"...fragment to fragment,
like the resurrection of the dead, a
a jigsaw puzzle..."
Yehuda Amichai, The Amen Stone (trans. Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld)
At the beginning of each semester, I tell my students that one of our tasks as historians is to hear the multiplicity of voices in our sources. I explain that they will learn not only how to listen to the voices of those who composed the texts we are reading, but also to identify the voices with whom they are in dialogue, to whom they might be responding, and whom they could be critiquing or suppressing. Importantly, I encourage them to listen for those voices that have not been preserved at all or that have actively been excluded from written texts and oral traditions but whose echoes might nonetheless be heard (or whose silences must be acknowledged) when we read critically and creatively. I also warn my students that they always also bring themselves – their own histories, values and voices – along with them when they analyze ancient sources and make sense of the past. Thus in addition to listening to the diversity of ancient voices, I want them to learn to listen carefully to each other and to take care in finding their own voice.
Whose voices from the past have been preserved, whose voices have been lost, and what is at stake, ethically and methodologically, for whose voices, past and present, we choose to hear today?
In order to convey these big historiographical ideas about power, preservation and subjectivity to my students, I begin the semester with a fragment of a Sappho poem that contains a single complete word, “youth.”
This poetic fragment serves as a metaphor for the fragmentary state of all our extant ancient sources. In aggregate, our sources only preserve a small portion of, and a tiny window onto, the past. We know that there was more, but often we cannot access it.
We begin by discussing the popularity of Sappho and her lyric poetry in antiquity (Plato referred to her as the Tenth Muse, and Galen regarded her as the female counterpart to Homer); the many reasons for the loss of her poetry over the long course of history (only a single complete poem, along with tantalizing fragments, remain of her vast corpus); and the unexpected places where fragments are sometimes re-discovered (in ancient garbage heaps, mummy wrappings). All of these facts remind us of the ubiquity of her writings so many centuries ago. It also highlights how much is missing. Our discussion of these fragments centers on the contingency of our historical sources and their preservation/destruction, and the ancient voices that are (un)able thereby to speak to us today. We know that Sappho’s voice was an important one in antiquity, but almost none of her words remain.
Moreover, Sappho’s fragmentary poetry – suppressed as it was by later authorities – represents the writings of an elite woman, who had the leisure and education to compose her lyrics. What about the voices and stories of others who did not have these privileges? The enslaved, the poor, the marginalized? Where might we look to find the stories of non-elites and of others whose voices are so often overlooked or ignored? These are the questions with which we begin our study of antiquity.
I then turn to the other voices in our class – those of my students. I ask my students to fill in the remaining lines of Sappho’s poem with their own lines of poetry. Sometimes students need to experience the emptiness, confront it themselves, to understand. At first, they are surprised by the assignment, and by the audacity of the expectation that they might be able to fill in the lacunae of Sappho’s poem. Trying to do so, though, forces them to confront the fact that this assignment is merely an extreme form of what is always done when they read ancient texts and interpret them, and when they use a few select sources to imagine antiquity or generalize about any period of history. The challenge – the impossibility – of completing Sappho’s words keeps us honest about how much we do not know about the past and the impossibility of fully reconstructing it.
By being required to fill in the empty spaces, though, the students also gain a deeper understanding of the historical questions and methodologies we might use to complete the lacunae of her poetry. They begin by trying to get into her mind and identify what she might have written. What themes were important to her? What metaphors might she have drawn upon? What were her perspectives? Where did she live, what natural and constructed landscape did she inhabit, what can we say about her family and community, and so on? Given that this discussion happens on the first day of class, the students do not know much about Sappho and her context. But generating the questions they want to answer before filling in the lacunae (and brainstorming methodologies they might use to answer them) helps them realize what kinds of questions they might ask of all ancient people and identify what they need to learn about the past in order more accurately and authentically to understand the past from the fragments that remain.
The students also understand, by the end, that the words we write between brackets are always tentative and open for revision based on new information we might learn or new perspectives we might encounter. That writing history is an ongoing, lively process rather than one that leads to definitive and unchanging conclusions.
Still, even such informed reconstructions are always also products of the world inhabited by the historian(s). The students learn this dimension of history-writing when they sit down to complete the assignment. I eventually tell them that I don’t expect them to reconstruct Sappho’s words – an impossible task, indeed – but rather to use the opportunity of her fragment to compose their own poem around the single remaining word from hers. They appreciate the challenge of being creative and honest about themselves with an almost-blank page. They write about their friendships, their regrets about a summer break that has passed too quickly, about their expectations for the future, about youth and growing up. This is a dramatic merging of Sappho’s words with theirs – her voice with their voices – and it teaches them that when we encounter ancient sources, we always also bring ourselves and our own experiences of the world to the narratives of the past that we (re)create. We need to be aware of how much our own interpretations are conditioned by who we are and our biases. We can also celebrate that, by bringing our own diverse concerns and perspectives to class, we are able to dig more deeply into the ancient sources and understand them from a variety of angles. This assignment also allows me to read my students’ own words, and hear their unique voices, on the first day of class.
The underlying lessons of this opening exercise – about the fragmentary nature of our sources, about the voices that are present and absent, about the methods we can use to answer important questions about the past, about the impact of our own perspectives and biases on our interpretation of this material – then guide our subsequent study for the remainder of the semester, as my students learn to analyze ancient sources both for what they reveal and what they conceal about the past, and as they learn to listen to the voices from the past as well as the voices of their classmates.
On the last day of class, one of my students exclaimed that she finally understood the closing number of the musical Hamilton: “when you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? … Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” What I hope that I teach my students, through this opening exercise and over the remainder of the semester, is that each of them can acquire tools to write history, and an intellectual and ethical responsibility to do so as honestly as they can, with full awareness of the stakes of the stories that they choose to tell, the sources they preserve, and the voices they amplify.
Dr. Sarit Kattan Gribetz is an Assistant Professor in Fordham University's Theology Department.