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Bookmarks: Re-Queering Sappho

Re-Queering Sappho by Ella Haselswerdt

Once, at a small dinner party with some fellow classicists, a genuinely lovely and brilliant male colleague floated a pet theory of his: Sappho was actually a man. It’s a perverse idea, but not an outrageous one. Sappho has long been celebrated as the lone female voice of Ancient Greece, and none of the writings of her many ancient fans ever questioned her gender. But one of the first things students of classical literature are taught these days, once they’ve learned how to decline a noun or two, is to rigorously detach the authorial persona you find in a text from any sense of historical biography. ...

In the past couple of decades, crusaders against the colonization of the past with our modern contemporary assumptions, models, and categories have cautioned against using the lower-case “lesbian” label to describe the poetess who resided in Lesbos. These critiques (always by male philologists) generally contain some entangled combination of the following assertions: the poems themselves are not as gay as you think they are; the term is anachronistic, and describes an identity category that did not exist in antiquity; and, in the raunchy genre of Athenian comedy, the character “Sappho” was obsessed with dick. These critiques betray a narrow and masculine misunderstanding of the nature of queer female erotics, a condescending assumption of naïveté about the nature of identity and identification, and the uncritical transmission of the deeply misogynist ancient reception of the Poetess. The supposedly progressive resistance to the colonization of the past begins to look an awful lot like the colonization of its narrow female margins by men. ...

the earliest contemporary reference I can find to the term [Lesbian] is a journal of sexual dysfunction, an imposition of male physicians on women they perceived to have been disordered. It’s not entirely clear to me when women started using “this classification” for self-identification (though a trip through the OED’s historical definitions of ‘lesbian’ and ‘sapphist’ was highly entertaining).
I would imagine that these brave women found in the imposed name of their supposed sexual disease a tradition worth embracing — a set of beautiful fragmented poems about the love of one woman for another, full of detailed imagery of flowers, women, and fruit, with an attention to private, embodied experiences of lust, loss, and longing. Slurs assigned to marginalized categories of people have often been taken up as proud identity markers. The doctors who pathologized women for displaying same-sex desire did not invent lesbianism. ...

When I first read Sappho (and as I read her even now) the thrill of recognition was not that of encountering the writing of someone who claims the same identity markers as I do. Instead, it is in the expression of an embodied desire that is free from the gendered hierarchies that saturate both of our societies. After being steeped in Homer, Thucydides, Sophocles — all authors whom I love, and in all of whose work the personal labored to be expressed under the heavy burdens of patriarchal convention — Sappho’s fragmented musings about the pleasures of female homosexuality were a revelation, one not dissimilar to my own after being raised in a conservative small town, exposed only to the romantic narratives of novels, television, and popular movies.


( 2 comments — Add your .02 )
Aug. 13th, 2016 04:18 am (UTC)
Gorgeous nd powerful.
Aug. 14th, 2016 01:22 am (UTC)
a condescending assumption of naïveté about the nature of identity and identification

Ugh, this. The least complex sex and gender assuming only they are capable of complexity.

I have Anne Carson's translation & edit of Sappho's fragments and her forward was enough to get me interested in the rest of her work, which I haven't for a second regretted. She is truly a wide and deep thinker who takes nothing for granted.
( 2 comments — Add your .02 )

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