Knowledge Infinite

D.J. Enright

  • The Don Giovanni Book: Myths of Seduction and Betrayal edited by Jonathan Miller
    Faber, 127 pp, £6.99, July 1990, ISBN 0 571 14542 6

This compilation arose out of Jonathan Miller’s 1985 production of Don Giovanni for the English National Opera, and his introduction to the book is agreeably illuminating, not least for those who for one reason or another never go to the opera. The main characters of Don Giovanni, he notes, have a prior and conspicuous existence outside the opera, being well-established figures of myth, a fact which both helps and hinders. Miller is not the only contributor to glance at that other great legendary example: ‘Faust loses his soul by impudently using it to purchase omniscience. Don Giovanni spends his soul trying to assert sexual omnipotence.’ This summary – broaching two different senses of ‘knowing’ – indicates why the Faust legend is distinctly the richer, potentially as in actual literary treatment. Don Juan belongs to a specific sort of society, a circumscribed activity, and to fantasy; Faust is evergreen, universal, and darkly close to reality. Sex is the essence of the former story (2065 conquests! It sounds like somebody’s bank balance); in the latter sexual desire is present as one strand of human experience or ambition among others. (Traditionally, marriage is out of the question, because it is made in heaven.) In accord with the spirit of the particular age, Faust can feature as either villain or hero; so can Don Juan – O.V. de L. Milosz’s protagonist (1913) repents and becomes a holy man and miracle-worker – but he is less convincing, less central, in whichever role.

Miller reflects on the difficulty posed nowadays by the introduction of devils and hell. Thomas Mann, modern enough, has his Faustian character succumb to syphilis and madness, and evokes hell in terms, chillingly authentic, of the concentration camps. In their appearance as Romantic heroes, rebels against religious law, social convention or political authority, it is perfectly possible to save both Faust and Don Juan, or to arrange for some form of mitigation, an outcome easier for us squeamish art-lovers to accept, but much less potent. Speaking of trapdoors and false fire, Lawrence Lipking regrets that Mozart should have ‘spent his genius on an outmoded moral relic, thrilling but not serious’, yet old myths are serious, and they die hard. To get his Faust off the hook, it took Goethe something like a verbal quibble, and then something even more like an opera, a massed choir of ecclesiastical dignitaries and assorted angels, tacked on at the very end.

The essayists approach the subject from varying angles, and not all of them approach very close. Malcolm Baker writes on tomb sculpture, ‘the static intermediary between the earthly and the eternal’, where the stone figure of the Commendatore is undeniably a case in point. Peter Gay explores the opera’s ‘hidden agenda’, long ago exposed to the light of Freudian day: in this Oedipal reading, Mozart’s ‘unconscious rage against his father, disciplinarian and exploiter’, is reflected in Don Giovanni’s unsuccessful attempt to finish off the father-figure of the Commendatore. Of more interest is Peter Conrad’s brisk account of ‘The Libertine’s Progress’ through the ages, comparable to the changing fortunes of Faust (that ‘man of mind’ as opposed to the ‘man of the senses’), and ranging from Tirso de Molina’s play (c. 1625, and the equivalent of the Faustbuch of 1587), through Molière’s sophisticated immoraliste, E.T.A. (Amadeus) Hoffmann, Byron, Kierkegaard (the aesthetic v. the ethical) and Richard Strauss, to Shaw and Eric Linklater.

The sociological aspects of the ever-interesting topic are not neglected. Taking his tip from the 354 acknowledged bastards of Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, Roy Porter paints a picture of universal libertinism in the 18th century, much of it ‘under the aegis of a benevolent Nature’, which raises as many questions as it makes statements. Some of the claims for unfettered fornication – a Scottish minister maintained in 1735 that it was the great duty of men to ‘throw our Seed into every fruitful Corner. To get it vigorously into the gaping Bottom of every sweet-watered Vale’ – sound more like parody than playfulness; while, for all its entertainment value, the politician Goodwin Wharton’s conviction that God intended him to lie with James II’s wife and remedy her childlessness, whereupon the grateful monarch would abdicate in his favour, can only be attributed to plain lunacy.

Robert Darnton reports on the autobiography of an itinerant glazier, born in Paris in 1738, a low-life Lovelace who outstrips all the window cleaner/travelling salesman jokes with his 64 seductions. If Jacques Ménétra is so extensively successful that he seems too good to be true, never mind, for fantasy is reckoned to be just as significant as truth. Far more grimly, for there can be no evidence of playfulness here, Marina Warner concerns herself with Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), in which, by a ‘shift from a prevailing male dynamic to a female one’, Mme de Merteuil, the fearsome manipulator, dominates the Vicomte de Valmont, the mere rake. ‘Every age gets the Don Juan it deserves; Valmont is the face of Don Giovanni for our time’: a great line for the curtain to fall on.

At times the deep water we find ourselves in seems to run rather shallow. Lawrence Lipking adduces Rilke’s poem ‘Don Juans Auswahl’, in which a handy Angel commissions the novice charmer to lead women into loss and loneliness for their spiritual betterment, so that they may surpass Héloïse in their outcries. Although, like the companion piece on Don Juan’s childhood, the poem isn’t altogether uncritical, it remains at best absurd, at worst repulsive. It is a poeticised rendering of the old idea that unhappiness is a more refined and elevated condition than happiness, and therefore it is better to have loved and lost than to have loved and won. The proposition was developed in a businesslike and even bracing fashion by Proust, in a particular connection, one glossed coarsely by Alex Comfort: ‘With better things in hand,/No one would dip a pen’ – let alone complete an enormously lengthy novel. No doubt it has frequently served as a pleasing extenuation of male infidelity; and also as a decent subject (you couldn’t dwell long on love satisfied) for female pen-dippers. Women’s ability to continue in unrequited love is linked to Goethe’s Ewig-Weibliche, the Eternal-Womanly that leads men upwards. Another abandoned woman is buried in that expression, for it was the pleading of Gretchen among other female penitents that helped to save Faust from being led down into hell.

Even so, it seems less than gentlemanly of Lipking to harp on Donna Elvira’s excessive display of diverse passions (‘Often she forgets to adjust her dress’) and harassment of the audience (her voice ‘threatens to bring down the house’). A patient Griselda wouldn’t be of much use in an opera. And no doubt there is something titillating about manifest abandonment, it calls for pity: pity and lust go nicely together. The mystery grows: what do women find to enjoy in Don Giovanni, ‘Mozart’s unpleasant opera’ (Joseph Kerman)? Presumably they go ‘not for the doctrine, but the music there’. In view of Lipking’s play with the word ‘abandoned’ – it can signify ‘to’ as well as ‘by’ – and his equally ambiguous comment, ‘the woman forgets herself, the man’s attention is pricked,’ we are tempted to speculate vulgarly on the associations of his own name.

Donna Elvira is less obliging than Byron’s Donna Julia, who assures Juan that men have lots of important things to occupy themselves with, ‘The court, camp, church, the vessel, and the mart’, whereas women have but one: ‘To love again, and be again undone’. Jane Miller, who quotes this as one of the ‘views which men need women to have’, cites John Stuart Mill with equal pertinence: ‘We are perpetually told that women are better than men, by those who are totally opposed to treating them as if they were as good.’ She admires Clarissa for its seductive subtlety and humour, and to what degree Mill’s reproach applies to Samuel Richardson, whose heroine she describes as ‘so idealised a man’s woman that a woman reader may be forgiven for wondering whether she can be read as a woman at all’, I am not sure, but fear that further argument might result in men being warned off any attempt to portray the other sex. Another quotation comes to mind: ah, but a woman’s reach should exceed her grasp ...

Lipking has declared that, by comparison with the donna abbandonata, ‘most other characters seem one-dimensional’: so much, then, for the mighty Don. There is nothing in Juan’s end, or any end of Juan I know of, to compare with that of Marlowe’s Faustus. In exchange for his ‘cunning’ (which is what the knowledge he hoped for has come down to), he tells his colleagues, he has given his soul to the devil. ‘God forbid!’ they chorus. ‘God forbade it, indeed,’ he answers, ‘but Faustus hath done it ... and now ’tis too late. Gentlemen, away, lest you perish with me.’ In a last-minute attempt to bargain, he offers to burn his books, but no one is listening.