Essays On Sappho

One day not long after New Year’s, 2012, an antiquities collector approached an eminent Oxford scholar for his opinion about some brownish, tattered scraps of writing. The collector’s identity has never been revealed, but the scholar was Dirk Obbink, a MacArthur-winning classicist whose specialty is the study of texts written on papyrus—the material, made of plant fibres, that was the paper of the ancient world. When pieced together, the scraps that the collector showed Obbink formed a fragment about seven inches long and four inches wide: a little larger than a woman’s hand. Densely covered with lines of black Greek characters, they had been extracted from a piece of desiccated cartonnage, a papier-mâché-like plaster that the Egyptians and Greeks used for everything from mummy cases to bookbindings. After acquiring the cartonnage at a Christie’s auction, the collector soaked it in a warm water solution to free up the precious bits of papyrus.

Judging from the style of the handwriting, Obbink estimated that it dated to around 200 A.D. But, as he looked at the curious pattern of the lines—repeated sequences of three long lines followed by a short fourth—he saw that the text, a poem whose beginning had disappeared but of which five stanzas were still intact, had to be older.

Much older: about a thousand years more ancient than the papyrus itself. The dialect, diction, and metre of these Greek verses were all typical of the work of Sappho, the seventh-century-B.C. lyric genius whose sometimes playful, sometimes anguished songs about her susceptibility to the graces of younger women bequeathed us the adjectives “sapphic” and “lesbian” (from the island of Lesbos, where she lived). The four-line stanzas were in fact part of a schema she is said to have invented, called the “sapphic stanza.” To clinch the identification, two names mentioned in the poem were ones that several ancient sources attribute to Sappho’s brothers. The text is now known as the “Brothers Poem.”

Remarkably enough, this was the second major Sappho find in a decade: another nearly complete poem, about the deprivations of old age, came to light in 2004. The new additions to the extant corpus of antiquity’s greatest female artist were reported in papers around the world, leaving scholars gratified and a bit dazzled. “Papyrological finds,” as one classicist put it, “ordinarily do not make international headlines.”

But then Sappho is no ordinary poet. For the better part of three millennia, she has been the subject of furious controversies—about her work, her family life, and, above all, her sexuality. In antiquity, literary critics praised her “sublime” style, even as comic playwrights ridiculed her allegedly loose morals. Legend has it that the early Church burned her works. (“A sex-crazed whore who sings of her own wantonness,” one theologian wrote, just as a scribe was meticulously copying out the lines that Obbink deciphered.) A millennium passed, and Byzantine grammarians were regretting that so little of her poetry had survived. Seven centuries later, Victorian scholars were doing their best to explain away her erotic predilections, while their literary contemporaries, the Decadents and the Aesthetes, seized on her verses for inspiration. Even today, experts can’t agree on whether the poems were performed in private or in public, by soloists or by choruses, or, indeed, whether they were meant to celebrate or to subvert the conventions of love and marriage. The last is a particularly loaded issue, given that, for many readers and scholars, Sappho has been a feminist heroine or a gay role model, or both. “As far as I knew, there was only me and a woman called Sappho,” the critic Judith Butler once remarked.

Now the first English translation of Sappho’s works to include the recent finds has appeared: “Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works” (Cambridge), with renderings by Diane J. Rayor and a thoroughgoing introduction by André Lardinois, a Sappho specialist who teaches in the Netherlands. (Publication of the book was delayed by several months to accommodate the “Brothers Poem.”) It will come as no surprise to those who have followed the Sappho wars that the new poems have created new controversies.

The greatest problem for Sappho studies is that there’s so little Sappho to study. It would be hard to think of another poet whose status is so disproportionate to the size of her surviving body of work.

We don’t even know how much of her poetry Sappho actually wrote down. The ancients referred to her works as melê, “songs.” Composed to be sung to the accompaniment of a lyre—this is what “lyric” poetry meant for the Greeks—they may well have been passed down from memory by her admirers and other poets before being committed at last to paper. (Or whatever. One fragment, in which the poet calls on Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to come into a charming shrine “where cold water ripples through apple branches, the whole place shadowed in roses,” was scribbled onto a broken clay pot.) Like other great poets of the time, she would have been a musician and a performer as well as a lyricist. She was credited with having invented a certain kind of lyre and the plectrum.

Four centuries after her death, scholars at the Library of Alexandria catalogued nine “books”—papyrus scrolls—of Sappho’s poems, organized primarily by metre. Book 1, for instance, gathered all the poems that had been composed in the sapphic stanza—the verse form Obbink recognized in the “Brothers Poem.” This book alone reportedly contained thirteen hundred and twenty lines of verse; the contents of all nine volumes may have amounted to some ten thousand lines. So much of Sappho was circulating in antiquity that one Greek author, writing three centuries after her death, confidently predicted that “the white columns of Sappho’s lovely song endure / and will endure, speaking out loud . . . as long as ships sail from the Nile.”

By the Middle Ages, nearly everything had disappeared. As with much of classical literature, texts of her work existed in relatively few copies, all painstakingly transcribed by hand. Over time, fire, flood, neglect, and bookworms—to say nothing of disapproving Church Fathers—took their devastating toll. Market forces were also at work: as the centuries passed, fewer readers—and fewer scribes—understood Aeolic, the dialect in which Sappho composed, and so demand for new copies diminished. A twelfth-century Byzantine scholar who had hoped to write about Sappho grumbled that “both Sappho and her works, the lyrics and the songs, have been trashed by time.”

Until a hundred years ago or so, when papyrus fragments of her poems started turning up, all that remained of those “white columns of Sappho’s song” was a handful of lines quoted in the works of later Greek and Roman authors. Some of these writers were interested in Lesbos’s most famous daughter for reasons that can strike us as comically arcane: the only poem that has survived in its entirety—a playful hymn to Aphrodite in which the poet calls upon the goddess to be her “comrade in arms” in an erotic escapade—was saved for posterity because the author of a first-century-B.C. treatise called “On the Arrangement of Words” admired her handling of vowels. At present, scholars have catalogued around two hundred and fifty fragments, of which fewer than seventy contain complete lines. A great many consist of just a few words; some, of a single word.

The common theme of most ancient responses to Sappho’s work is rapturous admiration for her exquisite style or for her searing content, or both. An anecdote from a later classical author about the Athenian legislator Solon, a contemporary of Sappho’s and one of the Seven Sages of Greece, is typical:

Solon of Athens, son of Execestides, after hearing his nephew singing a song of Sappho’s over the wine, liked the song so much that he told the boy to teach it to him. When someone asked him why he was so eager, he replied, “so that I may learn it and then die.”

Plato, whose attitude toward literature was, to say the least, vexed—he thought most poetry had no place in the ideal state—is said to have called her the “Tenth Muse.” The scholars at the Library of Alexandria enshrined her in their canon of nine lyric geniuses—the only woman to be included. At least two towns on Lesbos vied for the distinction of being her birthplace; Aristotle reports that she “was honored although she was a woman.”

All this buzz is both titillating and frustrating, stoking our appetite for a body of work that we’re unable to read, much less assess critically: imagine what the name Homer would mean to Western civilization if all we had of the Iliad and the Odyssey was their reputations and, say, ninety lines of each poem. The Greeks, in fact, seem to have thought of Sappho as the female counterpart of Homer: he was known as “the Poet,” and they referred to her as “the Poetess.” Many scholars now see her poetry as an attempt to appropriate and “feminize” the diction and subject matter of heroic epic. (For instance, the appeal to Aphrodite to be her “comrade in arms”—in love.)

The good news is that the surviving fragments of Sappho bear out the ancient verdict. One fine example is her best-known verse, known to classicists as Fragment 31, which consists of four sapphic stanzas. (They appear below in my own translation.) These were singled out by the author of a first-century-A.D. literary treatise called “On the Sublime” for the way in which they “select and juxtapose the most striking, intense symptoms of erotic passion.” Here the speaker expresses her envy of the men who, presumably in the course of certain kinds of social occasions, have a chance to talk to the girl she yearns for:

He seems to me an equal of the gods—
whoever gets to sit across from you
and listen to the sound of your sweet speech
so close to him,

to your beguiling laughter: O it makes my
panicked heart go fluttering in my chest,
for the moment I catch sight of you there’s no
speech left in me,

but tongue gags—: all at once a faint
fever courses down beneath the skin,
eyes no longer capable of sight, a thrum-
ming in the ears,

and sweat drips down my body, and the shakes
lay siege to me all over, and I’m greener
than grass, I’m just a little short of dying,
I seem to me;

but all must be endured, since even a pauper . . .

Even without its final lines (which, maddeningly, the author of the treatise didn’t go on to quote), it’s a remarkable work. Slyly, the speaker avoids physical description of the girl, instead evoking her beauty by detailing the effect it has on the beholder; the whole poem is a kind of reaction shot. The verses subtly enact the symptoms they describe: as the poet’s faculties fail one by one in the overpowering presence of her beloved, the outside world—the girl, the man she’s talking to—dissolves and disappears from the poem, too, leaving the speaker in a kind of interior echo chamber. The arc from “he seems to me” in the first line to the solipsistic “I seem to me” at the end says it all.

Even the tiniest scraps can be potent, as Rayor’s lucid and comprehensive translation makes clear. (Until now, the most noteworthy English version to include renderings of virtually every fragment was “If Not, Winter,” the 2002 translation by the poet and classicist Anne Carson.) To flip through these truncated texts is a strangely moving experience, one that has been compared to “reading a note in a bottle”:

You came, I yearned for you,
and you cooled my senses that burned with desire

or

love shook my senses
like wind crashing on mountain oaks

or

Maidenhood, my maidenhood, where have you gone
leaving me behind?
Never again will I come to you, never again

or—the lines in which the notion of desire as “bittersweet” appears for the first time in Western literature—

Once again Love, that loosener of limbs,
bittersweet and inescapable, crawling thing,
seizes me.

The very incompleteness of the verses can heighten the starkness of the emotions—a fact that a number of contemporary classicists and translators have made much of. For Stanley Lombardo, whose “Sappho: Poems and Fragments” (2002) offers a selection of about a quarter of the fragments, the truncated remains are like “beautiful, isolated limbs.” Thomas Habinek, a classicist at the University of Southern California, has nicely summed up this rather postmodern aspect of Sappho’s appeal: “The fragmentary preservation of poems of yearning and separation serves as a reminder of the inevitable incompleteness of human knowledge and affection.”

In Sappho’s biography, as in her work, gaps predominate. A few facts can be inferred by triangulating various sources: the poems themselves, ancient reference works, citations in later classical writers who had access to information that has since been lost. The “Suda,” a tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia of ancient culture, which is the basis of much of our information, asserts that Sappho “flourished” between 612 and 608 B.C.; from this, scholars have concluded that she was born around 640. She was likely past middle age when she died, since in at least one poem she complains about her graying hair and cranky knees.

Although her birthplace cannot be verified, Sappho seems to have lived mostly in Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos. Just across the strip of water that separates Lesbos from the mainland of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) was the opulent city of Sardis, the capital of Lydia. Some classicists have argued that the proximity of Lesbos to this lush Eastern trading hub helps to explain Sappho’s taste for visual gorgeousness and sensual luxury: the “myrrh, cassia, and frankincense,” the “bracelets, fragrant / purple robes, iridescent trinkets, / countless silver cups, and ivory” that waft and glitter in her lines, often in striking counterpoint to their raw emotionality.

Mytilene was constantly seething with political and social dramas occasioned by rivalries and shifting alliances among aristocratic clans. Sappho belonged to one of these—there’s a fragment in which she chastises a friend “of bad character” for siding with a rival clan—and a famous literary contemporary, a poet called Alcaeus, belonged to another. Alcaeus often refers to the island’s political turbulence in his poems, and it’s possible that at some point Sappho and her family fled, or were exiled, to Southern Italy: Cicero refers in one of his speeches to a statue of the poet that had been erected in the town hall of Syracuse, in Sicily. The Victorian critic John Addington Symonds saw the unstable political milieu of Sappho’s homeland as entwined with the heady erotic climate of her poems. Lesbos, he wrote in an 1872 essay on the poet, was “the island of overmastering passions.”

Some things seem relatively certain, then. But when it comes to Sappho’s personal life—the aspect of her biography that scholars and readers are most eager to know about—the ancient record is confused. What did Sappho look like? A dialogue by Plato, written in the fourth century B.C., refers to her as “beautiful”; a later author insisted that she was “very ugly, being short and swarthy.” Who were her family? The Suda (which gives eight possible names for Sappho’s father) asserts that she had a daughter and a mother both named Kleïs, a gaggle of brothers, and a wealthy husband named Kerkylas, from the island of Andros. But some of these seemingly precious facts merely show that the encyclopedia—which, as old as it is, was compiled fifteen centuries after Sappho lived—could be prone to comic misunderstandings. “Kerkylas,” for instance, looks a lot like kerkos, Greek slang for “penis,” and “Andros” is very close to the word for “man”; and so the encyclopedia turns out to have been unwittingly recycling a tired old joke about oversexed Sappho, who was married to “Dick of Man.”

Many other alleged facts of Sappho’s biography similarly dissolve on close scrutiny. Was Sappho really a mother? There is indeed a fragment that mentions a girl named Kleïs, “whose form resembles golden blossoms,” but the word that some people have translated as “daughter” can also mean “child,” or even “slave.” (Because Greek children were often named for their grandparents, it’s easy to see how the already wobbly assumption that Kleïs must have been a daughter in turn led to the assertion that Sappho had a mother with the same name.) Who were the members of her circle? The Suda refers by name to three female “students,” and three female companions—Atthis, Telesippa, and Megara—with whom she had “disgraceful friendships.” But much of this is no more than can be reasonably extrapolated from the poems: the extant fragments mention nearly all those names. The compilers of the Suda, like scholars today, may have been making educated guesses.

Even Sappho’s sexuality, which for modern readers is the most famous thing about her, has been controversial from the start. However exalted her reputation among the ancient literati, in Greek popular culture of the Classical period and afterward Sappho was known primarily as an oversexed predator—of men. This, in fact, was the ancient cliché about “Lesbians”: when we hear the word today we think of love between women, but when the ancient Greeks heard the word they thought of blow jobs. In classical Greek, the verb lesbiazein—“to act like someone from Lesbos”—meant performing fellatio, an activity for which inhabitants of the island were thought to have a particular penchant. Comic playwrights and authors of light verse portrayed Sappho as just another daughter of Lesbos, only too happy to fall into bed with her younger male rivals.

For centuries, the most popular story about her love life was one about a hopeless passion for a handsome young boatman called Phaon, which allegedly led her to jump off a cliff. That tale has been embroidered, dramatized, and novelized over the centuries by writers from Ovid—who in one poem has Sappho abjectly renouncing her gay past—to Erica Jong, in her 2003 novel “Sappho’s Leap.” As fanciful as it is, it’s easy to see how this melodrama of heterosexual passion could have been inspired by her verse, which so often describes the anguish of unrequited love. (“You have forgotten me / or you love someone else more.”) The added element of suicide suggests that those who wove this improbable story wanted us to take away a moral: unfettered expressions of great passion will have dire consequences.

As time went on, the fantasies about Sappho’s private life became more extreme. Midway through the first century A.D., the Roman philosopher Seneca, tutor to Nero, was complaining about a Greek scholar who had devoted an entire treatise to the question of whether Sappho was a prostitute. Some ancient writers assumed that there had to have been two Sapphos: one the great poet, the other the notorious slut. There is an entry for each in the Suda.

The uncertainties plaguing the biography of literature’s most famous Lesbian explain why classicists who study Sappho like to cite the entry for her in Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig’s “Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary” (1979). To honor Sappho’s central position in the history of female homosexuality, the two editors devoted an entire page to her. The page is blank.

The controversies about Sappho’s sexuality have never been far from the center of scholarship about her. Starting in the early nineteenth century, when classics itself was becoming a formal discipline, scholars who were embarrassed by what they found in the fragments worked hard to whitewash Sappho’s reputation. The title of one early work of German scholarship is “Sappho Liberated from a Prevalent Prejudice”: in it, the author acknowledged that what Sappho felt for her female friends was “love” but hastened to insist that it was in no way “objectionable, vulgarly sensual, and illegal,” and that her poems of love were neither “monstrous nor abominable.”

The eagerness to come up with “innocent” explanations for the poet’s attachment to young women persisted through the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The most tenacious theory held that Sappho was the head of a girls’ boarding school, a matron whose interest in her pupils was purely pedagogical. (One scholar claimed to have found evidence that classes were taught on how to apply makeup.) Another theory made her into an august priestess, leading “an association of young women who devoted themselves to the cult of the goddess.”

Classicists today have no problem with the idea of a gay Sappho. But some have been challenging the interpretation of her work that seems most natural to twenty-first century readers: that the poems are deeply personal expressions of private homoerotic passion. Pointing to the relentlessly public and communitarian character of ancient-Greek society, with its clan allegiances, its endless rounds of athletic games and artistic competitions, its jammed calendar of civic and religious festivals, they wonder whether “personal” poetry, as we understand the term, even existed for someone like Sappho. As André Lardinois, the co-author of the new English edition, has written, “Can we be sure that these are really her own feelings? . . . What is ‘personality’ in such a group-oriented society as archaic Greece?”

Indeed, the vision of Sappho as a solitary figure pouring out her heart in the women’s quarters of a nobleman’s mansion is a sentimental anachronism—a projection, like so much of our thinking about her, of our own habits and institutions onto the past. In “Sappho and Alcaeus,” by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a Victorian painter much given to lush re-creations of scenes from Greek antiquity, the Poetess and four diaphanously clad, flower-wreathed acolytes relax in a charming little performance space, enraptured as the male bard sings and plays, as if he were a Beat poet in a Telegraph Hill café. But Lardinois and others have argued that many, if not most, of Sappho’s poems were written to be performed by choruses on public occasions. In some lyrics, the speaker uses the first-person plural “we”; in others, she uses the plural “you” to address a group—presumably the chorus, who danced as she sang. (Even when Sappho uses the first-person singular, it doesn’t mean she was singing solo: in Greek tragedy the chorus, which numbered fifteen singers, regularly uses “I.”)

This communal voice, which to us seems jarring in lyrics of deep, even erotic feeling—imagine that Shakespeare’s sonnets had been written as choral hymns—is one that some translators today simply ignore, in keeping with the modern interest in individual psychology. But if the proper translation of the sexy little Fragment 38 is not “you scorch me” but “you scorch us,” which is what the Greek actually says, how, exactly, should we interpret it?

To answer that question, classicists lately have been imagining the purposes to which public performance of erotic poems might have been put. Ancient references to the poet’s “companions” and “students” have led one expert to argue that Sappho was the leader of a female collective, whose role was “instruction leading to marriage.” Rather than expressions of individual yearning for a young woman, the poems were, in Lardinois’s view, “public forms of praise of the general attractiveness of the girl,” celebrating her readiness for wedlock and integration into the larger society. The late Harvard classicist Charles Segal made even larger claims. As he saw it, the strongly rhythmic erotic lyrics were “incantatory” in nature; he believed that public performance of poems like Fragment 31 would have served to socialize desire itself for the entire city—to lift sexual yearning “out of the realm of the formless and terrible, bring it into the light of form, make it visible to the individual poet and, by extension, to his or her society.”

Even purely literary issues—for instance, the tendency to think of Sappho as the inventor of “the lyric I,” a single, emotionally naked speaker who becomes a stand-in for the reader—are affected by these new theories. After all, if the “I” who speaks in Sappho’s work is a persona (a “poetic construct rather than a real life figure,” as Lardinois put it) how much does her biography actually matter?

Between the paucity of actual poems and the woeful unreliability of the biographical tradition, these debates are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Indeed, the study of Sappho is beset by a curious circularity. For the better part of a millennium—between the compilation of the Suda and the late nineteenth century—the same bits of poetry and the same biographical gossip were endlessly recycled, the poetic fragments providing the sources for biographies that were then used as the basis for new interpretations of those same fragments. This is why the “new Sappho” has been so galvanizing for classicists: every now and then, the circle expands, letting in a little more light.

Obbink’s revelation last year was, in fact, only the latest in a series of papyrological discoveries that have dramatically enhanced our understanding of Sappho and her work. Until the late nineteenth century, when the papyri started turning up, there were only the ancient quotations. Since then, the amount of Sappho that we have has more than doubled.

In 1897, two young Oxford archeologists started excavating a site in Egypt that had been the municipal dump of a town called Oxyrhynchus—“the City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish.” In ancient times, the place had been home to a large Greek-speaking population. However lowly its original purpose, the dump soon yielded treasures. Papyrus manuscripts dating to the first few centuries A.D., containing both Greek and Roman texts, began to surface. Some were fragments of works long known, such as the Iliad, but even these were of great value, since the Oxyrhynchus papyri were often far older than what had been, until that point, the oldest surviving copies. Others revealed works previously unknown. Among the latter were several exciting new fragments of Sappho, some substantial. From the tattered papyri, the voice came through as distinctive as ever:

Some men say cavalry, some men say infantry,
some men say the navy’s the loveliest thing
on this black earth, but I say it’s what-
ever you love

Over the decades that followed, more of the papyri were deciphered and published. But by 1955, when the British classicist Denys Page published “Sappho and Alcaeus,” a definitive study of the two Lesbian poets, it seemed that even this rich new vein had been exhausted. “There is not at present,” Page declared, “any reason to expect that we shall ever possess much more of the poetry of Sappho and Alcaeus than we do today, and this seems a suitable time to begin the difficult and doubtful task of interpreting.”

Sappho herself, it seems fair to say, would have raised an eyebrow at Page’s confidence in his judgment. Human fortune, she writes, is as variable as the weather at sea, where “fair winds swiftly follow harsh gales.” And, indeed, this verse was unknown to Page, since it comes from the papyrus fragment that Dirk Obbink brought to light last year: the “Brothers Poem.”

For specialists, the most exciting feature of the “Brothers Poem” is that it seems to corroborate the closest thing we have to a contemporary reference to Sappho’s personal life: an oblique mention of her in Herodotus’ Histories, written about a century and a half after her death. During a long discussion of Egyptian society, Herodotus mentions one of Sappho’s brothers, a rather dashing character named Charaxus. A swashbuckling merchant sailor, he supposedly spent a fortune to buy the freedom of a favorite courtesan in Egypt—an act, Herodotus reports, for which Sappho “severely chided” her sibling in verse. Ovid and other later classical authors also refer to some kind of tension between Sappho and this brother, but, in the absence of a surviving poem on the subject by Sappho herself, generations of scholars were unable to verify even the brother’s name.

So it’s easy to imagine Dirk Obbink’s excitement as he worked his way through the first lines of the poem:

but you’re always nattering on that Charaxus must come,
his ship full-laden. That much, I reckon, Zeus knows . . .

The pious thing to do, the speaker says, is to pray to the gods for this brother’s return, since human happiness depends on divine good will. The poem closes with the hope that another, younger brother will grow up honorably and save his family from heartache—presumably, the anxiety caused by their wayward elder sibling. At last, that particular biographical tidbit could be confirmed.

For non-classicists, the “Brothers Poem” may be less enthralling than the other recent Sappho find, the poem that surfaced in 2004, about old age—a bittersweet work indeed. After the University of Cologne acquired some papyri, scholars found that one of the texts overlapped with a poem already known: Fragment 58, one of the Oxyrhynchus papyri. The Oxyrhynchus fragment consisted mostly of the ends of a handful of lines; the new Cologne papyrus filled in the blanks, leaving only a few words missing. Finally, the lines made sense.

As with much Archaic Greek poetry, the newly restored Fragment 58—the “Old Age Poem,” as it is now called—illustrates its theme with an example from myth. Sappho alludes to the story of Eos, the dawn goddess, who wished for, and was granted, eternal life for her mortal lover, Tithonus, but forgot to ask for eternal youth:

[I bring] the beautiful gifts of the violet Muses, girls,
and [I love] that song lover, the sweet-toned lyre.

My skin was [delicate] before, but now old age
[claims it]; my hair turned from black [to white].

My spirit has grown heavy; knees buckle
that once could dance light as fawns.

I often groan, but what can I do?
Impossible for humans not to age.

For they say that rosy-armed Dawn in love
went to the ends of the earth holding Tithonos,

beautiful and young, but in time gray old age
seized even him with an immortal wife.

Here as elsewhere in the new translation, Diane J. Rayor captures the distinctively plainspoken quality of Sappho’s Greek, which, for all the poet’s naked emotionality and love of luxe, is never overwrought or baroque. Every translation is a series of sacrifices; in Rayor’s case, emphasis on plainness of expression sometimes comes at the cost of certain formal elements—not least, metre. The classicist M. L. West, who published a translation in the Times Literary Supplement, took pains to emulate the long line of Sappho’s original:

But me—my skin which once was soft is withered now
by age, my hair has turned to white which once was black . . .

Still, given how disastrously cloying many attempts to re-create Sappho’s verse as “song” have proved to be, you’re grateful for Rayor’s directness. Her notes on the translations are particularly useful, especially when she alerts readers to choices that are left “silent” in other English versions. The last extant line of Fragment 31, for instance, presents a notorious problem: it could mean something like “all must be endured” or, on the other hand, “all must be dared.” Rayor prefers “endured,” and tells you why she thinks it’s the better reading.

In her translation of the “Old Age Poem,” Rayor makes one very interesting choice. The Cologne manuscript dates to the third century B.C., which makes it the oldest and therefore presumably the most reliable manuscript of Sappho that we currently possess. In that text, the poem ends after the sixth couplet, with its glum reference to Tithonus being seized by gray old age. But Rayor has decided to include some additional lines that appear only in the fragmentary Oxyrhynchus papyrus. These give the poem a far more upbeat ending:

Yet I love the finer things . . . this and passion
for the light of life have granted me brilliance and beauty.

The manuscript containing those lines was copied out five hundred years after the newly discovered version—half a millennium further away from the moment when the Poetess first sang this song.

And so the new Sappho raises as many questions as it answers. Did different versions of a single poem coexist in antiquity, and, if so, did ancient audiences know or care? Who in the “Brothers Poem” has been chattering on about Sappho’s brother Charaxus, and why? Where, exactly, does the “Old Age Poem” end? Was it a melancholy testament to the mortifying effects of age or a triumphant assertion of the power of beauty, of the “finer things”—of poetry itself—to redeem the ravages of time? Even as we strain to hear this remarkable woman’s sweet speech, the thrumming in our ears grows louder. ♦

Common Knowledge 8.1 (2002) 188-201

Peace and Mind: Seriatim Symposium on Dispute, Conflict, and Enmity
Postcript on Method

Decreation
How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete, and Simone Weil Tell God

Anne Carson


This is an essay about three women and will have three parts. Part One concerns Sappho, a Greek poet of the seventh century B.C., who lived on the island of Lesbos, wrote some famous poetry about love and is said to have organized her life around worship of the God Aphrodite. Part Two concerns Marguerite Porete, who was burned alive in the public square of Paris in 1310 because she had written a book about the love of God which the papal inquisitor deemed heretical. Part Three concerns Simone Weil, the twentieth-century French classicist and philosopher whom Camus called "the only great spirit of our time."

Part One

What if I were to begin an essay on spiritual matters by citing a poem that will not at first seem to you spiritual at all. Fragment 31 of Sappho says:

He seems to me equal to gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking [End Page 188]
and lovely laughing--oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me
no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead--or almost
I seem to me.
But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty. . . . 1

This poem has been preserved for us by the ancient literary critic Longinus, who quotes four complete Sapphic stanzas and then the first line of what looks like a fifth stanza and then breaks off, no one knows why. But the first four stanzas seem to compose a unit of music and thought; let's consider the thought. It comes to us bathed in light but this is the weirdly enclosed light of introspection. Sappho is staging a scenario inside the little theater of her mind. It appears to be an erotic scenario but the characters are anonymous, their interrelations obscure. We don't know why the girl is laughing, nor what the man is doing there, nor how Sappho's response to them makes sense. Sappho seems less interested in these characters as individuals than in the geometric figure that they form. This figure has three lines and three angles. One line connects the girl's voice and laughter to a man who listens close. A second connects the girl to Sappho. Between the eye of Sappho and the listening man runs a third. The figure is a triangle. Why does Sappho want to stage this figure? Common sense suggests it is a poem about jealousy. "Lovers all show such symptoms as these," says Longinus. So let's think about what the jealousy of lovers is.

The word comes from ancient Greek zelos meaning "zeal" or "hot pursuit." A jealous lover covets a certain location at the center of her beloved's affection only to find it occupied by someone else. If jealousy were a dance it would be a pattern of placement and displacement. Its emotional focus is unstable. Jealousy is a dance in which everyone moves. [End Page 189]

Sappho's poem sets the stage for Jealousy but she does not dance it. Indeed she seems to forget the presence of her dancing partners entirely after the first stanza and shifts the spotlight onto herself. And what we see in the spotlight is an unexpectedly spiritual spectacle. For Sappho describes her own perceptual abilities (visual, aural, tactile) reduced to dysfunction one after another; she shows us the objects of outer sense emptying themselves; and there on the brightly lit stage at the center of her perception appears her own Being:

I am . . .

she says at verse 15 ("greener than grass I am").

This is not just a moment of revealed existence: it is a spiritual event. Sappho enters into ecstasy. "I am greener than grass," she says, predicating of her own Being an attribute observable only from outside her own body. This is the condition called ekstasis, literally "standing outside oneself," a condition regarded by the Greeks as typical of mad persons, geniuses, and lovers, and ascribed to poets by Aristotle.

Ecstasy changes Sappho and changes her poem. She herself, she says, is almost dead. Her poem appears to break down and stop. But then, arguably, both of them start up again. I say arguably because the (last) seventeeth verse of the poem has a puzzling history and is regarded with suspicion by some scholars, although it appears in Longinus and is corroborated by a papyrus. Let us attempt to see its coherence with what goes before.

"All is to be dared because even a person of poverty. . . ," says verse 17. It is a new thought. The content of the thought is absolute daring. The condition of the thought is poverty. I don't want to give the impression that I know what verse 17 is saying or that I see where the poem is headed from here, I don't. Overall this poem leaves me wondering. Sappho sets up a scenario of jealousy but that's not what the poem is about, jealousy is just a figure. Sappho stages an event of ecstasy but that's not what the poem is about either, ecstasy is just a means to an end. Unfortunately we don't reach the end, the poem breaks off. But we do see Sappho begin to turn toward it, toward this unreachable end. We see her senses empty themselves, we see her Being thrown outside its own center where it stands observing her as if she were grass or dead. At which point a speculation occurs to me: granted this is a poem all about love, do we need to limit ourselves to a reading of it that is merely or conventionally erotic? After all, Sappho is believed by some historians to have been not just a poet of love and a worshiper of Aphrodite on Lesbos but also a priestess of Aphrodite's cult and a teacher of her doctrines. Perhaps Sappho's poem wants to teach us something about the [End Page 190] metaphysics or even the theology of love. Perhaps she is posing not the usual lovesong complaint, Why don't you love me? but a deeper spiritual question, What is it that love dares the self to do? Daring enters the poem in the seventeenth verse when Sappho uses the word tolmaton: "is to be dared."

This word is a verbal adjective expressing a mood of ability, possibility or potential. Sappho says it is an absolute potential:

pan tolmaton: all is to be dared.

Moreover she consents to it--or seems to be on the point of consenting when the poem breaks off. Why does she consent? Her explanation no longer exists. So far as it goes, it leads us back to her ecstatic condition. For when an ecstatic is asked the question What is it that love dares the self to do? she will answer:

Love dares the self to leave itself behind, to enter into poverty.

Part Two

Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake in 1310 for writing a book about the absolute daring of love. The Mirror of Simple Souls is a theological treatise and also a kind of handbook for people seeking God. Marguerite Porete's central doctrine is that a human soul can proceed through seven different stages of love, beginning with a period of "boiling desire" (chap. 118), to an ecstasy in which the soul is carried outside her own Being and leaves herself behind. This departure from her own center is not passive. Like Sappho, Marguerite first discovers in reality a certain absolute demand and then she consents to it. Like Sappho, she sees herself split in two by this consent and experiences it as a kind of "annihilation." Marguerite's reasoning is severe: she understands the essence of her human self to be in her free will and she decides that free will has been placed in her by God in order that she may give it back. She therefore causes her will to depart from its own will and render itself back to God with nothing left over. Here is how she describes this event:

. . . a ravishing expansion of the movement of divine Light is poured into the Soul and shows to the Will [the rightness of what is . . . in order to move the Soul] from the place where it is now and ought not to be and render it back to where it is not, whence it came, there where it ought to remain. Now the Will sees . . . that it cannot profit unless it departs from its own will. And thus the Soul parts herself from this will and the Will parts itself from such a Soul and then renders itself and gives and goes back to God, there where it was first taken, without retaining anything of its own. . . .2[End Page 191]

Now it is noteworthy, in light of Sappho's account of ecstasy and its consequences, that Marguerite Porete twice refers to herself at the moment when God's abundance overflows her as:

I who am in the abyss of absolute poverty. (chap. 38)

She also describes her impoverishment as a condition of physical and metaphysical negation:

Now such a Soul is nothing, for she sees her nothingness by means of the abundance of divine understanding, which makes her nothing and places her in nothingness. (chap. 118)

Throughout The Mirror she speaks of herself as null, worthless, deficient, deprived and naked. But at the same time she recognizes her poverty as an amazing and inexpressible kind of repletion; and of this absolute emptiness which is also absolute fullness she speaks in erotic language, referring to God as "overflowing and abundant Lover" (chap. 38) or as "the Spouse of my youth" (chap. 118). Even more interesting for our analogy with Sappho, Marguerite Porete twice proposes jealousy as a figure for her relationship with God. Thus she refers to God as "the most high Jealous One" and speaks of God's relation to her Soul in this way:

Jealous he is truly! He shows it by his works which have stripped me of myself absolutely and have placed me in divine pleasure without myself. And such a union joins and conjoins me through the sovereign highness of creation with the brilliance of divine being, by which I have being which is being. (chap. 71)

This is an unusual erotic triangle consisting of God, Marguerite and Marguerite. But its motions have the same ecstatic effect as the three-person situation in Sappho's poem. Marguerite feels her self pulled apart from itself and thrown into a condition of poverty, to which she consents. Her consent takes the form of a peculiarly intense triangular fantasy:

. . . and I pondered, as if God were asking me, how would I fare if I knew that he preferred me to love another more than himself? And at this my sense failed me and I knew not what to say. Then he asked me how would I fare if it could happen he should love another more than me? [End Page 192] And here my sense failed me and I knew not what to say. . . . Beyond this, he asked me what would I do and how would I fare if it could be he preferred another to love me more than he. . . . And there I fainted away for I could say nothing to these three things, nor refuse, nor deny. (chap. 131)

Notice how Marguerite turns the fantasy this way and that, rotating its personnel and reimagining its anguish. Jealousy is a dance in which everyone moves. It is a dance with a dialectical nature. For the jealous lover must balance two contradictory realities within her heart: on the one hand, that of herself at the center of the universe and in command of her own will, offering love to her beloved; on the other, that of herself off the center of the universe and in despite of her own will, watching her beloved love someone else. Naked collision of these two realities brings the lover to a sort of breakdown, as we saw in Sappho's poem, whose effect is to expose her very Being to its own scrutiny and to dislodge it from the center of itself. It would be a very high test of dialectical endurance to be able to, not just recognize, but consent to this breakdown. Sappho seems to be entering on a mood of consent when her poem stops. Marguerite faints three times before she can manage it. But then, with a psychological clarity as amazing as Sappho's, Marguerite pushes open the implications of her own pain. Here is her analysis of what she sees when she looks inside Marguerite:

And so long as I was at ease and loved myself "with" him, I could not at all contain myself or have calm: I was held in bondage by which I could not move. . . . I loved myself so much along "with" him that I could not answer loyally. . . . Yet all at once he demanded my response, if I did not want to lose both myself and him. . . . I said to him that he must want to test me in all points. (chap. 131)

Marguerite reaches rockbottom here when she faces the fact that loyalty to God is actually obstructed by her love of him because this affection, like most human erotic feeling, is largely self-love: it puts Marguerite in bondage to Marguerite rather than to God. Her reasoning uses the figure of jealousy in two ways. She sees jealousy as an explanation of her own feelings of inner division; she also projects jealousy as a test of her ability to decenter herself, to move out of the way, to clear her own heart and her own will off the path that leads to God. For in order to (as she says) "answer God loyally" she cannot stay one with her own heart or with her own will, she cannot love her own love or love herself loving or love being loved. And insofar as she can "annihilate" all these--her term--she can resolve the three angles of the dance of Jealousy into a single nakedness and reduce her Being from three to two to one: [End Page 193]

Now this Soul . . . has left three and has made two one. But in what does this one consist? This one is when the soul is rendered into the simple Deity, in full knowing, without feeling, beyond thought. . . .
Higher no one can go, deeper no one can go, more naked no human can be. (chap. 138)

Part Three

Simone Weil was also a person who wanted to get herself out of the way so as to arrive at God. "The self," she says in one of her notebooks, "is only a shadow projected by sin and error which blocks God's light and which I take for a Being." She had a program for getting the self out of the way which she called "decreation." This word is a neologism to which she did not give an exact definition nor a consistent spelling. "To undo the creature in us" is one of the ways she describes its aim. 3 And when she tells of its method she uses language that may sound familiar. Like Marguerite Porete she expresses a need to render back to God what God has given to her, that is, the self:

We possess nothing in this world other than the power to say 'I'. This is what we must yield up to God. (GG, 71; PG, 35)

And like Marguerite Porete she pictures this yielding as a sort of test:

God gave me Being in order that I should give it back to him. It is like one of those traps whereby the characters are tested in fairy tales. If I accept this gift it is bad and fatal; its virtue becomes apparent through my refusal of it. God allows me to exist outside himself. It is for me to refuse this authorization. (GG, 87; PG, 48)

And also like Marguerite Porete she feels herself to be an obstacle to herself inwardly. The process of decreation is for her a dislodging of herself from a center where she cannot stay because staying there blocks God. She speaks of a need "to withdraw from my own soul" and says:

God can love in us only this consent to withdraw in order to make way for him. (GG, 88; PG, 49)

But now let us dwell for a moment on this statement about withdrawal and consent. Here Simone Weil enters upon a strangely daring and difficult negotiation [End Page 194] that seems to me to evoke both Marguerite Porete and Sappho. For Simone Weil wants to discover in the three-cornered figure of jealousy those lines of force that connect a soul to God. She does not, however, fantasize relationships with ordinary human lovers. The erotic triangle Simone Weil constructs is one involving God, herself and the whole of creation:

All the things that I see, hear, breathe, touch, eat; all the beings I meet--I deprive the sum total of all that of contact with God, and I deprive God of contact with all that insofar as something in me says 'I'.
I can do something for all that and for God--namely, retire and respect the tête-à-tête . . . .
I must withdraw so that God may make contact with the beings whom chance places in my path and whom he loves. It is tactless of me to be there. It is as though I were placed between two lovers or two friends. I am not the maiden who awaits her betrothed but the unwelcome third who is with two betrothed lovers and ought to go away so that they can really be together.
If only I knew how to disappear there would be a perfect union of love between God and the earth I tread, the sea I hear. . . . (GG, 88; PG, 49)

If only she could become what Marguerite Porete calls an "annihilated soul," if only she could achieve the transparency of Sappho's ecstatic condition "greener than grass and almost dead," Simone Weil would feel she had relieved the world of an indiscretion. Jealousy is a dance in which everybody moves because one of them is always extra--three people trying to sit on two chairs. We saw how this extra person is set apart in Marguerite Porete's text by a canny use of quotation marks--remember her plaintive observation: I loved myself so much along "with" him that I could not answer loyally. When I read this sentence the first time, it seemed odd to me that Marguerite Porete puts the quotation marks around the "with" rather than around one of the pronouns. But Marguerite knows what she is doing: the people are not the problem here. Withness is the problem. She is trying to use the simplest language and the plainest marks to express a profoundly tricky spiritual fact, viz. that I cannot go toward God in love without bringing myself along. And so in the deepest possible sense I can never be alone with God. I can only be alone "with God."

To catch sight of this fact brings a wrench in perception, forces the perceiver to a point where she has to disappear from herself in order to look. As Simone Weil says longingly: [End Page 195]

If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there. But when I am in any place I disturb the silence of heaven by the beating of my heart. (GG, 89; PG, 50)

As we saw, Marguerite Porete found a way to translate the beating of her own heart into a set of quotation marks around the word "with." And Sappho found a way to record the beating of her heart while imagining its absence--for surely this is the function performed in her poem by "the man who opposite you sits and listens close." This man, Sappho tells us, is "equal to Gods"; but can we not read him as her way of representing "the landscape as it is when I am not there"? It is a landscape where joy is so full that it seems to go unexperienced. Sappho does not describe this landscape further but Marguerite Porete offers an amazing account of a soul in some such condition:

Such a Soul . . . swims in the sea of joy--that is in the sea of delights flowing and streaming from the Divinity, and she feels no joy for she herself is joy, and swims and floats in joy without feeling any joy because she inhabits Joy and Joy inhabits her. . . . (chap. 28)

It seems consistent with Simone Weil's project of decreation that, although she too recognizes this kind of joyless joy, she finds in it not an occasion of swimming but one of exclusion and negation:

Perfect joy excludes even the very feeling of joy, for in the soul filled by the object no corner is left for saying "I." (GG, 77; PG, 40)

Part Four

Inasmuch as we are now entering upon the fourth part of a three-part essay, we should brace ourselves for some inconsequentiality. I don't feel the cause of this inconsequence is me. Rather it originates with the three women we are studying and the cause of it is the fact that they are writers. When Sappho tells us that she is "all but dead," when Marguerite Porete tells us she wants to become an "annihilated soul," when Simone Weil tells that "We participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves," how are we to square these dark ideas with the brilliant self-assertiveness of the writerly project shared by all three of them, the project of telling the world the truth about God, love and reality? The answer is we can't. It is no accident that Marguerite Porete calls her book a Mirror. To be a writer is to construct a big, loud, shiny center of self from which the writing is given voice and any claim to be intent on annihilating this self while still continuing to write and give voice to writing must involve the writer in some important acts of subterfuge or contradiction. [End Page 196]

Which brings us to contradiction and its uses. Simone Weil speaks plainly about these:

Contradiction alone is the proof that we are not everything. Contradiction is our badness and the sense of our badness is the sense of reality. For we do not invent our badness. It is true. (GG, 148; PG, 100)

To accept the true badness of being human is the beginning of a dialectic of joy for Simone Weil:

If we find fullness of joy in the thought that God is, we must find the same fullness in the knowledge that we ourselves are not, for it is the same thought. (GG, 84; PG, 46)

Nothing and something are two sides of one coin, at least in the mind of a dialectician. As Marguerite Porete puts it:

Nothing is nothing. Something is what it is. Therefore I am not, if I am something, except that which God is. (chap. 70)

She also says:

Lord you are one goodness through opened out goodness, absolutely in you. And I am one badness through opened out badness, absolutely in me. (chap. 130)

Marguerite Porete's vision is dialectical but it is not tragic: she imagines a kind of chiastic immersion or mutual absorption by means of which these two absolute opposites--God and the soul--may ultimately unite. She uses various images of this union, for example, iron which when placed in the furnace actually becomes fire (chap. 25); or a river which loses its name when it flows into the sea (chap. 82). Her common images carry us beyond the dialectical account of God and soul. For dialectic is a mode of reasoning and an application of the intellectual self. But the soul that has been driven by love into God, the soul consumed as into fire, dissolved as if into water--such a soul has no intact intellect of the ordinary human kind with which to construe dialectical relationships. In other words such a soul passes beyond the place where she can tell what she knows. To tell is a function of self.

This situation is a big problem for a writer. It is more than a contradiction, it is a paradox. Marguerite Porete broaches the matter, early in her Mirror, with her usual lack of compromise: [End Page 197]

For whoever talks about God . . . must not doubt but must know without doubt . . . that he has never felt the true kernel of divine Love which makes the soul absolutely dazzled without being aware of it. For this is the true purified kernel of divine Love which is without creaturely matter and given by the Creator to a creature and takes away absolutely the practice of telling. (chap. 18; emphasis added)

Marguerite delivers herself of a writerly riddle here. No one who talks about God can have experienced God's love, she asserts, because such Love "takes away absolutely the practice of telling." She reinforces this point later by arguing that, once a soul has experienced divine Love, no one but God ever understands that soul again (chaps. 19 and 20). We might at this point be moved to question what Marguerite Porete thinks she is doing in the remaining chapters of her book, which number 139 in all, when she gives a step-by-step account of the soul's progress toward annihilation in God. We might wonder what all this telling is about. But we are unlikely to receive an answer from Marguerite Porete herself. Nor I think will any prudent writer on matters of God and soul venture to nail such things down. Quite the contrary, to leave us in wonder is just what such a writer feels compelled to do. Let us look more closely at how this compulsion works. We have said that telling is a function of self. If we study the way these three writers talk about their own telling, we can see how each of them feels moved to create a sort of dream of distance in which the self is displaced from the center of the work and the teller disappears into the telling.

Let's begin with Simone Weil who was a practical person and arranged for her own disappearance on several levels. Among other things, she is believed to have hastened her own death from tuberculosis in 1943 by a regime of voluntary self-starvation undertaken out of sympathy for people in France who didn't have enough to eat. However that may be, when her parents insisted on fleeing France for America in 1942 she briefly and reluctantly accompanied them, leaving behind in the hands of a certain Gustave Thibon (a farmer in whose vineyard she had been working) about a dozen notebooks of personal reflection (which now form a substantial part of her published work). She told him in a letter to use the thoughts in the notebooks however he liked:

So now they belong to you and I hope that after having been transmuted within you they will one day come out in one of your works. . . . I should be very happy for them to find a lodging beneath your pen, whilst changing their form so as to reflect your likeness. . . .
In the operation of writing, the hand which holds the pen and the body and soul attached to it are things infinitely small in the order of nothingness. (GG, 11) [End Page 198]

Gustave Thibon never saw Simone Weil again, nor did he follow the instructions of this letter, to transmute her ideas into his own--at least not explicitly. Instead he went through the notebooks, extracted punchy passages, grouped these under headings like The Self, The Void, The Impossible, Beauty, Algebra, Luck, The Meaning of the Universe, and published them as a book whose English title is Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil with Introduction by Gustave Thibon (London 1952). That is, he made a serious effort to force her back into the center of herself, and the degree to which she nonetheless eludes this reinstallation is very hard for readers like you or me to judge from outside. But I admire the final, gentle piece of advice that she gives to him at the close of her letter of 1942:

I also like to think that after the slight shock of separation you will not feel any sorrow about whatever may be in store for me and that if you should happen sometimes to think of me you will do so as one thinks of a book read in childhood . . . (GG, 12)

When I think of books read in childhood they come to my mind's eye in violent foreshortening and framed by a precarious darkness, but at the same time they glow somehow with an almost supernatural intensity of life that no adult book could ever effect. I remember a little book of The Lives of the Saints that was given to me about age five. In this book the various flowers composing the crowns of the martyrs were so lusciously rendered in words and paint that I had to be restrained from eating the pages. It is interesting to speculate what taste I was expecting from those pages. But maybe the impulse to eat pages isn't about taste. Maybe it's about being placed at the crossing-point of a contradiction, which is a painful place to be and children in their natural wisdom will not consent to stay there, but mystics love it. So Simone Weil:

Man's great affliction, which begins with infancy and accompanies him till death, is that looking and eating are two different operations. Eternal beatitude is a state where to look is to eat. (GG, 153; PG, 105)

Simone Weil had a problem with eating all her life. Lots of women do. Nothing more powerfully or more often reminds us of our physicality than food and the need to eat it. So she creates in her mind a dream of distance where food can be enjoyed perhaps from across the room merely by looking at it, where desire need not end in perishing, where the lover can stay, at the same time, near to and far from the object of her love.

Food and love were analogous contradictions for Simone Weil. She did not freely enjoy either of them in her life and was always uneasy about her imaginative relationship to them. But after all, eternal beatitude is not the only state where to [End Page 199] look is to eat. The written page can also reify this paradox for us. A writer may tell what is near and far at once.

And so, for example, in Marguerite Porete's totally original terminology the writer's dream of distance becomes an epithet of God. To describe the divine Lover who feeds her soul with the food of truth, Marguerite Porete invents a word: le Loingprés in her Old French, or Longe Propinquus in the Latin translation: English might say "the FarNear." She does not justify this word, simply begins using it as if it were self-evident in Chapter 58 of her book, where she is telling about annihilation. At the moment of its annihilation, she says, God practices upon the soul an amazing act of ravishing. For God opens an aperture in the soul and allows divine peace to flow in upon her like a glorious food. And God does this in his capacity as le Loingprés, the FarNear:

For there is an aperture, like a spark, which quickly closes, in which one cannot long remain. . . . The overflowing from the ravishing aperture makes the Soul free and noble and unencumbered [and its] peace lasts as long as the opening of the aperture. . . . Moreover the peace is so delicious that Truth calls it glorious food. (chap. 58)
. . . And this aperture of the sweet movement of glory that the excellent FarNear gives is nothing other than a glimpse which God wants the soul to have of her own glory that she will possess without end. (chap. 61)

Marguerite Porete's concept of God as "the excellent FarNear" is a radical invention. But even more radical is the riddle to which it forces her:

. . . where the Soul remains after the work of the Ravishing FarNear, which we call a spark in the manner of an aperture and fast close, no one could believe . . . nor would she have any truth who knew how to tell this. (chap. 58; emphasis added)

Inside her own telling, Marguerite Porete sets up a little ripple of disbelief--a sort of distortion in the glass--as if to remind us that this dream of distance is after all just a dream. At the end of her book she returns to the concept one last time, saying simply:

His Farness is the more Near. (chap. 135)

I have no idea what this sentence means but it gives me a thrill. It fills me with wonder. In itself the sentence is a small complete act of worship, like a hymn or a prayer. Now hymns and prayers are the conventional way for lovers of God to mark God's farnearness, for prayer lays claim to an immediate connection with [End Page 200] this Being whose absence fills the world. But Marguerite Porete was a fairly unconventional lover of God and did not engage in prayer or credit its usefulness. Simone Weil, on the other hand, although she was never a Christian herself, had a profound attachment to that prayer which Christians call The Our Father. During the summer of 1941 when she worked in the vineyard of Gustave Thibon she found herself repeating this prayer while she worked. She had never prayed before, she acknowledges in her notebook, and the effect was ecstatic:

The very first words tear my thoughts from my body and transport it to a place outside space . . . filling every aspect of this infinity of infinity.4

Prayer seems to have been for her an experience of spatial contradiction--or perhaps a proof of the impossible truth of God's motion. In another passage she returns to The Lord's Prayer and its impossible truth:

Our Father who art in heaven. There is a sort of humour in that. He is your Father, but just try going to look for him up there! We are quite as incapable of rising from the ground as an earthworm. And how should he for his part come to us without descending? There is no way of imagining a contract between God and man which is not as unintelligible as the Incarnation. The Incarnation explodes unintelligibility. It is an absolutely concrete way of representing impossible descent. Why should it not be the truth? (GG, 148; PG, 100)

Why should the truth not be impossible? Why should the impossible not be true? Questions like these are the links from which prayers are forged. Here is a prayer of Sappho's which will offer us one final example of the dream of distance in which a writer tells God:

. . . . [come] here to me from Krete
to this holy temple where is
your graceful grove of apple trees and altars
smoking with frankincense.
And in it cold water makes a clear sound through apple branches
and with roses the whole place
is shadowed and down from radiant-shaking leaves
sleep comes dropping.
And in it a horse meadow has come into bloom
with spring flowers and breezes
like honey are blowing. . . . [End Page 201]
In this place you Kypris having taken up
in gold cups delicately
nectar mingled with festivities:
pour.
(frag. 2)

This fragment was scratched on a shard of pottery by a careless hand in the third century B.C. The text is corrupt and incomplete. Nonetheless we can identify it as a hymn of the type called " kletic," a calling hymn, an invocation to God to come from where she is to where we are. Such a hymn typically names both of these places, setting its invocation in between in order to measure the difference--a difference which it is the function of the hymn to decreate--not to destroy, but to decreate. Among the remarks on decreation in Simone Weil's notebooks is the statement:

God can only be present in creation under the form of absence. (GG, 162; PG, 112)

For the writer of a kletic hymn God's absence is something tricky, perhaps impossible, to tell. This writer will have to invoke a God who arrives bringing her own absence with her--a God whose Farness is the more Near. It is an impossible motion possible only in writing. Sappho achieves it by various syntactic choices: for example, suppression of the verb in the first stanza of her poem. In the English translation I have tentatively supplied an imperative "Come!" in square brackets as the first word of the poem, and the sense may seem to require this, but the Greek text has no such verb. It begins with the adverb "Here." In fact the imperative verb for which the entire poem, with its slow and onomatopoeically accumulating clauses, seems to be waiting does not arrive until the very last word of our text: "Pour!" The effect of this suspension is uncanny: as if the whole of creation is depicted waiting for an action that is already perpetually here. There is no clear boundary between far and near; there is no climactic moment of God's arrival. Sappho renders a set of conditions which at the beginning depend on Aphrodite's absence but by the end include her presence. Sappho imitates the distance of God in a sort of suspended solution--and there we see Divine Being as a dazzling drop that suddenly, impossibly saturates the world.

To sum up. Each of the three women we've been considering had the nerve to enter a zone of absolute spiritual daring. Each of them undergoes there an experience of decreation, or so she tells us. But the telling remains a bit of a wonder. Decreation is an undoing of the creature in us--that creature enclosed in self and defined by self. But to undo self one must move through self, to the very inside [End Page 202] of its definition. We have nowhere else to start. This is the parchment on which God writes his lessons, as Marguerite Porete says.

Marguerite's parchment burned in 1310. To us this may seem an outrage or a mistake. Certainly the men who condemned her thought she was all wrong and referred to her in the proceedings of her trial not only as "filled with errors and heresies" but as pseudo-mulier or "fake woman."

Was Marguerite Porete a fake woman?

Society is all too eager to pass judgments on the authenticity of women's ways of being but these judgments can get crazy. As a case in point, the book for which Marguerite Porete was burned in 1310 was secretly preserved and copied after her death by clerics who transmitted the text as an anonymous devotional work of Christian mysticism, until 1946 when an Italian scholar reconnected The Mirror with the name of its author. At the same time, it is hard to commend moral extremism of the kind that took Simone Weil to death at the age of thirty-four; saintliness is an eruption of the absolute into ordinary history and we resent that. We need history to be able to call saints neurotic, anorectic, pathological, sexually repressed or fake. These judgments sanctify our own survival. By the same token, Sappho's ancient biographers tried to discredit her seriousness by assuring us she lived a life of unrestrained and incoherent sexual indulgence, for she invented lesbianism and then died by jumping off a cliff for love of a young man. As Simone Weil says:

Love is a sign of our badness. (GG, 111; PG, 68)

Love is also a good place to situate our mistrust of fake women. What I like best about the three women we've been studying is that they know what love is. That is, they know love is the touchstone of a true or a false spirituality; that is why they play with the figure of jealousy. As fake women they have to inhabit this figure gingerly, taking a position both near and far at once from the object of their desire. The truth that they tell from this paradoxical position is also fake. As Marguerite says briskly:

For everything that one can tell of God or write, no less than what one can think, of God who is more than words, is as much lying as it is telling the truth. (chap. 119)

So in the end it is important not to be fooled by fake women. If you mistake the dance of Jealousy for the love of God, or a heretic's Mirror for the true story, you are likely to spend the rest of your days in terrible hunger. No matter how many pages you eat.

 



Anne Carson, currently a MacArthur Fellow, teaches classics at McGill University and the University of Michigan. Her books of poetry and essays include Economy of the Unlost; Autobiography of Red; Plainwater; Glass, Irony and God; Men in the OffHours; Eros, the Bittersweet; and most recently, The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos. She is writing an opera trilogy entitled Decreation.

Notes

1. Sappho et Alcaeus: Fragmenta, ed. E. M. Voigt (Amsterdam: Athenaeum-Polak and Van Gennep, 1971). All subsequent references are to this edition and are cited in the text.

2. Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls, trans. Ellen L. Babinsky (New York: Paulist, 1993), chap. 118. I have altered Babinsky's translation slightly. All subsequent references are to this edition and are cited in the text. See also "The Mirror of Simple Souls," trans. Edmond Colledge, in Notre Dame Texts in Medieval Culture, vol. 6 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999), chap. 118 ; and Le mirouer des simples ames anienties et qui seulement demourent en vouloir et desir d'amour, ed. Romana Guarnieri, Archivio Italiano per la storia de la Pietà 4 (1965): 513-635.

3. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, trans. Arthur Wills (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 81, hereafter cited in the text as GG = La pesanteur et la grâce, ed. Gustave Thibon (Paris: Plon, 1948), 43, hereafter cited in the text as PG.

4. The Simone Weil Reader, ed. George A. Panichas (New York: Mckay, 1977), 492.

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