Posts tagged Philip Freeman
Maria, Jemima, Minerva, Madame Bovary (x3), Cleis (x2), and the Minyades

I. The Untold Stories of Women's Lives 

Mary Wollstonecraft prefaces Maria; or The Wrongs of Woman with the observation that in most novels “the hero is allowed to be mortal, and to become wise and virtuous as well as happy, by a train of events and circumstances. The heroines, on the contrary, are to be born immaculate; and to act like goddesses of wisdom, just come forth highly finished Minervas from the head of Jove” (67). 

When I read this, a light bulb went off at last! Seriously, I’ve been obsessed with what seemed an absurdly random detail in Madame Bovary: “As decoration for the room, there hung from a nail, in the middle of the wall whose green paint was flaking off under the saltpeter, a head of Minerva in black pencil, framed in gilt and bearing on the bottom, written in Gothic letters: ‘To my dear Papa’” (14).

Emma Rouault, home from the convent, head full of romance novels, has at this point in the novel already been introduced — as incompetent, but symbolically fertile and sexy. Attempting to sew bandages for her father’s broken leg, “she kept pricking her fingers, which she then raised to her mouth to suck” (33). Charles observes that “her gaze fell upon you openly, with a bold candor” (14). After setting Monsieur Rouault's leg, Charles is invited to stay and eat, and this is when the narrator describes the room and the gift to papa from Emma of Minerva’s severed head.

It's a strange gift, right? 

The very next paragraph glosses her and Charles’s conversation, detailing for the first time how unhappy she is; and ends with Emma's shivering and “revealing her full lips, which she had the habit of biting in her moments of silence” (14). (If she had been written by Richardson or Fielding instead of Flaubert, we would have been informed by now of what a “saucy baggage!” / "hussy!" / “slut!” she is.) Able to be pricked, and to bleed, suck, and stare boldly, Emma is also helpless, in need of warmth (although we might also read her shivering as a sign of her coldness), but, most noticeably and damningly, she is especially sexy when silent. 

In any case, my subsequent Internet search for anything about “Minerva and Emma Bovary” proved fruitless. So even though I couldn’t shake the thought that Minerva’s head is not just an odd gift but an important one, given its prominent placement in those first four paragraphs introducing us to Emma, I gave it up and moved on, thinking I might focus instead on her racy carriage ride, and the ripped up note tossed to the wind with the same hand we saw upon first meeting her. 

So it was a happy coincidence to discover Wollstonecraft’s use of Minerva as metaphor for fictional heroines, fully formed, who have no coming of age or adventure stories to tell. Full formed, Minerva springs forth from Jove’s forehead, which has been cleaved in two (like a vagina?). Minerva is such an interesting choice for both of these writers/texts! If she has any backstory at all, it resides in the story of her parentage. After Jove hears the prophecy that one of his own children will overthrow him, he devours her mother whole. We might read this as: powerful man obliterates existence of equally if not more powerful woman. Metis, however — Titaness mother of wisdom and cunning — does not just disappear into the annals of untold history but makes and outfits her daughter with weapons and armor. Her constant hammering gives Jove a headache, causing him to cleave his forehead open. Thus borne, fully formed, adult Minerva is not just heavily armed and battle-ready, but she has also inherited her mother’s wisdom.

But what really happened in there, in the darkness of Jove’s interior cavity, where Metis mothered Minerva all that time? God knows Homer didn’t tell the story. Neither did Ovid. This mother/daughter story has either been deemed not important enough to tell or ignored if ever it had been told. It's a perfect choice for Wollstonecraft, whose titular character, Maria, has been thrown into an asylum by her husband. As Susan C. Greenfield notes in Mothering Daughters: "though she gives birth to a girl, Maria, like virtually every other mother depicted in the novel, is prohibited from caring for her child. . . . [and] it becomes the subject of political interrogation. Denied property in every sense of the word — the right to own money or land, to have custody of their children or authority over themselves — all women are homeless; treated as prisoners and lunatics, they become motherless, daughterless slaves" (93). In prison, punished (a la Foucault), Maria shares the letter she wrote for her daughter, which outlines the systemic oppression of women who have no legal rights, personalizing Wollstonecraft's earlier philosophical Vindications. Here, it is impossibly difficult to not want to read this letter as if it had been addressed to Wollstonecraft’s own daughters — even written to all women everywhere, and to all daughters to come.

And it is difficult not to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the first exam text I wrote about on this blog), as furthering her mother’s proto-feminist call to action and reform — if we read it as a cautionary tale for all her symbolic sisters, embodied in the bodiless Mrs. Saville, the intended audience of the text, to liberate themselves from the home, and to be mindful not to emulate the models before them of power-hungry men like Frankenstein and Walton, and instead to make themselves into a new kind of being, but not like the creature either who, repulsive to men and occupying the wretched position of being such a new kind of being, clings to the past’s status quo, insisting that a marriageable partner is all he needs to be happy. Walton’s destruction of the female creature is a necessary act, in this reading, as women readers must be the ones who make themselves and bring a new generation of never-before-seen creatures into the world.

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II. Maria AND JEMIMA; or The Wrongs of ALL Women

Wollstonecraft, thus outfitting all her daughters with the weapons of inborn wisdom and the right to education and property, etc., readies us for battle. And not just some of us, but all of us. In Maria she gives us an inclusive view of proto-feminist principles applicable not just to her upper middle-class Maria but also to her working-class Jemima, whose own abuses the also-abused Maria painfully acknowledges. Jemima’s backstory even comes before Maria’s in the narrative, which I like to think Wollstonecraft plotted deliberately. Jemima’s story, a dark dose of reality (contrasting the highly implausible happy ending of Pamela), brings to mind Moll Flanders's prostitution (and Moll, too, brings to mind the Wife of Bath). In any case, after Jemima’s backstory, Maria’s unfolds, not spoken but written, in that letter to her daughter. In it, we learn that she has long been sympathetic to the plight of working class women in her life. She even finally fell in love with her tyrant husband-to-be, after he gave her money to pass along to her friend in need (taking a much longer time, however, to do so than his relatives, and his delay nearly turning Maria against him).

In "Testimony, Trauma, and A Space for Victims," Colleen Fenno observes that, as "critics have noted, Maria's written testimony at the end of the novel challenges women's exclusion, based on property rights, from participation in the justice process and underscores the importance of granting individuals the right to be heard in a legal setting." Fenno extends these lines of inquiry by arguing, too, that "Wollstonecraft's novel also draws readers' attention to working-class women victims disenfranchised from the criminal justice system [...]. By means of Jemima's character, Wollstonecraft draws attention to the different threats, protections, and consequences of crime facing working class women victims. Further, she anticipates the restorative value that victim testimony may offer for both individual and community." 

Taking up a different line of inquiry about Jemima's presence in Maria, and providing me with another interpretation of Minerva, Greenfield examines the women's shared experience of being denied the ability to breastfeed their own daughters: "Maria and Jemima's longing for breastfeeding is symptomatic of the hunger that opens between mothers and daughters in a world where their separation abounds. [...] Above all, mother-daughter separation signals woman's loss of reproductive authority" (96). Greenfield thus reads Wollstonecraft's invocation of Minerva as speaking not only to "the problem of literary production but also to men's general appropriation of female generative power" (96).

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III. Suicides 

Jemima, pregnant after being raped by the master of the house, is given poison. Thinking it will end her life, she ingests it. Instead, it terminates her pregnancy. Maria, too, takes laudanum and nearly dies. Mary Wollstonecraft herself attempted suicide by poison. Unsuccessful, the second time she jumped off a bridge. Both she and her semi-autobiographical Maria, however, are saved and decide to stay alive for their daughters. For her/them, motherhood is reason enough to live. But before she ever has a chance to complete Maria, Wollstonecraft dies after giving birth to Mary Shelley. In the ending we do get, scattershot with editorial notes, Jemima is able to reunite Maria with her daughter (who is not dead after all), some time after they have escaped from the asylum. All three will live together happily ever after, and quite subversively. (Wilkie Collins's Woman in White seems a clear descendant of Maria, especially with its non-normative happy family ending.) 

Unlike Maria and Jemima, Emma Bovary does die. Her suicide attempt is a success. And in stark departure from Wollstonecraft's women, Flaubert's Emma does not find motherhood a satisfactory reason to live. Too, her situation is not as dire as the others', as she is not raped by her husband or other men; her sexual agency is her own. Madame Bovary, while representing an unhappy woman in an unsatisfying marriage, presents us with a softer version, less violent, somewhat less oppressive, than the others' marriages. Indeed, there is about a fifty-year gap between Wollstonecraft's writing and Flaubert's. As well, the former intellectual and writer, along with her cohort of radicals, sought to emulate the French, inspired by the French Revolution. French Flaubert's Emma, half a century after the Revolution, reminds me a bit of young women today. We have freedoms women before us only dreamed of. We are largely uneducated about their efforts. We are still unhappy, or we are ignorant. But Emma has no alternate models for femininity, knows only those options presented in the romance novels that have infected her, and she has no other options than those available (e.g., her father decides to "give her" to Charles, and in the city the only women who enjoy the independence she herself has temporarily adopted are prostitutes who horrify her especially because she is one of them, or she would be if not for the protection her marriage offers). Even though she is not beaten, has not been turned out into the streets, has not been locked away in an asylum and robbed, Emma's story still recalls Wollstonecraft's call to arms. 

Out of options, which are limited anyway to the powers of various men in her life (Lover #1 won't give her money, Lover #2 won't steal for her, her husband is incapable of pretty much everything, and Creepy Guy says he'll give her money if she has sex with him, etc.), Emma can't imagine any possible way out of the trouble she's created for herself (trouble supported, of course, by a system working against her). What else is there to do but eat arsenic? 

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IV. Some Jumbled Thoughts On Minerva

Today, we women writers are our own kind of Minervas, able and ready but with a huge dark gaping cavity in the history of our story. The history of literature and particularly novels for women has not served us well. But where there is an absence of women's histories and stories, an absence especially of those about powerful women and mothers and daughters, we must find a way to tell them now. If only Emma Bovary had read Maria; or The Wrongs of Woman instead of those other novels! Although her ignorance of Wollstonecraft, coupled with her sexual agency and especially her lack of maternal instinct, sets her apart from Vindications' visions. Importantly, motherhood is not reason enough for Emma to live unhappily as a wife. Necessarily, her story advances the cause. And yet, even today, how often do we hear: "I've decided to stay with him, for the kids." 

OK, so here's what we do know about Minerva, who appears in Ovid's Metamorphoses: Arachne challenges Minerva to a weave-off, Minerva disguises herself and warns Arachne to have more humility and honor the goddess, Arachne does not, and Minerva reveals herself and the battle begins. Minerva weaves the story of her victory over Neptune after they fought about who would name Athens (Minerva/Athena victory = woman’s right to land and property?), and frames these with stories of unhappy endings for mortals who challenged deities. Arachne rebuts with a tapestry depicting all the wrongs committed by the gods, against women particularly. Minerva then physically beats Arachne, and continues beating her until Arachne hangs herself to escape Minerva's beatings, after which Minerva takes pity on her and brings her back to life, transforming her into a spider and damning all her descendants to weave forever too.

:(

All I can really take from this is: don’t piss off Minerva? Or she’ll make you perform women’s work for all of eternity?

She could have exercised a little humility herself, upon seeing Arachne’s images and siding with her against the power of the male deities especially. (In another post, I wrote a bit about how Athene in The Odyssey certainly has power, and by exercising it frees Odysseus and sees him safely home and safely through the battle against the suitors. She’s there for him through it all, pitying him for all his suffering and his desperate desire to get home, aiding him and making possible his successful passage home. She even makes him hotter than he actually is once he decides to reveal himself to Penelope! But even though she has all this power, she first has to ask her father for permission to intervene in Odysseus’s affairs, and then she spends most of the time guiding him and other men disguised as the old man Mentor.)

I suppose we could read Minerva’s anger as one that begins in entitlement, believing herself and all the goddesses to be equal to the gods. But when Arachne chooses suicide to escape Minerva’s wrath, and becomes like the other female victims of the gods, perhaps Minerva’s decision to bring her back to life is one of sisterly pity — the mere mortal cannot be better than her, but she shouldn’t die because of her. So let her ability to weave and present stories of injustice live on.

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V. Women Weaving

OK, to be clear, it's wrongheaded of me and only exposes my unchecked privilege when I get righteous about weaving/women's work. Garment workers all over the world are largely women, and their daily lives, realities, and traumas are largely ignored. This needs to change.

My frustration is directed at The Odyssey, which is such an important and seminal text in the Western canon. A reflection of its era, the famous epic equates "power" with men and trivializes weaving as women's work (I.359). The comparison issues from the mouth of Telemachos, who banishes his mother to her room, saying: 

Go therefore back in the house, and take up your own work
the loom and the distaff, and see to it that your handmaidens
ply their work also; but the men must see to discussion,
all men, but I most of all. For mine is the power in this household. (I.356-59)

In Searching for Sappho, Philip Freeman provides us with historical context: "in Athens at least, it was customary to place a tuft of wool — a symbol of her future role in weaving — on the door of a household with a newborn baby girl" (4). He adds: 

The Greek historian Xenophon wrote a handbook for household management in which he argued that mothers were the primary teachers of girls and instructed them in what they most needed to learn — namely, wool working and self-control. The carding and weaving of wool was essential for making clothing for a family and always fell to the women of the home. A girl who didn't learn this vital skill was unlikely to find a husband. Many of the images of female children in the art of Sappho's time depict girls sitting at the feet of their mothers as they work a loom. There were even wool-working contests in ancient Greece for girls with the greatest skill. (11)

(The paragraph ends with a note about Spartan girls, who were the exception.) Freeman returns to the domestic importance of weaving much later in the book, when he turns his attention to mothers: "ancient Greek literature — even that by Sappho and other women — has very little to say about the life and work of mothers. Like childbirth, it was an area few male writers cared about and reflects a general disinterest by men in what they considered women's work" (76).

Lamenting the historical absence of information about ancient Greek mothers, he draws our attention to the image of "a harried mother holding a sleeping infant in her left arm while a little boy tugs at her robe" (76). This image appears on a 5th century oil vase, and on the opposite side "is a seated man talking with a woman holding a hand mirror. The images may be unconnected, but it's also possible that this is the husband and father conversing with a prostitute while his wife cares for their children" (76). As for the mother, at her "feet is a basket for wool, while hanging on the wall behind her is a storage sack. This picture shows a wife inside the women's quarters of her household in her two primary roles, as caretaker of children and weaver of clothing" (76).

Weaving — or, actually, not weaving — appears in Sappho's fragment 102. Here's Anne Carson's translation: 

sweet mother I cannot work the loom
I am broken with longing for a boy by slender Aphrodite

In Carson's end notes, she tells us that "slender" is not usually used to describe Aphrodite, and that some translators apply it to the boy. The only other commentary I can find about this fragment online is that some consider it to be proof that Sappho was writing poems while her mother was alive. Both Sappho's mother and daughter share the name Cleis. About the presence of a daughter in Sappho's poems, Freeman notes: "It's certainly possible that Sappho had other children and that she chose not to mention them in her poems or that such poems didn't survive, but all we can be sure of is that she had a daughter. If we dare speculate even further, Cleis seems to have been all the more precious to Sappho because she was her only child" (62). He contextualizes this for us, observing that in "ancient Greece, women prided themselves on the number of children, especially sons, that they bore and raised. For a woman to have a single child — and a girl at that — would have earned her scarcely less pity than if she were barren" (62). Despite this, he tells us, "Sappho does something quite unusual for an ancient Greek writer by celebrating her daughter, her own beloved Cleis, in some of her most beautiful poetry" (62).

Returning to fragment 102, it seems that heartbreak (and/or desire) is perhaps an acceptable excuse to neglect one's domestic work, or, at the least, it's a conversation starter for a daughter appealing to her mother. Sharing the latest heartbreak with your mother signifies closeness, at least to me. And although in this case the two women fail the Bechdel test (surprisingly?), the mother/daughter relationship is presented here as intimate, emotionally open, and reason enough to lay one's work aside for a time. 

I'm reminded of Book IV in Ovid's Metamorphoses, when:

a priest commands
the people celebrate a festival: 
all servant girls to be excused from work;
they and their mistresses to dress in hides,
unbind their hair, wreathe their heads in garlands,

and all "failure to comply" will be punished (IV.5-9). We are told:

Old wives and young comply: 
the piles of weaving, baskets full of wool, 
all the unfinished business of the day
is thrust aside; incense is burned, and Bacchus

is celebrated by all. All except Minyas's daughters (the Minyades), who continue:

spoiling the new god's feast with their untimely
spinning and weaving, the diurnal tasks
they and their servants are kept busy with. 
One sister, lightly drawing thread, observes, 
'Though other women cease their work and hasten
to his concocted rites, a superior
divinity has kept us in our places:
Pallas Athena! No reason why we shouldn't
lighten the useful labor of these hands
by taking our turns at telling stories: 
such give and take will pass the time more quickly
and be a kindness to those listening.' 

(Sounds a lot like the ladies in The Decameron, no? Self-imposing order in an environment that has none.) 

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Story #1: Pyramus and Thisbe

The first story told is of Pyramus and Thisbe, which we would recognize today as one of the earlier sources that inspired Romeo and Juliet.

Story #2: Mars and Venus

Next up is Mars and Venus. The sun snitches on the two of them and sheds "light / on the very couch where two had sinned together!" (IV.238-9) Vulcan (Venus's husband) weaves, most intriguingly:

... a brilliant
trap for the guilty pair, a net of bronze links
so finely woven that it fooled the eye.
No thread of mortal weaving was as slender
as this one was: finer than the spider's,
and more responsive to the slightest touch. (IV.242-46)

In yet another of Ovid's loop-de-loops, this story incorporates the spider, invoking Arachne, but more interestingly we are presented with a male deity, the god of fire, performing women's work. Doing so, his actions might be read as support for a clear connection between weaving, revealing, exposing, trapping. Solidifying this connection is the fact that this story is embedded within a frame story specifically about women who value weaving and storytelling. Add to this the fact that Vulcan has set a trap before, making a throne for his mother Juno (who threw him off the top of Mount Olympus when he was a baby, because he was ugly). As soon as she sits in the throne, it wraps her up, binding her tightly for days. Finally, Jupiter proposes a trade: free Juno and he'll give Venus to Vulcan, and she will be his wife. (Ugh, more daughter-selling.) A skilled trap-maker, Vulcan could have made any kind of trap that he could think of. And he thinks of weaving?

Story #3: The Sun and Leucothoë

Next up is the story of Aphrodite getting revenge on the sun, making him fall in love with Leucothoë, whose father finds out about the two of them and orders her to be buried alive. The father found out because one of the sun's exes tells all. The sun grieves for the former and rejects the latter. Both women become flora. 

Story #4: The Fountain of Salmacis
(or Hermaphroditus and the Nymph)

Next up, the story of Hermes' and Aphrodite's child — Hermaphroditus. Born a boy, he goes for a swim one day and desperately defends himself from a horny water nymph who wraps herself all around him and declares they're never to be separated. Their bodies are enjoined, and Hermaphroditus asks his parents to curse every man who swims there with impotence.  

Women's Voices

This is as far as the sisters get. At this point, their handiwork bursts into ivy and grape vines, and the girls turn into bats. What their stories have in common seems to be unhappy endings and broken hearts all around. Which seems the theme of women's conversations around their looms. Why does unhappiness, heartbreak, ruin, so infiltrate and conquer women's domestic space? What might it matter that, at the very least, these women have been given voice and this is what they say? 

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VI. Weaving and Storytelling

One thinks of Penelope, silenced by her son who orders her to return to her women's work. Penelope, pining for Odysseus’s return, while simultaneously weaving her own trap — unweaving by night to cunningly retain her rights to her husband (who but for his culturally accepted philandering) treats her well, and to their household, which she has protected in his absence.

One thinks of Scheherazade, weaving her own trap of stories that bear the pressure of saving her life, her sister's, and all the other young virgins', who will die if she fails.  

One thinks of Arachne, weaving images in her own battle of life or death, choosing to portray stories of deities' injustice against mortals, particularly women . . . in the face of one of their oppressors! What she weaves, the images she reveals, leads to her self-censorship as she silences herself by attempting suicide. 

One thinks of Pamela, writing desperate letters to her parents, her letters stolen, edited, and nonetheless woven together to create a picture of her endless fight to not be raped. One thinks, too, of all the traps Mr. B has set in place, and how Pamela persists in defending herself, ultimately escaping them all (and, perhaps, according to Shamela, trapping him instead in marriage). 

One thinks of Maria, locked away in an asylum, and Jemima, whose story is no less important. One thinks of their daring escape from the asylum, of Wollstonecraft's fairy tale flourish of Maria's daughter being found alive(!), and of the three women living their brave new lives. 

One thinks of patient Griselda, and the abuses she endures, the suffering she stomachs, and the importance of the placement of her story as the last in The Decameron. One thinks again about Griselda, retold, by the clerk in The Canterbury Tales. One thinks of her story having been told for the first time, as Boccaccio acknowledges, by Petrarch. Repeated again by Perrault. Not to mention the three operas that bear her name. Or the dramatic adaptations. Trollope's apparent retelling. The list goes on. 

One can't help but connect Maria to Griselda, their unhappy marriages to tyrants, the conclusions to their tales of sorrow including a joyous reunion with their long-lost daughters. The subtle implication that motherhood bestows upon women the ability to endure unhappy marriages.  

One thinks of Emma Rouault, who rejects such a notion. Who, motherless herself, gives her father that drawing of Minerva borne fully formed from her father. But unlike Minerva, Emma has had no help from her own absent mother. The absence of Madame Rouault is a glaring omission, highlighting the presence of the other Madame Bovary, Charles's mother. And his first wife, the next Madame Bovary. Theirs to claim as well, the novel's title does not only apply to Emma. Charles's mother, who, like Mary/Maria chose to live for and devote herself to her child, is one fate for a Madame Bovary. Charles's first wife, a widow, fragile, brittle, angry, demanding, and childless, is another. Emma's fate, perhaps a trap, is escapable only by death. Finding no fulfillment in marriage, multiple attempts to love, or motherhood, Emma learns one thing, and one thing only, if she learns anything at all: the romance novels she has read, the fairy tales she believed in, have set her up for misery. The fate of Madame Bovary, then, is to either live for Charles, like his mother, or die, like his first wife. Emma eats arsenic. 

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Here, I'd like to revisit Pamela's subtitle: "Or Virtue Rewarded." Of course, her reward is marriage, but at least a happy one with a generous husband who seemingly adores her (not that this isn't a dangerous kind of propaganda!). But "virtue," it must be noted, does not just signify "virginity" or "purity."

In Romantic Outlaws, Charlotte Gordon tells us that Mary Wollstonecraft often noted "that the word 'virtue' came from the Latin word for 'strength'" (172). It is a word that shows up a lot in the historical texts on my list. Even in Sappho's time, as indicated above, it was up to mothers to educate their daughters on self-restraint. To control their own desires and yield not to the men around them. This particular observation, which I am so grateful to have encountered in my reading, is a necessary learned resignification of "virtue." When we read it as "strength" instead of "virginity," we make more implicit young women's struggles and their necessary education, passed down from mother to daughter, sister to sister, on self-control and self-defense. We give women more agency. We make implicit the accountability of men who take it by force, which has always been their right

From Romantic Outlaws: 

Women must learn to imagine themselves as more than the heroines of grand love affairs, [Wollstonecraft] argued. . . . To Mary, the greatest tragedy of all was that neither men nor women saw anything wrong with their culture's assumptions about femininity. Progress required a dramatic change in how both sexes imagined themselves and their relationships. Liberty, true liberty, blew down walls, tore open gates, and destroyed the fences of enclosure. Women needed to learn there was more to life than romance and men needed to aspire to more than sexual conquest, not just for their own sakes, but for the sake of a more just world. And in the same way that women should not surrender their rights to men, humankind should not sacrifice their rights to tyrants. 'A revolution in female manners,' cried Mary, gathering steam, '[would] reform the world.'

 

Works Cited

Fenno, Colleen. "Testimony, Trauma, and a Space for Victims: Mary Wollstonecraft's Maria: Or the Wrongs of Woman.Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 8.2 (2012). Web. 

Freeman, Philip. Searching for Sappho. New York: WW Norton & Co., 2016. Print.

Gordon, Charlotte. Romantic Outlaws. New York: Random House, 2015. Print.

Greenfield, Susan C. Mothering Daughters. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2002. Web.

Homer. The Odyssey of Homer. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. New York: Harper Perennial, 1956. Print.

Ovid. MetamorphosesTrans. Charles Martin. New York: WW Norton & Co., 2004. Print.

Sappho. If Not, Winter. Trans. Anne Carson. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. Print.

Sappho: "Who ever desires what is not gone?"

In Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet, Philip Freeman tells us that Sappho, like Job’s wife, enjoyed a certain amount of wealth. It’s known that she married well, and had leisure time to write poems, but we have no record of who exactly her husband was. Until any poems about him are discovered, if they ever are, Sappho is completely unlike the wives who have appeared previously on my historical exams list. Penelope spends most of The Odyssey waiting for her husband, and Job’s wife spends most of The Book of Job waiting on her husband and wishing he would die (for whose sake, his or hers, I’m not sure). Penelope and Job’s wife are both, otherwise, silent and unseen. Their stories — if you can even call them that — are tucked neatly into the narratives that feature and belong to their men. Heroic men. Loyal and God-fearing men.

For we all already know this, do we not? Men act and women react. Honestly, more than any other common problem that appears in a creative writing class (hell, it appears with even more frequency on the NYT bestseller list), men acting and women reacting is pretty much my main pet peeve. Man cheats on woman, woman eats prays and loves. You know? But how can I blame students when their canon begins with and is built upon men who act and women who react. Man sets sail for the Trojan war and doesn’t come home for 20 years. Woman waits. Man comes home and says he’s woman’s husband. Woman isn’t sure so tests him. Man passes test and makes love to wife after all these years. Woman has to listen to him tell her all about all the other women and goddesses he’s had sex with while he’s been gone. Best pillow talk ever? Hardly. Another man loses his wealth, his children, and breaks out in boils. Woman must beg to feed herself. Man recovers wealth, children, and health. Woman gives birth to twice as many children as they had before. These women’s stories exist, and their existence only matters, on the periphery of their husband’s far more interesting and far more subject-worthy lives written and recorded for posterity.

Sappho, a breath of fresh air in all this ancient misogyny, lives her own life, has her own thoughts and feelings that take center stage, always, and she even, unlike those mortals before her, has an intimate and personal relationship with the goddess Aphrodite. Furthermore, her very existence, and her subject matter, does away with the husband / wife and the male / female binaries that are simply taken for granted in The Odyssey and The Book of Job (and the NYT bestseller list)Sure, Athene switched genders several times in The Odyssey, but the rules of attraction are different for the gods and in any case she isn’t so much wooing or sexing anyone so much as she’s setting up her chess board and putting all the pieces and players in place so she can ultimately kill hundreds of would-be suitors, brutally and in gruesome detail. Leaving Athene to her bloodbath, I’ll return our attention to the main-character mortals we have seen thus far in the canon who are, without question, heterosexual and married. Frankly, I hope we never find any poems about Sappho’s husband. His absence in her body of work is wonderfully appealing, as his story doesn’t even exist on the periphery of his wife’s. It doesn’t exist at all. History has spoken. Give a woman a pen and paper and what will she do? Write her own story. And write her husband out of it.

I’m reminded suddenly of contemporary writer Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd. “My husband moved to another city,” the narrator writes. “Let’s say Philadelphia. He went out the front door with a single suitcase and a portfolio full of plans, and that was the last we heard of him” (81). A few pages later: “I printed out the last ten pages to read them aloud, cross out, rewrite. By accident, I left them on the kitchen table overnight. This morning I came down for breakfast and found my husband in the kitchen. [… He] asked: Why have you banished me from the novel? […] You wrote that I’d gone to Philadelphia. Why?” The narrator answers: “So something happens” (83). While I love the meta-moment highlighting the power that a female narrator wields as writer, here again, though, the narrator’s desire for “something” to happen seems contingent upon the husband-character acting and those around him reacting. It’s an old goddamn trope and it’s tired. It’s worn out. Can we get rid of it once and for all? Please?

Thank god for Sappho. That she is in the canon revives my soul. Would I start a course with her, though, and ignore texts written before hers? No. Because her presence, and her absence, is felt more keenly in the context of the epics before and after her time. She is, of course, our first lyric love poet in the age of epics. And then along came the Romantics, who revived the lyric and established it as our dominant mode of poetry for the past several hundred years. In classrooms, I’ve often said I don’t think any kind of new poetry can come along and wipe out the lyric the way the lyric wiped out the epic. We love music too much. We love songs too much. We love love songs especially. But what if I’m wrong? Imagine what new mode might come along and edge out the lyric poem. In classrooms, I’ve also said that the lyric essay seems to be making a run for it — today, audiences read more nonfiction than poetry, and as the lyric establishes itself in the essay genre more firmly and securely with every new day it does seem possible that the lyric essay could potentially edge out lyric poems. But the lyric essay is not a new mode of poetry. It’s an essay form. If we even care about such boundaries between poetry and essay anyway. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know I don’t. But that I’m trying, at the same time, to figure out how to navigate my way through a world that does.

In any case, Sappho’s lyric love poems have stood the test of time — in practice — far better than Homer’s epic. Even when we have only fragments. Even when we have only one complete poem of hers. When, in contrast, we have all of The Odyssey. What is it about Sappho’s work that so compels us, that so makes us yearn and ache for more? Why do so many women writing lyric poems and essays today make use of fragmentation and erasure, again and again? What is it about absence, about loss, that so ensnares our deepest sentiments?

In A History of the Wife, Yalom writes:

Sappho’s poetry would have been unknown to almost all Greek wives, since most could not read, and all but courtesans were excluded from the male banquets where her poetry might have been recited. Some women, like Sappho, undoubtedly found pleasure in the arms of other women, as they do today, but then it would have been a very dangerous liaison indeed. The Greek wife was not her own property. Given by her father to her husband ‘for the purpose of producing legitimate offspring,’ she spent the greater part of her adult life being pregnant, nursing and tending children, preparing food, and producing cloth. She did not record for posterity the pleasures she might have derived from a lover. (25)

Sappho really was a special snowflake. I’m fascinated with her, her work, her life, her stanza. The way it was described to me is as a steady heartbeat that staggers and gets back up again. So when I saw an ad for Philip Freeman’s Searching for Sappho, I requested an exam copy from the publisher (thank you, Norton!) and received it quickly. I tore through it in an afternoon. And I was disappointed. It wasn’t what I’d expected, and it didn’t tell me what I wanted to know. (In my head, I was hoping to come away from Freeman’s book the way I’d come away from Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws, knowing more about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley and in a way that really supplemented my readings of their works. But Searching for Sappho is not a tell-all resource.) Slowly, it dawned on me: that’s exactly the point. The title says it all: we’re searching, and we may never find her. “The Greek word eros denotes ‘want,’ ‘lack,’ ‘desire for that which is missing’” writes Anne Carson in Eros the Bittersweet. “The lover wants what he does not have. It is by definition impossible for him to have what he wants if, as soon as it is had, it is no longer wanting. This is more than wordplay. There is a dilemma within eros that has been thought crucial by thinkers from Sappho to the present day” (10). Later, Carson asks, “Who ever desires what is not gone?" She answers: “No one” (11).

Instead of a literary celebrity tell-all, Freeman speculates and attempts to piece together a portrait of what Sappho’s life would have been like, given what we know about women of a certain class in a certain time and place in ancient history. I have come to really appreciate how absent Sappho herself is in Freeman’s book. It’s sad. It makes me sad. Such sadness reminds me of how sad it is that so little of her work remains. Which reminds me of how little any of our work will remain. And compels me to want to say to young poets everywhere — sing your gorgeous hearts out, and do it beautifully, because I honestly don’t know what else could possibly be the point of our time here on earth. And don’t leave out the bad shit, because bad shit combined with gorgeous heartsong is, truly, life immemorial.

To close, here's one of my favorite passages from Mary Ruefle's "Poetry and the Moon": 

In the West, lyric poetry begins with a woman on an island in the seventh or sixth century BC, and I say now: lyric poetry begins with a woman on an island on a moonlit night, when the moon is nearing full or just the other side of it, or on the dot. Epic poetry was well established. The great men had sung of battles and heroes, whose actions affected thousands, and blinding shields and the wine-dark sea and the rosy-fingered dawn. Yet it is wrong to think that the clamor had died down. Historians tell us the times were not idyllic; in the Aeolian Islands, especially at Lesbos, the civilization was old but rapidly changing, torn by economic unrest and clashes between emerging political ideas and traditional principles. In the middle of all this then, a woman on an island on a moonlit night picks up some kind of writing instrument, or she doesn't, she picks up a musical instrument, or she doesn't, she begins to simply speak or sing, and the words express her personal feelings of the moment. Let's call her Sappho. One can hardly say these little songs have survived — for we have only fragments — but even this seems fitting, for what is the moment but a fragment of greater time? (13)

How, if at all, can we write the contemporary?

A little over a year ago, in Lance Olsen's Narrative Theory, I and my classmates were confronted with the question: "How, if at all, can we write the contemporary rather than rewrite the past?"

I was full of ideas, wondered in awe at all the possibilities.

Today, if asked about experimental fiction and which writers have most influenced my work, I would excitedly say: Oh yes, I follow in the ever-so-fresh, shiny-new traditions laid out by such inspiring writers before me who've done such groundbreaking work . . . 

. . . like, for instance, Homer, reteller of retellers and breaker of frames . . . 

. . . and certainly that cutting edge author of The Book of Job, whose fairy tale prose frame outside time and place is situated around some 40 chapters-in-verse / speeches / monologues . . . 

. . . Sappho, who reappropriated Homer's "rosy-fingered dawn" and rewrote it "rosy-fingered moon," turning day into night and turning the world upside-down, and whose mortal speaker (as Philip Freeman points out in Searching for Sappho), unlike Homer's mortals, does not tremble in the presence of gods but is chided, gently, by Aphrodite who teases, Really Sappho? Again? Who are you in love with this time? (while, you know, not failing the Bechdel test) . . . 

. . . oh, and that tricky fellow Boccaccio, whose historiographic metafiction blends present with storied past, "fictional" and "characters" (aka RPF), and whose storytellers exist between city walls and country garden walls, between medieval and early modern times, between horror, courtly love, soft core porn, satire, and whatever other genres you can come up with, etc.

I could go on and on.

Shakespeare, the new Homer! Marlowe, the new Ovid! Jonson, who'd undoubtedly send Aristotle back to his writing room to rethink Poetics (would Jonson have liked Sharknado 2? I wonder). Walton's absent sister / reader, the female creature's almost-body violently destroyed in the making, dead bridewife. Dead wives in 1,001 Nights, in bloody chambers, in the forests, in the cities, in the suburbs. Invisible. Citizens.

HTF do we not rewrite the past when the tools and tricks and politics are old as time and ink. When I've mentioned here only perhaps 1/20th of the texts on my exam lists, which are like 1/zillions of all texts ever written.

What's new?

Idk.

Not already rewritten?

Idk.

Contemporary?

Idk.