Lyndon Hood - internetducated, Lower Hutt

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Okay, Okay. Quiz.

Which New Zealand MP, earlier in the year, put out a press release with a quote from a 17th-Century French tragedian?

Have a guess.


New Zealand First's Ron Mark:
As writer Jean Baptiste Racine once wrote, “Small crimes always precede great ones. Never have we seen timid innocence pass suddenly to extreme licentiousness.”
... and therefore we should put 10-year-olds through the adult court system for more crimes than we do now.

I was rather struck by this. It suggests a literary esotericism out of the run of ordinary parliamentary language. I imagine one could tally actual literary references from last year on one hand, even if we count Hager's 'Hollow Men' and Winston Peters' Dirty Harry bit. Cullen of course had a 'Hollow Men' reference too, but that was 2004 - still, I discover his opening address to a Labour conference last year began "A spectre is haunting the National Party...".

If we google "Racine" on Scoop, and exclude references to certain towns in the US, the only other mention comes from Simon Upton, which I have to say fits my prejudices more naturally. Of the other "big three" 17th Century French playwrights Moliere gets 5 hits (one from something I wrote), or 4 if you get the accent right (Upton makes another appearance, for the same sentence as before); Corneille gets none.

From memory it was Don Brash who cited Voltaire while arguing we should only let people like us into the country; I hadn't thought that the overeducated approach would suit NZ First's target market.

Now, it's quite possible that Ron at some stage in his eventful life read Racine's Phèdre and was struck by that line. Perhaps he saw it produced. I understand the poetry of the original French is remarkable.

If so, he clearly needed to refresh his memory and looked it up on the web. The version he quotes, widely reported without reference to which play it came from, has been rather abbreviated. In Tim Chilcott's translation (page links to PDFs of parallel texts, which is nifty if you like that sort of thing), the relevant bit goes like this (from IV, ii):
Great crimes are always heralded by lesser ones
Whoever oversteps the bounds of law
Can in the end outrage the holiest rules.
Just as with goodness, crimes has its degrees.
Shy innocence has never yet been seen
To change to total licence at a stroke.
What can make the Google method of literary history hazardous is context. The thing about quotes from plays is, no matter how wise the dramatist, what you're actually quoting are the characters. For example, I have a book somewhere that says
Neither a borrower nor a lender be
— Shakespeare
... which is to ignore the way that the guy who makes this oft-quoted speech (Polonius in Hamlet) is a dweeb.

In this case, it's not especially embarrassing. The guy who say the line is the good guy, which helps. It's interesting though, that Hippolyte uses the quoted assertion to defend himself. Even if the opinions of dead frenchmen were admissable as evidence, the "I've always been a polite and well-behaved young man, therefore I can't have done it" argument probably wouldn't hold much water in a modern court. It doesn't work in the play, either, even though he didn't do it.

We could pass this by with a slightly confused glance.

Except it seems - quelle horreur! - to be part of a trend.

Winston Peters, in the opening debate:
Now that National has a leader who can actually fiancé [I'm guessing he actually said finance - L] the organisation himself, they can rid themselves of deep pocketed puppet masters – let us hope so. If not then Victor Hugo's classic tale of a the underclass of another generation – "Les Miserables" – will apply equally to the National party as it endures another three years in opposition.
So Peters is suggesting that National will become as the oppressed urban poor of Louis-Philippe's France. Or possibly that they will have an unsuccessful premature rebellion and all be shot.

Actually, I'm not sure how much the reference adds to the mere assertion that they won't be very happy. And it is what you might call superficial. Still, credit where credit's due: I recall that he pronounced it acceptably and at least he didn't say Les Misérables was by Claude-Michel Schönberg and librettist Alain Boublil.

But consider: Jean Valjean, the hero of the book and the musical, is a recidivist criminal, on the run from the authorities after breaking his parole, who is inspired to a life of virtue when a kindly priest lets him get away with a sizeable theft. Perhaps Mr Peters and Mr Mark might want to get together and sort out their sources.


If you're hungry for more discussion of French literature based on classical sources in English translation, we have a Fringe review for you.