Two poetic fragments by Sappho
translated by Willis Barnstone
Afroditi and Desire
It is not easy for us to equal
in beauty of form Adonis
poured nectar from
a gold pitcher
with hands Persausion
the Geraistion shrine
of no one
I shall enter desire
your lovely face
if not, winter
and no pain
I bid you, Abanthis,
take up the lyre
and sing of Gongyla as again desire
floats around you
the beautiful. When you saw her dress
it excited you. I'm happy.
The Kypros-born once
Papyrus by Ezra Pound
Spring . . .
Too long . . .
Gongula . . .
Song by Robert Creeley
What do you
want, love. To be
so much as love
in its feeling,
one and one.
We often like to think that full meaning, that which is truly meaning-ful, can only come from something that is, in itself, complete. It's a belief that it is only a complete and finished story that can tell us the deep truths we need to live by. (Underlying this is, of course, the belief that *the* real deep and finished story is the traditional monotheistic conception of God - the God who is beginning and end, Alpha and Omega.)
In our culture it should come as no surprise the collection of stories known as the Bible, has been believed to be complete and so a trustworthy guide to the truth of how to live. However, even the increasingly secular understanding of the Bible's texts that developed since the mid-nineteenth century with the rise of historical critical Biblical studies and in particular the influential search for the historical Jesus maintained this hope albeit in a different way. We began to think that, if only we could get better historical (archaeological, documentary or theological/philosophical) evidence, get back to the original words and their original meaning, fill in the gaps and so know more of the complete story, we would slowly close in on the kind of truth we can really live by or even decisively reject. In either case this historical critical process would itself bring us closer to accessing and owning the full meaning of the Biblical texts. But after countless hours expended in scholarly literary, philological, anthropological and archaeological pursuits all we have really been able to do is confirm how fragmentary the texts are and also how fragmentary remains our knowledge of the times, peoples and events about which the Bible relates.
This fragmentary nature of our texts and knowledge can be felt negatively but I think that it is something positive, which can ground our liberal attitude and practices and which we should celebrate. Today's address tries to gesture towards this positive point, a point which showed up for me because next Tuesday is Valentine's Day - the day upon which lovers (or would be lovers) express their love to each other by exchanging gifts of various kinds - and I was minded at least to try and write an address connected with the day.
As most of you will know, apart from the Bible I tend to draw upon illustrations and inspiration from the poets but I have to say that, in general, love poetry is not my favourite literary genre. However, one poet, very famous across over two millennia for her love poetry, has continued to sustain, bewitch and intrigue me throughout my literate years - Sappho. And so to her I returned.
Sappho was, as most of you know, a Greek poet born between 630 and 612 BC and who died around 570 BC. Very little is known about her life but we do know that her poetry was greatly admired throughout antiquity and was placed upon the later Greek's definitive list of nine lyric poets. However, over the years, like many other ancient authors, nearly all of her poetry has been lost to us. Of the more than five hundred poems that she wrote only about two thousand lines which fit into intelligible fragments have survived. However, her reputation has continued to live vibrantly into our own age and culture thanks to her recorded reputation in other authors' works and to an oddity concerning the way that many of the fragments of her poetry that we do have actually survived.
'The mummy makers of Egypt transformed much of Sappho into columns of words, syllables, or single letters, and so made her poems look, at least typographically, like Apollinaire's or e. e. cummings' shaped poems. The miserable state of many of the texts has produced surprising qualities. So many words and phrases are elliptically connected in a montage structure that chance destruction has delivered pieces of strophes that breathe experimental verse. Her time-scissored work is not quite language poetry, but a more joyful cousin of the eternal avant-garde, which is always and ever new. So Sappho is ancient and, for a hundred reasons, modern.' (Sweetbitter Lover by Sappho trans. Willis Barnstone p. xxix)
Ezra Pound and Robert Creeley. I included Creeley's very Sappho-esque poem "Song" (p. 319) because I first pondered upon it during the summer I fell in love with Susanna (my wife).
Anyway, today, there is no doubt that Sappho's body of work, though fragmentary, forms one of our culture's great texts. Now, in relation to the greatness of texts, a few weeks back I cited the philosopher Iain Thomson who said that:
What I want us to see today is that the greatness of Sappho's texts - their meaning-ful quality for our culture - stems, as you now know, not at all from their completeness but precisely from their incompleteness.
(Excursus - not given in the address: In this I've often thought that they closely resemble our country's monastic ruins because, although their ruinous state still clearly speaks of a life centred around the contemplation of God, their startlingly visible state of destruction also let's in more light than was ever possible when the building was complete. Standing in those ruins I have often wondered whether, in fact, the ruined, incomplete state of the buildings doesn't better suit how we contemplate the world and God today than could, or now can, any complete building. Back in 2008 I was exploring with you the idea of what would church look like if we came to it in the same way we came into a garden - here's an echo of that thought which I'll just leave leave reverberating today.)
But when you really think about it - and here I arrive at the thing to which I wish to draw your attention - what is *obviously* true of Sappho's texts (and ruined monastic buildings) also turns out to be true of even those great texts we think of as most complete and fixed - as some people have claimed and still claim the Bible is.
But this belief they are complete is clearly nonsense for whenever we engage with these texts imaginatively rather than dogmatically we find that even the most complete of them is full of lacunae - gaps where we find that, as we begin to read, we suddenly find we have ourselves entered into the text and begun to inhabit it in a living way. We enter ourselves into the narrative and we become part of the story. In this encounter the story changes us and, because of its depth, what the story tells us is also changed - in this encounter we, it and the world around can suddenly start to show up differently or disclose to us new things.
Entering procatively into a living relationship like this with one of our culture's great texts (i.e. not passively approaching it as a fixed complete thing that we bow down before and which we believe will tell us 'what it is all about') - entering proactively into a living relationship with one of our culture's great texts is somewhat like going hitchhiking. The philosopher Freya Mathews illustrates this nicely in her book 'Reinhabiting Reality - Towards a Recovery of Culture'. In this quotation Mathews is not talking about texts but our wider world and I'll return to that thought in a second. Suffice it to say here that texts are, of course, part of our world:
Now this liberating and creative way of understanding what it is to be in the world is only possible because our greatest and culturally enduring texts are those which are open and, in the way I have outlined, incomplete and fragmentary. But this is not only true of our texts but reality itself. Iain Thomson follows his note I cited earlier about great texts by expressing his wish to get even his first year philosophy students to see that '"reality" itself is perhaps the greatest of these great texts."
This is why I always conclude our period of open conversation which immediately follows the giving of this address with some words by Sarah York:
'We receive fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight. Let us gather them up for the precious gifts they are and, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown.'
All this is a reminder that our culture's great texts are never given to us objectively as complete, finished things with a fixed eternal meaning lying at their core but only given to us through our involvement with them. And our involvement with them always changes the text and always changes us and we both end up at a destination that is, sometimes a little, but sometimes also a great deal different from where we expected we were going.
And more importantly than this, that reality itself (which includes us) is never given to us objectively as complete, and finished with an fixed eternal meaning lying its core but only given to us through our involvement with it.
This kind of proactive engagement is characterised by love - not romantic love, but erotic love - the kind of love about which Sappho wrote. By this I mean a deep, intimate, engaged and literally touching love for our world in which infinite fragments (which include us and our texts) continually commingle and endlessly give birth to new, often unexpected and deeply meaning-ful expressions of life.