̶ Are you afraid to look back, Sprague? Do you think you’re going to lose your Eurydice like Orpheus did?
There’s a steely edge to the blue of her eyes, echoed by the blue of the jacket and pants she’s wearing. White T-shirt and tennis shoes: Cool.
̶̶ To tell the truth, I’ve never understood that mysterious moment when Orpheus looks back. All that effort to reach Eurydice in the Underworld, and then—just before reaching the light—he looks back and loses her. I confess, I just don’t get it.
̶ It’s about faith, Simona says.
̶ Yeah. Rumour has it that love can’t survive without it.
The scalloped hem of her voile skirt falls to just above her knees: I won’t fall that far. She continues:
̶ He didn’t have the faith to believe she’d still be there. He didn’t love her enough.
She loves me, she loves me not: White daisies pattern the navy skirt, white as the white of her sweater. Riva comes in:
̶̶ Then again, it could be the opposite. Maybe he loved her too much. Maybe it was excess of love that made him look back.
Beneath her plush burgundy blazer, the black of her silk-chiffon top is transparent. As transparent as she is?
̶̶ Either way, she continues, we all know what happened to him!
̶ Remind me, I say. I’ve forgotten.
I like her red lips and long hair. I like the light in her eyes.
̶̶ A lost soul, Sprague. That’s what he became. Ended up getting ripped apart by the Maenads.
̶ Who were jealous of his love, Héloïse specifies.
̶ Legend has it only his head survived, Nicole adds. Fell into a river, drifted down to the sea. And do you know where it washed up?
̶ In Lesbos. That’s how Sappho got her gift of song.
I think of a Sappho fragment. I want to recite it, but the words won’t come. Instead, I ask:
̶̶ Am I in the way, Riva?
̶ What are you talking about? We’re happy to meet Marietta’s lover.
She raises her glass:
̶̶ Here’s to the two of you!
̶ And to your beautiful eyes! Héloïse says.
̶ Yes, Nicole adds, they go very well with Marietta’s.
Vodka and gin, rum and Bourbon—is that the taste of ambiguity?
Riva caresses a Malabar leaf.
̶ It’s been a long time, Riva. How are you?
̶ I’m fine, Marietta. It’s good to see you.
̶ Is it?
̶ Yes. A little troubling at first, I confess. But it’s definitely good to see you.
Silver, the spikes of Riva’s heels glow.
̶ Have you tried the desserts? she asks us.
̶ Not yet, I reply.
̶ Help yourself, she says, sweeping her hand to the plate on the table.
̶ What are they? you ask.
̶ Wonton with strawberries and mascarpone. They’re delicious.
I help myself to one.
̶ I’ll have a bite of yours, Sprague.
You eat from my hand.
̶ Hmmm. This would go well with champagne.
As if on command, Joaquín brings you a glass.
Stand to face me beloved
And open out the grace of your eyes:
It comes to me now, this fragment of Sappho;
It comes to me from the depths of my soul.
Sappho, I hear your voice in the hills of Mitylene,
I hear your lyre in the mixolydian mode:
With unabashed frankness you reveal yourself,
With undeceived insight you lay love bare.
I would like to pay you homage, however humbly;
I would like to pass on what you have given me:
The conviction that love needs no premeditation,
That in the being of another one’s self expands.
And so I tune my lyre to your intonations,
From my lyric I expunge ornament and explanation:
It is enough that I open myself to grace.
Sappho shows more than any other figure how modern sexuality has used ancient Greece as a mirror in which to find itself. She is a model of how the West uses ancient Greece to think about desire. Since so little is actually known about the real Sappho, she is a wonderful canvas on to which to project an image of desire. Two Victorian paintings will help make this process of projection visible. They are two images from hundreds which could have been chosen. Sappho has constantly been used to express female longing in a man’s world.
The first picture is a brooding, full-length portrait of Sappho painted by Charles-Auguste Mengin in 1877, and presented to the Manchester City Art Gallery seven years later. Mengin is an undistinguished Parisian painter, but this is a memorable picture. Sappho, ‘dark’ as Ovid describes her, though not perhaps so short or so ugly, appears as a passionately moody young Romantic artist. Her left arm is languorously draped over a shadowy pillar, her right holds the lyre, her instrument and symbol of her authority. She stares with an inward gaze, her face shadowed by her hair and robe which run into each other, her eyes hooded by her brows. Her black tunic also flows into the shadows around her. She emerges into and from the darkness. This is not the Greece of light and purity, sunshine and rationality. This is the embodiment of a burning and dangerous passion. Since Byron, himself the archetypal hero of dangerous romantic passion, wrote ‘the isles of Greece, the isles of Greece / where burning Sappho loved and sung’, Sappho has indeed burnt and smouldered.
But in a powerfully erotic gesture Mengin has bared Sappho’s breasts and shoulders, and allowed these parts of her body to be as brightly illuminated as the rest of her is shaded. It’s not clear where the light could come from to irradiate her body in just this way and leave such deep shadows elsewhere in the picture. It seems as if the light from her breasts reveals what we can see of her face. This is a totally bizarre dress code, as if we are meant to think that this is how poets wandered about in archaic Lesbos. Mengin’s dream of the Greek world and of Sappho’s life lets the viewer gaze at the young girl’s exposed body. The painting could be intellectualized as a metaphor for the passion of artistic creativity: the burning love in her breast is a passion which flares out, and puts light in her face, the mirror of the soul. But the viewer is actually caught in a more obvious erotic stare at the girl’s fleshy breasts, and takes pleasure in the looking. This is a very sexy painting about a poet of love.
The second picture is a glorious canvas by one of the great popularizers of a vision of Greece for Victorian society, Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Alma-Tadema painted a string of lush and often louche images of the ancient world whose decorousness and archaeological accuracy scarcely conceal the titillating fascination with corruption, decadence and voyeuristic pleasure.
The performing poet here, lyre in his arms, is Alcaeus, a man who is said in some stories to be Sappho’s lover. He is depicted as young and beautiful and, as he plays, he stares intently across the performance space at Sappho, who sits resting her head on her arm against a lectern. She returns his stare with a dreamy intensity. On the lectern, between the listening female poet and performing male poet is a laurel wreath, a victor’s crown awaiting a head. Behind Sappho, arranged on the marble benches, are three girls in various states of concentration, rapture and critical observation. A fourth stands behind Sappho. She is crowned with daisies, and, while she too looks at Alcaeus, her arm is draped across Sappho’s shoulders in an affectionate and protective manner. The stone benches are scratched with graffiti, which spell out in Greek the names of girls who were said to be the lovers of Sappho – Anaktoria, Atthis, Gongyla.
The sexual tensions of this painting are carefully calibrated. Sappho is transfixed in her shared gaze with Alcaeus. Is this erotic? Or is this a poetic rivalry? The laurel wreath is set between them, and the two poets are linked also by the wood of the lectern, Sappho’s reading stand, and the wood of Alcaeus’ chair and lyre, his performance space. This is poet face to face with poet. At the same time, the discarded golden drinking cup beneath Alcaeus’ chair suggests a certain decadent ease. Sappho, however, is placed among her girls. The graffiti listing her lovers’ names, set like plaques for each seat, spell out a history of poetical love affairs. The blazoned names and the protective hand of the beautiful standing girl suggest that, if there is an erotic tension here, it might be between the tradition which has Sappho dally with girls and the tradition which has her daily with boys. Is Sappho to cross the line between her band of girls and Alcaeus? The picture asks the viewer to read desire in this painting. Who wants whom and on what terms?
This is a quite remarkable painting, particularly for the Victorian period, precisely because of its rare ability to suggest – thanks to its classical veils – a tension between a woman’s sexual love for women and her love for a man. In the heart of Victorian high culture, something is articulated on canvas that cannot be named. Through Sappho and her Greek landscape, silenced desire finds a voice.
Sappho shows brilliantly how Greece inhabits the modem sexual imagination. She is a figure through whom to talk about desire, to paint desire, to fantasize desire. The perfect male body of Greece provides a canonical image which shapes our vision of masculinity. Sappho has no one physical form – but the idea of Sappho provides the shifting mirrors on which a kaleidoscopic range of expressions of desire is produced. Sappho lets the modern world articulate and feel desire.