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The Academics Argue over Sappho

Friday, February 28, 2020 - 13:00

I had meant to post this on Tuesday, as an immediate follow-up to the Hallett article it responds to. But it slipped my mind until I was updating my blog spreadsheet today. Oops! The blog has gotten a little thin lately, in part because building up a store of prepared material means I've allowed myself a minor vacation (to get other things done, like gardening!) but I have some reviews knocking at my door and other content that needs to get posted. Once I get past FOGCon, next week, which has been joyfully looming over my calendar for a while.

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Stigers, Eva Stehle. 1979. “Romantic Sensuality, Poetic Sense: A Response to Hallett on Sappho” in SIgns vol 4, no 3: 465-471.

This is a response to Hallett’s article in the same volume of the journal and should be read in conjunction with it.

Stigers responds to several topics touched on in Hallett’s consideration of Sappho’s poetic voice and persona with respect to her personal life. It is acknowledged that special care must be taken when considering a poet writing in the first person. The poetic voice may be generalized or fictionalized or it may in fact represent the poet’s own experiences and emotions.

These questions are complicated with regard to Sappho because of the reactions that scholars have to the possibility that the homoerotic sentiments in her poetry represent her own desires and interests. Those reactions inevitably color their reception and interpretation of her poetry, influenced not only by the personal attitudes of the scholars but by the modern social context and attitudes towards homosexuality that they feel compelled to judge by. And, as Hallett notes, these responses and attitudes are applied in the case of Sappho in ways that they are not in the case of male poets with similar bodies of homoerotic work.

But Stigers disagrees with Hallett’s argumentation and conclusions. Even if one accepts that Sappho’s poems reflected a ritual role with respect to the young women that are their subjects, could that role be effective if the author dissociated herself from it? For that matter, how do the expressions of personal response--for example, the wish to die when abandoned--fit into the idea of celebrating a joyous social occasion? Even if there is a social context for institutionalized praise of young women in archaic Greek society, that doesn’t prove that Sappho’s works represent that tradition.

Stigers points out that Hallett has fallen into the trap of asserting that the absence of descriptions of physical sexual acts in Sappho’s poetry undermines the idea that she had homosexual interests, while the presence of passing implications of heterosexual activity can be understood as indicating Sappho’s personal orientation. Further, Hallett seems to consider all of the poetic fragments as equally useful in interpreting Sappho’s inclinations, both those where the first-person voice is general or communal, and the ones with highly personal and specific expressions.

One is on solid ground in arguing that whatever Sappho’s sexual preferences were, they were considered compatible with heterosexual marriage, but it is difficult to argue that there is equivalence between her expressions of emotion directed toward women and those presumed to reference men.

Stigers asserts that the overall tone of Hallett’s argumentation addresses the position that accepting Sappho’s sexual interest in women would require grappling with the accusation that this makes her psychologically “abnormal” and unusual for her historic context. Instead, Stigers suggests, within the context of archaic Greek society and its gender-segregated dynamics, a woman’s poetic contemplation of beauty, romantic attraction, and the pangs of romantic disappointment might only be expressible in a same-sex context. That, while every poem might not reflect a specific real-life relationship, the body of work could still represent a social and emotional reality that reflected Sappho’s personal experience. (Stigers points out that if similar criticism were applied to Emily Dickinson’s poetry, we would be debating whether it was possible for her to have died frequently across the span of her career.)

This fits well with the parallel that Hallett makes with homoerotic praise poetry addressed to young men. While one shouldn’t assume that every poem represents an actual specific sexual relationship on the part of the poet, such relationships did exist and are the context in which the poems were socially acceptable. Why should Sappho’s poetry be evaluated on an all-or-nothing basis?

Regarding the assertion that Sappho’s poems lack explicit indications of physical sexual relationships, Stigers discusses poem 94 L-P and its focus on physicality and language reasonably interpreted as orgasmic. When compared to Alcman’s “maiden songs,” his praise is formulaic and presented in terms similar to the praise of heroes (comparing the girl to a horse, for example) while Sappho’s praise is focused, not on physical appearance, but on the emotional reaction of the viewer and on sensual accompaniments to their shared experience. The result is an image of woman-centered experience, in contrast to Alcman’s male gaze (even when voiced by a feminine narrative persona).

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