Sappho and the Celebration of Space

Sappho Space
I’ve been interested lately in space: what it means when it’s there; what we do to fill it up; what happens if we choose to leave it alone. It seems increasingly apparent to me that our culture is obsessed by filling up spaces—not often, unfortunately, with thoughtful discussion, but simply whatever we have at hand. Recently in The New Yorker, Laura Miller touches on this as she explores the perils of what she calls litchat. She argues that the way we receive literature today is progressively more influenced by an author’s reputation, and that that reputation has less and less to do with his/her work—and more and more to do with ephemera that’s separate from it: gossip, scandal, political opinions, personal life choices. Whether it’s a tweet or a bit of book party snark, litchat is simply a way for us to form immediate opinions by quickly stopping up the gaps that would otherwise be filled with the work itself. Miller writes:

“Certainly, it’s far less time-consuming simply to read tweets about other tweets about headlines of profiles or pull quotes from reviews that the original tweeter may or may not have read, and which may or may not accurately represent what the writer or the novel actually said. Furthermore, nothing strikes such readers as smarter than a well-written confirmation of what they already believe. The novel itself hardly matters. Litchat has become an end in itself.”

I have such a strong aversion to this—which, of course, is not to say I’ve never been guilty of it—but at least my conscious self flees from the concept, so much so I found it necessary to take a hiatus from the blog. I’m both confused and repulsed by the mania that seems to drive ‘readers’ to develop strident opinions on works they couldn’t possibly read just for sheer want of time. And so I rushed to works that celebrate—rather than obsessively fill—the spaces.

Sappho, a poet that lived during the end of the seventh and beginning of the sixth centuries BC, authored enough poetry to fill nine books of verse. Centuries of conflict; however, left the poems in tatters, and now we have only fragments of her great work. The spaces left by Sappho’s fragments have tantalized scholars and poets for centuries. Some have used their own imaginations to fill them during translation. Others revel in the spaces themselves, such as Anne Carson, a brilliant poet whose work often operates at the intersection of classic themes and modern technique. During a 2004 Paris Review interview, Carson marvels at the unlimited potential of Sappho’s Fragment 31:

Fragment 31

He seems to me equal to gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking

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*

This work is more complete than many of the fragments, but perhaps because of this, because we’re able to establish the rhythm, the sudden break at the end is especially jarring. Carson, who has published her own brilliant translation of Sappho titled If Not, Winter, says:

“In Sappho’s poem, her addresses to gods are orderly, perfect poetic products, but the way—and this is the magic of fragments—the way that poem breaks off leads into a thought that can’t ever be apprehended. There is the space where a thought would be, but which you can’t get hold of. I love that space. It’s the reason I like to deal with fragments. Because no matter what the thought would be if it were fully worked out, it wouldn’t be as good as the suggestion of a thought that the space gives you.”

Sappho Space
Sappho’s fragments rush you toward a precipice and then suspend you over the cliffs. They offer you a moment flush with emotion and then—abruptly—leave you with yourself, and whatever emotions are stirring within you at the time rush in to fill the breaks. Because they are mutable they are always fresh, and remain contemporary in a way that many classic works do not.

Even with all the gifts the spaces offer us, scholars continue searching the globe for the clues to complete the pieces, yet it’s important to note that—even in finding whole papyrus—we’d never truly find Sappho. She composed and performed her work orally as songs; the Greek alphabet wasn’t invented until after her death. And so the imprints of all those who passed down her stories, who captured them in writing, and then finally who translated them into whatever language you’re reading are all visible in the work. Given how far removed we are from Sappho—how little we know about her and her work, it’s fascinating to see how vividly we’ve fleshed her out. Perhaps because of the direction of her passions, perhaps because of her supposedly tragic death, we have taken the energy we could have given to the spaces in the fragments and directed it at the author herself. Now, the popular perception of Sappho is built on the romance of the idea of a passionate lesbian who threw herself from the cliffs—a sort of high minded litchat.
Sappho Space
There’s not much to say that our Byronic interpretation of Sappho is correct. As Margaret Reynolds reminds us in her wonderful book, The Sappho Companion:

“…we know very little about her poetry, hardly anything about her life, not much more about her society, nothing to speak of about her character and nothing whatsoever about her personal appearance.”

Hell, we aren’t even saying her name right.

“…her name was not ‘Sappho’—as we pronounce it—at all. Today, in English, she is all soft sibilants and faded f’s, but in fact she is ‘Psappho’. In ancient Greet—and, indeed, even in modern Greek—if you hear a native speaker say her name, she comes across spitting and popping hard p’s. Ppppsappoppo. We have eased off her name, made her docile and sliding, where she is really difficult, diffuse, many syllables, many-minded, vigorous and hard.”

Truly, throughout the centuries, Sappho has been warped by our manhandling—our ferocious need to fill up the spaces in her persona. She has gone from being the ‘Tenth Muse’ to a sensualist to a ‘poetic mother’ to the original lesbian. And those perceptions have altered our reading—or at least our expectations of reading—as thoroughly as Twitter is now marring Franzen and blogs are evangelizing Foster Wallace.

Yet, as Reynold warns us:

“Sappho is not a name, much less a person. It is, rather, a space. A space for filling in the gaps, joining up the dots, making something out of nothing.”

What we do with that space will say a lot about us, why we read, and what we will allow art to do.


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