JUXTAPOSITIONS Sappho Fr. 31

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“Sappho,” translated by Stanley Lombardo, Hackett Publishing Company, 2002, p. ix.

“The intimacy does point beyond itself but in no extrinsic way because the universal it communicates itself is not an extrinsic idea but is the word of communication that has come to incarnation in the aesthetics of happening. …The brimming over calls on us to deny both dualistic opposition and dialectical subsumption, and to hold to the “metaxu” as the field of communication where the passing into intimacy of the universal is matched by the surpassing of the intimacy toward the universal. …The artwork is a wording of the between—-metaxological in the literal sense of an aesthetic logos of the ’metaxu.’”

William Desmond, “The Intimate Universal,” p.86.

Sappho was a poet on the island of Lesbos in the late seventh and early sixth century. She was prolific and famous. But we read her from fragments, many of them from the late nineteenth century. Her fate as a poet is a great example of the universal impermanence, our existential principle.

The fragment above is among the more complete fragments discovered in the Roman-era trash heaps of an Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus. I juxtapose it with a passage on the Metaxy that captures its dense evocation of the structure of choice in love, the moment of the aesthetics of happening. Notice aesthetic refers to the felt, lived moment, perceived in the body by a range of senses. Put more metaxically, this moment is characterized by the passing into intimacy of the universal and the surpassing of the intimacy toward the universal. This dynamic of linked relative passage is part of the phenomena of phenomenology termed chiasm after the rhetorical feature “chiasmus,” A/B//A’B’. For example: “Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.”

Fragment 31 is not chiastic in form. Using imagery from Greek epic, the traditional (Universal) poetic of her time, Sappho contrasts conventional — universal— conceptions of the beautiful with the intimate aesthetic happening caused by “whatever you love.”

My modest proposal that reading poetry should form the center of education cites fragment 31 as a necessary building block of character. Sappho is one of humanity’s great teachers.

But only if she’s read metaxically. The unit of lived experience of the between— Plato’s “metaxu” —- is central to a Greek tradition of which Sappho is a vital dialectical part. The chiastic relationship of universal and intimate dissolves the so-called Platonic ideals into porosity, another key term in the erotics of being. Desmond’s use of “passage” captures the temporality of the aesthetic — again think flesh or incarnation as the substance of the porous between.

Sappho’s “But I say” is her personal, existential commitment to the Intimate Universal. Desmond’s use of “brimming over” captures Sappho’s experience of “the most beautiful things.” The language of dualism and subsumption point to opposite aesthetics, which, far from pointing to Sappho’s Intimate Universal —-note her use of “whatever”— leave the poet alone with an aching head. (Horace is full of sad idealists!) Love is a matter of the chiasmus of the flesh, the double and other never reduced to ideal unity.

Sappho among other credits is a great poet of erotic otherness.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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