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Eros and Villains

Milan Kundera once said that all great love stories begin and end outside of consummation. Agnes Callard seems to agree, though with a less romantic sentiment [“The Eros Monster,” Essay, March]. Callard’s story of an “all chase” affair is a treatise on eros as a corrosive to independent thought. During her relationship, Callard flipped between deep love and searing hatred, which, she writes, is “exactly what happens when eros becomes a trap.”

During my own extramarital affair, I was possessed by a similar recklessness. I take issue, however, with Callard’s implication that eros is necessarily intertwined with hate. Of course, there are plenty of examples which support her interpretation. Though Freud posited Eros as embodying the drive to live—the opposite of Thanatos, the drive to self-destruct—many couples have embodied Georges Bataille’s assertion that “the truth of eroticism is treason.” One thinks of Henry VIII sentencing Anne Boleyn to death, Nelson Algren castigating Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiographical novel, or Diego Rivera sleeping with Frida Kahlo’s sister.

Is intense desire inherently incompatible with lasting goodwill? Having been with my former lover for a decade—we’re now married—this has not been my experience. But while we have a relationship built on eros and philia (“friendship”), we did leave scorched earth in our wake. Eros often transgresses social obligations, requiring either total retreat (which may encourage lovers to turn against each other) or a blood sacrifice (which demands that the lover play the villain in someone else’s story). I wonder what a world would look like in which Eros could fully embody a positive drive towards love without Thanatos seeping in.

Gina Frangello
Chicago

 

When I eloped with a man I had known for just two months, I understood my choice by way of analogy with (what else!) literary criticism. In my vows, I quoted Elizabeth Hardwick, who once wrote that “to assert greatness does not give us the key; it is only the lock.” As I told my husband on our wedding day, what I think Hardwick means is that judgment is the beginning, rather than the end, of criticism. The best reviews do not seek to establish whether a book is good or bad—which is almost always readily apparent—but to grapple with the mystery of its goodness or badness. Marriage, I suggested, was similar: falling in love occasions certainty so acute that it is reminiscent of the undeniable pangs of pain, but next comes the more vexing business of parsing a passion and living with its intensities.

Callard suggests that the “erotic crisis” is primarily intellectual: eros “attacks the heart by way of the mind.” In what way is erotic ardor an intellectual affliction? Callard suggests several possibilities. The first is that love changes the texture of thought. The lover transforms into a conspiracy theorist as the beloved’s most innocuous email becomes a constellation of clues, her most trivial gesture a portent. In other words, eros re-enchants the world.

The second sense in which erotic passion might be intellectual is that it embroils us in a mad quest for certainty. In love, we want to know what the beloved’s behavior means, and, perhaps more urgently, what our own behavior means. The association of eros with this sort of intellectual problem implies that love is bound up with confusion, and that understanding (or reconciling oneself to a lack thereof) can lead to resolution. Alexander Nehamas believes that a critic’s fixation with a work of art ends only when she gives up on trying to understand it, or when she reaches “full understanding,” and her interest is inevitably “exhausted.”

But I’m not sure this is true. What makes love so miraculous is that it enables us to go on wanting something we already possess. Even if I understood my passion for my husband entirely, I would continue to desire him. Eros, then, is not intellectual but aesthetic, which is to say it is appetitive. It is for this reason that metaphors of feeding are irresistible to the lover. Consider Proust’s lovelorn Swann, whose jealous infatuation is “gluttonous of everything that would feed its vitality.” Callard herself writes that “if you try to fight the monster, you just feed it.” Even the most enlightened beasts must eat.

Becca Rothfeld
Cambridge, Mass.

 

 

Cryptonite

Will Stephenson ably captures the unreality permeating the crypto economy, where digital assets have no inherent value and often come with serious externalities that remain underacknowledged [“Cryptonomicon,” Letter from Miami, March]. While crypto evangelists market their product as the future, it’s actually a return to nineteenth-century wildcat banking.

Critics are catching on to crypto’s faults. Engineers I’ve spoken with in my own reporting have said that the technology behind crypto doesn’t work as advertised. It’s a series of bad right-wing ideas piled into a rickety financial structure. The so-called stablecoins that supposedly help provide market liquidity are seen by many as untrustworthy. Technical complexity, legal issues, volatility, rampant fraud, and market manipulation will almost certainly prevent its mass adoption.

It’s clear that crypto is a failure in every sense: as a currency, as a store of value, and as a means of exchange. Essentially a more toxic form of gambling, it’s a negative-sum game, serving no public good and wasting capital that could otherwise be put toward productive ends. If we want to empower people economically, we could institute postal banking or universal health care—but this would involve the messy reality of governance, which, like paying taxes, holds no appeal for Bitcoin maximalists.

Jacob Silverman
Brooklyn, N.Y.

 

 

Correction

Another Green World” [Miscellany, February] referred imprecisely to zeolites as “volcanic aluminum crystals.” In fact, they contain silicon, oxygen, and other elements in addition to aluminum. We regret the error.