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“The Sacrifice of Iphigenia”, 1632-33, by François Perrier

There is a simple — dare I say macho? — version of the story, which we can call heroic sacrifice. Leave for our sake not yours, implored a French columnist before the referendum. Boris Johnson and his allies concurred, reassuring their continental counterparts not to worry, since “Brexit will be good for you: with us out of the way you can at last fulfil your federalist dream.” Both sides have pointed to Britain’s history of heroic sacrifice on the battlefields of Europe as the buried evidence for Brexit — Are you kidding me? The mass graves of the Somme as proof of the virtue of absence?

Unless, of course, we understand the sacrifice narrative in a way which preserves its genuinely ambiguous nature, a sacrifice which we can all the more easily live with (literally), an ironic sacrifice: “Always look on the bright side of life.” Or as Boris says: “We are going to make a titanic success of it!”

Isn’t there irony in celebrating Britain’s decision to retreat to the cliffs of Dover as an echo of its historic landing on the shores of Normandy? Isn’t Europe, including Britain, better-off when the Brits stay involved in its affairs, mission never quite accomplished?

Theories of atonement offer us many ironic variants. For one, the victims of mythical sacrifices more often than not stay alive and well. Abraham’s son Isaac, just like Iphigenia, is replaced by a goat — literally by an (e)scape goat. At least in some versions of the myth she is not burnt at the stake but rises like the Phoenix ready to roam the world with her brother Orestes. With Britain free again to nurture the special relationship, can Theresa, if she survives, unabashedly embrace The Donald on behalf of British citizens? For a people who have made the art of civilised queuing a badge of national pride, it must feel disconcerting to so openly pursue the art of jumping trade queues.

On the other side, Brexiteers know full well that sacrifices, whether real or not, have a way of coming back to haunt the executioner. Clytemnestra saw to it that Agamemnon would pay for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia, and Stannis Baratheon (in the TV series Game of Thrones) is executed for sacrificing his daughter by none other than Lady Brienne of Tarth (whose fantasies are these difficult women with daggers?).  The EU would be punished for trying to punish Britain. Brexit for them is predicated on a bet, a role reversal featuring the victim’s resurrection and the cursed hangman.

For ultimately, is sacrifice not always in vain? Yes, the wind did rise to carry Agamemnon’s ships to Troy after Iphigenia’s sacrifice, but there are precious few triumphant “welcome homes” in The Odyssey. Europe, what would Brexit as sacrifice do for you?

There is an ironic answer to this question which does not require pronouncing on any resurrection: Brexit means that you can leave the EU — and therefore you shouldn’t.

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July 11th, 2017
8:07 PM
Charles VIII? Did no one proof read?

Mark G..
July 7th, 2017
9:07 AM
A very well written article, didn't expect something that good, thank you :) From a casual perspective Brexit could mean a lot to the UK, but in fact, the EU will probably maintain friendly and cooperative relations with the UK. Time will tell... Best regards, Mark from

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