Jesper Svenbro, born 1944 in Sweden. Studies in Classics at the University of Lund and, with Eric Havelock, at Yale. First volume of poetry published in 1966. PhD in Greek from Lund in 1976 with a thesis on the origins of Greek poetics. From 1977, research fellow at the CNRS in Paris (working with Jean-Pierre Vernant, Marcel Detienne and Pierre Vidal-Naquet).
His book Phrasikleia. An Anthropology of Reading in Ancient Greece was originally published in 1988. A selection of his poetry appeared in 2003 under the title Three-Toed Gull. Member of the Swedish Academy since 2006.
The Swedish Academy: Chair No. 8 – Jesper Svenbro
οἶνος, ὦ φίλε παῖ, καὶ ἀλάθεια
Alcaeus, fr. 366 Lobel-Page
No sooner had we understood that the vineyards
were the basis of prosperity in faraway Lesbos,
than Dionysus stood out in the role that belonged to him.
It was through Dionysus that the Lesbians understood their life-world.
The foreign mask was hanging in Methymna.
It was through the foreign god that the Lesbians were breathing.
What does “foreign” mean here, as applied
to a god whose name
is as old as Linear B?
Dionysus is perfectly Greek.
In Methymna he places
at the centre of the island’s
This is his project wherever he comes.
The foreign, the Lydian or Oriental
Is at home
In the self-understanding of the Lesbians.
The Other is not pushed away! Sappho, too, inhabits this thought.
Dionysus’ mask is the sign of becoming-other.
Wine the medium of becoming-other
Even when moderate wine-drinkers meet.
I wear a mask, I’m not myself. I have become other.
First-person singular is the mask called “I”,
with a glittering interior, called “myself”,
reflexive as a mirror. Persona, πρόσωπον!
“I know with myself (“I’m con-scious”),” says Sappho,
Grammar is her theatre.
“I am the spectator of my desire.” Thus, Dionysus
marks the horizon of Sappho’s thought.
One. If we do not take Charaxos’s contribution seriously,
Sappho’s poetry will remain incomprehensible.
Two. If we do not take Dionysus seriously,
her poetry will remain an enigma to us.
Three. For a long time I reproached myself in silence
For not having mentioned with a single word
What had been going on daily
during my writing: the evacuation
of 400 000 refugees to Lesbos, a drama
that, inversely, put Lesbos on the world map for the artist Ai Weiwei.
His instagrams showing him among Syrian refugees
with thousands of life jackets and punctured rubber lifeboats.
The sea in the evening sun. His face:
a Dionysus mask.
For Jonathan Bordo
Swedish original of Instagram with Dionysus mask in Jesper Svenbro’s: Namnet på Sapfos dotter (Albert Bonniers förlag, 2017).
French translation of Instagram with Dionysus mask, by Jesper Svenbro published in: Perspective 2019-1, “Les Pays nordiques”.
For other contributions by Jesper Svenbro, please follow the link below:
All poems on this post: © Jesper Svenbro
Published with the permission of Jesper Svenbro