(Note: FOR AN IDENTICAL PRESENTATION WHICH INCLUDES SOME PHOTOS, PLEASE SEE THE FOLLOWING: link )
1. Simple lines
Suppose you read the following brief poem about eros:
“I don’t know what I should do: two states of mind in me … (36)
I’m in love! I‘m not in love!
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!
Suppose you reread it. Such simple few lines composed with such few simple words. What would you tend immediately to think? Would this be a candidate for a Daily Deviation here at dA? It seems to me not, for a multiplicity of reasons. I believe dA is at times too sophisticated. I tend to think most of us would smilingly frown upon it; it sounds too juvenile. Perhaps we would even tend to feel a tad of sarcastic sympathy within, we might even mock the words a bit. We laugh a bit at them; though perhaps the joke is, as we shall see, on us. When one is not in love, irony towards the other rules; yet, when in love, such irony is the least of our concerns.
But back to this simple poem. We already know so much about love and the erotic that we might in fact fail to see, to touch, to smell, to conceptualize. More philosophically, we modern westerners tend to think we have truly liberated human sexuality to its fullest expression. But this might just be simply a dangerous illusion as Michel Foucault dramatically points out in the first volume of his powerful The History of Sexuality. Although he is one of the strongest defenders of postmodernism —-a movement which criticizes the tyranny of modern reason—— there Foucault radically criticizes the connection between modern sexual liberation and the false sense of overall liberation we assume we have reached from the deeper western roots found in our confessional practices.
But back to the poem. Does it not seem altogether naïve? These words seem more a youthful description than a poem; they merely recount a very personal moment which most of us keep to ourselves. But let us not be so quick to dismiss it; maybe its apparent simplicity demands of us an effort which goes unnoticed at the start. Line-art, as I have argued elsewhere, does so similarly. What, then, does this naïve poem demand? That we situate ourselves in the time of the lover who loves; that time is the now of our existence. To remember a love is not be in love. To demand a love to the future is not to love fully. We humans can only fall in love in the now, we can only love in the present presence of the now. But we ALL know this; so, what makes this poem so special? Why tell us about it? If I had written it, I would probably not have much to say. But here is the thing, it was written by a lover, perhaps the greatest woman lover of them all. These simplistic words were written by Sappho, one of the greatest poets in human history. Courageously, she has marked down these dramatic words to posterity so that we can situate ourselves in the “now” of the erotic. But besides, all her words carry an erotic charge which has not dissipated over the centuries. In her poetic lines she confronts us and reminds us of the complex nature of erotic life as expressed in our deepest longings and complex desires as humans.
But let us go back to the poem. Why then is this poem so famous if it is so elusively naïve, even premature and incomplete? Therein precisely lies its force. Its simplicity deludes us into thinking that no complexity is there to be found. Its simplicity masks purposely. This journal tries to investigate this simplicity. It briefly seeks to investigate some of the many questions regarding erotic desire and its puzzles as seen by Sappho. One could even go so far as to say that this type of exercise is required in order to deepen the discussion on sexuality in our societies. We constantly hear that we, as a society, have failed in our own erotic education. I truly believe we have failed and will fail, unless we take seriously the task of understanding desire beyond the technical and biological aspects we emphasize as moderns. That type of technical education and practice speaks thus: your sexual organs are such and such; they are located here and here; you put this there; you put this on like so; if you touch here, then ; have any problems? Take this… …. ; and so on.
Instead of defending such crass reduction, an investigation on the metaphors of erotic love becomes central to understanding ourselves; even to deciding what type of life we choose to live. For the questions around the erotic involve a choice of life. Such an investigation will touch on Sappho here as one of the representatives of the views of eros as defended by artists. But this investigation requires a much deeper understanding of the challenge to artists set forth by Plato’s and Aristotle’s combined understandings of desire. Art and philosophy are THE privileged avenues to desire. Exploring them both, opens us to ourselves in a broader, less illusory fashion. Women like Martha Nussbaum lead the way here with her important The Fragility of Goodness. But perhaps the tension between both areas will eventually lead us to defend and, actually live, altogether different erotic lives.
Shaken by coming to recognize that what we thought was an irrelevant poem, we want to take another chance with it. Don’t we also sometimes want to take another chance with an unforgettable lover? We want to let ourselves be opened by the poem, Sappho wishes to open us and close us repetitively, teaching us the motions of our desiring natures. We must be ready to open ourselves and close ourselves in the rhythm of her “simple” words. For her, we must be ready to love as lovers do. For her we must be ready to risk.
2. Deceptive simplicity
So let us return to these opening lines which we now know have a poetic backing like few others. The poem, once again, reads:
“I don’t know what I should do: two states of mind in me …
I’m in love! I‘m not in love
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!”
First she tells us, “I do not know what I should do.” Don’t you remember this? You might answer, “Yes, I do.” But unfortunately, I must tell you that, strictly speaking, you cannot.. “Why? What do you mean?”, you protest. Part of the reason is this: if you CAN remember, then you are NOT in love in this moment. For in love, says Sappho in this poem, you just do not know anymore! Perhaps this is why we can never quite remember how badly it went previously the last time we loved, when we ACTUALLY fall in love again NOW. Repetitive loses accumulate as we cannot grasp what is going on each time.
And moreover, if in fact you CAN remember having felt this, then —-really, really—- you don’t remember. What you are trying to say just means, most probably, that you are now in love. Only in being in love do these words touch you as they should, for in love you are no longer yourself. As Sappho says, in love you do not know what you should do. And if you think you do, Sappho thinks you might just be deluding yourself.
Or in other words, of course, when we are NOT in love, or when we think we are assured the love of another —–which is a very odd thing to think/desire— we simply shrug our shoulders when faced with such “immature” poetic words. “Yeah I know, I remember when I fell in love”, you say to yourself. But in doing so you confuse what you ONCE felt in the PAST with what it is ACTUALLY to be IN love NOW. By projecting the “then” of love into the present moment, you certainly feel secure. This is the characteristic of the worst of lovers, says Plato in his beautiful Phaedrus. Plato finds this tyrannical type of love exemplified in the story of King Midas. Everyone knows his story; he tried to control the temporality of love, and failed.
In seeking such security, the indecision of Sappho’s poem seems juvenile and unworthy. But, “not to know”; do you remember how this felt so as to liberate YOU to the full presence of the present instant of loving now? Stricken by the other’s enigmatic presence, Sappho allows us —or better yet, makes us— feel what this presence does to us through her words. What occurs in the “now” of the erotic according to Sappho?
In the appearance of the erotic other, I lose all possibility of thoughtful presence. This Sappho affirms. Little wonder we mock those in love; we humor ourselves through their lost capacities. This is nowhere more poignantly revealed than in The Damask Drum, a must read for anyone interested in erotic desire. This is a short play by Japanese writer Yukio Mishima in which a poor and old janitor named Iwakichi, claims to fall in love with a 20 year old beauty called Kayoko. The perplexing dynamic of their affair reveals much about the way we mock those who lose themselves in love. But be that as it may, we have ALL at one time or another actually mocked those in love. For, you see, they truly seem out of their wits! They actually seem irresponsive, as in a dream. They are slow to reaction and for this we taunt them. They can’t even keep in their saliva at times! Even their bodily functions are a total loss!
“Not knowing” in that moment of the erotic encounter; to be simply grabbed by the force of a presence which remains even when not there. The absence of the loved one does not mitigate in the least the feeling. And worse yet, “not knowing” carries with it crucial problems in real life. “Not knowing” ourselves, ceasing to be who we thought we were, our actions cease to be coherent. For responsible actions require some kind of identity that affirms such decisions. No wonder lovers are irresponsible! The planned coherence once available to answer the question “ who am I?” evades us in this instance. We are paralyzed as rarely we are. This is why Saphho adds that her not knowing involves primarily not knowing what I should do. Once you know what you should do, you have lost contact with Sappho’s poem. Perhaps you seek such security, but ironically such security erases the moment which held the erotic tension in its extreme possibility. You get back to the security of yourself, but perhaps this is precisely the way to lose yourself.
But this is odd, isn’t it? How come you do not know what you should do? Well, we feel like saying to the lover, “Just kiss him or decide not to kiss him. Or send him a denial. Just get it over with”, we are frequently advised by friends. But that, precisely, is NOT the point. In contrast, Sappho asks us to remain in the presence of the moment in which the other comes into our view as a lover we desire intensely. But to remain there, this is almost impossible in our first loves, for powerful enigmatic forces override us, as we shall see. Perhaps in reading and understanding Sappho, other more enticing possibilities might appear for us.
But remaining in that privileged instant, we are —- paradoxically— conscious we no longer are fully conscious of ourselves. I do not know what to do in that moment which many seek to avoid, to forget. To this we shall return. For captivated by it, we can no longer do anything as we did. In a sense, I know I should, but I can’t; in another sense, I know I shouldn’t’ but I find that can and I will. And a question arises; is Sappho speaking here of the moral limitations of social life? Not in the least. That is not her concern here. Her point, instead, is that eros is a kind of assault; we tremble, we feel uneasy, and yet –paradoxically—we desire to feel so. Eros pushes us besides ourselves, and in doing so we, says Sappho, risk our very own personal and uniquely created identity.
This is confirmed by the simple words that follow. The expression of this enigmatic and unexpected entrance brings about severe division and fragmentation. He who was once one, has NOW become two. Knowing yourself divided, a fall of consciousness that both opens the world to new possibilities, but risks the very foundations of who we have become. Sappho adds in the poem, as if to validate our previous words:
“I’m in love! I’m not in love!
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!”
To be crazy is to lose it, to lose one’s wits; to remain in the realm of the metaphoric as against the unerotic realism of the everyday real. What we have suspected above is revealed as true. Knowing she cannot act, she nonetheless begins by accepting this rupture and division. The penalty of not being ruptured lies in the constant immersion in the ordinary world of constant personal presence. Many of us live, prefer to live, without such disruptions all our lives. We can actually BE with another and yet not love as Sappho claims we should. But some of us chose not to live so. Such are true artists, such are true philosophers. Instead of the safety of the known, the artistic lover embarks in another type of self-affirmation which might end badly for her. The poetess knows it is unreasonable to do so, to “chose” to do so. That is why she cries out of two severed minds that she is in love and that she is not, that she is not crazy and that she is.
These words have the sound of a certain truth to them, they reveal the stance of the person who has fallen in love. To fall in love is indeed to fall; it is to become another who no longer is as he was. To be in love. To become two; to be unable to decide. In love we are and we cease to be. For we love and we long to be with another, and yet that other who beckons us makes us fear we will be utterly lost to ourselves. But without such erotic presence the loss might be double! Divided we stand as we long to be and not to be in front of her. How peaceful it was when time was not rushing forth in the now. How peaceful it is to simply remember as if one had once lived such a life and had gotten over it.
Emily Dickinson, also a woman, knew of this kind of love. In her No. 18 she points out to the very same dilemma of internal division and strife:
“Heart! We will forget him!
You and I —- tonight!
You may forget the warmth he gave —
I will forget the light!
When you have done, pray tell me
That I may straight begin!
Haste! Lest while you’re lagging
I remember him.”
Of course, Dickinson speaks once the affair has come to the painful realization of the final loss. Sappho cannot accept this. It is for her, in a sense, a kind of cheating. Instead, Sappho asks us to remain in the now of the moment in which the touch of the other’s caress reaches us and we are paralyzed physically, conceptually and metaphorically. This journal stems from such decisions in my life.
No wonder Sappho’s words endure in their utmost simplicity as the barest –in the sense of most naked— expressions of the erotic instant. Erotic desire as unnamable cannot be named in too many lines; Sappho reminds us of this. Her courage lies in not being capable of denial. Her courage lies in opening herself, and ourselves, with her erotically charged words to the presence of eros in our lives. If ever there was a force that could make us transform our settled dispositions, here we have found it at last. And how we yearn for such change, we artists and philosophers.
3. Erotic assault
Romanticism as an artistic movement saw nature as somehow intimately connected to our most basic human desires. It was in and through nature that we found the most complete fulfillment available to us as natural human beings. For the romantics we sought nature to become whole once again, to overcome the temporary division which separates us as humans from the rest of the natural world; even to overcome the divisions within ourselves between reason and feeling, between thought and creative expression. In a sense a contemporary and dramatic portrayal of this dream is the stunning documentary The Grizzly Man in which a young man seeks to become one with the bears of Alaska. Of course, there are different types of romantic positions available; from the naïve kind found in Goethe’s Werther, moving to more complex ones such as the one found in Wordsworth magically healing poetry. To repeat, to bridge the gap between us humans and the natural becomes the cornerstone of their position. (See Taylor’s Sources of the Self)
But Sappho thinks otherwise. Sappho’s poetry reveals , continuously, its non-romantic character and foundation. This is, I believe, why it touches us so deeply as moderns living a disenchanted world. Seeking a certain type of erotic fusion with the world and the other is something she believes is unavailable to us. Sappho, instead, focuses seriously —–makes us focus seriously—- on the real nature of desire as we experience it as the embodied beings we are. This stance is powerfully revealed by Sappho in her vision of eros as a woman caught in the grasp of love. In this respect, perhaps one of the most anti-romantic poems ever written on the nature of erotic desire is the following:
”Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me
Sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up” (40)
We have already encountered Sappho’s simplicity of word. And, as it clearly stands out, she remains firm to her decision. My own line-art has been deeply influenced by her. But once again, this simplicity is truly deceptive. We desire an encounter, an encounter with Sappho’s simplicity. But we must not be blinded into believing that simplicity obscures complexity. Rather, it might just be that in simplicity lies the most complex of all affairs. For don’t we ourselves sense how simple it was to fall in love? And yet, don’t we acknowledge much later the complexity of what we did not see in the beginning?
How does Sappho express erotic desire in this famous poem? Sappho answers with great awareness. Against our romantic notions of eros —–the lovers who hold each other dreamily in a kind of oblivion of each (e.g. Tristan und Isolde)—- Sappho speaks as a mature human does. First, what strikes one immediately is that for her Eros is not at all chosen. Instead, she claims that eros is a creature which steals up; as if in ambush, as if unseen. Eros, a predator. The mystery of eros cannot be controlled from within for it is an unexpected appearance from the outside, a sort of reptilian assault which steals up towards us. Eros is an external force we cannot will, just as one cannot will either birth or death.
Secondly, instead of a gentle touch, she demands of us to recognize things as they are. Eros is a limb-loosener, not in the first instance a limb-generator. Eros whirls and twirls. It has hurricane forces to it. As it appears from hiding, no rectitude remains. No assured rigidity can face up to its overwhelming presence. And, as we saw above, it cares little for the powers of assured identity. In contrast, as if in a kind of protest, Sappho knows of her body’s loosing itself; for we do indeed tremble when in the presence of the lover (even if through a computer!) Each and every single limb comes apart as the force of the external comes rushing though my bodily self-image. Sappho demands that we recognize that eros touches our body first, our minds only much later. To live erotically is to pay attention to the body that we as finite human are and will always be until our death. This is why in another poem she writes:
As a whirlwind
swoops on an oak
Love shakes my heart”. (44, Barnard)
Eros without warning, impossible to fight off. Against it, no defenses. Or so it seems. But this is not altogether right. Of course, we ALL know we actually DO defend ourselves quite well. Even some of our modern marriages may try to become a kind of defense. But Sappho speaks not to those who claim such abilities, she speaks to the artists and artistically-minded humans who have the courage not to defend themselves from eros in irony, denial or multiple deflections. However, some of the consequences of such an open stance —–of the stance which sees something beyond the boring repetition of oneself in front of oneself—– may turn out to be dire. This is why in another short poem Sappho warns:
by drop” (61)
Freud also knows of the strange enticement behind these words, as he shows in this studies on the phenomenon of sadomasochism.
But that is not all. We are not even close to the poem yet. We have barely felt its loosening power. We have barely opened ourselves to Sappho’s bodily words. This is revealed by looking more closely at the poem, just as we desire to look more closely at our lover. We become like the photographers of Sappho’s poetic lines. We photograph her, that is to say, we write her in the light of our own erotic understanding.
Magnification brings out a special word in the poem. The poem uses the Greek word <b>glukupikron</b> which is erroneously translated in English as “bittersweet”. But the order of Greek is quite different; it is the same order of the word in Spanish. No wonder Spanish culture is close to the erotic; full of serenades, and dance and such! For the Greek word literally translates “sweetbitter”, or as in Spanish, “dulceamargo”. But what is Sappho pointing out? She is struggling to point out the temporal ordering of desire. The sight of the beloved in the first instance is adequately perceived as bringing forth a certain desirable sweetness. Rarely do we think of our first loves as lemons, rarely do we play erotic games with acid limes. Usually we use chocolates, and sweet oranges and the like. Later, of course, that MAY change.
But, less literally, what could this word be pointing to? Primarily to the fact that the assault that whirls us around, is, in the first instance, not so intimidating. The first encounter is actually pleasant. Of course, if our loves have gone badly, then we tend to deny this first impression later on. However that may be —–and it is a VERY frequent and difficult issue— Sappho speaks primarily to those who, in opening themselves to themselves, are honest to themselves as regards their natural erotic capacities towards the pleasant. But alas, it is also true that lovers can DO what in another poem Sappho says is itself a chosen denial:
”But their heart turned cold and they dropt their wings.” (16)
But then again, for Sappho that was not erotic love at all primarily because eros is not chosen. .
And even when previous loves have failed, we cannot but feel the sweetness of a new encounter. We feel what Sappho speaks of, namely, that in love we sense we are never more alive, readier for challenges, readier to regain our health, readier even for certain types of battles and decisions. The world is another, it has become unrecognizable.
But there is still much more to this little simple poem. According to the powerful work of Anne Carson, the crucial aspect of this poem is a tiny Greek word which, when translated, comes out to mean “once again”. The word in Greek is deute. The fact that Sappho seems to have invented it speaks volumes of her poetic abilities and endurance. But what could such a little word hold? The word “deute” relates us to the temporality of eros. It is grammatically composed of two elements: “de” which means ‘once’ thus signaling to the unequivocally non-repeatable present moment of the erotic encounter. “De” signals vibrantly the now of desire.
The second composite part of “deute” is the word “aute” which turns out to mean “again”. In contrast, it points to the temporal repetition of desires which have come and gone throughout our lives. “Now” we feel the presence of Eros, but Sappho in her maturity recalls that this newness was there before and was somehow “conveniently” forgotten. To this we shall return below. But that would not be fair; for if we remember well, Sappho’s erotic assault is NOT up to us! It just isn’t! So in this combined magical word “deute” the temporal nature of desire springs forth. In it, intertwined, we encounter the “now “ that we are facing in this instant as we look at her eyes (or messages if on the internet!), but this now is traversed “again” by the repetition of the many already felt assaults which have come previously in a similar fashion. To put it simply one could say, this poem reveals how this “now” is traversed by the “thens” of love. (Carson, 165) Pulled within the now, we actually feel in love. Pulled apart by the “thens”, we feel the craziness of the whole thing. And yet we let ourselves fall in the now. For Sappho, herein lies our humanity.
Much more could be said about the attempt to control the temporal nature of desire. To those interested in these issues Plato’s Phaedrus is a must read. Just recall King Midas. But here I would like to focus on what is meant by the now of erotic desire. So I will tell you a little story of mine. One of the main reasons I returned to Canada for a third time, was to see, feel and touch snow. To you this must seem incredible. But if you lived in the hot tropics you would never cease to be amazed by snow.
This whole absurd idea is perfectly captured by our amazing Gabriel Garcia Márquez in his deep and hilarious novel Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude). If ever you intend on living in a “developing” country, this is required reading. In his famous book, Gabo shares one of the amazing stories of José Arcadio Buendía. The book itself even begins with these incredible words which could barely be understood by an inhabitant of Northern latitudes:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
Upon death, Aureliano remembers the sensation of ice. I, for my own part, remember the sensation of snow. Gabo tells us the whole story a little later in the novel. José Arcadio ——Aureliano’s father—– exclaims after seeing ice for the very first time in his life: “It is the largest diamond in the world.”(We smile thanks to Colombian humour.) Just to touch the ice, means José Arcadio must pay a big sum of money. But the sensation suddenly brought upon him, sheds light upon the memory his son Aureliano will carry forth until his death. Gabo tells us:
” and so he placed his hand over the ice, and held it there for several minutes, while his heart grew swollen with fear and jubilation in contact with the mystery.”
Ice, a mystery; snow a mystery. But what could this mystery be? What is the mystery of ice? What is the mystery of snow? It’s a mystery that is not totally decipherable. You must grab an ice cube and experience it for yourself. What you find yourself stunned by, is the feeling of holding on to the effacing. The more you press, the quicker it melts. The harder you wish to hold on, the quicker it ceases to be. You desire not to let go, and yet you know you must if you desire to feel this novel pleasure extended in time. You are torn between letting go —–thus freeing what you wish were only yours—- and holding on to what brings an indescribable and unknown pleasure, thus necessarily destroying it in the process.
We are reminded of some of our loves. This is why some have compared the sensation of holding ice in your hands to eros. One of those who knows of this mystery is Sophocles. In a poem he writes:
“This disease is an evil bound upon the day.
Here’s a comparison –not bad, I think:
when ice gleams in the open air,
Ice-crystal in the hands is
at first a pleasure quite novel.
But there comes a point–
you can’t put the melting mass down,
you can’t keep holding it.
Desire is like that,
Pulling the lover to act and not to act,
again and again, pulling.” (See Anne Carson.)
Holding ice in your hands, you become more aware of the temporal nature of desire. You come closer to knowing, and thus truly feeling, the always fleeting now of human desire. Understanding this becomes crucial in order to give life to healthier desires within our erotic relations. For we also wish to hold on to our loves in this troubling way. Much more could be said, but perhaps now you better understand why I wanted to return to Canada and see, and touch, and melt snow in my bare hands. And perhaps now you better understand when Sappho exclaims:
“I don’t know what I should do: two states of min in me …
I’m in love! I ‘m not in love
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!
4. The metaphoric distance of our erotic lacks.
Simplicity, loss of identity, bittersweetness, the “now” and “thens” of eros; all mysteriously opened in the poetic words of Sappho. But even more stunningly, Sappho reveals the nature of our erotic longing in an unparalleled graphic poem. We ask: what precisely in us makes us desire what we have seen may lead to a deep destabilizing force in our lives? Sappho reveals that desire is moved negatively by the presence of a self-sustaining lack. In another very short poem Sappho adds to our previous considerations:
“As a sweet apple turns red on a high branch
high on the highest branch and the applepickers
well, no they didn’t forget —were not able to reach.”
If desire moves us so deeply, it is perhaps because in part it reaches out to something we ourselves have not made part of our self-identity. We are not whole, but tend to desire some kind of wholeness; even desire an original wholeness previous to birth. Coming together sexually is perhaps the closest we may come to bridging this “physical” gap. This is brilliantly related by Aristophanes the comedian in the Symposium, perhaps another journal will provide the connections.
For what we do not lack seems not to move us in the least. If in fact we were completely self-sufficient, it seems our movements would cease; we would become something like strange bodiless gods. But we are far from such self-sufficiency, says Sappho. Science fiction does dream of bodiless existences, but even if it were so, Sappho would protest that such a life would not be a human life in the least. This sense of lack is then a powerful jump-starter, but a dangerous one as well. It does pull us out of ourselves, but it may do so primarily seeking its own fulfillment. Having my needs met by you —believing that this is possible— I fail to confront my needs which continue to go unnoticed within me. For perhaps in seeking not to face our lacks, we push them forth into others, specially and most dramatically into our lovers. We place in them the burden of our desire for original wholeness.
But how is all this connected to the poem at hand? Let us see. As we elevate our linguistic sight, we behold a very complete sweet apple turning on a high branch hanging above us. Focusing our eyes upon this apple we discover several things. First, and foremost, that we no longer see our surroundings. The tree which bears this apple has been lost to us, the other apples are no longer there to be seen. Is this not very much like the times we have become smitten by eros in our lives? Don’t we radically reduce our sight from a healthy wide-angled view to the most telescopic of lenses? Photographically speaking, we move from 10mm to about 600mm! Besides, we know Sappho has chosen an apple tree for obvious reasons. If indeed most of us westerners relate the apple to another myth, the myth of Adam and Eve, it is clear that for Sappho and the Greek lyrical poets in general, an apple is the metaphoric fruit of the beloved. Rather than the beginning of a sinful existence as in the Christian myth, it stands as the perplexing presence of an erotic longing which might make us fall as well, but in an altogether different sense. And even in our daily life we still correlate sweet apples with erotic desire; dA is full of such enticing photographs. Some photographs even portray this with no apple whatsoever!
Now, what was puzzling from the start, becomes even more so. If we were initially told that the sweet apple was on a high branch, we now are corrected by Sappho who stretches our sight almost beyond the visible. She tells us now that even the 600mm is not enough, we WILL need lens-extenders! Or so it seems. For this sweet self-sufficient, self-enclosed and silent apple is truly situated “high in the highest branch”! (For an amazing analysis of the Greek grammar which carries out this telescoping see Ann Carson). But how could we have been so mistaken! I mean, how could our eyes have not seen this coming? Perhaps they did not want to see, perhaps they saw what they wanted before them. And just like the ice we held, but somehow did not want to hold on to for it meant its dissolution, likewise we now look but do not want to look too hard for we might no longer have anything to look at!
Suddenly we are introduced to the true subjects of the poem: the apple-pickers who “specialize” in picking the beloveds of the world. Apple-pickers, men and women who seek out the fulfillment of their desires in another whose beauty primarily seems to appear as a sweetness which hides bitter possibilities. But what does Sappho herself tell us about them? First off, that they are many. Many, it seems, look up to the apple which awaits picking, many will have to “deck it out” for it. The whole thing is quite Darwinian! Secondly, that instead of picking —–which is what they are good at—- they instead are lost in the activity of seeing. As if charmed by the apple’s reddish presence, they have ceased any action. But this is not altogether true. Sappho tells us that what they have done is rather specific, they have decided to “forget”. We are told that in picking they have forgotten something altogether important. But what is it that they have forgotten? Their first action, was to pick, then they just stare, and now suspiciously they forget! And forgetting desire, how difficult a task that is according to Sappho! We continue reading and, fortunately, the poetess herself reveals it “all” to us. She clarifies the illusions behind the mysterious forgetting of the beloved.
Suddenly, as if pulling us back from the distance to the reality of the present, Sappho tells us that in reality the apple-pickers did not actually forget at all:
“well, no they didn’t forget —were not able to reach”.
What a stunning revelation of a conveniently comic decision! The sweet apple on the highest branch remains untouched by any of them; and yet, instead of recognizing their incapacity, they make a strategic move. They pretend to have not even seen it at all! For if they are indeed good apple-pickers, it would be to their detriment to have some apples actually escape into the freedom of their own erotic nature. So, just as we convince ourselves that the “now” of eros can be sidestepped, so these apple pickers convince themselves that they never saw anything! Faced with the desire to face their own lacks, they instead become forgetful of themselves so as to be able to desire this very same apple the morning after as they move around the orchard unchanged and truly unloved.
By thus moving us using this kind of photographic focusing of erotic desire, Sappho teaches us that the erotic lack we have as sexual beings pulls us outside ourselves into a distant reality. This erotic reality which hangs before us eludes us; we tend to deny it in disbelief as we approach it and learn, to our astonishment, that it continuously evades us. Lacking the apple we seek it, but if we actually came to possess it, the drive to jumpstart the search would be gone! And therefore, during the sleep of the night, these apple-pickers will convince themselves of events that did not occur. They will awaken the next morning to try to pick the sweet apple on the high branch, or rather, the sweet apple high on the highest branch. And they will forget once more, and they will begin anew the morning after. The apple, it seems, will never be reached, for in reaching it, we would cease to be humans altogether.
Perhaps Sappho allows us, through her poetry, to liberate our lacks into the honesty of their essential nature. In reading Sappho’s simple lines there might come a day in which we will not only not forget, but actually love the other as other for we will have come to know ourselves as lacking. And perhaps it is in a very similar way that we as artists relate ourselves to our own work. For we all know of the desire to create and yet somehow feel that once the work is created, once the apple has become real, the search for it is gone. And day by day we convince ourselves that there is a new apple we have not picked. It lies high in a high branch in a tree we can no longer see, and in this way we strive to give poetic word to those foundational lacks which conform us from the very start.
(A complete understanding of this dynamic would have to include several discussions of Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus, including their intimate discussions of wings and metaphors. Besides, a deeper understanding of the apple itself and its troubling intrinsic nature —–of this self-sufficient being which is the erotic beloved, which in modernity finds parallels in the idea of the “Lolita”—- in a sense requires readings such as Yukio Mishima’s stunning The Damask Drum, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Alba Lucia Angel’s Misia Señora and Gabriel Garcia Márquez latest book: Memoria de mis putas tristes, among many others.)
5. Erotic triangulation
Sometimes one should simply let a great poem speak for itself instead of pretending to understand it:
”He seems to me equal to gods that man
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, a moment, then no speaking
is left in me
no: tongue breaks, and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead —or almost
I seem to me.” (31)
(Do let me know if you have found the puzzle of triangulation within its mysterious lines. To be able to see it involves, among other things, learning to read erotically: http://amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7266768/ )
Sappho’s poetry is perhaps the single most important poetic work on the nature of eros in a pre-Christian era. Not giving in to romanticism, she faces the mystery of erotic desire head on. Thoughtfully perceptive to desire’s perplexing dilemmas, she encourages us with her courage to feel the nakedness of those simple poetic lines in which she remains open as perhaps the most erotic lover of all. Her poems provide a certain mature self-sufficiency which nonetheless remains open to the living eroticism of those with whom we come into contact as we move through our lives. Or in other words, through her decisions the poem is liberated to its inmost energetic possibility which in turn may radiate into the possibility of loving oneself –—and perhaps another—–in the intimacy of the created and creating word.
However, me must conclude by pointing to at least two great challenges to this very powerful view of human desire. One is the view of eros as defended by Socrates and later on Aristotle guided by a reconsideration of desire and the connection between true friendship, another kind of self-sufficiency, and a happiness beyond the mere sense of a personal feeling. (See my journals on Socrates : a) http://amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7640910/ and b) http://amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7696872/ ) The second view is the view upheld by a believer; for instance the one defended by Christians and their notion of “agape” (love of God) as expressed profoundly in Augustine’s <b>Confessions</b>.
We artists might feel secure in our own islands, but Sappho’s poetry at least teaches that openness alone guarantees the possibility of avoiding self-delusion. It is this very same poetic honesty which may allow us to return to the beginning of erotic love:
“I don’t know what I should do: two states of mind in me … (36)
I’m in love! I‘m not in love!
I’m crazy! I’m not crazy!”
I have been there. It does take much courage. It is rare.
(First published on the web on Feb 9, 2006 with accompanying art: http://www.amelo14.deviantart.com/journal/7838058/)