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Doubting Sappho

Monday, February 24, 2020 - 07:00

The non-chronological way in which I read and blog about existing scholarship means that I'm often reading articles from a context that includes theories and analysis that was not available to the author at the time. It is, perhaps, not entirely fair of me to rail at an article, "But how can you conclude this when a decade later So-and-so will write a clear refutation of your claim!" For some topics, the entire context in which the subject is discussed has changed so drastically that the value of an earlier analysis is badly obscured by what are now considered invalid ways of approaching it.

I'm dealing with that problem at the moment as I read Garber's Vested Interests (on the general topic of cross-dressing and transvestism). The current conversation about gendered clothing and the contexts and meanings for wearing clothing that contrasts with one's assigned gender is very different from the conversations on that topic in 1992. Different enough that I'm not sure the book has any value today except as a snapshot of cultural attitudes at the time it was written (as opposed to its potential value as a historical study of the topic).

So keep that in mind as I splutter my interjected comments and objections in the summary below. Hallett is an excellent scholar, and her article on female homoeroticism in classical Roman literature is great. But today's article doesn't feel like it stands the test of time when set alongside other authors on the difficult question of the historic Sappho's sexuality.

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Hallett, Judith. 1979. “Sappho and Her Social Context: Sense and Sensuality. in Signs 4: 447-464.

This article contrast somewhat in tone from Hallett’s later (1997) article “Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in Latin Literature” on evidence both for the existence of, and attitudes toward, female homoeroticism. In the 1997 article, Hallett carefully builds the case for the realities of relations between women (though often realities that were disparaged by the patriarchal Roman establishment). But in this current article she seems bent on creating maximal doubt that homoeroticism was a part of the social and personal dynamic underlying Sappho’s poetry. To be fair, the cultures addressed in the two articles are quite different, regardless of the modern tendency to conflate the whole classical world into a single impression. But there's a striking contrast between Hallet's analysis here and the evidence and conclusions presented by Lardinois (1989) a decade later (but based on data that was surely available to Hallett as well) which found solid support for a homoerotic Sappho.

[Note: in this summary, I’m going to be interspersing my own commentary without necessarily calling it out with square brackets, although I may use brackets to set off some comments. The next LHMP entry includes a scholarly response to this article that appeared in the same volume of the journal and shows that some of my questions were also raised at the time.]

Hallett takes a deep dive into the nature and reception of Sappho’s life and work across the ages, and what the evidence is for the underlying truth. This is a topic on which different researchers have had very different conclusions and--as Hallett herself points out--makes Sappho a canvas on which scholars have painted their own prejudices.

Classical authors had difficulty grappling with a supremely talented woman who apparently wrote about very personal experiences. Some dealt with this by classifying her, not among the great poets, but among the Muses, thereby erasing human talent and agency from the equation. (Others did include her among great human poets.) The literal mythologizing of Sappho’s life continued with Ovid’s invention of the Phaon story in his Heroides, which was seized on thereafter by those who were uncomfortable with the image of Sappho as having homoerotic relationships.

Early commenters on her life dealt with this image largely by raising it only to dismiss it. A text associated with the Roman writer Horace cites the epithet Sappho mascula (masculine Sappho) as being due to her “being maligned as having been a tribad” and her 10th century biography in the Suda says she was “slanderously accused of shameful intimacy with certain of her female pupils.” These references certainly support the conclusion that Sappho had such a reputation, but are nearly useless on the question of whether that reputation was true.

But here Hallett’s framing of the evidence becomes questionably slanted (in my opinion) when she notes that a 4th century Greek author remarks that Sappho praised her paidika using the feminine form of paidikos, which has the default meaning of the youthful beloved of a male homoerotic relationship. Hallett notes that the text “is only talking about verbal expressions of passion ... [and] cannot truly be regarded as testimony to Sappho’s sexual habits.”

This strikes me as setting an extraordinary bar for such testimony, given that the discussion follows with a citation of various texts with evidence suggesting that “Sappho’s primary erotic allegiances were heterosexual” all of which are even more tangential to the question of personal erotic experience (references to a husband and child, the Phaon story). Also noted is that the texts that express unease over Sappho’s homoerotic reputation do not similarly express unease over acknowledging the homoerotic relationships of male poets. Men could be neutrally acknowledged as bisexual even within cultures that had negative views of homosexuality, but Sappho must either have same-sex relationships denied or disparaged. [Note: this strikes me as saying far more about attitudes of the authors writing the commentary, rather than providing evidence about Sappho’s life.]

Modern scholars are more likely to deal with Sappho as a human being rather than a mythic figure, and in recent years are more inclined to take her homoerotic relationships as established fact. Hallett suggests that they do so to the exclusion of evaluating her poetry itself. And once again, she notes, modern scholars are far less likely to obsess over the sexual proclivities of male Greek authors than they are to obsess over Sappho's hypothetical sexuality.

This dichotomy in how homosexual possibilities among men and women are discussed has resulted in Sappho receiving differential and inequitable treatment from scholars from the Hellenistic period to the present. But Hallett then proposes that the content of Sappho’s poetry may not validly represent “female homosexuality” at all, but rather that she thinks it may be evidence that her poetry served the public function of “instilling sensual awareness and sexual self-esteem and of facilitating role adjustment in young females coming of age in a sexually segregated society.” And further, that it may be a mistake to assume that the sentiments expressed in Sappho’s poems represent her own personal experiences at all. [Note: in other words, Hallett is proposing that the homoerotic themes in Sappho's poetry are the functional equivalent of "girls who enjoy kissing each other are just practicing for kissing men."]

Negative reactions to female homosexuality have inspired people to discredit Sappho’s homoerotic reputation, but that reputation, Hallett asserts, has only gained significant currency in recent years. [Note: In my podcast presenting translations and interpretations of Sappho’s poetry across the centuries, I also include a brief summary of references to the poet’s homoerotic reputation starting at least as early as 1500.] The modern sense of the words “Sapphic” and “Lesbian” is thought to be responsible for this backward projection of Sappho’s personal preferences but, Hallett asserts, the set of related words with that meaning was only introduced into English in the last decade of the 19th century in the context of sexologists discussing homosexuality as a phychopathology.

[Note: As Hallett leans heavily on the Oxford English Dictionary citations for this assertion of recency, I would like to point once more to an article laying out how earlier and more clearly sexual usage for words in the sapphic/lesbian range was deliberately excluded from the OED. The claim that homoerotic senses of words derived from Sappho and Lesbos are very recent evidently must be debunked again and again. Lately I've been hearing it a lot in commentary on the Anne Lister tv series, with people claiming that "they didn't even have words for what they were feeling, back then." But see my podcast When Did We Become Lesbians? for a review of much earlier examples.]

The classical sources that mention Sappho’s homoerotic reputation, Hallett notes, frame it as slander. [But does that mean it was slander in the sense of being false, or that attitudes towards female homoeroticism made the charge inherently slanderous? I don’t see this as an argument against the possible truth of the claim.] Moreover the surviving fragments of Sappho’s poetry that include emotional responses to the beauty of women do not include “decisive evidence that she participated in homosexual acts” [i.e., don’t include explicit descriptions of genital activity]. Hallett acknowledges that this may be only “tasteful reticence” and points out a parallel with a vase painting depicting two women performing a “chin-chuck gesture,” which was understood as indicating erotic interest/activity, but not depicting intercourse (whereas male couples in art were sometimes depicted as unambiguously engaging in sex acts). Hallett also notes that there may have been more explicit content in poems that have been lost or deliberately excluded from the surviving material. However the poems do include first-person expressions of strong physical responses in same-sex contexts.

Hallett now moves to her theory that the interpretation of these passages as indicating personal homoerotic interest is due to imposing modern ideas about gendered sexual behavior. Specifically, she points to the fact that archaic Greek society was extremely gender-segregated and that women could not expect to receive romantic love and sexual satisfaction from a husband.  The “wedding poems” focus on the desirability of the young women and their upcoming change of status and loss of “maidenhood”. Their education in sensual experiences and sexual awareness could only (in this social context) have come from other women. This, Hallett suggests, was the true purpose of Sappho’s poems: to awaken young women to sensual awareness and prepare them for marriage.

Male and female experiences within gender-segregated socializing would quite distinct. For the most part, “public life” (politics, education, athletics) were exclusively a male sphere and included an acceptance of male same-sex liaisons of an age-differentiated character. Male praise and esteem of male beauty was an accepted and approved rhetorical mode without necessarily indicating a specific sexual relationship in every case. [Note: and yet, it did encompass sexual relationships in many cases.] Similar same-sex praise of the beauty of women could presumably have been institutionalized and accepted without necessarily indicating personal erotic relationships. And there is evidence (from male authors) that the sharing of sexual knowledge was part of women’s homosocial socializing.

When considering to what extent Sappho’s poems reflect her own emotional responses, rather than being part of a formal tradition, Hallett compares them to the “maiden songs” of the male poet Alcman from a similar era. These are accepted as formal compositions intended to be performed by women, and that therefore the first-person expressions in them clearly cannot be taken as Alcman’s own personal emotions.

Hallett concludes by acknowledging that while Sappho may well have had homosexual relationships, this question isn’t necessarily relevant to understanding and appreciating her poetry.

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historical