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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #73 Greene 2002 “Subjects, Objects, and Erotic Symmetry in Sappho’s Fragments”

Full citation: 

Greene, Ellen. “Subjects, Objects, and Erotic Symmetry in Sappho’s Fragments” in Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin & Lisa Auanger eds. 2002. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 0-29-77113-4

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers covering classical Greece

Greene, Ellen. “Subjects, Objects, and Erotic Symmetry in Sappho’s Fragments”

There is a frequent tension, when researching historic erotic relationships, between the models and archetypes of past societies and the ideals the reader brings from our own. The image of a romantic couple as being a partnership of equals prevails only in very specific times and places. But it is also the case that historic societies were not always uniform in attitude, or devoid of visions that challenged the dominant paradigm.

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Greene contrasts the asymmetrical, hierarchical way that desire is structured in male-centered relationships in ancient Greek literature with the reciprocal, mutual structure seen in several of Sappho’s poems about desire between women. The strict definitions of active, dominant, older and/or male erastes and passive, subordinate, younger and/or female eromenos are pervasive in art and literature. Sappho’s work disrupts this structure not simply by positioning a woman as the active agent, but in envisioning a response from the beloved that mirrors the lover’s agency. In Fragment 1, Aphrodite, when appealed to about an indifferent beloved, promises that the one who had fled would pursue, the one who had refused gifts would give them. In Fragment 94, a tearful parting from a beloved emphasizes “the wonderful things we shared” with an account of specific activities. Sappho’s Fragment 16 references Helen of Troy as one who desired and acted on those desires, not simply as a desired beloved. Greene’s analysis is packed full of linguistic detail, both in terms of surface meanings and in how the poetics reference and evoke prior literary traditions even while subverting them. She makes a strong case for the “Sapphic lover” presenting a counter-model of a symmetric non-hierarchical relationship between lovers.

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