18 February 2010

Genette and Le Cid

My first thought in returning to literature was that I could reassess my view of Pierre Corneille, and I started doing that, but didn't get very far. For me the question was whether there is mainstream reading of the tragedies against which it's possible to pose a subversive view. Two of the plays I was looking at then were Le Cid and Horace.

I have now read Gérard Genette's essay "Vraisemblance and Motivation", which is obviously a major source of Jonathan Culler's thinking on the various ways in which fiction validates itself to the reader. Genette talks a lot about Balzac - the ways in which he mentions, in a way that suggests a shared understanding, the assumptions about society that are inherent in his novels. This is the part that was taken up and expanded by Culler

But before that he talks about Le Cid, and here is where there is more concern about the conventions of genre. There's an interesting quotation from René Rapin:

Truth only makes things the way they are, and vraisemblance makes them as they ought to be. Truth is almost always defective, due to the mixture of singular conditions that compose it. There is nothing born in the world that is not at some distance from the perfection of the idea from which it was born. One must seek for the originals and models in vraisemblance and the universal principles of things--where nothing material or individual enters in to corrupt them. (Reflexions sur la poetique (1674) 2.115-16)

That is very reminiscent of La Bruyere's comment that Racine described people as they are, while Corneille described them as they should be. I'm not sure who came first, but it's clear that Rapin is talking about vraisemblance as the appropriate aim of "la poetique" - in this case of Tragedy. This recognises the essential difference between untidy truth and carefully selected fiction.

Genette goes on to discuss ways in which this vraisemblance is negotiated. In the case of Le Cid there are a number of, sometimes conflicting, assumptions made about the appropriate behaviour of Chimene, which can be expressed as rules. I think it would be fair to say, though, that the rule that says "a daughter should not marry the man who killed her father" is a strong one. As is the rule that says "a king should punish a man who killed a respected adviser". Both of these rules are broken. From Culler we might say the reader/audience therefore needs to do more to reconcile (recuperate - I really need to settle on a term for this) the action. The play itself provides a justification for the king's failure to punish Le Cid. It's debatable, but it's open. The question of Chimene's action is harder, and it's up to the audience to provide some further justification. For example, when I recently read the play, it seemed likely that Don Gomes had been a pretty bad father, and Chimene might not miss him too much. That can be shocking and without going fully into "La Querelle" I can see that it could be useful to view the argument as a conflict of broken assumptions. Vraisemblance, as Rapin describes it, seems to have a limited range: stray too far from the assumptions we share, and you break the link with truth.

Vraisemblance, then, underlies the principles of French classical drama. The three unities were formal definitions of how truth can be represented, but bienséance, which is particularly at issue in Horace is much more slippery. Some time I'll look again at that play in the light of these ideas.

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