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  • Racine, Oedipus, and Absolute Fantasies*
  • Mitchell Greenberg (bio)

Tout mythe se rapporte à l’origine. Toute question d’origine ne saurait ouvrir que sur un mythe [Every myth points back to an origin. Any questioning of origins necessarily opens onto myth].

—Jean-Paul Valabrega, Phantasme, mythe, corps et sens

Ainsi l’itinéraire de la psychanalyse freudienne est-il celui d’une recherche qui . . . se fait attentive à ce qui du corps réside dans les mots, s’inscrit dans les traces, reste gravé en mémoire au point de n’apparaître que comme réminiscence [Thus the itinerary of Freudian psychoanalysis would be a quest for . . . what of the body resides in words, is inscribed in traces, or remains engraved in memory to such an extent that it only can reappear as reminiscence].

—Pierre Fédida, “L’anatomie dans la psychanalyse”

Something happened in the seventeenth century. Somethings in this particularly conflicted period radically altered the ways in which human subjectivity was created and internalized to produce what in our late twentieth century we have come to call modernity. Despite the different and often contradictory inflections we like to give it, it now seems fairly certain that there was a “crisis of the seventeenth century,” a crisis that was traumatic and that was marked, most significantly for our purposes at least, by an altering of subjective sensibility.

In an ever-crescendoing leitmotiv from Machiavelli to Montaigne, from Richelieu to Louis XIV, from Olivares to James I, we hear echoing across Europe the same strident clamor. An anxious, pervasive suspicion that the order of things was out of kilter, that in fact the world was sinking into disorder, seems to dominate European thought in the first half of the century. 1 The fear of chaos, especially in societies whose past has been grounded in rigid hierarchical structures, is obviously exacerbated in periods of great [End Page 40] social change. Nevertheless, if we are to believe those political theorists influenced by the work of Freud, this fear, although enflamed by real experience of social unrest, reaches well beyond the actuality of a particular historical event and finds its terrifying power in the most archaic strata of the human psyche. “All civilization,” writes Eugène Enriquez,

is a struggle against chaos. Not against chaos as it might or might not have actually existed in prehistoric times, but against the phantasm of a primordial chaos, of a primeval disorder, of an immixture, of the undifferentiated, against an ordinary violence. . . . Chaos is the constantly retreating horizon in front of which all social organization and institutions are constructed. It returns us to our ancestral fear. We embrace any and all protection against it.


The stately image of Classical France, therefore, an image to which we have become accustomed by almost two hundred years of academic history and which finds its most paradigmatic icon in the tragic production of Racine, tends to obscure a reality of almost constant social and religious trauma. For the purposes of my discussion, I would like to return to Racine, who is perhaps the most prominent representative of the aesthetic and ethical tradition of classicism, which, perfected in France in the mid-1600s, will go on to colonize European ethics and aesthetics into the eighteenth century. Despite the radical changes wrought by political, industrial, philosophical, and psychoanalytical revolutions, classicism, through its corollary myth of the unitary ego, continues to haunt our own inabilities to live unneurotically the various drives, contradictions, identifications, and projections that continually tell us that we are not one but many.

A central paradox exists at the heart of any discussion of Racinian dramaturgy. While the tragic dilemma of Racine’s theater is profoundly anchored in the passionate, forbidden sexuality of its characters, passions that are inextricably tied to the desiring body, this body is absent, banished from the lexical construction of the Racinian text. How are we to understand the conundrum of a theater that, more than any other, presents incestuous sexual desire and its frustration as the enchafed crucible of tragedy, when the crucible itself has been exiled from the field of representation? In its plots and peripeteia, Racine’s theater ingeniously reconfigures how his protagonists...