How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God – Anne Carson

March 26, 2012

A professor of the classics, with background in classical languages, comparative literature, anthropology, history, and commercial art, Carson blends ideas and themes from many fields in her writing. She frequently references, modernizes, and translates Greek mythology. She has published fifteen books as of 2010, all of which blend the forms of poetry, essay, prose, criticism, translation, dramatic dialogue, fiction, and non-fiction.

Heather King is a Catholic writer who writes on spiritual matters and although we haven’t corresponded for several months, I was thinking of her as I posted this. We share a common interst in Simone Weil and this post (as well as the concluding one tomorrow) would seem to be one she would read with great interest. Follow that link to her blog, which is a regular read for me and should be for you, too.


Part One
What if I were to begin an essay on spiritual matters by citing a poem that will not at first seem to you spiritual at all. Fragment 31 of Sappho says:

He seems to me equal to gods that man whoever he is
who opposite you sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking and lovely laughing –
oh it puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming fills ears
and cold sweat holds me and shaking grips me all,
greener than grass I am and dead –
or almost I seem to me.

But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty …

This poem has been preserved for us by the ancient literary critic Longinus, who quotes four complete Sapphic stanzas and then the first line of what looks like a fifth stanza and then breaks off, no one knows why. But the first four stanzas seem to compose a unit of music and thought; let’s consider the thought. It comes to us bathed in light but this is the weirdly enclosed light of introspection. Sappho is staging a scenario inside the little theatre of her mind. It appears to be an erotic scenario but the characters are anonymous, their interrelations obscure. We don’t know why the girl is laughing, nor what the man is doing there, nor how Sappho’s response to them makes sense.

Sappho seems less interested in these characters as individuals than in the geometric figure that they form. This figure has three lines and three angles. One line connects the girl’s voice and laughter to a man who listens close. A second connects the girl to Sappho. Between the eye of Sappho and the listening man runs a third. The figure is a triangle. Why does Sappho want to stage this figure? Common sense suggests it is a poem about jealousy. “Lovers all show such symptoms as these,” says Longinus. So let’s think about what the jealousy of lovers is.

The word comes from ancient Greek zelos meaning “zeal” or “hot pursuit.” A jealous lover covets a certain location at the centre of her beloved’s affection only to find it occupied by someone else. If jealousy were a dance it would be a pattern placement and displacement. Its emotional focus is unstable. Jealousy is a dance in which everyone moves.

Sappho’s poem sets the stage for jealousy but she does not dance it. Indeed she seems to forget the presence of her dancing partners entirely after the first stanza and shifts the spotlight onto herself. And what we see in the spotlight is an unexpectedly spiritual spectacle. For Sappho describes her own perceptual abilities (visual, oral, tactile) reduced to dysfunction one after another; she shows us the objects of outer sense emptying themselves; and there on the brightly lit stage at the centre of her perception appears — her own Being: “I am … ,” she says at verse 15 (“greener than grass I am”).

This is not just a moment of revealed existence: it is a spiritual event. Sappho enters into ecstasy. “Greener than grass I am…” she says, predicating of her own Being an attribute observable only from outside her own body. This is the condition called ekstasis, literally “standing outside oneself,” a condition regarded by the Greeks as typical of mad persons, geniuses and lovers, and ascribed to poets by Aristotle.

Ecstasy changes Sappho and changes her poem. She herself, she says, is almost dead. Her poem appears to break down and stop. But then, arguably, both of them start up again. I say arguably because the last verse of the poem has a puzzling history and is regarded with suspicion by some scholars, although it appears in Longinus and is corroborated by a papyrus. Let us attempt to see its coherence with what goes before.

“All is to be dared because even a person of poverty. . . ,” says the last verse. It is a new thought. The content of the thought is absolute daring. The condition of the thought is poverty. I don’t want to give the impression that I know what this is saying or that I see where the poem is headed from here, I don’t. Overall it leaves me wondering. Sappho sets up a scenario of jealousy but that’s not the poem is about, jealousy is just a figure. Sappho stages an event of ecstasy but that’s not what the poem is about either, ecstasy is just a means to an end. Unfortunately we don’t reach the end, the poem breaks off. But we do see Sappho begin to turn towards it, towards this unreachable end. We see her senses empty themselves, we see her Being thrown outside its own centre where it stands observing her as if she were grass or dead.

At which point a speculation occurs to me: granted this is a poem all about love, do we need to limit ourselves to a reading of it that is merely or conventionally erotic? After all, Sappho is believed by some historians to have been not just a poet of love and a worshipper of Aphrodite on Lesbos but also a priest of Aphrodite’s cult and a teacher of her doctrines. Perhaps Sappho’s poem wants to teach us something about the metaphysics or even the theology of love. Perhaps she is posing not the usual lovesong complaint, Why don’t you love me? but a deeper spiritual question, What is it that love dares the self to do? Daring enters the poem in the last verse when Sappho uses the word tolmaton: “is to be dared.” This word is a verbal adjective and expresses a mood of possibility or potential. Sappho says it is an absolute potential:

pan tolmaton: all is to be dared.

Moreover she consents to it — or seems to be on the point of consenting when the poem breaks off. Why does she consent? Her explanation no longer exists. So far as it goes, it leads us back to her ecstatic condition. For when an ecstatic is asked the question, What is it that love dares the self to do? she will answer:

Love dares the self to leave itself behind, to enter into poverty.

Part Two
Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake in 1310 for writing a book about the absolute daring of love. The Mirror of Simple Soul is a theological treatise also a kind of handbook for people seeking God. Marguerite Porete’s central doctrine is that a human soul can proceed through seven different stages of beginning with a period of “boiling desire,” to an ecstasy in which the soul carried outside her own Being and leaves herself behind. This departure from her own center is not passive.

Like Sappho, Marguerite first discovers in reality certain absolute demand and then she consents to it. Like Sappho she sees herself split in two by this consent and experiences it as a kind of “annihilation.” Marguerite’s reasoning is severe: she understands the essence of her human self in her free will and she decides that free will has been placed in her by God in order that she may give it back. She therefore causes her will to depart from its own will and render itself back to God with nothing left over. Here is how she describes this event:

… a ravishing expansion of the movement of divine Light is poured into the Soul and shows to the Will [the rightness of what is ... in order to move the Soul] from the place where it is now and ought not to be and   render it back to where it is not, whence it came, there where it out remain. Now the Will sees … that it cannot profit unless it departs from its own will. And thus the Soul parts herself from this will and the Will parts itself from such a Soul and then renders itself and gives and back to God, there where it was first taken, without retaining anything of its own.

Now it is noteworthy, in light of Sappho’s account of ecstasy and its consequences, that Marguerite Porete twice refers to herself at the moment when God’s abundance overflows her as:

‘I who am in the abyss of absolute poverty.’

She also describes her impoverishment as a condition of physical and metaphysical negation: Now such a Soul is nothing, for she sees her nothingness by means of the abundance of divine understanding, which makes her nothing and places her in nothingness.

Throughout The Mirror she speaks of herself as null, worthless, deficient, deprived and naked. But at the same time she recognizes her poverty as an amazing and inexpressible kind of repletion; and of this absolute emptiness which is also absolute fullness she speaks in erotic language, referring to God as “overflowing and abundant Lover” or as “the Spouse of my youth.” Even more interesting for our analogy with Sappho, Marguerite Porete twice proposes jealousy as a figure for her relationship with God. Thus she refers to God as “the most high Jealous One” and speaks of God’s relation to her Soul in this way:

Jealous he is truly! He shows it by his works which have stripped me of myself absolutely and have placed me in divine pleasure without myself. And such a union joins and conjoins me through the sovereign highness of creation with the brilliance of divine being, by which I have being which is being.

Here is an unusual erotic triangle consisting of God, Marguerite and Marguerite. But its motions have the same ecstatic effect as the three-person situation in Sappho’s poem. Marguerite feels herself pulled apart from itself and thrown into a condition of poverty, to which she consents. Her consent takes the form of a peculiarly intense triangular fantasy:

… and I pondered, as if God were asking me, how would I fare if I knew that he preferred me to love another more than himself? And at this my sense failed me and I knew not what to say. Then he asked me how would I fare if it could happen he should love another more than me? And here my sense failed me and I knew not what to say…. Beyond this, he asked me what would I do and how would I fare if it could be he preferred another to love me more than he…. And there I fainted away for I could say nothing to these three things, nor refuse, nor deny.

Notice how Marguerite turns the fantasy this way and that, rotating its personnel and reimagining its anguish. Jealousy is a dance in which everyone moves. It is a dance with a dialectical nature. For the jealous lover must balance two contradictory realities within her heart: on the one hand, that of herself at the center of the universe and in command of her own will, offering love to her beloved; on the other, that of herself off the centre of the universe and in despite of her own will, watching her beloved love someone else.

Naked collision of these two realities brings the lover to a sort of breakdown — as we saw in Sappho’s poem — whose effect is to expose her very Being to its own scrutiny and to dislodge it from the centre of itself. It would be a very high test of dialectical endurance to be able to, not just recognize, but consent to this breakdown. Sappho seems to be entering on a mood of consent when her poem stops. Marguerite faints three times before she can manage it. But then, with a psychological clarity as amazing as Sappho’s, Marguerite pushes open the implications of her own pain. Here is her analysis of what she sees when she looks inside Marguerite:

And so long as I was at ease and loved myself “with” him, I could not at all contain myself or have calm: I was held in bondage by which I could not move…. I loved myself so much along “with” him that I could not answer loyally…. Yet all at once he demanded my response, if I did not want to lose both myself and him…. I said to him that he must want to test me in all points.

Marguerite reaches rockbottom here when she faces the fact that loyalty to God is actually obstructed by her love of him because this affection, like most human erotic feeling, is largely self-love: it puts Marguerite in bondage to Marguerite rather than to God. Her reasoning uses the figure of jealousy in two ways. She sees jealousy as an explanation of her own feelings of inner division; she also projects jealousy as a test of her ability to de-centre herself, to move out of the way, to clear her own heart and her own will off the path that leads to God.

For in order to (as she says) “answer God loyally” she cannot stay one with her own heart or with her own will, she cannot love her own love or love herself loving or love being loved. And insofar as she can “annihilate” all these — her term — she can resolve the three angles of the dance of jealousy into a single nakedness and reduce her Being from three to two to one:

“Now this Soul. . . has left three and has made two one. But in what does this one consist? This one is when the soul is rendered into the simple Deity, in full knowing, without feeling, beyond thought…. Higher no one can go, deeper no one can go, more naked no human can be.”

Part Three
Simone Weil was also a person who wanted to get herself out of the way so as to arrive at God. “The self,” she says in one of her notebooks, “is only a shadow projected by sin and error which blocks God’s light and which I take for a Being.” She had a program for getting the self out of the way which she called “decreation.” This word is a neologism to which she did not give an exact definition nor a consistent spelling. “To undo the creature in us” is one of the ways she describes its aim. And when she tells of its method she uses language that may sound familiar. Like Marguerite Porete she expresses a need to render back to God what God has given to her, that is, the self:

We possess nothing in this world other than the power to say “I.” This is what we must yield up to God.

And like Marguerite Porete she pictures this yielding as a sort of test:

God gave me Being in order that I should give it back to him. It is like one of those traps whereby the characters are tested in fairy tales. If I accept this gift it is bad and fatal; its virtue becomes apparent through my refusal of it. God allows me to exist outside himself. It is for me to refuse this authorization.

And also like Marguerite Porete she feels herself to be an obstacle to herself inwardly. The process of decreation is for her a dislodging of herself from a centre where she cannot stay because staying there blocks God. She speaks of a need “to withdraw from my own soul” and says:

God can love in us only this consent to withdraw in order to make way for him.

But now let us dwell for a moment on this statement about withdrawal and consent. Here Simone Well enters upon a strangely daring and difficult negotiation that seems to me to evoke both Marguerite Porete and Sappho. For Simone Weil wants to discover in the three-cornered figure of jealousy those lines of force that connect a soul to God. She does not, however, fantasize relationships with ordinary human lovers. The erotic triangle Simone Weil constructs is one involving God, herself and the whole of creation:

All the things that I see, hear, breathe, touch, eat; all the beings I meet — I deprive the sum total of all that of contact with God, and I deprive God of contact with all that insofar as something in me says “I.” I can do something for all that and for God — namely, retire and respect the tete-a-tete…

I must withdraw so that God may make contact with the beings whom chance places in my path and whom he loves. It is tactless of me to be there. It is as though I were placed between two lovers or two friends. I am not the maiden who awaits her betrothed but the unwelcome third who is with two betrothed lovers and ought to go away so that they can really be together.

If only I knew how to disappear there would be a perfect union of love between God and the earth I tread, the sea I hear

If only she could become what Marguerite Porete calls an “annihilated soul,” if only she could achieve the transparency of Sappho’s ecstatic condition “greener than grass and almost dead,” Simone Weil would feel she had relieved the world of an indiscretion. Jealousy is a dance in which everybody moves because one of them is always extra — three people trying to sit on two chairs. We saw how this extra person is set apart in Marguerite Porete’s text by a canny use of quotation marks: remember her plaintive observation:

I loved myself so much along “with” him that I could not answer loyally.

When I read this sentence the first time, it seemed odd to me that Marguerite Porete puts the quotation marks around the “with” rather than around one of the pronouns. But Marguerite knows what she is doing: the people are not the problem here. Withness is the problem. She is trying to use the simplest language and the plainest marks to express a profoundly tricky spiritual fact, viz. that I cannot go towards God in love without bringing myself along. And so in the deepest possible sense I can never be alone with God. I can only be alone “with” God.

To catch sight of this fact brings a wrench in perception, forces the perceiver to a point where she has to disappear from herself in order to look. As Simone Weil says longingly:

If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there. But when I am in any place I disturb the silence of heaven by the beating of my heart.

As we saw, Marguerite Porete found a way to translate the beating of her own heart into a set of quotation marks around the word “with.” And Sappho found a way to record the beating of her heart while imagining its absence — for surely this is the function performed in her poem by “the man who opposite you sits and listens close.” This man, Sappho tells us, is “equal to gods”; but can we not read him as her way of representing “the landscape as it is when I am not there”? It is a landscape where joy is so full that it seems to go unexperienced. Sappho does not describe this landscape further but Marguerite Porete offers an amazing account of a soul in some such condition:

Such a Soul. . . swims in the sea of joy — that is in the sea of delights flowing and streaming from the Divinity, and she feels no joy for she herself is joy, and swims and floats in joy without feeling any joy because she inhabits Joy and Joy inhabits her….

It seems consistent with Simone Weil’s project of decreation that, although she too recognizes this kind of joyless joy, she finds in it not an occasion of swimming but one of exclusion and negation:

Perfect joy excludes even the very feeling of joy, for in the soul filled by the object no corner is left for saying “I.”

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  1. hi, i just made a 2 second research on google and found out that this is not anne carson at any age but english poet Lavinia Greenlaw, born in 1962.

    • Nice Catch, Thanks. dj

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