Collaboration > competition

The irony of my title above is that it puts collaboration and competition in, well, competition. I’m sharing it as a helpful reminder, to myself especially, of how very, very hard it is to actualize our ideals and to suggest that we be gentle with ourselves and each other. Perhaps it is helpful to think not only in terms of end goals but also in terms of ongoing projects, expressed grammatically as a “not only…but also” or a “both…and” construction. So a revised version of my equation: collaboration + competition.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately via studying Sappho, who I’ve often heard described in English and American scholarship as “subverting Homer’s epic poetry,” with this popular fragmentary passage cited:

“on the one hand, men say, an army on horse, or one on foot,
or a fleet of ships
is the most beautiful thing on dark earth.
on the other hand, I say, it is
whatever you love.”

The poem then offers an example for everyone to understand: Helen leaving behind her husband, “best of all men,” to sail to Troy.

The passage in Greek uses a μεν…δε construction, hence my “on the one hand…on the other hand.” It’s clunky in English, but I wanted to emphasize that the poem seems to set up a contrast between men’s and women’s ways of experiencing beauty.

Must contrast always mean competition? Must competition always mean zero sum? Can collaboration and competition fuel each other in productive ways, when we honor both as valuable?

I wonder what the ancient thought, and I wonder, too, what you think. Will you tell me in the comments?

4 thoughts on “Collaboration > competition

  1. I think healthy competition can be a good thing, but I feel like my goal and mentality is to support others rather than to compete with them. I am notoriously bad at board games for this reason – I just don’t get too caught up in that. Maybe it’s because I feel like there’s enough to compete with when there are so many challenges in just living life. And of course, overcoming our own issues!

    So I guess I’m team “collaboration”! 🙂

    Also, I have a question: you say that Sappho is contrasting how men and women see beauty, but the translation only says that SHE sees beauty this way. I am unfortunately not familiar with Sappho’s poems, so is this implied in the rest of the fragment or in her works in general? I would have read it as her expressing her own opinion about what is beautiful, not necessarily all women. And it also makes me think about my own view – I think I saw her as maybe, possibly, saying it as a poet/romantically-minded person/poet, rather than as a woman.

    Thanks for, as always, giving me lots to think about!

    1. Thank you, Alysa! To your question about Sappho, who the “I” in the poem represents is for sure a topic of debate that is difficult to resolve owing to the fragmentary nature of her poems. But generally, I wouldn’t assume that her poetry is personal expression/opinion. I honestly don’t know how much the concepts of personal expression and opinion would have existed or mattered for people at that time. Genuinely, I don’t know. It’s hard even to know how much time they actually spent alone, now that I’m thinking about it. What I believe, based on what I’ve read, is that Sappho is composing within a tradition as much as ‘Homer’ is, so there is a sense of participating in a project that is bigger than the individual, that predates and outlives the individual. In addition, I’m not sure how much we can ever assume ancients saw themselves as separate from their social groups and their roles within those social groups. My interpretation of this fragment in particular is informed by what comes after this passage (mythical figures from epic poetry), how scholars have interpreted Sappho’s work (in part in conversation with epic but also potentially songs for specific occasions, e.g. marriage songs, laments, festivals), and my understanding of the culture she’s writing in (gender playing a shaping factor in social roles). So yes, I do believe she is conscious of herself/speaking as a woman as well as a composer of lyric poetry/song and that she is affirming the role of women in this society. I know it can be hard to accept or even see that given modern views of gender and gender roles, but I believe Sappho was very much affirming the importance of women and their creative role in social life, even if what that looks like is not relatable or acceptable to modern sensibilities. Of course this doesn’t mean that every single person who lived at that time always and only thought in absolute terms about gender and gender roles. But generally, without marriage and mothers, there is no continuity, no future, so they are very important to this culture indeed.

      1. Thanks for that insight! I guess it’s like how we tend to think of artists in general as very individualistic, but for a very long time in history, most artists were just seen as craftspeople, especially in periods like the Middle Ages. I always think of Sappho as being this rebel individual – I hadn’t thought about the fact that she might represent a group or even be a representative figure! And I definitely think women deserve respect, whether just as human beings or for the roles they had back then -it was NOT easy to be a woman for most of history. It still isn’t in many ways…. But we were/are so important, whatever our roles then and now. To quote the theme song of “The Incredible Kimmy Schmidt”, “Females are strong as hell”!

        That said…my dream guy would also think that the sight of the object of his love was more beautiful than war stuff. Especially if *I* was the object of his love! 😉

  2. I wish so hard that we had more of Sappho’s work, that more will be found. I think it would be more illuminating than we can even imagine. And who knows? It’s always possible that it’s totally different than what we think! But anyway, yes, that is such a great point about artists in the Middle Ages! I’m always having to remind myself that what what we now call “art” was for them also functional—like books, sculptures, drinking cups, poetry/songs…

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: