Anne Carson’s new translation of the poetry of Sappho seems an act of veneration. Sappho is the most archaic and mysterious, and probably the most celebrated, of ancient lyric poets; later Greeks would call her the “tenth Muse.” She lived in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. on the island of Lesbos, off the coast of Asia Minor, not far south of Troy. Most of her poems, which were always set to music, describe erotic passion and its consequences; many of those poems concern desire for other women. There is a legend that Sappho, desperately in (unrequited) love with the “most beautiful of men,” a dashing sailor named Phaon, threw herself from the cliff of Leukas, on which stood a temple to Apollo, though the great Byzantine scholar Photios claims that this happened to “another Lesbian woman” named Sappho, not the poet. Various sources supply her with various family members, including a husband and children; one of those sources says she was short, dark, and “most ill-favored.”

These are tiny shards of data, and no one will ever know whether they offer us knowledge. Similar doubts haunt Sappho’s very language: in one of the poems, for instance, Sappho uses a puzzling word that, Carson tells us, is elucidated by a lexicographer named Pollux: “a word beudos found in Sappho is the same as the word kimberikon which means a short transparent dress.” Undoubtedly any translator or editor is thankful for Pollux’s help — sufficiently so, perhaps, to refrain from wondering how trustworthy this claim is, given that the scholar worked some 800 years after Sappho and hundreds of miles from Lesbos, in Egypt. And the music Sappho wrote, and to which she set her verses, has been wholly and irretrievably lost.

The poems themselves, moreover, survive chiefly in fragments, and strangely enough — or so I contend — their shreds and patches contribute to their fascination, and to the reverence which I have identified as a feature of Carson’s edition. If this is true of a single word like beudos — “Who would not like to know more about this garment?” asks Carson — it is still more true of a “poem” that looks like this:

> bitter




> and know this


> whatever you

> I shall love


> for

> of weapons

Carson uses brackets to indicate tears or defacements of the papyrus on which some words have survived. She does not do this systematically, since “this would render the page a blizzard of marks and inhibit reading”; rather, the brackets couple with the words to create a kind of frame for speculation. To “read” a fragment like the above is, inevitably, to fill the gaps, to complete the weave, to make rather than receive a narrative — in the same way that your brain fills in that portion of the visual field left empty by your blind spots. (“Brackets are exciting,” writes Carson. “Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, that is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp — brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.”) Carson shows her artfulness nowhere more than in her delicate deployment of these brackets, which lead us so quietly from the abiding love to the weapons. There’s a kind of Zen to it.

The other sort of Sapphonian fragment — the line or two cited by later writers — does not offer Carson, or us, the same “free space of imaginal adventure.” In these cases we cannot know what sort of poem the line appeared in, how long the poem was, anything:

having come from heaven wrapped in a purple cloak

goes one such line;

do I still long for my virginity

goes another one, and no one will ever tell us who descended in that cloak, or whom we overhear meditating on her virginity. So, lacking context, even the limited context provided by the papyrus scraps, Carson offers what she can: white space. Each of those lines is given its own page, and this alone contributes to the sense of veneration I have noted — as though these brief phrases carry as much freighted meaning as an ordinary page stuffed full of words. Such lines appear on the book’s right-hand pages; on the left is the original Greek, printed in a beautiful blood-red ink. (The same red is used in the book’s apparatus for section headings, notes, title pages, and so on.) Given the spareness of the text, it should be noted that the paper itself is good stock, faintly beige in color, thick and rough-cut. The book comprises 397 pages, but easily could have been fewer than 100; without the Greek, fewer than fifty.

Reverence indeed. How to account for it? Perhaps by looking more closely at the work of Anne Carson, who, the book’s jacket tells us simply and flatly, as though discouraging further inquiry, “lives in Canada.” It is possible to learn more: for instance, that Carson teaches Classics at McGill University in Montreal, and that she has published several books of verse and prose, the first of which was called Eros the Bittersweet (1986) and began with a discussion of Sappho’s compound coinage glukupikron, literally “sweetbitter.” (“Eros the melter of limbs now again stirs me— / sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in”; so Carson renders the fragment in If Not, Winter.) One does not have to browse for long in Carson’s books before discovering that eros is her great preoccupation, and that she repeatedly takes fragments of ancient erotic poetry and filters them through a contemporary sensibility. In Plainwater she takes pieces of Sappho’s contemporary Mimnermos and sculpts them into something that can seem very like a translation until it invokes a memory of a hotel in Chicago. Likewise, in Autobiography of Red, a retelling and expansion of the fragmentary Geryoneis of Stesichoros, she seems to begin with straightforward translation of some of the pieces, only to lead us to this:

If you persist in wearing your mask at the supper table
Well Goodnight Then they said and drove him up
Those hemorrhaging stairs to the hot dry Arms
To the ticking red taxi of the incubus
Don’t want to go want to stay Downstairs and read

All of which presages Carson’s transformation of the red, winged monster Geryon — slain by Herakles in the midst of his famous Labors — into a fairly normal, if homosexual, North American teenager. Who remains, nonetheless, red and winged. “The fragments of the Geryoneis read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative then ripped it to pieces,” writes Carson; clearly, she finds great pleasure in reassembling the pieces, and at least some of that pleasure comes from not knowing whether her edifice bears much resemblance to what Stesichoros had composed. Carson’s reputation as a scholar seems quite high, but in passages like these (and many others) she winks at scholarship, or at what we normally take to be scholarship. And the wink has a certain piquancy when offered by someone who has undergone the disciplinary rigors of training in the Classics; English professors and literary theorists, by contrast, froze their faces into such a wink so long ago that the expression is no longer recognizable. People just think we’re scowling.

Carson obviously cares less for the strictures of scholarly knowledge than for the power of scholarship to liberate ancient texts for our uses and purposes today. But what are “our uses and purposes today”? Carson, it seems to me, is one of the most gifted and articulate writers to participate in a curious project, a project that might be called (with apologies to Tom Stoppard) the re-invention of love: an attempt to reject a model of erotic experience that is generally called “romantic love” and is often thought to have some connection with Christianity.

That Western literature and culture, from at least the 12th century on, engaged in a more-or-less purposeful conflation of eros and agape — romantic or sexual love and holy love — has always been recognized, but it was in the 1930s that this conflation became the subject of widespread scholarly notice and even a kind of consensus. (I cannot explain this convergence of attention.) Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros (1930), C. S. Lewis’s The Allegory of Love (1936), and Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World (1938) each explored the entanglements of divine and sexual love; each, to some degree at least, though not for uniform reasons, deplored the entanglements; each seemed to see the entanglements as permanent features of, well, love in the Western world. Lovers have learned to pay tribute to the beloved — elevation, adoration, worship — that properly belongs only to God. They have come to see the encounter with the beloved as a fertile field where meaning and value, even ultimate meaning and value, can be cultivated. How can such lessons be unlearned, such knots untangled?

Carson and many others have devoted much scrutiny to the possibility of un-knotting. The romantic picture of love seems to them too metaphysical, too drenched in the “spiritual,” and for that very reason inattentive to the physiology of desire, its residence in the body. Casting about for an alternative to the romantic synthesis, they follow the example of Nietzsche and seek in archaic (especially pre-Socratic) Greek thought and art a thoroughly physical — and therefore a thoroughly demystified, disenchanted — account of erotic experience. Nietzsche himself, I should add, never really extended his “revaluation of all values” into the sexual sphere; he was, for reasons both personal and philosophical, too prudish or ascetic for that; but in the 20th century he found adventurous disciples. They are not necessarily the people one would expect: many of the century’s most famous apostles of sexuality, from Freud to D. H. Lawrence, retain many of the core beliefs of the old romantic synthesis. Indeed, it would be late in the century before the project of re-inventing love got seriously under way.

I discern two exemplary figures in this endeavor — two rarely linked with each other: Michel Foucault and Iris Murdoch. We typically think of Foucault as a master of suspicion, a subverter of all trust, a reducer of all relations to power relations; Murdoch, by contrast, in large part because she wrote large, technically conventional novels instead of tortured academic treatises, seems to belong to a wholly different culture. And in some respects this is true. But on the matter of eros Foucault and Murdoch are kindred spirits. For both of them eros is a powerful force with which we must find some way to negotiate; it is always threatening to engulf us, and this is naturally frightening, yet there is something strangely desirable about being engulfed. Thus, in Murdoch’s last major novel, The Green Knight, a young woman muses:

he will never forgive me, he will despise me and cast me out, he warned me against the ambiguous Eros, the deceiver, the magician, the sophist, the maker of drugs and potions. Of course I am in love, yes, this is love, and I am sick with it — but what follows? Do I really believe that I shall give over my life, the whole of my life, which is only just now really beginning to another person? … What has happened to my soldierly completeness with which I was so content, my satisfaction and my pride? At the first trial I am broken.

Murdoch seems never to tire of depicting the person who is thus swept away; and she is equally tireless in delineating the opposite number, the magician, who deploys the drugs and potions of eros to control the object of his desire.

It is just this kind of situation that Foucault has in mind when he says — in a formulation both literal and metaphorical — that “sexual relations are not reciprocal: in sexual relations, you can penetrate or you are penetrated.” And when eros is so described, pleasure inevitably recedes from consciousness, to be replaced by a ceaseless meditation on power. Thus, in 1983, when he was in the midst of writing his multi-volume History of Sexuality and dying from AIDS, Foucault announced to an interviewer that “sex is boring.” The real point of interest, he had discovered, lay in “techniques of the self,” because these techniques enable one to manage the traffic patterns of erotic power: when and how to penetrate, when and how to be penetrated. Even the refusal of sex — in the Christian tradition a practice linked with the pursuit of righteousness — is reconstituted here as nonmoral “technique,” an ascetic enterprise in the service of one’s own personal therapeutic aims: chastity for control freaks. And in this exploration of technique Foucault attended chiefly to the example of ancient Athens — as did Murdoch for her purposes. She even wrote a lengthy dialogue in the Platonic mode, featuring Socrates, Plato, and others as characters; she called it “Art and Eros.”

It is this (new) tradition in which Carson works; thus her veneration of Sappho. Consider three quotations from Eros the Bittersweet:

Eros seemed to Sappho at once an experience of pleasure and of pain.

Eros moves or creeps upon its victim from somewhere outside her: orpeton. No battle avails to fight off that advance: amachanon. Desire, then, is neither inhabitant nor ally of the desirer. Foreign to her will, it forces itself irresistibly upon her from without. Eros is an enemy. Its bitterness must be the taste of enmity. That would be hate. … love and hate construct between them the machinery of human contact. Does it make sense to locate both poles of this affect within the single emotional event of eros? Presumably, yes, if friend and enemy converge in the being who is its occasion.

In describing this experience Sappho and her successors in general prefer physiology to concepts.

In these few words, the post-Nietzschean, or neopagan, erotic is neatly encapsulated. First, and perhaps most centrally, eros is an “experience”: that is, it occurs within me. I discern its character by attending to the testimony of my senses, my body: here I find pleasure, there I find pain. (Thus, physiology rather than concepts.) Moreover, it is this experience itself that must be reckoned with; assessed; treated as friend or enemy, or as both in alternation.

When confronted with this picture, one schooled in what I have termed the romantic synthesis will have a pointed question: Where is the beloved? And the answer can only be that the beloved matters little to this neopagan sensibility: “the beloved” is merely the incidental provocation of desire — not even truly the “occasion” of the “single emotional event,” eros itself (says Carson) being that occasion. What the romantic would call the beloved remains wholly outside me; it is eros that “steals in” and occupies my body, eros that I must respond to and deal with — and therefore eros itself that is truly the beloved; when it is not the enemy.

“No simple map of the emotions is available here,” writes Carson in Eros the Bittersweet. “Desire is not simple.” Perhaps; yet desire is simpler than romantic love, and the model offered by Carson (and Foucault, and Murdoch) limits complexity — as demystification and disenchantment always do. (The rigid and universal formula of disenchantment: x is only y.) In the neopagan model, love is bound to a limited repertoire of experiences: pleasure and pain, desire and fear, possessing and being possessed, frustration and satisfaction. Perhaps these interior incidents are sufficiently numerous to make any “simple map of the emotions” impossible, but a skilled cartographer could get it all on one page.

The complexity of the romantic synthesis, by contrast, would fill a library, just because of the presence in its calculations of another person, with his or her own pleasures and pains, desires and fears. If one has true regard for one’s beloved, and wishes above all — even above the satisfaction of one’s desires — the beloved’s well-being, complexity increases geometrically, not arithmetically. Every possibility must be considered, even renunciation, and renunciation not for one’s own ascetic good: rather, what must be considered is the voluntary abandonment of hopes for marriage, for life together — if that would be best for the beloved. It has been done. As many tales relate.

Carson seems, not only in her translation and her scholarship but even in her poetry, to decline such complications. In her poem “The Glass Essay” (and all of Carson’s poems are essays) she writes of a mother’s reaction to her daughter’s new lover:

Well he’s a taker and you’re a giver
I hope it works out,
was all she said after she met him.
Give and take were just words to me
at the time. I had not been in love before.
It was like a wheel rolling downhill.

The experience detaches from the person who (one might think) prompted it and rolls away, taking the speaker’s volition with it. Many of us have been there; but I doubt the sufficiency of the image to the experience of love. More disturbing is Carson’s account of the failure of a marriage in her book The Beauty of the Husband:

Loyal to nothing
my husband. So why did I love him from
early girlhood to late middle age
and the divorce decree came in the mail?
Beauty. No great secret. Not ashamed to
say I loved him for his beauty.
As I would again
if he came near. Beauty convinces.
You know beauty makes sex possible.
Beauty makes sex sex.

Again a detachment: this time not of experience from persons, but rather of a trait — a strictly physical trait — from the one to whom, in ordinary language, we would say it belongs. Not “the beautiful husband” but “the beauty of the husband”: the beauty is not intrinsic to him; rather, he carries it about like an amulet or charm. And it’s this amulet that convinces, that makes sex possible, that makes sex sex. The bearer of the amulet has nothing to do with it; the husband stands to one side, bemused or indifferent or whatever he is, and observes the wife’s desperate wrestle with eros, her friend, her enemy. Eventually he rolls away, like a wheel down a hill.

For Carson, Sappho is the fons et origo of this model of love, love as eros only. Is that fair to Sappho? I don’t know. Certainly the fragments delineate the moods and motions of desire; certainly Sappho is deeply attentive to eros as experience. Yet there are passages which seem also attentive to the desired one — seem, I say, because I have only fragments to draw on, and my knowledge of Greek scarcely exceeds the ability to recite that language’s alphabet. In the end I cannot contest Carson’s uses of Sappho; I can but suggest that the fragmentary character of the poems renders them open to many uses; and then I can turn to another model from the ancient world.

Regard for the beloved was not invented by the troubadours of 12th-century Provence, nor by the forgotten makers of the story of Tristan and Isolde. It may be found in a poem probably older than any of Sappho’s: the Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s. This poem matches any of Sappho’s in its evocation of the power of desire: “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love” (5:1, NRSV). But there is something more:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house
it would be utterly scorned.

What is “more” is the affirmation of permanence, of the deathlessness of true love. Eros, by contrast, is famously flighty; the desire that overmasters you one day can evaporate the next. Sappho’s one surviving complete poem asks Aphrodite to change the inclination of some desired one, to turn her heart towards Sappho, and Aphrodite agrees:

For if she flees, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather will she
give them.
If she does not love, soon she will love
even unwilling.

But this answer reveals that if the desired one changes, so too will Sappho: her desire will be gone; she will flee from the one who has fled from her. It’s the way of the world, surely, and accepted as such by Sappho and Aphrodite alike; but in Solomon’s Song we are repeatedly warned against the reckless invocation of a power greater than that of mere desire:

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
do not stir up or awaken love
until it is ready!

And why should the daughters of Jerusalem be so circumspect? Because if it is the true Love that is awakened, it will not again sleep; and no floods can wash it away. And — continuing the catechism — why is that? Why will this love not sleep, nor be washed away? Because it is grounded not in desire, not in eros, not in any “experience,” but in the beloved (a word I have used in this essay with Solomon’s song always in mind): in the bride herself, or the bridegroom himself. Love is the proper and adequate response to the excellence of the beloved. “We will exult and rejoice in you,” say the daughters of Jerusalem to the bride: “rightly do they love you” — rightly. When she tells them to find her beloved and tell him that she is “faint with love,” they reply with a question:

What is your beloved more than
another beloved,
O fairest among women?
What is your beloved more than another beloved,
that you thus adjure us?

And the bride can answer, with more than the simile of a wheel rolling downhill, and with more than a claim for his beauty — though beauty there is, beauty there certainly is: he is “distinguished among ten thousand”; “he is altogether desirable.” But above all, “This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.” Friendship implies a kind of reciprocity — even Foucault acknowledges this idea — alien to the understanding of Eros that Carson derives from Sappho: as we have seen, the great plea to Aphrodite simply assumes that desire will be unequal and asymmetrical. But it is reciprocity in which the bride places her trust; her limitless regard for the bridegroom is matched by his limitless regard for her; and so she can tell the daughters of Jerusalem with perfect assurance, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”

In this poem, then — which rises from a culture as alien to ours as Sappho’s, and which is perhaps still freer from metaphysics than any of her poems; I share Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s belief that the interpretation of it as an “ordinary love song” is the most “Christological exposition” — we find a richer, more complex model for erotic relationship than anything contemplated by Carson or Foucault or Murdoch or, as far as I can tell, Sappho. Long before the romantic synthesis was dreamed of, we find in Solomon’s song a more fully human picture of the love between man and woman, a more stately yet more joyous picture, than anything made available by the trifling arithmetic of desire. No wonder Foucault came to believe that “sex is boring.” It certainly becomes so, when there are so few counters to play with. “I will do anything to avoid boredom. It is the task of a lifetime,” Anne Carson once wrote, but I wonder if, in taking hold of the neopagan model of eros, she has not courted the very boredom from which she would flee.

Sappho too wrote about marriage, about the joy of marriage:

blest bridegroom, your marriage
just as you prayed
has been accomplished
and you have the bride for whom
you prayed

It seems sad to me that she wrote such lines for others, while for herself lines of longing and loss. But then, I do not understand Sappho; in the end, all I have to guide me are these poor fragments. If I held the unredacted papyri in my palm, I could pour them on the table in a snow of archaic confetti. It seems so little from which to sculpt a way of love, a way of life.

first published in Books & Culture in 2003