Keeping House

by Michael Abraham-Fiallos

I am a messy person. 

I am a messy person, and I don’t like to clean. My house testifies to this: cups in the sink, mail on the counter, books spilling off the windowsills, too much laundry in the bin, a scattering of incense dust on the coffee table alongside burnt out candles and ephemera (an old insurance card, jewelry, more books). About twice a month, I get fed up with myself and obsessively clean the house. Or company comes, and I scramble. But the rest of the time, I subsist in my mess. My psychiatrist thinks this is a matter of motivation, of the depressive side of manic depression. It is less that and more a matter of being a wanderer somewhere else, in a place wet with rain and glistening with wildflowers, in a place where the wind is always whistling, and the sun hangs perpetually low to the horizon, casting its light yellow and fragile past the hills and across the valley. This place is a place in my own head, a space where the eros in me dwells, where my capacity to bring things forth into the world exists, where the grand feelings and the big thoughts are. In the lull of the afternoon, I find myself at my keyboard exploring myself, and I forget to run the washing machine. Or, I take long walks in the daylight to get mired in thought, and the dishes be damned. When my husband arrives home from work, there is so much to tell him, so much to show him, which has been found or made or thought up—which has been brought forth—in the wandering, so much to hear from him that might provoke tomorrow’s wandering (all my best wandering has something to do with my husband). 

Maybe what I mean is I’m lazy or perhaps distracted. It’s a cliché about scholars and writers (skola does, after all, mean “leisure”): so wrapped up in their minds that the external world around them fades into the background. In the matter of keeping house, I fit this cliché. However, there is more to keeping house than tidiness. 

I have always thought it was a funny phrase: keeping house. What is one keeping? It seems to me that one is keeping something alive, keeping something kindled, as one does a flame with one’s hand. Something precious and vibrant is meant to be kept at the center of the home, as once, not so long ago, the hearth was kept stoked to keep the home warm and habitable. Upon thinking this, I went searching for what this something might be that one keeps alive or open or warm with one’s care and attention, went searching for what it is that makes a house a house. I found the answer, as I always seem to do, in the concept of love, but in a very peculiar and striking account of what love is: what the French feminist philosopher, Luce Irigaray, calls demonic love or sorcerer love. She explicates this concept in an essay titled “L’amour Sorcier: Lecture de Platon, Le Banquet, Discours de Diotime,” rendered in English by Eleanor H. Kuykendall as “Sorcerer Love: A reading of Plato’s Symposium, Diotima’s Speech.” It appears in a volume titled Luce Irigaray in French in 1984, and Kuykendall published her translation in 1989. 

The essay by Irigaray is a philosophical exposition of the speech of Diotima, a woman philosopher lost to history, as reported in conversation by Socrates at a banquet at which Diotima is not present. As with all of Irigaray’s work, the essay may be read as a critique of phallocentrism—that is, the inherently patriarchal form of discourse—and throughout the essay, as in the original text, the opposition between Diotima’s feminine form of thought and the masculinity of Socrates’s is the primary object of consideration. It is not necessary, however, to know much of anything about Socrates to appreciate Diotima’s contribution to the philosophy of love. Throughout her conversation with Socrates (again, as always reported by Socrates) Diotima laughs at him, at the crudeness of his masculine approach to the concept of love and the apparently stagnant understanding he has of this most critical of human phenomena. According to Irigaray, Socrates declares Diotima his pedagogue, his teacher, for her views on love far eclipse his in complexity. In the beginning of their conversation, Socrates asserts that Eros is a great god, and everyone knows this, and Diotima just laughs. She wants to know who this “everyone” is. What Socrates is saying, in modern terms, is that we know already what love is; it is one of the great concepts, as apparent as a god, and needs no further elucidation. But Diotima and Irigaray (and I) disagree. 

The problem is that Socrates thinks about love as a unified thing, as limned and totally knowable. Diotima thinks very differently. For her, love is not a thing—not an emotion which pierced as an arrow does and which everyone knows—but a process that unfolds between two persons. For Diotima, love is demonic; that is, it goes between us and the gods, acts as an intermediary: “his function is to transmit to the gods what comes from men and to men what comes from the gods.” If the gods are absolute knowledge, the purest and highest form of what is—where wisdom and justice and beauty dwell—and we are absolute reality, the mean, affect-soaked stuff of the everyday earth—where desire and hatred and passion are—then, Irigaray writes, “between knowledge and reality, there is an intermediary which permits the meeting and the transmutation or transvaluation between the two.” Put more simply, there is a force that makes the abstract and the ideal touch the real and the flawed, and this force is love. 

Love, for Diotima, is the child of Plenty and of Poverty, as is keeping with his role as intermediary between opposites. Thus he is, in the words of Diotima, “rough, unkempt, unshod, and homeless, ever crouching on the ground uncovered, because he has the nature of his mother,” Poverty. “But again, in keeping with his father,” Plenty, “he has designs upon the beautiful and good, for he is bold, headlong, and intense, a mighty hunter, always weaving some device or other, eager in invention and resourceful, searching after wisdom all through life, terrible as a magician, sorcerer …” Love is so marginal, so in-between things, that Diotima even questions his immortality: “in his nature he is not immortal, nor yet mortal. No, on a given day, now he flourishes and lives, when things go well with him, and again he dies …” only to be brought back again and again, a perpetual beggar with his eyes on the stars. What is this love that Diotima has personified? Well, a philosopher: she says that love, always after the beautiful and the Good-with-a-capital-G, but always mired in the messiness of the real, “is midway between wise and ignorant,” as any philosopher must be. 

So thus we have Diotima’s Eros, god of love. He is nothing like Socrates’s mighty Eros. But, what does this ragamuffin philosopher god actually do? For this, we turn to Irigaray’s reading of Diotima. She writes, 

… she stresses the character of divine generation in every union between man and woman, the presence of the immortal in the living mortal. All love would be creation, potentially divine, a path between the condition of the mortal and that of the immortal. Love is fecund before all procreation. And it has a mediumlike, demonic fecundity. Assuring everyone, male and female, the immortal becoming of the living. But there cannot be procreation of a divine nature in what is not in harmony. And harmony with the divine is not possible for the ugly, but only for the beautiful. Thus, according to Diotima, love between man and woman is beautiful, harmonious, divine. It must be in order for procreation to take place. It is not procreation that is beautiful and that constitutes the aim of love. The aim of love is to realize the immortality in the mortality between lovers. 

Lovers are thus known, according to Irigaray, by their generative quality, their ability to bring forth into the world what before did not exist. And it is a beautiful process. Love brings the absolute luminescence of the abstract, the great shining bastions of the just and the Good, down into the mire of reality; love allows for these perfect, immortal things to be born in the painfully mortal space between lovers. “Love is fecund before all procreation”: its purpose is to bring about life but not necessarily the life of a child. No, the life that concerns love is more intense and profound than merely the life of a child, or, perhaps put better, there can be no child if there is not first life. Irigaray writes, “Fecundity of love between lovers, regeneration of one by the other, passage to immortality in one another, through one another—these seem to become the condition, not the cause, of procreation.” Love is a perpetual happening, a giving life to one another, a taste of the immortal that passes from one tongue to the other, from one hand to one shoulder, locked in a passing word or found in a long and cavernous conversation. Lovers, Irigaray argues, must “care for the place of love like a third term between them.” Only then can they remain lovers. They must keep open and fertile this space of eternal becoming in which they both share. They must always be the poor man who seeks after the beautiful, only to find it in one another. Lovers become immortal through one another; that is, they become souls in one another. And seeing the soul of another is no small occurrence. It changes, forever, how one sees the world. Irigaray imagines, with Diotima, that one who loves “a single beautiful body passes, then, to many; and thence to the beauty of souls.” In loving another—a single other—we come to understand the value and the worth of others in general. Love is our teacher in ethics; through it, we come to know “that to be just is to know how to care for that person” whom we love “and to engender beautiful discourses for him.” Love perfects our speech; it makes us fountains of beautiful knowledge to one another. It allows us to enter into a long and circuitous dialogue, a dialogic form of life, which brings forth what before was only potential, only possible, and then to make it real. This is what makes love demonic or a form of sorcery: it has the ineffable quality of making life anew over and over again, of passing back and forth between the immortal and the mortal and bringing the former into the latter to renew and regenerate.

I want to pause to reflect on how often in this column I have written about love. Perhaps it is an obsession. It is probably an obsession. But, you see, I am busy keeping house; that is, I am engaged on the daily with holding open a space in the mortal for the immortal to pass into, a place in the meanness of reality for the luminous essences of the imaginary to manifest. This is a monumental struggle for someone like me, who is bipolar and generally difficult; I have to work at it. When Irigaray writes that lovers must consciously hold open the space of love like a third term between them, she means that love is a form of work. I write about it so often because it is, in some ways, the work of being a human among other humans. It is that which refreshes and rejuvenates us, which makes us constantly new and surprising to one another. I am currently pursuing a PhD in English, and my dissertation is about the different forms of love one can find in American modernism. The more that I investigate the history of the relational dynamics of people’s lives and families, as well as the ways in which people write about love, the more I discover that love has no rules—that, indeed, like a ragamuffin philosopher shoeless before the stars, its role is to ponder the possibilities of what might be and then to manifest those in relation to others. It opens us to new experiences; it is, in fact (and I think this is what Irigaray is getting at), the font of new experience itself. 

The thing about love is that it strikes most people as uncritical and twee. However, looked at from this perspective, it is shocking that we write about anything other than love. It is the fundamental critical concept, the one that underlies all of the others. For, without an interest and investment in love, how do we question justice or ethics? Without the passageway to the value of the soul that love opens up, how do we understand the ways in which we ought act to one another? Most importantly, without love’s demonic capacity to transform the space between two people into a space rife with possibility and becoming, how do we imagine that we might be any better to one another than we currently are? To engage in complex and deep thought about love is to begin to strike at the real stuff between people, what people are capable of producing through their relations to each other—what, in the most truly erotic sense, they can bring forth into reality that was not there before. 

Thus, I am busy keeping house. Ironically, I began this essay on one of those fed-up cleaning days. But it is not by cleaning that I am really keeping my house alive. It is by holding open the place of transformation with my partner, by keeping an eye on the horizon of possibility. It is by becoming a philosopher poor in wealth but rich in aspiration toward wisdom and beauty that I keep kindled the flame that acts as the centripetal point around which my life spins. I dwell perhaps a little too often in that internal space, that imaginary valley full of wind and flowers, where the erotic and demonic possibility of conjuring up the essence of life, of the Good stuff of life, exists, and it is in this dwelling that I find meaning and sureness of footing, that I find a house in which to be. 


Citation: Luce Irigaray, “Sorcerer Love: A Reading of Plato’s Symposium, Diotima’s Speech,” trans. Eleanor H. Kuykendall, Hypatia 3, no. 3 (1989), pp. 32-44.