Languor
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65 Languor Consider the character of Phaedra in Racine’s extraordinary eponymous 1677 tragedy, “the masterpiece of the human mind,” as Voltaire declared. Phaedra was the daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë, and granddaughter of Pasiphaë’s father, the Sungod or Helios, whose light burns Phaedra’s eyes and whose scorching gaze she cannot bear, but from whom she cannot hide. The Sun watches her throughout the play: silent, remote to the point of absence, but of piercing intensity, like the Deus absconditus of Jansenism. Her father was King of Crete and later judge in Hades. She married Theseus, King of Athens, who brought her back to Greece after slaying the Minotaur in the Cretan labyrinth. Aphrodite, as she is wont, inflamed Pasiphaë with a monstrous passion for a bull. Daedalus, the artificer , made a hollow wooden cow where Pasiphaë could crouch to be fucked by the bull. From this 66 union was born the Minotaur. It is the overwhelming power of her mother’s predestined passion that now flows through Phaedra’s veins. Venus is in Phaedra’s blood: it flows through her like a virus, the sickness of illicit erotic desire . With Theseus away for over six months on one of his adventures, she burns with passion for Hippolytus, Theseus’s virginal son and her stepson. When Phaedra first saw Hippolytus, she declared, “darkness drenched my eyes.” She languishes in dark desire, Venus clawing at her heart, her mother’s sin boiling in her blood. Worn down by the guilt of this passion, and the division it creates within her, she resolves to die. This is how we first encounter her in the play, dragging herself into the light to greet her grandfather, the Sungod, for the last time, “Soleil, je te viens voir pour la dernière fois.” There is a whole metaphysics of blood at work in the Racine’s tragedy: blood is the existential mark of the past, of one’s bindedness to a past that you might think you are through with, but which is not through with you. Contaminated by the virus of Venus that flows in her veins, Phaedra cannot exist in the present, let alone envisage the future. Rather, she is a prisoner of her past, the burned-in memory of her mother’s monstrous desire and her 67 grandfather’s conscience. Phaedra’s present continually lags behind itself. She cannot make up her time. She is always too late to meet her fate and this is why she is so utterly fatigued. The horror of being riveted to what Heidegger would calls one’s facticity injects a fearful languor into Phaedra ’s limbs. The virus of Venus that flows in her blood weighs her down. She writhes, she burns. Her body possesses or is possessed by an unbearable gravity that pulls her earthwards. Languor is her affective response to the exitlessness of existence, to the fact of being chained to herself. The experience of languor is a bodily response to facticity, of the body being coursed through by a desire that is felt as alien, the virus of Venus in the veins. This desire overtakes me and slows me down, inducing a languid sluggishness, a lethargy, a creeping inertia, a sort of Trägheit—which is Freud’s word for describing the death-drive, that cosmic-sounding force that provides a compelling analogue to the world of Phaedra ’s experience. Languor makes me an enigma to myself. I find myself enchained to a facticity whose very nearness makes me lose focus and unable to catch my breath. I burn, breathless, in my languor. This experience is wonderfully described by Augustine in Confessions, 68 book 10, where he is agonizing about the virtue involved in the sensual pleasure of religious music. He writes, and think here of Phaedra’s sense of being watched by God, “But do you, O Lord my God, graciously hear me, and turn your gaze upon me, and see me, and have mercy upon me, and heal me. For in your sight I have become a question to myself and that is my languor (mihi quaestio factus sum et ipse est languor meus”. Augustine’s words are cited here in Jean-François Lyotard’s remarkable, and remarkably obscure, posthumously published La confession d’Augustin, an extremely Christian text for such an apparent pagan. My languor is the question that I have become for myself in relation to the presentabsent Deus absconditus who watches me, who may heal...


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