Sygne de Coûfontaine


It is the time when the French Revolution is hunting the Ancien Regime’s aristocracy. Their entire family killed, Sygne and her cousin swear to do all they can to restore the House of Coûfontaine, even if they have to give their lives. The cousin’s visit is brief, for in his company, he hides the pope whom he released from French captivity and, in all secrecy, conducts back to Rome. What he does not know is that revolutionary guards have followed him and, at that very moment, are surrounding the house. It is then that their leader, Turelure, enters the room. Alone with Sygne, he gives her the choice: either you marry me, making me the father of the future Lord of Coûfontaine, thus saving your noble House; or you refuse and I arrest you, together with your cousin and the pope, and confiscate what remains of your family properties. After speaking to her father confessor, Sygne marries the executioner of her family and bears him a son. Even when, later, her cousin points a gun at Turelure, she jumps in front of her husband and dies, hit by the fatal bullet. 


Thus, the synopsis of L’otage (The Hostage, 1911), the first of three theater plays by Paul Claudel written about the ‘Coûfontaines’.  

Sygne’s deeds are acts of love. So is her oath and so is her marriage: acts of love for the House of Coûfontaine. To save the house, she has to give it to the one persecuting it. Not only has she to sacrifice all that she has sworn to live for, but she is also deprived of the privilege of dying for it. She has to sacrifice her life, but she has to do it alive. 

Herein is her difference from Antigone, that other emblematic figure of sacrificial love for the family. Transgressing deliberately the laws of the city, she buries her brother Polynices, the city’s enemy number one (who, together with the seven other cities he reassembled, waged war against Thebes). But unlike Sygne de Coûfontaine, she is able die for her brother. Sygne, however, in order to save what she longs for, is left nothing, not even the pride to die for her cause.

Claudel originally wrote two different endings to the play. In one of them, Sygne – while dying of her cousin’s gunshot – is asked by Turelure, her husband, to confirm that she has deliberately saved him. In that version Sygne’s answer is nothing but an endlessly repeated mute ‘spasm’: a “sign saying no” – “elle faisait signe que non.”  In that mere sign remains her only pride. That sign is what remains of the heroic refusal that once marked the antique hero. 

Antigone’s refusal to obey the law was performed as having a proper place, albeit a deadly one.  Signe’s refusal is performed as having no place at all. It is reduced to a mute sign. 

Jules-Eugène Lenepveu ,   Antigone  , ca1840

Jules-Eugène Lenepveu , Antigone, ca1840

Antigone’s love is performed as not coinciding with the love for her city. And, while performed, Sophocles’ play gives that kind of intolerable love a prominent place within the city. Her act of love is a sacrifice, but the play itself gives that sacrifice a proper existence. Sygne’s act of love is a sacrifice as well, but contrary to Antigone, she immediately has to sacrifice that very sacrifice. Her sacrifice coincides with the immediate repression of sacrifice. Claudel’s play shows modernity’s impossibility to acknowledge the sacrifice that sustains that very modernity. 

The sacrifice of Sygne is similar to the one required by a totalitarian system. Even falsely accused, the victim is supposed to admit his guilt. This is the only way to prove his loyalty to the ideology. The fact of protesting against the system is already considered as a proof of guilt. For if one really loves the true system, one sustains it, also in the case of false accusation. And what is more: the false accusation gives him the opportunity to prove the purity of his love for the system. 

In modernity, the seventeenth century idea of pur amour is never far away.