Understanding Eros

Eros is the force that emerges in you when there arises a gap between you, now, and something you want.

A lot of those words sound obvious; I think this isn’t obvious at all, at least to most people I’ve met. I want you to understand that this is a physical feeling; as real and solid as hunger and thirst and everyday sexual arousal. And in particular, at least as uncontrollable, and as impervious to thinking and argument as hunger and thirst are.

In particular, eros doesn’t arise in relation to all wants–many things we want arouse a primarily emotional response from us, and the emotion is the vehicle for getting it. A man is angry at being alone and unwanted; he channels that anger into forcing the success of his startup in the hopes of being seen and wanted. A woman is scared by the prospect of being abandoned and wants to feel safe; she channels that fear into retreat, into throwing herself at strangers or family members who will look after her, into subtly persuading those around her to look after her at the cost of her own sovereignty. A woman is scared of being judged by others and channels that energy into the pursuit of a mediocre hobby and socially-approved entertaining, subtly asking those around her to approve of it and thus relieve her of her fear.

When I say ‘channels that energy’, I mean something literal–there is a sensation of fear in the body and it arouses us, leads us to think about all the bad possible futures, and literally moves our attention through our surroundings in a way that helps us solve the problem. This happens with fear, anger, pain–all sorts of sensations trigger this internal awakeness that moves us in both physical and mental action.

I think that eros, or eroticism, is the feeling associated with the pursuit of a kind of satisfaction; not satisfaction of comforts, as in fear, or satisfaction of justice, as in anger, but satisfaction of expression. The difference, though, is that comfort can be found (and lost, and found again, and lost, and found), and justice can be (theoretically) served. In both cases once the object of desire is sought the force disappears, although this may not happen in your or my lifetime. 

I’m not sure this is the case with eros. In my own experience, eros begets itself. For, eros demands to be responded to with the real expression of another. Often, what eros wants is a response from someone else, often a lover. If it succeeds, it will trigger a response from the other that then asks for a response in turn. If it fails it will keep seeking, sometimes achingly, humiliatingly, maddeningly, to trigger that response from the other it seeks, sometimes forever. 

Perhaps the first true experience of eros (not simply having sex) that we have is when we first get our heart broken. We want something–a real, open, communicative response from the other and (if the breakup is going as it should) they won’t give it to us. This is different from the soothing, fantasy-laden, or mutually-comforting sex we might have in the early stages of a relationship, where we want to do everything that makes our partner feel good and nothing that makes our partner feel bad. Eros does not mind if it makes the other feel bad, and that makes it an asshole at times. It wants ‘a real response’, not comfort, and it can in fact often get in the way of either party achieving comfort.

Eros can fuck people up. It gets fucked up if we believe it is limited, and we locate the source of its power in the object of its desire. ‘I can’t live without her’ is the verbal expression of a physical and emotional torture brought about by the combination of powerful wanting and not being able to have what we want. To even tolerate the experience of eros is challenging; lovers in history commit suicide when they’re unable to withstand it. When I talk to some older people in long, stable marriages it becomes clear they’ve never tasted it at all, or at least if they did would never acknowledge it to themselves or me. I do think the experience of eros is unevenly distributed; that some people are utterly consumed by it, the way addicts are, and others have never felt it and never will. 

The way out of the torture of eros is to return to what it wants. Eros involves two parts–a bodily, psychological, and intellectual experience of want, and a perception of the ideal that is wanted. The trick is to understand that both parts are located within you (literally, within your body and your awareness, in some way). Even if your lover is standing naked in front of you, asking you to touch him, your perception of the man that you want is yours. Moreover, it is yours because something in you is drawn to that, and the world is not so simple and coherent as to only offer you that satisfaction from inside the body and mind of a single other individual. 

Once you have wanted a single person deeply, you can turn your head to look at the rest of the world and see sort of fractal shimmers of them and their qualities drenching the world around you. Eros, if you let it, will also want each of those instantiations, in a more diffuse, less ragged way. Perhaps the quality of his that arouses you is his fierce intellect; his wit and the way you feel when he understands the way you think in a way nobody else has understood before. What you are wanting is the ‘way of being responded to’ that this quality of his gives you. Perhaps you want the quality of her attention that loves without judgement, in a way that lets you become impervious to shame. Yes, yes, and all that; and it is not only hers; it is not only his. 

I think a common critique of eros is that it is delusional, or it is seeking a symbol of something that does not exist. I’d like to give humans more credit than that–rarely does such a powerful wanting rise up on its own, unbidden. It is generally triggered by the recognition of something real, responsive, and in the world at the level of sensation at the moment it is discovered. But, often, the desire for that thing that was experienced gets transferred onto an imagined, mental symbol of the experience and the ability to recognise new, similar experiences to the original thing gets lost. Then we go insane. 

This isn’t necessary, though.

Every possible kind of resonance has its copies in the world–its own subsequent kinds of resonance. The quality of her attention will become illuminated, perhaps more softly, in the attention of other people, in music and art, in the way you relate to yourself with loving attention and not harshness. The quality of his thought will become merely one among many as you notice its parallels in wider society and meet the other people who respond to you this way. It is perhaps this initial spark ignited by interaction with another that fuels the drive within you (again, remember, the physical, physiological, embodied drive, just as real as your drive to quench your thirst) to seek out this crucial quality everywhere. Certainly, when I’ve been hit by the eros truck the drive to seek out what I desired in the initial lover carried on for much, much longer afterwards. I suspect that drive was always there, dormant, and the other person merely woke it up.

This pattern of discovery–with its intense heartbreak and the way it can often leave your relationships with the real people completely decimated–well, I think it’s rough. I’d hope there’s a gentler way into the other side–a way of living where everything is alive to you, every person, space, and thing you perceive holds within it the potential for resonance; I’d like to discover that less-bumpy road myself. If you’ve been through the wringer a few times you begin to develop a sort of equanimity with the ache, and a healthy respect for your total lack of control of the object of your desire. Metabolised eros lets itself be rejected early and often; you become capable of looking like a fool in the pursuit of what you want, and in the process become capable of letting go of the intention to force any one person to give it to you in any particular way. 

Because this is the paradoxical secret of eros: because eros only wants to be responded with from another’s own eros, by forcing the other to respond you destroy the possibility of them responding. 

You cannot dance with what you are currently strangling from fear of losing it. You must accept the risk of humiliation, of loss, of contempt, of rejection, of outrage, of exile, if you want to give space to the possibility that eros will be truly satisfied. This is not only about lovers; you can, in uncommonly rich, delicate, creative spaces, have this dynamic in any domain. You can have this dynamic with your startup cofounder or your music teacher. Eros is not purely sexual, although it often starts that way, and its deep connection to sexuality is probably why we can basically never talk about it. 

I think the development of eroticism and a strong connection to eros is a powerful individual and collective component of the necessary response to modernity–the dry, dull, automated and factory-made lifestyle we all have to reckon with and often complain about. I can thank people like Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich for that. Eros does, in its healthiest form, allow creative expression to emerge even in the most claustrophobic of situations, and despite its danger also brings a lot of joy. It is the most flourishing-oriented, passionately joyous embodied drive I know of, and also perhaps the most complex. This is one reason I wish it were more publicly recognised and its characteristics understood.

I would rather lose what I most deeply want while keeping my erotic intelligence intact, than gain it but in the process strip all the life out of the object of my desire. 

I feel alone in this attitude; so part of the desire driving this essay is a desire to both find the others who live this way, and to encourage its development in the culture around me. And hopefully, given the sheer number of gloriously stupid mistakes I’ve made in eros’ wake, I might have enough of the humility not to judge others and encourage them as they make brand-new mistakes in their own pursuit. 

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