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RACINE AND THE AUGUSTINIAN INHERITANCE : THE CASE OF ANDROMAQUE - JOHN CAMPBELL






IS THE CHILD FATHER OF THE MAN ? Do Racine's mature tragedies bear the imprint of his Jansenist upbringing ? In these works can we uncover some Augustinian subtext ? Might this suggest or confirm a reading of the tragedies as some sombre message delivered to suffering humanity ? This article springs from a desire to see whether the analysis of one particular play, Andromaque, can shed light on these questions, and whether, indeed, the questions can be seen in another light [1].

     Such theologico-biographical queries might seem destined, by their very nature, only to receive a tentative response. But the very opposite has been the case. The link between Racinian tragedy and Jansenism is one that an overwhelming majority of critics has traditionally tended to make, or presume. In the words of a recent commentator, 'there is much to commend in interpretations that rely on our knowledge of the dominant ideology in Racine's own circles' [2]. This is not the place to rehearse a history already chronicled by Maurice Delcroix [3]. It is important, however, to insist on the long-standing nature of the association between some salient features of Jansenist theology and what is perceived to be the tragic vision of Racine. Voltaire, for example, mentions that in his own childhood the idea of a Jansenist Phidre was already common currency [4]. In the twentieth century Brunetiere, Benichou, Goldmann, and Mauron have been some of the more emblematic exponents of the Jansenist link [5]. The counter-arguments, not just of Delcroix, but of Pommier, Picard, and Sellier, have seemingly done little to weaken it [6]. For example, in Marie- Florine Bruneau's thesis on the 'modernity' of Racine's Jansenism, there is an initial acceptance that the plays have a direct relationship 'a la fortune du mouvement janseniste ou a sa theologie' [7].

     What, one might ask, is commonly meant by 'Jansenist', when applied to a creative artist such as Racine ? If the emphasis is ideological rather than historical, the identity of the term is inevitably bound up with St Augustine. Kolakowski indeed, in his pellucid analysis, uses the term 'Augustinian-Jansenist' [8]. It would, of course, be injudicious simply to equate a heterodox expression of seventeenth-century Catholicism with the complex spiritual, philosophical, and literary inheritance left by the Father of the Western Church. Already in the seventh century Isidore of Seville declared that anyone who claimed to have read all of St Augustine's works was a liar [9]. In addition, this vast inheritance has spawned what Bruno Neveu calls 'thorny controversies, which for centuries have exercised the subtlest minds and filled the libraries of Europe with interminable Latin treatises' [10]. These are daunting objections to any attempt at a simple overview. We reach deep waters very quickly, but it seems that few theological vessels have the necessary ocean-going qualities : Neveu takes Kolakowski himself to task for oversimplification. On the other hand, whereof we cannot without oversimplification speak, thereof must we be silent ? This is especially true in relation to the stuff of Jansenism. If there is a divinity that shapes our ends, he cannot be left to divines, rough-hew him how we may. In the present case the main features of the dismal Augustinian landscape, as mediated by its Jansenist interpreters, are well-known. Humankind is a massa perditionis. From birth we are contaminated by an original sin for which all humankind must pay the price. In Pascal's formulation, Thomme sans Dieu est dans l'ignorance de tout et dans un malheur inevitable' [11]. Without that grace which is granted only to a few, mankind is unavoidably sunk in the corrupt pit of a fallen nature. Most human beings, by the very fact of being human, stumble around a fallen world whose depravity is expressed in the passions that consume them. Blind, helpless, but no less guilty for that, they can only await the eternal torment it behoves divine justice to apply. Happy days [12].

     It is this vision of the world which is commonly seen as the bridge between Racine's upbringing and the fundamentals of his tragic universe. Two recent works provide examples of the bridge-builder's work : L'education augustinienne [.. .] lui a inculque le sentiment profond de la decheance et de l'impuissance de l'etre humain, domine par une funeste concupiscence. [. . .] La formation decisive de Racine s'est faite a Port-Royal : intellectuellement, ideologiquement et psychologiquement [13]. Des jansenistes il avait deja appris que la nature humaine etait degradee, livree aux plus noires demences, et peut-etre tenait-il de la son sens de la tragedie. Pour montrer aux hommes, comme dans un miroir, la erudite de leurs passions, il avait besoin du theatre et de sa magie [14].

     That Sellier again has to protest against this easy association, in his new edition of the plays, shows that it has almost acquired the status of an idee recue [15]. It therefore seems legitimate to ask whether our experience of Racinian tragedy, as a living dramatic entity, corresponds with the Augustinian-Jansenist scenario.
     Why then Andromaque ? It may be thought perverse to consider 'Jansenist' influences in a work written just after the playwright's break with his educators and mentors. The obvious choice here has always been Phidre, but by that very fact it has hitherto received the lion's share of critical attention [16]. At the very least one could argue that if its Jansenist credentials are so obvious, Phidre must be, on that basis alone, atypical of Racinian tragedy as a whole. Furthermore, if one is to examine the idea that the Port-Royal of childhood is somehow translated into an adult vision of the world, what better place to look than in Andromaque, the first of the mature tragedies ? This is especially the case in that three of its characters - Pyrrhus, Hermione and Oreste - are amongst the five most commonly quoted to illustrate the Jansenist world-vision in Racine's theatre [17]. Finally, if the supposed Jansenism of Racinian tragedy can be called into question in Andwmaque, this hypothesis will be undermined in the other tragedies, including Phedre.

     The question is then worth asking : do the Jansenist interpreters of St Augustine haunt the ruins of Racine's burning Troy ? At first sight, the proponents of this association seem to have easy pickings. The most obvious parallel is the characters' subjection to forces which cripple their freedom to decide, to act and thus to escape. This seems to accord with the Augustinian-Jansenist theory of grace, according to which 'we are, all of us, so hopelessly corrupted that we are incapable of being saved by our own forces' [18]. The shackles worn by Racine's characters engender a degree of suffering and a sense of doom which it can be tempting to see in an anti-Pelagian perspective, as characteristic of a world in which nothing can be done to avert the catastrophe to come. The most eloquent ambassador of this bleak world-vision is Oreste, the character most dependent on others' decisions. He presents himself as the passive victim of an alienating passion driving him on to an unknown destination (11. 25-28). The sense of entrapment in Andwmaque, however, involves more than this single obsession. That mysterious force that saps human will, and which is given the name of passionate love, is described by Oreste in terms which could equally be applied to Pyrrhus and Hermione : 'Je me livre en aveugle au destin qui m'entraine. Paime' (11. 98-99). Hermione, though constantly humiliated by Pyrrhus, remains constantly in thrall to him, despite being able to mock his own inability to leave Andromaque (1. 323). It is therefore unsurprising to find Anne Ubersfeld concluding that Hermione's enslavement 'traduit la conception janseniste des pas- sions qui fut toujours celle de Racine' [19]. This point of view seems to be reinforced by Racine's transformation of Pyrrhus, the great hero of the Trojan War, into 'un coeur si peu maitre de lui' (1. 120), 'le jouet d'une flamme servile' (1. 629). As Delcroix remarks, Racine's insistence on human weakness 'pour certains [. . .] implique a elle seule la reference a l'inspiration janseniste ; pour d'autres, elle en est du moins le produit direct et manifeste' [20].

     This readiness to see the hidden hand of Cornelius Jansen at work in Racinian tragedy is only facilitated by a plot structured to generate a sense of helplessness and loss of control. Oreste, whose arrival in Epirus has set the murder-machine in motion, pleads that he had been the victim of a force greater than himself : 'De moi-meme etais-je alors le maitre ?' (1. 725). Thereafter three characters' fates are suspended on the decision of a blackmailed prisoner, Andromaque, to whom is given a choice so unpalatable as not to merit the name. Ironically, her jailer Pyrrhus, whose own future hangs on her impossible decision, has a sense of constraint all the sharper for his theoretical power to do what he wishes (1. 970). In these circumstances, each use of the word vouloir is attended by irony, as in Oreste's expression of will (11. 715-16), or in Hermione's description of Pyrrhus : 'II veut tout ce qu'il fait' (1. 846). In the final act this disjunction between desire and act is brought to a paroxysm by Hermione, from her opening 'Ou suis-je ? Qu'ai-je fait ? Que dois-je faire encore ?' (1. 1393) to the dismissal of Oreste's claim to have murdered Pyrrhus only to carry out her wishes : 'Quand je l'aurais voulu, fallait-il y souscrire' (1. 1549). Vouloir is pictured almost as an entity exterior to the self :
    'Qu'il meure, puisqu'enfin il a du le prévoir.
    Et puisqu'il m'a forcée enfin a le vouloir.
    A le vouloir ? Hé quoi ? c'est donc moi qui l'ordonne ?' (11.1419-21)
     It seems only natural to see an intimate kinship here with the Augustinian viewpoint, according to which 'man is so indeterminate, so blind in his intention and haphazard in his attempts to communicate, that he must be determined by some forces outside the horizon of his immediate consciousness' [21].

     Associated with this lack of freedom one might find another Augustinian theme, diat of human beings locked together inextricably, and irreparably damaged, by a catastrophe that occurred before the present action. There is no need to insist on the importance of the Trojan War, recalled at every turn, even in the manner by which characters are constantly identified in relation to Agamemnon and Achilles, Hector and Helen. That one initial act of defiance by Helen could thus be seen to function as a kind of original sin, its consequences blindly cascading for generations on those uninvolved : 'Ses yeux pour leur querelle, en dix ans de combats, | Virent périr vingt rois qu'ils ne connaissaient pas' (11. 1479-80). Astyanax may be innocent, but is guilty nonetheless : 'Oui, les Grecs sur le fils persécutent le père' (1. 225). When Helen plucked the apple from the tree of forbidden love, generations yet unborn would suffer : 'Un enfant malheureux qui ne sait pas encor | Que Pyrrhus est son maitre, et qu'il est fils d'Hector' (11. 271-72). Reading Andromaque in this Augustinian perspective of fall, punishment and inherited guilt, it is then possible to see the condemnation arising from Helen's initial act of rebellion as driving the whole plot, from the moment Oreste arrives, purportedly to punish the last surviving Trojan male. Andromaque's protest, that an innocent child should bear the weight of a crime committed before his birth, expresses the ordinary human incomprehension at the injustice of shared guilt : 'Roi barbare, faut-il que mon crime l'entraîne ? | Si je te hais, est-il coupable de ma haine ?' (11. 1029-30). Helen's one act causes the fall of Troy, and the nuit crueUe of this fall becomes a nuit etemeUe in which all are punished. Again, if one adopts this same postlapsarian perspective, it is easy to draw a parallel between the defeated Trojans, 'dans la flamme étouffes (1. 1004), and an infernal vision of doomed humanity. Troy, the proud mistress of Asia, is after its fall reduced to 'un enfant dans les fers' (11. 196-203). In both cases all are guilty. With war, as with original sin, ordinary ideas of justice and mercy do not apply : 'Tout etait juste alors : la vieillesse et l'enfance | En vain sur leur faiblesse appuyaient leur defense' (11. 209-10). The 'endless chain of love', so celebrated in Andromaque, is in fact an endless chain of guilt, dependence and shared responsibility : 'Du sang qui vous unit je sais l'etroite chaine' (1. 246). The irony is that even Andromaque's attempt to free herself from Pyrrhus, by suicide, will bind him forever to her son, Tengager a mon fils par des noeuds immortels' (1. 1092). The past poisons present and future alike, as with the Augusti- nian doctrine of hereditary guilt. Thus it little matters, when Pyrrhus dies, whether Oreste is 'coupable ou spectateur' (1. 1472), he is still guilty : 'Ainsi 1'homme sent peser sur lui le poids, souvent insupportable, de fautes dont il est coupable et comptable, meme s'il voulait en rejeter la responsabilite. Telle est la conception de l'humanite que Racine a rapportee de Port-Royal' [22]. This Augustinian interpretation is only com- forted by a final scene filled with a preacher's lexis of eternal damnation : epaisse nuit, horreur, demons, serpents, enfer, eterneUe nuit, fureurs, dechirer, devorer' [23]. If one reads Andromaque in this light, it is easy to understand the claim that Racinian tragedy replicates 'la toile attristante des psychologues jansénistes qui représente l'homme comme un ange déchu' [24]. Such a fall engenders that same sense of loss and exile which also pervades Andromaque. Here again one might wish to see this as a reflection of St Augustine's insistence, as Armstrong translates it, 'that we are strangers and pilgrims in the world, and that here we have no continuing city' [25]. From the land of lost content Andromaque is quite literally in exile : 'Ô cendres d'un epoux ! Ô Troyens ! Ô mon pere !' (1. 1045). Oreste, Hermione, and Pyrrhus, though Greek, are still pictured as fundamentally homeless. Each could pronounce the 'Où suis-je ?' (1. 1393) which begins Hermione's incandescent monologue : 'Traîner de mers en mers ma chaine et mes ennuis' (1. 44) ; 'Toujours prête à partir, et demeurant toujours' (1. 131) ; 'Épouser ce qu'il hait, et punir ce qu'il aime' (1. 122). The image given is of human beings exiled, through the unattainability of their own desire, to an inner landscape of restlessness, insufficiency, and disorientation. A striking example of this loss of bearings is the confusion of love with hate : 'Errante et sans dessein, je cours dans ce palais. | Ah ne puis-je savoir si j'aime, ou si je hais ?' (11. 1396-97). In this context, revenge takes on the guise of a homecoming. It is one way of establishing contact and thus some kind of identity : 'une victime à moi seule adressée' (1. 1190) ; 'Je percerai le coeur que je n'ai pu toucher' (1. 1244) ; 'Tout me sera Pyrrhus' (1. 1490). In the fallen world of Andromaque, as in that of St Augustine, desire is desire for what seems good, but only seems. Blindness is thus the natural concomitant of passion. Oreste's 'aveuglement funeste' (1. 481), shared with Pyrrhus and Hermione, mirrors that darkness which for Jansenist authors such as Amauld seems to be a commanding symptom of an inherited ill : 'Lorsqu'en punition de fautes précédentes Dieu nous abandonne à nous-mêmes et à la perversité de notre coeur, il n'est point d'excès ou nous ne puissions nous porter, même en les détestant' [26]. And so we might continue. Between Andromaque and the Augustinian inheritance handed down to Racine by his Jansenist teachers, there are doubtless other parallels that could be found. Even on the evidence so far adduced, however, we can establish a prima facie case for a 'Jansenist' interpretation. In addition, some of the arguments deployed against such a reading are not immediately convincing. This is especially true of the contention that Racinian tragedy cannot correlate with the Augustinian theology of original sin because not all Racine's characters bow to evil : 'Si on admettait que certains hommes, à l'état de nature déchue, ont pu se soustraire à cette corruption [...], toute la construction qui consume le jansénisme s'effondrerait a l'instant' [27].

    Là où saint Augustin voyait la corruption universelle, hormis quelques élus, les tragédies affirment l'innocence universelle, hormis quelques 'monstres' [28]. It is not just that this viewpoint seems to undervalue Aristotle's contention that tragedy 'is essentially an imitation not of persons but of action and life', and that the tragic action does not demand 'evil' characters to present a vision of waste, suffering, and helplessness [29]. A powerful sense of evil may be sustained by placing human beings in situations over which they have no control, and allowing them to be crushed by the iron workings of the tragic plot. It is difficult to quantify this sense of evil by counting heads [30].