A Night at the Opera with the Seducers(from The Opera Chronicle)
The gulf in complicity between Mozart’s music and Da Ponte libretto made Kierkegaard
sit in his box at Don Giovanni with his eyes closed. Only Mozart’s music truly represented the legendary seducer for him. I wonder what Kierkegaard would have made of the Russian Don Giovanni, Eugene Onegin? He could well have attended a performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera had he lived into old age. The breathless groundswell of the score and Pushkin’s tragi-comedy are at one. Not incongruously, as the common denominator is Byron. Both Pushkin’s poem and Tchaikovsky’s Opera are underpinned by his Don Juan, (which Kierkegaard had read avidly). Nevertheless, Mozart, underscores them all. Byron wrote his great epic satire in Venice with Don Giovanni from La Fenice ringing in his ears.
It’s strange to think of Byron and Kierkegaard as contemporaries. The gothic toff and scoffer, and the first Existentialist seem centuries apart. Pushkin, on the other hand, is a tabula rasa. Each age rewrites him. He can be paraded as anything from a noble savage to a rap artist. In the first quarter of the 19th century all three walked the same earth (albeit, with difficulty - Byron’s clubfoot, Kierkegaard’s corkscrew ankle, and Pushkin’s dancer’s knee). Apart from dying young (36, 42, 38, respectively), what they had in common was their preoccupation with the art of seduction.
If Byron is seduction’s champion sportsman, and Pushkin its ‘also ran’, Kierkegaard is its non-playing captain, and theologian (with Mozart as its patron saint). However, ‘The Diary of the Seducer’ (Either / Or, Part 1) is personal and, it’s quite clear that he only touched the object of his desire, Regina, with his mind (pace Leonard Cohen). ‘The Diary’ is preceded by ‘The Immediate Stages of the Erotic’, a hymn to Mozart, and a haw to Byron, who pre-empted his own experience. I paraphrase:
Once you put Don Juan into words, and give him a mother and a childhood, you banalise the Erotic Ideal. You make the Don into a ‘reflective personality’, a person who only plays with social expectations to achieve his object. The supposed incarnation of irresistible desire has his power reduced to a nice class of chap making himself interesting with seductive small-talk. The sordid little affair is more likely to end with a post-coital cigarette than hell’s flames.
Mozart’s music, on the other hand, brings to life the Don who is the personification of pure passion with a gift for inducing desire in others. This invariably causes trepidation in those who think of the neighbours. But it’s a prelude to joy. Only the respectable woman in Dame Anna is being violated. However, once the seduction is consummated, the bargain with the gods ordains, like the bee that that has released its sting, that the Don must die for it. But not to go to his damnation. He walks into the flames in order to return to Mount Venus so his phoenix can rise again.
Kierkegaard’s understanding of the Don in Mozart’s Opera is founded on a parable he told himself:
The primordial paradise where the sensual life has its origins is to be found in a mountain, not on the map, called Venus. There pure pleasure can be enjoyed in its natural state. Dance rather than language is its music. You don’t think twice before you leap. This is the world Don Giovanni was born into.
But now Mount Venus is a paradise lost. It’s the Fall came when that spoilsport Reflection invaded it. The concept of mind-over-body took the immediate out of the Erotic Ideal. And so began the descent, in three stages, to a hell without redemption.
On Mount Venus the Erotic had been unambiguously immediate and universal. It was not complicated by property rights, ethics, only thinking too much. With the Fall, the possession became personal for the sensual man. He made himself into an individual who sees his reflection in the Other who, in turn, sees herself in him. The two-way mirror distorts the self-image. He desires to be seen in the eyes of others as they would like him to be. And visa versa. Nobody is completely himself or herself. So the dance of the sensual loses its beat and step, and staggers to its conclusion. Then recriminations take the floor.
In only listening to the music, Kierkegaard was basking in an ideal world to postpone his chronic melancholy. But he knew from his own life that Da Ponte would always have the last word. Once the immediate was taken out of the Erotic, the Don had been rendered mortal. The divine gift was no longer his and his alone. He must reflect and take the Other into account. His reflection in their eyes is not flattering to either party. The fear in their eyes gives way to an enforced submission, and tears afterwards. The Dom, as this repeats itself serially, comes to realise, when one stoops to human folly the only art to hide one’s shame is to die. But it won’t be to phoenix a renewal. When hell opens, Da Ponte’s Don may go into it willingly, on the off-chance of a phoenix. But since Mount Venus no longer exists, it means eternal damnation.
Eugene Onegin’s stages of the Immediate Erotic are closer to Da Ponte, and Kierkegaard’s own experience in life. In short, the girl offers herself, Eugene Onegin spurns her and, years hence, regrets it when he sees the formidable woman she has become. And hell opens, which for Eugene, mediated through Pushkin’s Byronism, is a perpetual state of boredom rather than fire. Pushkin saw hell as killing time in a London club (though he had never been a member of one, let alone to England, except in the imagination).
Tchaikovshy’s musical ennui in Onegin is the opposite to an escape from boredom. The melancholy is voluptuous. His music expresses it as an alluring sea that he couldn’t swim across (Romantics all have their Hellespont like Byron). Tchaikovsky’s own life was spent paddling in its shallows, aware he could never satisfy a Tatiana. In the end, he drowns himself and us in waves of taedium vitae. It’s exhilarating as Rilke’s ‘Neptune of the blood’.
Kierkegaard claimed in his Journal to be a ‘joyous but jealous’ ladies man. But his mind was not in harmony with his heart, and so unrequited love prevailed, and its attendant melancholy. Mozart’s mind was so full of harmony that his heart could only follow it like a lamb to the slaughter. He was another ladies’ man, like Pushkin, who put the ‘jealous’ before the ‘joyous’. Both had flighty wives who lead them a merry dance.
But as his wife, Constanze, was indeed constant, Mozart didn’t know what to do with his jealousy, and so with Don Giovanni he glorifies an mythical rival into an irresistible force of sensual genius. Kierkegaard, on reflection, in ‘The Diary of the Seducer’ is less generous to the Don than in his reading of the Mozart opera. As the reality of his own life intrudes, he begins to see the great seducer as a deadly warning against doing what you want. Since he couldn’t, the warning wasn’t necessary (the tag-on Part 2 of Either/ Or isn’t either, a moral justification for doing nothing. A sad loss of nerve).
It could be said that Mozart’s joyousness went into his ‘Requiem’, and Pushkin’s into a hopeless duel with his wife’s guardsman lover. Kierkegaard’s found his in suspending the ethical, and speculating on what life as the primordial Don might have been. Although Da Ponte’s more realistic view of seduction won out in the end of Either/ Or, Kierkegaard in his Journals jealously guarded the Erotic Ideal. He didn’t have a choice in the absence of the real thing.
Tchaikovsky’s sentimental life was polite rather than passionate. He had his secrets no doubt, and no one is without sin. His marriage of convenience was short-lived. Still he had his friends. His heart was out of harmony with his mind, but it could soar with unrestrained ‘joy’ and ‘jealousy’ through his music. But life’s seductions were more banal. His death was due to ‘an indiscretion’. Not drinking cholera-contaminated water, as officially announced. It was a reprise of Socrates’s: self-administered arsenic after a ‘court of honour’ conducted by his friends found him guilty of corrupting youth.
Mozart lacked totally what Goethe called Byron’s empeiria. His experience of life was limited by only growing up musically. Like an adolescent who doesn’t know the world, he believed in absolutes, and the Erotic Ideal was a sacred one. Its apotheosis is in Don Giovanni. Kierkegaard paid homage to this with his parable of the Musical Erotic. But he couldn’t turn a blind eye on Da Ponte. The tension between the libretto and the music holds the evening together, making it a comic Opera by default.
Tchaikovsky didn’t take such a risk, and wrote his own libretto. The climaxes of Eugene Onegin and Don Giovanni are in sharp contrast. Da Ponte’s denouement always makes me laugh. In the last production I saw at Covent Gardens the Stone Statue (Donna Anna’s avenging father’s ghost) beckoning the Don into hell looked like a points policeman on stilts, and the flames were evidently a reflection of fire rather than a burning issue. Against Mozart’s soaring, searing climax, my laughter is hollow. But on reflection the Erotic Ideal is even more so. Kierkegaard in measuring it against his own life, came to believe his was ‘a sickness unto death’ (the title of his last book). Tchaikovsky also empties you, but with music drenched in world-weariness, and a libretto to match. Eugene’s attempt to renew his seductive powers falls flat, and he rants pathetically against his comeuppance. But it is invigorating. When you step out into the night you are glad to be able to breathe again. You fill your lungs. It’s wonderful to be alive. Where will I go now, you say?
Would Onegin have made Kierkegaard feel like that? His emptiness after the Tchaikovsky could not have been filled with a zest for life. He had settled down with melancholy (‘The most faithful mistress I have known’). But I’d like to think he returned to his house, and built a wall of books around his insomnia with the twelve volumes of Casanova’s Memoirs. He would have been consoled by the inevitable repetitive strain of the compulsive seducer, and moved to write a doxological conclusion to Either/Or, starting with the sentence, ‘The root of all evil is repetition. You think about your life backwards. But you live it forward. Thus you have always something to look forward to’.
After their night at the Opera, all the Don’s women are at home with their husbands. ‘I wasn’t meant to be happy’, says Kierkegaard. ‘Nous, aussi’, says Byron and Pushkin (pretending to be French). They are really speaking on behalf of Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni, who stands by looking as though he could do with hell opening for real. Donna Anna’s rape charge is pending, and her father’s murder. The only silver lining is the law, as it’s wont to, has soured the sweetness in Octavio’s bel canto. Donna Anna has been publicly compromised. But a billet doux has just been passed to the Don. Could it be from Elvira (again) It’s good to end a musical evening on an open note.
Kierkegaard confides to his Journal:
‘Mozart’s real ‘Requiem’ was Don Giovanni. As the final cry of the Don dies, so does Mozart. It’s the death of what he wanted to be. But with his last breathe he gets his revenge on Da Ponte. His octet, ‘Ah! Dove e il perfido,’ has all the surviving characters from Donna Anna to Leporella getting together to crow, ‘All is well. Virtue has triumphed. You can go home’. But in the background Mozart is mocking them with an echo of the ‘Hymn of Joy’ from Beethoven’s 9th symphony.
Does Tchaikovsky do any better? Lensky, the swooning poet is his loss of innocence. He gets Eugene to kill it. The joys of youth, and the jealousy of adults, end up with petty envy, all the more absurd as the object of it, Tatiana, is more to be pitied. Ah, real life in the raw. Tatiana is bound to divorce her General, and with the alimony sets herself up as a society hostess. Still, it suited Eugene Onegin (art in life) and Tchaikovshy (life in art) to live on, mourning in boredom and music respectively.
The main seducers in these two operas’s flirted shamelessly with the ‘little death’ of sensual love. While the poets, Byron and Pushkin, wore themselves out with it, the composers had to satisfy themselves with sublimation. All in their different ways knew that the sensual arts were selling them short, and the grand passion that spoke to their art was to be Madame La Mort. Each found her in early middle years before she would be wasted on them. And in doing so, defied the old Russian saw ‘seducers can’t be choosers when it comes to death’.
Byron drank the contaminated water of Missolonghi for his blessed, if messy, release. Tchaikovsky took the hemlock. Pushkin walked into a bullet. Only Mozart appears not to have been complicit in his own death. Poison is mentioned. Pushkin believed it was administered by his jealous rival, composer Salieri. But my hypothesis is not spoiled. Current research concludes he died of a streptococcal infection. There was an epidemic in Vienna. It was surely suicide for a man in his delicate health not to leave town. As for Kierkegaard, he merely lost interest in life, and death took its place.