“You may blame Aphrodite”
9 February 2009 (collegiateway.org) — Valentine’s Day, February 14th, is always a big day in any residential college. For some students (and maybe a few faculty members) it is a happy occasion. For others—the single ones—it manifests itself through an epidemic of mopeyness and through firmly and frequently expressed opinions to the effect that “Valentine’s Day sucks.”
Here at the Collegiate Way we mark Valentine’s Day each year in academic fashion with a traditional two-part message aimed at giving delight first to the heart, and then to the head.
How can you delight the hearts of the members of your residential college on Valentine’s Day? It’s easy.
Go to the nearest discount store and buy several boxes of miniature valentine cards—the kind that children give out in elementary school. You know the ones: three inches wide, with miniature envelopes, and cartoon pictures that say things like “The sun shines because you’re my valentine.” Next, announce that these cards are available in the college office or dining room (the first one is free, extras are five cents), and encourage everyone to stock up and start spreading love around the college.
With the help of your staff and your student council, encourage all students to put decorated envelopes on their doors to receive valentines, and be sure your staff (and maybe even the master) writes one to each and every student saying “The College Loves You!” Very importantly, be sure to put a large and elaborately decorated envelope on the college office door to receive valentines for your college mascot, and announce dramatically that the mascot will also be pleased to receive demonstrations of affection from the entire college community in the form of expensive jewelry, flowers, candy, and sports cars.
Is this silly and childish? Yes. Will it make an enormous difference to the psychological welfare of many of your students? Yes. Will it teach an important lesson? Yes: it will teach that small acts of playful kindness can make a big difference in people’s lives.
In my craft or sullen art: Here at the Collegiate Way we don’t merely dispense isolated entertaining ideas—heavens, no!—we show how they fit into grand educational designs, even on Valentine’s Day. A good college, like a good trout stream, is an integrated ecosystem where every part helps to sustain the life of every other part. For example, the reason the college office should be in a high-traffic area (2.1.6) is precisely so it can support activities of the kind described above. Similarly, a residential college needs an appropriate mascot (3.2.4) not merely as a symbol for sporting events, but so that it can embody, like a Shakespearean fool or a Lakotan heyoka, a wide range of humorous values and anti-values throughout the year, and at the same time serve as an escape valve through which community pressure can be released. The role of the college master (1.2.1) and the college dean (1.2.2) is rarely, in this day and age, to stand in loco parentis in the cramped legalistic sense, but rather, as on Valentine’s Day, to stand in loco parentis in a humane and expansive sense, offering not romance, but caritas. And the reason a residential college should always contain a full cross section of the student population (1.1), especially with respect to age, is so delightful college traditions will be remembered, talked about, and improved upon from year to year. If you host a Valentine’s Day activity this year like the one described above, then next year the new fledglings (3.5.1), who have not yet seen it, will be hearing about it from the returning students months in advance. And finally, the reason a residential college should have a weekly newsletter (3.3.2) is not so that deadlines and rules and regulations can be endlessly repeated—it’s so that you, the college officers, can put an elevating spin on the events taking place around you, and so that even on Valentine’s Day you will have a means to teach with-out the curriculum and to appeal not only to the heart, but also to the head.
“To exist in fragments and in Greek,” lamented the essayist and translator Guy Davenport, “is a doubly perilous claim on the attention of our time.” And yet fragments in Greek are all that remain of the greatest of the ancient lyric poets, Sappho of Lesbos. Out of nine full books of poems and songs by Sappho that were known to the librarians of Alexandria, only a single intact poem survives, along with three other poems that are nearly complete, and dozens of broken fragments. Every now and then the ancient trash heaps of Oxyrhynchus yield up a few more lines:
But most of Sappho’s work has been lost forever.
Out of all of Sappho’s Book VII, for example, only two lines still exist. In the conventional numbering system used by Classical scholars, these two lines are designated Fragment 102:
γλύκηα μᾶτερ, οὔτοι δύναμαι κρέκην τὸν ἴστον
πόθῳ δάμεισα παῖδος βραδίναν δι᾽ Ἀφροδίταν.
And these two lines survive only because the grammarian Hephaestion, writing eight centuries after Sappho, thought they were a lovely example of catalectic antispastic tetrameter, and quoted them as such in his Handbook on Meters. Sappho’s works were swept away in the flood of Time, but Hephaestion’s were preserved.
On this Valentine’s Day, to delight the head as well as the heart, why not offer a prayer of thanks to Hephaestion, and insert the above two lines into your residential college newsletter, in Greek, as the poem-of-the-week. Perhaps you could offer a chocolate prize to the first person to identify their author, or to locate a translation (with a spectacular grand prize for anyone who attempts an original translation). After they’ve been in circulation for a few hours or a few days, you can release the following renderings, and open a discussion—online or offline, around the dinner table or the tea table, at your weekly literary hour or your monthly foreign-films night—on the difficulty of literary translation, the changing fashions of poetic taste, and the enduring nature of human beings.
Cease, gentle Mother, cease your sharp Reproof,
My Hands no more can ply the curious Woof,
While on my Mind the Flames of Cupid prey,
And lovely Phaon steals my Soul away.
Oh! my sweet mother, ’tis in vain
I cannot weave as once I wove;
So wilder’d is my heart and brain,
With thinking of that youth I love.
Sweet mother, I the web
Can weave no more;
Keen yearning for my love
Subdues me sore,
And tender Aphrodite
Thrills my heart’s core.
No longer, mother dear, can I
Endure to work my wheel.
Through Aphrodite for that boy
Such longing do I feel.
It’s no use
Mother dear, I
can’t finish my
soft as she is
she has almost
killed me with
love for that boy
I’ve fouled the weft, the warp, and the shuttle,
Mother my sweet, bewildered by love, by that boy,
And by the slender Aphródita.
Truly, sweet mother, I cannot weave my web, for I am overcome with desire for a boy because of slender Aphrodite.
Sweet mother, I can no longer work the loom.
Slender Aphrodite has made me fall in love with a boy.
Replace mother with professor and weaving with assignment, and reaching across 2600 years Sappho might well provide a student in your college with an excuse to use this very week.