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Jakob Willis

 Jakob Willis

Dissertation Project: Transformations of the Heroic in Drama from the Siècle classique

In the 17th century a fundamental transformation takes place in the literary portrayal of heroes in France. In the first few decades heroes such as Corneille’s Cid who are defined by their agonal performances are still prevalent in literature, whereas from the middle of the century onward there is a tendency towards a decidedly religious (Bossuet, Racine), intellectual (Molière, Cyrano) and amorous (Scudéry, Lafayette) heroism. According to Bénichou’s interpretation which is still today widely accepted, in the Siècle classique not just a transformation took place but a downright ‘démolition du héros’.

An array of socio-cultural processes is responsible for this development, for instance, the consolidation of absolutism, the influence of rationalism, Jansenism, and quietism as well as the institutionalized regulation of art and language forms. Such developments were reflected in the classic ideal of the honnête homme, the civilized individual of moderate means, and were decidedly used against the baroque idea of heroic démesure.

Despite massive upheavals in the cultural dealings with heroic figures this dissertation intends to show that it is not correct to speak of a definitive ‘démolition’ but rather of a gradual transformation of the heroic. In breaking with an essentialist definition of the hero and concentrating on his medial formation, it becomes recognizable that not only the agonal war hero but also the virtuous, intellectual and amorous heroes and not least of all the hero as a glorified sovereign are all similarly represented in literature from the 17th century: Throughout the century the heroic figure appears in a particular éclat, an oftentimes incommensurable interplay of light and sound that presents a cognitive and emotional challenge for the viewer by equally illuminating and blinding, attracting and frightening him.

Within the concept of the term éclat whose ambivalent semantic spectrum stretches from the visually defined dimension of radiance and aura to the primarily acoustically connoted field of splinter and scandal – as the thesis argues – an aesthetic dispositive in the portrayal of heroes crystalizes that can be activated in different historical and cultural contexts. Not only does the term point out examples of literary hero portrayal, it can also in general be made useful as cipher for a medial code of articulation for the heroic.

Using a corpus of dramatic works representative for the Siècle classique the analytical portion of the project will show how this medial code of articulation provided the framework for the transformations of the heroic from Corneille’s glorious warriors through Racine’s tragic heroes up to Molière’s scandalous figures. Considering that 17th century France has been described as a “theater state” its dramas are especially suited for the goals of this study. Regarded with the greatest social prestige this genre was also the central medium in which heroic figurations were projected. Moreover, the intermedial claim of the project can be met in the opposition between text and stage. Furthermore, the performative and emotional aspects in the theatrical portrayal of heroic figures as well as their reception can be better included.

In addition to new insights regarding the forms and functions of the heroic in the works of three canonical authors as well as in the socio-historical and culturally historical implications of their production a contribution relevant to the research in literary studies on mediality, performativity and emotionality is expected. Since heroes can always be understood as a symbolic form of human self-conception, this dissertation also intends to ultimately offer a response to the question, to what extent does a modern self-conception of the human being announce itself in the heroic figures of the 17th century.