Not I

“Not I”, Samuel Beckett, 1972.

The character from “Not I”, Mouth, is a fragmentary woman whose neurotic speech is rapid, incoherent, and disruptive. She tells us about her loveless, emotionless past, reminiscing about how she led a dull uneventful life until a significant moment in April. This is one of the few moments in the play when there seems to be a glimmer of hope for her, a way to define her identity. If we think of T. S. Eliott’s “The Waste Land”, April is a month of regeneration- “breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire.” Mouth had lived her entire life in a wintry state of silence, anhedonia, and inertia and this special, obscure moment in April generated her uncharacteristic discourse. There are many possible interpretations for the play- Absurdists tend to only create the flame to encourage us to find our own way in the darkness. The spectator can speculate on her state as being a bleak conception of the afterlife- She seems to be in a purgatorial state, awaiting her judgment. The character- referred to as Mouth- can also be seen as an actress with an identity crisis. Some elements are reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s film, Persona (1966), which also deals with bleakness, neurosis, and death.

The writer of the Theatre of the Absurd is usually someone entrapped in their own inner world, trying to express existential anxieties in a congruent form. The plays move away from mirroring society personas toward portraying the nonsensical nature of human existence. Whilst existentialists approach the same theme in a philosophical, logical, and complex way, absurdists believe that the devaluation of language is essential to depict the absurdity of life. Words are insufficient and sometimes unnecessary, which is one of the reasons why Beckett often preferred silence to conversation, in his interactions with James Joyce in Paris: “They engaged in conversations which consisted often in silence directed towards each other, both suffused with sadness, Beckett mostly for the world, Joyce mostly for himself.” The two artists share the same existential anguish and that Baudelairean view of the modern world as an age of the ephemeral and the contingent.

Reflections on reading

Published in Education in the Digital Era, March 2019

Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence. […] They are a way of being fully human.”- Susan Sontag

The multifaceted nature of literature encompasses an abundance of purposes when it comes to the act of reading, such as functioning as a vehicle of escapism, working as a tool to enhance self-awareness, setting in motion cultural and social change starting from individual transformation, inspiring metaphorical deaths and resurrections of selves, summoning childhood magic and nostalgia associated with books we grew up with and memories entangled with their reading, perceiving the human spirit as shaped through time within specific historical and cultural frameworks, as well as strengthening our connection with others by making us recognise ‘the other’ within us, and providing a mirror that we can use to face the world with empathy and acceptance as we fully acknowledge its realness and complexity.

Reading can be seen as a spiritual journey, since it inspires a form of awakening. Stories we read during our formative years, during an early stage in our lives that is of utmost significance memory-wise, those stories will potentially remain the most enchanting reading experiences, because they enter our mind at a time when we tend to simply absorb every evocative image, every symbol, indiscriminately, unassumingly, with naivety and curiosity, and when simple yet vivid memories are formed. Later, as we mature and acquire more knowledge- not exclusively literary, whilst we learn to be more discerning, selective, as well as developing critical thinking, we are encouraged to deeply reflect on the strings of words in front of our eyes- sometimes, however, at the expense of the child-like wonder and the child’s way of seeing, of disappearing, and truly living within a story.

While expressing her views on reading, Virginia Woolf emphasises that, whereas we should follow our instincts in reading rather than having someone else dictate the way in which we experience a literary piece, we should also avoid falling into the trap of projecting our pre-conceived ideas and judgements onto a piece of writing immediately, and instead, at first, decrease the volume of our critical voice in order to embrace the author’s voice and the creative process, to open our minds and let the thoughts of another flow into them. Afterwards, as cultivated readers, we can ponder on underlying themes and psychoanalytical symbolism, stylistic categorisations, meta-references, the larger aesthetic value of the work, character development, feminist interpretations and critiques, and the historical, socio-cultural, political or conceptual frameworks. As a Literature and Film graduate, I have found that temporarily tuning out certain aspects of this critical side that became a natural inclination in my reading is ideal if I wish to retain the pleasure of the act and to prevent disillusionment. Otherwise- and I have known Literature and Film students at university who faced such concerns- the enjoyment of a piece of writing or art in general might be diminished. When we let ourselves be fully engrossed by the words, something pure and beautiful happens: we disappear and live within a story, we allow ourselves to be bewitched by lyricism, to recognise the emotions evoked in a poem, to let them inspire us; we perceive and visualise the world conceived by another mind, unfolding within our own mind. That is when we can identify with a character, as well as finding traces of this character within ourselves, savouring every mental image, finding something interesting and revealing in every echo while devouring a good book. This way, we shift from clichés to something more intimate, from patterns of thinking to a unique taste of and insight into individual consciousness.

During literary studies at university, our way of reading pieces of literature is, indeed, interestingly shaped, to a certain degree, by the modules we opt for and their structure, particularly the recommended critical interpretations and analysis of the works in question or, more broadly, of literary movements, periods, and other divisions. Once you place everything in a cultural, social, or historical context, or consider the psychoanalytical dimensions of a text, or interpret narratives from a feminist point of view, it can influence your process of experiencing other works and how you delve into them. This aspect is also facilitated by a tendency towards syntopical or comparative reading, which is recommended within an academic context- particularly in analysing critical theory books and essays- and rightfully so, since it is a useful tool for finding your own voice, forming your own opinions, gaining perspective, and developing critical thinking skills which are so essential in various areas of life. As a result, while reading prose fiction for instance, our minds may involuntarily jump to underlying commentaries and themes, paying more attention to connotations of nuances and how they fall into a wider sociocultural, ideological, or psychological framework. This may seem like a double-edged sword because it appears to be in contrast to the previous idea of experiencing a written story viscerally, intimately. However, as previously mentioned, the mind can be trained to read differently for pleasure, inspiration, or educational purposes and everyone can shift between different methods of reading.

Placing a literary piece into the complex puzzle of history, can be particularly revealing and useful, for instance, when we read literature associated with silenced voices and with otherness: such literary works give us the chance to get an insight into the psyche of figures whose lives seem so distinct from ours and explore uncharted mental territories, an inner journey which will also prove to be self-revealing, whilst at the same time requiring transcendence. Reading can, indeed, often initiate us into a ritual of self-transcending. Language mediates our connection with our own selves as much as it mediates our connection with the world around us. Reading can be viewed as a process of merging contrasts: between temporality and atemporality, the tangible and the incorporeal, presence and absence, closeness and remoteness, self and other, the intimate and the universal, the evanescent and the eternal, a grasped world and an elusive one.

A close reading of Sappho: beyond the erotic

Sappho, the first notable female interpreter of the human soul to speak her mind through lyric poetry, is a symbol for women’s self-assertion, as well as the inventor of romantic imagery that has since become common and often used in our culture. The reader who enters the Sapphic realm will be initiated into an atmosphere of ritual, ecstasy, contrasting outpouring of emotions, all of this being both concealed and revealed by fragmentary, yet vivid aesthetic descriptions of a nature inspired by the Lesbos Island. Sappho’s poems seem to reflect the balance of Apollonian and Dionysian essence that characterises art, in Nietzsche’s view. The Apollonian nature of her work lies in the beautiful, evocative and musical forms and structures of poetry, while the Dionysian is represented by the powerful underlying emotions and experiences.

Focus on sensual and emotional awareness
While the theme of love is essential in Sappho’s writing, this should not be reduced to the elements of lust, desire, or to assumptions about the author’s homoerotic passions, as it happened during the Victorian Era. Her work is concerned with sensuality, with a disintegration and reconstruction of the senses and with the bittersweet nature of love. The purpose of this poetic sensuality, as stated by Judith Halleth, is to act as a social means “to impart sensual awareness and confidence in young females on the threshold of marriage and maturity” and to encourage the development of female identity. While Stehle argues against this, saying that the personal intimate reality in Sappho’s work is the most important, it is fair to say that there is a connection between the private and the public in Sappho’s world and in her poetic intentions. On the same note of inspiring sensuality, Josephine Balmer also believes that “Sappho’s poetry is sensual and emotional rather than sexually explicit”. In poem no 32 for instance, in which the narrator shares memories of past bliss with a tone marked by the suffering of parting with the lover, there is an emphasis on the senses: The surroundings radiate sensuality. Elements such as the flowers (violets, roses and crocuses), the floral scented perfume, the garlands and the bed are all associated with the notion of love and depict the relationship between the two lovers in terms of colours and scents.

Ritual imagery
The Dionysian atmosphere of ecstasy that encourages revelling in sensual pleasures is present throughout several poems, such as no 79 in which Sappho creates her ideal image of the temple of Aphrodite, seeming to describe a paradise ruled by a mix of haunting perfume, beautiful pastoral landscape dominated by flowers and the soothing sound of rivers, finishing with a very vivid simile and metaphor of pouring “like wine into golden cups,/ a nectar mingled with all the joy of our festivities”. Wine is a characteristic of ritual imagery, as well as a fundamental Dionysian element in its perception-altering effect. The feelings conveyed in the poem can be resumed in Baudelaire’s famous line from Correspondances, “Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent”.

Connection between the Sensual and the Spiritual
The sensual is closely related to the spiritual in Sappho’s poetry. There is a spiritual dimension to Sappho’s love, which is reflected through the rituals of worshipping the Goddess of Love. Her Ode to Aphrodite imitates a prayer, similar to a Homeric one, in which she begins by invoking the goddess and describing a previous encounter; and finishes symmetrically, in a ring composition, by asking her to come again. Sappho’s description of the previous spiritual encounter is very evocative: it seems to flow perfectly, encouraging the reader to visualise and re-live her experience. The description ends by switching from an indirect approach to a direct one through which Aphrodite asks in a non-hesitant, straightforward manner: “Who shall I persuade this time/ to take you back, yet once again, to her love;/ who wrongs you, Sappho?”.

The figure of Aphrodite
Aphrodite’s tone is very familiar and impatient, because of the repetitive reason of the invocation, namely regaining a lover’s affection. Some critics saw the tone of the ode as “an expression of the vanity and impermanence of her passion, composed in a spirit of self-mockery ”. From this perspective, Aphrodite appears to remind Sappho that all pain is ephemeral and that time will heal all wounds. However, the power of the goddess of love is strongly emphasised in the poem in the sixth stanza by listing the three inversions that are about to happen: instead of running away from, the beloved will run after Sappho, instead of shunning gifts, she will give, and even against her will, she shall love Sappho. The structure and content of the poem makes it difficult to tell whether it was meant to be performed in public or in private. It is said it might have been performed as part of the cult of Aphrodite, but the way Sappho addresses herself in the fifth stanza through Aphrodite’s voice, together with the intimate sense we get from the invocation, gives the impression that it was private. This personal use of myth is one aspect contributing to Sappho’s originality, and it is depicted through the lyric form of her poetry, which is focused on individuality.

Adopting epic language within a lyric context
In her description of Eros, Sappho employs Homeric terms such as “limb-relaxing”. Her poetry gives new meanings to the epic language. Sappho transforms Homer’s similes into metaphorical terms, almost personifying nature by associating human behaviour with the rhythms of nature. Her vivid descriptions, with their melodic nature, are Apollonian in the harmony they create. The vocabulary she uses is simple and familiar, but the combination of words is suggestive, flowing in a natural, seemingly effortless way. It is also very often open to interpretation: Scholars generally argue about the true meaning behind Sappho’s metaphorical language. For instance, some think that the expression “greener than grass” from poem no 20 suggests that the narrator is envious (green with envy) of the man that is fortunate enough to marry her beloved, while others think that it is not jealousy she experiences – it is, instead, her reaction to the overwhelming beauty of her loved one. To support the latter view, one can compare the figure of speech with Penelope’s suitors’ reactions in the Odyssey: “their knees were loosened, and their hearts were beguiled with passion”. It could also be an association to Homer’s expression “green fear” of war, or a feeling of sickness and pallor or, on the contrary, a symbol of regained youth. This openness of interpretation proves Sappho’s capability of stirring the reader’s wonder through the effective use of simple, lyric expressions.

The fragmented self
In the same poem (number 20), there is a disintegration of senses, and a notion of fragmented self. This aspect is conveyed through powerful imagery in which Sappho’s experience of senses, so important throughout her poetry, gets distorted: “my voice deserts me/ and my tongue is struck silent, a delicate fire/ suddenly races underneath my skin,/ my eyes see nothing, my ears whistle[…]/ and sweat pours down me and a trembling creeps over”. The Dionysian experience implies a loss of self, a near-death experience; yet it is described in such a clear harmonious way, that we get the feeling it complies to Nietzsche’s idea of balance in art – namely the balance between the order lying in the form, and the disorder given by the feelings evoked and by the treated subject. The contradiction, or paradox in this poem comes from the idea that the speaker seems to be capable of recording this near-death experience which is supposed to silence her voice. It almost seems like Sappho divides herself in two entities: the one that is there, experiencing those feelings, and the one that can judge and observe everything and compose a song about it. It is a reflection of the notion of lyric persona, of the “subtle and complex use of ‘I’ in poetry”, as Josephine Balmer points out. The verb “seem”, repeated throughout the poem might suggest that everything is an illusion, that feelings do not shape reality, on the contrary, they have the ability to distort it (“It seems to me”/ “I seem to be no more than a step away from death”). Sappho thus brings this inherent truth in her lyricism: that feelings can be exaggerated, they can burn one’s heart and poison one’s mind.

Modernist aspect
The motif of the fragmented self, as well as the speech incapability from poem number 20 resonate well with modernist techniques and views, such as the unreliable narrators and the irrationality of a seemingly rational society. The fragmentary self seems to mirror Sappho’s fragmentary body of work, which has been associated metaphorically with her supposed suicide, with her body that was broken on the rocks . This metaphor amplifies Sappho’s appeal to a culture fascinated with imperfection, destruction and loss.

Focus on women’s values
Another essential aspect that assures Sappho’s success is her focus on women and women’s values. She moves away from male values of war, heroes and conquest expressed in the epic poems of the ancient writers – towards the female world of ritual, enchantment and love. A great example of this is poem number 21, in which she presents Helen of Troy in a positive light, very differently from Homer’s treatment of the myth. In Sappho’s poems, Helen is seen as a heroine, as a woman who acts independently, as an agent, not just an object of desire. Similarly, Sappho is an active figure who chooses to voice her passions through poetry, and to reject the conventional themes and style of epic poems. She shifts from her philosophical approach of a universal question to a personal situation, from legend to her own time- which involves the importance of the beauty of Anactoria over male values of war associated with Lydia. This writing “breaks the silence of women in antiquity”, and consequently, it is clear that it has inspired so many female writers in finding their own voice. Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, who wrote in the style of confessional poetry, were both influenced by Sappho:
“A young and very ambitious Sylvia Plath ranked Sappho as the first among her rivals for poetic fame and Anne Sexton toward the end of her life wrote a poem about a modern Sappho that reveals Sexton’s own interest in literary fame as well as her dread of losing conventional supports in pursuit of it” (“The Red Dance”, 1981, 530-31).

Lyricism and the female voice in poetry
There are so many aspects of Sappho’s work that create this wholeness of emotions, despite the fragmentary nature of its form. Its sensuality, spirituality, original treatment of myth and of women have brought her recognition among both men and women, both Romantics and Modernists. Despite some critics’ focus on the biographical truth behind her poetry, she is generally seen as a symbolic icon representing female poets, as well as lyric poets.

Author of the essay: Diana Marin
As part of the BA in Film & Literature, University of Essex, 2015

>Continue reading for Sappho excerpts and bibliography

l’appel du vide

Melissa. solipsist. architect. undertaker of her soul parts.
She was lying on the wooden bench covered by soft pillows and by the still cold, refreshing blanket. The view from the balcony was pure bliss – her secret refuge amid that demanding, unnecessarily and excessively cheerful world. She wanted to immortalise that private earthly heaven, as she knew those moments were as relieving as escaping from a cage after dreadful weeks of physical abuse and food deprivation. She could feel it in her bones. They felt light, surreal. Her body felt light, as if she was transcending from matter to spirit.
While taking a picture of the scenery, she noticed it looked like a framed painting. The mirror on the wooden wall to her left reflected that characteristic intense look on her face, the one that always made people order her to “cheer up” when she passed them by on the boulevard.
“If only I could paint.” she says, sighing. She could visualise a wonderful painting within a painting, inspired by this place. The flowers from the pot on the sill would look as if they are growing on the hill and as if they are trying to reach out to the viewer. Trying to step outside the picture frame… for what purpose? To defy the idea that art is lifeless or separated from life or perhaps, the idea that nature can be captured in a painting.
The painting was so gracefully and ethereally alive: The grass on the hill was dancing in the tender breeze. The vivid green leaves from the closest tree were touching in such a way that they seemed to be clapping at the miraculous spectacle of nature. Upon looking deeper into the picture, her eyes lingered on the graveyard at the top of the mountain. For a brief moment, a white butterfly drunkenly crushed into the wooden frame, but was not able to step outside the frame. It was as if it was stopped by an invisible barrier.
The solemn picture of the graves was not sad at all. It did not inspire death, but the cycle of life. The painting was breathing and radiantly emanating life and love. Birds were flying above and around the tombstones while the sun filled the funerary inscriptions with light. The clear white clouds resembled a beautiful, noble, yet unrecognisable creature that was flying above the happy, contentedly submissive trees – like a celestial king protecting his realm.
It all started with her eyes: Their glow disappeared completely, leaving her face blank and indistinct. She blinked once – nothing happened. She smiled for a few seconds, thinking that, perhaps, her sudden worry was silly and unnecessary. Then she frowned and blinked twice. Nothing: the landscape was still full of vitality and vividness. Still suspicious and somewhat confused, she closed her eyes for 5 seconds this time. When she opened them, she was looking down – her gaze fixed somewhere under the ‘painting’, where she saw seven red petals that had fallen from the potted flowers. She looked up in panic and noticed that the flowers which were stepping out of the frame and crawling down the white wooden wall were dying. They could not survive the impact with the real world for long.
Her heart was racing as she looked up higher, at the rest of the painting. Her face became pale, corpse-like, when her eyes reached the threatening shape of the clouds – which no longer formed a fairytale creature, but a dark, monstrous, deadly fiend from the realm of Hades. The trees were no longer dancing or worshiping the king of the world: rather, they were bending in disgust, wailing and playing their symphony of decay while the branches were brutally slapped by the wind. The leaves no longer clapping, but trembling in terror – at which point Melissa realised her body had been shaking continuously.
Staring at the distant graveyard, she knew that the inscriptions were no longer illuminated by the healing rays of light; they were instead covered by blood and cobwebs. Soon she felt the horrifying stench of decayed matter infecting the air. Her limbs felt heavy, her body was now weary. A broken spirit trapped between worlds, l’appel du vide invaded her fragmented being like a plague. With a tear in the corner of each eye, she climbs the sill and makes her first and last step into the frame.