|Psychiatrist Julius August Koch|
I addressed part of the answer in last week's post, in which my aim was to demonstrate Mozart's superior skill-sets as a musical dramatist; his ability to make virtually every note in the opera directly reveal a character's mental state or physical action. But that's not the whole story.
For me, my fascination with Don Giovanni rests on the tantalizing aspects of this tale of sin and punishment that elude us; that provoke debate among opera lovers; that are hard to define with precision; that remain mysteries; …
...that are unknowable.
Through my half-century of familiarity with this piece I've identified three such elements. Each is worth its own blog post, so in this one I'll limit myself to the biggest and most profound question, namely:
Why, when faced with eternal punishment, does Giovanni refuse to repent?
It's due to the seriousness with which Mozart applied himself to this scene that we need consider the question. Remember: most previous versions of the story were straight-forward in depicting the sinner's fate. Of course he remains defiant to the end; of course he doesn't play ball with the Stone Guest. He's bad, so he does bad things. End of story.
But in Mozart's hands, Giovanni is not a one-dimensional avatar of amorality; he's a fully-realized recognizably human being, even if a repugnant one. Mozart forces us to imagine ourselves face-to-face with supernatural forces of Judgement Day. God Himself (in the form of an animated statue) alerts us to the torment awaiting US for the bad things we've done. We're condemned to taking a cosmic elevator, and it's going DOWN.
But - it's not too late! Just repent! We all know what we would do in Giovanni's place. We would comply. We'd repent like gangbusters. We'd be on our knees.
And Giovanni says "No thanks, I'm good."
"Pentiti, scellerato!" (Repent, you scoundrel!) intones the statue; "No, vecchio infatuato! (No, you fatuous old man!) shouts the sinner. And then his time is up; he disappears. He made his choice, and will suffer the consequences.
But who chooses THAT?
In attempting to answer this question, let's take the situation as seriously as Mozart; let's assume it's not an over-the-top conclusion to a laugh-filled morality play. Let's take it literally, as if it really happened.
I toggle between two possible answers. The truth may be one or the other, or a combination of both, or something else entirely. But these two are what I've got.
1. DON GIOVANNI IS MODELED AFTER LITERATURE'S FIRST ANTI-HERO
Perhaps Giovanni, in the composer's mind, is similar to Satan in John Milton's epic Paradise Lost. Once the most beautiful angel in Heaven, Lucifer got the worst job demotion in history, becoming the first resident and ruler of Hell. At one point, Milton depicts Satan surveying his new digs (I picture him standing at the corner of Hades Street and Perdition Boulevard in downtown Hell) and reveling - reveling!! - in his circumstance. Among his observations (abridged for space):
Is this the region, this the soil, the clime, … this the seat that we must change for Heaven?
Be it so, since he who now is sovereign can dispose and bid what shall be right...
The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven...
Here at last WE SHALL BE FREE (the all-caps are my addition)…
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
Giovanni and Satan have one character trait in common: they aren't big on following God's rules. They feel no apology is in order for the way they go about their business. "Why do YOU get to make all the rules?" they brazenly ask of the Creator. I suspect they both find playing God's game like trying to beat the odds at a Vegas casino:
The house always wins.
So, each in his own way, abruptly chooses not to play the game. And that takes a kind of courage; a perverse courage, perhaps, but that's what anti-heroes have.
2. DON GIOVANNI IS A PSYCHOPATH.
The term "psychopath" is out of fashion these days; clinical doctors in the field of psychology prefer "anti-social personality disorder". Nevertheless, I find it useful to look at the original definition of psychopathology as defined in 1881 by Dr. Julius August Koch, a German psychiatrist. The concept of this sort of disorder was unknown until codified by Koch, who compiled this list of symptoms and characteristics of the psychopath*:
- lack of guilt/remorse
- Lack of empathy (to the psychopath, other people are mere objects)
- Lack of deep emotional attachments
- Superficial charm
- Reckless risk-taking
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Don Giovanni will see that the title character rings the bell on every single trait above. Consider, and be amazed: 101 years before science discovered and defined the the psychopath da Ponte and Mozart created a 100% accurate case-study of one that could be used in psych classes.
Once categorizing Giovanni as a psychopath, the explanation for his unlikely attitude towards eternal punishment becomes clear: he is incapable of experiencing fear.
I cheerfully admit to being a musician and NOT a psychiatrist or psychologist, but I enjoy reading articles in journals in the field, and what I've read leads me to understand that the only emotional affect the psychopath can experience is rage. All the others - joy, hope, love, fear, etc. - he/she can only imitate.
Courageous hero or sick puppy with an abnormal psyche? Or... am I missing something and it's something else entirely?
Mozart doesn't tell us in chapter-and-verse style. Unlike Hitchcock's Psycho, which ends with a doctor lecturing us about the nature of Norman Bates' dysfunction, the end of the opera is content to conclude that virtue triumphs and sinners are punished.
But, seriously, WHY DIDN'T HE JUST REPENT???????
* (source: "Psychopath vs. Sociopath: What's the Difference" by Natasha Tracy, www.healthyplace.com)