Friday, July 5, 2013

Everybody Can Can!

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...
-Slavoj Zizek, "On Opera: The Sex of Oepheus"

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