My Flaming Executioner: A Brief Appreciation of Facebook Memories and Phaedra

Circuitous musings about a picture of a page from a play.

Facebook Memories (©, ®, ™, or whichever symbol might be appropriate) are mixed blessings. Like looking through the relic of the physical photo album, each daily scroll prompts a wave of cringes. The further away I get from my first posts in 2006, I marvel at the amount of Vaguebooking that went on, why one thought cryptic quotations from esoterica were “cool,” and the lunacy that once upon a time we had to generate every post as a “[Name] is” formulation.

More often, however, my reaction is one of befuddlement and frustration. My older self laments that the younger self could have been much more specific and stronger in content. I read words of past successes, failures, or the “everyday.” Or I see images of trips, gatherings, objects that momentarily held interest. For most of these signifiers, only transparent phantoms remain in my own mind. Memory, that fickle thing, fails, but after all, perhaps that is the point. The words, sounds, and images we put into the void by the second might be seen as immutable, but their lasting significance is far from it. The good and the bad thing about the gigantic pile of shit thrown up by the Angel of History is that there is no one way to make your way through it. 

All this highfaluting is a bloated preface to the fact that during this morning’s scroll, I came across this image from November 16, 2017:


It’s a share from Instagram of a photo of a page from Robert Lowell’s translation of Racine’s Phèdre, the Urtragedy of French neoclassicism. For this memory, I do remember the context. I was reading the Lowell translation, Anglicized as Phaedra, while I was knee-deep in an exploration of Britten’s cantata of the same name from 1976. This was, no doubt, the product of a Dame Janet Baker kick at the time. The work was written expressly for her, and both the partitur and vocal score bear the simple dedication “For Janet Baker.” That is all one could hope to achieve in either music or a prepositional phrase.

While the cantata, one of the last works Britten completed before his death, is a compact masterwork, reading the Lowell translation makes one lament that the composer did not adapt the entire work for the dramatic stage. Its perfect distillation, however, makes one loathe to tamper with its solidity. Regardless, the cantata is an essential consequent to Britten’s last opera Death in Venice, another mediation on “forbidden” love and desire that is repressed and transmuted into forces of self-destruction. Phaedra’s end, however, after the revelation of her passion for Hippolytus possesses a nobility and a self-possession that the forlorn Gustav von Aschenbach in DiV lacks entirely.

Again, I stray. The page in the photo (from act 2, scene 5) contains the most biting line ever written about infatuation: “Misfortune magnified your loveliness”—from Racine “Tes malheurs te prêtaient encor de nouveaux charmes.” Lowell gives Racine’s malheurs a stronger personification, not Atë by name, but her presence in effect. Britten sets it marvelously in the Presto section of the cantata at the 4:45 minute mark.

Who among us has not had this realization? Or, for that matter, who has not experienced the sentiment of the preceding lines “You loathed me more, I ached for you no less”? There is a self-awareness inherent in these words, a self-awareness of desire speaks in particular to the queer experience of loving and desiring against the “conventional” grain(s), self-suppression, and the universal tragedy of loving and desiring without reciprocation. Fitting my earlier simple mediation of memory, I may not have a complete recollection of everything in my world on November 16, 2017, but that single line unlocks a flood of memories from beyond it when I, like so many of us, faced the flaming executioner, Aphrodite, at the very least in the guise of Mnemosyne, fell goddess and Titaness of memory.

Author: Ryan M. Prendergast

Ph.D. Candidate @ the University of Illinois. Theater, opera, music, media, art, history, detritus. I smile, of course, and go on drinking tea.

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