Sappho, Fragments, and Melancholy

NB: Sorry: this reads like notes for a much longer essay. TK.

Hamlet wrestled with the meaning of his life, often speaking in mad phrases. He’s mimicking madness—-or ‘letting it out.’

Melancholy and fragments interlock in the reception of Sappho. Fragment 4: ‘I do not expect my fingers/to graze the sky.’
(Stanley Lombardo trans.). We reconstruct an erotic setting for this fragment and find it expressive of infinite melancholy—yearning against all chance of love’s return. The juxtaposition of fingers and sky create the impossible image expected after ‘I do not expect…’

The fragment fulfills the role of the text as we’ve come to know it. The text has integrity of a sign by witnessing the self. The self is itself a ‘problem.’ Scholars used to argue about whether the concept has any relevance to Ancient Greek interpretation; the self being invented in the modern period. We know more about the self now.

So that Sappho signature ‘mood’ connects with a larger issue. It’s fragmentary nature ‘makes sense’ anthropologically. We don’t need the rest of the poem for it to ‘make sense.’ Erotic love tethers us to the beyond. And in addition with the double of Eros (how could we yearn infinitely for love without having already tasted it?), there is pre-reflexive communication. We live in a between —- the mortal/immortal between—- where a range of conscious awareness is present before we intentionally see things and make statements about them. Conscious acknowledgement of this strata of deep being has grown brighter with new phenomenological approaches to being like William Desmond’s.

About being’s archaeology the philosopher Desmond writes: ‘The idiotic is an elemental field of communication, shimmering with the endowed promise of the good of the “to be.” ‘ (The Intimate Universal, 206: the ‘to be’ is the grammar that allows us to talk about particular finite beings.)

‘Idiotic’ because irreducible to determinate cause: this field of communication makes possible every single voice in the community of being. Fragments benefit from the idiotics of being. If we try to strong arm a fragment of Sappho (or a bird song) we miss the boat. Poets are nightingales… or bullfrogs. Or, reconfiguring the idiotic, men speaking to men not to say women.

Melancholy seems too narrow a name for what’s behind— what presupposes—communication. With ‘idiotics’ as a precondition of poetic selving, the sign of communication we call lyric expresses PRIMARILY not frustrated human consciousness but a primordial ecstatic voicing of finite being: the human hand reaching beyond itself. Sappho’s second degree inflection of that image —- ‘I do not expect…’—- is something else, and we always hope to have more Sappho.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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