The Fetishization of Female Trauma: How Mozart Constructs Sovereignty Through Maleness and Denies Sovereignty Through Femaleness
Written and composed by Lorenzo Da Ponte and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Don Giovanni is the story of an Italian nobleman named Don Giovanni whose conquests are women and whose morals are questionable at best. Don Giovanni is a serial seducer, rapist, murderer, and infamous libertine. The opera follows Don Giovanni from the attempted rape of noblewoman Donna Anna to his ultimate damnation to hell. Aside from the alarming exposition and denouement, there is plenty disconcerting fodder within the main story arc of Don Giovanni as well. I aim to illuminate the sexual, familial, and the political power structures in Don Giovanni through the use of Lauren Berlant’s theory of the intimate public sphere and Rousseau’s theory of the body politic. More specifically, I wish to examine how through maleness, sovereignty is constructed and through femaleness, sovereignty is denied. Going beyond the contents of the libretto, I also endeavor to explore how Mozart fetishizes and desires female trauma through the music in Don Giovanni.
Some of the more interesting and revealing scenes in Don Giovanni are the interactions between men and women. In the very first scene, which shall be referred to later on as scene one, Don Giovanni is shown sneaking into the home of the Italian noblewoman Donna Anna while his servant, Leporello, waits outside. Don Giovanni attempts to rape Donna Anna while she protests, crying out “Idiot! You scream in vain. Who I am you'll never know!” (I.i.) To which Donna Anna replies in fear, “Help! Everyone! The betrayer… Scoundrel… Help! Everyone!” (I.i.) In response, Donna Anna’s father, the Commendatore, arrives to defend his daughter’s honor.
“Leave her alone, wretch, and defend yourself,” the Commendatore exclaims. “Thus you think to escape me… Fight!” (I.i) As Don Giovanni and the Commendatore begin to exchange blows, the Commendatore is mortally wounded and falls dead shortly after uttering his last words: “Help, assistance, all is ended! Oh, to die alone unfriended, vile assassin, thou'st undone me, heaven protect and guard my child!” (I.i) To summarize, Don Giovanni begins by trying to rape Donna Anna. He is unsuccessful because he is interrupted by her father, the Commendatore, who he later kills in a battle waged by the Commendatore to defend his daughter’s honor. In this way, Donna Anna becomes something to be defended when breached. As the female, Donna Anna’s honor (virginity) must be protected from a (male) power by her (male) father. Another vital scene, which will later be referred to as scene two, is the interaction between Masetto and Zerlina after Don Giovanni attempts to seduce Zerlina on her wedding night. Masetto angrily reject’s Zerlina’s attempts to make amends for being seduced by Don Giovanni. However, Zerlina apologizes successfully by fully submitting her body to Masetto. Zerlina states: But if I am not to blame? If I have been tricked by him? And then, what do you fear? Calm yourself, my love; he did not touch even the tips of my fingers. You don't believe it? Ungrateful one! Come here! Vent your anger! Kill me! Do everything you want to me, but afterwards, my Masetto, let us make peace. Beat me, beat me, my Masetto, beat your poor Zerlina. I'll stay here like a lamb and await your every blow… I'll let you pull my hair out, I'll let you gouge my eyes out, and then happily I will kiss your wonderfully sweet hands… Let's make up, my own true love” (I.iii)
Here, Zerlina completely submits herself to Masetto; offering herself up, she even condones her own murder. Masetto has complete power over Zerlina and she is subject to any punishment he deems fit. The entirety of the opera contains typical patriarchal familial structures in which women are subordinate to the men. No matter which family you look at in Don Giovanni, the males are dominant, and the females submissive.
It is here I wish to connect the patriarchal family structures in Don Giovanni to Berlant’s theory of the intimate public sphere and Rousseau’s theory of the body politic. Lauren Berlant’s The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship asks a deceptively complex question: what exactly is the nation? From this question, many more disseminate. (What constitutes the nation, how do we experience it? How do we understand our citizenship on an intimate level?) Instead of constructing the nation as a sovereign power to which we assign our loyalty, Berlant articulates the nation, and citizenship to the state, as a sort of lived experience, resounding intimately and sexually. For Berlant, citizenship has become inextricably interwoven with intimate and sexual interactions with the state. The public sphere, emblematic of a rational political polis and empirical discourse, is more a location of intimacy. According to Berlant, “The intimate public sphere of the present tense renders citizenship as a condition of social membership produced by personal acts and values, especially acts originating in or directed toward the family sphere” (Berlant 5). Thus, the public is not the source of civic engagement, but rather the projection of familial constructs of such citizenship. The intimate public sphere is fueled by an idealistic imaginary of the family as the root for identity and effectuation of what is construed as the state and its sovereign authority. This imaginary of the family “usurps the modernist promise of the culturally vital, multiethnic city” (Berlant 5). Thus, the imaginary of the family propagates traditional notions of community and familial structure. This allows the intimate public sphere to reproduce itself in a way that condenses the public into the private, sex into citizenship, home into state. Public discourse essentially becomes reflective of the private; to the point at which there seems to be no differentiation. The home is as much an extension of the state as citizenship is a form of sexual interaction with the sovereign power. With Berlant theorizing how the state operates, I turn to Rousseau to theorize the construction of the state itself. To Rousseau, it is inevitable at some point that a people will require a sort of governance in order to preserve their freedoms (Rousseau 87). By entering into civil society, our physical liberties are limited, but our civil liberties which motivate reason and morality are augmented (Rousseau 89). The community that is then formed is a “moral and collective body” (Rousseau 88). Elaborating on the structure of this community, Rousseau states: This public person so formed by the union of all other persons, formerly took the name of city, and now takes that of Republic or body politic; it is called by its members State when passive, Sovereign when active, and Power when compared with others like itself. Those who are associated in it take collectively the name of people, and severally are called citizens, as sharing in the sovereign power, and subjects, as being under the laws of the State” (Rousseau 88).
Thus, the sovereign is an entity comprised of members of the community— not just a single member as is commonly understood. The state takes on the power of those comprising it— the state and the people are one. While the sovereign is still subject to the social contract, the citizens are further confined. Not only are the citizens tied to the sovereign, they are also tied to the other individuals within the state. In that sense, the sovereign establishes primacy over its citizens. And, the state, though comprised of subjects, transcends citizenship. However, the citizen and the state are still collapsible to the extent that they are one. Like Berlant, Rousseau conflates the citizen and the state in albeit a less dystopian manner.