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3.8.04

Love of Language

I have to mention this cool article (Vers la néo-langue [Towards the neo-language], July 29) by François Taillandier in L'Humanité, which is an appreciation of the French language by way of a sort-of-review of a classic French play (my translation):

Available at Amazon:
cover
Complete Plays of Jean Racine, Vol. 1: Iphigenia, Andromache, Brittanicus, verse translation by Geoffrey Alan Argent
In my hands I have Racine's Iphigénie [en Aulide] [1674], published in a scholarly edition by Hachette et Cie in 1904, with an introduction and notes by Gustave Lanson. A professor at the Sorbonne and then Director of the École normale supérieure, Lanson (1875–1934) was the major educator of the Third Republic, the conductor of literary studies in France.

The notes he adds to Racine's text show clearly how our traditional understanding of the French language is a constructed idea, completely and deliberately constructed. First, there is the language of Racine, which completely apart from the fact that the characters speak in alexandrin verse, is quite different from the language spoken at the time: rhetorical effects, sentence construction, the decorum (bienséance) forbidding the use of words that are too concrete, all of this descends in a direct lineage from the Académie, from Vaugelas, from Boileau, from rules and specifications intended to create a majestic written language, fully conscious of itself.

Two centuries later, Professor Lanson pokes his spectacles into it, to explain to us what was meant in the 17th century by the term douceur [sweetness], or to note that line 426 is an allusion to a passage from Virgil's Eclogues, or to recall that Victor Hugo found the expression le jour que je respire [the day that I am breathing] incoherent, or to discuss the suppression of a personal pronoun.

In other words, what can pass for "the French language" in all its splendor, namely, the perfect model of the "grand classic" commented on by this paragon of scholarly rigor, this idea of the French language passed on to—or imposed on, if you like—generations of high school students, is a complete historical and philological construction, established from A to Z by the 17th century, and in a certain way re-established by the Republic of the Professors. The only message of Mr. Lanson's notes, after all, is that this language, which he calls ours and which he invites us to admire and know, is a foreign language.
Hé quoi ? te semble-t-il que la triste Ériphile
Doive être de leur joie un témoin si tranquille ?
Crois-tu que mes chagrins doivent s'évanouir
À l'aspect d'un bonheur dont je ne puis jouir ?


[What's that? does it seem to you that sad Ériphile
Should be such a calm witness of their joy?
Do you believe that my pain should vanish
In the face of a good fortune in which I cannot take pleasure?]
"J'ai trop la haine" [I hate their guts], Ériphile would say today. I am not being ironic. I am admiring. It is in that distance that all the interest lies, the fascinating mystery of a single and multiple language. We will not give legitimacy to new experiments, to other expressivenesses in the language's heart, unless we remember this heritage.
The lines he quotes from the play are excellent examples of Racine's mastery of the alexandrin, not only how well the lines scan (6 beats, caesura, 6 beats) but how the rhythm of the verse suits the cadence of recited speech, because the same places where an actor would likely pause are at the caesura. If you read French, try reading them out loud, and you will see what I mean: those lines were composed to be spoken. Not that they are natural or like real speech—either in the 17th century or the 21st, which is Taillandier's point—but a glorified, near-perfect form of human speech, made classic and timeless.

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