AN Whitehead (1861-1947 CE) and and Sappho (c. 630 – c. 570 BCE)
The Digital Sappho: Texts and Commentary. Click here.
The Life of Sappho. Poetry Foundation. Click here.
The Glorious Imperatives of the Body
"...the ‘withness’ of the body. It is this withness that makes the body the starting point for our knowledge of the circumambient world."
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality
Process philosophers love to talk in terms of universals: truth, goodness, and beauty, for example. They traffic in abstractions, hoping that readers might understand their "implications" and "applications" on their own.
Along the way they sometimes forget that universals are discovered in particular experiences and that these experiences, on their own terms and in their own right, are inherently worthwhile, quite apart from whatever universals may or may not be manifest.
This is ironic because, in Whitehead's philosophy, it is in concrete experiences that intrinsic value is found. Indeed, Whitehead speaks of the intrinsic value of each and every moment of experience as an act of self-enjoyment: the enjoyment of being one among many in the intensity of individual subjective experience. "Intensity" is the word Whitehead uses in Process and Reality to name the subjective aim of experience. Actual occasions of experience, concrescing subjects, "aim" at satisfying subjective intensity. Atoms and molecules have this aim, and so do other animals and people.
Moreover, in Whitehead's philosophy, each and every experience undergone and undertaken by a human being begins with bodily experience. He calls it experience in the mode of causal efficacy. This experience is evoked by other actual entities, including entities in the natural world and in human life. It is out of their evocation, given for experience, that experience unfolds in thought, feeling, and imagination. The aim at satisfying intensity begins with reception, with feeling, with emotions evoked by them!
Additionally, Whitehead uses the word "eros" in Adventures of Ideas to name this side of life. Eros becomes, for him, a substitute for aim and desire. Whereas Descartes said "I think therefore I am," Whitehead could have said "I desire therefore I am." And, as it happens, the "I" that desires is in the desiring itself. We cannot sharply separate ourselves from our desires, as if we were one thing and our desires another. Even our most abstract thinking is a desire for satisfaction.
Whitehead does not say very much about sexual desire. He was, after all, a Victorian and a mathematician. He was very much at home in the world of abstractions. He enjoys, and encourages us to enjoy, what he calls the Adventure of Ideas.
And yet, partly through the influence of his wife, he ended up highlighting beauty as among the highest ideals to which humans can give themselves. Beauty is a combination of harmony and intensity. It is not "happiness" as such, but rather vitality, intensity, discovered through, not apart from, connections with the world.
This rings true to those who, like Sappho, find themselves in love with others, sexually and spiritually. Sexuality is, or can be, a rather deep form of spirituality, not just because it is tender and loving, but because it is intense. It bespeaks what, in the spiritual alphabet, we call zest for life or passion.
Sappho's poetry, much as we have of it, is a window into zest in the concrete particularity of her own bodily experience. It is lyric poetry not epic poetry; it speak not of heroes and heroines in epic sagas, but as personal desire in the immediacy of the moment. It completes Whitehead. It reveals the imperative of bodily experience.
What makes these imperatives glorious, or potentially so, is that they can be woven into poetry and communicated to others. We can make poetry of sexual desire. Sappho does this. She adds what Whitehead would call "the mental pole" of experience to "the physical pole," such that the two are intertwined.
- Jay McDaniel, 1/20/23
Sappho's Significance in literary history and critical theory
"In literary history and critical theory, Sappho's greatest importance is to be found in her contribution to the idea of the lyric genre. Her work, which claims to be direct, impassioned, and simple and which is addressed to a circle of close friends and lovers rather than being impersonal or directed at connoisseurs, has significantly influenced the evolution of poetry.
Her celebration of love has reechoed through the centuries not only in the work of translators and direct imitators, but also in all those other voices that have dared declare their love to be radically important, more compelling and serious than abstract notions of truth or justice or piety.
At the same time Sappho reminds modern readers of poetry's roots in magic and religion while occupying a firm place in Greek literary history as a metrical inventor and an expert practitioner of her art.
Finally, she is widely recognized as one of the great poets of world literature, an author whose works have caused her readers to repeat in many different forms Strabo's amazed epithet when he wrote that she could only be called 'a marvel.'"
- The Poetry Foundation
Three Themes in Sappho
excerpts from the discussion in the Poetry Foundation
Veneration of the Erotic
"Her poems are, for all their dazzling craft, repeatedly praised as spontaneous, simple, direct, and honest...In her poetry veneration for the erotic is freed from agricultural associations and traditional formulas and seems rather the natural expression of an individual whose observations are true to the complexity of her experience and include conflicted and aggressive emotion."
The Urgent Imperatives of the Body
"Love, though apotheosized, is neither censored nor simplified. In poem 1, the hymn to Aphrodite, passion is strained almost to the point of vindictiveness. The author seems to seek mastery and not mutuality; it is ambiguous or irrelevant whether divine intervention will result in happiness for all. The urgent imperatives of the body rather than social or cosmic harmony suffice to motivate the goddess and her devotee."
The Primacy of the Particular and Subjective Experience
"Apart from her fascination with the theme of love, Sappho contributed in other ways to the conventions of the lyric genre. Her emphasis on emotion, on subjective experience, and on the individual marks a stark contrast between her work and the epic, liturgical, or dramatic poetry of the period. Much earlier poetry had been liturgical, ceremonial, or courtly: in various ways emphatically public. But much of Sappho's work is intimate and putatively private, addressed to specific women or to her friends; and her tone of colloquial familiarity anticipates medieval and modern practice. Just as the troubadours recorded the names of friends and enemies with meticulous precision and modern poets often insist on the paradoxical importance of ephemera, Sappho's texts assume an immediate net of circumstance and imply that only through the particular can the universal be manifested. Unlike earlier singers, who had memorialized the values and ideology of a whole social group while remaining themselves in anonymity, the lyricists, Sappho prominent among them, found the truest and most significant material in individual experience."
READING LIST: Benjamin Acosta-Hughes, Arion’s Lyre: Archaic Lyric into Hellenistic Poetry (Princeton University Press, 2010) Josephine Balmer, Sappho: Poems and Fragments (Bloodaxe Books, 1992) David A. Campbell (ed.), Greek Lyric: Sappho and Alcaeus (Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1989) Anne Carson, ‘If Not, Winter’: Fragments of Sappho (Virago, 2003) Franco Ferrari, Sappho’s Gift: The Poet and Her Community (Michigan Classical Press, 2009) Ellen Greene (ed.), Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches (University of California Press, 1998) Ellen Greene (ed.), Re-reading Sappho: Reception and Transmission (University of California Press, 1998) Ellen Greene and Marilyn Skinner (eds.), The New Sappho on Old Age: Textual and Philosophical Issues (Center for Hellenic Studies, 2010) G. O. Hutchinson, Greek Lyric Poetry: A Commentary on Selected Larger Pieces (Oxford University Press, 2001) Denys Page, Sappho and Alcaeus: An Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry (First published 1955; Oxford University Press, 1990) Margaret Reynolds, The Sappho Companion (Chatto and Windus, 2000) Margaret Reynolds, The Sappho History (Palgrave, 2003) Oliver Taplin (ed.), Literature in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A New Perspective (Oxford University Press, 2000) Eva-Maria Voigt (ed.), Sappho et Alcaeus: Fragmenta (Polak and Van Gennep, 1971) M. L. West, Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation (Oxford Paperbacks, 2008) Margaret Williamson, Sappho’s Immortal Daughters (Harvard University Press, 1998) John J. Winkler, The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece (Routledge, 1989)