- La Voix racinienne dans les romans du dix-huitième siècle by Catherine Ramond
Catherine Ramond’s work has its roots in an apparent eighteenth-century paradox. On the one hand the novel, a still-experimental, variegated genre, develops and flourishes outwith the constraints of Aristotelian rules. On the other, the works themselves are filled with allusions to the tragedies of Racine, often seen as the purest form of those same artificial and academic constraints. One explanation is that Racine’s tragedies remained a highly visible and admired feature of the eighteenth-century cultural landscape: not only were they widely performed, but they had influential admirers, being considered for example by Diderot to be the most sublime poetry, and by Voltaire to be not just this but also the most perfect expression of the French language. Racine’s plays also contained plots, characters, ideas, emotions, and expressions that resurfaced in the form of quotation, allusion, or parody; unsurprisingly, past critics have detected this presence in novels such as Manon Lescaut, La Nouvelle Héloïse, and Les Liaisons dangereuses. Fittingly, [End Page 388] therefore, Ramond begins with an account of some of the different ways in which an often idealized Racine crops up, most notably in fiction or on the stage. In the following chapter she explores some of the methodological issues and practical problems that complicate any intertextual study: for example, Racine’s tragedies themselves teem with borrowings, influences, and allusions. If no author is an island, one must always explore the European cultural continent beyond: as Barthes put it, every text is an intertext. Furthermore, many readers will be blind to such allusions, or find them unnecessarily speculative. This health warning given, Ramond turns to the elegiac strands in Racine, notably in Bérénice, that found an echo in the eighteenth century, and then to the ironic or ambiguous use of this material, notably in Les Liaisons dangereuses. There follow chapters on the linked concepts of tragedy and pathos, with Racine’s capacity to arouse the emotions making a convenient bridge with the following age; the relationship of Diderot to Iphigénie is particularly highlighted. Two short final chapters deal with a perceived nostalgia for Racine in the post-Revolutionary period (for such as Sénac de Meilhan and Mme de Staël), and then with the concept of interiority, where Racine’s emphasis on the emotions is demonstrated as important for an understanding of the celebrated Lettres of Julie de Lespinasse. Inevitably, some of Ramond’s assertions merit further debate, such as the suggestion that Bérénice, so influential in the eighteenth century, is an almost marginal work in the Racinian corpus and that its Preface is an anti-Aristotelian manifesto, not to speak of the comfortable, widely accepted generalization (p. 11) that in Racine ‘la passion irrésistible emporte les personnages hors d’eux-mêmes, comme peut le faire la folie’. (Andromaque? Junie? Iphigénie?) Blinkered dix-septiémiste quibbles such as these aside, this book is serious of purpose and wide of scope, is painstakingly researched, and will interest those to whom the subject matter appeals.