“The poetry of Bilitis is not unknown to me. For a long time, I have considered her a personal friend,” a professor of Greek archaeology writes to Pierre Louÿs in response to his Les Chansons de Bilitis, a translation of a set of poems discovered in the tomb of sixth century Greek poetess and Sappho-contemporary, Bilitis. The only catch? The original poems along with their supposed author never existed.
These 143 poems, grouped into three sections of Bilitis’ life (her childhood and earliest sexual awakening, her time on the island of Lesbos and relationship with a woman, and her life as a courtesan in Cyprus) are perhaps best known for their eroticism and then-controversial exploration of homosexuality. As it turns out, Pierre Louÿs fabricated their entire origin story. And even though he fooled some experts, much of his audience knew, or at least suspected, the dubious nature of his source material.
But why choose pseudotranslation as an expressive form? Certainly, Louÿs enjoyed toying with the academic elite and their fascination with and reverence for the ancient world--claiming that just as his work was entrenched in historical invention, so too was academia. In what might be considered an early ancestor of the modern internet troll, when an unfavorable reviewer claimed to find anachronism in the work, Louÿs cited him in his faux scholarly bibliography in a later edition of the text. Also included was a fictional archaeologist named G. Heim, which only some were able to recognize as the pun that it was--on the German word geheim, meaning secret.
Besides demystifying the academic elite, Louÿs’ work was transgressive in its treatment of erotica and lesbianism. He writes that most literary lesbians are femme fatales, but that his Bilitis is an idyll, both normalized and revered. However earnest this intent may have been, the modern reader can’t help but wonder if Louÿs’ intensely voyeuristic tone ever strays very far from the patriarchal norms of the time. While it is clear Louÿs was catering to a heterosexual male audience, his Bilitis would serve as a muse for many lesbian writers that follow. Particularly of note is Renee Vivien, whose own translation of Sappho’s poetry does much more to subvert the male gaze, centering instead the female experience.
Contemporaries and friends, Pierre Louÿs and Claude Debussy gained much from each other artistically and personally. Debussy, enamored with Louÿs’ joie de vivre, bohemian values, and financial freedom, and Louÿs, avid lover of Debussy’s music and a student himself of piano and violin, found in one another a kindred spirit. It was only natural, then, that when a literary magazine commissioned Debussy to publish a new piece, he decided upon three of Louÿs’ Chansons to set to music.
What then becomes of our Bilitis--a fictional poet whose invented history was transcribed, translated, and now adapted into music? Perhaps Louÿs’ veil of authenticity is still at work and, in listening to this song cycle, it is Louÿs’ poetry that transports us to a world of Greek mysticism and ancient pleasure. Or maybe it is Debussy’s richly chromatic and deliciously sensuous harmonic language that fully legitimizes her, deepening her story in a way only music can. Whatever the case may be, Bilitis--once a figment of a man’s imagination--has surely taken on a very real life of her own.