Notes for two Dissertations

1st subject

   Is it true that in Racine's tragedies the male roles are always made background roles and that all his plays that carry a man's name must always bear the name of the heroine?


1. More than anything Racine appears to be the supreme and infinitely varied painter of feminine love. The simmering sensitivity which made him the maddest of lovers in his dealings with women, the most passionate of subjects in his dealings with the king, in his dealings with men the most irritable, the most caustic, but also the best and most sensitive of men, in his dealings with God, the most ardent and the most exalted of believers, must in fact have given him a genuine intuition into the feminine character: Hermione, Andromache, Roxana, Monima, Berenice, Phaedra, Athalia seem at first to eclipse his heroes.

2. His woman's sensitivity on the other hand rather harmed his portrayal of masculine vigour. A Pyrrhus, an Antiochus, an Hippolytus, an Achilles even seem more charming to us, more sensitive and more tender than genuinely original and alive. But those are not Racine's only heroes. Orestes' passion, Nero's ferocity, Narcissus' baseness, Mithridates' genius, Agamemnon's nobility, Jehoiada's greatness are portrayed to us with truthfulness, variety and infinite force.
   In Racine there are only four tragedies that carry a man's name as their title: Alexander, Britannicus, Mithridate and Bajazeth. Alexander is certainly the hero, but dull in other respects, of the tragedy that bears his name. If Britannicus is not the principal character in Britannicus, it could be said that the hero is another man, Nero. Mithridate is perhaps even greater than Monima is refined, and even in Athalia we still do not know whether Jehoiada is a more magnificent character than Athalia.

2nd subject

   Discuss this assertion by Diderot: "Should I say it? Why not? sensibility is hardly the quality of a great genius; it is not his heart, it is his head that does everything."

1. Firstly this assertion appears to be frequently contradicted by the facts. The predominant quality of Racine is sensibility: "Racine, who has a taste for tears, will grapple with the veil of sister Lélie." "Racine loves God as he loved his mistresses." The effect of royal disfavour on Racine. Sensibility of Pascal, of Molière even, of Rousseau, of Alfred de Musset.

2. Poets of the past often found the very source of their genius in their sensibility. The work of Alfred de Musset is full of maxims that address this truth:

Ah! pound upon your heart, it is there you find genius.
The songs of despair are the most beautiful songs
And I know those of immortals that consist purely of sobs.

3. These maxims appear to us, it must be said, very exaggerated. The element of truth they contain is that which Horace has already expressed in his Poetic Arts: Si vis me flere, dolendum est primum ipsi tibi. Sensibility furnishes the very material of works of genius. A tragedy in which passion, an ode in which lyricism, an elegy in which sadness is created "from the head", as Diderot would have it, would bore us, would be cold and without truth. The heart has its own experience that Reason cannot supply.
   But pure sensibility that has not been introduced into a work by the intelligence will perhaps excite our emotion, never our admiration, nor the higher pleasures of the intelligence that a true work of art gives us by the way it presents to us that order, that meaning, that harmonious logic that is habitually hidden in life. Also it is the intelligence, Thought, that faithfully orders, organizes, binds, distills and elevates the indispensable materials furnished by sensibility. It is in this sense and with these restrictions that we must consider the opinion of Diderot.

Published in Les Années de collège de Marcel Proust, André Ferré, Gallimard, 1959.


Return to Front Page