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Les Guérillères: Sappho and the Lesbian Body

Irene Han

New York University

In my paper, I put Sappho in dialogue with the feminist thought of Wittig and probe the dialectic between the past and present. I am particularly interested in Sappho fragments 16 and 31, in which she embodies the female voice of desire. In fragment 16, for example, Sappho sets up an opposition between the plurality and the singular “I” that speaks in this text to redefine what is the most beautiful. For her, beauty resides not in war, but in love:

Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot and some men say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing
on the black earth, but I say it is
what one loves. (trans. from A. Carson, If not, winter)

To a certain extent, Sappho engages in poetic warfare by usurping the language of (masculine) epic to recast it in the context of her (feminine) lyric; the idea behind this declaration is not that love is the antinomy of war nor lyric, that of epic, but that love is war and lyric can be epic. Helen is the protagonist here and offers us an exemplum: pursuing Paris, she places her beloved, Anactoria, above all else.

In her essay, “The Trojan Horse,” Wittig states, “Any important literary work is like the Trojan Horse at the time it is produced. Any work with a new form operates as a war machine, because its design and its goal is to pulverize the old forms and formal conventions” (68-69). It is my view that the fragmentary nature of Sappho’s poems embodies what Wittig identifies to be a “war machine,” as a new and unconventional form of writing, comprised of ancient symbols, and that Sappho anticipates the lesbian body and subjectivity, what Wittig promotes as the truest, if not, only form of feminism:

Lesbian is the only concept I know of which is beyond the categories of sex (woman and man), because the designated subject (lesbian) is not a woman, either economically, or politically, or ideologically...our survival demands that we contribute all our strength to the destruction of the class of women within which men appropriate women. This can be accomplished only by the destruction of heterosexuality as a social system which is based on the oppression of women by men and which produces the doctrine of the difference between the sexes to justify this oppression (250).

My paper builds on recent scholarship, which has brought to light the possibility that the Greeks and Romans thought of non-tribadic instances of female homoerotic desire as different in kind than other types of human desire. The work of Sandra Boehringer (L’Homosexualité féminine dans l'Antiquité grecque et romaine, 2007) and Jen Oliver (“Oscula iungit nec moderata satis nec sic a virgine danda: Ovid’s Callisto Episode, Female Homoeroticism, and the Study of Ancient Sexuality,” 2015) find evidence for Greek and Roman notions of a less hierarchical female homoeroticism, fundamentally different from male-male or male-female desire, and perhaps intrinsic to the sexual identities of certain (real or fictional) women.

I argue that Wittig’s conception of the “Lesbian” illuminates and enhances the ancient text and that the first-person voice of Sappho’s poems confuses the subject/object binary and promotes a non-hierarchical, non-binary version of female homoerotic desire. In this way, by disrupting, her fragments have a revolutionary potential, in the spirit of Wittig.

Session/Panel Title

Lesbianism Before Sexuality

Session/Paper Number

19.1

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