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Abstract

Authenticities East and West
March 30 - April 1, 2001


Authenticating Desires -- of Sappho (31), Shijing (1) and Difference
Tamara Chin (tchin@socrates.berkeley.edu)
Department of Comparative Literature, University of California at Berkeley


Ancient commentators and classical scholars have panted prolifically over the authentic desires and legitimate relations implicated in Sappho (31) and Shijing (Mao 1) -- two orally performed monuments to frustration committed to bamboo/papyrus by the 7th-6th centuries BCE. "Authenticating Desires" looks both at the means by which readers have authenticated differing desires in and through the two poems, and at the comparatist's desires to authenticate differing modes of reading each one. I attempt to show that the restive triangulations of desire that trouble the identification of both poems' participants prefigure the comparatist's very frustration at bringing the two poems together. Just as commentators authenticate their own ethical geometries of desire through the poems, so the comparatist arranges the relations between ancient Greek and ancient Chinese traditions, and his/her particular present.

I take up the debate over the differentiation of the Chinese "expressive" tradition from the Greek "mimetic" one, in the context of Sappho as well as Shijing commentaries. I argue that the distinction overlooks certain interpretations of Sappho (31) which insist on the implicit correspondence between the opening image and Homeric ideologies of desire, not unlike the "categorical correspondence" of the opening image of Shijing (1) to gender ideology, integral to the Chinese stimulus-response model. Furthermore, in recalling the second valence of Platonic mimesis as performance (as well as representation) and its Aristotelian emphasis as creative emplotment or re-enactment, one might take both the performative nature of Shijing (1) and its restaging through citation in the commentaries to be as mimetic as the tradition of Sappho's "breaking tongue."

I then turn to the kinds of desire and relationships staged in these readings, looking in particular at how interpretation of gender affects or becomes affected by different models (from Zheng Xuan's matchmaking Queen Consort to Wilamowitz's wedding guest Sappho). I look at how gendered identities have been designated and redesignated (eg through translation, interpolation, allegory) in the pursuit of the "authentic" textual desires, and how the poetic female subject of desire becomes appropriated in the androcentric ethical models of certain Platonic and Confucian citations. In both cases the desire for gender difference to structure "authentic" desire emerges as an interpretive lens or social end.

Thus the question is not 'what is the text's real configuration of gendered subjects of desire,' but 'how have they come to be interpreted and staged as such?' Likewise the framing question is not 'what makes the articulations of desire authentically Greek or Chinese,' or 'wherein lies the meaning or essence of their difference,' but rather: 'how have the two have come to be naturalized and regulated as unconditionally distinct?' That is, desires of cultural difference begin to resemble desires of gender difference within authenticity's regime of 'compulsory heterotextuality.' And while a necessary task remains to historicize the cultural differences of ancient cultures from their perceived modern inheritors (classical Greece and the "West," ancient and modern China), this paper tries to show that assumed cultural differences need not be the starting and endpoint of a comparison of these two far flung ancient poems. Instead I highlight the radically differing stagings of desire within each culturally defined nexus of readers, and restage them together with the role of the comparatist as part of the ongoing emplotment of "authentic" reading.

Tamara Chin received her AB in Classics and Literature from Harvard College in 1997. She is a third year Comparative Literature graduate student of early Chinese and Greek literatures at UC Berkeley. Her main interest is in problems in comparative ancient ethnographies. She has presented conference papers on Herodotean and modern German ethnographies of nomads, on a translation history of Plato's Symposium, and on translating queer activism in Beijing.

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