Shumpeter wants to make sense of the world.
Sappho stands in his way every time. Since I currently don’t want to paint her in the colors of die Altertumwissenschaft, I can say Sappho is timeless and stately, a meme of poetry more than 2,500 years in the making. She remains as fresh as apple-groves (ἄλσος μαλί[αν]) and as hypnotic as the reverie induced by trembling leaves (αἰθυσσομένων δὲ φύλλων / κῶμα κατέρρει). The phrases and images are hers, and they are still powerful though wrenched from a poem’s context and run through a mill of imperfect translation.
Her poetry is a flourish to beauty and to a life of both sacred and profane sensations. Yes, I understand how her poetry and its colometry involve—for the former—conjectures by skilled editors and—for the latter—dependence on a lineage of scholars dating back to Aristophanes of Byzantium. I remain an admirer and proselytizer. Sappho doesn’t only need to be read. She must be.
Her context can wait, the history of her life and the supposed “coterie of women” over which she presided. Let the scholars—in whose group I count myself a minor player—search for her biography. It is important to tell us something about Sappho’s poetry but it can’t explain the poetry itself. History deepens the experience of the source. The science of antiquity shows us glimpses of the person and her time, but the poetry is mine alone.
I know my crime when I think this. I turn whatever Sappho’s actual poetry may have been into the poetry I construct based on my expectations, on my needs. It’s misinterpretation across a bridge of classical antiquity. Scholars snarl, “Infandum!” while contemporary poets and most sensitive readers are generally unaware of the transgression.
Such is the nature of ancient poetry. It bestrides a chasm. It has one foot in a forever foreign place and time. It has another in my contemporary space, where I can experience, interpret, and honor it.
Schumpeter, it seems, comes and goes like the respected economist he remains. Sappho never disappears. She may allow visitors to speak. She makes room for the wisdom, guidance, and play these visitors might bring, but she is quick to call me back from utility.
Cavalry, infantry, ships…these are fine, necessary things that change the world with logistical weight and physical force. What Sappho claims is most beautiful (κάλλιστον) is the subjective force of “whatever one loves.” (ὄττω τις ἔραται). What a wide realm this encompasses.
Sappho wants to make the world shine whether what makes it so makes sense to anybody at all.