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Blank Marks: Absence as Interpretation of Queer Erotics in 20th-21st Century Reception of Sappho

Mary Mussman

Comparative Literature, UC Berkeley

In Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig’s 1976 Brouillon pour un dictionnaire des amantes (Lesbian Peoples: Materials for a Dictionary), the definition for Sappho appears to be missing. The self-evident reading of this blankness derives from its suggestion of Sappho’s importance for lesbian literary history: there is too much to write; Sappho surpasses definition.

Yet I read this blankness as significant in two other ways. Firstly, it is indicative of a turn in the reception of Sappho by female writers from a trend of expanding upon Sappho’s  fragments to a trend of recognizing their lacunae and gaps as sites for valuable interpretive work. In the century prior to the publication of Wittig and Zeig’s Brouillon, Christina Rossetti used Sapphic syntax as poetic inspiration, Michael Field produced in Long Ago a collection described as “‘the extension of Sappho’s fragments into lyrics’” (Preface), and H. D. translated lines of Sappho into full-fledged poems. Wittig and Zeig’s blank definition subverts this trope of expansion, accomplishing what Anne Carson would later do with brackets in her 2002 translation, If Not, Winter: the emphatic blank comes to “imply a free space of imaginal adventure” (xi). Blankness becomes for Wittig and Zeig the site of an imagined drama that is queerly erotic—part of the lesbian utopia adumbrated by the Brouillon. Yet if we read blankness only as an interpretation of missing parts, the reception of Sappho as a paragon of literary lesbian or queer desire remains in the imaginary, resting on wishful thinking rather than on poetics.

This leads to my second—and principle—argument for approaching Wittig and Zeig’s blank definition of Sappho. As much as blankness alludes through nondisclosure to the cultural imagination of Sappho as a lesbian poet (unspeakable as taboo, ineffable as exemplary), it also requires that we consider how its manifestation in Sappho’s work itself. Johanna Dehler has already suggested that the Brouillon offers a pseudo-translation of a nonexistent Sapphic work, but I want to consider how we might understand blankness as a creative interpretation of absence in her existent work. I mean to explore this absence not in terms of ἔρως as lack (or blankness), which Carson has elaborated at length in Eros the Bittersweet, but beyond the absence inherent to the structure of desire—and also beyond the absence of lovers marked by ff. 1 and 16 LP. Rather, I would like to draw out a subtler way in which the trope of absence emerges, which is not explicitly erotic but is nevertheless leads to a queer conception of Sappho. I mean queer in the sense of errant or divergent, and also in terms of non-normative modes of thinking about desire. Focusing on ff. 52, 94, 105a, and 146, I argue that tropes of absence present in Sappho’s poetry support late 20th century reception—in texts like the Brouillon—of Sappho as a poet whose queerness emerges not only in her biographical reception but also in her poetics.

Session/Panel Title

Turning Queer: Queerness and the Trope

Session/Paper Number

64.6

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