Imitation, emulation and poetry in Racine


In the French seventeenth century, the treatment of ancient poetic sources was part of the invention process.

“It is necessary to taste these fruits ripened in the sun of the Great Century, where the juices coming from the depths of ancient tradition and Christian tradition were metamorphosed into honey”. (Roger Bastide).

Jean Racine (1639-1699) is certainly one of the great masters of modern theater and, together with Shakespeare, Corneille and Molière, he still represents an obligatory reference for those who wish to reconstruct the trajectory of the western dramatic arts.

Little or nothing is said about his ability to recycle the works of Greco-Latin Classic Antiquity in favor of a new dramatic art that emerges from the Renaissance and that develops until the present day. The ability to “recycle” or, simply, “allude” is not new, as some who systematically study the much publicized and revered intertextuality, the touchstone of postmodernity, can imagine.

For a long time, especially in the Romantic period, many authors were labeled as unoriginal and even plagiarists for taking motifs from the literate practices of Classical Antiquity and putting them at the service of an innovative poetics. Such vituperation, however, did not and does not have any theoretical scope, since what they did, when dealing with the ancient poetic source, was nothing more than applying certain ancient rhetorical concepts within the process of invention (influence) which, among other things, provided for the reuse of themes, according to categories specific to the contemporary paideia of the intended product.

It was not otherwise that romantic critics of the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries observed, for example, a persistent plagiarism by Gregório de Matos in relation to the poetry of Gôngora, or even demanded and demand a certain “originality” from poets prior to the XNUMXth century. For his part, romantic French criticism does not spare him, for example, the playwright M. Auguste Vacquerie proposes, among numerous disqualifications, that Shakespeare “this is a chêne, / Racine is a pieu".

This is also Victor Hugo's opinion, despite praising certain aspects of Esther e Athalie, is emphatic in refusing him dramatic talent. Thus, the metaphor presented, far beyond minimizing Racine's qualities, disqualifies them, proposing them as shallow, limited, superficial, and, fundamentally, sterile, when compared to those of Shakespeare's oak which, as a rule, is also the depositary of commonplaces from the same source of Antiquity, especially if one considers the Senecan coloring of his tragedies and other aspects of circumstances that surround the themes of his works, inserted in the Renaissance context.

Like the absolute majority of seventeenth-century authors, Racine is considered by nineteenth-century authors and critics to be minor, unimportant and inept when compared to the classical masters of modernity, among which the author of Julius Caesar stands out. That is, the XNUMXth century read and reads the XNUMXth century under the aegis of the deformity, excess and corruption of the XNUMXth and, in this way, it would be unlikely that a poet of that period could erect something new and worthy of being recognized, taken advantage of, or even reused by future generations within the scope of poetic invention. Furthermore, the proposed criteria for exclusion are absolutely innocuous from the moment they are based, romantically, on the originality that Shakespeare would have, and others like Racine would not.

Such critical inferences, however, sound absolutely unreasonable today, if not anachronistic, since concepts of originality and plagiarism were not part of the rhetorical-poetic program of those who proposed it for pleasure and utility (sweet and useful) the elaboration of texts that are conventionally called literary. And this, both in Greece in the fifth century BC, in Rome in the Augustan century, and in France at the court of Louis XIV.

These periods, separated for so long, keep in themselves interesting approximations with regard to the production of texts which were relegated, or rather, forgotten by distinguished masters. imitation (mimesis, imitation), emulation (zelosis, aemulation), originality and plagiarism are concepts that should be in the hands of anyone who wants to observe poetry and prose before the evil century.

If he didn't, certainly, his own time would bury him and we – far away – wouldn't be able to taste his ingenuity (ingenious) and art (ars).

Racine's endemic proximity to Classical Antiquity, in turn, can be gauged not only by the imitation and emulation proposed in Phaedra, Andromache, La Thébaïde, Alexandre le Large, britannicus, etc., but also and, more precisely, by his sparse writings (Cf. Miscellaneous Oeuvres. Gallimard, La Pleiade. 1952.), where there are careful and precious notes of his readings of Homer (Iliad e Odyssey); of Pindar (Olympic); of Aeschylus (The Coeferes); of Sophocles (Ajax, Electra, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus in Colon e The Trachinias); of Euripides (Medea, Hippolytus, The Bacchae, The Phoenicians e Iphigenia in Aulis); of Plato (Banquet, Apology of Socrates, Fedon, Phaedrus, Gorgias, Republic e The laws); of Menander; by Aristotle (Poetics e Nicomachean ethics) and Plutarch. Not to mention, of course, the remarks made to Latin authors such as Horace (odes e Satire); Cicero (From Inuentione, Of Oratory, Epistolae ad Atticum, Epistolae ad familias, tusculanas e De Divination) Seneca (From Clementia, Of breuitate uitae), Pliny the Elder (Natural history) and Pliny the Younger (Cf. Knight, RC – Racine et la Grèce).

This vast legacy (copy rerum) erudite could not fail to serve his craft. Racine is a classic to the last consequences, visceral, therefore nothing would be more grateful to him than imitating what Greek and Latin cultures produced. Just as it was licit for Seneca to elaborate his Medea, your Fedra, your Oedipus Rex, after, of course, the manifestation of Euripides and Sophocles; Racine found himself absolutely authorized by tradition to carry out his emulation project.

However, for us, post-romantic people, the word imitate carries with it a pejorative sense, after all, almost everyone intends to be original and creative in our time, and this was, without a doubt, an imperative in the XNUMXth century. However, for the ancients, originality was a possibility, perhaps, only divine, since the origin is everything that there is nothing before. In this way, the gods would have the original function, the principle, the Arch. Everything that follows the principle goes through imitation and, in this sense, the concept acquires a propaedeutic and didactic function. After all, there is nothing safer than saying that any educational process observes imitation. As Aristotle proposes in Poetics, men imitate because they delight in imitating and delight in imitating (cf. Poetics, IV).

However, one cannot confuse imitation with slavish copying. The act of imitating presupposes a process whose end resides in the imitator overcoming the imitated, the emulation (aemulation, zelosis). And such overcoming depends exclusively on ingenuity (ingenious), a concept that predicts the innate and acquired capacity, simultaneously, which sometimes presupposes a specific skill in the face of poetic material, sometimes an ability to recognize technical procedures that must be used properly and decorously.

Hence, one can observe the distinction between originality and novelty. Racine, certainly, did not seek romantic originality, however, he intended novelty. Being innovative represented the apex of his role as a poet. And, indeed, it was. Because, appropriating, for example, classic themes, and even complete works like Phaedra, managed to adapt them to the universe of France at the court of Louis XIV. Note the assertion by José Eduardo do Prado Kelly (Fedra e Hippolytus. Tragedies of Euripides, Seneca and Racine. 1985): “By reproaching the poet for having painted with old courtly names of the Sun King, the critic justifies it by reflecting that all theater represents contemporary customs and by observing that the Court was the place where the art of living together was developed. reduced to 'maximums' and erected itself in precepts. Racine's merit would have been to impose on his dramas "the bienséances of the society".

The novelty in Racine, therefore, indicates the figuration of old elements, observed in the light of rhetoric (without limitations imposed by romanticism in which there is the subjectivation of elocution, and, consequently, its use implies a limited and pejorative hue of the art of good speaking and writing well), associated with the customs of the time. Philip Butler (Classicisme et Barroque dans l'oeuvre by Racine) further states that in Racine's work, rhetoric occupies a prominent place and assumes the particular role of stylization in which the characters' speeches relate words and acts.

In this way, this innovative style aims at translating the intelligible face of the soul movements displayed in the text and, never, just, at presenting a static and instantaneous photo of the observable reality. This characteristic undoubtedly goes against the presumption of the existence of a baroque society that is subject and subjected to simulacrum, appearance and protocol (Cf. Gracián, Baltazar. Manual Oracle or El Discreto). The author asserts a need of time, temporal and dated by which the figurations should follow dictated rules. A stylistically carved label that should permeate courtly life and its inevitable allegory, the text produced.

Roger Bastide, precisely, establishes the synthesis when he says that Racine must be savored, in view of the observation of two complementary traditions: the classical and the Christian. That is, if, on the one hand, the author is moved by classical themes, on the other, they are at the service of a counter-reformist world. Thus, in the framework of Maravall (The culture of the Baroque), Racine’s text, as well as Quevedo’s, can serve to understand an era, however, without ever leaving aside “the stylistic and ideological factors rooted in the soil of a given historical situation”.

More than others in his time in France, Racine set aside the Aristotelian rules of dramatic composition and was interested only in a theory of dramatic composition aimed at emotion. Thus, the poetic spectacle of human frailty appears. The man drawn by the poet “is an individual in struggle, with all the entourage of evils that accompany the struggle, with possible gains that pain brings with it, more or less hidden. In the first place, the individual finds himself in internal combat with himself, the source of so much restlessness, care and even violence that from his interior sprout and are projected in his relationships with the world and with other men” (Maravall, JA op.cit.).

In fact, this observation of emotion as the central point of the composition means that, between the two possibilities of discourse argumentation, that is, ethics (ethos) and the pathetic (pathos), the author of Berenice choose the second. That is, everything in Racine is mediated by pathos, hence the excess of hyperbole, accumulations and gradations in the design of dramatic characters. Hence the so-called baroque excess. Even in what is seen as a possibility of the time, characteristic of the style, he follows something that is not from his time at the origin, but something explicit by a fundamentally Aristotelian rhetorical precept. (Cf. Aristotle. Rhetoric, II).

Racine, therefore, from the symmetrical disputes between Orestes and Pyrrhus, Agrippina's fluvial speeches, Burrhus' passionate supplications and Ulysses' accusations, in addition to representing a classical tradition that, apparently, will languish in the throes of the eighteenth century, contributes as a emulator, appropriating old drawings to portray the soul of the man of his century and a French culture of the XNUMXth.

* Paulo Martins Professor of Classical Letters at USP and author of Image and Power (Edusp) andRepresentation and its Limits (Edusp, in press) among others.

Originally published on Jornal da Tarde, Notebook for Saturday, April 24, 1999.


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