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Preeminence and Prepositional Thinking in Sappho

Andres Matlock


Sappho’s poetry frequently juxtaposes preeminence and comparison as, for instance, in the provocatively truncated fr. 106 Voigt:  “Preeminent, as when the Lesbian singer among the foreigners” (πέρροχος, ὠς ὄτ’ ἄοιδος ὀ Λέσβιος ἀλλοδάποισιν).  This fragment challenges the reader to imagine what lies beyond the limits of comparison: how can someone or something be both incomparably preeminent (πέρροχος) and in comparison (ὠς ὄτ’)?  I argue that the answer to this question lies, in part, in a close analysis of Sappho’s use of prepositions and pre-verbs.  In fr. 106, the adjective πέρροχος is formed from the verb περρ-έχω (~Att. περι-έχω).  This verb and, more importantly, its distinctly Lesbic pre-verb περρ- resonates throughout the Sapphic corpus as a marker of transformation, emergence, and preeminence.  

    Close attention to Sappho’s prepositional technique provides insight, at the syntactic level, into the relations between times, bodies, and spaces that comprise the phenomenological world of the poet—what, in philosophical terms, can be called “the situation.”  At the same time, Sappho’s depictions of moments—or “events”—that seem to exceed that world can also be analyzed through their prepositional markers; see e.g., Helen’s surpassing beauty in fr. 16 (περσκέθοισα, ln. 6) or the lunar eclipse of fr. 96 (περρέχοισ’, ln. 9).  As such, I propose that Sappho employs two types of prepositional function: first, “situational” prepositions relate at least two discrete elements in space-time; these prepositions illustrate the narrative relations through which Sappho and the characters of her poems are interpellated, arrive and depart, and exchange words or objects.   Second, a smaller group of prepositions have the potential to be “evental”; these prepositions mark an event—a term that philosophers, most notably Alain Badiou (see, e.g., 2005), use to denote non-narrative, non-relational, and transformational moments in which “effects seem to exceed their causes” (Žižek 2014).  The philosophical concept of the event can help us to understand better the role of preeminence in Sappho’s poetry and elucidate her programmatic interest in what lies beyond comparison (on evental poetics, see Payne 2018).  

    The familiar themes of Sappho’s poetry—absence, desire, memory, prayer—can be traced back to a relational core: the distance between people, times, and places, and the human mind’s ability to overcome that distance, perhaps with some divine help (see, e.g., Burnett 1993, Robbins 1995).  Consequently, thinking through Sappho’s prepositional technique clarifies the phenomenological underpinnings of these general themes; that is, it allows us to see how Sappho configures the spatial and temporal relations that make up her poetic world (cf. Mueller 2016 on the use of ἐκ in the new “Brothers Song”).  As a test case for this form of situational reading, I will examine how prepositional use in fr. 1 complements other formal elements, such as the cletic-hymn structure (Burnett) and lyric address (Culler 2015, Greene 1994), in order to make manifest the unfolding relations between Sappho and Aphrodite.  In contrast to this situational reading of fr. 1, I return to πέρροχος in fr. 106 to analyze a pair of distinctive Lesbic prepositions and pre-verbs: πεδ- / περρ- (on which, see Bechtel 1963, Bertone 2010).  Drawing on a range of examples from across the corpus, (esp. the recently supplemented frr. 16 and 16a, 63V, 96V, 106V, and the new “Brothers Song”; see Obbink 2016), I argue that this poetic minimal pair offers a paradigm for the categories of Sappho’s prepositional thinking:  Πεδ- serves the situational function of interpellation, while περ(ρ)- marks the evental emergence of a preeminent unity.  Tracing the use of περρ- across the corpus, especially in verb περρέχην, I argue that the Sappho’s vision of preeminence can best be understood through the event, which lies at the center of her poetic program. 

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