March 16, 2014

Gypsy on the couch: Carmen's pathology

Noted amateur psychologist
Georges Bizet
My favorite moment in Bizet's Carmen is probably not the same as yours. You? You probably like the flashy, colorful arias, you. Habanera. Seguidilla. Toreador. Like that. And you're not wrong. They're terrific, I agree.

But I've just come off a stretch of two months of virtually daily lecture classes and talks about this music all over the Commonwealth of Virginia. And I'm here to tell ya: it'll be a LONG time before I need to hear the Habanera again. A longgggggg time. It's like when you eat too many pancakes; suddenly, pancakes just aren't that appealing.

What I don't tire of is the moment when Carmen sings a six-note phrase in response to Don José's impassioned "Flower Song". It's not a "lovely melody" by any means. It's virtually unaccompanied. In a flat voice lacking any affect whatsoever, she sings: "No, tu ne m'aime pas" ("No, you don't love me.")

What's so great about that? I'll explain in a minute.

Carmen, in her final confrontation with José in Act 4, puts us in mind of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Giovanni, with the fire and brimstone of Hell at his feet, facing eternal damnation, refuses to save himself by repenting as the Commendatore demands. Similarly, Carmen, with her spurned lover's knife at her throat saying "Tell me you love me!", confounds us by not playing along; by instead affirming that she does not love him any more. Seconds later, the chance to remain alive having been missed, she's collapsed in a pool of blood.

Actually, in that last duet, she has three seperate moments of flinging her defiance in José's face, almost like the Apostle Peter three times denying his acquaintance with Jesus. 

Peter was likely fearful. Carmen, oddly, was not. 

We admire courage in our fellow human beings; the lack of fear is often the mark of a brave hero. But it can also be a red flag to a particular kind of abnormal psychology. You know who never feels fear?

The sociopath. 

Yes, Your Humble Blogger, just as in last week's post, is gettin' his Freud on. DISCLAIMER: obviously, I am not a psychologist and you could fill up libraries with what I don't know about the subject.

But I can find research from those who are experts, and that's the basis for my analysis of Carmen.
Here are the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual criteria for identifying sociopathic behaviors. (This information is widely available; among the sources I consulted are Psychology Today and
and psychcentral.com.)

  1. Failure to conform to social norms of lawful behavior by repeatedly performing acts qualifying for arrest.
  2. Deceitfulness: lying or conning others for personal gain or for sheer pleasure.
  3. Impulsiveness; failure to plan ahead.
  4. High degree of aggressiveness or irritability.
  5. Disregard for safety of self or others
  6. Lack of remorse, guilt, shame, manifested as indifference or rationalizing.
In addition, it is known that the sociopath is incapable of empathy; to this individual, other people are merely objects; objects to be manipulated for his/or her own agenda. The only emotional affect really authentic to the sociopath is anger or irritability when his/her wishes are frustrated. They are, however, very good mimics and are experts at "blending in" with well-adjusted people by aping love, charm, concern, fear, shame, and so on.

This is Carmen. She rings the bell on every single marker. In Prosper Mérimée’s novel, the basis for the opera, Don José, telling his story to the narrator, remembers the time a fight broke out in the cigar factory where he was stationed in Seville. Carmen, sassed by the woman working next to her, slashed the woman across the face with a knife. (See Nos. 1, 3, 4, and 5 above.)

In the opera, Carmen is brought out to be questioned about the incident by the authorities. How does she respond? Does she claim self-defense? Does she tearfully beg for mercy? Nope: displaying no affect other than boredom and insolence (See No. 6 above), she sings "Tra la la la la" and refuses to answer any questions. This is as good as opera composing gets, my friends.

In the novel, José recounts how he was assigned to guard the prisoner and how she manipulated him into letting her go. Gypsies, he explains, with no true homeland of their own, are adept at picking up languages; they can converse with Englishmen, Italians, Moors, anyone. Carmen spoke to José in his own Basque language, which made him want to help her. 

The way Bizet transfers this device into musical terms is nothing short of true genius. In Carmen, every principal character except Carmen has a characteristic musical style. Micaela always sounds sweet, pure and maidenly. Don José always sounds highly emotional and earnest; his heart is on his sleeve. Escamillo always sounds smugly cocky and confident. The gypsy thieves Le Remendado and Le Dancaire always have a light, bantering tone.

Carmen, on the other hand, has no individual melodic style of her own; rather, she adopts the style of whoever she's interacting with in order to either blend in (as in the Act 2 Quintet with the thieves) or to manipulate. This is what happens in the Act 1 finale, the scene corresponding to the passage in the novel I described above when José lets the Gypsy girl go free. At the end of her "Seguidilla", Carmen makes the promise of love in exchange for her freedom. (See No. 2 above.) Looking into his eyes, she suddenly sings a soaring line just dripping with sincerity. It's un-Carmen-like, but sounds exactly like the emotional Don José. Upon hearing his own "language", he sings the same tune back to her and cuts through the ropes that bind her. (In the novel, Don José tells the narrator that "every word that ever came out that girl's mouth was a lie".)

Look carefully at her music: the Act 2 Quintet; the syrup-sweet Act 4 duet with Escamillo. Carmen is a musical chameleon, never singing twice in the same style. And it's all fake. All of it.

Carmen doesn't love José or Escamillo. The sociopath doesn't experience love, other than love of self. For her, sex is commerce; sex is currency. She is willing to have sex with José because he went to prison for her. Fair enough.

And that line I esteem so highly; that "No, tu ne memes pas"? Here's what is so breath-takingly brilliant about it: it's very lack of any emotional content whatsoever. My god, any normal woman having been serenaded by an aria as gorgeous as the "Flower Song" should melt into her man's arms, ready to make love. 

But Carmen's cold, calculating lizard-brain is simply observing José during the entire number. The thought-balloon over her head would read something like this: "Wow, he's really serioius. Hmmm. He's really into me. This is good: I can get him to do anything now. The gypsy gang needs extra men for this job coming up; I'll bet I can get this guy to desert the army for me. I'll be he'll give me his horse. I mean, he went to jail for me, right?"

Here's one other good example of sociopathic behavior to add to my argument. You want irritibility and faked emotional affects? In Act 2, just out of prison, Don José reunities with Carmen, ready to begin their life together. Carmen, "playing nice" with her "new boyfriend", brings out the castanets and proceeds to charm him with the 1875 version of a lap dance until a military bugle is heard in the distance. A chagrined José explains that he's being summoned back to the barracks; freshly out of the brig, he can't afford to go AWOL. Now how might a well-adjusted woman react? She might pout. She might smile seductively and say "Are you SURE you have to go back? I sure would like to see you tonight" and so forth. But not Carmen. In an instant, like a car going from 0 to 60 in one second, she turns on him in a rage (the sociopath's only authentic affect), berating and taunting him. 

That's not normal.

Understand this: sociopaths were not identified, codified and analyzed until the 1930's. Carmen debuted in 1875. How did Bizet and his librettists, a couple of generations before Science broached the subject, manage to present us with a portrait of a sociopath that is clinically accurate in every respect? Artists like Bizet are great intuitive psychologists. They have insight into human behavior. Long after I've had a bellyful of the "Toreador Song", I continue to marvel at the depths of that insight and his ability to express it in musical terms.

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