Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
NOW with Bill Moyers

Bill Moyers Interviews Erica Jong, June 27, 2003

MOYERS: Why would Erica Jong, the most contemporary of women and the most modern of writers, go back almost 3,000 years to the life of a poet about whom we know very little?

JONG: Well, you know, I read Sappho again in my 50's.

MOYERS: Again? You had read…

JONG: I had read her in college and I didn't get it. I think that the things we read in college, we're too young to read in college. I mean, we read ANNA KARENINA. We've never had an affair with a dashing officer. We read CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. We know nothing of the feelings of Raskolnikov and his rage.

So I read Sappho, you know, at another time in my life. And suddenly I realized here was a woman speaking to me across 2,600 years. And her concerns were my concerns.

MOYERS: Plato called her what? The tenth muse?

JONG: The tenth muse.

MOYERS: How come?

JONG: Because she was a force. She was more than a singer. She was poetry itself. She was music itself. Sadly, you know, Sappho was more Bob Dylan than she was Emily Dickinson. She was a singer. But the music has been lost.

MOYERS: You imagine her as the greatest singer of all time.

JONG: I certainly do.

MOYERS: You say that her voice has come down to us all these years later. What do you mean her voice? We can't hear her sing.

JONG: I'll give you an example. "Love loosens my limbs like the wind falling upon oak trees on the hillside." In other words, the images are so clear, so precise. "Love loosens my limbs." That people want to quote them because it seems that these things are being said better by her than by anybody else in history. And…

MOYERS: Here's one of my favorites.

JONG: Okay. "Tonight I've watched the moon and then the Pleiades go down. The night is now half gone. Youth goes. I am in bed alone."

MOYERS: What does that say to you?

JONG: It says to me that she understood loneliness and isolation, as the poet must. What are the sources of poetry? Love and death and the paradox of love and death. All poetry from the beginning is about Eros and Thanatos. Those are the only subjects. And how Eros and Thanatos interweave.

MOYERS: Thanatos is?

JONG: Death.

MOYERS: Eros is?

JONG: Is passion.

MOYERS: And yet just in reading about her from you and reading some of the poems of hers that you include, I sense this powerful yearning. If I could identify one emotion that runs through the poems that I've read of her thanks to you it would be yearning.

JONG: Absolutely.

MOYERS: Longing.

JONG: Longing. Longing…

MOYERS: How do you explain that?

JONG: Well, I don't know how I explain it or whether we should explain it. You know, the great Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, says that, "Art is born from a perpetual I don't know." And that's a quote that I love and it seems absolutely right to me.

I think that Sappho expresses the orphaned part of ourselves. The orphaned part of ourselves that reaches out to passion for completion. That reaches out to motherhood for completion. Ultimately, we all know that we are born alone and that we die alone. And if we can find tender connections with other people along the way, with our spouses, with lovers, with our children, we are very, very fortunate indeed.

MOYERS: You call her the first poet of love.

JONG: She invented the vocabulary of erotic love. When somebody writes for the first time, "I freeze. I burn. A subtle flame runs under my skin. My heart is like the old oak trees, with the wind coming down upon them." When she writes that she trembles.

When she says, "I am green as grass." She invented the vocabulary of love.

MOYERS: Aphrodite is the goddess who is invoked in the book more than any other. Why?

JONG: Sappho was a devotee of Aphrodite. And Sappho invokes Aphrodite more than any other goddess. So in a book about Sappho you have to have a lot of Aphrodite.

MOYERS: But why Aphrodite? What do you think appealed to Sappho about Aphrodite?

JONG: She's the goddess of pleasure. She's the goddess of love. She understands that pleasure is important. And she understands that pleasure is fleeting. She also has this little son with the poisoned arrows. And we call him Eros.

And Eros can take an arrow and shoot it straight through your heart and make you fall madly in love with somebody or madly in lust with somebody who's absolutely wrong for you. And the Greeks understood that too. They understood that passion was tricky. And that sometimes you might fall for somebody who was not so good for you.

MOYERS: There's a scene in the book, where the goddesses are debating. "Is it best to live for love?" one of them asks. Remember that?

JONG: Yes, I love it.

MOYERS: "Should we live for love or motherhood or intellect?" I mean that's 2300 hundred years old but it's very modern, right?

JONG: Right, exactly.

MOYERS: Women still debate that question.

JONG: We're always debating it now. Should we live for love or motherhood? Should we live for beauty? Should we live for passion?

MOYERS: Intellect.

JONG: Intellect.

MOYERS: And then the mortal among them, she pipes up and she says, "Liberty is at the root for all we want. For only free women can participate in this debate. Choice is the luxury of the free."

JONG: Right. That's Sappho's slave, Praxinoa to whom I give some of the best lines in the book.


JONG: I imagine her as a highly intelligent slave who debates questions of free will.

And of course at that time, those questions were very much in the air. Sappho is a contemporary of Heroclitus so we're talking about a time when people were debating, "What is the universe made of? Is it made of fire? Is it made of water? Is it made of love? Is it made of war?"

They were quite as sophisticated as we. Their technology perhaps wasn't. They piloted these little tiny boats with square sails all over the Mediterranean. Maybe they didn't have sonar, maybe they didn't have global positioning. But they could steer by the stars and intellectually they were far more sophisticated than we. That just grabbed me.

MOYERS: But you don't answer the question. They ask in the debate, "Should we live for love or motherhood or intellect?" But you don't answer it.

JONG: I don't answer it. Because I believe that women should live for love, for motherhood and for intellect and I believe we shouldn't have to choose. And I believe that's always been difficult for women, to express themselves intellectually, maternally, and passionately. And I wanted to bring all those parts of a woman together. In fact you could say that all my novels have been about that. How to integrate the different parts of a woman.

MOYERS: One of the things I like about your book is that you do not romanticize women. That as Sappho goes off to the land of the Amazons, and what she discovers there is a stunning reality.

JONG: Well, the women are not so good to each other in the land of the Amazons. You know, during the second wave of the feminist movement, women were always saying, well, if women take over the earth, there won't be any more war, we'll be much kinder, we'll be much nicer.

And then if you saw the way women behaved to each other in some of these radical groups, you had your doubts about whether they were nice to each other at all. But in my Land of the Amazons, Sappho goes with Praxinoa, her beloved friend and slave, and they meet the Amazons. And yes, the Amazons are very idealistic, but they've been captured by this evil queen, Antiope.

And Antiope is quite as awful a ruler as Pittakos, the ruler of Sappho's island, Lesbos. So women are capable of cruelty in leadership positions. And I satirized that. Both women and men need empathy, need tenderness. It doesn't come automatically.

MOYERS: Yeah, and you don't cast it as men versus women. You cast it as tenderness versus brutality and cruelty.

JONG: Absolutely, yes.

MOYERS: Here we are talking about a poet who lived 2300 years ago, of whom we know very little. And a goddess named Aphrodite.

JONG: Well, I think Aphrodite is still tweaking the human race.

MOYERS: How so?

JONG: Still making them fall in love with the wrong people. I don't think that she's stopped playing with us from above. I see much evidence that Aphrodite is on earth. And getting people, you know, to fall into bed with the wrong people. And mess up their lives in various ways.

So, Aphrodite's here. And why Sappho? Because she wrote about these things, perhaps better than anyone. And because she informed the way we thought about love for the next three millennia. And she continues to inform it. She has given it voice.

MOYERS: Do you think that a young woman the age today you were when you wrote FEAR OF FLYING, 20s, is more likely to feel at home in FEAR OF FLYING or at home with SAPPHO'S LEAP?

JONG: I think… I hope they feel at home with both in different ways. Maybe SAPPHO'S LEAP because it tells about things mythologically. Gives you a certain kind of distance. But I must say that I do travel around to colleges where FEAR OF FLYING is taught.

And I ask the students, because it's taught in a lot of American Lit courses and Human Sexuality courses and American Studies. And I say what do you find in the book that still resonates, because it's a 30 year old book. And what they always say to me is the double standard is alive and well.

A woman who's open to pleasure is still considered a slut. That's what I hear from college women. And it actually breaks my heart. That that part of the book still strikes them as relevant.

MOYERS: Wasn't Sappho also considered a slut?

JONG: Absolutely.

MOYERS: By people who wanted to slander her?

JONG: Exactly. So nothing has changed there, has it?

MOYERS: FEAR OF FLYING is out this year, republished in paperback. How do you… when you look back, how do you explain the phenomenon that it became?

JONG: I can only quote to you what men tell me. They say whenever I saw that book on a woman's night table, I knew I was gonna get lucky. So that's one answer. And women…

MOYERS: An honest answer, right.

JONG: And women will say, "I remember where I was when I read that book. I was on this Greek Island and there was this boy and his eyes looked like black olives gleaming with oil and I had your book in my knapsack. And, well, thank you."

MOYERS: And you don't accept the critic who says the great contribution of that book was to be candid about the mechanics of sex. It was more than that to you.

JONG: Oh, I don't think it was about the mechanics of sex at all. I think that what I sought to do in my early work with FEAR OF FLYING and also with the poetry was to slice open a woman's head and show everything that was happening inside. To make a woman's mind and fantasies as naked as certain writers like John Updike and Phillip Roth had made a man's mind. And that had not been done. Yes, there were many wonderful books about women that were written. Many of them inspired me. But what Roth and Updike had done for the male psyche had really not been done for the female.

I think that what I was trying to do was to speak for women in a way they hadn't been spoken about before. And frankly I think that's what got people so angry. Because the idea that a woman could say, "I am; I think," is far more threatening than anything. In fact, the same thing happened at Sappho if you want to know the truth. I mean, the greatest female singer of love, the woman who invented the language that even songwriters today imitate without even knowing they're imitating it, that woman was remembered by the Roman comedians as a prostitute. Why?

Because she wrote so beautifully about passion? and therefore she had to be considered a prostitute? I think women are very misunderstood in that regard.

MOYERS: It often happens to women. I mean, most people think of Joan of Arc as that of a crazy broad hearing voices…

JONG: Who heard voices.

MOYERS: Which she was really quite a remarkable figure.

JONG: Exactly. And think of all these great women in history. They've all been remembered. You know, Elizabeth's remembered for sleeping with Essex and whoever else. And…

MOYERS: Everybody else. That's…

JONG: And everybody else. Right. And it's true. Joan of Arc is a perfect example. What do we remember? She heard voices. She talked to the trees. She went to the tree and confessed. Perhaps she was a pagan. I think that what we're talking about is the definition of the great woman, the woman who invents something new. Which makes society, both women and men, very nervous. I mean the metaphor of flying, yes, it can be read as sex. And Jungians will tell you that in dreams it might represent sex. But it also represents freedom.

MOYERS: And that's this scene in Sappho where the goddesses are debating the question.

JONG: That's really what it's about, yeah.

MOYERS: It's as old as Sappho and as modern as FEAR OF FLYING and whatever sequels are coming.

JONG: Exactly. It's not a new subject.

MOYERS: When you wrote FEAR OF FLYING, didn't a lot of poets disown you, because you'd written popular book?

JONG: Absolutely. I was poeta non grata after that. I mean, they… I had published two volumes of poetry. I had won POETRY MAGAZINE's Bess Hokin Prize, which Sylvia Plath won before me. I had taught at the 92nd Street Y. I was considered very kosher in poetry circles.

And then FEAR OF FLYING took off. And from then on, no matter how many books of poetry I published, they never were reviewed. But now I find that my poems are turning up in a lot of anthologies. And that's very gratifying to me.

MOYERS: I want to come back to this scene in SAPPHO'S LEAP in which the goddesses with the one mortal are arguing about whether… debating whether one should live for love, for motherhood, or for intellect. Living for love is the hardest, isn't it? Because the intellect, you have. It's yours. Nobody can take it away from you. Age can, but no one else can.

Motherhood, once you have committed it, even though it's full of trauma and pain, you have done it. But love is so tentative, and love is so difficult. That I'm wondering if you wouldn't choose the other two.

JONG: I would probably at this point in my life choose the other two. But there again, the Greeks knew that love was very fickle. I mean, they always made reference. And Sappho makes reference all the time to Helen in the Trojan War. Helen is a woman who is so beautiful, she's irresistible to men.

And what is the result of all of Helen's beauty? The burning of Troy. "Burnt the topless towers of Ilium," as Christopher Marlowe said. So the Greeks understood that sex passion could be an immensely destructive thing. That it wasn't the be-all and the end-all of life.

And that friendship, amity, complicity between marriage partners, between friends, was perhaps more valuable and lasting than sexual passion. That's another thing that appeals to me about them. That they were so savvy about it. They understood, you know, that we are moved by sexual passion. That we make fools of ourselves by sexual passion. But that if we want something that lasts, we look to friendship. So, I was… I'm very moved by their philosophy of love.

MOYERS: There is this — "One Story," you call it — this poem of yours that is unforgettable, I think. I mean, once I… I've read it several times now. There is only one story. It's very short. But it stays with you. Would you read that one, and tell me about it?

JONG: "There is only one story. He loved her, then stopped loving her. While she did not stop loving him. There is only one story. She loved him, then stopped loving him, while he did not stop loving her. The truth is simple. You do not die from love. You only wish you did."

MOYERS: The book is SAPPHO'S LEAP. Thank you, Erica Jong.

JONG: Thank you.