There are sunbeams breaking through the clouds over the Radcliffe Camera, back at my old vantage point of desk U95 in the Old Bodleian Upper Reading Room, and I’m starting my MPhil by reading Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet. Here is what she has to say about that passage in the Phaedrus to which I (see below) keep returning:
As Sokrates tells it, your story begins the moment Eros enters you. That incursion is the biggest risk of your life. How you handle it is an index of the quality, wisdom and decorum of the things inside you. As you handle it you come into contact with what is inside you, in a sudden and startling way. You perceive what you are, what you lack, what you could be. What is this mode of perception, so different from ordinary perception that it is well described as madness? How is it that when you fall in love you feel as if suddenly you are seeing the world as it really is? A mood of knowledge floats out over your life. You seem to know what is real and what is not. Something is lifting you toward an understanding so complete and clear it makes you jubilant. This mood is no delusion, in Sokrates’ belief. It is a glance down into time, at realities you once knew, as staggeringly beautiful as the glance of your beloved (249e-50c).
The point of time that Lysias deletes from his logos, the moment of mania when Eros enters the lover, is for Sokrates the single most important moment to confront and grasp. ‘Now’ is a gift of the gods and an access onto reality. To address yourself to the moment when Eros glances into your life and to grasp what is happening in your soul at that moment is to begin to understand how to live. Eros’ mode of takeover is an education: it can teach you the real nature of what is inside you. Once you glimpse that, you can begin to become it. Sokrates says it is a glimpse of a god (253a).
Here in the home of lost causes, my heart is full of hope and the will to knowledge. As I sit in the library waiting for term to start, I feel more alive than I have in months—my life seems pregnant with new possibilities. I think it’s going to be a good term.