A Figure of One-flesh Union in Corneille’s Le Cid

face of a prisoner

Following his wife Sarah’s death, eminent nineteenth-century American public figure John W. Edmonds had inscribed on a memorial to her:

Pleurez, pleurez, mes yeux
Et fondez vous en eau,
La moitie de ma vie
A mis l’autre au tombeau.
{Weep, weep, my beloved one
And dissolve yourself with tears,
Half of my life
Has put the other half in the grave.}

The French text is from Pierre Corneille, Le Cid (written about 1636), Act III, scene 3, lines 7-8. The English text, which was not included in the epitaph, is our translation. Other translations render “mes yeux” as “eyes.”

Spanish Islamic culture provides the setting for the French Le Cid. That work draws on Las Mocedades del Cid (c. 1618) of Guillén de Castro. In Las Mocedades del Cid, ll. 1084-6, Ximena exclaims:

¡Ay, afligida!,
que la mitad de mi vida
ha muerto la otra mitad

In ll. 1775-80, Ximena exclaims:

¡Ay, Rodrigo! ¡Ay, honra! ¡Ay, ojos!
¿adónde os lleva el cuydado?

Rey responds:

No haya más, Ximena, baste.
Levantaos, no lloréys tanto,
que ablandarán vuestras quexas
entrañas de acero y mármol;

In Arabic and in de Castro’s Spanish, “eyes” figuratively refer to a beloved one. The phrase “my eyes” is an intense form of “my dear.” This is clearly the sense of “ojos” in Las Mocedades del Cid, l. 1775. Moreover, these lines from de Castro almost surely are the source for the relevant lines in Corneille’s Le Cid. Translating “mes yeux” as “eyes” obliterates this bodily figure of love. That figure implicitly emphasizes the bodily unity that is no more when Edmonds’ placed his wife, “half of my life,” into the grave.

Edmonds’ quotation from Le Cid was the epigraph for Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Man That Was Used Up.” It was first published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in Aug. 1839. Poe’s story explores the effects of social and technological trends on a man’s personal bodily unity. It satirizes the androcidal order that dominates Le Cid. In Corneille’s Le Cid and de Castro’s Las Mocedades del Cid, the playwrights authored the relevant texts for the female character Ximena. These texts express Ximena’s life as if it were composed of the lives of her father and her husband-to-be. Edmonds understood the original unity expressed in the quotation not as natural life threatened by historical developments (Poe), nor as woman’s incorporation within a unity of father and husband (de Castro, Corneille), but as the conjugal life that he and his wife lived.

The beloved as half of the self’s body has deep roots in literature. The expression of heterosexual one-flesh union in Genesis 2:21-24 seems to draw on the earlier literary depiction of intense male friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The biblical understanding of the unity of man and woman significantly affected depictions of Adam and Eve. An apparently independent migration of unity in male friendship to unity in heterosexual love can also be traced from Aristotle’s Ethics, Bk. 9, Ch. 4, to Horace’s Odes, I.3, line 8.

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