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Friday, September 19, 2003

Book Reviews

Oprah’s Sappho

Sappho’s Leap by Erica Jong, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2003, 316 + xix pages, $24.95.

The poet Sappho has one of the great reputations of antiquity. This is odd, considering that she lived at a very early time, seven centuries before the Common Era, in a remote part of the Greek-speaking world, in the city of Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, in the northeastern Aegean. Her fame derives from two surviving poems and numerous lines, half-lines, and phrases — most of them the citations of ancient scholars wishing to demonstrate some peculiarity of her island’s variation of the Aeolic dialect. The two poems, sole survivors of an oeuvre, which reputedly filled nine books, are indisputably brilliant, acclaimed through the ages as masterpieces, and fuel the speculation that everything she composed must have been the same. Since it does not survive there is nothing to dampen the enthusiastic appraisals of her work.

The Athenians spoke of their Greek-speaking neighbors to the east as having a brilliant, artistic, sensual culture, influenced, they thought, by the luxuriant tendencies of the people of Asia Minor. Ancient Athens was not unlike nineteenth century Boston looking with a combination of suspicion and envy at New York. Naturally enough in a society in which high culture — art, music, literature, and the like — was controlled and shaped by males, the presence of so successful a female poet is remarkable. Furthermore, the fragments of her poetry which indicate a strong emotional attachment to young girls has given the world the term “lesbian.” Some may recall that in more delicate times the term “sapphic” was often used for the same thing. It is ironic and ludicrous that a woman who like all ancient Greek people could eroticize any attractive person whom they encountered, male or female, and enjoy them physically if the circumstances were right, should be reduced to be the identity of someone locked into the narrow confines of one sexual response.

What little we know or think we know about Sappho suggests that, she was born into the aristocracy, that along with the rest of her class, she had an antipathy toward the ruler, Pittacus, and was perhaps exiled or went in disgust to Sicily. Pittacus was, like others of his kind, called a tyrant; the term originated with the Greeks. It did not necessarily mean a monster like Idi Amin, but rather someone who came to power illegally, that is, without the consent of the aristocracy, and who often enough represented the interests of the new commercial class. In one of her many extraordinary inventions the author of Sappho’s Leap makes him the constant lover and companion of Sappho’s widowed mother, a kind of bizarre idea, a seventh-century version of Edward VII and Mrs. Kepple, another source of conflict and domestic woe in her heroine’s life.

The aristocracy, were used to being celebrated or celebrating themselves in oral poetic narrative, or in song composed for choruses. The traditional language of these oral performances was what was to be found in poems like Homer’s. Choruses represent the group; the individual is not so important to aristocracies as the group. Rugged individualism, so widely celebrated today, represents the thinking of shop-keepers, not aristocrats, whose profound sense of group identity, allegiance to their class, was matched by their exclusivity. The genius of Sappho was, so far as we can tell, in transforming this traditional poetic language used to describe societies at war or males traveling or cosmologies, into a poetic utterance describing the emotional life, specifically the emotional feelings of a woman in love.

As Ezra Pound dictated “Only make it new!” This Sappho did. Many scholars assume that her poems, which seem on the surface of things so celebratory of the individual, were in fact performed by choruses. It is very difficult to imagine the circumstances of performance given the fact of her being a woman, whether she herself sang, or others, whether in a domestic setting, a court setting, at a women’s festival or some other site.

It is important to keep in mind that love in antiquity was understood very differently from how we think of it today. The ancient Greeks considered love to be desire, the physical sensation that causes someone to want to have sexual relations with another. It was a derangement of the body and the senses, a disease like malarial fever or cholera, for instance. The commonplace modern sentimentality that infuses our idea of love was entirely absent in ancient discourse on love/desire. Sappho was said, however, to have had many adventures with her desires, and at last to have thrown herself from a cliff over an unrequited love affair. That is the kind of nonsense that make ancient literary biography so much fun to read.

Sappho’s aristocratic birth, the ancient idea of song as a divine calling, the extreme delicacy of the language and thought of what poetry we have of hers, the tragic fact of the loss of her poetic output, combine to have given her a kind of image through the ages of elegance, refinement, high-minded sensual interests, in short, a kind of Jamesian lady or heroine for George Eliot. So it is immensely entertaining and instructive to read the take on Sappho created by Erica Jong in this book. It’s a shame that she waits until page 295 to observe that she sees Sappho as a cross between Madonna and Sylvia Plath. A more delicious, campy construct one can scarcely imagine!

Sappho’s Leap is structured as the last minute re-run of the poet’s life, minutes before she leaps from the cliff. In Jong’s recreation of this life, Sappho goes through almost all the delights, problems, crises, successes and failures of a very successful American woman of the twenty-first century. Who would have guessed?

In Sappho’s time a fellow townsman, named Alcaeus, was also a poet/singer more of whose poetry has survived, giving us a lively sense of his valor in war as well as his active political opposition to Pittacus who eventually exiled him. In Jong’s story Alcaeus takes the virginity of the young Sappho and remains forever after the object of her deepest yearnings, someone she actively seeks and almost always misses. These are the star-crossed lovers of the Hellenistic novel, a prose narrative form created in the third-century BCE, although Odysseus working his way home to Penelope is clearly a prototype. The interesting fact is that the stereotype plot always has the male struggling to get back to the female, true to the facts of ancient Greek life where males travel, women stay at home, if not indeed truer still to the underlying biological fact that the sperm travels to find the egg.

So Sappho’s constant search for Alcaeus is a reversal, which one can read as Jong’s foregrounding the feminist ideal of the woman of action who seeks her mate. It is a handy device to motivate the picaresque narrative, “Where is there one woman who sets out on the sea to earn her wisdom? I would be that woman.” (84), but Sappho’s constant expressions of yearning for Alcaeus, somehow remind one of the cliched female overly dependent upon an indifferent male. I guess this is the Sylvia Plath in her. It is also odd that when Sappho finally is united once more with Alcaeus, she chooses this occasion to sleep with Aesop, the fabulist, who has been her chaste traveling companion for some time. One can read this as Sappho’s instinctive desire to ruin any relationship that might entrap her, or Jong’s inept way of getting Alcaeus to leave the scene in anger when he catches them in flagrante. Alcaeus as the poet of war, Sappho as the poet of love are bundled into an allegory with Aesop, the thinker, and it is this trio who survive together at the end.

They survive together with Sappho’s former slave, frequent bedmate, and at last equal and dear friend, the servant Praxinoa who reminds one at times, of Thelma Ritter, Bette Davis’ dresser in All About Eve, when she is helping her self-obsessed mistress get ready for one of her star turns. Prax, as she is generally called, by Jong’s Sappho, not only provides nightime solace, but a healthy dose of scepticism and intelligence when Sappho starts to get carried away. This is the famous Nurse, encountered throughout western literature, the same stereotype whether nurse to Euripides’ Medea or to Shakespeare’s Juliet, allowing for two points of view of action as though emanating from one head. Jong enlarges the nurse role for Praxinoa by having her at one time leave Sappho when she becomes so imbued with the philosophy of life of the Amazons as to become what we recognize in the twenty first century as a fundamentalist (145-147).

As a young woman Jong’s Sappho hears the gods Zeus and Aphrodite (in a dialogue that recalls Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite) making a wager in which Zeus will win if Sappho abandons her poetic calling for the love of a man. So another strand of plot development is woven in which Sappho abandons every human relationship for her art. The odd thing is that Jong consistently describes Sappho’s performances as though she were a twentieth century celebrity doing the nightclub circuit. The talk of career, fame, dressing rooms, stages, audience reactions, seem utterly alien to the seventh-century world of Sappho, and calls to mind Barbara Streisand or Cher, certainly more than Madonna whose stage appearances are more performance art than a woman singing to a group. Certainly the drinking settings, sort of symposia, are utterly unlikely venues for a woman and to describe Sappho getting sexually excited at one or having a drunk on the floor recognize her, as the great Sappho (109) seems ludicrous.

As a feminist icon Sappho as you might imagine has a lot to say about the two genders, and about sex. She muses on the fundamental weakness of men (202). She is concerned about growing old and hence physically unattractive. She has the glorious luxury in her fifties of having constant sex with a nineteen or twenty year old boy, whom she later sends off to get her daughter (who cannot conceive a male child with her husband) pregnant. There is a great description of Sappho and a priestess of Isis making love in a sarcaphagos, so like the bizarre venues for such actions in Hellenistic novels. She runs a school for girls who want to take up poetry and singing and beds them all in the grand old Greek tradition of pederastic education. To her daughter Cleis jealous of the attentions her mother pays to students, she says: “I can’t just be a grandmother I have to sing, to be with the students.”(234)

Pittacus, to whom she has been reconciled, threatens to run her out of town. She accepts that Alcaeus sleeps with boys, but goes berserk when she hears of other women (as he does when she sleeps with Aesop); as Chiron tells her, “the phallus cannot stand competition” (223). Boys, she decides are a male’s way of having uncomplicated relationships, as opposed to what loving a woman entails. Jong’s Sappho does not seem to realize that any affective instinct ancient Greek males possessed was given over to male pederastic relationships, not to women. When after she herself has enjoyed a youth in bed, she claims that now she understands why Alcaeus goes for boys because the young penis is always at the ready. Jong’s Sappho reveals her complete ignorance of the mechanics of pederasty, in that it is the active Alcaeus not the passive youth, who needs to be ready.

Jong’s Sappho could go on Oprah. She loses her adored father, and her mother takes up with a man whom Sappho despises and abandons her. Her daughter Cleis is stolen from her because she is an inappropriate mother. The man who takes her virginity disappears from her life and she wanders the world to find him, all the while exhausting herself in the pursuit of an international career, and a series of sexual relationships with both sexes. She might repeat to Oprah the words of advice she gave the amazons when they told her they eschew sex: “Without lust there is no juice” (156), and that perhaps is Jong’s assessment of the inspiration for Sappho’s poesie.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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