On Lacunae

(or: Reading Sappho at the Eschaton)

J. N.
9 min readOct 30, 2022

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Detail from the facade of the Cathedral of Saint Martin, Utrecht, destroyed by 16th century reformers
  1. My premise is fourfold:
  • The eschaton — read: the end of history, the days of the Messiah, the world to come — finds its primary symbol and realization in the universal resurrection of the flesh.
  • Universal resurrection will restore individual bodies to their highest state of corporeal perfection. The risen body will thus bear no wounds or signs of posthumous decay (“…as at the creation all things are perfect from the hand of God, so at the resurrection all things must be perfectly restored by the same omnipotent hand.”¹; “final perfection occurs only in the resurrection”²). A basic premise of apocalypse states that within the end is implanted the beginning;³ as such, the bodies of the eschaton will rise in a state of Edenic perfection.
  • The eschaton is thus characterized by its relationship to totality. All that is truncated or incomplete will, in the end of days, be restored to its ideal state and made whole.
  • This telos of restoration will apply not merely to material reality (particularly: corporeal reality, the body) but will be the general mood of this new stage of human relation to Being — an ontology which prohibits all lack.

Accordingly, in anticipating the emergence of the eschaton we may also anticipate new forms of philosophy and discourse to emerge with it. The last days will not allow for any underdeveloped thoughts or unfinished sentences. Every idea will be whole, every system closed and complete, every glass of water full. This logic extends to the problem of the interpersonal: the relationship with the other will be an open and uninhibited correspondence of two complete, autonomous units. No declaration of love will go unspoken. All war will be total.

Yet it’s in the extension of this new ontological mode to the aesthetic that I find the most troubling questions. I must be ready to imagine a world — indeed, to will into existence a world — wherein every novel is finished, and where the statues of antiquity regain their truncated limbs like the risen flesh. Just as (I am taught) the resurrected body of the paraplegic will be blessed with renewed access to its legs, for instance, so too will the Nike of Samothrace grow arms and a (quite disappointing, not as beautiful as we had hoped) marble face.

Most tragically: the fragments of Sappho will be restored entirely to their original form. The form of fragmentation itself will, in the end-times, be completely alien to our reading of Sappho. Her verses will know no lacunae—indeed, no formal relationship with lack whatsoever. Her art will be total.

Parchment of fragment 96

2. “No art is total, even / theirs.”⁴ Before speculating about the nature of a total art, then, I must come to terms with its impossibility. Lerner writes elsewhere of poetry’s ultimate and inescapable failure, citing Allen Grossman’s distinction between the “virtual poem” and its manifestation — the latter being a shallow reflection of the former’s ideal, unrealizable form. The poet does not (cannot) succeed in his transposition of the poem from its moment of abstract, uninhibited potential into the narrow world of representation. Finitude implies limitation. Thus “the poem is a record of failure … poetry isn’t hard, it’s impossible.”⁵

To speak of a “poetic fragment” is in this sense always redundant. The poem is already found lacking; it cannot be otherwise than fragmentary. The task of the classical philologist “reconstructing” Sappho is thus a futile one. If I was to know in reference to Fragment 40 — “and to you I […] of a white goat” — if indeed she was writing of a sacrifice and for whom she was offering it to this would not (per Grossman via Lerner) offer me better insight into what exactly Sappho is trying to express about her relationship with this person or god. Likewise with honey-voiced, her most “delightful epithet,” the context of which has been lost. Even if I concede that Philostratus is praising a misquote of the same epithet used in Fragment 71.6 (“a sweet song […] soft-voiced”) this does not detract from the paradox of honey-voiced’s beauty, a (anti-poetic?) beauty which is entirely contingent on its isolation (or rather: on its immersion in lacunae).⁶

Žižek, of all people, puts the problem well. Speaking about modern architectural habits and the abstention from ornament, he notes:

this very loss will generate additional meaning. … The safest way to ruin a work of art is to complete it, to fill in the gaps. Just recall how we relate to the Venus of Milo … if someone were to restore this to how it was in antiquity, we would perceive this as unbearable kitsch.

I don’t have to rely on Lacanian standbys like “constitutive lack” or the “absent center” to recognize, with Žižek, that absence has a certain potency, a discreet positive content. Sappho’s lacunae represent, paradoxically, a subject-less gesture of poiēsis in the most archaic sense (ποίησις: a “making”, or, per Heidegger, a “bringing-forth”), to the extent that Hugh Kenner in his analysis of “Ione, Dead the Long Year” viably attributes “the flowers and the absence” in Pound’s poem to Sappho.⁸ What other poet is able to recognize her legacy in the blank spaces of her inheritors?

The study of Sappho’s influence is a negative philology. We look for where words are not. Sappho’s absence, at risk of sounding theological, is generative. It is Bianca’s “felt absence”. It is Barthes’ beloved, by whose absence the lover’s discourse is sustained. Here is the paradox, in short: the fragments of Sappho are “complete” only by virtue of their lacunae.

3. The question is an urgent one: what has beauty to do with totality?

Consider Johann Winckelmann’s ekphrastic treatment of the so-called “Hercules Torso,” otherwise known as the Belvedere Torso, written upon seeing the sculpture in the Winter of 1755 during a visit to Rome. There’s a feeling of pygmalionic melancholy which accompanies Winckelmann’s writing on art in general, and his description of the Torso is no exception: I find it heartbreaking, in part probably because it’s so resonant. In the same manner that I and others regard Sappho’s fragment 168B (the “Midnight poem,” of which seventeen words survive) as the apotheosis of classical lyric poetry, Winckelmann can’t help but praise the headless, limbless statue as an expression of “ideal beauty” (idealische Schönheit) — a description John Harry North defines, strikingly, in terms of “perfection of every part — visible or invisible. … the sum total of Schönheit is the perfection of the whole.”⁹

It’s difficult to imagine a wider wedge driven between our conceptions of what is “perfect” and what is “whole,” and yet the Torso’s lack of extremities seems not to discourage Winckelmann’s admiration in the slightest. He makes one qualified remark to this effect: “I do not know whether I should be more sad about the loss of the beautiful limbs or be happy about the wonderful body that has been left to us.”¹⁰ That the Torso’s body remains “wonderful” for Winckelmann while having lost its “beautiful” (he guesses) limbs should pique our curiosity: perhaps it is not in spite but because of its truncation that Winckelmann finds in the Torso the object of his desire. Further, perhaps the cause of this desire is not to be found at all in the remaining torso but rather in the lost limbs themselves — a tension of the visible and the invisible, of absence and presence.

Francesco Faraone Aquila, The Belvedere Torso (engraving), 1704

This ambiguity has been met in anglophone Winkelmann scholarship with murmurings about “verbal reconstruction” and “the beauty of the invisible”¹¹; for our purposes, it’s more interesting to place Winckelmann in the context of desire’s relationship with totality — a rearrangement of Lacan’s formula of “desire is a relation to being to lack” (Séminaire II). In lieu of citing the accompanying proofs and mathemes of this theory one need only look to the (quite sculptural) Lacanian habit of describing lack as being “carved out” of the other to understand that to want, in this context, also implies an object that is “wanting” — in both senses of the word. Like Winckelmann’s beloved Torso, the desired other is never total but rather — as, indeed, a kind of prerequisite to the subject’s attraction — fragmented, lacking.

Here is implied a peculiar affinity between the beloved’s lack and their agalma, that Greek term (literally translated as “idol” or “cult statue”) which Lacan borrows from the Symposium to describe the hidden, ineffable aspect of the beloved which serves as the cause of the subject’s affection despite being completely beyond understanding. One might read Sappho’s lacunae — her missing scraps of parchment, her open brackets — as alternatively her agalma, her missing limbs, that invisible object of attraction which incites the desire of her reader.

Sappho read through Winckelmann in this sense feels deeply contemporary, an anticipation of the absence and negation that would come to reign ubiquitous in post-war conceptual art. One finds this reliance on the unseen in Yves Klein’s 1958 (anti-)installation “Le Vide,” wherein he emptied a Paris gallery of everything save a cabinet and his own body (Chris Burden offered a similar performance in 1975). Better yet, consider John Baldessari’s dot series or Jake and Dinos Champan’s 2003 vandalizations of Goya’s Disasters of War — both of which represent eruptions of aniconism into profane modernity. Read next to Sappho these images appear to me as intentional (and, thus, overdetermined, “imperfect”) manifestations of the same aesthetic attachment to the unseen that the fragments were awarded by their own antiquation. Concealment, lack — this is the agalma, the hidden cause of desire which draws us back to the pleasure of reading Sappho. As Winckelmann (with Lacan) understood, it is only by virtue of this lack that the fragments can be called “perfect”.

4. This characteristic of agalmic lack is precisely the “subtlety” of the risen saintly flesh that Thomas describes in his treatment of universal resurrection. In the (always) resurrected poem, like the resurrected saint, we find a complete union of spirit and body — or if you like, of essence and manifestation. Thomas’ subtle bodies are “impalpable … fully subjected to the spirit” and thus, as Agamben points out, “inoperative” in respect to any specific corporeal function.¹² One is reminded of H.D.’s self-flagellating (or else congratulating) maxim: “poets are useless.” In Sappho’s tattered, illegible, divinely “useless” fragments we find, indeed, the eschatological merging of spirit and body.

It is not despite but precisely because of their brokenness, then, that the verses in question have achieved a degree of messianic totality that surpasses even that of a poem known to be entirely intact. As such these fragments — which I might mention, if I wanted to be cute and poetic, were often rediscovered in buried papyri, some of which were even found written on scraps of Egyptian burial material¹³— represent as they exist today the totalized and perfect bodies that will rise at the end of days. They will thus refuse the totalizing nature of the resurrection by nature of being always-already total; their lacunae will be invulnerable to the eschaton.

To read Sappho at the end of days is to open the distinctly messianic question of perfection’s (more precisely: “perfect beauty’s”) relation to totality. It is thus precisely in the blank spaces of her verses that we are granted טעם של משיח — “a taste of Messiah.”

This essay, republished here for posterity, was written originally for the first edition of Red Virgin magazine.

  1. The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. XII, 1911. “General Resurrection,” §B: Characteristics of the Risen Body.
  2. Open Secret, 372, n. 178.
  3. See Sefer Yetzirah 1:7: “Their [the sefirot’s] end is embedded in their beginning and their beginning in their end like a flame in a burning coal.”
  4. Ben Lerner, “No Art” (Paris Review issue 203, Winter 2012). Expounding on this poem in a 2016 interview with Foyles Booksellers Lerner notes that the totality in question is the totality of war (“‘their’ is … military technology).
  5. Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry. FSG Originals, 2016: 8.
  6. See Anne Carson’s introductory notes to her Sappho collection where she describes the “antipoem” of the cited fragment: “as acts of deterrence these stories carry their own kind of thrill — at the inside edge where her words go missing, a sort of antipoem that condenses everything you ever wanted her to write.” If not, winter: Fragments of Sappho. Vintage, 2009: xiii.
  7. From a 2010 lecture delivered to the Fundación Arquitectura y Sociedad, with some edits.
  8. Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Vol. 263. Univ of California Press, 1973: 63.
  9. North, John Harry. Winckelmann’s “Philosophy of Art”: A Prelude to German Classicism. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013: 74.
  10. North: 143.
  11. See Barbara Maria Stafford’s essay of the same title.
  12. Found in Agamben, Giorgio (trans. D. Kishik and S. Pedatella). Nudities. Stanford University Press, 2010: 91–103.
  13. Obbink, Dirk. “Interim Notes on ‘Two New Poems of Sappho.’” Zeitschrift Für Papyrologie Und Epigraphik 194 (2015): 1–8.

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J. N.

Theology, Hermeneutics, Jewish Mysticism | UChicago Divinity 2025