Updated: Aug 31
“For one who looks at beauty in the only way that beauty can be seen, only then will it become possible for him to give birth not to images of virtue, because he's in touch with no images, but to true virtue, because he is in touch with true beauty” (Diotima as quoted in Plato’s Symposium, p. 274)
Eros can be studied through many perspectives including philosophical rhetoric and artistic expression. Whether through cultural practices in Indigenous communities (Rifkin, 2012) or through the words of feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde (1984), who defines eros as “the personification of love in all its aspects” (p. 89), ontological analysis of eros has been a prevalent discourse throughout human history. What exactly is eros, and who ultimately defines how a society uses eros as a cultural understanding? According to Greek mythology, Eros is the God of love. The son of Aphrodite, he was prayed to in an effort to win the “love of the beloved” (Mills, 2003, p. 38). In Ancient Greece eros, philia, and agape, were used to describe what the English language now refers to as love. Each word describing a different component of love with eros encompassing sexual love, philia embracing love of family and friends, and finally agape celebrating spiritual love. Eros as a sexual love is an intimate and personal experience. How does one learn about the meaning of eros to their personal identity?
Informed from philosophical insights from Freud and Foucault, the meaning of eros has taken on different elements depending upon its usage in academic discourse or the colloquial lexicon. Freud’s role was to “reawaken us to the mythological memories still alive in our unconscious, and also to that capacity for mythopoeic thought reflected in the form of unconscious processes” (Downing, 1975, p. 4). Foucault (1978) posits towards a positionality of power in the role eros plays in society, stating “what sustains our eagerness to speak of sex in terms of repression is doubtless this opportunity to speak out against the powers that be, to utter truths and promise bliss, to link together enlightenment, liberation, and manifold pleasures; to pronounce a discourse that combines the fervor of knowledge, the determination to change the laws, and the longing for the garden of earthly delights” (k. 101).
Further inquiry into the phenomenology of eros exists in examining the role literature and pop-culture plays into the discourse. Credited as being one of the most important works of literature on the subject of love (Halperin, 1984), Plato’s Symposium (360 B.C.E.) “fuses the erotics of sexuality, the erotics of conversation, and the erotics of philosophical inquiry” (Halperin, p. 80). In his anecdotal tale, the scene is set for six friends to share their viewpoints on the definition of eros. Pausanias, Phaedrus, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Agathon, and Socrates share their opinions which range from the acknowledgement of God as the source of eros, and the idea that the eros we experience is rooted in our quest to find our other half.
Plato’s work is an important contribution to the embodiment of eros and parallels as an analogy to the work of the artist Madonna whose work also explores the embodiment of eros. In works such as Erotica, Justify My Love, and Like a Virgin, Madonna explores eros as the dominatrix and the virgin. She engages the public in an open dialogue of sexuality including love, eros, community, gender, and spirituality. She is a modern day Diotima, a musical priestess extrapolating the virtues of love, sex, and intimacy through God, community, and mother-hood and ultimately the eros of self-love.
Why the Symposium?
“All people are pregnant, said Diotima, their bodies are pregnant, their souls are pregnant, oh how they want to give birth with all their might. Beauty is childbirth. Birth is beautiful” (Krull, 2011).
Among philosophic works, “Plato's Symposium has been a particularly appealing text for visual presentation “because of its essentially dramatic form” (Sypniewski, 2009, p. 560). Additionally, “social historians have been accustomed to treat the Symposium…as [a] prime source of information about the theory and practice of sex in ancient Greece” (Halperin, 1986, p. 61). Plato's praise of eros has become “a philosophical discussion of being that redefines the relationship not simply between human erotic partners, male-female as well as male-male, but even the relationship between human and divine” (Evans, p. 2). In the Symposium, Plato provides a cultural context for the theories expounded by the symposiasts; Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Agathon, Aristophanes, and Socrates. A significant element of this cultural context is “the high incidence of male homosexual love and the considerable appreciation of male beauty” (Santos, 1979, p. 68). Of the six symposiasts, who share their vision of eros, “four are erotically involved” (Salman, 1991, p. 214) and include Phaedrus and Eryximachus and Pausanias and Agathon. The many embedded layers of the Symposium, “heighten our mythical sense” (Sypniewski, p. 568), and gives not only “the logical understandings of eros, but also the drama of eros” (Salaman, p. 215).
Set against the backdrop of an intimate gathering of male friends, the Symposium has been credited as one of the most important literary works depicting love (Halperin, 1990). In Plato’s work, the symposiasts take turns sharing their perspectives on eros, culminating in a speech made by Socrates where he recounts his lesson in eros by the priestess, Diotima of Mantineia. Hers is the only perspective shared that evening which focuses on eros from a feminist perspective. It has been argued (Halperin, 1990) Diotima’s presence in the Symposium serves as a feminist narrative against the male centric perspective of ancient Greece. The name Diotima means “Zeus-Honor, either in the active sense of a woman who honors Zeus, or in the passive sense of a woman honored by Zeus” (Evans, 2006, p. 8). Though never proven to be an actual person, Diotima in scholarly discourse is known as being a “mystagogue who initiated individuals into her mysteries, mediating to humans esoteric edge of the divine” (Evans, 2006, p. 1). She leads Socrates to realize that “initiates into her rites of love will, in loving their beloved, see Being and thereby enter into a new, mutual relation with the divine…both loving the divine and beloved of the divine” (Evans, p. 9). Diotima’s lesson demonstrated to Socrates that eros was neither beautiful nor good. Rather, eros is “the love of something, and since eros is the love of something, and since eros would not love something that it already securely had, eros cannot posses beauty or goodness. Instead eros loves what is beautiful and good, eros loves what it lacks and desires to possess forever what it currently lacks. This makes eros neither beautiful nor good” (Evans, p. 9). Diotima teaches Socrates that humans can achieve a different kind of immortality through eros by giving birth, and raising children, thus creating a “social deathlessness” (Evans, p. 14). Diotima teaches that “as the lover loves the beloved, and looks upon him or her, the lover also learns to recognize the beauty of one person in the beauty of another, and next the beauty of another in the beauty of all. Gazing at the beloved leads the lover to gaze at all creation” (Evan, p. 18). She concludes stating, “the nature of eros more closely resembles the nature of the eron (the lover) than that of the eromenos (the beloved)” (as quoted in Halperin, p. 74).
“When you call my name, its like a little prayer. I’m down on my knees, I want to take you there. In the midnight hour, I can feel your power. Just like a prayer, you know I’ll take you there” (M. Ciccone, S. Bray, P. Leonard, 1989).
When I was a child I used to have a crazy fantasy life. I would pretend I was Madonna. My room was the “La Isla Bonita” (1984) and if you crossed that “Borderline” (1983), you better be ready for me to “Dress You Up”. “You See” I wasn’t “Like a Virgin” (1984), I was a virgin. My sexual impulses were “True Blue” (1986). I was “Burning Up”(1982) with up desire. I had to let go of my “White Heat” (1984) and “Justify My Love” (1990). My mom used to catch me dressed up in black clothes, plastic arm bracelets, ratted hair and crucifixes on. She would say, “Roger, why are you doing this to me?” I would look her into her eyes and say, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” (1997). Then I would get down on my knees and say something that sounded “Like a Prayer” (1989). I would pretend that God would come and “Rescue Me” (1990). He would take me in his arms and my “Rebel Heart”(2014) would no longer be “Frozen” (1997). I would say, "you know God, you may be my “Lucky Star” (1983), but “Papa Don’t Preach” (1986) ‘cuz I’m just trying to get "Into the Groove” (1985). When I discovered “Erotica” (1992), I found a “Substitute for Love” (1997). As the “Rain” (1992) came I had to “Keep it Together” (1989) and deepened into my “Skin” , (1997), my “Sex” (2014) caressing the “Music” (2000) that flows through this dance we call life. I learned to go “Deeper and Deeper” (1992) into the pursuit of my authentic self and discovered the “Secret” (1994) to life does not lie in a “Bedtime Story” (1995). “In This Life” (1992) we must “Hold Tight” (2014) and “Cherish” (1989) the belief that “Nothing Fails” (2003) if we continue to pursue a “Ray of Light” (1997).
For millions of people around the world (this author included), Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone served as an introduction to eros and the embodiment of sexuality. Her early HIV/AIDS advocacy brought awareness to the pandemic and created dialogues that fostered diversity and equal rights for LGBT people. Madonna once said, “sex makes the world go round” (as quoted in Rutherford, 2007, p. 173) and her rebellious attitude inspired a generation. Signed by Sire Records in 1981, Madonna’s pedagogical artistry included a “simulated sexual frenzy” (Rutherford, p. 175) at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards where she performed her evocative single “Like a Virgin” decked out in a white-lace wedding gown while gyrating across the stage. Since then she has fashioned herself a constant player on the world stage. She brought eros into the homes of millions of people around the world making herself and her record companies millions of dollars in return.
The evolution of Madonna’s transient identity reflects her “fragmentary iteration with culture” (Tsanev, 2006, p. 84). She has explored the variances of love through music, film, photography, and live performance. Madonna’s representation of the feminine and the masculine reveal a moment toward the establishment of specific politics in relation to both the masculine and the feminine, yet she “conforms to traditional gender roles which function within a patriarchal ideology and are further confined to heterosexual norms” (Tsanev, p. 85). One aspect of Madonna’s art is the control of the masculine through the removal of masculine characters as the center of attention, which “effectively marginalizes the masculine and normalizes the feminine” (Tsanev, p. 87). With the focus on Madonna she makes herself the object of the male gaze, an indicator of a certain type of postmodern feminist politics in which she chooses to be an object from the desire and has control over her gaze at the view. She controls positions because “her exhibitionistic pleasure is equal to, or greater than, the voyeuristic pleasure of the spectator” (Tsanev, p. 86). Madonna plays with the rejection of the "heteronormative constructions of Western culture" and her fluidity grants her “manipulation of the hegemonic establishments and ultimately contributes to her iconic status” (Tsanev, p. 87).
Madonna’s eros is both performed through music, film, and live performance and performative, further illustrated in Judith Butler’s (2013) theory of performativity. Butler states that for something to be performative it needs to produce a series of effects. She further shares that society holds the belief that we feel gender from an internal perspective. Madonna suggests ways of “appropriating rebellious masculine youth culture, both preserving and subverting femininity, mitigating the adolescent disempowerment of the female position” (Freccero, 1992, p. 164). Madonna “obtained power by supposedly encroaching on male domains, by complying with existing patriarchal structures, distancing herself from other woman and not conforming to traditional notions of gender” (Leung, 1991, p. 34). Madonna has been called “the future of feminism” (Paglia, 1988, p. 169) and embodies the eternal values of beauty and pleasure. “Feminists say no more masks, Madonna says we are nothing but masks” (Paglia, p. 169). Paglia posits, “Madonna is a true feminist. She exposes the puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism [and] has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while exercising total control over their lives” (p. 168).
Now over three decades in the public eye, Madonna continues to brandish evocative stage performances with a top selling tour in 2014/2015 titled The Rebel Heart Tour with estimates of over $85 million dollars grossed and over nine million people across the globe attending one of her shows. While no longer a powerhouse of the radio charts, her recent single, “Bitch, I’m Madonna” , (2014), garnered over two hundred million views on YouTube. Having made controversy a part of her appeal, Madonna has and continues to use sex as a pedagogical tool, marketing eros through music. She became the first artist to ever release a video single after MTV refused to play her video, “Justify My Love” (, 1990),which had been deemed pornographic. She earned a reported five million dollars from Pepsi for filming a television commercial (featuring her song “Like a Prayer” (1989)) that was later banned due to its simulated sex between Madonna and a black Jesus figure. Her book Sex, which depicted the artist in various states of nudity and sexual play, became a best seller on the New York Times. Her thirteen studio albums and ten world tours adding to her pedagogical artistry that continues to inspire her fans and provoke her naysayers. With all of her accomplishments, it can be understood why Madonna has played a pivotal role in the dissemination of eros to the masses.
Eros & Erotica
“My name is Dita. I’ll be your mistress tonight” (M. Ciccone, 1989).
Madonna serves as a plausible metaphor to Diotima of Mantineia because both women’s voices are critical in the discourse around eros, a field dominated by men. Both the Symposium and Madonna have been subjugated for their perspectives on eros and neither shy away from the controversy. Diotima’s role in the Symposium offers a sharp contrast to the homoerotic lamentations by the symposiasts, and isf of important significance given the Athenian perspective on the role women play in society. Madonna continues to be evocative in a male dominated industry, bringing a much-needed feminist objectivity to popular culture. Madonna’s music can be used as a discursive analysis of eros through the speeches presented at the Symposium and offers a discourse centered not only in feminist and queer theory, but also of artistic and creative expression.
"Erotica" (1992) serves as a persuasive opening for the Symposium. Madonna states, “I’d like to put you in a trance” a correlation with the priestess Diotima metaphor. She asks, “if I take you from behind, push myself into your mind, when you least expect it, would you try to reject it?”, which offers an easement into the idea of eros as presented in the Symposium, mainly homosexual love.
Phaedrus presented the first encomium to eros, which “associated love with death as it relates to war and battle” (Saxonhouse, 1984, p. 14). Phaedrus further believes “eros is useful because it provides the basic, vital energy for all of our pursuits” (Moore, 2009, p. 44). His speech implores Eros as among the oldest of Gods, after Chaos and Earth. This age of Eros is important as Phaedrus states, “I can hardly point to a greater good for someone to have from youth onward then a good lover, and for a lover, a beloved” (Plato, p. 240). In “Die Another Day” (2002), , Madonna reflects upon death as something that can be put off and implores the listeners to “analyze this”, an apparent nod to Freudian rhetoric on reality. For Freud, the reality principle “does not abandon the intention of ultimately obtaining pleasure, but it nevertheless demands and carries into effect the postponement of satisfaction . . . as a step on the long indirect road to pleasure” (Sigler, 2006, p. 83). She speaks of death as a way to “wake up my ego” and posits “I’m gonna suspend my senses and delay my pleasure.” In "Gang Bang". (2012), Madonna furthers the association of love with death stating, “you were building my coffin, you were driving my hearse” and boasts of shooting her lover. These songs echo Phaedrus’s perspective of eros by incorporating the idea that love of the other will have fatal implications.
Pausanias’s speech centers on how “love of the soul characterizes the good and heavenly love, while love of the body characterizes the bad and popular love” leading to “the lover feeling compelled to prefer the soul to the body, and undertake the development of another soul” (Moore, p. 45). Madonna calls forth heavenly love in “Like a Prayer" (1989)”, when she states “I close my eyes, Oh God I think I’m falling” referencing the feeling of disembodiment associated with falling in love. Madonna’s “Body Shop” (2014) offers a counterpoint narrative extrapolating on the pleasure of the body as a way to the heavenly. She sings, “you can keep it over night, you can do whatever you like” and “you can polish the headlights, you can smooth out the fender”. The song is an analogy of devotion to the industrial revolution and the mechanization of man, themes not too distant from the eros of Pausanias, who also incorporates an urban perspective.
Eryximachus emphasizes love's role within the context of the whole of nature. According to him, what is needed is the careful balancing of opposites. He is represented as a doctor, and among his interest is the double eros of the nature of bodies stating, “the art of medicine is knowledge of the erotics of the body in regard to repletion and evacuation” (Plato, p 247). Additionally, Eryximachus appreciates art and music for its “creation of harmony out of opposites” (Saxonhouse, p. 16) and posits “music is the knowledge of erotic things about harmony and rhythm” (Plato, p. 248). In the song “Music”(2000), Madonna proliferates, “music makes the people come together” and in “Skin” (1997) she uses the erotics of the body to state, “put your hand on my skin, I’m walking on a thin line. Do I know you from somewhere, why do you leave me wanting more?” The parallel to Eryximachus is in the creation of the harmonious longing of touch and desire that can only be satiated through the physical body.
Aristophanes too talks of bodies, in a different manner than Eryximachus. Aristophanes “talks of male bodies, of female bodies, of navels and of privy parts, of holes and the filling of holes” (Saxonhouse, p. 18). He “talks of the problem of completion, of our search for wholeness, our desire to possess that which we lack” (Saxonhouse, p. 18), thus we arrive at the conclusion that eros is not a god who drives us on an endless pursuit of what we lack. His tale of eros involves a splitting, and recognition of a third sex. Aristophanes proclaims, “human beings have had, inborn in themselves, eros for one another – eros, the bringer-together of their ancient nature, who tries to make one out of two and heal their human nature” (Plato, p. 252). Madonna’s “Human Nature” (1994) is an invitation to “express yourself, don’t repress yourself”. She asks, “did I say something wrong? Oops, I didn’t know I could talk about sex. I’m not sorry” In “Mer Girl” (1997), Madonna sings, “I ran to the forest, I ran to the trees. I ran and I ran, I was looking for me”. “Mer Girl” (1997) parallels Aristophanes’ speech because it evokes a unification of a splitting, whereas “Human Nature” (1994) speaks to grandiosity, a boldness in creative expression as similarly expressed by Aristophanes.
Agathon's notion is that all gods are happy and eros is happiest of them all. He is also the youngest god and thus “always with and of the young” (Plato, p. 256). Eros settles wherever there is beauty and states, “the greatest thing is that eros neither commits injustice nor has injustice done to him, neither against a god, nor by a god, neither against a human being nor by a human being” (Plato, p. 257). Finally, eros “empties us of estrangement [and] fills us with attachment” (Plato, 258). Agathon “celebrates eros as the possessor and dispenser of everything good” (Edelstein, 1945, p. 93). Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger” (1999) offers a parallel by speaking to the beauty of love. She sings, “to know you is to love you. You’re everywhere I go, and everybody knows. To love you is to be part of you” (M. Ciccone and W. Orbit, 1996). In “Masterpiece” (2012), Madonna once again speaks to the eros of beauty proclaiming, “it seems to me what you are, is a rare and priceless work of art. Stay behind your velvet rope, I will not renounce all hope” (M. Ciccone, 2012). Madonna’s work is largely focused on the eros of beauty. In addition to “Beautiful Stranger” (1996) and “Masterpiece”(2012), she channels Agathon in “Crazy for You” (1984), “True Blue” (1986), “Cherish” (1989), “Amazing” (2000), “I’m Addicted” (2012), “Holy Water” (2014), and “Ray of Light” (1997).
The final speaker of the evening, Socrates, is perhaps best suited to position the work of Madonna as a metaphor to Plato’s Symposium. In the speech of Socrates, the world is introduced to Diotima of Mantineia, a priestess in Athenia who we have previously paralleled to Madonna. With Diotima as muse, Madonna transcends beyond music and cements her status as a pedagogical icon who invites wary seekers respite from the vagrancies of love. Diotima and Madonna play an integral role in how we understand eros, they are what Herman Hesse (1984) calls an enigma for the contemplative.
Like Agathon’s speech, Diotima too implores beauty as a core identity of eros. She challenges Socrates to see that if something is not beautiful, it does not automatically make it ugly. She also speaks to the idea of pregnancy as an experience of giving birth to our burdens, thus a concept both men and women could identify with. Eros is immortal and the only way to achieve immortality, according to Diotima, is through children. Her comments have been analyzed (Halperin, 1984) to deduce heterosexual sex to an act based upon biological necessity and homosexual sex to where one would find the eros of sexual pleasure. In her version of eros, she believes that love is an appropriation, we love beautiful things so they will be ours. She states, “for one who looks at beauty in the only way that beauty can be seen, only then will it become possible for him to give birth not to images of virtue, because he's in touch with no images, but to true virtue, because he is in touch with true beauty” (Plato, p. 274). On “Inside Out”, Madonna tells her lover “you’re beautiful when you’re broken down, let your walls crumble to the ground” (M. Ciccone, 2014). This phrase echoes Diotima’s challenge of seeing beyond the beautiful and recognizing the space in between. Madonna’s “Rain” recalls a moments with where she feels connected to love, “feel it on my fingertips, hear it on my window pane” with rain serving as a metaphor for male ejaculate. In "Rain", Madonna reiterates Diotima's encomium on eros by recognizing the beauty in the act of love through intercourse and orgasm. On “Falling Free” (2012), Madonna laments, “see our hearts are intertwined, and then I’m free, I’m free of mine. Deep and pure our hearts align, and then I’m free, I’m free of mine. When I let go the need to know, then we’re both free, we’re free to go”. Here she interjects a position that penetrative sexleads to unification and wholeness. In “Rain” (1997) and “Falling Free” (2012), Madonna reiterates Diotima’s encomium on eros by recognizing the beauty in the act of love through intercourse and orgasm.
There is no definitive answer to the true definition of eros. Halperin (1984) posits, “eros is not static: unlike what we sometimes mean today by love, it is not a stable condition but a movement of the soul driven by need and deprivation toward productivity and self-realization; it is the name we give to the desire and pursuit of the whole” (p. 74). Engagement with the fluid nature of eros creates an inquiry into the role eros plays in individual experiences and in cultural and social norms. Literature and music has stood the test of time as to their capacity to deepen epistemological questioning. Using the Symposium and the music of Madonna to explore the concept of eros is not as far as a stretch as one may have imagined. In the intersection of literature and music we can find the mythology of eros and be carried away by the cadence of a phrase and the rhythm of a song. The eros that is explored in this paper is but one entry point into the vast discourse. I feel perhaps what is most important is how we understand and then ultimately how we embody the concept of eros. Love can be found in the analytical or the profound. Love resides in the urban jungles as well as the rainforests. Love is active in literature and alive in music. Without love we might lose the very essence of what makes us human. We cannot live with nor live without it. Love is an “Unapologetic Bitch” (2014), as Madonna would say.
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