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Myths of Mixture in Phèdre and the Sun King's Assimilation Policy in the New World Sara E. Melzer MODERN READERS OF RACINE'S PHÈDRE often view this text as if it were a marble statue in a museum. They admire its perfectly sculpted surface, but often find it remote and inaccessible. Roland Barthes sees Racinian drama as foreign: "Comme pour le théâtre antique, ce théâtre nous concerne bien plus par son étrangeté que par sa familiarit é: son rapport à nous, c'est sa distance.'" Similarly, the twentieth-century Russian poet Osip Mandelstam described the distance he experienced while viewing Phèdre: "The theater of Racine! A mighty curtain/Divides us from the other world;/Between that world and us a curtain hangs/And stirs with its deep furrows.'" The element most frequently cited to account for the "curtain" that separates us from Racine's theater is his use of myth.3 In Phèdre the mythical stories of bestiality and monster slayings, for example, are so fantastic that they distance the reader. How are we to account for the puzzling fact that Phèdre's mother, Pasiphaé, had an all-consuming lust for a bull, a lust so desperate that she asked Daedalus, an artist-craftsman, to construct for her the ultimate in designer wear—a cow frame—to seduce the bull? And what about the Minotaur, the monster bom from this unusual sexual union? To the extent that scholars have asked these questions, they answer them with general observations that Pasiphaé's unnatural, perverse love dooms her daughter to fall into an equivalently forbidden kind of love—incest.4 But is there not something more specific to the particular nature of Pasiphaé's mating with a bull that would help us understand this bizarre myth? And how is this mythic story connected to its sequel, where the Minotaur is placed in a labyrinth and terrorizes the city? Thésée, with the aid of Ariane, enters the labyrinth and slays the Minotaur. This incident is viewed as the founding act of civilization. The narrative connection between these two sequences is clear: the first story of bestiality sets up the condition for its second part by producing a monster sufficiently worthy for Thésée to demonstrate his heroic prowess by killing it. But the logic behind this narrative is not so evident. Why is the glorious story of Athens' founding act linked to the inglorious story of Pasiphaé's 72 Summer 1998 Melzer shameful, unnatural love? Or put differently, why is the problem of the origin of civilization seen through the myth of bestiality? Moreover, why is the killing of the Minotaur viewed as the founding act of civilization? Although numerous critics have noted that Thésée is the founder, no one to my knowledge has asked why. What is it about the Minotaur that justifies its slayer's sacred status? Thésée had killed many monsters in the past: "Les monstres étouffés et les brigands punis/Procuste, Cercyon, et Scirron, et Sinnis,/Et les os dispersés du géant d'Epidaure" (1.1.79-81). But none of these slayings confers on Thésée the elevated stature of civilization's founder. The Minotaur is distinctive because it is a cross-bred monster: half-human, half-animal. Similarly, the play's Pasiphaé myth can be best understood by viewing it as the story of cross-breeding between the animal and the human. My argument is that these myths in Phèdre, written in 1677, are about the mixing of species and, like many myths, express unmentionable truths that cannot be expressed directly in logical discourse. But to what dark truth could they refer? I argue that they reflect the fears of the Sun King's policy of assimilation , formalized in 1663. Assimilation is one possible response to the problems inherent in all nation building. Nations expand to increase their strength. But expansion brings in alien elements, thus jeopardizing its unity and purity. How does a nation, then, deal with these aliens? One solution is to expel or expunge them; another is to enslave or proclaim them non-persons; and yet...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-0234
Print ISSN
0014-0767
Pages
pp. 72-81
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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