Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sappho: Restoring that which is beautiful to its rightful place

In my women in antiquity class, which is taught by my very attractive classics professor (on whom I and most of the rest of the class have a massive crush), we've been talking about Sappho, famously gay lady poet of the 3rd century BCE. 

While both my professor and I are inclined to believe in her gayness ( My professor knows better than I, since her PhD was on the biographical tradition of Sappho in antiquity, but I was sort of already convinced for lots of reasons) there is this alternate historical tradition where you read her gay poetry with hetero blinders so it comes out as "affection toward her students" or "they're really just wedding hymns, guys" or, alternatively, the simple hysteria response of "why does everything have to be GAY with you people?!"

Of course, it's not really about co-opting everything to be gay just because now we actually have a queer-positive lens through which to view history, and we're going to paint everything rainbow just because we can. It's more about seeing things in a way that we ("we" being feminist/gay/queer-positive historians and translators) were never allowed to before, and in reconstructing that which has been purposely buried or lost. Sappho especially was incredibly censored, particularly during the 19th century, by both translators and commentators. In the 1800s, prominent scholars saw Sappho's most explicit (and beautiful) declaration of desire for another woman, poem #2, as a "homosexual psychotic breakdown."

So much of history, at this point, is about resurrecting lost voices. We see this in the rising history of indigenous peoples who were colonized by Europeans, in women-inclusive history, and in the history of slaves in the American South and the Caribbean. These are all relatively recent movements in scholarship that have picked up intensely since their beginnings in the '70s and '80s, finally making history about other groups of people besides straight white men. These are all efforts towards creating a fuller portrait of societies that came before ours, and without this larger sense we can't hope to understand the past.

A huge part of our job as historians is thus to restore what has been censored or effaced or conveniently forgotten. I hope I can continue that fight as I do research and study history. Without those on the edges and the margins, we'll never see the bigger picture.

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