Song of the Anonymous Woman

Bacchus and Ariadne, by Guido Reni, 1619-1620, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

 

1

(α)

 

Ariadne is lost. Derrida is by her side, no help at all. She’d gotten a rejection letter that morning: the stakes of her writing are too low, it said. The editors didn’t see the urgency of questioning ‘I love you.’ Ariadne closes the email; she reads a passage of Derrida. She reads another, at random. She feels the urgency of his questions—his writing is political, global, inherently linked with the life-and-death struggle to shape the ethical core of society. Ariadne rereads the rejection letter. “Thank you for your generous feedback,” she replies.

Ariadne continues with Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, which Bryan had referenced in his letter. Bryan also mentioned ‘eros’ versus ‘agape’—the great dichotomy within ‘love’—the duality which every Master’s student of English is given as gospel.

Ariadne earned an undergrad degree in political science; she’s master of nothing, not even a dog.

She sets aside Derrida.

When Ariadne was writing about Bryan, she’d Googled the phrase “agape in greek”; she wanted to learn the etymology of the word, rooting it from its original language, not the English. She was brought to the website Bible Hub: a trove, a revelation, an excitation about the possibilities of language, religion, the foundation of Western civilization.

 

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear: because fear has torment. He that fears is not made perfect in love. —1 John 4:18

 

Ariadne marvelled at the beauty, but she found ample confirmation of the Bible’s bizarreness, too. “Do you love me more than these?” Jesus asks a disciple. (He’s referring to fish.) “Yes, Lord,” the disciple answers, “you know I love you.” This is one of only three scenes where love is directly declared in the Bible, according to Ariadne’s four-day digression which ended in frustration and a return to J.L. Austin. Before abandoning Bible Hub, however, she’d learned that ‘agape’ first appeared in the Song of Solomon; it was not, in fact, a word used by Greek philosophers. Rather, it was the word chosen by Greek monks in Egypt when they translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek.

Leave it to monks to fuck up love for the rest of us…

After a month away from Bible Hub (and a lifetime forswearing the Bible), Ariadne returns to the website. She wants to dig further into etymology; this requires more of her brain—and less of her thought—than narrative. But Ariadne can’t avoid it: language wants to gather itself into story.

Unwittingly, she saturates each word with her desire to understand.

 

(β)

 

agapé: love, goodwill

Original Word: ἀγάπη, ης, ἡ
Part of Speech: Noun, Feminine
Transliteration: agapé
Phonetic Spelling: (ag-ah’-pay)
Definition: love, goodwill
Usage: love, benevolence, good will, esteem; [plural]: love-feasts.

 

26 agápē – properly, love which centers in moral preference. So too in secular ancient Greek, 26 (agápē) focuses on preference; likewise the verb form (25/agapáō) in antiquity meant “to prefer” (TDNT, 7). In the NT, 26 (agápē) typically refers to divine love (= what God prefers).

 

In signification it follows the verb ἀγαπάω

 

agapaó: to love

Original Word: ἀγαπάω
Part of Speech: Verb
Transliteration: agapaó
Phonetic Spelling: (ag-ap-ah’-o)
Definition: to love
Usage: I love, wish well to, take pleasure in, long for; denotes the love of reason, esteem.

 

Cognate: 25 agapáō – properly, to prefer, to love; for the believer, preferring to “live through Christ” (1 Jn 4:9,10), i.e. embracing God’s will (choosing His choices) and obeying them through His power. 25 (agapáō) preeminently refers to what God prefers as He “is love” (1 Jn 4:8,16). See 26 (agapē).

 

With the believer, 25/agapáō (“to love”) means actively doing what the Lord prefers, with Him (by His power and direction).

 

True 25/agapáō (“loving”) is always defined by God – a “discriminating affection which involves choice and selection” (WS, 477). 1 Jn 4:8,16,17 for example convey how loving (“preferring,” 25/agapáō) is Christ living His life through the believer.

 

Word Origin
of uncertain origin

Definition
to love

 

Ariadne’s grandmother used to say “S’agapo, s’agapo!”: always twice, and always with uncomplicated enthusiasm. A cross on her neck, baklava in her kitchen, and soap operas playing in the background: she was a Christian woman dedicated to bake sales at the church, to God, and to Greece—even though fellow Greeks had killed her husband. It was 1943, the beginning of the Greek Civil War; the Nazis must’ve been thrilled that Greeks were occupying themselves, killing each other instead of the Germans. S’agapo, s’agapo… I love you, I love you! Although her husband’s body was never found (he was stripped and hanged in a barn, according to reliable sources), she didn’t grow bitter. She did what God ‘preferred,’ the Christian form of love: agape as ‘preference.’

Ariadne ‘prefers’ the profane.

Adam prefers his wife.

Or, rather, he’s ‘attached’ to his wife—a word used by their couples’ counsellor. Although, as Ariadne now learns, ‘attachment’ is also the Judaic form of love: chashaq, חָשַׁק, ‘be attached to, love.’

Adam’s grandfather would’ve known that word from his youth, when he studied the Torah at his Orthodox synagogue in Germany. He escaped before the war. By the time he converted to Catholicism, he was already safe in England. It was 1943. From then on—and with all his children—he would embrace Catholic doctrine with the zeal of a convert. But he suffered for his change of faith: “The Jew, more than any other, must die in order to be born again.” This was written about Adam’s grandfather.

Adam, like Ariadne, is a-religious. But he’d love the etymology: ‘love,’ in this case, meaning ‘to take delight.’

 

chashaq: delight

Original Word: חָשַׁק
Part of Speech: Verb
Transliteration: chashaq
Phonetic Spelling: (khaw-shak’)
Definition: to be attached to, love

 

  1. חָשַׁק verb be attached to, love (Late Hebrew press together, desire (rare); Aramaic חֲשַׁק bindsaddle (an ass)) —

 

Qal […] —be attached to, only figurative = love, a woman followed by בְּ Genesis 34:8 (P) Deuteronomy 21:11; […] חָשַׁקְתָּ נַפְשִׁי מִשַּׁחַת Isaiah 38:17 literally thou hast loved my soul out of the pit, i.e. lovingly delivered it; but read חָשַׂכְתָּ thou hast held back, kept, from ᵐ5 ᵑ9 Lo Ew Che Di, or חֲשׂךְ hold back (Imperative), so Du.

 

Psalm 91:14

NAS: Because he has loved Me, therefore I will deliver
KJV: Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver
INT: Because has loved will deliver will set

 

have a delight, have a desire, fillet, long, set in love

 

A primitive root; to cling, i.e. Join, (figuratively) to love, delight in; elliptically (or by interchangeable for chasak) to deliver — have a delight, (have a) desire, fillet, long, set (in) love.

 

see HEBREW chasak

 

chasak: to withhold, refrain

 

 

(γ)

 

Ariadne writes an email to Adam. She makes it light; she wants him to laugh saddle (an ass), to cling, only figurative = love It’s a farce, this email, of how she feels a primitive root; desire (rare), see HEBREW, thou hast held back.

Ariadne deletes the email.

She goes back to Bible Hub and clicks on ‘Song of Solomon.’ She hasn’t read the Song since September, those late-summer days when she was seeing Adam. The words are luscious, befitting the story: the only book in the Bible where ‘carnality’ doesn’t suggest the sexual body as meat—as abject flesh untouched by God. Carnality, here, is glorious physical desire.

 

While the king is on his couch, my perfume releases its fragrance. My love is like a sachet of myrrh, which lies all night between my breasts.

 

The first time she read that passage, Ariadne could picture the scene: the unnamed woman brought to the palace of King Solomon, who lavishes her with praise and jewels—a woman trapped by a man’s superior wealth and status. She doesn’t want the king. She wants the shepherd, a youth who entices her toward the vineyard. If the king had been the slightest bit attentive to her—a woman he supposedly loved—he would’ve sensed the betrayal. Just by breathing, he would’ve tasted it: the thick-sweet scent of the woman’s desire.

Her bouquet was so aromatic, it was almost obscene.

Ariadne relished the book in September. On those nights, when Adam touched Bryan in her mind—both men assuming the same significance, signifying the voraciousness of her desire—the Song flooded with meaning, calling together disparate affairs. As she read the Song, she’d overlay, atop the words—like a sachet which lies all night—the frequent scene from years ago, when her husband would join her in bed. When he’d pull back the sheets, and her body would reek with desire for another man. She’d half-expected her husband to accuse her. It seemed so obvious: the way she dressed; the scent of her, which mingled with the scent of him; the sudden fullness of her hair, her lips, when she came home late from poetry readings. Ariadne wasn’t ashamed: she was never ashamed with Bryan. She loved him and told him so, not caring that he never used that phrase with her. Their touch was so filled with contempt for themselves—for their bodies’ hunger—as to be exalted. Words would only cheapen it.

My love is like

But today, the passage is inert. Which is to say: the words elicit no sensation—either remembered or imagined.

Ariadne desire is deadened, deprived. She hasn’t spoken with Adam in weeks, not since he sent his email cutting it off, their ‘relationship,’ which didn’t even merit the word. Two nights before that, he’d been kissing her back at the beach. Oh, that he would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! Ariadne tries to absorb the words, the Song, but they fall hollow through her dryness.

Ariadne shoves back from her desk, disgusted by her lack of progress. She thinks she’ll walk through the park—moving her body, if only to remember she has one—but she takes an unplanned turn. She heads toward an art gallery: massive canvases, concrete floors, and the delicate Gucci glasses on the tasteful gallerist. “Thank you,” she says to the woman some time later.

“My pleasure…”

Ariadne returns to her desk.

 

(δ)

 

When you receive me, I’m neither young-and-wanting (lacking) nor me-in-my-solitude (my strength), I’m inside a secret. A garden enclosed: not Eve to her man, but the unnamed lovers of the Song. Anonymous, desirous: “Let my love come to his garden,” the woman says, “and eat its choicest fruits.” She says these words, then falls into fitful sleep.

She’s having a dream; she’s touching herself.

 

I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, on the handles of the bolt.

 

It’s a scene of private female pleasure, in the middle of the Bible. But the dream is also violent, menacing, betraying the dangers of desire. This doesn’t stop the woman, though: when she awakens, she meets her beloved in the garden. They make love beneath a canopy of trees: “His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me.” I can see them there, on the ground of dirt, and the trembling as he touches her.

The religious commentators ignore the obvious meaning of the Song: they insist it describes a Jew’s love for Israel, or a Christian’s love of the church. Here’s one typical analysis, preached to those who would be taught:

 

as by the “door” is meant the heart of the church, so by the “lock,” which fastened and kept it shut, unbelief may be designed, and by the “handles” of it lukewarmness and sluggishness, which strengthen unbelief, and keep the heart closed shut against Christ […] or it [the liquid on her fingers] may signify myrrh brought and left there by Christ; and may express the abundance of grace from him, communicated by him, to draw and allure her to him, to supple and soften her hard heart, to take off the stiffness of her will, and the rustiness of her affections, and make the lock of unbelief draw back easier, and so open a way for himself into her heart

 

I’d find this analysis humorous if it didn’t make me angry: the deliberate unfreedom. The shackling of human interpretation; the limitation of our reason—our reading—based on the depth of truth our body-psyche will allow. It infuriates me. The cowardice: to use language in the service of fear.

 

2

(α)

 

Adam,

I had the craziest writing session this afternoon… Crazy, crazy, and I want to tell you—to share it with you—to share this feeling… I couldn’t have found what I wanted to say without going to an art gallery, looking at the work of another artist who dropped me down, out of my head. It’s a gorgeous exhibition. I want to take you. Would you let me take you? The gallery is in the ’hood. Are you free on Saturday afternoon? Would you be willing to

 

(β)

 

Dear Adam,

I’m breaking my silence to tell you about an exhibition in the neighbourhood. I think you’d love it… Paterson Ewan. Do you know his work? He paints on plywood; he gouges it, carves it—you can feel the abrasion on your skin—and he nails or staples pieces of metal onto the wood… There’s such pain in his work, such longing for peace, for an end to the hurt. I don’t think he ever arrives there, but he offers it to us… I think that’s why I’m drawn to him: because

 

(γ)

 

Dear Adam,

An exhibition of Paterson Ewan’s work is up at the Olga Korper Gallery for another two weeks. I’d like to see it again. I’d also like to see you. I thought I might combine the two.

 

I’m sending this email with much hesitation… I’m not sure what your silence indicates: either you’re over me, and therefore don’t want to see me—or you want to see me too much… Either way, I feel a certain degree of humiliation in sending this note.

 

You indicated that you’ve resolved the ‘reimagine’ your relationship with [xx]. Decorum demands that I disappear. But the discrepancy between how you are when you’re with me—what you say, in words and actions—and what you conclude in your ‘break-up’ emails: that gap yawns too wide. And it’s screaming with things unsaid.

 

Of course, I could continue to sit within your cone of silence. But that feels like a violation of truth. So, I’m reaching out to ask if

 

(δ)

 

Adam,

I’ve written you a dozen emails; none struck the right tone. In the end, I’ve decided to state my thoughts clearly, without duplicity or poetry: I need to have a conversation with you—in person—so I can move on… Having said that, I should add: I don’t want you to feel trapped, or agitated, because of this unsolicited email. I won’t send anything more if I don’t hear from you.

 

As always, Adam, I hope you are happy and well…

xo, a

 

PS An exhibition of Paterson Ewan’s work is up at the Olga Korper Gallery until November 19; it’s well worth seeing, if you have the chance… I’ve attached an image, but I don’t think it captures the power of this work: the gentleness which emerges, like a gift—arising from the obvious brutality of both process and material… He gives his injury to beauty; he feels his injury, so that we might feel peace.

 

[attachment: “Gravitational Force of a Non-Rotating Heavenly Body,” Paterson Ewan, 1994]

 

 

3

(α)

 

The email comes while she’s walking through the park.

 

Dearest Ariadne- Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. I got behind on everything. October was busy, with Nathan’s birthday, Thanksgiving crazy, and hellova-lot-o-work. And suddenly November, and hellova-more-work, and next week is December (?!), so work will be interrupted by Nathan’s return from school.

 

Woe is me.

 

But WOAH! is me too. 18 years old! Breathtaking. Not sure why Nathan’s making it through this one year should mean more than any other—perhaps it’s about seeing it with very new eyes (new I).

 

I hope you’re well on this dreary afternoon.

xoA

 

It took Adam almost three weeks to send his email; Ariadne replies within the hour. She hates this impulse in herself. She answers him—responding to what he’d offered, even though he hadn’t done the same with her. He’d been polite; he’d written back. But he hadn’t addressed her, acknowledging her thoughts about the exhibition, or her request to see him… She responds to him anyway, as if they were still in dialogue.

 

How are you new, Adam Stein?

 

A question better asked, and answered, when in each other’s company. Which isn’t possible, it seems—and which I seem not to want to accept. I don’t know how to speak to you anymore; so many emotions we’re not allowed to feel…

 

Anyway, I ask my question honestly—how do you sense yourself to be new, to have changed, now that your son is on his own? I ask because you interest me, and because I still care about you. If/ when you’d like to respond, I’d be very happy to receive your thoughts.

 

I’m in the park right now. I’m sitting by the pond, watching dozens of birds glide on air currents—slow and dreamlike—motion, yet suspension of movement… Which is to say: there’s beauty, even in greyness.

a

 

 

Adam wrote back at midnight: “I want to see you,” he said.

He suggested they meet the next night.

Ariadne said yes.

When he cancelled, he said he’d text “soon” to reschedule.

Ariadne chooses not to respond. In the morning, she’ll harness the chaos of her anger—her desire—and give it to writing.

 

4

(α)

 

“O my friends, there is no friend.”

The statement torques, tending toward self-contradiction in the very act of speaking:

 

O my friends

You, whom I address

there is no friend

do not, as such, exist.

 

For ten months, Jacques Derrida began all his lectures with this phrase—a phrase reportedly uttered by Aristotle, then quoted by Diogenes, Cicero, Montaigne. Students and professors would sit to hear Derrida’s address—O my friends—as he tore down 2500 years of philosophical tradition, redefining politics as well as thought—there is no friend—viciously slashing Aristotle’s corpus with the glee I’ve come to associate with Derrida: jubilation, which is not to say joy.

In every lecture, Derrida let that statement curve, bending back (re-flection) over itself. We’re ushered into an interior impossibility: a hidden expansiveness far greater than the exterior structure ought to allow. Here, borne within this infinite enclosure, logic (logos) softens, morphs from ‘language’—as a system that’s mathematical, rational, ratio-based—into its physical, animal, intuitive: ‘meaning.’

The address, O my friends, is a ‘performative utterance’: neither true nor false, the declaration of friendship initiates a change, enacting the potency that exists between us—the potent space of friendship which precedes all possibility of us, of two: a ‘you’ and ‘I’ together. The call takes the form of an apostrophe, a ‘turning toward’: I turn toward you, my not-yet-friend, so that we might arrive—not at each other, but at ourselves. In friendship. In your call to me—your plea or prayer for my response—I come to myself as a woman or man, an ethical being, enacting the potency of humanity—engaging in the defining potential of our species: namely, our capacity for goodness.

O my friends, there is no friend.

Not now. There are not. But there will be: this is part of the appeal, the performative utterance which initiates a change. Friendship, says Derrida, belongs to an “unpresentable past as well as future”: it is, in fact, the very mode that calls the past and future together.

 

Here is what I am calling you to, answer me, it is our responsibility. Friendship is never a given in the present; it belongs to the experience of waiting, of promise or of engagement. Its discourse is that of a prayer, and at stake there is what responsibility opens to the future.

 

We wait. We wait here, having come (in the past) to an understanding, this sharing of a language, a channel for communication, a “being-together which any allocution presupposes.” We await, in hope, for a future which has already happened: a point that takes us to this spot, this present moment, where I stand—in the full force of my essence, my esse, my be-ing—I stand in this stance, in this in-stance, and I call to you. Because you can hear me. You, who can’t know me—possess me, in empathy or understanding—you can’t know me as a person, but you can know me as friendship. You can know this way of being—the love of ‘philia’—but only through me. Through this coming-together of past and future in the moment that pierces us. Tiny us. This puncture, this wound—the human body and its actions—how it responds and is responsible: this is me, as I am, because of my connection to you. O my friends: “become the friends to whom I aspire. Accede to what is at the same time a desire, a request, and a promise, we could also say, a prayer…”

“be my friends, for I love or will love you.”

 

(β)

 

I must clarify, in case my writing is misleading, unable to be neutral—to neutralize what I feel arising from his writing, his words with their unruly desires: Derrida is talking about the political. The urgency which drives his work is a rethinking of the political realm, as defined by our choice of allies and enemies—or, more abstractly, of friendship and enmity. These two terms implicate each other, forming a single field of questioning. Derrida emphasizes this point by quoting, at length, the German jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt. I take a snippet:

 

A world in which the possibility of war is utterly eliminated, a completely pacified globe, would be a world without the distinction between friend and enemy and hence a world without politics. It is conceivable that such a world might contain many very interesting antitheses and contrasts […] but there would not be a meaningful antithesis whereby men could be required to sacrifice life, authorized to shed blood, and kill other human beings. For the definition of the political, it is here irrelevant whether such a world without politics is desirable as an ideal situation.

 

It should be noted that Schmitt’s relationship to Nazism was “of the greatest complexity.”

It should also be noted that Derrida was a Sephardic Jew born in 1930.

The interrelated questions—what constitutes an enemy (someone we may kill, according to Schmitt); and what constitutes a friend (someone to whom we’re obliged to respond if called upon, according to Derrida)—are of the utmost historical significance. By overturning traditional notions of friendship and enmity, Derrida is proposing a different form of democracy, one which wouldn’t abide by a holocaust, whether it’s perpetrated by gas chambre, or nuclear bomb.

Working from the exigencies of his existence—compulsed by the energies of his intellect, his nature, and his circumstance—Derrida writes about philia in the pressing need to alter the entire political sphere.

I approach the problem smaller.

I, a woman born in safety; a writer of stories, rather than a professor of philosophy; a person seeking, almost wanting pain from the time before I could remember, if only to make the world make sense—make it come into balance: I focus on philia as love.

 

In all good sense, what you hear above all is loving; you must hear loving; you cannot fail to hear it in total confidence when the word friendship resounds: friendship consists in loving, does it not; it is a way of loving, of course. Consequence, implication: it is therefore an act before being a situation; rather, the act of loving, before being a state of being loved. An action before a passion.

In this passage, Derrida clearly flirts with the meaning of philia. I’ll go a little bit further.

Philia, as I want to read it, isn’t restricted to the political. Rather, it’s the realm of religion, morality, metaphysics. This is love. This is what it means to do philo-sophia: it means to ask why we’re here. In a world where the earth’s revolt against humankind will be more destructive than what we’ll inflict on each other directly—a world of interwoven, indirect, and global infliction, to which I contribute by virtue of the fact that I’m alive: in this world, what gives my existence a modicum of meaning? You want to live, to eat, to plug your computer into an outlet—to kill or maim or otherwise injure the life of the planet, the womb of a woman who’s picking crops: you’ll put that food in your mouth, and her mouth is breathing pesticides. You presume to warm the air, the oceans—the temperatures rising, the sea-levels rising, extinctions, migrations (the people who clamour at the border, seeking refuge from weather and war): all are rising—all so you can have the ‘life style’ to which you’ve grown accustomed?

Yes: I presume.

I want, I think, to live. So I’d better have a reason why.

This is philia as love. This is philosophy.

 

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