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Review of Racevskis, Roland. Tragic Passages: Jean Racine’s Art of the Threshold. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8387-5684-3. Pp. 221. $47.50.

Article Citation: 
XV, 1 (2013): 103–105
Author: 
Ellen R. Welch
Article Text: 

Racevskis’s excitingly fresh interpretation of Racine’s secular tragedies focuses on their “liminary esthetics”—that is, their exploration of “identity in suspension. . . . the human predicament of being caught in between states of being” (15). Drawing insights from Derrida, Nietzsche, and especially Heidegger, the author identifies a “poetics of the threshold” in Racine’s plays and convincingly argues that the tragedies’ distinctive quality lies in their illumination of the psychological anguish of characters self-consciously poised between past and future, action and inaction, subjection and sovereignty, life and death.

The book’s nine short chapters analyze Racine’s nine secular tragedies from La Thébaïde to Phèdre, examining their dramatization of characters poised at the thresholds of power, love, and existence itself. These thought-provoking readings exemplify Racevskis’s call for a flexible approach to Racine’s work that recognizes each play’s singularity while exploring their shared engagement with the problem of liminality. Among the book’s rich and varied discussions, Chapter 3’s exploration of “temporal construction” in Andromaque is one of the stand-outs. Here, Racevskis breaks from traditional interpretations emphasizing the way characters are haunted by the past and shifts his focus, subtly but crucially, to how they express the “paltriness of the present” (81) and the “radical ambiguity of the future” (90). In addition to teasing out Andromaque’s complex temporal structure, this reading brilliantly analyzes how the play imparts feelings of terrifying uncertainty to its spectators. Indeed, throughout the book, Racevskis makes the case that “in-betweenness” not only serves as a major fictional theme but also generates the plays’ emotional effect on audiences. For example, he usefully compares La Thébaïde with Rodogune to illustrate, by way of contrast with Corneille’s depiction of power’s dangers, how Racine derives terror from its revelation of the throne as an unresolved void. Other readings elegantly synthesize analyses of Racine’s poetic language with attention to the plays’ inscription of dramatic space, time, and movement; this is especially true for the chapters devoted to Britannicus and Bérénice, which demonstrate how the idea of the threshold permeates all aspects of Racine’s dramaturgy up to and including set design.

Racevskis’s stated ambition in tackling all of Racine’s tragedies in this streamlined book is to articulate a new basis for understanding the coherence of the playwright’s work. While the book accomplishes this goal, one drawback to its comprehensiveness is that it sometimes leaves the reader wanting more on a particular play. For example, Chapter 4’s skillful reading of Néron’s court in Britannicus as a Foucauldian panopticon concludes with a tantalizing gesture to the thresholds occupied by an excluded Britannicus and imprisoned Junie (103), leaving the reader eager to know how Racevskis would interpret the play’s expression of these characters’ suspended states of being. In other respects, the completist approach is a strength. By proceeding chronologically through the tragedies, Racevskis succeeds in demonstrating the evolution of Racine’s liminary aesthetics throughout his career. The thresholds structuring earlier plays often delimit a space of worldly power. By the later tragedies (Mithridate, Iphigénie, and Phèdre), the characters’ articulation of their suspended state points toward the “ontological threshold” between existence and non-existence. In these chapters, the book also returns to a Heideggerian interrogation of poetic language, as when Chapter 9 considers Phèdre’s sustained examination of language’s failure to communicate innermost truths. The book concludes with a brief analysis of the resolution of the liminary aesthetic in sacred tragedies Esther and Athalie, where ambivalence dissolves under the certainty provided by an omnipotent Judeo-Christian god. This coda effectively throws into relief the secular plays’ reliance on the aesthetic of the threshold, which, Racevskis argues, is especially compelling for today’s audiences who are grappling with the biological and ecological limits of existence.

Precisely by setting aside well-worn, more narrowly historical con­cerns for Racine’s relationship to Jansenist theology or the development of French national consciousness, Tragic Passages succeeds in articulating the play’s relevance for modern audiences and opens new lines of inquiry without foreclosing the ambiguity of the plays’ meanings. Very occasion­ally, the desire to liberate the plays from narrow historicism goes a little too far. For example, I wonder whether “self-actualization” is really the best term to designate the state to which Racine’s characters aspire, loaded as it is with the particular assumptions of twentieth-century American psy­chology. Yet such a minor anachronism is a small price to pay for Tragic Passages’ refreshing point of view on Racine’s tragic œuvre. Throughout the book’s pages, Racevskis articulates theoretically sophisticated readings with such lucidity that they could be employed in many undergraduate classrooms. This is no small advantage for a book that aims and succeeds at offering richly insightful new ways to appreciate Racine’s works in our era.

Ellen R. Welch, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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