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.

Sappho’s Energy: Poem as Pure Potential

“Love shook
my mind like a wind falling on oak-trees on a mountain.” Sappho, Fr. 47 (Andrew M Miller)

Sappho’s energy — enargeia or vivid presence— awakens in me wonder at poetry and more specifically the things we call poems. How do they connect with our deepest desire to see and know the truth of things?

A poem is quite literally and essentially a space for wording the between, a sort of nothing, to use the terminology of William Desmond. Sappho’s fragments expose the flow of words into the defined empty space of the poem that pre-exists the act of communication. Meters and syntactic conventions are only two of the many structures whose interplay makes the poem real to us. Her metaphors may be traditional but they are often startling in their power to create strong feelings in readers by engaging them through analogy. All that glorious mental life is sponsored by the pregnant silence of her meters and stanzas as potential communication between subjects, both the axis of words and grammars and the axis of poet and audience.

Sappho Ur-poet

Sappho’s ‘Fragments’  are showcases of lyric structure. They compactly reveal poetry not as anything in itself but as an enabling intermedium between gods and humanity. Poetry is metaxu: the possibilizing between — see now William Desmond, The Gift of Beauty and the Passion of Being (Cascade 2018).

Sappho’s position on Mt Helicon may be an accident of history —Plato, known for his ambiguity as both friend and foe of poetry, called Sappho, we’re told, the Tenth Muse. Of the ‘nine books’ containing her complete works in Alexandria before fire destroyed the library, only a pitiful few fragments remain. The erotic, aesthetic, and philosophical energies they communicate continue to inspire poets. One of her gifts which translates well was for metaphor, which later commentators would elevate to the first rank of poetic forms.

Here’s Fragment 105a, from one of her many marriage songs. This is from Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translation by Andrew Miller (Hackett 1996)

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Sappho’s Space: The Community of the Poem Between

The emergence of Greek lyric in the seventh century B.C. provides plenty of evidence for the origins of the lyric in ‘the between.’ Sappho says, ‘Some say a host of horsemen is the most beautiful thing …’ (Fr. 16). Sappho says, ‘He seems to me equal to the gods’ (Fr. 31).

This space between speaker and auditor bristles with energy. It strains under the pressure of disagreement. It’s choked with passion. It’s threatened and shaped by silences of various kinds. Its wholeness is only apparent, for it represents ongoing acts of attention that are rewired with each reading. Interruption is as essential to the life of poetry as to the life of conversation.

Forms emerge from those readings that preserve the space between even as the communicants change with time. While poetic form is sometimes reduced by commentators to repeatable ‘formal’ elements (the Sapphic stanza), the specific form of each poem emerges only from its self-consuming passage through the between; the surprise attending its appearance may be compared to the appearance of a butterfly on a warm spring day. But the individual poem lasts longer than the particular butterfly.

In short the poem between is the evidence and source of a community that endures. The Greek name, found in Plato’s dialogues, for this creative space is metaxu.