Thursday, January 22, 2009

Don Giovanni, Heroic Sinner (2)

Don Giovanni is a bad man who comes to a bad end but so what? Does it follow that Mozart's Don Giovanni is also bad? And not only bad but immoral since it sugars over its own badness by giving this bad man such gorgeous music to sing?

If your answer to these questions is 'yes', I have nothing more to say--to you.

These are good questions; they force us to examine our esthetic assumptions. If art as Aristotle says is an imitation of life, what purpose does this process of imitation serve? If there are good and bad imitations, and there must be, how are they good and how are they bad? If art as Matthew Arnold says is a criticism of life, what does that mean? If there are good and bad criticisms, and there must be, what does their goodness or badness consist of? What should we make of Duke Ellington's terse formulation, "if it sounds good, it is good"? Can you have bad art about good people and good art about bad people? Suppose you have a work of art of some sort, either a criticism or imitation of life, or both, that serves no social purpose that you can imagine, or in Bentham's terms looks as if it might diminish utility, can it be good nevertheless? Getting down to cases, do the sights and sounds of an unrepentant, gutsy and still living Don Giovanni being hauled off to hell increase or diminish social utility? Does anyone care? Anyone, that is, besides a moralistic few.

Let's try thinking about Don Giovanni as a criticism of life, specifically the lives of the nobility in the late 18th century, or rather a subset of the nobility, its young men who had been trained since birth to think of themselves as a warrior aristocracy whose primary virtue is courage. It is by courage in battle that such an aristocracy justifies its privileges. By 1787, the social utility of that warrior class has diminished to zero. As a young man, Don Giovanni has no other use for his considerable energy and charm but seduction which he is astonishingly good at. Indeed, his sexual potency seems virtually superhuman--Kierkegaard calls him demonic, and godlike in this respect, and if you remember the myths collected by Ovid in the Metamorphoses you'll know what he means. But where, now, is the life this man used to lead? That's all in the past; this opera is about the present, and life in the present is full of complications. For Don Giovanni's past, as the past has a way of doing, has caught up with him. The effect is comic not tragic. Leporello remarks at one point that Donna Anna and Donna Elivira talk like people in novels. The novel was and is a middle-class art form. It is funny to think of the Don and Leporello trapped in a bourgeois melodrama, which is what happens. And not only trapped but defeated: the commoners, Zerlina and Masetto (like Susanna and Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro) triumph over the noble lord--while the music, on the other hand, celebrates his energy and charm. Don Giovanni remains the hero even as he is losing the game. In this opera, you have to be able to hold contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time.

Doomed Don Giovanni's unrepentant courage in the face of certain damnation is his redeeming virtue. Or so it seems to me, now, with nothing to fear myself from an angry god. It was not, perhaps, quite so easy, in 1787, to admire the courage of Don Giovanni as he is being dragged down to hell. Such courage was not unprecedented however. In the previous century, one of John Dryden's heroic characters had had this to say, defiantly, on his way out: "Not God himself o'er the past has power/ But what has been has been and I have had my hour." And Milton, as Blake had brilliantly noticed, had been "of the devil's party without knowing it"--though, I would say for my part that Milton knew very well what he was doing when he made the poetry of his rebellious Satan so much more interesting, powerful and beautiful than the flat-footed, self-righteous arguments of God.

Whatever we may think about it now, Mozart's opera was certainly relevant, in a complicated sort of way, to the convulsive stirrings of the late 18th century. Men of Don Giovanni's class, in France, were headed for the guillotine if not for hell because they'd ended up on the wrong side of history. (This sounds stupid but I can't think of a better way of putting it.) They were not all heartless libertines. Centuries of aristocratic culture were about to be put to the sword, so to speak. It is possible to think of Mozart's opera as a semi-comic requiem for a doomed world.

1 comment:

  1. Great works of art may indeed be about villainous characters. The Macbeths are villains, and the fact that they were led into temptation by the witches does not make them less villainous. On a slightly different subject, the most popular and probably the most intersting of the three parts of Dante's Divine Comedy is the Inferno.