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The Lesbian Historic Motif Project: French Literary Theories of Sappho

Monday, June 12, 2017 - 07:00

I struggled a great deal with this text and especially with summarizing it. It wasn’t so much that I found flaws with some of the premises (particularly in regards to the author’s claim of special French “ownershp” of the post-medieval revival of interest in Sappho) but the prose is extremely dense, repetitive, and impossible to summarize. I confess that this book became a Did Not FInish after slogging through a little more than a third of it.

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Full citation: 

DeJean, Joan. 1989. Fictions of Sappho, 1546-1937. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-14136-5

Publication summary: 

A very dense look at how Sappho influenced and was interpreted by the French literary establishment in the 16-20th centuries.


This is a study of the ways that writers and translators of the 16th century onward have used and re-made Sappho to suit their needs and prejudices. DeJean attributes the start of this process specifically to the French.

The fictionalization of Sappho began mere centuries after her death, in Greek comedies that included her as a character. The figure of Sappho continues to create anxiety today, especially around the topic of homoeroticism. One can read, in the treatment of Sappho during a particular era, what anxieties were prevalent regarding topics such as same-sex love and the acceptability of female writers and teachers. The translation of Sappho’s work--and especially the alteration (traducio) of the meaning in the process--reflected and influenced her image at the time.

DeJean is explicitly concerned with “the existence of a speical bond between the French literary tradition and the problem of Sappho.” The emergence of a French literary tradition in general occurs at the same era as the “rediscovery” of Sappho’s work. [Note: although DeJean doesn’t say so explicitly, one can view both as being fallout from the social and literary forces that defined the Renaissance.]

In the earliest era covered by this study (1550-1650) Sappho was seen as a “disembodied voice”, while the era of Great French Classics corresponds with seeing her as a figure of homoerotic desire. Sappho enters the English and German traditions in the early 18th century and their interpretations fed back into French understandings. DeJean sees Sappho’s reception in English and German culture as merely recapitulating earlier French treatments. [Note: The claim that Sappho did not enter non-French literary traditions until the early 18th century requires ignoring or redefining e.g., the 17th century English translations as mimicry.]

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, German writers dominated the discourse around Sappho, with English and Italian treatments coming into prominence after 1920.

The discourse around Sappho is primarily male, though consider Louise Labé (1524-1566) who “comes to writing” in Sappho’s name and whose work is described in relation to hers. Male authors tended to have a different relationship to Sappho than female ones, combining hostility with appropriation. Sappho becomes an accessory to male poetic relationships, either with their contemporaries or with classical (male) writers. This is particularly prominent in the strong (though not universal) theme of Sappho as the model of a tragically abandoned heterosexual woman.

These fictions of Sappho cast a longer shadow than the few historic facts of her life. Only in the mid 19th century do scholars begin to question the unity of the author and narrator in Sappho’s work. The result of that questioning was to see her poetry as representing symbolic and formulaic language, rather than personal experience.

Sappho’s perceived sexuality was a reflection of the attitudes of the reader. In the 17th century, Queen Christina of Sweden (who had romantic attractions--and probably sexual relationships--with women) saw Sappho’s poetry as unequivocally homoerotic, while her contemporary Madeleine de Scudéry (whose heterosexuality was, shall we say, not solidly established) viewed Sappho more ambiguously.

The three chapters in DeJean’s book reflect what she considers the three main approaches to Sappho in French thought. [Spoiler: I give up on summarizing them after the first one.]

The first step was the creation and dissemination of an established corpus of Sappho’s work; the second was the establishment of a “heterosexual Sappho”, including a narrowing of interest to the poems that support this reading; then the third phase in the early 19th century allowed new images of Sappho to break through with a return to the original Greek texts rather than relying on translations. In this last stage, Sappho is converted from a chaste poet to a highly sexualized courtesan and (depraved) lesbian. National traditions of Sappho studies diverge at this point with the French tradition leaning toward decadence and the German tradition toward chastity.

The general progression of interpretation was to begin with scholarship, which by its necessarily fragmentary nature lead to speculation, which in turn led to the creation of established fictions about Sappho. This study excludes from the timeline the treatments of Sappho as a pop-culture icon rather than as a historic poet, for example, Brantôme’s use of her as an icon of homoeroticism. [Note: This is one of the places where I feel that DeJean is cherry-picking evidence. She seems to have a vague presumption that the 16th century literary establishment did not have an image of Sappho as having homoerotic desires, and yet writers like Brantôme were part of that literary establishment. The pop-culture “Sappho the lesbian” cannot be walled off from the rediscovery of the work of “Sappho the poet.”]

One of these fictions that arose around 1900 was Sappho as an icon of passionate and expressive (rather than polished and professional) writing--a fiction that had her stand in for “women’s writing” in general as emotional rather than crafted. [Note: I am reminded of one of the bullet points in Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing: “She wrote it...but look what she wrote!”]

In this context, Sappho and the term “sapphism” came to stand for a sort of female “primal” passion, and her work is compared to various female ecstatic poets. Viewing her work as spontaneously emotional contrasts with an earlier tradition (beginning in the 17th century) that viewed her work as controlled and artificial, as opposed to being “authentic” and spontaneous.

This was a view rooted in neo-classicism and was particularly embraced in Germany, where it was tied to a vision of a chaste Sappho, or at the very least a heterosexual one. The analysis of her poetry that came with this view focused on the male figures, such as the man initially mentioned in fragment 31 (“He seems like a god to me...”). This dispassionate framing was also popular in English approaches to Sappho’s poetry. It often entirely erased the sexual implications in her poems, even de-gendering feminine language in the translations to render Sappho functionally asexual. Thus we have two contrasting fictions: the tragic abandoned heterosexual Sappho whose work is an expression of pure emotion, and the detached, asexual Sappho commenting wryly on the foibles of love.

Preliminaries: The Sapphic Renaissance (1546-1573)

There is a repeated pattern of a new generation of poets “discovering” Sappho, who becomes a stand-in for the male poet expressing himself in terms of feminine desires. The first French wave of this phenomenon in the 16th century does not create the fictions that DeJean is concerned with, as the later ones do. These waves of reception of Sappho’s work are often sparked by a new version or new translation that particularly catches the imagination of the time. Commentary in the mid 16th century editions focused on the technical excellence of Sappho’s verses, overlooking the emotional aspects. The object of Sappho’s desire that is referenced in her poems is often treated as indeterminate in gender or assumed to be male (in the face of grammatical evidence to the contrary). In a context like this, Louise Labé--the only female Renaissance poet who tackled Sappho--identified with the voice in fragment #1 (the hymn to Aphrodite) as a heterosexual woman. An ambiguous treatment of the pronouns in fragment #31 (he seems like a god to me) can erase the essential homoeroticism of the work.

The earliest French translation of fragment #31 undermines its emotional power. The re-setting of #31 by Catullus in a clearly male voice also influenced the poem’s reception and understanding. This led to poems imitative of Sappho’s style that owe more to Catullus than Sappho for their erotics. Male poets competed with each other for “ownership” of Sappho’s heritage and, in their hands, the original romantic triangle of a woman and man desiring the same female object became two men competing for that female prize. Instead of being identified with the desiring agent (the voice of the poem), Sappho is converted to a stand-in for the passive desired object, with the male poets competing with each other for the right to claim her.

More of Sappho’s work became available for study in the 1560s, but the primary focus continued to be on fragment #31, creating a conundrum. Without the same-sex desire expressed in the poem, where does Sappho’s undeniable reputation for same-sex eroticism come from? On the heterosexual side, the Phaon myth is cited, as well as claims that Sappho was simply bisexually promiscuous, but the catalogs of the names identified in her poetry as beloved by her have an inescapably female preponderance. The more extensive publications of Sappho’s corpus normally included the Phaon text attributed to Ovid, and this tended to eclipse other evidence.

Later fictions will not simply substitute male objects of desire for Sappho’s female beloveds, but will frame her as preferring men to women. Louise Labé provides an example of this. In her Sappho-inspired work, she identifies with Sappho-the-heterosexual rather than with the Sappho who desired women. Labé’s Sappho is a tragically unhappy straight woman, and she sees the unreciprocated love in the Phaon myth as the definitive heterosexual feminine experience. Curiously, of the material that Labé had available to her, only fragment #1 (the hymn to Aphrodite) reflects this image of unreciprocated love in any way. And confusingly, when Labé refers to “lesbian love” it is this image of the woman romantically abandoned by a man that she means.

Chapter 1: Female Desire and the Foundation of the Novelistic Order (1612-1694)

In the 16th century, there was a fiction of Sappho as being “essentially masculine” both because “speaking” in a poetic voice is considered a male prerogative and because of the way she relates to women. [Note: this is reminiscent of the medieval framing of gender as being defined in opposition to the gender of the desired object.] As a masculine figure, she therefore could and should be replaced by a man.

This version of Sappho is complicated in the 17th century by Ovid’s contribution, by which she becomes a sexually pitiable woman and her role as poet and author is erased. DeJean considers this shift to be tangled up with the emergence of the novel as a primary focus for modeling female possibilities. Novels offer the “woman’s side” of heroic tales, just as Ovid’s Heroides (with which the Sappho & Phaon poem was associated) offered fictional accounts of classic tales from the women’s point of view.

But to fit in this framework, Sappho’s story requires that she either be scandalous or asexual. To normalize her as a protagonist, scandal must be erased. Fragment #31 is a problem in expressing a woman’s lament for losing out to a male romantic competitor. But it meshes with the Phaon story if abstracted as the expression of an abandoned and despairing woman.

DeJean sees Taneguy L’Fèvre’s 1660 work as the last reflection of the earlier humanist tradition, where he focuses on Sappho’s desire for women and ignores her supposed male lovers. But in 1681 his daughter Anne Dacier published what would be regarded as the first French translation of Sappho’s work. She, in contrast with her father, dismisses the accusations of homoeroticism as slander and treat’s Sappho’s relationships with women as simple friendship. In her edition, Sappho’s fragments are reinterpreted to create a virtual male figure around whom Sappho’s life revolves.

Dacier’s work stands in contrast to other interpretations of the time (by men) that admit Sappho’s homoerotic desire but redirect the desire to men. By the end of the 17th century, Dacier’s version would triumph and be the foundation for Sapphic fictions of the 18th century. This shift, however, is not due to a universal aversion to discussion or acknowledging female homoeroticism. The 18th century was an era of vibrant discourse on that topic.

The remainder of the chapter traces the above themes in detail, as well as discussing the emergence of the novel as a literary movement.

Chapters 2: Sappho’s Family Romances (1697-1818)

The fiction covered in this section is that of the “family romance” in the Freudian sense--that is, the myth a child creates to imagine a better, more noble origin for the self. In the context of Sappho, this fiction re-imagines her either as an ideal of bourgeois maternity or as a depraved “bad mother”.

[And at this point, I confess to failure in my attempt to read and summarize this work and I won’t attempt even one paragraph on Chapter 3: Sappho Revocata (1816-1937). It isn’t often that I can’t at least skim the cream off the densest of academic prose, but I admit defeat. Maybe it was the mention of Freud that kicked me off the Leucadian cliff. For the average reader, the most useful remainder will be the Appendix that provides a chronological list of “Sappho’s presence in France,” covering all the significant editions and translations, and including non-French publications that DeJean considers relevant to the French reception.]

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