Walhalla's Frigid Joys
Perhaps the most touching scene of the entire Ring occurs towards the end of Act II of Walkure, when Brunhilde, in her cold majestic beauty, approaches Siegmund, informing him that every mortal who sees her will soon die - she is here to tell him that she will take him to Walhalla after he will lose the battle with Hunding. Siegmund refuses her offer if Sieglinde cannot join him in Walhalla, preferring the love of a miserable mortal woman to Walhall's sproeden Wonnen. The shattered Brunhilde comments on this refusal:
So wenig achtest du ewige Wonne?
Alles waer'dir das arme Weib, das mued und harmwoll matt von dem Schosse dir haengt?
Nichts sonst hieltest du hehr?
This is the core of Wagner's critique of religion: one has to get rid of the old Platonic topos of love as Eros which gradually elevates itself from the love for a particular individual through the love for the beauty of a human body in general and the love of the beautiful form as such to the love for the supreme Good beyond all forms: true love is precisely the opposite move of forsaking the promise of Eternity itself for an imperfect individual. What if the gesture of choosing temporal existence, of giving up eternity for the sake of love, is the highest ethical act of them all? Ernst Bloch was right to remark that what is lacking in German history are more gestures like Siegmund's.
Jurgen Flimm's Ring, which will be repeated in Bayreuth till 2006, is strong precisely at this level of intense intimate interplay; his staging is full of insightful ideas which, of course, sometimes work and sometimes not. Fricka is in Rheingold a careful saving Hausfrau, not the usual majestetic matron; Alberich is in the Act II of Siegfried accompanied by a boy, the young Hagen, whom he already trains for his future combat with Siegfrid (Hagen-boy plays with the small model of a dragon); etc. And Hagen is, together with Wotan and Alberich, the key person of Flimm's staging which presents the Ring as a drama of corrupted state power (Udo Bermbach was Flimm's official ideologue).
The dark figure of Hagen is profoundly ambiguous: although initially depicted as a dark plotter, both in the Nibelungenlied and in Fritz Lang's film, he emerges as the ultimate hero of the entire work and is redeemed at the end as the supreme case of the Nibelungentreue, fidelity to death to one's cause (or, rather, to the Master who stands for this cause), asserted in the final slaughter at the Attila's court. The conflict is here between fidelity to the Master and our everyday moral obligations: Hagen stands for a kind of teleological suspension of morality on behalf of fidelity, he is the ultimate Gefolgsmann.
Significantly, it is ONLY Wagner who depicts Hagen as a figure of Evil - is this not an indication of how Wagner nonetheless belongs to the modern space of freedom? And is Lang's return to the positive Hagen not an indication of how the XXth century marked the reemergence of a new barbarism? It was Wagner's genius to intuit ahead of his time the rising figure of the Fascist ruthless executive who is at the same time a rabble-rousing demagogue (recall Hagen's terrifying Maennerruf) - a worthy supplement to his other great intuition, that of a hysterical woman (Kundry) well before this figure overwhelmed European consciousness (in Charcot's clinic, in the art from Ibsen to Schoenberg).
What makes Hagen a proto-Fascist is his role of the unconditional support for the weak ruler (King Gunther): he does for Gunther the dirty jobs which, although necessary, have to remain concealed from the public gaze - Unsere Ehre heisst Treue. We find this stance, a kind of mirror-reversal of the Beautiful Soul which refuses to dirty its hands, at its purest in the Rightist admiration for the heroes who are ready to do the necessary dirty job: it is easy to do a noble thing for one's country, up to sacrificing one's life for it - it is much more difficult to commit a CRIME for one's country when it is needed... Hitler knew very well how to play this double game apropos the holocaust, using Himmler as his Hagen. In the speech to the SS leaders in Posen on October 4 1943, Himmler spoke quite openly about the mass killing of the Jews as "a glorious page in our history, and one that has never been written and never can be written," explicitly including the killing of women and children: "I did not regard myself as justified in exterminating the men - that is to say, to kill them or have them killed - and to allow the avengers in the shape of children to grow up for our sons and grandchildren. The difficult decision had to be taken to have this people disappear from the earth."
This is Hagen's Treue brought to extreme - however, was the paradoxical price for Wagner's negative portrayal of Hagen not his Judifizierung? A lot of historicist work was done recently trying to bring out the contextual »true meaning« of the Wagnerian figures and topics: the pale Hagen is really a masturbating Jew; Amfortas' wound is really syphillis... The idea is that Wagner is mobilizing historical codes known to everyone in his epoch: when a person stumbles, sings in cracking high tones, makes nervous gestures, etc., everyone knew this is a Jew, so Mime from Siegfried is a caricature of a Jew; the fear of syphillis as the illness in the groin one gets from having intercourse with an impure woman was an obsession in the second half of the 19th century, so it was clear to everyone that Amfortas really contracted syphillis from Kundry... Marc Weiner developed the most perspicuous version of this decoding by focusing on the micro-texture of Wagner's musical dramas - manner of singing, gestures, smells - it is at this level of what Deleuze would have called pre-subjective affects that anti-Semitism is operative in Wagner's operas, even if Jews are not explicitly mentioned: in the way Beckmesser sings, in the way Mime complains...
However, the first problem here is that, even if accurate, such insights do not contribute much to a pertinent understanding of the work in question. One often hears that, in order to understand a work of art, one needs to know its historical context. Against this historicist commonplace, one should affirm that too much of a historical context can blur the proper contact with a work of art - in order to properly grasp, say, Parsifal, one should ABSTRACT from such historical trivia, one should DECONTEXTUALIZE the work, tear it out from the context in which it was originally embedded. Even more, it is, rather, the work of art itself which provides a context enabling us to properly understand a given historical situation. If, today, someone were to visit Serbia, the direct contact with raw data there would leave him confused. If, however, he were to read a couple of literary works and see a couple of representative movies, they would definitely provide the context that would enable him to locate the raw data of his experience. There is thus an unexpected truth in the old cynical wisdom from the Stalinist Soviet Union: "he lies as an eye-witness!"
What further complicates the issue is the ambiguity of Wagner's depicting. Let us return to the most convincing case: Mime as the caricature of a ghetto-Jew - but was Wagner not also critical of Siegfried's cruel treatment of Mime? There is effectively in Wagner's Siegfried an unconstrained "innocent" aggressivity, an urge to directly pass to the act and just squash what gets on your nerves - as in Siegfrid's words to Mime in the Act I of Siegfried:
seh'ich dich stehn, gangeln und gehn,
knicken und nicken,
mit den Augen zwicken,
beim Genick moecht'ich den Nicker packen,
den Garaus geben dem garst'gen Zwicker!.
Is this not the most elementary disgust, repulsion felt by the ego when confronted with the intruding foreign body? One can easily imagine a neo-Nazi skinhead uttering the same words in the face of a worn-out Turkish Gastarbeiter...
And, finally, one should not forget that, in the Ring, the source of all evil is not Alberich's fatal choice in the first scene of Rhinegold: long before this event took place, Wotan broke the natural balance, succumbing to the lure of power, giving preference to power over love - he tore out and destroyed the World-Tree, making out of it his spear on which he inscribed the runes fixating the laws of his rule, plus he pluck out one of his eyes in order to gain insight into inner truth. Evil thus does not come from the Outside - the insight of Wotan's tragic monologue with Brunhilde in the Act II of Walkure is that the power of Alberich and the prospect of the end of the world is ultimately Wotan's own guilt, the result of his ethical fiasco - in Hegelese, external opposition is the effect of inner contradiction. No wonder, then, that Wotan is called the "White Alb" in contrast to the "Black Alb" Alberich - if anything, Wotan's choice was ethically worse than Alberich's: Alberich longed for love and only turned towards power after being brutally mocked and turned down by the Rhinemaidens, while Wotan turned to power after fully enjoying the fruits of love and getting tired of them. One should also bear in mind that, after his moral fiasco in Walkure, Wotan turns into "Wanderer" - a figure of the Wandering Jew like already the first great Wagnerian hero, the Flying Dutchman, this "Ahasver des Ozeans."
And the same goes for Parsifal which is not about an elitist circle of the pure-blooded threatened by external contamination (copulation by the Jewess Kundry). There are two complications to this image: first, Klingsor, the evil magician and Kundry's Master, is himself an ex-Grail knight, he comes from within; second point, if one reads the text really close, one cannot avoid the conclusion that the true source of evil, the primordial imbalance which derailed the Grail community, resides at its very center - it is Titurel's excessive fixation of enjoying the Grail which is at the origins of the misfortune. The true figure of Evil is Titurel, this obscene père-jouisseur. (Perhaps comparable to giant worm-like members of the Space Guild from Frank Herbert's Dune, whose bodies are disgustingly distorted because of their excessive consumption of the "spice").
This, then, undermines the anti-Semitic perspective according to which the disturbance always ultimately comes from outside, in the guise of a foreign body which throws out of joing the balance of the social organism: for Wagner, the external intruder (Alberich) is just a secondary repetition, externalization, of an absolutely immanent inconsistency/antagonism (of Wotan). With reference to Brecht's famous "What is the robbery of a bank compared to the founding of a new bank?", one is tempted to say: "What is a poor Jew's stealing of the gold compared to the violence of the Aryan's (Wotan's) grounding of the rule of Law?" Flimm was right to focus his staging on this political drama of power: this is what accounts for Wagner's continuous actuality.
So where do we stand with this actuality? When one approaches the Festspielhaus during intermissions, the first impression, of course, is that of a scene from a Fellini film: aseptic old men in dark dresses silently roaming around, accompanied by ladies with too much make-up, a true dance of the vampires, a reunion of living dead playing high society... Is, however, this the entire truth? Or was Boulez right when, back in the 1960s, in one of his memorable anarchic-avantgarde outbursts, he said that all opera houses should be bombed - except Bayreuth.
The fact remains that the Bayreuth stagings (or, rather, the stagings of Wagner in general) provide the most accurate registration of our global spiritual and political preoccupations. Recall the Parsifals of the last decades: everything was there, from ecological concerns to New Age spirituality, from space-technology to political revolutions and youth rebellions... More generally, do the great shifts in Wagner stagings not condense the triad of Traditionalism-Modernism-Postmodernism? Before the World War II, traditional settings of the Ring predominated: naturalistic background of wild rocks and trees, Viking-like heroes... Then, in 1950, there occurred the New Bayreuth explosion of radical modernism: ascetic, pseudo Ancient Greek tunics, empty stages with strong lights and just some minimal simple object with runes here and there. In the 1960, Wagner stagings were at the frontline of postmodernism in all its versions: the inconsistent mixture of heterogeneous styles and settings (Rhine daughters as prostitutes, the conflict between Siegfried and Hagen as a conflict between SA and SS, Walhalla's executive offices...), the changes in the narrative (Isolde stays at home and Tristan dies alone, the Dutchman is Senta's hysterical hallucination...).
In this way, Bayreuth - and Wagner's work itself - is more and more emerging as an insurpassable canon, comparable only to Greek tragedies and Shakespeare: not a foundation with a fixed meaning, but the permanent frame of reference which calls for new and new stagings, which has to be fed by them in order to remain alive. It is through a new staging of Wagner that we make it clear to ourselves where do we stand, in the most radical existential sense, and the power of Wagner's opus is precisely that it survives new and new interpretations.
Imagine - my private dream - a Parsifal taking place in a modern megalopolis, with Klingsor as an impotent pimp running a whorehouse; he uses Kundry to seduce members of the Grail circle, a rival drug gang. Grail is run by the wounded Amfortas whose father Titurel is in a constant delirium induced by too much drugs; Amfortas is under a terrible pressure from the members of his gang to perform the ritual, i.e., deliver the daily portion of drugs to them. Parsifal is a young inexperienced son of a single homeless mother in search of drugs, and he "feels the pain" and rejects Kundry's advances while she is performing fellatio on him... Such experiments, of course, are risky, they often ridiculously misfire - however, not always, and there is no way to tell it in advance, so one has to take the risk.
Bayreuth, which was proclaimed dead, dismissed as outdated, at its very conception, is today more alive than the majority of those who organized its funerals. Again and again, it reemerges as the Mecca of European cultural fundamentalists - the site of their hadj, sacred pilgrimage - you have to do it at least once in lifetime if you want your soul saved. And the core of this fundamentalists is no longer composed by hard-core conservatives: as an American critic recently remarked, Wagner's Ring was in the last years almost kidnapped by Leftist Jewish directors - in a weird case of poetic justice, you have to go to the American West (to Seattle) in order to enjoy the "authentic" Teutonic Ring...
There was, in the last months, after the public letters from Jurgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, and other philosophers, a lot of talk about the revival of the core European values as an antidote to the Americanized New World Order. If there is a cultural event in which, today, this European tradition condenses and embodies itself, it is Bayreuth - so, to paraphrase Max Horkheimer, those who do not want to talk about Bayreuth should also keep silent about Europe.
La Clemenza di Tito, or the Ridiculously-Obscene Excess of Mercy
Rossini's great male portraits, the three from Barbiere (Figaro's "Largo il factotum," Basilio's "Calumnia," and Bartolo's "Un dottor della mia sorte"), plus father's wishful self-portrait of corruption in Cenerentola, enact a mocked self-complaint, where one imagines oneself in a desired position, the one bombarded by demands for a favor or service: the subject assumes the roles of those who address him, and then feigns a reaction to it. The culminating moment of the archetypal Rossini aria is this unique moment of happiness, of the full assertion of the excess of Life, which arises when the subject is overwhelmed by demands, no longer being able to deal with them. At the highpoint of his "factotum" aria, Figaro exclaims:
What a crowd
of the people bombarding me with their demands
Have mercy, one after the other
uno per volta, per carita!
Referring therewith to the Kantian experience of the Sublime, in which the subject is bombarded with an excess of the data that he is unable to comprehend. And do we not encounter a similar excess in Mozart's Clemenza - a same sublime/ridiculous explosion of mercies? Just before the final pardon, Tito himself exasperates at the proliferation of treasons which oblige him to proliferate acts of clemency:
"The very moment that I absolve one criminal, I discover another. /.../ I believe the stars conspire to oblige me, in spite of myself, to become cruel. No: they shall not have this satisfaction. My virtue has already pledged itself to continue the contest. Let us see, which is more constant, the treachery of others or my mercy. /.../ Let it be known to Rome that I am the same and that I know all, absolve everyone, and forget everything."
One can almost hear Tito complaining: Uno per volta, per carita! - "Please, not so fast, one after the other, in the line for mercy!" Living up to his task, Tito forgets everyone, but those whom he pardons are condemned to remember it forever:
SEXTUS: It is true, you pardon me, Emperor; but my heart will not absolve me; it will lament the error until it no longer has memory.
TITUS: The true repentance of which you are capable, is worth more than constant fidelity.
This couplet from the finale blurts out the obscene secret of clemenza: the pardon does not really abolish the debt, it rather makes it infinite - we are FOREVER indebted to the person who pardoned us. No wonder Tito prefers repentance to fidelity: in fidelity to the Master, I follow him out of respect, while in repentance, what attached me to the Master is the infinite indelible guilt. In this, Tito is a thoroughly Christian master.
Usually, it is Judaism which is conceived as the religion of the superego (of man's subordination to the jealous, mighty and severe God), in contrast to the Christian God of Mercy and Love - one opposes the Jewish rigorous Justice and the Christian Mercy, the inexplicable gesture of undeserved pardon: we, humans, were born in sin, we cannot ever repay our debts and redeem ourselves through our own acts - our only salvation lies in God's Mercy, in His supreme sacrifice. However, in this very gesture of breaking the chain of Justice through the inexplicable act of Mercy, of paying our debt, Christianity imposes on us an even stronger debt: we are forever indebted to Christ, we cannot ever repay him for what he did to us. The Freudian name for such an excessive pressure which we cannot ever remunerate is, of course, superego. It is precisely through NOT demanding from us the price for our sins, through paying this price for us Himself, that the Christian God of Mercy establishes itself as the supreme superego agency: "I paid the highest price for your sins, and you are thus indebted to me FOREVER..." Is this God as the superego agency, whose very Mercy generates the indelible guilt of believers, the ultimate horizon of Christianity? One should effectively correlate the superego unconditional guilt and the mercy of love - two figures of the excess, the excess of guilt without proportion to what I effectively did, and the excess of mercy without proportion to what I deserve on account of my acts.
As such, the dispensation of mercy is the most efficient constituent of the exercise of power. That is to say, is the relationship between law (legal justice) and mercy really the one between necessity and choice? Is it really that one HAS to obey the law, while mercy is by definition dispensed as a free and excessive act, as something that the agent of mercy is free to do or not to do - mercy under compulsion is no mercy but, at its best, a travesty of mercy? What if, at a deeper level, the relationship is the opposite one? What if, with regard to law, we have the freedom to choose (to obey or violate it), while mercy is obligatory, we HAVE to display it - mercy is an unnecessary excess which, as such, HAS to occur. (And does the law not always take into account this freedom of ours, not only by punishing us for its transgression, but by providing escapes to being punished by its ambiguity and inconsistency?) Is it not that showing mercy is the ONLY way for a Master te demonstrate his supra-legal authority? If a Master were merely to guarantee the full application of the law, of legal regulations, he would be deprived of his authority and turn into a mere figure of knowledge, the agent of the discourse of university. (This is why even a great judge is a Master figure: he always somehow twists the law in its application by way of interpreting it creatively.) This goes even for Stalin himself, a figure which we definitely do not associate with mercy: one should never forget that, as the (now available) minutes of the meetings of the Politburo and Central Committee from the 1930s demonstrate, Stalin's direct interventions were as a rule those of displaying mercy. When younger CC members, eager to prove their revolutionary fervour, demanded instant death penalty for Bukharin, Stalin always intervened and said "Patience! His guilt is not yet proven!" or something similar. Of course this was a hypocritical attitude - Stalin was well aware that he himself generated the destructive fervour, that the younger members were eager to please him - but, nonetheless, the appearance of mercy is necessary here.
And, if anything, in our late capitalist societies, this perverse logic of mercy is brought to extreme, as the ultimate expression of the weird unity of the opposites that permeates our attitudes. Today's hedonism combines pleasure with constraint - it is no longer the old notion of the right measure between pleasure and constraint, but a kind of pseudo-Hegelian immediate coincidence of the opposites: action and reaction should coincide, the very thing which causes damage should already be the medicine. The ultimate example of it is arguably a chocolate laxative, available in the US, with the paradoxical injunction "Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate!", i.e., of the very thing which causes constipation. Do we not find here a weird version of Wagner's famous "Only the spear which caused the wound can heal it" from Parsifal? And is not a negative proof of the hegemony of this stance the fact that true unconstrained consumption (in all its main forms: drugs, free sex, smoking...) is emerging as the main danger? The fight against these dangers is one of the main investments of today's biopolitics. Solutions are here desperately sought which would reproduce the paradox of the chocolate laxative. The main contender is safe sex - a term which makes one appreciative of the truth of the old saying "Is having sex with a condom not like taking a shower with a raincoat on?". The ultimate goal would be here, along the lines of decaf coffee, to invent opium without opium: no wonder marihuana is so popular among liberals who want to legalize it - it already IS a kind of opium without opium.
We encounter the same unity of opposites in the new capitalist ethics, where the ruthless pursuit of profit is counteracted by charity. Commendable as it is in itself, Bill Gates' charitable activity of gigantic proportions in no way redeems his economic pursuits. More generally, charity is, today, part of the game as a humanitarian mask hiding the underlying economic exploitation: in a superego-blackmail of gigantic proportions, the developed countries are constantly helping the undeveloped (with aid, credits, etc.), thereby avoiding the key issue, namely, their COMPLICITY in and co-responsibility for the miserable situation of the undeveloped.
And the same paradox occurs even at the military level of the "war on terror." The category of homo sacer, reactualized recently by Giorgio Agamben - those who, according to the ancient Roman law, could have been killed with impunity and whose death was, for the same reason, without any sacrificial value -, is best fitted to cover this newly emerging entity of the excluded, who are not only terrorists, but also those who are on the receiving end of the humanitarian help (Ruandans, Bosnians, Afghanis...): today's homo sacer is the privileged object of the humanitarian biopolitics - in both cases, the population is reduced to an object of biopolitics. It is thus is absolutely crucial to supplement the usual list of today's homo sacer (les sans papiers in France, the inhabitants of the favelas in Brasil, the African-American ghettos in the US, etc.) with the humanitarian side: perhaps, those perceived as the receivers of humanitarian aid are THE figure of homo sacer today.
One should therefore assume the paradox that concentration camps and refugee camps for the delivery of humanitarian aid are the two faces, "human" and "inhuman," of the same socio-logical formal matrix. This is another facet of the new global order: we no longer have wars in the old sense of the regulated conflict between sovereign states in which certain rules apply (the treatment of prisoners, the prohibition of certain weapons., etc.). What remains are two types of conflicts: either struggles between groups of homo sacer, i.e. ethnic-religious conflicts which violate the rules of universal human rights, do not count as wars proper, and call for the »humanitarian pacifist« intervention of the Western powers, or direct attacks on the US or other representatives of the new global order, in which case, again, we do not have wars proper, but merely »unlawful combatants« resisting forces of universal order. In this second case, one cannot even imagine a neutral humanitarian organization like the Red Cross mediating between the warring parties, organizing the exchange of prisoners, etc.: one side in the conflict (the US-dominated global force) ALREADY ASSUMES THE ROLE OF THE RED CROSS - it does not perceive itself as one of the warring sides, but as a mediating agent of peace and global order crushing down particular rebellions and, simultaneously, providing humanitarian aid to the local populations.
This weird coincidence of the opposites reached its peak when, in April 2002, Harald Nasvik, a Right-wing member of the Norvegian parliament, proposed George W. Bush and Tony Blair as the candidates for the Nobel peace prize, quoting their decisive role in the "war on terror" as the greatest threat to peace today - the old Orwellian motto "War is Peace" finally becomes reality, so that, sometimes, military action against Taliban is almost presented as a means to guarantee the safe delivery of the humanitarian aid. We thus no longer have the opposition between war and humanitarian aid: the two are closely connected, THE SAME intervention can function at two levels simultaneously: the toppling of the Taliban regime was presented as part of the strategy to help the Afghani people oppressed by the Taliban - as Tony Blair said in September 2001, perhaps, we will have to throw more bombs on Afghanistan in order to secure the food transportation and distribution. Perhaps, the ultimate image of the treatment of the local population as homo sacer is that of the American war plane flying above Afghanistan - one is never sure what it will drop, bombs or food parcels. War itself, the ruthless bombing destined not only to annihilate the enemy, but to produce "shock and awe," is legitimized as being in the service of mercy...
It is against this historical background that we should read today Mozart's Clemenza. The entire canon of Mozart's great operas can be read as the deployment of the motif of pardon, of dispensing mercy, in all its variations. The first two masterpieces, Idomeneo and Die Entfuehrung, still rely on the traditional absolutist-monarchic figure of the Master dispensing mercy: at the very point of the lowest despair, when the hero heroically assumes readiness to die, to sacrifice himself for the beloved, the authority intervenes and shows mercy. Le nozze di Figaro marks the first big break: in its finale, it is the Master himself (the Count) who, in the inversion of the »normal« situation, has to kneal down and ask for mercy from his wife and his subjects, and when he is pardoned by them, the opera can conclude with the assertion of universal brotherhood. Don Giovanni introduces an additional twist: in the terrifying finale, when confronted with the Stone Guest, the hero is offered mercy if he just renounces his sinful past and repents, but don Giovanni proudly rejects the offer, preferring eternal damnation to betraying his existential choice of seducer. The lowest point is reached in Cosi fan tutte, the only Mozart's opera with a failed finale; however, far from condemning this failure, one should perceive it, in an Adornian way, as anh injdication of Mozart's truthfulness - after the abyssal imbroglio of betrayals, any reconciliation of the two couples can only be a fake. With The Magic Flute, the reign of mercy is reinstalled, but with a price: the register shifts from the grim realism of Don Giovanni and Cosi... to the artificially resuscitated fairy-tale magic.
And, in order to grasp properly the place of La clemenza, it is crucial to read it together with The Magic Flute. The ridiculous proliferation of mercy in Clemenza means that power no longer functions in a normal way, so that it has to be sustained by mercy all the time: if Master has to show mercy, it means that the law failed, that the legal state machinery is not able to run on its own and needs an incessant intervention from the outside. (One encounters a similar paradox in the state Socialist regimes: when, in a mythical scene from Soviet hagiography, Stalin takes a walk in the fields, meets there a driver whose tractor broke down and helps him to repair it with a wise advice, what this effectively means is that not even a tractor can function normally in the state Socialist economic chaos.)
The obverse, the truth, of the continuous celebration of the wisdom and mercy displayed by Tito is therefore the fact that Tito as a ruler is a fiasco. Instead of relying on the support of faithful subjects, he ends up surrounded by sick and tormented people condemned to eternal guilt. And this sickness is reflected back into Tito himself: far from radiating the dignity of the severe but merciful rulers from the early Mozart's operas, Tito's acts display features of hysterical self-staging: Tito is PLAYING himself all the time, narcissistically fascinated by the faked generosity of his acts. In short, the passage from Basha Selim in Die Entfuehrung to Tito in Clemenza is the passage from the naïve to the sentimental. And, as is usual with Mozart, this falsity of Tito's position is rendered by the music itself which, in a supreme dislay of the much-praised Mozartean irony, effectively undermines the opera's explicit ideological project.
Perhaps, then, the fact that La clemenza was composed in the midst of the work on The Magic Flute is more than a meaningless coincidence: one is tempted to risk the hypothesis that La clemenza is the obverse, the hidden truth, of The Magic Flute, its necessary shadowy double, the obscene reactionary political reality that underlies the reinvented "magic" of the Flute universe. Back in the 1930s, Max Horkheimer wrote that those who do not want to speak (critically) about liberalism should also keep silent about fascism. Mutatis mutandis, one should say to those who detract La clemenza as a failure in comparison with The Magic Flute: those who do not want to engage critically with The Magic Flute should also keep silent about La Clemenza di Tito.
The Sex of Orpheus
Why was the story of Orpheus THE opera topic in the first century of its history, when there are recorded almost one hundred versions of it? The figure of Orpheus asking Gods to bring him back his Euridice stands for an intersubjecive constellation which provides as it were the elementary matrix of the opera, more precisely, of the operatic aria: the relationship of the subject (in both senses of the term: autonomous agent as well as the subject of legal power) to his Master (Divinity, King, or the Lady of the courtly love) is revealed through the hero's song (the counterpoint to the collectivity embodied in the chorus), which is basically a supplication addressed to the Master, a call to him to show mercy, to make an exception, or otherwise forgive the hero his trespass. The first, rudimentary, form of subjectivity is this voice of the subject beseeching the Master to suspend, for a brief moment, his own Law. A dramatic tension in subjectivity arises from the ambiguity between power and impotence that pertains to the gesture of grace by means of which the Master answers the subject's entreaty. As to the official ideology, grace expresses the Master's supreme power, the power to rise above one's own law: only a really powerful Master can afford to distribute mercy. What we have here is a kind of symbolic exchange between the human subject and his divine Master: when the subject, the human mortal, by way of his offer of self-sacrifice, surmounts his finitude and attains the divine heights, the Master responds with the sublime gesture of Grace, the ultimate proof of HIS humanity. Yet this act of grace is at the same time branded by the irreducible mark of a forced empty gesture: the Master ultimately makes a virtue out of necessity, in that he promotes as a free act what he is in any case compelled to do - if he refuses clemency, he takes the risk that the subject's respectful entreaty will turn into open rebellion.
For that reason, the temporal proximity of the emergence of opera to Descartes' formulation of cogito is more that a fortuitous coincidence: one is even tempted to say that the move from Monteverdi's Orfeo to Gluck's Orpheus and Euridice corresponds to the move from Descartes to Kant. What Gluck contributed was a new form of subjectivization. In Monteverdi we have sublimation in its purest: after Orpheus turns around to cast a glance at Euridice and thus loses her, the Divinity consoles him - true, he has lost her as a flesh-and-blood person, but from now on, he will be able to discern her beautiful features everywhere, in the stars in the sky, in the glistening of the morning dew... Orpheus is quick to accept the narcissistic profit of this reversal: he becomes enraptured with the poetic glorification of Euridice that lies ahead of him - to put it succinctly, he no longer loves HER, what he loves is the vision of HIMSELF displaying his love for her.
This, of course, throws another light on the eternal question of why Orpheus looked back and thus screwed things up. What we encounter here is simply the link between the death-drive and creative sublimation: Orpheus' backward gaze is a perverse act stricto sensu, he loses Euridice intentionally in order to regain her as the object of sublime poetic inspiration (this idea was developed by Klaus Theweleit1). But should one not go here even a step further? What if Euridice herself, aware of the impasse of her beloved Orpheus, intentionally provoked his turning around? What if her reasoning was something like: "I know he loves me; but he is potentially a great poet, this is his fate, and he cannot fulfill that promise by being happily married to me - so the only ethical thing for me to do is to sacrifice myself, to provoke him into turning around and losing me, so that he will be able to become the great poet he deserves to be - and then she starts gently coughing or something similar to attract his attention... Examples are here innumerable: like Euridice who, by sacrificing herself, i.e. by intentionally provoking Orpheus into turning his gaze towards her and thus sending her back to Hades, delivers his creativity and sets him free to pursue his poetic mission, Elsa in Wagner's Lohengrin also intentionally asks the fateful question and thereby delivers Lohengrin whose true desire, of course, is to remain the lone artist sublimating his suffering into his creativity. Wagner's Bruenhilde, this "suffering, self-sacrificing woman," is here the ultimate example: she wills her annihilation, but not as a desperate means to compensate for her guilt - she wills it as an act of love destined to redeem the beloved man, or, as Wagner himself put it in a famous letter to Franz Liszt: "The love of a tender woman has made me happy; she dared to throw herself into a sea of suffering and agony so that she should be able to say to me 'I love you!' No one who does not know all her tenderness can judge how much she had to suffer. We were spared nothing - but as a consequence I am redeemed and she is blessedly happy because she is aware of it." Once again, we should descend here from the mythic heights into the everyday bourgeois reality: woman is aware of the fact that, by means of her suffering which remains invisible to the public eye, of her renunciation for the beloved man and/or her renunciation to him (the two are always dialectically interconnected, since, in the fantasmatic logic of the Western ideology of love, it is for the sake of her man that the woman must renounce him), she rendered possible man's redemption, his public social triumph - like Traviata who abandons her lover and thus enables his reintegration into the social order.
With Gluck, however, the denouement is completely different: after looking back and thus losing Euridice, Orpheus sings his famous aria "Che faro senza Euridice," announcing his intention to kill himself. At this precise point of total self-abandonment, Love intervenes and gives him back his Euridice. This specific form of subjectivization - the intervention of Grace not as a simple answer to the subject's entreaty, but as an answer which occurs in the very moment when the subject decides to put his life at stake, to risk everything - is the twist added by Gluck. What is crucial here is the link between the assertion of subjective autonomy and the "answer of the Real," the mercy shown by the big Other: far from being opposed, they rely on each other, i.e., the modern subject can assert its radical autonomy only insofar as it can count on the support of the "big Other," only insofar as his autonomy is sustained by the social substance. No wonder this gesture of "autonomy and mercy," of mercy intervening at the very point of the subject's assertion of full autonomy, is discernible throughout the history of the opera, from Mozart to Wagner: in Idomeneo and Seraglio, the Other (Neptun, Basha Selim) displays mercy at the very moment when the hero is ready to sacrifice his/her life, and the same happens even twice in The Magic Flute (the magic intervention of the Other prevents both Pamina's and Papageno's suicide); in Fidelio, the trumpet anounces the Minister's arrival at the very point when Leonora puts her life at stake to save Florestan; up to Wagner's Parsifal in which Parsifal himself intervenes and redeems Amfortas precisely when Amfortas asks to be stabbed to death by his knights.
What occurs between Monteverdi and Gluck is thus the "failure of sublimation": the subject is no longer ready to accept the metaphoric substitution, to exchange "being for meaning," i.e., the flesh-and-blood presence of the beloved for the fact that he will be able to see her everywhere, in stars and the moon, etc. - rather than do this, he prefers to take his life, to lose it all, and it is at this point, to fill in the refusal of sublimation, of its metaphoric exchange, that mercy has to intervene to prevent a total catastrophy. This "failure of sublimation" is discernible also at another level. At the beginning of Monteverdi's Orfeo, the Goddess of Music introduces herself with the words "Io sono la musica..." - is this not something which soon afterwards, when "psychological" subjects invaded the stage, became unthinkable, or, rather, irrepresentable? One had to wait until the 1930s for such strange creatures to reappear on the stage. In Bertolt Brecht's "learning plays," an actor enters the stage and addresses the public: "I am a capitalist. I'll now approach a worker and try to deceive him with my talk of the equity of capitalism..." The charm of this procedure resides in the psychologically "impossible" combination, in one and the same actor, of two distinct roles, as if a person from the play's diegetic reality can also, from time to time, step outside himself and utter "objective" comments about his acts and attitudes. This second role is the descendant of Prologue, a unique figure which often appears in Shakespeare, but which later disappears with the advent of psychological-realist theatre: an actor who, at the beginning, between the scenes or at the end, addresses the public directly with explanatory comments, didactic or ironic points about the play, etc. Prologue thus effectively functions as the Freudian Vorstellungs-Repraesentanz: an element which, on stage, within its diegetic reality of representations, holds the place of the mechanism of representing as such, thereby introducing the moment of distance, interpretation, ironic comment - and, for that reason, it had to disappear with the victory of psychological realism. Things are here even more complex than in a naive version of Brecht: the uncanny effect of Prologue does not hinge on the fact that he "disturbs the stage illusion" but, on the contrary, on the fact that he does NOT disturb it. Notwithstanding his comments and their effect of "extraneation," we, the spectators, are still able to participate in the stage illusion. And, this is how one should also locate Jacques Lacan's c'est moi, la vérité, qui parle from his La Chose freudienne: as the same shocking emergence of a word where one would not expect it - it is the Thing itself which starts to speak.
And it is not only that, with Gluck, the object can no longer sing - this shift does not concern only content, but, even more radically, the musical texture itself. With Romanticism, music changes its role: it is no longer a mere accompaniment of the message delivered in speech, it contains/renders a message of its own, deeper than the one delivered in words. It was Rousseau who first clearly articulated this expressive potential of music as such, when he claimed that, instead of merely imitating the affective features of verbal speech, music should be given the right to speak for itself - in contrast to the deceiving verbal speech, in music, it is, to paraphrase Lacan, the truth itself which speaks. As Schopenhauer put it, music directly enacts/renders the noumenal Will, while speech remains limited to the level of phenomenal representations. Music is the substance which renders the true heart of the subject, which is what Hegel called the "Night of the World," the abyss of radical negativity: with the shift from the Enlightenment subject of rational logos to the Romantic subject of the "night of the world," i.e., with the shift of the metaphor for the kernel of the subject from Day to Night, music becomes the bearer of the true message beyond words. Here we encounter das Unheimliche: no longer the external transcendence, but, following Kant's transcendental turn, the excess of the Night in the very heart of the subject (the dimension of the Undead), what Tomlison called the "internal otherworldliness that marks the Kantian subject." What music renders is no longer the semantics of the soul, but the underlying noumenal flux of jouissance beyond the linguistic meaningfulness. This noumenal dimension is radically different from the pre-Kantian transcendent divine Truth: it is the inaccessible excess which forms the very core of the subject.
With Gluck, we thus enter the Romantic universe of the abyssal inner Life, the universe in which the classic sublimation no longer works, in which things (and notions) can no longer sing. However, Gluck is not the end of the (hi)story: he stands for the very early gestation of Romanticism. In the middle of 19th century, the Romantic excesses themselves are domesticated, the standard bourgeois "psychological realism" establishes its reign, and in this new age, Gluck's version itself no longer works. To paraphrase Marx, what was a tragedy repeats itself as a comedy, i.e., it can only be staged as a comic operetta, and this comic operetta effectively exists - it is Orphée aux enfers, Jacques Offenbach's opéra bouffon in two acts (1858, libretto by Hector-Jonathan Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy). The "Music" from Monteverdi appears here as the Public Opinion, which makes herself known at the outset. Eurydice, unhappily married to Orpheus, whose violin-playing she cannot stand, has a lover, the farmer Aristaeus. Orpheus has laid a trap for him by putting snakes in a cornfield, but Aristaeus lets Eurydice walk there, where she is bitten and dies. Aristaeus turns out to be Pluto, God of the Underworld, so that she is not unhappy to go with him. Orpheus, well rid of her, would be happy enough, were it not for Public Opinion, who insists that he should bring her back from Hades. On Mount Olympus, Venus, Cupid and Mars have been out for the night. They are just home, when Diana's hunting-horn rouses them. Jupiter is displeased at their behaviour and summons Pluto, complaining of his abduction of a mortal. The gods now rebel against Jupiter's hypocrisy, and his own escapades are recalled. Public Opinion arrives, with Orpheus, and Jupiter tells Pluto to give him Eurydice back. Pluto returns to Hades with Jupiter and the latter, in the guise suggested by Cupid of a fly, makes his way through the key-hole into the room where Eurydice is kept under guard. He suggests that they should escape together to Olympus. There is a party in Hades and Jupiter hopes to take Eurydice away with him. Cupid reminds him that Orpheus is on his way, with strait-laced Public Opinion. Cupid suggests the answer. He must allow Orpheus to take Eurydice back with him, provided he does not look round as she follows him. Orpheus does not look round until Jupiter hurls a thunderbolt and shocks him into it. He happily loses Eurydice, who becomes a priestess of Bacchus, god of wine.
The ironic reference of Offenbach to Gluck is clear - say, the can-can of the spirits below is an obvious wicked parody of Gluck's sedate Dance of the Blessed Spirits. This, then, is how one should understand Hector Berlioz' reworking of Gluck's Orpheus which was performed in 1859, exactly a year after the premiere of Offenbach's parody: the problem is, again, how to prevent the opera to slide into ridicule, how to guarantee that it will still be experienced as serious and convincing. If Gluck is the answer to the failure of symbolization, to the new universe in which objects and ideas can no longer directly sing, Berlioz' version is the answer to the new times of "psychological realism" in which the pathetic spectacle of the courtly opera cannot but appear ridiculous. And the fact that, even today, the Berlioz version remains the standard, the most often performed one, is a clear indication of the extent to which the ideology of "psychological realism" continues to dominate.
Perhaps the best way to detect what is at stake in these shifts is to follow the changes in the voice which sings Orpheus in Gluck's opera. In the original version of 1762 (small and ceremonial, for a court occasion of crowning), it was a castrato; for a 1769 staging in Parma, Gluck himself rewrote the part for soprano; finally, in the thoroughly reworked version for the Paris staging in 1774 (Grand Opera style for the large public, with added preludes and ballet), Orpheus was sung by a high tenor. In 1859, when Berlioz shortened the opera again and made is less large, he rewrote Orpheus for contra-alto/mezzosoprano. In a first approach, this cannot but appear strange: why not stick to high tenor? If Berlioz' concern was to restore Orpheus to its "natural" state, what can be more "unnatural" than the return to the classic tradition of women singing male roles? Why did this sex discrepancy survive in the era of bourgeois naturalization? There is only one consistent answer: because, in the high era of the bourgeois ideology, the gesture of offering oneself to self-sacrifice performed by Orpheus at the opera's highpoint can be conceived only as feminine - it is no longer compatible with the dignity of a man to perform it. Irrespective of the "official" sex identity of the person who enacts it on the stage, the psychological truth of the gesture is feminine, which is why the voice (which should follow the "inner" truth, not the visible truth of what takes place on the stage) should be feminine - it is as if Berlioz followed the well-known joke from the 18th century comedy, when a wife caught by her husband in bed with a lover denies the obvious and adds: "Whom do you believe, your eyes or my words?" The implied answer is, of course: if you truly love me, you will believe my words - and Berlioz demands from us the same, not to believe our eyes, but what the voice tells us. This, then, is the key point: although Berlioz returned to the classic tradition of women singing male roles, he did it for the exactly opposite reason: not in order to follow a ritualized tradition, but on behalf of inner psychological truth - do we need a more striking proof of the material efficiency of ideology?
Does this mean that, in order to break out of the ideological mould, one should simply return to the "natural" constellation of a man singing a male role? But what if there is a more radical option - perhaps an idea for a new staging: to present Orpheus and Euridice as a "lesbian couple"? What if this is the ultimate reason why their love is doomed to fail? So why should we not take Berlioz more seriously (and literally) than he was ready to take himself, and openly stage the very psychological truth he was promoting?