Valentine’s day takes as its icon the innocent, though mischievous smiling image of Cupid, plump and cute, shooting his heart-tipped arrows playfully, with love blossoming like a flower wherever the arrow lands. This image of Cupid is a far cry from the Cupid of Apuleius’s “Metamorphoses” (aka “The Golden Ass” – circa 158 AD).
In the old stories, the arrows of Eros (Eros being the pre-Romanized Cupid) are suspected to be poison. They pierce real flesh, and they hurt, inflicting the pain and torment of erotic love – not just the flush of delight – upon their target. The passionate love of Eros is understood to be a mixed blessing/curse; passion here including meanings of fury, overwhelming feeling, being acted on by external forces, and suffering. Does this not describe well the reality of erotic love?
The Cupid of Valentine’s day cards symbolizes our insistence upon maintaining an attitude of innocence toward erotic love. Erotic love, that unshakeable blessing/curse kind of love characterized by Eros, has proven too psychologically troublesome and so has been replaced by a watered down version: “romantic love,” with an angelic Cupid as its mascot.
If romantic love is bubbly and sweet, erotic love includes deception and ill intent. When one is shot with Cupid’s arrow, expect swooning. When one is shot with the arrows of Eros, expect to bleed. Watch your back. There will be suffering.
This is not to say that erotic love should be denied (as if we have a choice!), rather we should view it with appropriate humility, deep curiosity, and perhaps a healthy fear or apprehension. Cloud-bound romantic love has little to offer of the earthy depths, but erotic love is bound to psyche, to soul, and wants to take us down as much as up.
The classic tale of Eros is also the tale of Psyche; their destinies are entwined. Eros loves Psyche, and Psyche loves Eros, but their love is not exactly the “romantic” kind. Psyche is a young woman living under a curse who is whisked away to the God Eros. Their love affair begins in blindness, deception, and mistrust… and goes downhill from there. Numerous external forces exert their influence. Eros pricks himself with his own arrow and fixates on Psyche. It’s a hot mess.
Through the many trials and tribulations of their love, Eros and Psyche come to mean something extraordinary to each other. In our lives too, erotic love means something extraordinary for us psychologically, and psyche means something extraordinary for our erotic love. This is no simple equation, and no fleeting romance; the relationship between Psyche and Eros is long, profound, and rife with difficulty.
Erotic love (Eros) is attracted to psychological being (Psyche), infusing psyche with desire and beauty, but also difficulty. These difficulties are not problems to be solved as much as rites of passage to be suffered, observed, even celebrated. And psychological being too is attracted to erotic love, infusing it with greater depth, and also difficulty, and again these difficulties can be understood as necessary and ever-deepening initiations.
This is what we must remember: Erotic love hurts us, and it is necessary for psychological being. There is no point in the infantilization of erotic love (a la Valentine’s day sentimentality), other than to avoid the uncomfortable psychological deepening that erotic love demands.
Is this a pessimistic view of love? Not at all. Erotic love is a necessary and beautiful calling, but it also necessarily contains frictious elements and tragedy.
In the myth of Psyche and Eros the lovers persevere in the face of tremendous obstacles including family betrayals, attempted murders and botched suicides. The couple’s eventual triumphs are hard-won, but it isn’t their personal heroics that save them; on the contrary, they effort endlessly, as they must (as we must), but their best efforts often backfire; then when all appears to be lost, fortune smiles serendipitously upon them.
The potent relationship between Psyche and Eros is full of importance, but is difficult to understand, just as the relationship between psychological life and erotic life is important and difficult to understand. Our best option is not to attempt to explain away the impact of psyche on eros (or vice versa) from an objective distance, but rather to enter the fray personally, to experience the dark mystery itself, and to report on what we find. I wonder – What kind of Valentine’s Day cards might result?
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