Can Sappho be freed from receivership? Part Two

2021.07.26 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. Continuing the essay that started with Part One, I consider once again here in Part Two the first word in Song 1 of Sappho, where the goddess Aphrodite is invoked as poikiló-thronos, and I return once again to my proposed interpretation of this word as ‘wearing [a dress decorated with] pattern-woven flowers’. In the illustration for Part One, I already showed a picturing of such a mode of dress in a vase painting where Aphrodite is seen wearing a woolen himation or ‘shawl’ wrapped around her and covering her from the waist down. Observing the floral patterns that decorate her shawl, I now show, as a cover illustration for Part Two, a comparable vase painting. This time, we see the picturing of a cult statue of Aphrodite, whose toes seemingly come to life as they curl over the edge of the pedestal on which she takes her stand, and, this time around, the goddess is wearing a full-body gown, which is decorated, once again, with floral patterns. I was alerted to this point of comparison by my colleague Natasha Bershadsky, whose generous ongoing advice about comparanda between representations in the visual and the verbal arts has been for me a most treasured resource. This picture of Aphrodite, as I will argue here in Part Two, is relevant to the ancient reception of Sappho in the ancient world—which I continue to distinguish, as in Part One, from any would-be receivership of her songs in our own world.

Red-figure squat lekythos, painting attributed to the Meidias Painter: cult statue of Aphrodite, wearing a pattern-woven gown. Athenian, ca. 450–400 BCE. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, inv. no. AN1966.714. Drawing by Jill Curry Robbins.

§1. In the world of ancient Greek visual arts, as I have noted in another essay I posted in Classical Inquiries (Nagy 2020.12.31, linked here), the actual weaving of floral patterns into a fabric—the Greek word for such ‘patterned flowers’ is thróna—would be described as poikíla, that is, ‘varied’ or ‘variegated’—thus never exactly the same. And, as I also noted in the same essay, the Greek adverb dēute (δηὖτε), meaning ‘once again this time’, which is used three times in Song 1 of Sappho with reference to the onset of passionate love, conveys a comparable idea in the world of ancient Greek verbal arts: that is to say, the onset of such love is never exactly the same, since it is always new. This idea, as I will elaborate further in Part Two here, operates not only in Song 1 of Sappho but also in all her songs. And such a poetic operation can best be described, to repeat my proposal in Part One, as a poetics of repetition.

§2. In Part One, I used this formulation “poetics of repetition” only for the second time ever in the online series Classical Inquiries. Now in Part Two I add another formulation that I am using again only for the second time in the same series. This time, the formulation is a full-fledged aphorism devised by Søren Kierkegaard in his book Repetition (1843), which I first quoted in the book Poetry as Performance (Nagy 1996:100) and then repeated in my essay on the poetics of repetition ­­(Nagy 2015.12.31, linked here). I repeat from §12 of the essay (again, Nagy 2015.12.31):

The re-enactment of Aphrodite as the archetype of love in Song 1 of Sappho is made manifest by the adverb dēute ‘again’ (lines 15, 16, 18), which refers to the onset of love in the speaker’s heart. It is reinforced by the repetition of this adverb denoting repetition—three times at that (to repeat, lines 15, 16, 18). And there is further reinforcement in the triple repetition of otti/k’ōtti ‘what’ (line 15 twice, line 17 once). Yet, in this paradox of repetition, the more you hear ‘again’ or ‘one more time’, the more changes you see. It is all an archetypal re-enactment for the archetypal goddess of love, but for the humans who re-enact love it becomes a vast variety of different experiences by different people in different situations. This paradox of repetition brings to mind the words of Kierkegaard (p. 149 of the translation: see the Bibliography): “The dialectic of repetition is easy, for that which is repeated has been—otherwise it could not be repeated—but the very fact that it has been makes the repetition into something new.”

§3. Foregrounding this idea, that the poetics of Sappho can be viewed as a poetics of repetition, which is a matter of reperformances over time, potentially well beyond the posited life and times of this figure, I stand by the explanatory model that I developed in the essay I just cited, where I used the term mimesis in reconstructing the transmission of Sappho and other “classics” in Athens, especially in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE (Nagy 2015.12.31, linked here). And I contrast my explanatory model with other views as I find them presented in The Cambridge Companion to Sappho, edited by P. J. Finglass and Adrian Kelly (2021). Here in Part Two, as already in Part One, my modus operandi is simply to cite, one by one, any given page in any given chapter of the Companion to Sappho where I have a comment to offer. This way, as I already noted in Part One, readers can look up the sources I cited and thus make their own comparisons of the views presented on given pages of the Companion with the different views that I present here.

§4. Here in Part Two, I concentrate on two such pairings of different views:

Companion to Sappho Chapter 5 p. 76: It is said here, with reference to my lengthy essay about the transmission of songs attributed to Sappho and Alcaeus (Nagy 2007: “Did Sappho and Alcaeus ever meet?”), that I argue for a “fictionalization of Sappho’s lyric” by way of mimesis. It is claimed that such “lyric” is not “mimetic,” and I quote: “The fact that Aristotle does not include lyric in his Poetics since he did not consider it to be mimetic, i.e. fictional poetry, is disregarded and does not seem to be considered as problematic.” I would counterargue, however, that the genres performed by citharodes and aulodes—genres that Aristotle in fact features prominently in his list of mimetic media (Poetics 1447a13–16)—included the “lyric” compositions attributed to Sappho and Alcaeus, whose songs became “classics” in the lyric canon of Athens (Nagy 2018.12.06 and Nagy 2019b).

Companion to Sappho Chapter 16 p. 220: “Some scholars [with reference to Nagy 2004:39–40] have emphasized the role of Athens in the pre-Alexandrian transmission to the quasi-exclusion of other centres. Yet it is far more likely that by the second half of the fourth century BC local written copies of Sappho’s and Alcaeus’ poetry were preserved at Mytilene and that this copy was a primary source of the Alexandrian tradition.” The view advanced in this quoted formulation does not take into account a piece of evidence I analyze in my book Poetry as Performance (Nagy 1996:192–193):

Since the later Alexandrian critics seem not to have taken an active interest in performance traditions, whereas the earlier [Peripatetic] Athenian critics clearly did so, it seems to me most likely that the initial impetus for editing various non-Athenian songmaking traditions, including those of Alcman, Sappho, and Alcaeus, can be traced back to fourth-century Athens. I say this because the textual transmission of these songmaking traditions, mediated by the Alexandrian editors, reveals a wealth of details on the levels of dialect, prosody, and even orthography that could not have been preserved except through performance traditions. And such traditions would be a most likely topic of research for scholars in fourth-century Athens.

I believe I have found an example of such a fourth-century scholar: in Isocrates’ Letter 8, To the Rulers of Mytilene (dated around 350), Isocrates is pleading for the restoration from exile of one Agenor of Mytilene in Lesbos, currently living in Athens and serving as the ‘music teacher’ of Isocrates’ grandsons (paideuthéntestà perì tḕn mousikḗn, section 1). The father of these boys is Aphareus, a poet of tragedy. Isocrates goes on to say about Agenor of Mytilene (section 4): αἰσχρὸν γὰρ τὴν μὲν πόλιν ὑμῶν ὑπὸ πάντων ὁμολογεῖσθαι μουσικωτάτην εἶναι καὶ τοὺς ὀνομαστοτάτους ἐν αὐτῇ παρ᾿ ὑμῖν τυγχάνειν γεγονότας, τὸν δὲ προέχοντα τῶν νῦν ὄντων περὶ τὴν ἱστορίαν τῆς παιδείας ταύτης φεύγειν ἐκ τῆς τοιαύτης πόλεως ‘it is a shame that, while your city [= Mytilene] is acknowledged by all to be the most “musical” and the most famed figures in that field [ἐν αὐτῇ] happen to have been born in your city, yet he who is preeminent among those who are currently engaged in the historíā of this paideíā [maybe the ἐν αὐτῇ refers proleptically to this paideíā] is an exile from such a city’.

This passage suggests to me that around the middle of the fourth century there was in Athens an ongoing tradition of research in Lesbian songmaking, and I think that Lesbian songs were at this time still represented primarily by Sappho and Alcaeus. We may note Isocrates’ use of the word historíā, which I interpret as referring to Agenor’s research in establishing texts of these songs, as well as the word paideíā, referring surely to the practical activity of teaching youths how to perform these songs. Isocrates goes on to argue (section 9) that Agenor and his kin, if they were restored from exile, would not be offensive to the older generation of Mytilene, whereas … τοῖς δὲ νεωτέροις διατριβὴν παρέχειν ἡδεῖαν καὶ χρησίμην καὶ πρέπουσαν τοῖς τηλικούτοις ‘to the younger generation, they provide an activity [diatribḗ] that is pleasant, useful, and appropriate’. Again we may note the ideology of paideíā.


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