Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Phalli, Vulvae, Thought: Part 5

            It would be disingenuous of me — writing a couple of posts about Sappho at the end of a series on homosexuality/homoeroticism in Ancient Greece — to try to deny the power of the questions around Sappho's sexuality. Was she, or wasn't she? We want to know. After all, this is the woman who originates the term lesbian, a term which has no correlate amongst gay men.
            But these are troubled waters. Often when a minority or disempowered group claims someone as their own — a move which they are not only entitled to, but which may also be vital to the psychological survival of some of their members — that someone gets relegated. That someone gets reduced. So DuBois wrote about Black people. De Beauvoir was a lady philosopher. And Wilde* was just so flamboyant, we can't expect what he said to apply to normal people. We titter, or assume that what they said has no bearing for those of us outside of that group. Descartes, though. Bertrand fucking Russell. Now those were Philosophers. They were after universal truths.
            One strategy — often employed by well-meaning folk who fit more comfortably into the audience intended by those real Philosophers — is to pretend to ignore the difference. Or maybe sometimes the well-meaners do succeed, though I would argue they do so by eliding the difference subconsciously. But perhaps writers and professors are right to simply say, for example, that Hannah Arendt was one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century. Perhaps they are right to ignore that she was a woman, to pretend that this doesn't mark her as extraordinary, to avoid at all costs the suggestion that her gender may have even shaped her philosophy.
            I want to first say that I completely understand why people employ this strategy. We are living in times highly charged by rhetoric debating sexuality, gender, race, and any number of markers of outsider status. I understand why men often look unsure, when we are locked in a philosophical debate, as to whether gender and its implications for philosophy are up for discussion. If I bring up my work as a doula in a conversation on embodiment, it seems downright silly to pretend that gender doesn't shape us as philosophers. But if not, and I voice an opinion about, say, Picketty's book, is it sexist to ask if my opinions are shaped by my experience as a woman? I see the wheels turning, and I completely sympathize, because the same wheels are screaming through my mind when I talk philosophy or politics or economics or even a goddamned cookie recipe with a person of color.
            But here's the thing. Let's return to Arendt for a moment. Because Hannah Arendt was also a Jew. And in the US in general, and the Northwest and Northeast in particular, being Jewish has become so normalized that now we openly discuss the ways that Jewishness has shaped people. My best friend is hands down one of the best debaters I've ever come across. When asked about his rhetorical abilities, he will often mention that his mother was Jewish, his grandfather a Jewish attorney and judge, and that he marinated in the culture of analysis and vigorous debate as a kid. This is just as normal as me talking about growing up Calvinist, or someone else mentioning the ways that Catholicism shaped their worldview.
            We're not just talking about the easy potshots here, like Woody Allen and Philip Roth; these are artists who declare their Jewishness from the rooftops.** We can now respectfully talk about how Freud and Spinoza were shaped, and how their thinking shows this novel perspective, or offers that unique contribution. We can talk about it because in our clearer moments we see how we are all shaped, how no one is "neutral," no one is "unflavored," while the rest of the world is somehow just like us but with added flourishes.
            I don't want to deny the reality of anti-Semitism, which is real and even thriving in some quarters. But I do think that in some regions of the world, a line has been crossed, and being Jewish — and owning the shaping power of that — is no different than being raised Catholic.***
            I couldn't speak for LGBTQ people and say they are to that point. It feels like that point is just around the corner, but considering that hate violence is still very real — and a particularly real threat for non-white LGBTQ individuals — I don't want to ring their victory bells for them.
            But in considering the problem of Sappho's sexuality, here are my hopes.
            I am hoping we have reached a point where we admit that she was most likely, at the very least, not straight (as we know it). And that we can avoid turning her queerness into her entire identity.
            I am hoping that we can see the beauty and innocence of a feminine sexuality allowed to thrive in its own pathways. That we can revel in the sensuality of her poetry, at the absolutely brilliant prosody, and acknowledge that her sexual desires and choices undoubtedly shaped her creative and intellectual impulses and development, the same way Socrates' sexuality, his ugliness, his wealth, and his physical power shaped his.
            We — and by "we" here I very much mean educated, upper-class, white folk — we typically don't read Shakespeare and think, "Well, but this is for such a small percentage of the world! Straight White Dudes only! Most of the world isn't Straight White Dudes, so this must be too narrow to be relevant." No. We defend it. We argue for a quotient of universality. We argue for the value of the craftsmanship. We argue for all we're worth the preciousness of the facets of the human psyche that Shakespeare managed to reveal.
            Anyone who considers herself a thinker, a serious reader, a lover of human culture and its artifacts, should be willing to do no less for Manjhan than she would for Plato; no less for Adrienne Rich than she would for John Milton; no less for Langston Hughes than she would Dante Alighieri; no less for Yvonne Rainer than she would for George Balanchine.

            A few words about Sappho and her work: if you haven't read Sappho yet, you don't yet know the language of desire. I mean it. Go buy this and this. The first is Anne Carson's translation of Sappho's fragments, and the second is basically a short book-length meditation by Carson on Sappho's poetry. Carson gets Sappho. Everything about sex and love and the gods and moonlight and weddings and beauty and abandonment and ecstasy and basically everything ever will be explained. Seriously. She might be better than the Song of Solomon. Also, for what it's worth, I don't actually buy that Sappho was a lesbian (as we know the term). I read her as bisexual. She's just so damned affectionate and appreciating of both male and female beauty. Most of the overtly erotic poems do seem to be about women, but I sense desire in her words about men as well. I could be wrong, obviously. But that's the vibe I catch.
            As I mentioned in an earlier post, Sappho lived well before Socrates. Interestingly, she lived right around the time democracy was becoming a thing in Athens, but there's a very important point to keep in mind here: Sappho was from Lesbos. Lesbos is, by ancient standards, nowhere's near Athens. In fact, it's much closer to modern day Turkey. I know I really belabored this in the earlier posts, but it's important to not accidentally turn "Ancient Greece" into a monolithic culture it never was. Athens was mind-bogglingly repressive towards women, even by ancient standards. Lesbos had a reputation for having women who were as enthusiastic about going down on women as they were about blow jobs; obviously, this could have been, er, tongue in cheek, but the main point I want to make is that Sappho doesn't seem to have felt the difference that we see when we look at her as a "lesbian" or "queer" or "bi" writer. She seems to have just fallen in love, a lot, and been really enthusiastic about it. I know I may be idealizing a bit, but that's about all I can extrapolate from her poetry. There's not a lot of angst. There's not a lot of, "But what if they find out??!" In fact, I can't see any of that. I can't see any fear. Which opens up intriguing possibilities.
            Sarah B. Pomeroy, the best authority I've been able to find on the topic of women in the Ancient World, writes this about Sappho:
Many modern scholars have vehemently denied that Sappho's sentiments occasioned overt erotic activity. The Greeks certainly realized that Sappho wrote about the sexual activities of women. Few fragments survive from this portion of her work: on one papyrus fragment the first five letters of olisbos (leather phallus) may be read with near certainty. Part of another poem preserved on parchment relates: "on a soft bed you satisfied your desire." "You" in Greek can be masculine or feminine, but Sappho is not known to have written erotic poems to men. In Greek literature generally, references to the women of Lesbos connoted unusually intense eroticism, both homosexual and heterosexual. Anacreon, writing in the generation after Sappho, complained that the girl from Lesbos whom he desired "gapes after some other woman." The homosexual reputation of Lesbian women was the theme of Lucians fifth "Dialogue of the Courtesans," written in the second century A.D. On the other hand, in Athenian comedy the verbs lesbiazein and lesbizein ("to play the Lesbian") and other references to the women of Lesbos connote enthusiasm for all sorts of sexual experiences and "whorish behavior." (Pomeroy 1975, 54)
So my next post will be focused on Sappho, and also on Carson's work interpreting her. Then I will be starting on prerequisites for a graduate degree in psychology, which means my infrequent posts may become even more infrequent. But alas. I am human, and I move at a human pace.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Shocken Books, 1975. Print.

* Well...*ahem* Wilde was. A bit.
** Though this stage may be a necessary part of the process.
*** I am, I know, grossly oversimplifying and glossing over an enormous problem, which I call the Problem of the Table. Those with the most privilege — namely, white people, and especially white, straight men — tend to think of ending the problems of prejudice as being a problem of just getting everyone to The Table. The Table being their table. They want to share. I think their hearts are often in the right place. But what I am more and more hearing from less privileged folk — and especially Black and LGBTQ activists — is that they are building their own tables, and they would like to stop having people steal from their tables. They would prefer their tables not get burned down, thank you, and they'd like it if we didn't hog all the fucking wood. In other words, our table isn't the only one, and in fact, lots of people don't even want to sit with us, we're that lame. Most frighteningly, most people might eventually decide our table is the lame table. Or something. It's a sloppy metaphor, but it's the image that keeps coming to mind these days. It could be argued that all that happened to Jews — and to Catholics, for that matter — is they got officially brought to our nice White Table. I'm not currently equipped to have that conversation. Part of me doesn't buy it, but another part of me has to admit that in the hundred years or so that we've seen the position of Jews change significantly, we haven't welcomed in a new world order. This problem — of White straight people trying to make social justice a problem of just getting everyone to our relatively unchanged table — is an absolutely massive problem.