Valentine’s Day: Time-scissored work— the meaning-full giftedness of fragments

Frontispiece to Mary Robinson trans. of Sappho [1796]
Readings: Two poetic fragments by Sappho translated by Willis Barnstone in ""Sweetbitter Love", Shambhala, 2006:

“Afroditi and Desire”

It is not easy for us to equal
the goddess
in beauty of form   Adonis


poured nectar from
a gold pitcher
with hands Persuasion

the Geraistion shrine
of no one

I shall enter desire

“Return, Gongyla”

A deed
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
blamed me

for praying
this word:
I want

“Papyrus” by Ezra Pound

Spring . . .
Too long . . .
Gongula . . .

“Song” by Robert Creeley

What do you
want, love. To be
loved. What,

what, wanted,
love, wanted
so much as love

like nothing
considered, no
feeling but

a simple
forgotten sits

in its feeling,
two things,
one and one.


      Chaucer's Parliament of Foules by William Morris, 1896,
Today is, as you know, St Valentine’s Day, and the day’s connection with romantic love is one some scholars have thought was due to Geoffrey Chaucer and his poem “Parlement of Foules” (1382) in which we read the lines (309-310):

For this was on seynt Volantynys day, 
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

[“For this was on St Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”]

But this is just one possible source of Valentine’s Day as a day connected with love and some scholars have suggested that the day was really created in an attempt to supercede, that is to say, Christianise the pagan fertility festival of Lupercalia which was celebrated in ancient Rome at this time of year.

But, the truth is we do not really know and even the stories about St Valentine are very fragmentary — indeed it’s even unclear whether he is to be identified as one saint or the conflation of two saints of the same name. What we do know is that the passing of time has cut all the day’s sources into pieces that have since been woven and rewoven together over the centuries in many complex ways. The day as it is celebrated today is, like every one of our ancient festivals and rites, a rich, sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque quilted pattern of incomplete and misremembered fragments. It is clearly a festival full of meanings, it is meaning-full, but within it there is to be found no simple, essential, complete single meaning.

Once upon a time a recognition of the fragmentary nature of our festivals would  have been tantamount to saying that, in truth, they are really meaningless. This position was held because our monotheistic, neo-platonic and Christian forebears thought that full meaning, that which was truly meaning-full, could only come from something that was, in itself, complete. Ultimately this belief was grounded in the traditional monotheistic conception of God, a supernatural being who is utterly complete, beginning and end, Alpha and Omega.

But in our own age, which for many of us here today has seen the death of both such a conception of God and the associated idea that there exists a perfect view from nowhere, we are happy with (or at least inured to) the idea expressed in the words with which we finish our time of conversation together each Sunday that:

“We receive fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight. Let us gather them up for the precious gifts that they are, and, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown” (Sarah York).

These words express, in a different way and context, the importance of doing something that after sharing the loaves and fishes Jesus clearly felt was important, “Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost” he said (John 6:12). Well, in our constant sharing, reuse and reinterpretation of stories such as those connected with Valentine’s Day we prove we are creatures that feel deeply it is always important to gather up all kinds fragments that nothing may be lost.

But, even as this act of gathering up ensures nothing is wasted — and so nothing is “lost” in this sense — something is, of course, always lost in such a process — the original meal cannot be perfectly and completely reconstituted and, as Valentine’s Day shows in a slightly different way, neither can an original story.

It seems to me that Jesus’ teaching should not, therefore, be understood to be about preserving fragments to ensure some unchanging complete truth is passed on generation to generation, but a teaching which reminds us to pass fragments that allow us to reshape and reconfigure the past in ways appropriate for the present and future. It’s an example, once again, of verwindung — that is to say overcoming the past not by crushing it out of existence — überwindung — but by twisting, reinterpreting and reshaping it — verwindung. Only a process of verwindung is able to gift us both with a powerful and comforting sense of continuity with our past and also the freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today.

As I was thinking these thoughts it struck me that on Valentine’s Day, the theme of fragments, incompleteness and freedom to change could be brought directly into dialogue with the theme of love through a consideration of the poems written by Sappho who lived on the Greek island of Lesbos in the seventh century BCE and whose sensuous and lyrical love poetry has, for nearly two millennia, continued to bewitch, intrigue and, occasionally, scandalise, our European culture.

As with St Valentine, very little is known about Sappho's life but what we do know is that her poetry was admired throughout antiquity and was included in the later Greek’s definitive list of lyric poets. Despite her fame, like so many other ancient authors, nearly all of her poetry has been lost to us and, of the more than five hundred poems that she wrote only about two thousand lines which fit into intelligible fragments have survived to our own day.

Although a few fragments survived in Greece itself, in 1879 in the Egyptian oasis of Fayum in the Nile valley, a great deal of new material was discovered. As you might expect, in Egypt Sappho’s poetry was written on papyri and, coincidently, papyrus was also used to make the papier-mâché that wrapped their mummies. When the archeologists working on this site came carefully to unwrap these mummies they discovered that Sappho’s poetry (and of course the work of other ancient authors) had provided the raw material for their wrappings (see photo above). In order to make this papier-mâché the papyri were first torn into strips and, in consequence, as Willis Barnstone (one of Sappho’s modern translators) puts it:

“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 Love by Sappho, trans. Willis Barnstone, Shambhala, 2006,  p. xxix)

We saw in our readings how this time-scissored shaping has directly inspired the work of a number of important modern poets like Ezra Pound and Robert Creeley and gave us a whole new poetic aesthetic — surely this is to see powerfully at work the process of verwindung. Not incidentally, I included Creeley’s very Sappho-esque poem “Song” (p. 319) because I first meditated upon it during the halcyon summer during which I knew I had fallen in love with Susanna, the woman whose husband I eventually became. 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, you may remember something said by the philosopher Iain Thomson that:

“. . . what makes the great texts ‘great’ is not that they continually offer the same ‘eternal truths’ for each generation to discover but, rather, that they remain deep enough — meaning-full enough — to continue to generate new readings, even revolutionary re-readings which radically reorient the sense of the work that previously guided us” (Figure/Ground Communication interview).

What I want us to see today is that the greatness of Sappho’s texts — their meaning-full quality for our culture as a great text — is dependent, not on their completeness, but on their very incompleteness, on their fragmentary nature.

But when you really think about it, what is obviously true of Sappho’s texts also turns out to be true of even those great texts we have been taught to think of as being complete and fixed — as our early forebears taught us was the Bible.

But this belief is clearly unwarranted because whenever we engage with these texts imaginatively and critically rather than dogmatically and uncritically we find that even the most apparently complete of them is full of lacunae — all kinds of information is missing. Think, for example, of the well-known story of Abraham and Isaac going up Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:1-19). After Abraham is told by God not to sacrifice his son Isaac and to sacrifice the ram caught in a thicket instead, we are told that he comes down the mountain to his servants. But where is Isaac? Did he come down with his father, did he stay up there, or did he go on by another way? More disturbingly we may ask whether Isaac was, in fact, killed — even if only by accident? Indeed, many later Jewish aggadic interpretations (these are the non-legal rabbinic interpretations of the Biblical text such as those found in the Talmud) suggested that Isaac was sacrificed but then brought back to life — in the 12th century there was one rabbinic poem in which Isaac is killed and resurrected twice! (cf. Shalom Spiegel’s “The Last Trial”, Jewish Lights Classic Reprint, 1993).

The point is that it is precisely these gaps between the fragments of the story that gift us with such a continuously rich and meaning-full text. A complete(d) story would be a dead thing but an incomplete, fragmentary text is alive, it forces us to enter into the text ourselves and inhabit it in a living way. As we do this we become part of the story and in the encounter the story changes and that, in turn, changes our interpretation of the story further. We discover that, it, and the world around us, nearly always starts to show up differently, or to disclose to us often revolutionary new things.

And isn’t love of another person somewhat like this too? We know in our heart of hearts that we can never know either ourselves or another person completely. This is because we are all always-already fragmentary creatures and our loving engagement with each other is constantly changing and recombining our individual fragments in new, creative and deeply meaningful ways. We are always-already together on the way, in the making, fragmentary and incomplete; we are not so much “be-ings” as “become-ings”.

And even at the moment of death, when a life might be said to be as complete as it can be, this same life’s story can still only ever be known incompletely. At the passing of a loved one all we can ever do is carefully gather up fragments of their story so that nothing may be lost — so that those precious fragments can go on to nourish radical new visions of the good life that are always becoming and never simply are.

May the lesson of today be that we need not be frightened of the fragmentary nature of reality, of ourselves, of our stories but, instead, learn to love our endlessly time-scissored world that is endlessly gifting us with new meanings and visions and the joyous and creative freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today.