics. Here is form. The reader loves without knowing. (Lisa Robertson, “Time in the Codex”)

Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading Letter at an Open Window (partial restoration), 1657–59

I. In the early Nabokov story “Signs and Symbols” we learn of an old Russian couple’s trip to see their suicidal son in a sanatorium. It is a rainy day when they visit and the form of the story, likewise, feels foggy and nebulous. The son’s condition itself is ambiguous: he is said to have been diagnosed with “referential mania,” an affliction wherein “the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. … Everything is a cypher and of everything he is the theme.” Delusions of reference are as native to actually existing disorders like schizophrenia as they are—under different names—to the myth-structure of traditional societies, according to which man is microcosm and the whole of phenomenal reality alludes to its own creation. But Nabokov’s more immediate locus of reference, as no shortage of critics have failed to point out, is the referential mania of the reader (that is: you) themself. We are constantly, neurotically searching for ourselves in the text, Nabokov complains; rather than deferring to the merely circumstantial nature of things we readers insist, instead, that every gust of wind through the the tree outside of our window must (pending its inscription) be endowed with significance. But crucial to this critique, I would argue, is its object’s habit of self-referral. We insist that the afflicted subject who in the rustle of the leaves, by contrast, reads not himself but instead the other is not merely delusional—rather: he is in love.

II. This distinction gets at the heart of the error Alexander Nehamas identifies in Sontag’s famous sign off (envoi?) to Against Interpretation. Opposing the distinction of these two attitudes of readings—“eros” against “hermeneutics”—Nehamas argues via Gadamar¹ that interpretation is always in itself an essentially erotic activity. Citing Symposium 203c (“Eros from the beginning has been attendant and minister to Aphrodite, since he was begotten on the day of her birth"), Nehamas writes:

Hermeneutics and erotics do not exclude one another. … For Plato, the only reaction appropriate to beauty is eros—love, the desire to possess. Moreover, all beautiful things draw us beyond themselves, leading us to recognize and love other, more precious beauties, culminating in the love of the beauty of virtue itself.²

Nehamas’ approach to beauty is ultimately one concerned with the movement beyond self-referral, positing oneself in relation to alterity. For certain critics, yes, Nehamas’ retrieval of Plato on beauty is ultimately one concerned with a conservative defense of aesthetics (“Nehamas and Gadamer provide powerful testimony to the possibility of renewing the Platonic correlation of love and beauty in a hermeneutic account that affirms the relevance of beauty in a world of art”²). Fine—but I would counter that Nehamas’ reformulation of the Platonic insight is in fact inviting us into a much more radical approach to the originary conditions of eros and interpretation alike.

The condition of hermeneutics per my revision of Nehamas is as follows: a text (shorthand for “object of interpretation”) is that which, in its opacity, provokes desire. This is the erotic logic of the veil and its lifting; the reader is thus one who amorously seeks something hidden in the text and is provoked therein toward its disclosure. Likewise, the erotic condition is an essentially hermeneutical one; the lover is constantly interpreting, reading the phenomenal reality around them as a hint into the secret of their desire (or: the secret treasure—agalma—of their beloved). For one afflicted by eros the world is saturated with meaning; specifically: the meaning of the beloved’s presence or absence. Love, like religion, has this strange ability to imbue physical objects (a flower, a letter) with supernal significance. The lover in the world is thus constantly reading, searching for traces of and insights into the nature of their beloved in the phenomena at hand. To what end? Per Carson: “what the reader wants from reading and what the lover wants from love are experiences of very similar design. It is a necessarily triangular design, and it embodies a reach for the unknown.”³

2021 restoration (left) and the pre-restored version (right)

III. One has questions, then, about the boundaries of the love letter—questions to which Derrida only can only gesture limply at an answer. In the second of his “Envois” Derrida writes (exemplifying his lauded “amorous rhetoric”⁴) about the ambiguities of naming the beloved:

and when I call you my love, my love, is it you I am calling or my love? You, my love, is it you I thereby name, is it to you that I address myself? I don’t know if the question is well put, it frightens me. … when I call you my love, is it that I am calling you, yourself, or is it that I am telling my love? and when I tell you my love is it that I am declaring my love to you or indeed that I am telling you, yourself, my love, and that you are my love.⁵

The question of addressing the object of affection becomes merged, then, with the problem of otherness (difference) writ large. Marion, the most orthodox of Derrida’s theological heirs, attempts an answer when he notes in his Prolegomena to Charity that the particularity and self-dissolution implied in the condition love is precisely what separates faith from idolatry (and, thus, eros from pornography):

I must, then, name this love my love, since it would not fascinate me as my idol if, first, it did not render to me, like an unseen mirror, the image of myself. Love, loved for itself, inevitably ends as self-love, in the phenomenological figure of self-idolatry.

I do not have the language yet, following these sources, to articulate the precise nature of the lover-reader’s condition in relation to the phenomenal world (Heidegger via Marion may also be useful here re: “saturated phenomena”). I suspect, however, that it resembles something like the wild animal in nature or the saint’s soul in his body. I look to Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window and bemoan the redundancy of its 2021 restoration, how present Cupid was felt even before his revelation; indeed, one wonders if his suppression was due to the superfluousness of his presence—as if the depiction of reading wasn’t erotic enough. Vermeer’s girl is like Mary with her fingers in folds of a Bible at the moment of divine conception. The “amorous” visual logic of the painting, confirmed (read: unveiled) by its restoration-interpretation, was always implied in a diffuse way: immanent, but localized in the moment of the girl’s contact with her beloved’s inscription, his love letter.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Beloved (The Bride), 1865–6

IV. The condition of the hermeneutic lover finds precedent in the Song of Songs, that great case study of ideal desire. Typical of ancient love poetry the Song is heavy with simile-rich descriptions of the beloved’s body. What makes it distinct in my reading is the mutual correspondence of metaphor with the phenomenal (specifically “natural”) world—as the body is compared to landscape, so the landscape is compared to the body; the lover’s encounter of the world is preceded and informed by her encounter with the beloved, giving way to an experience of reality mediated entirely through desire.

A few examples: often, as in Song 1:6 (“they made me keeper of the vineyards, my own vineyard I have not kept”), there is confusion as to where one’s body ends and horticultural domain begins. This is exacerbated in reference to the body of the beloved; Brian Gault notes well the manner with which the female speaker “reads” the shade of the apple tree as a symbol of her beloved’s protection.⁶ One likewise finds it hard to discern when the male speaker invokes the image of the garden poetically—that is, as a euphemism for his beloved—or merely descriptively (especially in the case of Song 5:1). Features of organic reality thus become in the lover’s eyes a commentary on the body of the beloved. The erotic condition (that of the Song’s lovers) is an outward-looking mania of reference, a hermeneutics of alterity.

I’ll stop short here of continuing on to a discussion of how the dynamic of eros and interpretation informs the traditions of reading that developed in medieval Song commentaries and in zoharic mysticism. More to come soon.

  1. See Czakon, Dominika. “Is the Hermeneutic Interpretation of Art Erotic? A Reader of Gadamer Responds to Sontag’s Challenge.” Estetyka i Krytyka 43, no. 4 (2016): 45–64.
  2. Nehamas, Alexander. Only a promise of happiness: The place of beauty in a world of art. Princeton University Press, 2010: 4.
  3. Tate, Daniel L. “Erotics or Hermeneutics? Nehamas and Gadamer on Beauty and Art.” Journal of Aesthetics and Phenomenology 2, no. 1 (2015): 28.
  4. Carson, Anne. Eros the bittersweet. Princeton University Press, 2014: 109.
  5. See van Gerven Oei, Vincent WJ. Going Postcard: The Letter(s) of Jacques Derrida. Punctum books, 2017: 103.
  6. Derrida, Jacques. The post card: From Socrates to Freud and beyond. University of Chicago Press, 2020: 8.
  7. Gault, Brian P. Body as landscape, love as intoxication: conceptual metaphors in the Song of songs. SBL Press, 2019: 89–90.

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Theology, Hermeneutics, Jewish Mysticism | Oberlin 2022

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