Racine and other familiar names

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September 2, 2017 by AK

Another excerpt from Charles Rosen’s 1997 NYRB article on La Fontaine and French prosody:

Most American and English students have a hard time understanding why Alfred de Musset literally fainted with ecstasy at the Comédie Française when he heard the line in Racine’s Phèdre:

La fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé.

No doubt, the idea that Phaedra’s parents were a man who now rules over Hell and a woman who had an amorous passion for a bull and gave birth to a monster has something to do with the dramatic force of the line, but its power for Musset came from the sonority…

I’ve tried searching for Musset, Racine, and the line above. So far, no success finding a reference to Musset’s experience at the theater. Most results seem to be related to this episode in Swann, the first part of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:

“You must conquer your vile taste for A. de Musset, Esquire… I am forced to admit, natheless,” he added graciously, “that he, and even the man Racine, did, each of them, once in his life, compose a line which is not only fairly rhythmical, but has also what is in my eyes the supreme merit of meaning absolutely nothing.”

The fellow so contemptuous of Musset and Racine was “a friend older than myself, for whom I had a strong admiration, a precious youth of the name of Bloch.” The two lines he quoted as meaningless were, predictably, the famous one from Phaedra and this one from Musset’s La Nuit de mai:

La blanche Oloossone à la blanche Camyre.

According to Pyra Wise, Jean Santeuil – Proust’s early, unfinished novel (1896-1900) – already included a character’s attack on Racine. It seems a reprise of an anecdote Proust had heard, probably several times and in several versions, from his professor of rhetoric at the Condorcet Lyceum. At the heart of it is the story of Théophile Gautier claiming that there is only one good line in all of Racine – the one quoted above. Whether Gautier really said and meant exactly that is not at all clear, unsurprisingly.

I still haven’t found a source to back up Rosen’s Musset anecdote. Consider, however, Maxime Du Camp‘s recollections of Flaubert. When asked about Racine, Flaubert didn’t hold back invective, citing one supposedly incongruous line with laughter or rage, depending on his mood. However, he also claimed that “La fille de Minos and de Pasiphaé” was the greatest verse in all French poetry.

As for its meaning, it’s been exegeted by too many for me to even try to add value here. Minos ended up a judge in the underworld; his wife was a daughter of Helios. The closed, deep, dark o in his name (the final s is not mute) contrasts perfectly with the light, gauzy, unhemmed -aé that ends hers. I’m still not sure why Charles Rosen called the final é open. It rings clear but it’s closed, technically speaking.


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