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Opera's Second DeathReview - Opera's Second Death
by Slavoj Zizek and Mladen Dolar
Routledge, 2001
Review by Adrian Johnston, Ph.D.
Apr 15th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 16)

            Evidently, both Mozart and Wagner were Lacanians without explicitly knowing it.  All of their operas, at the most foundational of levels, deal with central metapsychological concepts and themes:  the libidinal underpinnings of love, the relation between voice and subjectivity, the status of the symbolic big Other, the differences between biological and psychical death, and the compulsive nature of the drives (just to name a few of the notions touched upon by both Dolar and Žižek).  Is it, in response to initial disbelief, really so hard to view pieces like Così fan tutte and Tristan as artistic struggles with precisely the same truths aimed at by psychoanalytic thought?  According to received Hegelian wisdom, art, along with religion, is simply philosophy that doesn’t know itself as such, theory that isn’t fully conscious of its nascent-yet-essential theoretical self-identity.  In this light, all that philosophical engagements with the cultural-aesthetic domain innocently do is help make pieces of art equal to their Concept (Begriff).  What’s more, Lacanianizing the opera is so especially easy, since, as Žižek points out in the introduction to his set of contributions, “the logic of retroactive restructuring of the past through the intervention of a new point-de-capiton” often forces the past to be seen exclusively through the lens of what it subsequently gives rise to and/or what supercedes it in the present—“A truly creative act not only restructures the field of future possibilities but also restructures the past, resignifying the previous contingent traces as pointing toward the present” (pg. 103-104).  So, even if one refuses the swallow the portrayal of Mozart and Wagner as unconscious Lacanians avant la lettre, one is nonetheless free to embrace what these two authors offer here as the product of a “creative act,” a demonstration of the interpretive possibilities stemming from the decision not to be held hostage by trifling matters such as the simple historico-chronological considerations that obsess most scholars.

            The first half of the book consists of Mladen Dolar’s sustained reflections on Mozart’s various operas (Žižek chooses to focus primarily on Wagner).  He begins with some general considerations.  In his view, music straddles the line between two sides of a traditional Platonic dichotomy, namely, between, on the one hand, the transcendent/sublime (i.e., the disembodied, rational, ideational sphere of pure formality) and, on the other hand, the sensuous/corporeal (i.e., the tangible, material realm of the living body).  This is especially true of a musical genre like opera, where the conceptual “form” of linguistic articulations is rendered in the almost tangibly viscous medium of resonant song.  Thus, for example, those moments in an opera where the meaning of the words in the libretto becomes incomprehensible to the listener (assuming, of course, that the listener normally understands the language of the given opera) are not accidental or without value.  From a Lacanian standpoint, these moments highlight the vacillating relationship between speech and voice.  “Speech” refers to the enunciated, language-level content of speaking.  Alternatively, “voice,” which Lacan sometimes refers to as the “object-voice” (in the collection Gaze and Voice as Love Objects, Dolar has an essay on the object-voice), designates the irreducibly material vehicle for the performance of meaningful speech acts—and, naturally, Lacan emphasizes how the medium sometimes interferes with the message, how the voice itself can disrupt speech.  However, after stressing the borderline status of music during this phase of introductory stage setting, Dolar later argues, citing Kierkegaard, that music itself is “beyond language”; the object-voice eclipses the ephemeral virtuality of the signifiers it’s usually forced to subtend in the linguistic modus operandi of the parlêtre.  Does opera succeed in occupying both sides of these theoretically familiar divides, or is it an art form that necessarily favors one side over the other?  Does music invariably and necessarily overpower the meanings and organizations tied to language?  If so, why?

            Dolar proceeds to track down a series of interesting philosophical themes in the operas of Mozart.  Don Giovanni, for instance, serves as a condensed representation of the historical conflict between an old, aristocratic order preserving hierarchical privilege versus the democratic, anti-authoritarian spirit of the Enlightenment.  The character of Don Giovanni himself is, at one and the same time, both the Freudian Urvater, the ferocious, insatiable “primal father” of the Totem and Taboo myth who enjoys unfettered sexual access to all women, and also the figure of the autonomous subject who plays the lead role in the dramatic rise of modern, post-aristocratic social systems.  And, Dolar uses this interpretation to implicitly suggest that the ideological framework of democracy is itself plagued by an unresolved (and, perhaps, irresolvable) contradiction:  the truly autocratic aristocrat who refuses to modulate the exercise of his authority by tempering his desires according to considerations for those he rules is the epitome of an autonomous subject; and, an autonomous subject who makes no compromises on his/her desire cannot but strike a contemporary “democratic” spectator as a horrible tyrant.  Although contemporary societies in the West appeal to the Enlightenment myth of absolute autonomy as a cornerstone of their practices, this is a liberté that can only be accepted through a dilution vis-à-vis its combination with égalité and fraternité (the latter two put a soothing, familiar human face on what Žižek elsewhere refers to as the disturbing “abyss of freedom”).  Similarly, Dolar uses Mozart’s treatment of love in Così fan tutte to analyze the strange co-mingling and coalescence of two themes in modern thought.  Paradoxically, within Enlightenment discourse, a fascination with and emphasis upon the human individual as a deterministic, machine-like mechanism simultaneously accompanies the trumpeted emergence of the figure of the autonomous subject.  At the very moment when man is declared free, an acute sense of man’s automatistic nature is intensified.

Dolar further develops these ideas in two directions.  First, opera often addresses what Dolar calls the “logic of mercy.”  Frequently, an aristocratic authority’s gesture of forgiveness resolves the tensions at play in an opera, permitting a forbidden, hampered love to finally flourish and be accepted through recognition by the organic whole of the community.  In classic psychoanalytic fashion, Dolar rightly observes that something is obfuscated here:  the terrifying visage of the capricious, tyrannical master is artistically concealed, veiled behind the comforting image of the forgiving, benevolent facilitator of the amorous interpersonal bond.  Obviously, anyone who is in a position to grant mercy is likewise equally in a position to arbitrarily impose his will.  Second, near the end of his essay, Dolar poses the larger question at stake in his analyses:  what (to cast the problem in the Lacanian language used by Dolar) can and should the balance be between the two poles of the “subject” (i.e., the autonomous individual agent) and the “big Other” (i.e., the symbolic, communal matrix, the reified socio-legal framework)?  Dolar asks, “Does the logic of autonomous subjectivity, which got rid of its Other through the Enlightenment, suffice?  If the fantasy of the Other fell to pieces and was debunked as an illusion, is assuming that one could simply construct the new world on the shoulders of the autonomous subject similarly an illusion?  Does not this subject require the Other, too, without which it risks falling apart?  Do we not lose subjectivity itself when the Other is abolished?  What status can be ascribed to the Other now?” (pg. 87).  Dolar maintains that the operas of Mozart stage, in various ways, a reconciliation between subject and Other, between the emerging Enlightenment figure of the free individual and the manifestations of the old institutional order with its hierarchies and authoritarian bent.  Perhaps the larger lesson that Dolar wants readers to walk away with from this particular exercise in cultural interpretation is that, whenever a discourse claims to elevate the autonomous subject to a position of preeminence “above” or “outside” the socio-symbolic constraints of a mediating, trans-individual system, one should always ask:  In what ways does this repressed big Other return?  How does this Other covertly make its denied presence felt in terms of subjectivity’s supposedly independent, self-adequate status?  What role do cultural products play in re-introducing disguised versions of the big Other within ideological frameworks pretending to found themselves upon a myth of the absolutely free subject? 

Whereas Dolar sticks closely to Mozart’s operas, carefully dissecting the librettos and engaging with details in the scholarly literature, Žižek seizes the opportunity of discussing Wagner to tie together a plethora of different themes and issues.  It seems that, for Žižek, what makes a cultural product intellectually worthwhile is the degree to which it can serve as a kind of Rorschach ink blot—he once spoke of the movie The Matrix in exactly these terms—onto which can be projected various conceptual knots.  Given the rapid-fire tour through a range of theoretical matters offered by his contribution, isolating a single argumentative thread and labeling it as the guiding concern is difficult.  So, at the expense of exegetical accuracy, only a few of the topics that appear in Žižek’s section of the book will be discussed here.

Borrowing the title from a book by Jean Laplanche, one could say that Žižek is most interested in investigating “life and death in psychoanalysis and the opera.”  As he rightly observes, the death drive, properly conceived, has nothing whatsoever to do with some biologically determined longing for a return to a pre-organic state.  Freud himself generally misunderstands the meaning of the very Todestrieb that he is the first to uncover and identify, presenting it as an insistent desire for annihilation in death on the basis of questionable analogies between the single-celled organisms of biology and the human psyche of metapsychology.  For Žižek, the death drive is, in fact, the psychoanalytic concept-term for precisely the opposite, namely, for a kind of undead immortality (one of the precursors for this take on the death drive is Lacan’s “myth of the lamella,” in which the libido is portrayed as a kind of indestructible monster that parasitically attaches itself to its psychical host).  The “deadly” dimension of the drives lies in their ability to break with the rhythms and cycles of the natural, biologically defined body and its interests in regulating various urges and compulsions for the sake of self-preservation.  In becoming fixated upon certain forms of intense, excessive enjoyment (i.e., jouissance), drives begin to compel conduct that disrupts the balanced moderation sought by the ego in its ongoing struggle to compromise between pleasure and reality.  Frequently, Trieb subverts the self-preservative calculus of the organic individual, rendering all drives, in a way, “death” drives.

What does this have to do with Wagner?  Žižek asserts that Wagner playfully and artistically manipulates the Freudian opposition between Eros and Thanatos.  The dividing line between life and death, between the vital intensity of sexuality and the cessation of all lived tension, is blurred in the Wagnerian universe.  Wagner’s protagonists wander around searching for death, and this death marks the resolution of the conflicts in these operas.  However, interpreting Wagner vis-à-vis the standard Freudian notion of the death drive qua desire for annihilation in death is, according to Žižek, a serious error.  The Wagnerian hero, during the unfolding musical drama, is already firmly caught in the clutches of the Todestrieb, stuck in a painful, repetitive cycle involving longing, passion, desire, and so on.  This seemingly interminable condition of being condemned to a roller coaster of fluctuating affective intensities (something Žižek characterizes as a “living death”) is precisely what Wagner’s characters aim to escape from, fleeing happily into the embrace of biological death as a means of finally finding relief from an unbearable state of endless jouissance.  Hence, the hero’s desire for demise isn’t, in and of itself, the death drive incarnate.  Instead, this demise is sought after as the last and only means of evading the Todestrieb, as a desperate bid to transcend a horrible Liebestod and attain an eagerly anticipated Nirvana.

Žižek here succeeds in tracking down a fantasmatic structure equally operative in both Freudian psychoanalysis and Wagnerian opera.  In both genres, there are places where ecstatic sexual release, physical death, and blissful Nirvana are strung together (despite the significant differences between each of these notions) as a series of supposedly interchangeable, equivalent terms.  From a Lacanian perspective, these are all thematic, metaphorical stand-ins for jouissance, various depictions of an “ultimate enjoyment” lying on the horizon of the human libidinal economy (jouissance falls under the heading of the Lacanian register of the Real, a register which, due to its epistemological inaccessibility, ends up being represented as a series of contradictory elements within a given system of symbolization—hence, this Real jouissance appears as, at one and the same time, both sexuality and mortality, as both the most intense vitality and the absolute zero of death).  In texts such as Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud sometimes risks implying that, if it weren’t for a series of contingent obstacles raised by socio-historical reality, human beings would be able to happily and unproblematically wallow in their base sexual and aggressive pleasures.  And, Wagner directly depicts, in the culminating points of his operas, the subject’s total and complete immersion/dissolution into a peaceful night.

At various points in his essay, Žižek flirts with the idea that the hard, fantasmatic kernel animating aspects of the work of both Freud and Wagner is the stubborn, insistent belief that, so to speak, jouissance exists.  This ultimate fantasy is the “transcendental illusion of desire,” the conviction that, beyond the contingencies of the subject’s empirical environment and his/her diluted, banal pleasures, lies some amorphous manner of “enjoyable enjoyment.”  Speaking of the opposition between excessive fixations upon partial objects and sexualized “intersubjective” relationships, Žižek remarks that, “the persistence of the partial objects, these islands of noncastrated jouissance, renders sexual relationships impossible, condemning them to the ultimate failure; on the other hand, the specter of sexual relationships sustains a gap that forever prevents the subject from attaining full satisfaction in the imbecilic jouissance of partial objects” (pg. 175-176).  Elsewhere, he maintains that, “We cannot simply ‘fully immerse ourselves into the immediate pleasure of what we are doing’—if we do that, the pleasurable tension gets lost” (pg. 211).  The return of this repressed truth reveals itself in Wagner since, when the characters at long last attain what they yearn for as the final, ultimate moment of consummation with their enjoyment, they literally die (i.e., they cannot live to enjoy what they’ve obtained).  In short, eliminating the tension driving the protagonist along is equivalent to destroying the character him/her-self.  Thus, Wagner’s operas, from Tristan to Parsifal, raise an interesting question—“Is the only approach to the real the lethal, transgressive experience of going beyond the (symbolic) limit, or is another approach possible?” (pg. 176).

Although ostensibly centered on an analysis of specific operas, Opera’s Second Death engages with an extremely wide range of topics and issues:  psychoanalysis, aesthetics, politics, ethics, and philosophy (among others).  For instance, reading Žižek sometimes feels like the intellectual equivalent of going to an all-you-can-eat buffet and devouring everything available.  It’s perversely pleasurable while it lasts, and leaves one feeling slightly guilty afterwards.  He has a talent for making theory feel a little too enjoyable.  Shouldn’t reading nuanced works on psychoanalysis and philosophy be tedious and painful?  A refreshing aspect of the Slovenian school’s approach to Lacan and other related matters is the implicit contention that theory can be fun, and, moreover, that it ought to be about something other than itself.  The Slovenian school avoids, as is all-too-typical in the humanities, getting caught in a scholarly literature “hall of mirrors” effect, wherein theory is always about other theorists, piling commentary upon commentary and thus indefinitely deferring the encounter with a reality outside this self-enclosed, meta-discursive circuit.  An integral aspect of the overall Žižekian project is the rigorous construction of what Freud outlines as the “psychopathology of everyday life.” Žižek and Dolar attempt to show that the highest and most abstract concepts of psychoanalysis and philosophy, if they do indeed possess a degree of truth, must be capable of shedding light on the most immediately accessible manifestations of the human psyche in today’s social context.  Otherwise, why would one bother engaging with theory?  If it says nothing about quotidian experience and contemporary culture, then what descriptive function does it fulfill?  Who or what is it describing?  More academics should ask themselves these questions.



© 2002 Adrian Johnston

Adrian Johnston recently completed a Ph.D. in Philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook. His dissertation was Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive.


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