January 27th, 2019

Eros the melter of limbs (now again) stirs me
Sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in

Sappho, Fragment 40

This past week I was so taken by these two lines of poetry, a Sapphic fragment translated by Anne Carson, that I wanted to send them out, pinging from molecule to molecule, reverberating through the ether, to the ears of all. What was it about these little lines that so gripped me? If I had to pinpoint my favorite part, it would be the phrase “melter of limbs” – a suggestion that Eros, Love, is a force so powerful that it melts together the limbs of its victims (beneficiaries?) into a single solid, sticky mass.

How does one define an abstract concept such as Love? (Or, as Haddaway would have it, “What is Love?”) How do we know when we are indeed experiencing the thing that everybody is talking about? The process of ascribing meaning to things, even simple things like “noodle,” or “Marie Curie,” or “unicycle,” is a contentious topic within the Philosophy of Language. The process seems to go something like this: people within a certain cultural and historical context point at something in the world; then, they sort of subconsciously agree upon a set of attributes that are had by that thing. For example, we agree that a noodle is a long and skinny thing made out of some kind of grain that is made to go in your belly. There are many types of noodles (ramen, spaghetti, tagliatelle, soba, etc.), that look different, but we agree that they are all noodles. And there are also things that don’t really fit our definition, like zoodles (which are made out of zucchini, not grain) that are controversial to many noodle-namers. (See the internet’s “Is a Hot Dog a Sandwich debate?” for a particularly good example of the violence that can be brought about by meaning attribution.)

But anyway, back to Love – how the heck are we supposed to go about giving meaning to the terms we use to describe things that reside in our inner sense? We can all point at noodles — they exist in the world. But how do we go about pointing at something like Love? How do we come to some agreement about what we’re even talking about in the first place?

In The Rhetoric, Aristotle suggests that we use “metaphors to give names to nameless things.” In other words, we solidify meaning for a fuzzy concept by likening it to a less fuzzy concept. In the Sapphic fragment above, we describe Eros (Love) with the term “limb loosener.” Even if we can’t imagine Love as an abstract concept, we can imagine a desire for another person so strong that it loosens our limbs from our body in their direction. In Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson describes metaphor as “a virtuoso act of imagination [that] brings the two things together, sees their incongruence, then sees also a new congruence, meanwhile continuing to recognize the previous incongruence through the new congruence.” We bring two things close together and exchange some of their meaning between them, while still holding them apart as two distinct things. Love is not literally a process of limb loosening, but following the act of metaphor, we have fleshed out the concept of Love with a little physical imagery (as well as given a richer, more poignant sense to the thought of limb loosening as well). (I’m also sympathetic to the psycho-linguistic idea that the fact that we have a term for Love is what facilitate our experience of it, but that’s for a another newsletter blurb.)

In some sense the act of Love, itself, is a metaphor. Love is a process of drawing two individuals close. They let each other in, exchange their vulnerability and identity. The lovers give each other sharper boundaries, as they discover who they are in each other. Perhaps even a new synergistic entity is formed in their commonality: the couple. But they are still held apart by the necessity of their existence as two separate beings – two separate consciousnesses and two separate bodies.

As such, there is always a space between two lovers, a gap. And into this gap we peer and project, wondering what our other half is thinking, feeling, thinking about us, feeling about us. It is in this gap that we make false assumptions about each other, positive or negative, idealizing or vilifying.

In Plato’s The Phaedrus, Socrates suggests that we convince people of meaning by drawing similarities between some things and holding other things apart as distinct. Thus, metaphor, the act of drawing similarities, is a tool of persuasion, and something of which to be weary. Socrates may have a point – in our act of metaphor we must mind the gap, whether it be between two concepts or two lovers.

James Blake asks a similar question in the track “Are You in Love?” off of his very recent release Assume Form (SpotifyYoutubeDiscogs), for which you should set aside some time to give a thoughtful listen if you haven’t had the chance yet. His falsetto on the title track, reaching into the gap between his own thoughts and his lover’s, is limb loosening itself.

If you’re looking for something a bit more experimental, try Parish Council’s Pear and Biscuits Classical (Spotify), just out this week, which you can download for free on their label Tasty Morsel’s website. The cerebral soundscapes will surely stretch any of your previous conceptions of classical music.

For another example of art that will stretch your traditional conceptions of the medium, here’s some ballet. Those that know me well know that I am a complete and total ballet nerd (the technical term is balletomane). What drew me to ballet originally was not the archetypal productions like The NutcrackerSwan Lake, or The Sleeping Beauty, but rather the neoclassical work of George Balanchine, whose mid-century choreography to the music of other innovators of the time such as Igor Stravinsky, still reads a strikingly contemporary and brushes against the sublime. (Watch this video of Agon to see what I mean.)

New York City Ballet, the company founded by Balanchine, is still in the business of innovation, as in this piece commissioned and performed by the company from choreographer Kyle Abraham. The piece is set to music by James Blake, Nico Muhly, and, yes, Kanye West. In a set of solos, principal dancer Taylor Stanley brings you into his bottomless inner world.

You can hear Taylor’s own commentary in the other solo from this piece here:

Carve out a little time for this short documentary on a group of North Korean refugees living and working in the UK. The art direction and cinematography brilliantly reflect the color palette of North Korean art and propaganda.

Speaking of North Korean propaganda, Nick Bonner has curated a collection of fascinating and shockingly beautiful ephemera from the hermit kingdom. His book, Made in North Korea: Graphics From the Everyday Life in the DPRK, pokes at line between advertising (whether it be for consumer goods or ideology) and art. Bonner’s collection is now on exhibit at the Koryo in Seoul.

Lastly, Russian artist Oleg Dou’s stunning photo manipulations add a tangible eroticism to classic Renaissance clichés.

That’s all for this week! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. Check out newsletters from the past at butterforthebrain.blog. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,

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