The Vibration of the Perishable Minute (Classics of Literary Criticism Revisited II)

On March 28, 2018 by admin



Jean Starobinski: Enchantment: The Seductress in Opera. [New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.]


One can imagine a certain immobile time, a time of eternal present.In such a time there are no battles or notions of property. No death, only easy sleep. There are free moments of song and dance, music rather than work.  Men and beasts understand each other perfectly—in music and in melody. The eternal present moves out and back on itself in sinuous folds of flowing arcs and circles.  Becoming for each creature is a light movement in this present, a fluid élan. Only an interval is sometimes required in order to renew such moments of plenitude and felicity. But such a golden age is only the retrospective consolation of an unhappy humanity. Jean Starobinski begins his remarkable tour de force on operatic synesthesia by wondering whether human beings tried enacting such brief rest periods through their festivities right from the outset of community life. But will that not be a mere echo, a ritualized commemoration, a souvenir of some fabulous origin? Or are there also moments of the body and voice in such reenactments which might help cross the threshold of the realm of the dead? Is the moment of performance also a moment to witness the abolishment of the mortal consequences of time?

Perhaps the performance that reconquers a parcel of eternity also witnesses its own duration measured. Is it that the poet and the musician who have relived the atemporal plenitude of the origin only turn and fall back into time and death? Surely, they must at first hold onto the temporal space and build their fable there. But they must also know how to close off such enactments, with a final cadence and a lifting of the masks—a salute to the public. The spectators applaud the enchantment that was, the very exploit of art.

Ulysses has strapped himself to the mast of his ship to resist such an experience. What is so dangerous about this song, for one who has succeeded to resist the temptations of immortality? The Sirens, triply perfect epic minstrels, companions of Persephone, would live as long as they could stop every passer-by, but as soon as one passed without stopping, they would perish.  The enchantment was so complete that the travelers would be bewitched, and forgetting their homelands, oblivious to food and drink, they would die from starvation: “Come here, renowned Ulysses, honour to the Achaenean name, and listen to our two voices. No one ever sailed past us without staying to hear the enchanting sweetness of our song—and he who listens will go his way not only charmed, but wiser, for we know all the ills that the gods laid upon the Argives and Trojans before Troy, and can tell you everything that is going to happen over the whole world.” (The Odyssey, Book XII). If Ulysses had listened to the Sirens, he would have encountered the image of his own past transfigured by music. He would have believed that his life to be forever saved from oblivion, and he would have forgotten to live—like all other travelers whose white bones litter the Sirens’ shore. Here is a fascinating music that develops another relationship to time outside of the one that emanates from the golden age, a music linked to narrating speech that can only deploy itself within a succession of temporal events: a happy fluidification, in Starobinski’s words. This is the music of becoming, a music that elevates to the perfection of song, bloody entanglements and heroic patience and suffering. We now enter into a time that will be transmitted to future generations by enacting the glorious immortality of the hero who has gone through the test of time and whose existence is saved by song. For having accepted death, he will live eternally in and through speech. But Ulysses is also bitter since he is stripped and solitary. The pleading castaway and the hero in the minstrel Demodocos are there the same: “His glorious song celebrates a past action, and the surviving hero, if he is to avoid demeaning himself, must take the place of the minstrel and become the narrator of his own miseries…and elevate them to the plane of musical immortality, just as the minstrel did for his military services.” Here is a particular mode of deliverance, of spirit rendered in and through an immaterial sonorous condition. Time is simultaneously imagined as the age of heroes, subsisting in our past as sheer memory and yet it destroys all our illusions by asserting its own dominance only through lived temporality.There is an interior historicity to the operatic time. This is the most sensual and fragile of durations: the vibration of the perishable minute.

Indeed singing and seducing are intimately related. To seduce, etymologically, means to lead aside. What is the force that attracts one away from the straight and narrow? There emerges a fatal creature of shattering beauty, speaking in silken voice and offering unknown pleasures. You should have listened and avoided its glance. One step off the sure road leads to another and suddenly you find yourself wandering in a state of perdition. At the end a kind of dizziness sets in—a concoction arising out of ecstasy, enthusiasm and intoxication.When the hero travels by road, through the wilds or by sea, the enchantress watches for him by the side of the road or haunts him, lurking over the island when he comes ashore. One can also see that sometimes the reverse happens and vulnerable heroines are seduced by wicked suitors. This has been the fate of the girls who listened to Don Juan’s compliments or those who had accepted Faust’s gifts. To be enchanted is to give in to a strange foreignness. But it would be erroneous to describe it through drives and beliefs and phobias. Nor are these moments’ anxiety dreams. Such moments of foreignness of a legendary past are transformed into a present enchantment in the opera—as one sees action unfolding and hears the notes being sung. Destiny, as it were, breaks into the present. In the words of Starobinski, “In the most beautiful operatic productions, one observes the double energy of a memory that persists and an imagination that invents.”

The ancient alliance between speech and music is crucial for enchantment. Air and aria designate the body of the seduction, and extend it to the atmosphere which breathes in anticipation. This relationship brings the remembered legend within the bounds of sensorial proximity. The action is a service to the ear: “Listen! Listen to the one you doubted and whom you have found again. Listen to the one who loves you and who never stopped loving you.” The opera, as it were, begins to shed more light on its already sacred destinies, commemorating a new art that would transform the epic, grand historical scenes and chivalric romances. The stage itself is both concrete and metaphorical since it can represent a palace or an underworld. The show must keep the mind and the senses in an equal state of enchantment. Sometimes enchantment could come to connote a certain regressive childishness or supernatural constraints, especially in old romances. But it is more often than not associated with the natural affect of feeling (love) or aesthetic success (the party). In the second sense the illusion could be restrained.

The admixture of ritual and novelty in opera represents for us: marvelous action. The opera produces its own myths, which are lavishly fantastic. Apart from the decoration, Rousseau for instance, insists on the amalgamation of “the attraction of the melody and the effect of the declamation in opera.” But the musical marvel itself is another kind of seduction. Starobinski reminds us that music’s job in an opera is to get rid of the celestial gods and demons and deploy its own powers that issue from the soul of the musician and resonate with the feeling of the audience.  Though opera employs its own machinery, music cannot become mere interest.  Artifices cannot flatter the ear. The challenge then is how to enchant with a primitive art through forms that are essentially modern—arias and songs, choruses and symphonies.  And the musician must also serve the poetry without at all trying to shine separately.

Rousseau, we know, was the inventor of a new kind of spectacle in which declamatory speech and music alternate. This form often borrowed scenes from Goethe’s Egmont and Schumann’s Manfred, inspired by Byron. For Rousseau the enchantress appears first as Madame de Warens: “What I saw was a face radiant with grace, blue eyes full of sweetness, a dazzling complexion, the curve of an enchanting bosom.”This sense of enchantment will be transferred in Julie ou la Nouvelle when Saint Prex discovers Italian music: “Some unknown voluptuous sensation imperceptively came over me. It was no longer an empty sequence of sounds, as in or recits. At each phrase some image entered my brain or some sentiment in my heart; the pleasure did not stop at the ear, but entered the soul.” This state is perhaps what E. T. A. Hoffmann called a penetration into the realm of the spirits. The poet who composes the libretto in the opera therefore must also be familiar with the enchanted realm of the spirits. The interiority in an opera turns into images which are delegates of a mythic consciousness.  We turn into participants.  But there is also a certain liberating weightlessness in the opera that Hoffmann notes. This sense of freedom Starobinski describes as “… the irony that denounces the ridiculousness of the finite condition awards itself the prerogatives of infinity.” These counter-balancing forces are what the opera derives from the works of Ariosto and Tasso.

Nowhere is the power of enchantment and seduction felt stronger than in the Gnostic dualism of Wagner. Right from his youth Wagner was attracted to themes of the betrayal of secrets (Lohengrin) and of redemption (Erlosung).  He shall put terrible opposing forces of enchantment into confrontation in his dramatic ballads: nature, elements, gods, humans and tribes. Wagnarian heroes must submit to the law of fate, which imposes upon them the alternatives of destruction of deliverance. So, in The Flying Dutchman, we have Venus transformed into the evil enchantress Lileth, without taking away her radiant beauty. The opera shows how a gift of love or sacrifice can bring salvation. Later, both in Parsifal and in Tannhauser, one form of enchantment is juxtaposed against another—“perverse magic which obstructs the work of redemption, and the saving miracle that makes known the divine will.”  The enchantresses—Kundry and Armide are on the receiving end in Wagner though. Enchantment remains a fleeting human mistake as the Christian knight leads to victory. Wagner tilts towards a communion of faith and the sorceresses therefore have to recede, having enacted their role. Such piety is what Nietzsche abhorred in Wagner and hence preferring Bizet’s Carmen instead. The young man in Carmen is won over by the representation of “love as fatum, as fatality, cynical, innocent, cruel.” For Starobinski such an evaluation of Carmen implies that there could be a higher level of the marvelous to be obtained, by a renunciation of the ordinary. No magical panoplies there. No religious stakes. We witness a similar condition in Salome by Oscar Wilde/Strauss, when the tyrant Herod orders, “Kill the woman.” Such a moment of enchantment, when an irrevocable and relentless passion takes over man, is what Nietzsche calls inflexible necessity.

The Lorenzo da Ponte-Mozart collaboration concerns a major portion of the book and Starobinski is at his masterful best in this section. The three operas under consideration are The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787) and Cosi fan Tutte (1790).  The coming together of an auspicious collaboration in opera is an act of initiation, as Hoffmann rightly notes: “… the linked affinities of the poet and the composer are such that one could say they belong to the same church, because the mystery of language and sound is the same, and it is this which gives both of them access to the supreme initiation.” Mozart and da Ponte chimed in unison. The poet-librettist’s job is to arrange the scene in such a manner so that the spectator must visualize the subject matter vividly.  The spectator is not particularly interested in hunting strict logic in an opera. He must rather form an idea of the plot from what he sees taking place.Da Ponte is able to do just that, by establishing a relay between the written words of earlier masters of poetry and the new music of Mozart.  The three productions were seamless collaborations of musical exuberance and poetry leading to dramatized adventure. The singer therefore must first understand each line of poetry before rendering it.

Figaro is a sublime spectacle of a libertine engaged in substitution and yet returning to recognize faith in love (in Figaro and Susanna of course. but also witnessed in the diffused eroticism of Barbarina and Cherubino). De Ponte wrote in his memoirs: “I set to work, accordingly, and as fast as I wrote the words, Mozart set them to music. In six weeks everything was in order.” The conquering energy of the collaboration is palpable to the audience. One could feel that Mozart followed Diderot’s dictum that musical composition was to be regulated by laws of successive departure and return, out and back. The tonalities of the different acts show exactly this distribution—in solo arias, duos, ensembles, and the movement that would be accorded to the finales. As the bird catcher is tripped in a cage of his own making, order is restored. D major is both the shore and departure of return. Mozart goes into the heart of true lyricism and da Ponte follows  Mozart’s intentions with speed and precision. We see a microcosm of human feeling in circulation. The polymorphic intonations of desire are expressed through gaiety, melancholy, cupidity, fear, malice, vanity, repentance, pardon and so forth.  In the order of desire, all are equals and da Ponte-Mozart refuses to give hereditary priority to the noble master. Enchantment, above all, reigns.

Starobinski reminds us that the success of being seduced in an operatic production often depends on a certain circulation of objects. It is, as it were, that the movement of the passions required some material representation of conducting bodies. Feminine fetishes and gory objects of passion are at the centre of the spectacle: kerchiefs and ribbons, butterflies attracted by flowers, a spilled drop of blood, a localized pin-prick, and the sword as the counterpoint. Such a circulation of objects gives the opera its tactility, a certain tempo and an epidermal sensation. These are also currencies of exchange, vehicles of deception and passion, of illusion and attachment. Hence Starobinski: “There is a singular resemblance of form—the image of an unfolding—that links the ribbon and the staffs on which the music is jotted down.”  The interior movements and the visual accessories of the show are intertwined.

Everything outside the straight and narrow is an indulgence of the excess. That is what seduction, and life, is all about.  The registers of excess are captured in Don Giovanni. Excessus vitae is the exit from life, the access to ‘another life.’ It is a moment of trance where soul leaves its anchorage in order to visit a superior place. But it is also a name for death. Excess is poetic. It spreads. Trance is contagious.  If it traverses beyond the limits of body and soul—it is deliverance.  But excess is also disproportion and sickness—anything that compromises the networks of tensions inside the body. Libertinism is such elegance in Don Juan.  Excess is at once an overflow, an exit, a malady and a means by which an individual or a set of individuals exclude themselves from communal law and ethical obligation. What would a man be without grace? The theological answer was that he would remain mired in self-love, appetites and delinquency.  But the excessive forces that Don Giovanni celebrates are pure transgression, inverting the very notion of ecstasy. Starobinski makes us aware that we do not see an ordinary libertine in Don Juan, but man in general, universal human being, living magnanimously with the absolute ideal of voluptuousness. We can even detect a counter-religious spirituality in Juan, a religious dimension within the order of evil. Sin is perfidy. It is an internal abyss. The diabolical is the spectral obverse of the seductress.

If the excessive reigns at one end of seductive charm, the aromatic atmosphere is its other signpost. Cosi fan Tutte affirms the philosophy of universal and inevitable flux of emotions. To be unfaithful is all too human and both tutte (women) and tutti (men) mutually exchange their image of inconstancy.  To be ridiculous and clumsy is being as truthful as it is to be emphatic.  Hence, we cannot have an opera without modulations and paradoxical effects: experiments in separation, indignation, fawning, jealousy and weakness. And love above all, as a conquering agent, is the very soul of opera. Starobinski says this with reference to Fenelon’s Idomeneo, something that holds good for the operatic mode in general: “The man or a woman who consents to die in the place of the first designated victim is demanding nothing other than the power to rescue a beloved voluntarily—without any other condition…the voluntary victim wants only to receive death and in exchange asks only for the survival of the one who should have died. The voluntary victim will never be able to possess what he or she obtains, or even knows if it has been obtained.” This spiritual drive lies at the heart of the operatic. The encounter with the seductress makes the hero discover an internal force of which he was unaware and of which he now takes possession.

In a section called Usurpations and Revolts, in one final flourish,Starobinski takes us through the heart and soul of six indomitable seductresses in the history of the opera: Poppea, Alcina, Juliet (Bellini/Romani production), Manon, Ariene and Elektra.Monteverdi’s Poppea made seduction into a supreme art. Her desire “increases our discomfort,” says Montaigne. Tacitus writes that she “was indifferent to her reputation, yet insensible to men’s love, and herself unloving.”  She was decidedly a free woman.It seems she was also an expert on the subject of beauty treatments. She broke her mirror and wished to die when she discovered marks on her face.  She was an anachronistic disguise herself.  Starobinski describes her debauched camaraderie with Nero and Othon in great detail, summing it up with: “Poppea is the law of the world, the centre towards which everything moves…in her one sees a solar myth of love joined to a solar myth of power.” In her conjoins enormous self-love with captivating sensuality. But not she, love is the true master and the universe must finally recognize this fact in the opera. As she makes her lover’s dependence intolerable to himself, he proclaims to obey no master whatsoever. Handel’s Alcina is the mistress of all that can be offered in an instant: palaces, gardens, amusements. Lutes and harps and lyres play in sweet harmony at Alcina’s table, poets praise the joys and follies of love and two lovers speak freely of love: “Everything is luxury and fulfilled dream.” She metamorphoses her lovers into trees, animals and rocks and it seems they have received the immortality of the material. There are several pyrotechnics as eventually her palace crumbles, the sea washes its ruins and liberated men emerge out of the waves into which they have been liquefied. She eventually shares the destiny of Dido, Medea and Cleopatra. But all of these comprised within a cosmic frame. Bellini’s musical about the Capulets and the Montagues is taken from Giuseppe Maria Foppa. It is a spectacle of passion that seeks death. Love unto death. There is an intense sadomasochistic element in Bellini which Shakespeare had humanized.  The baroque ingenuity is the soul of the opera and we see that the grave (after the lovers die) is strewnwith torches, shadowy areas, statues, arches and niches.  The mournful graveyard lends itself to a canticle of basses: “ Against this background two voices (Juliet’s soprano and Romeo’s mezzo in thirds) rise, float, take wing and descend, sliding or palpitating” The voices in unison transcend all pain. It is the moment when Bellini’s musical instinct attains its highest power of seduction. All breathing stops and music evokes the moment.

De Grieux, the hero in Massenet’s Manon wonders how seduction works. How and why does love turn into this insurmountable force? We hear this word—charm, which must be taken in its archaic sense. Charm is magical incantation, from Latin carmen, “the formula that witches knew how to pronounce to capture hearts and make the moon dance in a wooded clearing.” To set Manon to music is to translate her charms into a new language. The senses are all powerful in Manon.  The hero is in disarray and Manon fluctuates. She is a rococo creation—discontinuous and capricious. Eroticism is diffused in the music and in the construction of the set. Charm is in the air—the indefinable light that belongs both to a face and to the imagination of the enthralled spectator. In Manon Lescaut (1893), Puccini will not hesitate to reuse the discovery of Manon as an enchantress supreme. Eventually she distances from her own charm and announces her death. The melodic effusiveness of seduction is akin to the final moments of living: “I am no longer myself; it is no longer my voice.” Des Grieux lover renounces all and her tears and games represent an absolute order to him. These sacrifices again equal the demand of religion. This sacred character of passion is at the heart of Starobinski’s exposition. The dazzling nothings that decide everything—seduction and death.

The story of Ariane and Bluebeard (1901) concludes an entire phase in Maeterlinck’s theatre. It has been dominated by death and fatality. “Uncertain of themselves, inhabited by mystery, they called for loving compassion, and one saw the machinery of misfortune inexorably unfold.” Maeterlinck makes evident a lost connection in art: between synesthesia (perceptional associations between sound and colour) and mysticism. He had translated the work of the theologian Jan van Ruusbroek: “When you find yourself amid the blinding rays of the sun and you avoid looking at all colours and avoid particular attention to distinctions and objects illuminated by the sun, if then, you simply follow with your eyes the clarity and rays that flow from the sun, you will be guided into the very essence of sun…” Enchantment is such a light listened to. This light will shift into an equally powerful night that is held captive. The chiaroscuro of imagination is central to the operatic imagination. Finally in the Hofmannsthal/Strauss version of Elektra, Starobinski tries to tackle the motif of animalness and saintliness in the seductress. She is a wild cat—spits, yells, casts poisonous looks and cannot stand anyone looking at her. And she sees animals about her—dogs, flies, vermin. This destructive rage is actually turned towards herself. But Hofmannsthal also deftly introduces Cassandra into Elektra and this amalgam makes love take a different shape in Agamemnon. Eventually she prophetically senses that all her joys and ferocity will culminate in death: “So I die happier than I lived.” She dances herself to death in the opera, submerged beneath the weight of happiness.

Enchantment always addresses itself to a plural, to an indeterminate ‘you’: “You who know what love is.” The romance is sung to travel to the ends of the earth. Each production that Starobinski tries to relate seems to be produced by the vibrations of a sonorous body, a fundamental secret of the cosmos from which follow the geometric proportions that regulate all the laws of nature but set up in tangible time and space. The best of operas combine the lightness of a fairy tale with the solemnity of a religious service, through images, music and stage movements. Enchantment is unalloyed death: a captivity that evolves into liberation and light.

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