April 12, 2009

Dramaturgy Part 2: Jansenism

(This is part 2 of a package of dramaturgical material for Phèdre, written, collected and edited by Megan Cohen and Michael Paller of the American Conservatory Theater.)

Racine was orphaned in his early childhood and brought up in the Jansenist Port-Royal, an abbey in Versailles devoted to a controversial sect of Christianity. The Jansenists had a pessimistic vision of human nature, emphasizing original sin, and saw people, according to scholar Philip Lewis, as "ravaged by egocentric lust."

In the landscape of 17th Century French Catholicism, Jansenism was a stern reform movement, which splintered off in opposition to the Jesuits' doctrinal compromises and devout humanism. In The Classical Moment, scholar Martin Turnell describes the differences:

The teaching of the Jesuits laid great stress on the importance of free will, on the co-operation of the human will with Divine grace in the work of the Redemption. Man had fallen, but his nature was not completely ruined by the Fall, for his sin had been redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ.

This was in essence a Christian optimism. It encouraged men to hope and to place confidence in their own actions… this view encouraged corporate worship and curbed the vagaries of religious experience. It stood for authority and discipline; it was essentially a reasonable, moderate outlook.

The most important aspect of Jansenism was its view of grace and original sin… in practice it approximated to the Lutheran belief that man's nature had been completely ruined by the Fall… Jansenism emphasized man's isolation and minimized the normative influence of the Christian society.

It was in essentials a pessimistic doctrine which placed man at the mercy of his passions and this accounts for the streak of fatalism which runs all through Racine's poetry. It was also a highly introspective religion, and whatever the intentions of Jansenist theologians, it undoubtedly exalted the importance of the individual conscience at the expense of external authority.

In the Jansenist view, those who are not lucky enough to be chosen for salvation are damned, regardless of their personal intent. This led Nancy Mitford to describe the Jansenists in The Sun King (her history of Louis XIV's reign) as "a gloomy sect" in comparison to the Jesuits, who she names "supple, adroit men of the world."

Despite their despairing view of mankind, the Jansenists were not entirely without hope. They sought a balance between the Roman Catholic belief in individual free will and the Calvinist notion of total predestination, seeing salvation as something that required choice and pursuit in addition to supernatural determinism. To attain deliverance, the lucky chosen ones must take individual action to follow a righteous path.

The followers of Jansenism were primarily educated, often upwardly mobile, and part of the movement's appeal lay in this focus on individual conscience and freedom of thought, as opposed to placing faith in an absolutist power. The Jansenists described God as both absent and present: elusive, but knowable through faith, helping those who are both destined to find grace and actively choose to seek him out.

Racine disagreed with Jansenist leaders on the function of literature. While the chief spokesmen of the movement advocated distance from the sphere of arts and letters and from polite secular culture, seeing such worldly pursuits as wicked and impious, Racine made his career penning tragedies where the social concerns and pagan cosmologies were far from the strict values of Jansenism.

However, Phèdre, his last secular play, marked a change in his opinions: in his Preface to the work, he describes the piece as morally valuable, and worthy of attention and approval from his Jansenist friends and colleagues.

In A New History of French Literature (1994), Lewis illustrates the Jansenist underpinnings of Phèdre:

"Phèdre, the last and most deeply passionate heroine of Racine's secular tragedies, plays out the possibility that victims of the Fall - even those striving to be just - could be doomed to die, without grace, in unremitted sin.

However, the farthest-reaching Jansenist motif in Phèdre lies not in the deeply tragic heroine's tortured conscience, but in the play's anguished revelation, communicated to Theseus by both Phèdre and Hippolyte, of a receding divinity - emblematized by the defeated sea monster - that will not reappear, that will remain concealed and ineffable.

Posted by Alison Humphrey at April 12, 2009 03:05 PM