In 1793 Laurent Jolicoeur, a freed black in Saint-Domingue petitions for the release of an enslaved woman whom he calls Zaïre. As proof of her virtue, he notes that all of her children were “de sa couleur” – the appropriateness of her non-miscegenated sexual desire stands in for proof of her virtue. While we never ascertain Zaïre’s outcome, the fate of her literary predecessor in Voltaire’s 1732 Zaïre—one of the most popular plays performed in Saint-Domingue--ends in tragic murder. As an enslaved French girl raised in captivity under the Muslim Sultan Orosmane, the fictional Zaire and her captor have fallen in love. However, Orosmane ends up murdering his fiancée Zaire in a fit of jealous rage when he suspects her be meeting her lover Nérestan. The tragic irony is that Nérestan is actually her brother, and she was rushing to see him in order to be baptized secretly in the Christian faith. But is Zaïre’s desire to see her brother entirely bereft of incestuous, queer overtones? The play thus turns on the tragic pun between both senses of “infidèle” (religious and amorous) but also questions the limits of appropriate affective attachment, bond, and faith. The question remains: what emotions sway Jolicoeur to petition for the enslaved Zaïre’s release, and why does he refer to Voltaire’s drama in nicknaming the woman? What affects push the theatrical Zaïre to hasten to her conversion? I examine the fantasy of deep recognition, or a type of forceful sympathy that ignites a call for justice. In this article I take up Eve Sedgwick’s attention to queer affect theory to suggest that what Sedgwick terms “paranoid reading”—a is the hemerneutics of suspicion enacted by Orosmane that races proleptically forward, full of paranoid anxiety. In contrast, the Jolicoeur case and Zaïre’s unexpected loves enact Sedgwick’s “reparative reading,” a type of reading practice motivated by surprising sympathies, unexpected attachments, and pleasurable, if fleeting moments of recognition and reconstitution. I ultimately put forward a theory of “carceral sympathies” in the vein of Regina Kunzel’s work on situational queer intimacies in prisons; I examine the ways that an incarcerated situation already positions bodies at the limits of humanness and of reason. In this liminality, it is the cultivation of emotion, and in particular strong sympathies, that most powerfully negotiate the bonds of captivity.
Row, Jennifer E.
"Alternative Intimacies, Sympathy and Sexuality in Voltaire’s Zaire,"
Le Monde français du dix-huitième siècle: Vol. 2
, Article 7.
Available at: https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/mfds-ecfw/vol2/iss1/7