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  • The Cornelian Ethics of Flight and the Case of Horace
  • Nina Ekstein

Flight is a simple dramatic action, one that lends itself to any number of different plots. Its implied movement can be represented on stage or merely recounted. So common is it that the words fuite and fuir appear in every one of Corneille’s 32 plays, from as infrequently as twice to as many as 32 times.1 The two terms belong to a broad semantic network including retraite, éviter, dérober, échapper, partir, quitter, abandonner, but differ in their suggestion of abrupt, precipitous movement as well as the element of fear implied. Furetière begins his definition of fuir with “Tascher d’éviter un péril en s’en éloignant à force de jambes.” The next sentence, however, immediately ties the term to issues of morality: “Les braves aiment mieux périr que fuir d’une bataille.” Thus a common, if at times startling, action has inherent ethical ramifications. Indeed, so central is morality to flight that a careful examination of the words’ occurrences throughout Corneille’s œuvre allows the construction of a Cornelian ethics of flight, one whose rules are applied consistently throughout his plays. I propose to develop such a Cornelian ethics of flight and to examine a sole, glaring exception: Horace, a figure whose ambiguity has given rise to both diverse and contradictory interpretations.2

The rules governing flight are not overly complex. Two issues are central to this ethics: gender and heroism. As we shall see, the rules are often not the same for men and for women. As far as heroism is concerned, itself a gendered concept, there is a deep-rooted antagonism between heroism and flight.

First and foremost, it is morally unacceptable for a male to flee a confrontation with another male. This preeminent rule is central to any notion of [End Page 485] heroism and concerns only men. Flight is completely dishonorable in such circumstances, (as when Phinée flees Persée in Andromède [5.5] or when Dorante hastily abandons marriage, home, and father in the action bridging Le Menteur and La Suite du Menteur). It follows logically then that one male forcing another male to flee constitutes an essentially heroic action (such as Rodrigue’s prowess causing the Mores to flee in Le Cid [4.3]). In a similar vein, standing one’s ground and refusing to flee is coded positively (as when Polyeucte rejects Néarque’s advice to flee the site of the Roman altar [Polyeucte 2.6] or when Cinna refuses Émilie’s entreaties to flee Auguste’s summons at the end of the first act of Cinna). Corneille’s men who flee confrontation deserve to be pursued (for example, Pompée’s allies, as César tells Cléopâtre: “En quelques lieux qu’on fuie, il me faut y courir” [4.3.1331]).3 Finally, returning after fleeing (as do Prusias and Flaminius in Nicomède [5.8] and Maxime in Cinna [5.3]) makes partial amends for the original shameful flight.

Second, while fuite is dishonorable, fleeing a negative is coded positively. Such flight is largely, but not exclusively, a female domain. Sophonisbe will do anything to “fuir l’indignité” of being brought to Rome as a spoil of war (Sophonisbe 3.6.1088); Héraclius and Pulchérie flee “à l’égal de la mort” a union between them which they know to be incestuous (Héraclius 1.1.76), and Camille urges the eponymous Othon to flee in order to avoid attack (4.6.1470). Alice Rathé notes an interesting all-male variant of flight from a negative: Clindor in L’Illusion comique, Dorante in La Suite du Menteur, and Don Sanche in Don Sanche d’Aragon substitute fuite for parricide (“Tentation” 320). Whether out of anger (Clindor), revolt (Dorante), or shame (Don Sanche), the men bolt instead of acting on their feelings toward their father more directly.4

Third, no stigma is attached to fleeing a confrontation if the one who flees is a woman. Cornélie flees her husband Pompée’s killers, as Pompée had urged before being killed (“Songe à prendre la fuite afin de...


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