Jean Racine, Phèdre
Racine, Jean. Phèdre. Translated by Margaret Rawlings. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1962 (1677).
The way to read this, I discovered, is to sit down with a bilingual text and a library DVD of the sixties film version; when I tried to read the alexandrines in my head they kept falling into the rhythm of The Steeple-Chase, and this high-school version excerpted on YouTube, while charming, does not exactly convince one that Racine is a crown jewel of Western culture. Admittedly, the film had a weird Moorish-castle set, relied on a lot of voiceover whispering punctuated by the periodic cri de coeur, and would cut to a slow-motion shot of the ocean whenever Neptune was evoked. Doubly amazing, then, that the play itself turns out to be a wonder.
I take Erich Auerbach’s point about how far removed the play is from social reality; we never see the ruling family do anything in the way of governing, they’re just ontologically royal, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to have properly august emotions. That granted, the play isn’t unaware of its own grounding:
Ne vaudrait-il pas mieux, digne sang de Minos,
Dans de plus nobles soins chercher votre repos,
Contre un ingrat qui plaît recourir à la fuite,
Régner, et de l’État embrasser la conduite?
Moi, régner! Moi, ranger un État sous ma loi,
Quand ma faible raison ne règne plus sur moi!
Lorsque j’ai de mes sens abandonné l’empire!
Quand sous un joug honteux à peine je respire!
Quand je me meurs!
Would it not better suit the blood of Minos
to seek your respite in more noble cares,
to spurn a wretch who takes so soon to flight,
and reign? To embrace the conduct of the state?
I, reign! I, fix a state beneath my law,
when my frail reason governs me no more!
When I have lost the empire of my senses!
When every breath pulls taut the yoke of shame!
When I am dying!
I will admit to a soft spot for the incest tragedy; the premodern idea of passion as something foreign and deadly always struck a chord, and incest is such a satisfying way to render it utterly destabilizing and beyond the social pale.
Ce n’est plus une ardeur dans mes veins cachée:
C’est Vénus tout entière à sa proie attachée.
This is no passion hidden in my veins:
now Venus in full flower grips her prey.
I originally wanted to read Racine because of the impression he had made on Beckett, and it made sense by the end; neither the plotting nor the style sprouts the constant excrescences and divagations of Elizabethan tragedy. It is a single perfect sphere, rolling along an inclined plane and flattening everything it meets.