Performing Female Selves: the Polyphonic Voice of Sappho

Katerina Ladianou

The Ohio State University

Mikhail Bakhtin in Creation of Prosaics draws a firm line between the monologic quality of poetry and the possibility of dialogism in prose.  Starting from the Romantic idea of poetry as the expression of the single voice of a poet, he concludes that lyric is by definition monologic due to the "form shaping ideology" inherent in the genre and he denies poetry dialogism, that is multiplicity of voices.  However,  Bakhtin's point is contradicted by his own definition of utterance: "however monological the utterance may be, however much it may concentrate in its own subject, it cannot but be a response to what has already been said.  Utterance is filled by dialogic overtones". Given that any utterance is dialogic qua utterance, why is then not possible for the lyric utterance to be dialogic?

This paper then explores the possibility of a dialogic lyric. It argues that for lyric polyphony to exist the represented self cannot be the single voice of a poet.  As W. Batstone has already pointed out, the poetic subject needs to be seen as a divided, elusive self, a self under construction, or even under deconstruction, a voice resounding the voices of others.   Since it is then the representation of an elusive, unfinalized self, that is the main prerequisite for a dialogic lyric, I will show how this idea of a fragmented self is refracted in the inherently fragmentary quality of Sapphic poetry. 

Supplementing Bakhtin's theoretical framework with feminist criticism, I will argue for the possibility of a polyphonic lyric.  Critics like Irigaray and Cixous have tried to map the characteristics of √©criture feminine, emphasizing the openness, polyvocalism and lack of a totalitarian form of thought and discourse in female texts.  Reading Sapphic poetry as an exemplary female discourse, since it is the only extant example of a female poet in archaic Greece, reinforces the possibility of polyphony in Sapphic lyric.  Consequently, such a reading can be used in order to revise Bakhtinian theory.  If female texts as such promote multiplicity of voices by denying totalizations, if they try to avoid the repression of different voices by undoing the existing hierarchy, it is evident then that they can be seen as dialogical texts in the Bakhtinian sense.

In that light, I will read fr. 94 in a search of the Sapphic self.  The first line of the fragment has raised a scholarly debate, as critics cannot concur on the identity of the speaker.  Reading Sapphic self as a self which is constructed precisely to be disparate and elusive, this paper will elucidate the complexities of fr 94 by examining it as a fragment representing a paradigmatically elusive self.  Sapphic self will then appear as both a fragmented Sapphic body and corpus.  Furthermore, seen as a female voice, I will argue, Sapphic poetry can be perceived as a polyphonic poetry, giving voice to many women, being performed by a chorus, and being heard by a female audience (although not exclusively female, I believe).  Drawing from French feminist criticism, I will show the various ways in which the Sapphic text promotes polyphony, finally arguing that it is this quality of the polyphonic self that the Sapphic poetry is predicated upon, defying the Bakhtinian insistence on lyric monologism.  Moreover, it is this kind of self from which an equally polyphonous voice emerges: a fragmented voice of a fragmented self as read in a fragment.


Back to 2006 Meeting Home Page