Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Sappho, fissures and the banana skirt

It seems that everyone is captivated by Sappho but perhaps they are less
captivated by her writing than by the LACK of writing, the gaps, at once empty
and a cover on the "truth", the fragility of the whole AND the hole making the
construction all the more desirable...Just as it isn't so much what is
reavealed as what is covered that is the cornerstone of the economy of desire,
and the fever over Josephine Baker's banana skirt
was precisely the thin nature of this barrier that was a lack, a locus of the
phallus (and I do mean the phallus), but nevertheless a cover.

 It is evident that the lacunae in Sappho's text allow semantic breaks that
disrupt the flow of deferring by allowing it to be seen as having no object,
(thus becoming akin to differance, but from the opposite end?) In this vein, I
have argued elsewhere for the belief that the aporia or lacunae of a text often
reveal the
limits of an epistemology, the limits of the nameable, but since Sappho's
writing hints at a language LOST, not "yet-to-be", she and her writing are
neccessarily a locus
of interest to the modern consruction of sexuality. The fragmentary nature of
the received text provides us with a profundity into which we may SPECULATE
(P.S> "Navel Gazing" as specular activity??) and
reflect our own image, as is evident in the multitude of different
interpretations borne of "translation".

The gaps in a translation, the re-presented aporia also re iterate the space in
the text as the locus of desire...what we want of Sappho is to know what she is
hiding...and it is her silence that drives us to coninue to grapple with really
a very small body of received work. Seeking always to possess what does not
exist, and hence endlessly constructing Sappho's work as a map of desire,
despite whatever limited information the actual contents of the work may
suggest. This dialectic of desire in the obscured is
precisely the most valid point of "womaliness as masquerade" and is evident in
the world we live in today also, (although perhaps more and more encroached upon
by a "money-shot" mentality).

 Translation itself is much of the issue here...apart from the difficulties
associated with translating poetry (to follow meter or not to follow meter?),
Sappho's writing like that of many imported Greats of literature is often
rendered in a semi archaic english that is totally anachronistic and really
rather ridiculous when according to the analysis of Hellenic scholars her
writing operated in a kind of vernacular(cf. Shakespeare), albeit a very
sensual and beautiful one...(It is for this reason that I find some of Barnard
and Lombardo translations more satisfying...alhough rendering a poem in modern
language is also problematic). Perhaps the penchant for an accented English an
archaic patois is at work here...just as a black woman with an american accent
caused a storm singing in a fragmented French. THe lack of inclusion of the
gaps in the Sappho is interestingly telling also...The cheap edition I have
(1966) is unique in putting a title to all but the most fragmentary verse,
re-capitating it, if you will (with all the meanings that implies). THis really
is a fascinating little volume, because the introduction goes to great lengths
to separate Sappho from her own sensuality, it "defends her virtue" in an
almost victorian mein, and in some way censors the verse by giving it title and
leaving minimal gaps, reconstructing a solid tradition, a solid identity for the
work that makes it safe. At the same time, however the book is illustrated,
despite its puritanical overtures, with line drawings of delicate ladies in
togas, or without. Revealing of the split Christian psyche, I think...
academica and sanctified smut, perhaps? The aporia is denied because it hints
both at desire and the posibility of a libidinal economy without the
penis...perhaps as judith Butler suggests, where the phallus is transferrable.

 But again,  in fact looking at what we actually have of Sappho's writings, I
was struck by the thought that if popular poetic work, or art, or media imagery
were in a similar way transmitted hence down many generations, the impression
would be similarly an obsession with personal beauty and perhaps with the
female form, for better or worse. What I am trying to say is that the idea that
the concept of beauty as truth, wisdom, etc. that appears both in the Symposium
and in some of the fragments of Sappho is still with us, although the ways of
relating to said concept in these two different societies is by no means fixed.
Similarities in the content of the writing of Sappho and Plato do not end here
however: a fixed notion of the appropriate roles of parties in a relationship
separated by age is evident, as is the combination of the sensual and the
divine, which in it itself is a good case in point as to the different social
configurings of the same concept...today in the West these may be cast as
opposites, whose tension is exploited in the writings of someone like Genet,
very much part of the discourse of sensualtiy created by prohibition (cf.
Foucault), but in the work of Sappho and Plato, I can perceive no such
tension...perhaps a consequence of a sexuality that is diffuse and not
neccessarily genital, (but that is however penned in by a social code of proper
penetration). It is in this spirit that I find it difficult to agree with the
implication of Wilson's introduction when she discusses the description of
nature in Sappho as a sign of the eternal and essential feminine. I believe an
assumption that conflates the mores of a society far removed from nature with
the activities of one that is involved with it more intimately and which
incorporates it into both religion and ritual is potentially quite dangerous,
and seeks to locate in Sappho an example of ecriture feminine. I see her work
as the work of a talented woman, a desiring body, that has since become a
blueprint for desire as a consequence of what does not remain.

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