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Born in 1964 in Šiauliai, Lithuania, Dalia Staponkutė is an award-winning Lithuanian writer with international experience as a translator and scholar of comparative literature. She graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy of St. Petersburg (Leningrad) University and taught courses in Philosophy at Siauliai University, Lithuania. She moved to Cyprus in 1989, where she worked as a translator from Greek, Russian and English, did research on bilingualism and literary translation, and completed a PhD in English Literature and Comparative Cultural Studies (University of Cyprus). She has earned a reputation as a translator of Nikos Kazantzakis and Constantine P. Cavafy into Lithuanian. In 2014 her monograph in English, Exultant Forces of Translation in the Philosophy of Travel of Alphonso Lingis, was published in New York. She takes active part in the life of Lithuanian communities abroad and writes a column for the journal The World Lithuanian. She has written two essay-novels: Rain Versus Sun (2007) on motherhood and travel and Faced with Two Options, I Choose the Third: My Personal Odyssey (2015) on a generation of floating identities. The latter received the Readers’ and the Critics’ Prizes in Lithuania and was published in German and Greek. Currently she is working on a novel of parallel histories.

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Arūnas Baltėnas, Hermitage Museum

 

Back to Sappho: Not War on Love, but Love as War

“What would change if women ruled the world?” Recently, in Warsaw, in the context of a discussion with writers and journalists from the countries of Central Europe, I had to respond to that question. I remember how puzzled I was with the word “ruled.” My thought ran back to literature about “the rulers” as politicians having rather limited space for action, for broader vision and wisdom. Perhaps “to rule,” in general, indicates finitude and it is a never perfect, never powerful act. I rephrased the question with the verb “to lead.” “What would change if women led the world?” It it did not give me a better feeling. On the one hand, I felt a strange nostalgia in the mood of the question—nostalgia for the past or the future where womanhood is possible as a site of politics, as a space of love. On the other hand, my imagination went stagnant for a moment and it crossed my mind that this topic generally is outside reality. I even asked my daughter, a student of arts, what she thought, and she said: “Nothing would change. Look at Merkel, for instance. What did she change?”

Then I let my thoughts travel far away and long ago because I know professionally, at least, that the things can be different if seen retrospectively, if past becomes future, if history is properly translated. Perhaps we must travel really far away and long ago just to find devices helpful in adapting the world as it is, and gradually changing by simply imitating it. And what if favourite the device of the Hellenistic poets—oppositio in imitando—is properly applied? “Opposition in imitation” was used by Sappho, her not being aware of the term, of course, to adopt and rewrite some Homerian verses of Iliad.

It is actual for me too, especially today, because when I came to this world the outspoken radicalism was in its height. I was born in the middle of the 1960s, in a decade with the sharp feminist manifesto SCUM or “Society for Cutting Up Men” composed by Valerie Solanas in 1967. The manifesto declared that “completely egocentric, unable to relate, emphasize or identify, and filled with a vast, pervasive, diffuse sexuality, the male is physically passive. He hates his passivity, so he projects it onto women, defines the male as active, then sets out to prove that he is (prove that he is a man). Being an incomplete female, the male spends his life attempting to complete himself.” The text was little known, by the way, until Solanas attempted to kill Andy Warhol in 1968. I received my education in the system of radical socialism which excluded any religious institutions or gods. I studied history of philosophy in St. Petersburg, in a radically Marxist environment, but nevertheless we were taught rather “traditionally” about a human law that is “virile,” about the divine law that belongs to the realm of women, and about the incompatibility of the two. In the beginning of the 1990s, I “followed” my Cypriot husband to the Eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus. It coincided that those years were the years of the “darkest age” of human trafficking, which made me a witness of many destinies of “Eastern European” women exploited in night clubs and casinos to make bigger profits. Profits which later—how ironic—were invested into new “houses of God,” spaces for prayer and educational premises, at least, in the northern part of the island. My motherhood also had to come to terms with the culture of my arrival, and I was diving deep into translational travail to create a regular “translation shuttle” back and forth between Lithuania and Cyprus. Many women like me embody multiple identities and very often are more mobile than men. These accumulating diversities of female identity shaped and encouraged my non-fiction themes.

The term “woman” is also rather problematic. It is never simple or neutral. It still gives birth to several questions at once: who, where, when and how? Woman seems to be everywhere, but at the at the same time nowhere. When we speak of women in the world, we have to ask which women, when, in which part of the world and what they are doing there? If history does go in cycles, then does the present resemble the epoch just before the Renaissance? Was it ever the Renaissance for women? Even with the “divinity” of sisterhood there always was a “saintly” brother “behind her.” The brother-king sending away his beautiful sister to marry and strengthen the kingdom. The brother-guardian. Even images of “daughter of the nation” or figures of “a mother cementing the nation,” countering the challenges posed by Westernization, popularly read as women’s liberation, are symbolic usages of a woman in the exoticism of nationalism.

I mean, woman’s world was and still is pretty much immersed in men’s centuries-old “law.” I call it the political culture, which is not necessarily liked by women, but they have to work with it, especially if they are in power. Do women increase the masculinity of power because it is the only kind of power known through civilizations? Does a woman instead of pursuing her femininity become a man? Does this happen because female identity was for too long not recognized as a different one? Today one can see women in politics, women as state leaders, as extraordinary artists and scientists, warriors and athletes admired for their strength and willpower. One can look at the women marching alongside generals, see them strengthening their leadership by going along with “the powerful” forces. “She is a man.” How often one says that with admiration. Women stand radically for their rights and freedom in different continents, but what if the freedom—being the biggest passion ever—only leads to a bigger trap of a power that is masculine in character?

In the “Human Condition” Hanna Arendt, for instance, turns to the Greek polis (city) to look for the answer and uncover the conditions for the possibility of real political action. The tragedy of our times, as per Arendt, is that today nations and states are run, again and again, as huge households. With the emergence of the social realm, the distinction between public and private collapsed. Oikos (house) as oikios (intimate) disappeared. We know, following Arendt, that action is possible only when it is free from work and household. Action cuts across all boundaries, but it does so only publicly, when it meets plurality. To be political, for Arendt, is to act in concert. Action is never possible in isolation, and to be isolated means to be deprived of the capacity to act. Action can be transgressive but not necessarily destructive. It has the capacity to become a founding moment, a moment of creation or, as Arendt often puts it, a new beginning. In “household,” though, the action is precluded by relationship between ruler and ruled, and without action there is no public at all—only rule that stands superior to action.

Here we come to the classical example of the rule as tragedy. The irony of Sophocles’s Antigone (where king Creon rules Thebes as a father rules over his family) leads, for example, precisely to the ruler destined “to rule a desert beautifully alone”! Tragedy is commonly perceived as emerging in response to a moment of transition from a mythological past, which associates with divine law (and women), to a political present, represented by human law (and men). Antigone is the most compelling example of this: a seemingly unbridgeable gap and irresolvable opposition is carried between human and divine law. Antigone herself is a hero of post-political times. She is sentenced to death because she goes against the ruler’s will: she brings her dying brother within the city walls to honour the fact of his death; she makes her own judgement by ignoring the king’s decree. In carrying out the punishment, King Creon decides to bury Antigone alive instead of actually killing her, leaving open the possibility that she might survive so that he can “clear” the city from the guilt of death. He decides to take her to a cave where humans have never set foot. The king hides the action from the public and acts in accordance with the law fabricated by himself. Antigone takes her own life before the sentence can be carried out. But Antigone comes to life again and again in different interpretations whenever there is a need to elaborate on the classical examples of the dynamics of female identity. In the tragedy, Antigone stands towards her brother in the disinterested purity of free human choice. Her affinity transcends the biological to become elective. It has been argued by Hegel, for instance, that femininity itself has its hugest intimation, its moral quintessence, in the condition of sorority. Perhaps a world led by woman would discover the ethical “kingdom” of custodianship? Or it would live in female politics filled with custodianship? In the war-state led by a man, custodianship can turn to “negativity.” In other words, it can become the necessary antinomy of the destructive “positivity” of the political. Hence the tragic ambiguity of collision between human and divine law.

But Sappho, before Sophocles, did not foresee the collision as tragic. On the contrary. The collision between human and divine law is a “battle” of masculine and feminine sense of mortality. Only if men and women are equally immortal, is “equal rule” is possible. Sappho indicated that a woman’s “life-giving” as well as “pain-giving” forces are closer to an understanding of mortality and they reveal themselves without the fear of death. A man is not so conscious of his own mortality unless he is a warrior. Understanding of the typical and extraordinary reaction of mortals to gods explains the essential difference between men. The man is able to bear the sight of the woman’s divine beauty and he becomes godlike (ίσος Θέοισιν): the man is godlike because women are divine. Although both woman and the warrior man are mortal, they have divine qualities, which cause other mortals to react to them as if they were gods.

Sappho makes major alterations to the Homeric Iliad concerning the character of the love goddess Aphrodite. By counterbalancing her allusions to the Iliad, Sappho establishes Aphrodite as a love-warrior par excellence—all-powerful in love, the fainthearted goddess. A female poet calls upon Aphrodite to be her ally in a battle of love! This must be taken as a serious appeal for help, for an ally in the war of love. Sappho transforms Aphrodite from a love goddess who can only be humiliated by a true war into a love-warrior; all her weakness betrayed by her flight in the Iliad is translated into strength. Sappho makes the chariot of Aphrodite drawn by sparrows rather than by horses: “Your chariot yoked with lovely sparrows / drawing you quickly over the dark earth / in a whirling cloud of wings down / the sky through midair” (Rayor and Lardinois, 25). These erotic birds, so distinctly appropriate to the goddess of love, mark her as a different kind of warrior when she arrives at the battle of Troy. Although Aphrodite lacks martial skills, the goddess is capable of bringing together Zeus and Hera, Paris and Helen. Aphrodite is the only one capable of both inflicting and resolving the anguish that accompanies love and passion.

At this point, it will be helpful to mention the actual mechanics of Sappho’s Homeric allusion and the ways in which she has drawn upon the content and language of the Iliad. The means of allusion usually concern language and the actual words used: exact repetition of words or expressions. The device used by Sappho is a kind of adaptation of word or expression known as oppositio in imitando (term first used by Giangrande) and it involves examination of contexts for the purposes of rewriting. Similarity of situation can reinforce similarity of expression just as repeated word or phrase can suggest a parallel episode of history.

Love and war are parallels, and a key question for Sappho is: “Is it possible for anyone to have a passion for a military campaign?” The answer suggested by Homeric evidence, at least, is “yes.” A Sapphic warrior of love does not stand this ground. She sees no strength in power since none of the mortals in “dark earth” is strong enough to hold it for long even if they have divine qualities. Sappho calls the earth “dark” (γάς μελαίνας), opposing it to the immortal dwelling place of Aphrodite and to Homerian “black ships” (νάων μελαίναν) of Achaeans. She also used “dry land” (χέρσω), opposing it to the sea and land battles, i.e. implying a mythic element for Homeric military expeditions: “the sailors do not wish / … high winds / …and dry land” (Rayor and Lardinois, 36). A warrior of love sees the power only in the realm of the divine identified with the beautiful, tremor-inducing woman. She is equated with a fear-inspiring warrior, who has been distinguished only by comparison to her divinity.

Masculine power in Sappho is therefore comparable to a myth of Sisyphus as an allegory for the political life most eloquently defined by Lucretius:

“…to seek power that’s empty and never got
and always vainly toil and sweat for it
this is to strain to push out the steep hill
the rock that always from the very top
rolls headlong down again to the plain below…”    (Lucretius, xii)

Feminine power equals a metaphor of love as war in the poetry of Sappho, who inspires us to use literary mechanisms and devices for creating a parallel history of womanhood:

“As the full moon rose,
Women stood round the altar.”
[154; Rayor and Lardinois, 82]

“…place success in my mouth.”
[pre-58 Oxyrhynchos; Rayor and Lardinois, 53]

References:

Lucretius. On the Nature of the Universe. Trans. Sir Ronald Melville. (Intr. Don and Peta Fowler) Oxford: Clarendon P, 1997.

Rayor, J. Diane and Andre Lardinois. Eds. and trans. Sappho. A New Translation of the Complete Works. Eds. New York: Cambridge UP, 2014.

Rissman, Leah. Love as War: Homeric Allusion in the Poetry of Sappho. Konigstein/Ts: Verlag Anton Hain, 1983.

Soderback, Fanny. Ed. Feminist Reading of Antigone. Albany: SUNY Press, 2010.

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