BMCR 1998.08.11

Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho. Between Men ~ Between Women: Lesbian and Gay Studies, edited by Lillian Faderman and Larry Gross


Snyder’s important book is sound and clearly written. She aims “to make the lyrics of Sappho of Lesbos … come alive for the modern reader” (ix) without sacrificing philological exactitude to theoretical matrices and without sacrificing the limits of what our evidence lets us claim to her interest in making Sappho come alive. Sappho’s double importance as a woman writer of note from Greek antiquity and as a woman who expresses desire for another woman demand explanation in the contexts of both classical antiquity and lesbian poetics.

The Introduction makes plain that S. is not trying to situate Sappho historically so much as she is trying to see what the poems can tell us today, if we but “abandon a masculinist frame of reference” (1). Subsequent chapters carefully define that frame of reference without merely reacting to it. This is one of the several advantages of Snyder’s work: she neither reacts to nor ignores masculinism but rather properly subordinates it to her own woman-centered reading of Sappho. For example, she identifies as “idle” the question of Sappho’s lesbianism, and suggests that Sappho adapted traditional mythological narratives so as “to enhance her descriptions of her female-oriented world.” (p. 77) Some might complain that this book is insufficiently political and ahistorical; Snyder finds her subject more an aesthetician and artist than a moralist, and is appropriately cautious about over-interpreting our dismally poor evidence for Archaic Lesbos. Snyder’s fin-de-siècle view of the poet is well-supported by the author’s concentration on Sappho’s erotic aesthetic (the subject of Chapter Five).

Thus, S. would show us not Sappho’s actual world, but her poetic world; and while Snyder is very knowledgeable about postmodern theories of gender, and she is not slave to theory. She sticks to the text, and generously acknowledges the work of many other explicators of Sappho who have helped us understand the poet. Thus the book is both revolutionary in its questions and perspective as well as very traditional in its close attention to the text and its contexts. The final chapters establish Snyder’s view of Sappho’s lesbian aesthetic; it is grounded in physical beauty as rendered by the Charites (p. 80), and concentrates on grace and reciprocity, rather than on the principles of mastery and domination found in some (Greek male homosexual) writers. This part of her work is indebted to Bonnie MacLachlan’s recent book The Age of Grace.

Snyder has some important concepts or working principles: one, that a longstanding critical principle of “presumptive heterosexuality” (e.g. p. 27, on 31 V) necessarily pathologizes the representation of lesbian desire. Secondly: in the author’s view, Sappho constructs desire, and ultimately her very poetics, as a triangulation. Because desire and its fulfilment come and go, unrequited love is not a function of that love’s abnormality and pervertedness, but is rather a normal aspect of the human condition (p. 15, on 1 V). In Sapphic desire, there are several leitmotifs: “song, repetition and renewal, fluttering and flight, rejoicing, and gazing” (p. 39).

The Greekless reader will be grateful that Snyder has provided transliterations and literal translations as well as the ancient text itself for those who can read Greek. The text used is that of Eva-Maria Voigt, Sappho et Alcaeus: Fragmenta (Amsterdam, Athenaeum-Polak and Van Gennep, 1971). S. also orients the palaeographically-challenged by explaining some of the more important punctuation and symbol conventions. Her translations (of all but the shortest and least-renderable fragments) are lucid and could stand alone.

Also very welcome are Snyder’s discussions of the cultural significance of those concepts and words (e.g. poikilia, doloplokos, ptoeo, chloros, charis, eerse, habrosyne) which illuminate both Sappho’s art and her eroticism. Snyder’s succinct review of the state of Sappho’s text and the ways in which this has constrained our view of the poet (4-5) will also be helpful for nonclassicists; we need more books of this kind in Classical Studies. Such works de-mystify our methodology while educating the nonclassicist about what is unique to our field. She has a gift for identifying the most important elements of her topic and concentrating on them with a few extremely-well-chosen examples. In that regard, a close reading of this book will also help classicists who are willing to doff the neuromuscular armature of presumptive heterosexuality. For instance, her reading of 31 V’s expression of desire with Jeannette Winterson’s exposition of same in Written on the Body (p. 35) is a textbook for woman-centered literary criticism.

Chapter One, “Sappho and Aphrodite”, names the poet’s relationship with the goddess as a central organizing theme for looking at her work, and not only because Fragment 1 V is an address to the goddess. Snyder shows how while the poem shares generic elements with many addresses to divinities in the Iliad and the Odyssey, it at the same time “subverts the traditional assumptions of a masculinist frame of reference” (9). Aphrodite is mighty, not the helpless, simpering coquette of some Homeric passages. She is given epithets which specifically address her power as a helper in love; Snyder’s review of recent work on the meanings of these terms in Archaic thought shows how laden they are with associations of intelligence and craft. The love relationship that the persona wishes Aphrodite to help her attain is highly erotically charged and, most importantly, mutual. Importantly, Snyder shows that beyond mere potency, “the goddess’s power seems to include potentiality as well; she can create the space in which the potential of erotic desire can be fulfilled.” (13).

In general, Snyder sees Sappho’s view of the erotic as powerful, primary and central to her world-view, whether the referent be Aphrodite or Eros (for the last, see insightful comments on 130V and 47V). In fact, in arguing for Sappho’s self-presentation as a new Homer, S. makes 16 V programmatic; for S., the poem attempts to supplant elements of the male heroic code by naming ” eros… the determining factor in defining the most beautiful thing on earth” (p. 71).

A key element in Snyder’s view of Sapphic desire, is that desire is triangulated (p. 24, on Sappho, Eros, and Aphrodite; the man, the woman, and Sappho of 31 V; and a meta-model of lover, beloved, and memory, as described on p. 45). She argues for a triangulated construction of desire best in Chapter Two, “The Construction of Desire”, in a beautiful discussion of 31 V. In this exemplary chapter, Snyder simultaneously reads the poem freshly, removes the barnacles of criticism and imitation which have attached to 31 V since antiquity, and uses the conclusion as an example of how truly subversive Sappho is if we can but remove the blinders of normative heterosexuality.

In every chapter, Snyder attends to the text with exquisite care. For example, in Chapter One, she first discusses the poem that is closest to complete which depicts the power of Aphrodite and next supplements this by discussing less-complete poems which depict the goddess (e.g. Fragments 2, 86, 33,133, 134, 65, 140a, 73a, 130 V). 2 V extends Snyder’s notion of how Sappho makes Aphrodite able to create space, by demonstrating the poem’s concentation on “the space into which she is being invited” (p. 19). This method is employed as well in subsequent chapters (“The Construction of Desire”; ” Eros and reminiscence”; “Sappho’s Challenge to the Homeric Inheritance”).

Another aspect of the Sapphic persona is, of course, that of “a lyric hero in the battlefield of love” (16), as seen in Fragment 1 V and (94V?). I tend, with Page duBois, to deconstruct this heroicism rather more than does our author, and to see Sappho’s stance as anti-heroic, and therefore see Chapter Four, “Sappho’s Challenge to the Homeric Inheritance”, the least successful. That chapter also contains pithy insights about the damage done to our understanding of the poem by “attempts to set fragment 16 within a strictly heterosexual context” (p. 70).

Like her reading of the well-preserved fragments on Aphrodite, discussed above, which demonstrate how Aphrodite is in charge of the space in which an erotic attachment can develop, so too Snyder shows Sappho’s nuancedness when she demonstrates the trancelike qualities of 31 V, phainetai moi. This poem reveals that “what the song describes is not so much experience per se as the perception of experience” (p. 29). Thus the significance of triangulated desire is that the most real object of Sappho’s discourse is ultimately Sappho’s own subjectivity (see pp. 31 and 35, for examples).

A final chapter on “Sappho’s Other Lyric Themes” is an insightful look at material not covered elsewhere and serves as the introduction to her epilogue on “Sappho and Modern American Women Poets”. Clearly, Sappho’s influence on the later literary tradition has been profound and varied, and Snyder has done well to focus on just one set of writers who have drunk from the spring. This chapter’s impressive treatment — as grounded textually and bibliographically as those preceding — will educate Women’s Studies instructors who lack historical context for their readings of Sappho as well as Classical Studies instructors who need fuller answers to questions regarding Sappho’s influence on such American writers as Amy Lowell, H.D., and Olga Broumas.

To paraphrase Snyder, her book provides an emphatic ‘yes’ in answer to the question “Is there such a thing as the female gaze?” This book will be useful to specialists in Classical Studies who seek a fresh view, as well as undergraduates, graduate students, and those who teach them Classical Studies or Women’s Studies.