Scholia Reviews ns 7 (1998) 19.

Ellen Greene (ed.), Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches. Berkeley & London: University of California Press, 1996. Pp. 303, incl. bibliography, list of contributors and index. ISBN 0-520-20195-7. US$40.00, UK£32.00.

Ellen Greene (ed.), Re-reading Sappho: Reception and Transmission. Berkeley & London: University of California Press, 1996. Pp. 254, incl. bibliography, list of contributors and index. ISBN 0- 520-20602-9. US$40.00, UK£32.00.

Michael Lambert
Department of Classics, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg

In the foreword to the attractively produced series Classics and Contemporary Thought, of which the two works on Sappho form volumes two and three, the series editor, Thomas Habinek, articulates the aim of the series: 'to encourage dialogue between classical studies and other fields in the arts, humanities and social sciences' (p. xi, both volumes). Sappho is an especially good choice for such dialogue, because her poetry, her context, and her female voice, have become the focus of intense criticism and debate within the fields of feminist, gender and queer studies. In Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches, Greene collects articles reflecting trends in scholarship on Sappho during the last thirty years; these she arranges in four sections, entitled Language and Literary Context, Homer and the Oral Tradition, Ritual and Social Context and Women's Erotics.

The collection opens with Lanata's still indispensable article on Sappho's amatory language (pp. 11-25), originally published in Italian in 1966, which displays the hallmarks of the period in which it was written; careful textual study of words, images and topoi, within the tradition of epic and lyric poetry. Lefkowitz's energetically-argued 'Critical Stereotypes and the Poetry of Sappho' (pp. 26-34), when it first appeared in 1974, dealt the death blow to Devereux's absurd interpretation of Sappho 31 as a clinical manifestation of lesbian penis envy;[[1]] it is a model of sane feminist criticism. Nagy's 'Phaethon, Sappho's Phaon, and the White Rock of Leukas: "Reading" the Symbols of Greek Lyric' (pp. 35-57) is a dense, mythological exploration of the tradition of Sappho's love for the ferryman, Phaon, which resulted in her leap from the White Rock; as is typical of Nagy's work, the article is ingenious, suggestive, and at times (like Ovid) too clever for its own good. Segal focuses on the incantatory quality of Sappho's poetry in 'Eros and Incantation: Sappho and Oral Poetry' (pp. 58-75) and effectively links its thelxis ('enchantment') to its performance context; his analysis of the interplay of the style of oral epic (ritualised and public) and that of lyric (free and more private) in Sappho's poetry anticipates the work of Winkler (see below), without the feminist perspective.

The second section, Homer and the Oral Tradition, contains two articles, one by duBois, 'Sappho and Helen' (pp. 79-88), the other by Winkler, 'Gardens of Nymphs: Public and Private in Sappho's Lyrics' (pp. 89-109). DuBois concentrates on Sappho 16 (L.-P) ('some say a host of horseman . . . is the most beautiful thing on the dark earth: but I say, it is what you love') to argue that this poem is one of the few texts which breaks the silence of women in antiquity by celebrating women as subjects (e.g. Helen) rather than as objects of men's desire, thus reversing the pattern of the Homeric epics, where women are 'exchanged, given as prizes, stolen, sold as slaves' (p. 85). Winkler's justly celebrated article contains an exploration of the 'double consciousness' of Sappho and her ability to adopt multiple points of view, that of the 'public', man- centred world of the Homeric epics and that of her 'private' woman-centred one. Sappho knows the languages of both worlds and can thus move between them, whereas men are confined to their unilingual domains. Furthermore Winkler explores the complexity of the sexual imagery in Sappho's poetry and concludes that her obviously lesbian eroticism is 'subjectively and objectively woman centred' (p. 108).

No section on ritual and social context would be complete without a contribution by Calame, whose 'Sappho's Group: An Initiation into Womanhood' (pp. 113-24), a translated version of an extract from his 'Les choeurs de jeunes filles en Grèce archaíque',[[2]] is a familiar concoction of Sappho as schoolmistress with ritualistic and intitiatory overtones: Sappho's circle teaches music and dance for cultic purposes and for the inculcation of feminine values, especially as a preparation for marriage, although why the group's homophilia should prepare young women for heterosexual, and presumably arranged marriages, is rather perplexing. Calame's opinion that the 'temporary and unreliable' character of the homoerotic bonds in Sappho's group (and male groups like it) 'may provoke in a homosexually oriented person states of anxiety and depression like those that can probably be traced in almost all Sappho's poems of remembering' which 'would explain the peculiar and personal feminine tone often felt in the modern reading of Sappho's poetry' (p. 123) has the homophobic shadow of Devereux hovering over it,[[3]] not to speak of questionable assumptions about 'feminine tone'.

Adopting a similar approach, Hallett argues in a chapter entitled 'Sappho and her Social Context: Sense and Sensuality' (pp. 125-42), that Sappho's 'sensual conduct' with other women has an important social purpose and public function--instilling sensual awareness, sexual self-esteem, and 'facilitating role adjustment' (p. 128) in young females coming of age in a sexually segregated society in which marriage was not valued as an institution. For Hallett, instilling sensual awareness and sexual self-esteem does not suggest that Sappho was a lesbian--there is, after all, no evidence of Sappho expressing herself physically with other women in the fragments, even though Sappho as a 'sensual consciousness-raiser' feels passions for other women--and, in any case, one should distinguish between the poet and the poetic persona, as one would in the case of, for example, Alcman's maiden songs. To suggest that Sappho had strong passions for women, but remained a chaste 'sensual consciousness-raiser' facilitating role adjustment (like a thoroughly modern nun with a diploma in marriage guidance counselling) is rather perverse, let alone 'quixotic':[[4]] Wilamowitz' influence lives on.[[5]]

Stehle ('Romantic Sensuality, Poetic Sense: A Response to Hallett on Sappho', pp. 143-49), criticises Hallett precisely on this issue and suggests that Hallett underestimates the complexity of the question of Sappho's poetic persona. If Sappho's poetry were intended as sexual affirmation for young women prior to marriage, how would Sappho's persona interact with the public audience, if the author distanced herself from her sensual consciousness-raising? Stehle rightly takes Hallett to task for acknowledging Sappho's passions for women, but denying her physical expression of them; fragment 94 (L.-P.), for example, revels in the sensuousness of another woman. Turning to a comparison with Alcman's maiden songs, suggested by Hallett, Stehle concludes that Sappho's special romantic quality is thereby illuminated, for Sappho 'used the special conditions of lesbian love to create an alternative world in which male values, those same values which denied Greek women an erotic fantasy, are not dominant, and within which mutual desire, rapture, and separateness can be explored as female experience' (p. 149).

Disagreeing with the traditional view of Sappho as a monodist, Lardinois ('Who Sang Sappho's Songs?', pp. 150-72) attempts to demonstrate that, apart from the wedding songs and traditional hymns, probably composed for performances by young women, even the ostensibly more personal songs characterised by the use of 'I' could well have been intended for choral performance. Lardinois too makes use of Alcman's songs[[6]] to illustrate that the content of choral lyric is frequently personal as well, and that choral poets use both the 'I' and the 'we' forms to refer to the group as a whole, or to exchanges between a soloist and the chorus, which may well have been the performative circumstances of much of Sappho's verse. In contrast to Stehle and Winkler, Lardinois considers that the difference between Sappho and the male poets lies not in the difference between a public male world and a private female one, but 'between two distinct public voices' (p. 171).

The final section in the collection is deeply influenced by current trends in feminist and postmodern criticism. What is refreshing about Marilyn Skinner's 'Women and Language in Archaic Greece, or, Why is Sappho a Woman?' (pp. 175-92) is her critique of Irigaray's notion that history is just another 'hom(m)o-sexual construct', a denial which Skinner regards as 'both reductionist and perverse' (p. 181). As even the trend-setting trinity of Kristeva, Cixous and Irigaray make provision for a 'disruptive impulse stemming from the female' within hegemonic male discourse (p. 181), Skinner appropriates Irigaray's notion of 'women-among- themselves speaking (as) woman' (p. 182) to restore 'woman' to the Greek literary tradition, by focusing specifically on the woman-centred discourse of Sappho and her group/friends. Arguing that Sappho and her friends were able to 'speak (as) woman among themselves', because they were not readers and thus pawns of male-produced culture, Skinner suggests that a female oral tradition, handed down from mother to daughter, allowed Sappho to assume a subject position defiantly ranged against patriarchy, a position which she employs to 'encode strategies for perpetuating women's culture' (p. 188).

In 'Sappho's Gaze: Fantasies of a Goddess and Young Man' (pp. 193-225), Stehle focuses on a pattern of myths which she detects, with some degree of over- imaginative speculation, in the fragments of Sappho, a pattern characterised by the desire of a goddess for a young, beautiful mortal man (Eos and Tithonus, Selene and Endymion, Aphrodite and Adonis, Aphrodite and Phaon). As this pattern perpetrates, within Greek patriarchal discourse, a conflict between two established hierarchies (male/female; human/divine), public narratives, to avoid portraying a dominant male being tamed by a powerful, sexually-active divine woman, adjust the narrative, by, for example, castrating the man or making him passive and effeminate (Attis and Adonis being prime examples). Applying theories of gaze and identification (from film theory), firstly, to vase paintings of Eos and a youth, and of Aphrodite and Adonis and, secondly, to the poetry of Sappho, in order to discover how she uses the pattern of the goddess and the young man, Stehle concludes that Sappho used the mythic pattern 'not to picture non-hierarchical sexual intimacy but rather to reflect the fragility of her ideal of mutual desire under the pressure of the dominant culture' (p. 225). Sappho's resolution of these myths, in favour of the goddess, means that Sappho used them to support women's 'claim to subjectivity' in the face of the objectifying male gaze; 'the young man of the myth, then, may have represented both the fantasy of escape from cultural definition and the power of cultural demands to reclaim the individual' (p. 225).

In 'The Justice of Aphrodite in Sappho 1' (pp. 226- 32), Carson takes issue with traditional interpretations of the poem which argue that Aphrodite is promising erotic revenge in the form of a reversal of the roles of lover and beloved (p. 227), that is, that the girl who now refuses gifts and flees will soon be in pursuit of Sappho. Convinced that the Greek, which elides direct objects, does not allow such an interpretation, Carson suggests that Sappho is praying for the general justice of Aphrodite--that the beloved will one day, with the march of time, become the lover and will then learn what it is like to be rejected. This reversal of roles is an aspect of 'normal' Greek erotic behaviour paralleled in homoerotic relationships between older and younger men; similarly, Sappho would be freed from the girl's 'erotic tyranny' (p. 232) as soon as the girl became too old to play the beloved.

Greene disagrees with Carson's interpretation of Sappho 1 and argues that the lack of direct objects in the poem[[7]] suggests that Sappho is constructing herself and her beloved not as a subject in pursuit of an object (which would be a hallmark of patriarchal erotic pursuit), but as two subjects exploring a reciprocity of desire; consequently, Sappho prays to Aphrodite not for erotic revenge, but reconciliation. In her analysis of Sappho's use of apostrophe ('Apostrophe and Women's Erotics in the Poetry of Sappho', pp. 233-47), Greene argues that Sappho, by conferring presence on an absent addressee, transforms the beloved from an object into a subject, thus erasing the distinction between self and other, as she constructs a version of desire significantly different from the domination- submission model of male archaic poets.

Similarly, Williamson ('Sappho and the Other Woman', pp. 248-64) argues that Sappho, even though she shares many aspects of the poetic tradition with male writers, does not position herself, as does Anacreon, as either victim or adversary of the powerful external force of eros. Williamson considers the different subject and object positions in Sappho's poetry and suggests that the positions of 'I', 'you', 'she' constantly shift and merge in a polyphonic, erotic discourse, implying a 'community of singing, desiring female subjects' (p. 257).

The articles in the last section, which some will find dense and powerfully suggestive, and others inaccessible and jargon-saturated, do indeed illustrate the fact that each age creates its own Sappho. The postmodernist and proto-queer Sappho is as interesting as the Victorian governess, a closet heterosexual, who could never countenance leading her young gals down the primrose path of Sapphic dalliance. This is the theme of the second volume in which Greene has assembled a fascinating collection of essays, largely by non-classicists, which deal with the ways in which Sappho has been received and transmitted.

Most's article ('Reflecting Sappho', pp. 11-35) introduces the theme of this volume, by investigating the transmission of the tradition of Sappho's heterosexuality, from the rampant promiscuity of Old Comedy through to Verri's enormously popular 18th century novel,[[8]] which perpetuated the fiction of Sappho as the victim of unhappy, unrequited, heterosexual love. The French tradition also largely discounted the 'vicious rumours' (p. 19) of Sappho's homosexuality and depicted her as a morally blameless, aging widow, with suicidal tendencies. For the German romantics, Sappho was the paradigm of poetry and exalted womanhood, and Welcker's pioneering philological study of Sappho (1816) explicitily set out to liberate her from the charge of homosexuality; Most analyses Welcker's commentary on poem 31 (L.-P.) to illustrate the absurd strategies he devises in his moralistic attempt to achieve this, thus convincingly demonstrating how context has determined how Sappho's texts and the stories about her 'were to be understood, edited and translated' (p. 32).

Prins' focus on the reception of Sappho is through translations of 31 (L.-P.), which attempt to constitute Sappho as a female lyric subject, significantly and paradoxically in a poem which associates desire with loss of voice ('Sappho's Afterlife in Translation', pp. 36-67). Employing the image of the broken tongue, Prins attempts to show how Sappho emerges as a female lyric subject and woman poet 'in terms of a violent disjunction between body and voice' (p. 53). Prins' essay is interesting and challenging, but rhetorical flourishes regularly hover on the verge of the incoherent: for example, the occurrence of the verb 'to seem' at the beginning and end of poem 31 (L.-P.) leads Prins into Delphic obscurity: 'Instead of presenting Sappho as its phenomenalized subject, the poem would seem to be, as it were, an inquiry into the phenomenology of its own seeming' (p. 41). Further Derridean fluff ensues: '. . . a reading that locates Sappho as rhetorical subject is complicated by a reading that dislocates the grammatical subject, and in the disjunction between rhetorical and grammatical reading the phenomenon we call Sappho is even more literally grammaticized--through letters or grammata that ask to, yet cannot, be voiced' (p. 46). Out of context, this sentence is bizarre; in context, no less so.

O'Higgins also concentrates on the reception of 31 (L.-P.), but by Catullus, within a context which is Roman, male and consciously literate ('Sappho's Splintered Tongue: Silence in Sappho 31 and Catullus 51', pp. 68-78). In a pedestrian comparison of Sappho's famous poem and Catullus' translation of it, O'Higgins argues that Catullus presents his collapse as 'an accomplished thing rather than a threatening possibility' (p. 77); his detachment from his 'narrative of disintegration', particularly conveyed in his final stanza, contrasts with Sappho's 'splintered tongue' which threatens to silence her completely, a silence better understood precisely because, in contrast to the poetry of Catullus, her work was shaped by an oral performative tradition.

'Transvestite ventriloquism' (p. 82) or the male author's appropriation of the female voice is the focus of Harvey's article ('Ventriloquizing Sappho, or the Lesbian Muse', pp. 79-104), which compares Ovid's appropriation of Sappho's voice in Heroides 15 (Sappho's letter to Phaon) with that of John Donne in his verse epistle Sappho to Philaenis,[[9]] another poet from the island of Leukas, who may have been the author of an erotic guidebook. Harvey argues that Ovid's re-inscription of Sappho 'bears the masks of sexual mastery and theft' (p. 84), for he transfers her passions for the girls in her poems to a man who rejects her. As Ovid mediates Sappho for Renaissance poets, Harvey suggests that Donne's lesbian poem appears to challenge the sexual mastery of the Ovidian model, but in fact presents a male construction of lesbianism (p. 100). Despite this, Harvey sees in Donne's text elements which anticipate the feminist theory of Irigaray, especially in the fact that Donne's Sappho laments the bankruptcy of language and envisions a paradise 'based on a celebration of the sameness of the female bodies' (p. 101)--themes explored in Irigaray's When Our Lips Speak Together.[[10]]

Andreadis ('Sappho in Early Modern England: A Study in Sexual Reputation', pp. 105-21), explores discourse on female sexuality in 16th and 17th century England, by examining references to the mythologised reputation of Sappho, who appears to have been constructed in three ways--as a suicidal woman abandoned by the man she loves (Ovid's tale of Sappho and Phaon being the model), as the first example of female poetic excellence, and as an early exemplar of 'unnatural' or monstrous sexuality (p. 106). Andreadis interestingly traces references to Sappho's 'tribadism' in commentaries on the Heroides in 1538 and 1543 and in the translation of Turberville (1567), and explores attempts to undercut this in Saltonstall's version of Ovid (1636) and in Sherbourne's (1639), whose rampantly heterosexual Sappho has to atone for her tribadic misdemeanours. A discussion of how tribadism and the clitoris were described in the medical discourse of the period--which makes enthralling reading--leads Andreadis to conclude that 'the language of literature and respectable society seems to have become more evasive as the existence of lesbianism was increasingly acknowledged by other dimensions of public discourse' (pp. 118f.).

In 'Sex and Philology: Sappho and the Rise of German Nationalism' (pp. 122-45), DeJean links the origins of philology and of the concept of nationalism to fictions of Sappho generated by intellectuals gathered around Madame de Stael in her famous Swiss salon. French commentators had invented a politically subversive Sappho, who was exiled after an unsuccessful revolt against a dictator; this fiction, allied to the development of the idea of the independent nation-state, resulted in the creation of another fiction by German philologists, who considered nationalism and philology as inextricably intertwined: the Germans would, after all, be the new Greeks. The new fiction was the powerfully influential 'chaste' Sappho, constructed in the light of the idealization of Knabenliebe ('boy- love'), which was considered, certainly by scholars like Welcker, as constitutive of the very essence of Greek greatness. Welcker's Sappho (1816), which inaugurated the modern tradition of Sappho interpretation, does not entertain the notion that Sappho may have practised a female version of the love he extols; such noble eros could only exist between men. DeJean traces the development of this fiction in some of the most important figures in German philology (such as Muller, Wilamowitz and Brandt/Licht) and considers some of the dissenting voices as well, such as Bachofen and Symonds, to whom she ascribes the earliest usage of 'homosexual' in English (1883).[[11]]

Such fictions cry out for demolition and Holt Parker's excellent essay ('Sappho Schoolmistress', pp. 146-83)--easily the finest in the collection-- does precisely that, with admirable clarity and scholarly rigour. Taking apart the myths of Sappho as schoolmistress (legitimated by no less an authority than Wilamowitz), sex educator and music teacher, in the light of the poetic fragments as well as the testimonia, Parker rightly concludes that there is simply no evidence whatsoever for any of these myths; there is no evidence that Sappho was an older woman, or that she initiated young girls before they left her thiasos[[12]] for marriage or that she raised the 'sensual consciousness' of women on archaic Lesbos, in ritual or any other guise. Sappho was a poet, who loved women of her own generation and who wrote poetry on themes and for occasions (for example, weddings and banquets) we find in other (male) poets of the period. Parker considers the attempts (present in much of the scholarship represented in the first volume, feminist included), to find a cult or ritual or occasion to interpret every fragment of Sappho, indicative of the need to explain Sappho away: 'Like many a woman of genius, Sappho has been institutionalised' (p. 175).

The final essays in the collection ('H.D. and Sappho: "A Precious Inch of Palimpsest"', pp. 184-98; 'Sapphistries', pp. 199-218), by Rohrbach and Gubar respectively, explore the reception and transmission of Sappho in the work of the early twentieth century American poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), and in that of the intriguing Renée Vivien, who wrote in French;[[13]] for both these poets and other contemporary woman writers like Amy Lowell, recovering Sappho's voice constitutes their attempt to resist the patriarchal literary canon and claim a poetic heritage, both female and lesbian.

The editor hopes that this collection of essays, the 'first to deal exclusively with the topic of Sappho reception and transmission' (p. 4),[[14]] 'will inspire further inquiry into the Sapphic tradition and into the questions it poses about the enigmatic, multifaceted interrelationship between present and past, gender and culture, text and context' (p. 9). For anyone interested in Sappho or gender and sexuality in antiquity, these two volumes are essential reading:[[15]] I have certainly had to revisit my lectures on Sappho, which seem, in retrospect, to have been peddling all kinds of unfounded fictions. But then I am a phallologoandrocentric male subject, desperately trying to wriggle out of the patriarchal subject position into which I have been inscribed.....!


[[1]] G. Devereux, 'The Nature of Sappho's Seizure in fr.31 LP as Evidence of Her Inversion', Classical Quarterly 20 (1970) 17-31. The edition of E. Lobel and D.L. Page, Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta (Oxford 1955) is used for all references to Sappho's poems (henceforward, L.-P).

[[2]] 2 vols. (Rome 1977). Translated as Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece by Janice Orion and Derek Collins (Lanham, Maryland 1994).

[[3]] Above, n. 1.

[[4]] Winkler's words: 'My argument has been that this tradition [the erotic-lyric tradition] includes pervasive allusions to physical eros and that in Sappho's poems both subjects and object of shared physical love are women. We now call this lesbian. To admit that Sappho's discourse is lesbian but insist that she herself was not seems quixotic', in Greene, Reading Sappho, pp. 108f.

[[5]] See DeJean's article in Greene, Re-Reading Sappho (pp. 136f.); cf. Parker, ibid., pp. 150-53, for an amusing account of Wilamowitz's creation of the Sappho as headmistress of a rather grim Madchenpensionat.

[[6]] For important differences between Sappho and Alcman, ignored by many scholars, see Holt's essay in Greene, Re-Reading Sappho, pp. 169f.

[[7]] The elision of objects could simply be dictated by metrical considerations and need not suggest anything of the kind. See Greene, Re-Reading Sappho, p. 31 n.70, for the elision of the direct object elsewhere in Sappho's poetry.

[[8]] A. Verri (ed. A. Cottignoli), Le Aventure di Saffo poetessa di Mitilene (Rome 1991).

[[9]] Harvey does discuss the thorny question of the authorship of both these poems (see pp. 81ff., especially n. 10).

[[10]] Except that Irigaray 'makes sameness the principle of patriarchal domination' (ibid., p. 101).

[[11]] Contra Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love (New York 1990) 15.

[[12]] 'This word is never used anywhere in any of the poems of Sappho (or Alcaeus), nor is it ever used anywhere in any ancient source about her. Yet it is approaching its hundredth anniversary . . .' (ibid. p. 175).

[[13]] But was actually an Anglo-American named Pauline Tarn (ibid., p. 205).

[[14]] Joan DeJean's Fictions of Sappho 1546- 1937 (Chicago 1989) is an important precursor.

[[15]] There are a number of typographical mishaps in both volumes. Volume 1: 'uindeniable' (p. xiii), repeated in volume 2; the intrusion of < > on p. 3; an unwanted 'off' (p. 30); 'Frames arguments' (p. 37) has lost its apostrophe; the Greek accent (p. 39, n. 18) should be acute, as it should be on alla (p. 245); 'isoo' (p. 46) is odd; 'We hear of her doing so out of love for Adonis Ptolemaios Chennos by way of . . .' has lost its parentheses (p. 53); the Greek text of 31 (L.-P.) has an incorrect breathing in line 11 (p. 65), as has the text on p. 92 (line 2)--compare the same text on p. 154 (lines 19f.); incorrect breathing again on p. 165, n.77; 'subjects' for 'subject' (p. 108); Hermes apparently gives Odysseus mold to inhibit Kirke's magic (p. 204).

Volume 2: 'attains' for `attain' (p. 24); 'writer' for 'writers' (p. 81); Gubar's sentence 'Replacing the schizophrenic doubling Sandra Gilbert and I have traced throughout Victorian women's literature with euphoric coupling in which the other is bound to the self as a lover . . .' (pp. 202f.) needs a few judicious commas for clarification.