Theology and Philosophy

Simone Weil Lecture 2003

"I want to die, I hate my life": Phaedra's Malaise by Professor Simon Critchley

Sydney: Tuesday 5th August 2003

Melbourne: Tuesday 12 August 2003

Lecture Abstract

My focus is on the character of Phaedra and the nature of her malaise in Jean Racine's 1677 tragedy, Phèdre. This lecture is not intended as allegory, but I cannot deny that it was written with an eye to the present. I begin by trying to elicit the dramatic pattern of Phaedra's confessions of her desire, a desire that produces a guilty subjectivity which I illustrate with reference to Augustine's Confessions. I go on to describe Phaedra's existence as defined by the fact that, unlike the conventional tragic hero, she is unable to die, that existence is, for her, without exit. I pursue this thought by turning to Levinas's brief reading of Phèdre and linking it to arguably the enabling motif of his work, namely that existence is not the experience of freedom profiled in rapture, ecstasy or affirmation, but rather it is that which we seek to evade in a movement of flight that simply reveals - paradoxically - how deeply riveted we are to the fact of existence. Counter-intuitively perhaps, I try and show how this Levinasian thought has its home in Heidegger's Sein und Zeit, in particular in his treatment of the concepts of thrownness and facticity. Phaedra is hypnotized by the desire that she loathes and it is here that she languishes. After linking languor to the concept of original sin, I seek to take seriously the possibility of Christian tragedy, that is, an essentially anti-political tragedy that would consist in the rejection of the worldly order and the radical separation of subjectivity and the world. I conclude with some remarks as to how Racine's Phèdre might lead us to question some of our received opinions about the nature of tragedy.

About the speaker 

Simon Critchley is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Essex, Directeur de Programme at the College International de Philosophie, Paris, and from January 2004 Professor of Philosophy in the Graduate Faculty, New School University, New York. He is the author of five books including The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas and most recently On Humour.