Thursday, August 6, 2009

Farouche: Phedre and the Half-Blood Prince

I'm in the process of excavating and re-posting the files from my blog Phade Up, but here's one to start with.

This essay was originally posted in three parts:

  • Part 1: Our "Panache" (July 18, 2009)
  • Part 2: Phedre and the Half-Blood Prince (August 3, 2009)
  • Part 3: Into the Woods (August 6, 2009)

Christopher J. Moore's book In Other Words: A Language Lover's Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World explains a Japanese expression that makes more and more sense to me as we rehearse a French play in English translation:

yoko meshi [yoh-koh mesh-ee] (noun)

Taken literally, meshi means "boiled rice" and yoko means "horizontal," so combined you get "a meal eaten sideways." This is how the Japanese define the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language: yoko is a humorous reference to the fact that Japanese is normally written vertically, whereas most foreign languages are written horizontally.

I have decided the Canadian translation of yoko meshi would be: "a breakfast eaten in parallel."

Any kid born in Canada since 1969, when the Official Languages Act made bilingualism de rigueur, has grown up in the knowledge that their Kellogg's secret decoder ring could be found, not just inside specially marked boxes, but also dans les boîtes spécialement identifiées.

So it's not really such a leap from this:


To this:


The Other French Play at Stratford this season is Cyrano de Bergerac, written by Edmond Rostand in 1897, but set in the mid-1600s (right around the time Jean Racine was busy setting his tragedies in bronze-age Greece).

According to Nicholas Cronk, "the first English translation of Cyrano de Bergerac, in 1898, introduced the word panache

into the English language." Anthony Burgess (whose translation, minus an impressive number of lines restored to the original French, is used for this year's Stratford production) elaborates:
This term panache is important. It is a noble word and very much Cyrano’s own. It is the last word of the play, and translates literally as 'white plume.' But Cyrano has given it a metaphorical signification which cannot easily be rendered by an English term.

Indeed, English does not try, and panache has been adopted into our language to mean a kind of elegant assertiveness, a chivalric allegro con brio quality (there we go again, calling on a foreign expression), not really congenial to the British, with their tendency to understate and underplay.

By panache Cyrano seems to mean a kind of flamboyant grace, an extravagance of gesture which can be expressed as much in defeat as in conquest.

Here is the panache, the "visible soul", as sported by Cyrano extraordinaire Colm Feore:


But an even more telling image appears in David Hackett Fischer's biography of "the Father of Canada," Champlain's Dream. It's the only known authentic likeness of Samuel de Champlain, and a perfect illustration of how a bundle of puffy ostrich feathers became a metaphor for bravery and verve:

The caption reads in old French, "Deffaite des Yroquois au Lac de Champlain," the "Defeat of the Iroquois at Lake Champlain," July 30, 1609....

On one side we see sixty Huron, Algonquin, and Montagnais warriors. On the other are two hundred Iroquois of the Mohawk nation.... A small figure stands alone at the center of the battle. His dress reveals that he is a French soldier and a man of rank....

Above the helmet is a large plume of white feathers called a panache — the origin of our modern word. Its color identifies the wearer as a captain in the service of Henri IV, first Bourbon king of France. Its size marks it as a badge of courage worn to make its wearer visible in battle.


Of course, while the word itself is a French invention, the concept is universal. As is clear from Champlain's own description of the battle, the Iroquois leaders were no less courageous in their choice of headgear:

Our [Montagnais] men also advanced in the same order, telling me that those who had three large plumes were the [Iroquois] chiefs, and that they had only these three, and that they could be distinguished by these plumes, which were much larger than those of their companions, and that I should do what I could to kill them.

(Ironic that the Canadian Army invented the first digital camoflage pattern, eh?)


I now have a confession to make. Seeing Cyrano made me just a tiny bit jealous.

Not because of their swordfights. I've made peace with my action-flick addiction. I begrudge them neither swash nor buckle. I just wish our play could have ushered a new loanword into the English vocabulary.

But maybe it's not too late. Maybe our production will be the Racinian Trojan horse wheeled into the capital of Shakespeare-speaking North America.

You never know.

So if I had to choose a single one of Phèdre's 1,642 words to import into the English vocabulary, what would it be?

No contest.

Our "panache" is...


It's not among the more frequently-occurring words in Racine's play. It only appears six times (twice as often as Edmond Rostand deploys panache). Fully five of these describe Hippolytus, Theseus' son by the Amazon warrior Antiope.

Strictly speaking, "farouche" isn't even a new addition to English. Its first local sighting, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in 1765. However, a search of Google Books turns up a use by Lytton Strachey in 1918, and not a whole heck of a lot else.

The online Wiktionary seems to derive its definition...

/fəˈɹuːʃ/ adjective:
1. (of animals) wild, shy of humans
2. (of women) distant, unapproachable
3. (of things) savage, dangerous

...from its French sister Wiktionnaire:

féroce, timide, peu sociable
Sens 1: Qui fuit lorsqu'on l'approche. Ex: Un animal farouche. Synonyme: sauvage (Anglais:
Sens 2: Peu sociable. Ex: Un enfant farouche. Synonyme: insociable (Anglais:
Sens 3: Violent. Ex: Un adversaire farouche. Synonyme: dur (Anglais:

But more intriguing is the etymology given by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language:

farouche (fä-roosh')
Fierce; wild; untamed.
Exhibiting withdrawn temperament and shyness.
[French, from Old French faroche, alteration of forasche, from Late Latin forasticus, belonging outside, from Latin foras, out-of-doors.]

"Belonging outside." Now we're getting somewhere.

Phedre excuses Hippolytus' behaviour by recalling that "he was bred in the forest -- he’s still wild." Her nurse Oenone, less sympathetic, calls him "only a barbarian." The term barbarian, defined in the O.E.D. as "One living outside the pale of... civilization," draws a sharp line between Us and Them (in this case, between the Greek and the foreigner whose language sounded to Hellenic ears like a string of nonsense syllables: "bar-bar-bar"). Beyond this frontier, "beyond the pale" (the phrase originates in a boundary or enclosure of sharpened stakes), lies wilderness and danger.

Despite being the son of the king of Athens, Hippolytus is constantly referred to as "the foreign woman's son... the one nurtured in the Amazon’s womb." This single fact seems to explain for everyone else in the play his preference for the forest over the court, for hunting and horse-taming over the indoor pursuits of politics or romance. He is farouche incarnate: proud, fierce, "somewhat wild". He belongs outside.

Farouche has its ultimate root in the Latin foris, meaning door. Here's a revealing derivation in an 1864 book called Modern Philology:

Foris, door (Sanskrit dvar [root of "door"], Greek thura...) In the Sanskrit dhvar, to injure, wound, destroy, these words seem to contain the fundamental idea contained therein, i.e. a breach in a wall. See also Latin fera, ferox and ferire, as all of probably same origin, and so English fierce, ferocious, etc)... foreign, forest, (M.Latin forastum and forestum, from Latin foras, out of doors)... forum and forensic (Latin forum, a large, open field, where elections were held, etc.), and perforate (Latin forare).

The Latin words ferox (headstrong, spirited, courageous, warlike, wild, arrogant) and ferocitas (courage, untamed spirit, arrogance, savageness) seem custom-tailored for the legendary tribe that Mary Lefkowitz describes in her classic book Women in Greek Myth:


Herodotus puts his account of the Amazons into a general description of Scythia, "a country no part of which is cultivated, and in which there is not a single inhabited city," a land beyond the pale, with strange, interesting and occasionally admirable customs that are in general demonstrably inferior to those of the Greeks....

Several heroes fight against them: Bellerophontes (on Pegasus) and the young Priam; one of Heracles' labors was to bring back the girdle of the queen of the Amazons. Athenian vase painters, when depicting this expedition, gave more credit to their own city's hero Theseus than to Heracles. Theseus was often depicted repelling an invasion of Attica by Amazons, who had come to claim their sister Antiope (or Hippolyte), who had been carried off by Theseus....

In each case the Amazons are classified with the established enemies of law and order.... Significantly, in Attic vase paintings after 480 BC, they are often shown in Persian costume, as if representing the great empire twice defeated by the Athenians....


But as Lefkowitz goes on to explain, these ultimate "outsiders" never actually existed:

In the sixth century BC, Greeks traveled to Themiskyra and the Thermodon River, on the south shore of the Black Sea, the land that in seventh-century BC epic poetry had been inhabited by Amazons. When they found no Amazons there, they did not give up their belief in the Amazons' existence but, rather, thought of the Amazons as being located further away, in the part of the world that had not been explored, namely the uncivilized land of Scythia; other accounts put them in Ethiopia or places they had heard of but where no one had actually been.

But... if the Amazons had existed, other cultures would have represented them in their art; in fact only the Greeks seem to have known about them. Nor have archaeologists uncovered the kind of empirical information that could confirm that Amazons, or female tribes like them, existed. The Spanish explorers of Brazil named the great river they discovered there the Amazon because they saw native women fighting alongside their men.

Which brings us back to the New World. By the time Phèdre was first staged in 1677, not fifty years after the death of Samuel de Champlain, the frontier, "the pale", would have been as clearly demarcated in the Parisian imagination as it was in ancient Athens. Literal palisades surrounded tiny outposts of French civilization in the forests of Quebec. The Iroquois had recovered quickly from their first encounter with European firearms, and by the mid-1600s were devastating settlements throughout New France.


Apropos of our theme of boundary (between indoors and out, Us and Them), the Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the League of the Five Nations, described their political alliance using the metaphor of a longhouse of five fires, a single dwelling shared by five families. The Seneca, the most westerly tribe, were therefore known as the "keepers of the western door," and the Mohawk, the "keepers of the eastern door."

In 1976, literary critic Northrop Frye coined the term "garrison mentality" to describe the psychological legacy of those first French settlers of Canada:

The missionaries brought with them the ordered universe they inherited, and when they came up against the people they called the Indians, les Sauvages, they felt that they were faced with something like a blank in the cosmos.... They believed that they were bringing revelation, that is, they were bringing the light of the sun to the darkness...

It's all very well in the abstract to be thrilled by moonlit dark forests, and nature's grand design. But the reality in Canada was all too often terrifying. No-man's land. Terra incognita.... It took Canadians a long time to get imaginative possession of their own space. The early settlers simply felt overwhelmed and beleaguered. The physical forts of the seventeenth century had changed by the nineteenth into the cultural attitudes that I call the "garrison mentality."

The garrison mentality is defensive and separatist. Each group walls itself off and huddles inside, taking warmth and reassurance from numbers, but keeping its eyes fixed apprehensively on what's outside....


But another influential thinker puts a different lens on the forests of New France. In A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada, John Ralston Saul writes:

Champlain said, "Our young men will marry your daughters, and we shall be one people." I can't think of a European governor -- French, British or other -- making such a policy statement in any other colony from the 16th to the 19th century. With this sentence, he reveals the nature of the First Nation-European relationship -- at the very least one of equals.

His masters in Paris sent him constant instructions to subject the locals to French control, to assert European racial, cultural and political superiority. He was on the spot. He knew better. He knew what reality required. That he made such a declaration suggests that he felt his colony's position to be weak. But it also suggests that he believed such a mix of the two civilizations could work.

And this was not a short-lived ploy, a beachhead strategy. Throughout the life of New France, one-third to one-half of the men were involved in the fur trade and so lived a second life in that vast, seemingly borderless world beyond the tiny colony. A good percentage of them followed Champlain's advice.... The Hudson's Bay Company [founded in 1670, seven years before Phèdre was written] built its networks -- for more than 200 years, one of the world's largest commercial and political structures -- in good part through interracial marriages.

There are echoes here of Theseus' relationship with the Amazon warrior Antiope, a former enemy of Athens transformed by love (and/or abduction) into an ally. Hippolytus, the half-blood prince, can even be seen as a Greek antecedent of the nearly 400,000 Métis of mixed Indian and European ancestry living in Canada today.

Which is not to say that most 17th-century Europeans looked on their colony as a partnership of equals. Lynn Festa describes the French imperial extravaganza of the "Carrousel" in an article titled "Empires of the Sun":

On June 5th, 1662, a procession of monkeys, bears, nobles, and slaves, spiralled through the streets of Paris in celebration of the glory of Louis XIV. Five Quadrilles of nobles, clad as Romans, Turks, Indians, Persians, and "les Sauvages de l'Amerique" were accompanied by men dressed as satyrs, tritons, and baccantes, their bodies coated in the skins of lions, leopards, tigers and monkeys, their hats and headpieces shaped in the forms of parrots, fish, dragons, and snakes.

The procession entered in ritual formation into the present Place du Carrousel between the Louvre and the Tuileries, where the seventeenth-century subjects of an absolutist king held a three-day medieval jousting tournament. Even amidst a profusion of colonial images and peoples, exotic beasts and fantastic costumes, the king was represented as the serene and uncontested master of the world; each noble carried a shield bearing a device which affirmed his absolute subjugation to Louis Dieu-donne figured as the sun.

Here is what a chief of these Sauvages de l'Amerique looked like to the crowds of Racine's Paris. No shortage of panache, at least:


The adjective sauvage is similar to farouche as an antonym for "civilized", though a much more politically loaded one. As recently as ten months ago, Dick Pound, a member of the International Olympic Committee, ignited a firestorm with a comment, in French, that unlike the 5,000-year-old civilization of China, 400 years ago Canada was "un pays de sauvages," "with scarcely ten thousand inhabitants of European descent."

The ensuing debate hinged on the interpretation of the word sauvage, with some First Nations organizations objecting to the implication that Canada was a land populated by savages before Europeans settled it, while Pound's defenders pointed out that the French term was not a direct equivalent of the English word "savage":

Father Rene Fumoleau, in his book, As Long As This Land Shall Last, explains: "The word sauvage derives from the Latin word silva, meaning forest, and originally meant someone able to manage his economic life in a forest or in a wilderness, alone. This original meaning persisted until recently when sauvage came to mean cruel and brutal.... Until 1920, "Department of Indian Affairs" was officially translated "Departement des Affaires des Sauvages."

In 1663, the year of his fantastical "Carrousel", Sun King Louis XIV took control of the beleaguered colony in New France out of the hands of its commercial shareholders, making it a royal province. He sent nearly a thousand troops to turn the tide of the war against the Iroquois, who signed a peace treaty in 1667.

In addition to soldiers, Louis sent over eight hundred young women, known as the filles du roi, or "king's daughters", to rectify the imbalance of the sexes in the colonies.

When the offspring of these filles du roi came of age twenty years later, the demographic situation had changed. In 1663 there had been one [European] woman to every six men; now the sexes were roughly equal in number. The colony thereafter replenished 95% of its numbers through childbirth.


Theseus, too, famously traded his woman of the woods for the daughter of a king. Phaedra, daughter of King Minos of Crete, married Theseus an indeterminate number of years after he killed her half-brother the Minotaur and abandoned her sister Ariadne. According to some sources, including a poem cited by Plutarch,

It is told that when the wedding of Theseus and Phaedra was being celebrated, a troop of Amazons, led by her who had before married Theseus, appeared in front of the guests, threatening to kill everybody. But as they say, the doors were closed and she was killed, who, according to others was never married to Theseus, Hippolytus being Theseus' bastard son by her.

Other, less dramatic versions of the story insist that Theseus married Phaedra after the death of the Amazon.

Whatever the "truth", Antiope has her revenge through her son Hippolytus, when Phaedra/Phèdre, the king's daughter, steps off the ship from Crete for her new life in a new world... out of the frying pan, into the fire:

In the first days
of my marriage to Theseus I felt ease,
happiness and a new security --
until Athens revealed my enemy.
I saw him, I blushed, I went pale, transfixed
and a torment swept through my trembling soul.
All went dark, words melted into silence...


Phèdre doesn't give in to her adulterous, incestuous passion without a fight. As she tells Hippolytus,

I tried to escape, I chased you away.
I became your enemy, cruel, loathsome.
Your hatred built a safe wall around me.

The irony is that it's not her failure to keep love out, but to keep it in that sets the tragedy in motion. "You would freeze with horror were I to speak," she tells Oenone. And that's exactly what happens.

Director Carey Perloff observes that in contrast with the early AIDS-awareness slogan "Silence = Death", both Phèdre and Hippolytus start the play convinced that silence equals safety, dignity -- life. But the disease that afflicts them calls for open-heart surgery. As Hippolytus says to Aricie, the object of his own forbidden desire,

I see I have already said too much
and that my passion has seared my reason.
And since I have now broken my silence
I must continue, confess before you
a secret my heart can no longer hold.

In Racine's universe, no matter how high you build the palisade, love is too savage, too untameable, too farouche to keep inside forever.