SapphoBot, Data Science, Lovers and Beloveds

Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.
W. H. Auden, Under Which Lyre

There is always the lover, and always the beloved. As Michel Foucault suggests, the only remaining question is how to allocate them: who is allowed to sleep with whom, and under what circumstances. Consider the dilemma of the (extremely charming) young Phaedrus, in the dialogue with Socrates that bears his name: what kind of lover should a person, seeking to be loved, take? Socrates’ answer, of course, is that he should cleave to one inspired by a particular kind of divine madness: “the fourth and last kind of madness, which is imputed to him who, when he sees the beauty of earth, is transported with the recollection of the true beauty; he would like to fly away, but he cannot; he is like a bird fluttering and looking upward and careless of the world below; and he is therefore thought to be mad.” One need not be a paid-up subscriber to Dorothy Parker’s cynical view that one of you is lying to think the oppositions of the lover/beloved relationship tells us something true about this madness. If the symmetry be broken spontaneously, of a moment, even rehealed and rebroken, it is still for a time, a broken symmetry, maddening to those under its spell.

Despite the great inconveniences it can pose to well-ordered state, this madness is recorded down to our own day. Today, indeed, we blow this process up onto the largest possible scales: as bots retweet Russian propaganda and mad leaders, we task them also with reminding us of the torments of the visions granted by love, and soothing us, perhaps, as we undergo them. That is thanks to SapphoBot, a little program that shares the works of the great Lesbian poet, who did for love what Aeschylus did for tragedy, and Socrates for philosophical dialogue.

Who reads poetry? We do, now, at the rate of one fragment every two hours. Drawing randomly, SapphoBot breaks off a Sapphic text from the classicist/poet Anne Carson’s translations in If Not, Winter—what little we have, torn off in its turn from an Egyptian mummy’s wrappings or an exemplar sentence in a textbook grammar, and shares it instantly to the 17,000 (or so) of her followers spread around the world.

Let us (as the social scientists say) operationalize that crucial dyadic granted to us from the Greek estate. Those subscribing to SapphoBot’s feed have a choice: to touch the heart, indicating a personal response, or to re-tweet, sharing her work under their own name, adjacent to, and interspersed with, the things they write themselves. When a subscriber re-tweets, she speaks in the voice of the lover; when she touches her heart, she plays the beloved. We place ourselves along each axis, sometimes the lover, sometimes the beloved, and signal accordingly; each fragment, now, records both the number of speakers, and the number of (responding) beloveds.

One way to view this strange and automated window on an infinitely distant, infinitely close, past is at the top of this article: a simple scatterplot. Each point on this figure corresponds to a Sappho fragment; the horizontal location of the point shows the lover’s retweets, while its vertical position shows the beloved’s heart-like responses.

Some simple things at first. There are more beloved-responses than there are lover’s declarations. This might have puzzled Phaedrus and Socrates, who would have understood the yielding of the beloved to the lover to be — at least potentially — a shameful matter. But the internet makes the beloved-responses (at least partially) hidden from public view: to <heart> a text is a private matter, while a declaration, conversely, is shared with all the lover’s followers (here, considering twitter, it is hard not to imagine the Greek agora, one where philosophy and love coexist with pride, public shaming, and hidden vice…)

While the beloved responses outnumber the lover’s declarations, it is also the case that the response is sub-linear. In practical terms, what this means is that the declarations that are most common are less popular with the beloveds than you might expect. If you double the popularity of a declaration among the lovers, you only increase the responses of the beloveds by about 68%, a relationship mathematically expressed by saying that the beloveds scale as the three-quarters power of the lovers. (I had hoped to find a three-halves scaling, which would allow for an analogy between lovers and beloveds, on the one hand, and Kepler’s third law of planetary motion, relating the axis and period of an orbit; regardless, this empirical law now demands an equivalent Newton of the heart, to explain its emergence from first principles.)

For those quibbling scientists, it’s worth noting that the three-quarters power-law of lovers and beloveds contrasts with the behavior on the Finnegans Wake Bot, a similar concept. In this case, I’ve described retweets as “writer”, and likes as “reader” responses. In contrast to the differences we find between lovers and beloveds in Sappho, readers and writers, in Finnegans Wake, are essentially equivalent roles: any passage will have, on average, a similar number of readers and writers. And as a passage becomes more and more popular with writers, it becomes similarly popular with readers.

There are many lessons hidden here for the lover seeking her beloved. Implicit in the sub-linear scaling—that pseudo-Keplerian three-quarters law—is that beloveds have a wider range of tastes than lovers. The speeches of lovers are more unequal than the more pluralistic desires their beloveds demand. The songbirds sing in a restricted range; the beloveds, by contrast, are more likely to respond to the unexpected than one might expect.

Lovers, in their madness, misjudge in other ways as well: they fail to realize that what it pleases them to say may not please their beloveds equally well. Consider the red band, which highlights a population of passages that lovers, at least, seem to treat equally. The scatter up and down that red band, however, shows how beloveds are a different matter. Among these passages that their lovers treat equally, they prefer some much more than others. At the two extremes within that red band, we find these two (where the “]” in the beloved-scorned text indicates a fragmentary feature)—

virginity
virginity
where are you gone leaving me behind?
no longer will I come to you
no longer will I come
(~18 retweets; ~88 likes)

]no pain
(~19 retweets; ~40 likes)

The message is simple. Lovers: declare not your pain, tempting though it is! Your beloveds really mourn what you have done to them, and have little pity for the pains you receive in return.