Doing something

John Dunn

  • Politics: A Work of Constructive Social Theory by Roberto Mangabeira Unger
    Cambridge, 256 pp, £25.00, January 1988, ISBN 0 521 32974 4
  • The Critical Legal Studies Movement by Roberto Mangabeira Unger
    Harvard, 128 pp, £15.25, October 1986, ISBN 0 674 17735 5
  • W.A. Mozart: ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ by Tim Carter
    Cambridge, 180 pp, £27.50, February 1988, ISBN 0 521 30267 6

In the opening act of The Marriage of Figaro the music master Don Basilio twits Susanna with the absurdity of her sexual tastes. How odd not to prefer, as anyone else would do, the favours of a signor liberal, prudente e saggio to those of a giovinastro and a paggio (a callow adolescent and a mere page). The page Cherubino, despite his giddy youth and relatively menial role, is of course a lad of good family. The post in the Count’s regiment to which he is so unavailingly despatched carries the rank of an officer; and both Mozart’s music and Beaumarchais’s own commentary on his character make it evident that he is intended to be exceedingly attractive. (He is ‘what every mother, in her innermost heart, would wish her own son to be even though he might give her much cause for suffering’.) Don Basilio, moreover, is scarcely an engaging character. But in his sleazy way he captures compellingly enough a prominent feature of the erotic power structure of the Ancien Régime. With only the most modest assistance from nature, any nobleman who was generous as well as worldly could be confident of finding attractive women in plenty who could be relied upon to fall for his charms.

It is difficult for us today to hear the long duel of wits between the Count and his spirited servants without a sense of the prodigious upheavals which followed so closely upon the opera’s Vienna premiere. In fact, however, the Ancien Régime, especially in Vienna, long outlasted the revolutionary armies; and the regimes that have followed it across the globe have all, unsurprisingly, proved to possess erotic power structures of their own. To see any social milieu as sharply as Beaumarchais, Da Ponte and Mozart contrived between them to portray the Almaviva house-hold is to see it in many different ways at once – Tim Carter’s useful Cambridge Handbook focuses, in its closing pages, on this aspect of the work’s achievement. Above all, it is to see clearly both the flimsy arbitrariness and the tense patterns of force that enable it for the most part to retain its shape over lengthy periods of time.

To understand the work of Roberto Unger – to see clearly both its flimsy arbitrariness and the patterns of force which enable it for the most part to retain a shape that is genuinely its own – it would be charitable to begin with the insinuating melodies, the subtlety and the unsurpassable vitality of Figaro. Partly this is simply a matter of political perspective. The key historical experience that lies behind the tradition of political action to which Unger belongs is not the Terror and the guillotine, the forging of the brutal instruments of Jacobin state power. Rather, it is the sudden, decisive and almost wholly unanticipated collapse in the plausibility of a social order centred on nobility and its privileges. Two and a half years after Figaro’s premiere, in the midst of the political ferment that preceded the meeting of the Estates General, the avocats of Nuits-St-Georges (in part, lackeys of feudalism but also a prime source of the Third Estate’s revolutionary leadership) were still assuring their noble counterparts of their loyalty to the status pieties of the old regime: ‘The privileges of the nobility are truly their property. We will respect them all the more because we are not excluded from them and because we can acquire them ... Why, then, suppose that we might think of destroying the source of emulation which guides our labours?’ A mere three years later, in France itself, this genuflection before the pretensions of a parasitic caste had become absurd, and was to remain so throughout the Napoleonic Empire and the Bourbon restoration. In 1789, by any reckoning, the privileges of a landed aristocracy had been at the core of the European social order for well over half a millennium. But by 1789 – and despite the prominence of individual aristocrats in French industry, science and letters, to say nothing of the civil or military spheres of public life – this centrality had long outlived any apparent rationale. When challenged frontally, as it was in France, it wilted under the weight of its own crushing implausibility.

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