Sappho, c’est moi
Marta Sofía López

Hundreds of women, and hundreds of men as well (but that's another story) have surely made this same assertion throughout history. Sappho, c'est moi… Hers is a voice that can easily be, and has actually been, repeatedly ventriloquized, appropriated, re-enacted or distorted, as you like it, since the 6th century B.C.E., at the dawn of Western civilization. Furthermore, because since the beginning of the Renaissance she has been to us just a collection of broken lines, an improbable amalgam of pseudo-biographical facts, she has become a costume available for anyone to wear, a mask to be taken out of the wardrobe every year at carnival time. Joan DeJean, Judy Grahn, Page du Bois, Margaret Williamson, Margaret Reynolds, Yoppie Prins, Harriette Andreadis, Susan Gubar, and Shari Benstock are some of the essential mediums who retrace the story of Sappho's multiple literary reincarnations. I have also contributed to this endless task with various articles that have appeared in diverse academic publications in Spain during the last decade, and with lectures delivered at different locations in and out of the country. But I would like to do something slightly different on this occasion: in this essay I just want to speak about my personal love story with Sappho, and how 'she' has become one of many masks. I also want to reflect on the few pains and the many rewards that this identification has brought on me. This is so intimate a tale that nobody else could tell it, although in many senses it echoes the (her)stories of the dozens of women who have also fallen in love with the Lesbian Poet(ess) and chosen her as their public persona or their literary signature.

This is how it all started: some years ago, I used to teach an undergraduate course on women's literature in English at my university, which I devoted to the re/construction of the female-authored Sapphic tradition. We began with Sappho's own poetry and then moved on to Katherine Phillips, Aphra Behn, Laetitia Elizabeth Landon, Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Michael Field, Renée Vivien, H.D., Virginia Woolf, Christina Stead, Olga Broumas, and Jeanette Winterson, among others. As I was walking into the classroom one morning, I heard one of my students say "There goes Sappho." I just smiled to myself, knowing for certain that she was not making an improper remark on my sexuality (I reckoned her to be too naïve and too respectful for that), but identifying me with/as a source of sensual and intellectual jouissance. At the end of the year, this same girl gave me a poem, much in the style of Dead Poets' Society, which I found a little awkward and deeply moving at the same time, for Sappho the teacher, Sappho "the leader of a band of literary women," as Mary Mills Patrick characterized her at the beginning of the 20th century (Mills Patrick 107), is in fact one of the images in which I have consistently fashioned myself for years. So inwardly blushing with a mixture of pride and embarrassment, I felt that I had been caught in my own trap, the one that my vanity is always setting for me. Indeed I would love to be remembered by my students, some of whom have in time become good friends, as someone who shared with them the unlimited pleasures of poetry and literature, and I enjoy more than I can tell the title of "guru" that those closest to me use half-mockingly to address me.

My student, unsophisticated as she was, showed in her poem she had understood me much better than most of my colleagues usually care to do. She had actually grasped what I was attempting to accomplish with that women's literature course too, namely: to recover a female literary genealogy, to re-establish an imaginary community of women and to help unearth the words and life experiences of writers whose names and works have been systematically excluded and erased from the literary canon. On a more basic, human level, I was trying to show to my predominantly female undergraduates how important women are for each other, redirecting their attention to the body, to desire, to physicality and the emotions, and feeding their imagination with images of powerful and creative women. My project, in a word, was to (re)create with/for my students a gynocentric microcosm, albeit temporary and fragile. This is as much as I can do for most of them.

I have sometimes been mocked, scorned or suspected on this account. My 'groupies' and I are a staple urban legend at the university. There have been rumours, I know, about wild parties at my home, even orgies, and I have always heartily laughed at these stories. Yet I have more than once been scolded in earnest by some of my colleagues because, apparently, I manipulate young and tender women through my feminist bias and prejudices, thus causing them irreversible harm. However, I was taught literature by a man who used to say despondently that "behind women's works you could always hear the noise of the washing machine" and I don't think that my intellectual or moral growth has been seriously impaired by his influence. In any case, I know for certain that to many of my students and ex-students I am a figure of authority; at least (or so I want to believe) in the sense that Hanna Arendt restored to this word by evoking its Latin etymology: augere, to cause someone or something to grow up and develop. Many people, usually young women, do actually come to my office in search of personal advice, expecting from me support and comfort when they are in trouble with their families or, more frequently, their lovers.

So, when Sappho speaks about the hyacinth that the shepherds tread underfoot, or the apple that remains out of the apple-pickers' reach, or regrets the loss of maidenhood; when Katherine Phillips writes passionately "to her excellent Lucasia" or to other ladies in her "Society of Friendship;" when the Michael Fields assert that they are "better married" than Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning; when Renée Vivien defiantly asserts her virginity or Virginia Woolf ironically proposes the creation of a society of chaste women readers who would not reproduce until they make sure that men are producing in exchange "good books and good people," I find in their voices a counter-discourse that should be force-fed at least once in a lifetime into the young and tender souls of women who are bombarded every single day from dawn to dusk with Hollywood comedies, papier couché romances, and TV advertisements featuring glamorous heterosexual couples, not to mention the late Pope's, George Bush's and so many other fundamentalists' non-stop defence of traditional 'family values.' In a country where almost a hundred women are killed every year by their husbands or partners (although, mind you, according to the Spanish Conference of Bishops "gender violence is the bitter fruit of the sexual revolution") I don't think that asserting female independence and self-reliance can seriously do any harm to anybody.

The same lesson can also be learnt, although in a very negative way, from the Sapphic tradition itself. Ovid created a suicidal, defeated Sappho, ready to jump from the Leucadian cliffs after her younger lover, the ferryman Phaon, had deserted her. This image, a favourite of the male 'Sapphists,' has also been re-enacted from the Renaissance onwards by a surprising number of women writers, many of whom had been in one way or the other mistreated, abused, or condemned by particular men or by patriarchal society as a whole. Mary Robinson, Felicia Hemans, Laetitia Elizabeth Landon, Renée Vivien, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Jeanette Winterson, to mention but a few, have either identified with or used the pathetic figure of the desperate Sappho to announce that the fate of a woman who dares defy the 'proper limits of femininity' can indeed be a tragic one in this world. And although I am not into victimism, I think that we should re/member those women whose lives, loves, and creative potential were thwarted and put in irons because they were women or because they loved other women. The Sapphic tradition has a lot to teach us about 'compulsory heterosexuality,' if only because, throughout the centuries, the figure of Sappho herself has been forced by her biographers, translators, and imitators into the moulds of either the housewife, the devoted spouse and mother, or else, even more often, the dangerous prostitute, the tribade, and the corruptor of the innocent youth.

For many people, Sappho's name has been and still is a synonym with depravity, perversion, and sin. Ovid, Horace, Abraham Cowley, Alphonse Daudet, and Baudelaire are some of the un-gentlemanly gentlemen who have said nasty things about Sappho, not to mention the bishops who ordered the destruction of her poems in the Dark Ages because "they contained the fooleries, passions and obscenities of lovers" (qtd. in Reynolds 81). I used to ask my students at the beginning of the year what they knew about Sappho, and (when they had heard her name at all) their most frequent answer was that "she was a lesbian." Sappho's legacy has never been a straight blessing, and one does not choose her as a role model without being aware of certain risks. And here again I must intone the litany: Sappho, c'est moi… A couple of years ago I started a relationship with a younger woman who had been a student of mine. I can swear that there was no attempt whatsoever on my part to 'conquer her affections,' although I admit that nothing could fit better than such a love-story into my re-enactment of the Sapphic paradigm. Since at the time she was still an undergraduate, we tried to be extremely discreet, but ours is a small community, and we soon became the hottest object of gossip at the department headquarters.

These were just three of the immediate consequences of my act of defiance to social expectations: first, a postgraduate woman who was writing a Ph.D. thesis on Jeanette Winterson and discourses of the body under my supervision was kindly coerced into changing both topic and supervisor because "that was not literature at all, but pure lesbianism"; second, I was threatened by one of my fellow teachers with a series of phone calls to the parents of some of my closest woman friends, in order to warn the families about the dangers of their daughters keeping my company; and third, I was taken by the same woman to a shrink, who diagnosed a slight dysphoria (I asked him in turn how he felt when he was in love), and who was so nice as not to suggest that I be confined or lobotomised, and even wished me good luck as I was leaving his consulting room. Cool, eh?

That hurt then, and it still hurts: after all, I was generally used to being respected among my peers, even by those who thought that I was "a bit too radical." I was indeed spoiled by some colleagues, being the token activist in the faculty, and my intellectual reputation had until then gone unchallenged; I had recently attained my tenure, and my commitment to progressive causes had been openly praised by the members of the committee. However, at the point where my actual life intersected with my well-known ideological positions, they were perceived as being more dangerously disruptive or subversive than ever before. In spite of my will to re/member my female ancestors, I had forgotten the hard lesson that so many women fashioning their public figure after Sappho-the-woman-of-letters have painfully learnt throughout history: either you are extremely respectful with the limits of feminine propriety in your private existence or the shadow of "the other Sappho" (the woman of dubious virtue, the promiscuous, "the punk") will fall over your work, not to mention your reputation. Using the personal or the biographical to devalue the literary or artistic productions of women has been a classic strategy of androcentric criticism and patriarchal systems of power-knowledge throughout the ages; but I was not prepared to face a situation where my private life was being used to undermine my academic career in a European university at the beginning of the 21rst century. Of course I consider that "the private is public"… but to such an extent?

On the other hand, there is more at stake here than mere personal or professional jealousy, or even the long-standing societal constraints on the behaviour of the woman who steps into "masculine" domains of activity (be it literature, politics or the liberal professions). At a point where the whole philological discipline is undergoing a profound transformation under the impetus of the 'new humanities,' many people are feeling that their critical perspectives or their particular subjects have become pathetically dated. Unfortunately, at least as far as the Spanish academia is concerned, they also tend to be the people who occupy positions of power and decision-making within the university's hierarchical structures, and the ones who have the capacity to influence the re-definition of syllabuses, academic curricula, priority research areas, and the like. Furthermore, they happen to be the persons who can actually manipulate students by suggesting that some research topics are indeed more valuable than others, when it comes to blackmailing them with a prospective job in the academy. In a word, they are the ones who have the power to legitimate certain areas of expertise or fields of knowledge at the expense of others, which are deemed irrelevant, redundant, or useless.

But I've said before that I'm not into victimism: "In the house of the Muses' servants / Grief is not right," as Sappho herself said (Powell 6). I know that I belong to a tribe of free spirits whose temporal, geographical and intellectual boundaries are much larger and wider than my small provincial town. I have seen my dearest academic mentors finally achieving positions of power and decision-making thanks to their inextinguishable enthusiasm and their incredible capacity to produce impeccable academic work and to promote feminist networks. And indeed I not only count with the support and the affection of most of my students, but I also have the life that I have chosen for myself, and I'm happy with it. As Mary Dorcey has put it in one of my favourite poems ("The breath of History"), "I'm not an ordinary woman." I live with the woman I love, and am surrounded by an island of other women, and also some men, who do respect me and appreciate my work. I am cocooned in books, texts, voices, circles that help me make sense of my self, of my own expectations, my intellectual inquiries and my vital intuitions. All these blessings can be counted as Sappho's gifts, but there's still more.

Long before I read Judith Butler or was totally aware of the existence of queer theory, the Sapphic tradition had already taught me that gender is a masquerade, and the paraphernalia of prescriptions or prohibitions that accompany the construction of sexual roles in different societies or historical periods is surprisingly unstable. Sappho's own poetry offers myriad gender positions, to the point that she has been defined by Joan DeJean as "the ultimate post-structuralist author," one who writes beyond categories such as man or woman, masculinity and femininity (DeJean 21). In poems such as "To the Fair Clarinda, Who Made Love to Me, Imagined More than Woman," Aphra Behn is already playing with the idea of the masculinity of femininity, and locating desire at the interstices between sex, gender, and sexual orientation. Among Sappho's male disciples, Swinburne, as a queer author, is often pointed out as the one who came closest to her spirit, much closer than many of the contemporary 'Poetesses' who repeatedly sang Sappho's "Last Song." At the beginning of the twentieth century, Virginia Woolf vindicated the androgyny of the artistic mind in A Room of One's Own (1928), as also did H.D., particularly in her Notes on Thought and Vision (circa 1920), where she speaks of the need to balance the "love-mind" and the "brain-mind." More recently, Jeanette Winterson created in Art & Lies (1994) a Sappho who consciously undermines any stable subject position, and outspokenly dismantles all binary dichotomies related to gender roles.

Thus Sappho as a political fiction, or as a feminist figuration represents to me, and I quote Rosi Braidotti, "[woman] not [as] a monolithic essence defined once and for all, but rather [as] the site of multiple, complex and potentially contradictory sets of experiences, defined by overlapping variables such as class, race, age, sexual preference and others" (Braidotti 4). Much as I appreciate Judy Grahn's work on Sappho and her descendants, in The Highest Apple, I don't think one can seriously pretend to construct as identical or even as contiguous the life experiences and mental universes, not to mention the sexual practices, of say, Sappho herself, Emily Dickinson, Amy Lowell, and Paula Gunn Allen. One can only propose a historically homogeneous female or lesbian subject at the cost of ignoring the complexities of lesbians' and women's existences. This does not imply stepping back from personal or political commitments. It just means refusing to accept the straightjacket of dualistic and dogmatic definitions of the self, which usually serve best to the simple and straight-minded. A couple of days before taking me to the psychiatrist, apparently out of deep concern for my psychological well-being, my afore-mentioned colleague had put me through a session of ruthless questioning, which ended, predictably, in her trying to elicit from me an unambiguous answer to the question: "But are you a lesbian, or what?" Well, I am many things, and probably not a lesbian at all by her or by other people's standards. I have been married, I've had both male and female lovers, and since I was very small I just used to fall in love with human beings, never caring too much about their precise anatomy. If this is confusing to others, it is basically their problem, not mine.

However, it is in the works of women who openly identify as lesbians and who have explicitly linked their writing practices with lesbian desire, such as Rosi Braidotti, Teresa de Lauretis, Nicole Brossard, or Elizabeth Grosz, where I have found the kind of theorizing about sexual identity, the body, or desire which I can feel really comfortable with. "Desidero ergo sum," says Braidotti, "is a more precise characterization [than cogito ergo sum] of the process of constructing sense" (Braidotti 44). Or Brossard: "Symbolically and realistically, I think only women and lesbians will be able to legitimize a trajectory toward the origin and future of sense, a sense that we are bringing about in language. To be at the origin of sense means that we project to the world something resembling what we are and what we dis/cover about ourselves, unlike the patented versions of women which patriarchal marketing has made of us, on posters and in person" (Brossard 135). The political figurations these women have created (the nomad, the ex-centric subject, the lesbian) offer me the kind of imaginary and intellectual/vital space that I need to be, or to become what I want to be. Again Nicole Brossard has written: "There are lesbians like this, lesbians like that, lesbians here and there, but a lesbian is above all else the centre of a captivating 'image' which any woman can claim for herself. The lesbian is a mental energy which gives breath and meaning to the most positive images a woman can have of herself. Lesbians are the 'poets' of the humanity of women and this humanity is the only one which can give to our collectivity a sense of what's real." (Brossard 121)

If such is the case, then of course I want to be identified as a lesbian, and then of course Sappho and most of her descendants should be claimed as our lesbian foremothers. I am aware of how low the dear old image of the 'lesbian continuum' has come down in the world in recent years, insofar as it de-politicizes the particular struggles of lesbian women and ignores specifically lesbian sexual practices. However, I still believe from the bottom of my heart that there are "many more forms of primary intensity between and among women [other than desired genital sexual experience], including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny [and] the giving and receiving of practical and political support" (Rich 239). My mother, my sister, my favourite cousins, and most of my dearest friends and close collaborators in all sorts of feminist ventures do define themselves as heterosexual, or at best as bisexual, and yet they are my tribe, my allies, and my sanctuary.

Finally, I would like to mention a road which I haven't yet explored in depth, but which I consider my most intimate 'work in progress.' In Sappho's poetry and in most of the women authors writing in the Sapphic tradition I have found hints and clues that point at a female/feminist spirituality that can be best perceived if we follow the thread of her "Fragment 2:"

Come to me from Crete to the sacred recess
Of this temple: here you will find a grove
Of apple tress to charm you, and on the altars
       Frankincense fuming. Here ice water babbles among the apple
Branches and musk roses have overshadowed
All the ground; here down from the leaves' bright flickering
       Entrancement settles. There are meadows, too, where the horses graze knee
Deep in flowers, yes, and the breezes blow here
Honey sweet and softer [        
       [         ]
Here now you, my goddess [ ] Cypris
In these golden wineglasses gracefully mix
Nectar with the gladness of our festivities
       And greet this libation (Powell 8).

According to Jane McIntosh Snyder,

the temple to which the goddess is invited seems to be encoded as female space, a peaceful space in which the (presumably female) participants in the ritual are enjoying the festivities without fear of intrusion or attack […] Sappho here defines for the audience the kind of space in which desire is able to flourish. Indeed, Sappho's description in this song of the sacred grove to which Aphrodite is invited has much to offer the postmodern feminist who wishes to define spirituality as involving not a system of beliefs nor a hierarchy of deities but simply sacred space. (McIntosh 19)

The idea of the garden, or of nature itself as sacred space is ubiquitous in the poems and works of many of the women I have mentioned this far, and particularly in those of Emily Dickinson, Renée Vivien, H.D., and Amy Lowell. From them - and from many other women writers, theorists, and eco-feminists - I have learnt to establish a more intense and deeply satisfying relationship with my own garden, with trees, plants, and flowers, and to appreciate the worth of the actual or metaphorical enclosures where I can retreat from the many daily battles and celebrate the continuous renewal of life. I have also started to understand the value of claiming for our personal pantheons such figures as Aphrodite, Lilith, Sophia, Spider Woman, or Oshun, each of us according to her racial, cultural, or intellectual backgrounds. These and other goddesses offer enticing possibilities for female empowerment of which I, unwilling inheritor of the Enlightenment's laicism and the Catholic Church's misogyny, would have never been aware if Sappho hadn't been there to show me the way. However, as I said above, this is a territory I'm still tentatively exploring.

To conclude, I would like to quote three of my own poems, which, I believe, reflect and summarize all I have been saying above, and reveal the extent to which the Sapphic imaginary has permeated my own. They are also an invitation for others to participate in the re/reading and the re/writing of Sappho's ever-growing textual legacy. These poems recreate in one sense or the other characteristically Sapphic images or subjects, and allow me to inscribe my individual utterances in the context of a long-established and clearly delineated female literary tradition. In the first one, "Daughter of Oshun," I play with the motif of the apple on the topmost branch, which Sappho used in one of her fragments (105a), presumably as a metaphor for a young maiden. Sappho's 'apple' has been subsequently recreated by many female writers and critics to encode an incredibly rich variety of meanings: to Renée Vivien, for example, it was a symbol of her own will to virginity and of the inaccessibility of the lesbian body to male lust; to Judy Grahn, it represents what she calls "the female powers" as well as the lesbian poetic tradition, whereas, for Page du Bois, fragment 105a exemplifies the Sapphic poetics of writing desire, while it thematizes "the act of reading itself as a recording of the experience of absence" (du Bois 10). There is also here, of course, a more overtly sexual reading, rooted in the traditional analogy between 'apples' and the breasts and the clitoris, and also in the Cuban use of the word "papaya" to refer to the female genitalia.

Woman of water,
Spilling your curls
On my naked face,
Soaking my body
With your scent of papaya,
Threading my back
In your necklace of dreams,
Nibbling at the apple
Which the apple-pickers, alas,
Could not reach.

The links between Sappho's most frequently invoked goddess, Aphrodite, and similar goddesses belonging to other cultural traditions at which I pointed above is important to understand both the previous poem and the following one. Being a practitioner of Cuban Santería, my partner is consecrated to Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of sweet waters, sexuality, and fertility. On the other hand, Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, in African Wo/man Palava, has identified Oshun as one of the recurring models for Nigerian women writers, thus offering me the possibility of amalgamating in these poems specific circumstances of my personal life and both my academic fields of expertise, the Sapphic tradition and African women's writing.

The second poem, called "And the Word Became Flesh," carries in its title an (irreverent) allusion to my Catholic upbringing, while it recreates the point at which my intellectual commitment to the Sapphic thematic materialized in a love story with a younger woman; furthermore, it testifies to the ways in which our subject positions became interchangeable within the relationship, thus allowing the teacher to become the student:

And I always forget that one night
I wanted to seduce you
With groves and apples,
With horses and flowers
And I told you,
Remind me, one of these days,
To tell you about Aphrodite
(And you spoke of Oshun)
About crocuses and lilies
(And from your lips I dripped her honey)
About maidens and islands…

        Today, we've laid a white orchid
        At the feet of Yemaya.

And finally in the last poem, "Fleshly knowledge," I work with the idea of the body as a text where desire is inscribed, probably the most popular of all Sapphic motifs; her "Fragment 31," where she describes the physical effects of sexual arousal on the female body, has always been the indisputable favourite of Sappho's translators and imitators; it is also one of the few remaining texts where Sappho's desire for another woman is made totally explicit. In translating my own poem into English, I have preserved the indeterminacy that the Spanish preference for the use of the definite instead of the personal pronoun to refer to body parts allows; some of the literal scars that are enumerated in the poem belong to me, some to my lover. However, as Elizabeth Grosz argues in her article "Refiguring Lesbian Desire," "the coming together of two surfaces produces a tracing that imbues eros or libido to both of them, making bits of bodies, its parts or particular surfaces throb, intensify, for their own sake and not for the benefit of the entity or organism as a whole" (Grosz 182).

On the hip: riding the waves.
Between two fingers: an orange and a knife.
On the knees: the bicycle.
On the forehead: the stairs.
On the palm: broken glasses.
On the shoulder blade: a swing.

        The heart, nevertheless,
        Has healed with no haste.


Works Cited

Andreadis, Harriette. Sappho in Early Modern England. Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics 1550-1714. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank. Paris, 1900-1940. London: Virago, 1987.

Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Subjects. Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Brossard, Nicole. The Aerial Letter. Trans. Marlene Wildeman. Toronto: The Women's Press, 1988.

DeJean, Joan. Fictions of Sappho. 1546-1937. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Du Bois, Page. Sappho is Burning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Grahn, Judy. The Highest Apple. Sappho and the Lesbian Poetic Tradition. San Francisco: Spinsters' Ink, 1985.

Grosz, Elizabeth. "Refiguring Lesbian Desire." Space, Time, Perversion. London: Routledge, 1995.

Gubar, Susan. "Sapphistries." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 10, nº 1, pp. 43-62, 1984

H.D. Notes on Thought and Vision & The Wise Sappho. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1920, 1982.

McIntosh Snyder, Jane. Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Mills Patrick, Mary. Sappho and the Island of Lesbos. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1912.

Sappho. Sappho: A Garland. The Poems & Fragments of Sappho. Jim Powell, trans. 1985. New York: The Noonday Press, 1993.

Prins, Yoppie. Victorian Sappho. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Reynolds, Margaret. The Sappho Companion. London: Chatto & Windus, 2000.

___. The Sappho History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Rich, Adrienne (1980) "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." In Abelove, Henry, et al., eds. The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. London & New York: Routledge, 1993.

Williamson, Margaret. Sappho's Immortal Daughters. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1995.