Monday, September 7, 2015

Phalli, Vulvae, Thought: Part Finale!

            A note: I kind of, sort of apologize for all the Greek in this post. But not really. I'm ridiculously proud of myself for figuring out how to enable the correct keyboard, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my efforts at learning some Ancient Greek have enabled me to just barely type some of it without getting a headache. All poems/fragments are from Anne Carson's translation, If not, winter.

            I would be lying if I said I was satisfied with what of Sappho I have available to me. But...I sort of thrive on dissatisfaction. I am a poet before most things, and I no more want everything in the world filled out, finished, and explained with perfect clarity than I want to die and actually meet the God with whom I have such a robust, painful, and complicated relationship; meeting one's paramour is so often a disappointment.
            Still, what to do with poems who cling to life by the thread of individual words?

αὖα          dawn
μυθόπλοκος          mythweaver 
γρύτα          makeup bag
ἀλγεσίδωρος          paingiver
But then, things happen in a poem fragmented by time and matter's dissolution:
οἶον τὸ γλυκύμαλον / ἐρεύθεται ἄκρῳ ἐπ' ὔσδῳ,

ἄκρον ἐπ' ἀκροτάτῳ, / λελάθοντο δὲ μαλοδρόπηες,   
οὐ μὰν ἐκλελάθοντ', ἀλλ' οὐκ ἐδύναντ' / ἐπίκεσθαι
as the sweetapple reddens on a high branch

high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot —
no, not forgot: were unable to reach
I really, really wish I could explicate the poem, and the incarnation we have at our disposal, as well as Carson. But I cannot. Here is what she has to say about it:
"The poem is incomplete, perfectly. There is one sentence, which has no principal verb or principal subject because the sentence never arrives at its main clause. It is one simile, whose point remains elusive since the comparandum never appears. It may be from an epithalamium, but it seems precarious to say so in the absence of the wedding party. If there is a bride, she stays inaccessible. It is her inaccessibility that is present. As the object of comparison suspended in line 1, it exerts a powerful attraction, both grammatical and erotic, on all that follows, but completion is not achieved — grammatical or erotic. Desiring hands close on empty air in the final infinitive, while the apple of their eye dangles perpetually inviolate two lines above." (Carson 1998, 27)
Perhaps the rest of the poem was gorgeous. Perhaps, had it survived intact, it would have altered the course of Western literature. Perhaps I am wrong to celebrate the magic in the interaction between the poem's words and images, and the brokenness of the body which managed to stagger its way out of time.

            In Republic, Plato uses three classes of citizen in his ideal state as an analogy for the human soul, where the warrior class stands in for the spirited part of the soul. The part which grows offended when someone has insulted or wronged you and will fight for your dignity as well as your survival. The part of you, in modern parlance, which watches out for your "boundaries."
            I don't put the word in quotes because I disparage it. Recognizing where I end and other people begin has been a major part of growing up for me. But then, is it essentially human? In hunter-gatherer societies, as well as in many more traditional horticulturist and/or herding societies, the individuals live in relationships which I think many modern psychologists would define as pathologically enmeshed. In fact, I think an argument could be made that the belief that I end anywhere is related to statism and capitalism: their methods of definition by literal delineation, by finitude.
            This conflation of the individual and the state was not Plato's innovation; at the very least, I know that the Pharoahs and the Hittite kings made a similar move in their rhetoric. But I don't know of any previous writer who went in Plato's direction: rather than the individual representing the state/kingdom in miniature, as it were, an entire city state was used to depict the complex of needs, hungers, drives, and dreams of the individual.
            The question of boundaries is paramount in erotic literature. Sappho calls Eros, among other things, λυσιμέλης: lusimelēs. Limb-loosener, or melter of limbs.
Ἔρος δηὖτέ μ᾽ὀ λυσιμέλης δόνει,
γλυκὐπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον
Eros the melter of limbs (now again) stirs me —
sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in
      (Sappho fr. 130)
 πόλλα δὲ ζαφοίταις᾽ἀγάνας ἐπι-
μνάςθεις᾽ Ἄτθιδος ἰμέρωι
λέπταν ποι φρένα κ [ . ] ρ . . .  βόρηται
But she goes back and forth remembering
gentle Atthis and in longing
she bites her tender mind
      (Sappho fr. 96)
Lobel and Page translate the last two lines "a hole is being gnawed in [my] vitals." Is this being-crossed-into desirable? Certainly, historically, it seems to be the very definition of desire. And when I come across it in my own life, I almost never say no. Is it pathological? Do we want to avoid pathology? And what of happiness? Because Eros seems very, very rarely to lead to happiness. Or at least, not the American version of happiness.
ὄπταις ἄμμε          you burn me (fr. 38)
ταῖςι ψῦχρος μὲν ἔγεντο θῦμος          their heart grew cold
πὰρ δ᾽ ἴειςι τὰ πτέρα                            they let their wings down (fr. 42)
Γλύκηα μᾶτερ, οὔ τοι δύναμαι κρέκην τὸν ἴςτον
πόθωι δάμειςα παῖδος βραδίναν δι᾽ Ἀφροδίταν 
sweet mother I cannot work the loom
I am broken with longing for a boy by slender Aphrodite
      (fr. 92)

The triangle is one of love poetry's most enduring formations. It allows for heightened complexity, heightened desire, but still maintains cohesion, still resists centrifugal disintegration. One of Sappho's most famous poems features a poignant triangle: the speaker*, a man, and a woman he is wooing. Its pleasure lies partly in the classical forces of the formation,** and partly in the way the poem tugs at the edges of the genders, the crosscurrents of identity, erotic lack, and social convention. Sappho paints a picture which is clear and vivid, but which also leaves vast tracts open for the reader/listener to slide in and out of the various characters.

Φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴςος θέοιςιν
ἔμμεν᾽ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάωτιός τοι
ἰςδάνει καὶ πλάςιον ἆδυ φωνεί -
      ςας ὐπακούει 
καὶ γελαίςας ἰμέροεν, τό μ᾽ ἦ μὰν
καρδίαν ἐν ςτήθεςιν ἐπτόαιςεν
ὠς γὰρ <ἔς> ς᾽ ἴδω βρόχε᾽ ὤς με φώνη -
      ς᾽ ο᾽θδὲν ἔτ᾽ εἴκει, 
ἀλλὰ καμ μὲν γλῶςςα ἔαγε, λέπτον
δ᾽ αὔτικα χρῶι πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμακεν,
ὀππάτεςςι δ᾽ οὐδὲν ὄρημμ᾽, ἐπιβρό -
      μειςι δ᾽ ἄκουαι, 
έκαδε μ᾽ ἴδρως κακχέεται, τρόμος δὲ
παῖςαν ἄγρει, χλωροτ έρα δὲ π οίας
ἔμμι, τεθ νάκην δ᾽ ὀ λίγω ᾽πιδε ύης
      φα ίνομ᾽ ἔμ᾽ αὔτ αι. 
ἀλλά πάν τόλματον, ἐπεὶ καὶ πένητα
He seems to me equal to gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
      to your sweet speaking 
and lovely laughing — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
      is left in me 
no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
      fills ears 
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead — or almost
      I seem to me. 
But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty
          (fr. 31)

            And for my next trick... I have no idea!! Which is glorious, because I tend to overplan by a mile. I usually have my next five to ten posts arranged in a neat little line in my head, so it's quite pleasant to be at loose ends. I've also been finishing a number of books — Carson's Eros: the Bittersweet, Saxon's Sex at Dusk (a highly satisfying, if somewhat disturbing, rebuttal of the shitty science and psychology of Sex at Dawn), and Alison Stone's An Introduction to Feminist Philosophy — all without starting any new ones. It's so strange to have space open in my head.
            I suspect there will be some more posts on poetry, simply because I've been in the mood lately, but I'm also trying to leave some openings for what I'll be studying in my upcoming classes. This month I start on prerequisites to go to grad school for psychology (with a heavy dose of theology, philosophy, and psychoanalysis), so I expect to have a lot of pleasurable thoughts colliding and exploding in my head in the near future. We'll just have to wait and see what makes its way in here.

* The tendency is to read the speaker as Sappho herself. This is in fact how I read the poem. With the exception of the very tiny fragments (which is actually most of her work), I feel like it is fairly easy to tell when Sappho is taking a "higher" tone — i.e., is composing for a wedding or other such occasion, and is therefore speaking with a persona which may be very different from her own — and when she is speaks from her own heart. I may very well be being presumptuous.

** My favorite triangle of all time being I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.