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Book Reviews -- Gaines (2010) and Racevskis (2008)

Article Citation: 
Book Reviews--Cahiers XIII, 1 (2010) 177-179 & 179–182
Michael Call (Gaines); Ellen R. Welch (Racevskis)
Article Text: 


Gaines, James F.  Molière and Paradox: Skepticism and Theater in the Early Modern Age. Tübingen: Narr, 2010.  ISBN 978-3-8233-6577-8.  Pp. 151.  49€

Daniel Mornet commented over sixty years ago, “Que de Molières en effet dont chacun est la négation d’un autre Molière.”  James Gaines’s latest and welcome addition to this parade of Molières provides not only an additional perspective on France’s most famous comedic playwright, but also differentiates itself precisely through an aversion to categorical négation.  Gaines persuasively argues that Molière’s theater is built upon paradox and a skeptical resistance to supposedly self-evident truths, combating dangerous tendencies towards dogmatism with a search for acatalepsia, the Classical skeptic’s freedom from entrenched opinions.  The resulting study sheds light on Molière’s dramaturgy and on the intellectual climate and tradition in which the plays were written and performed.

Gaines’s focus on paradox necessarily brings him into extensive dialogue with Robert McBride’s landmark analysis The Sceptical Vision of Molière: A Study in Paradox (1977).  Drawing predominantly on the works of La Mothe le Vayer , McBride described Molière’s comedic “double vision” as the maintaining of a certain critical distance, reflecting the traditional skeptic suspension of belief.  If McBride’s skepticism was a rather loosely defined philosophical attitude, Gaines on the other hand observes that traditional skepticism also entailed precise rhetorical techniques, or modes of argumentation and reasoning, specific examples of which abound within Molière’s plays.  Drawing on a variety of texts, Gaines traces Molière’s interactions with skeptical rhetoric and thought to a wide network of thinkers, from contemporaries like Gassendi to Classical authors such as Sextus Empiricus.  In addition to revisiting major plays like Dom Juan and Les Femmes savantes, Gaines expands the examination of Molière’s skepticism to include works not addressed by McBride.  While the most notable additions are chapters consecrated to L’Ecole des femmes and Le Malade imaginaire, Gaines also includes shorter studies of Les Précieuses ridicules, L’Ecole des maris, L’Avare, and Le Bourgeois gentilhomme.  Gaines’s analysis of some of these plays is fairly rapid, and indeed his observations concerning these two latter plays merit further expansion.  However, taken as a whole these studies demonstrate convincingly Molière’s pervasive use of paradox and open up useful avenues for further research. 

As might be anticipated in a study on skepticism, the chapter devoted to Dom Juan is of particular significance.  The Spanish nobleman (and ostensibly Molière’s most famous would-be skeptic) certainly afforded the playwright a chance to explore skepticism in its more extreme forms.  But in Gaines’s view, Dom Juan’s hyperbolic doubt actually places him outside of the skeptical current, and he describes the grand seigneur méchant homme as “a faux pyrrhonien in the long line of false précieuses, spiritual directors, gentlemen, and other bogus figures in the Molière canon” (56).  Not that Sganarelle fares any better: while McBride had viewed the valet as an embodiment of ultimately wise foolishness, Gaines portrays him as a “[f]ailed Aristotelian” (72) whose efforts at establishing premises from which to understand the universe are ultimately as doomed as his master’s.  As Gaines notes, “Molière effectively clears the field of all but the suspension of judgment” (73).

The rapprochement that Gaines effectuates between Molière and skepticism in its Classical and seventeenth-century manifestations works particularly well for Dom Juan, L’Ecole des femmes, and Le Malade imaginaire.  The critical approach, though, is not always evenly applied, as certain chapters appeal less specifically to rigorously skeptical modes of discourse than others.  This is not necessarily to be regretted—while the chapters on Le Misanthrope and Tartuffe, for example,examine the plays within a more widely-construed framework, they present invaluable insights and constitute excellent close readings.

Given the extent of Gaines’s research into the history of skepticism and the study’s distinction between various strains of philosophical thought (including Pyrrhonism, Academic skepticism, and Lucretian Epicureanism), an expanded introduction could have been beneficial for the uninitiated in justifying some of the more subtle differentiations that the study establishes.  This is particularly apparent when, in his own seeming paradox, Gaines dismisses the skeptical credentials of the one professional Pyrrhonist philosopher in Molière’s theater: Marphurius from Le Mariage forcé.  While this move is justifiable, a more thorough explanation of the various forms of Classical and early modern skepticism, and how these differ from scholastic argumentation or even Cartesian models, would help the reader situate more precisely Molière’s engagement with and within this complex philosophical tradition.

Gaines is admirably careful in the overarching conclusions that he draws, noting both the presence of skeptical modes of argumentation and the satire of these modes in Molière’s work.  If paradox represents a typically skeptical way of dealing with the world, it also becomes a way to surpass philosophical strictures.  As Gaines writes, “Paradox for [Molière] meant not confounding good sense and making it kneel in reverence to elitist revelation, even to one with the label of Pyrrhonism or skepticism” (147).  In a similar fashion, Gaines’s study also demonstrates a commendable mix of theoretical direction and good sense, usefully illuminating the playwright’s appropriation of skeptical philosophy while avoiding a reductive reading of the plays that would make them mere pièces à thèse.

Michael Call, Brigham Young University


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.

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 oeuvre. 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


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

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