Academic journal article French Forum

Subjective Dispersion in Iphigenie or the Unbearable Fullness of being.(Critical Essay)

Academic journal article French Forum

Subjective Dispersion in Iphigenie or the Unbearable Fullness of being.(Critical Essay)

Article excerpt

Racine's Iphigenie (1674) is a drama of anticipation in excess. With the gods' all-powerful yet undisclosed will hanging over them, this tragedy's characters stumble in the dark, interrogating their destinies in a present moment overfilled with potential, on the cusp of the future. In typically Racinian fashion, they find their circumstances unbearable, so filled are they with a strong yet vague sense of what is to come. As tensions mount, the waiting leads to confusion, to experiential saturation, and eventually to the dispersion of identities. Among Racine s secular tragedies, Iphigenie evokes most poignantly the human predicament of being caught between knowledge and ignorance, between awareness of the weight of the gods' wishes and obliviousness to what will become of the situation at hand.

The Greek fleet, ready to embark on the war against Troy, is held in check by an inert sea and sky. An oracular pronouncement has informed the Greek nation and their king Agamemnon that the blood of Helene must be spilled, in the person of Iphigenie in order for the spell that has stilled the bay of Aulis to be broken. While the oracle seems to require the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenie, it will eventually be revealed that Eriphile, daughter of Helenie and Thesee and thus a kind of substitute Iphigenie, will serve as the chosen sacrificial lamb. Her death will appease the gods and set the war machine in motion. But this revelation occurs only in the final scene of the tragedy. In the events leading up to this sacrifice, everyone onstage is equally in the dark about what the gods have decreed.

Pregnant with a vague but strong sense of what is to come, Agamemnon, Clytemnestre, Achille, Eriphile, and Iphigenie desperately try to articulate their experience through language and, when language fails them, to project elements of themselves into the world around them.

Blindly grasping for answers and sounding their future, Racine's dramatis personce function as vessels for the heavy burden of human responsibility in a world dominated by invisible, transcendent forces. Filled to overflowing with their tragic situation, they perform a drama of human pain and radical uncertainty at the threshold between the terrestrial and the transcendent, between self and others, between responsibility and powerlessness, and between knowledge and its absence.

Wandering in the Dark

Iphigenie starts on a note of ambiguity, in a crepuscular scene of two characters, Agamemnon and Arcas, searching themselves and for each other. From the outset, nothing is self-evident, and Arcas must make an effort to recognize his king:

C'est vous-meme, Seigneur! Quel important besoin 
Vous a fait devancer l'Aurore de si loin? 
A peine un faible jour vous eclaire et me guide. 
Vos yeux seuls et les miens sont ouverts dans 1'Aulide. (1) 

Dialogue and action begin at the liminal moment of dawn, a transitional temporality that stretches the time unity, raising the question of whether it is the day before or the fatal day at hand. Arcas and his sovereign converse at the outset of the play in an in-between state from which they interrogate their own situations and destinies. As Arcas points out, they occupy a privileged position in comparison to the rest of their social collectivity: they are out and about while the rest of the city, and even Neptune (1.1.9), the god who is keeping the Greek army in port, sleeps peacefully, unaware of the thoughts that trouble Agamemnon. In spite of the vigilance that distinguishes them from their fellow citizens, these characters undergo the pain and uncertainty of talking about and examining their lives during this shadowy break of day.

Still, at this stage of events, language is working reasonably well for Agamemnon, who as we find out later has not always had such an easy time giving voice to his thoughts and emotions. …

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