Sappho, “I asked myself / What, Sappho, can…”

Not long ago, while discussing Marion Bell’s “Austerity,” I spoke of being radicalized by love in contrast to going mad on account of it.

That feels like a distinction which can stand, “radicalized” versus “crazy.” But then there’s this slight complication: no matter what, being in love pushes one to see the world in crazy ways. You’re not completely mad, but you’ll pursue a line of thought so deranged you’ll need a Charm Person spell cast on yourself to stop (a professional Enchanter doesn’t come cheap, either). I know in previous years having crushes made me so very superstitious. Everywhere I went, I thought I saw magical signs that everything would work exactly the way I was imagining.

Seeing coincidences as an expression of some primal truth is only one self-deception. Another is seeing perfection in far too many places. In the fragment below, how many have “everything,” assuming Sappho wants affection returned from a beloved?

[I asked myself, / What, Sappho, can…] (from Poetry)
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

I asked myself

What, Sappho, can
you give one who
has everything,
like Aphrodite?

I count two instances of desiring unreal perfection. First, Sappho wants to know what she can give “one who has everything.” That “one” with everything can be thought perfect.

The second instance comes from the peculiar grammar of this translation. What, Sappho, can you give one who has everything, like Aphrodite? Most of us would read this as saying Sappho wishes to give as Aphrodite can give to the beloved. The way “like Aphrodite” hangs at the end, though, makes me wonder if Sappho conflates her beloved with Aphrodite herself. Aphrodite, after all, is not just any goddess, but one most desired. It does seem like winning the heart of someone who may not immediately fancy you is no less than winning a literal god to one’s side.

Sappho places divine and human perfection entirely outside herself—I asked myself / What, Sappho. It’s almost like she’s rudely subtweeting herself. Her fragment shows, I think, that she understands the ridiculousness of the conceit. “I’m in love with you because you’re perfect; I’m in love with love because it’s perfect; I have to be able do something about this.” Everything about the framing makes no sense, but this is how it feels when one isn’t getting the attention one wants. I don’t understand why I’m neglected—they must have everything. I don’t get why no one loves me—love itself must be self-sufficient. We’re one sentence away from Sappho’s persona exploding into tears.

I don’t remember exactly when I ditched my superstitions about love, but I did. A lot of my growth—and admittedly, I still have a lot of growing to do—had to do with realizing that where we both were in life counts for a lot. There is no “one who has everything,” like as if people are entirely defined by their possessions once and for all. There’s being engaged in a specific task, working for certain purposes, having particular friends and interests. You may not fit into any of that, and that’s okay. It’s just hard to see that “everything” as it really is: nothing. You’ve got to value yourself and where you are, and that means not trying to fit that valuation into any sort of scheme.

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