Mozart as a Critic of Postmodern Ideology


Contemporary productions may remain faithful to the truth of classical operas in adaptations, revealing the paradoxes of desire and the gaps between belief and concrete action supporting ideology. The discordances between music and words in opera articulate worldly disjunctures between ideology, belief and concrete practice that produce skepticism and cynicism. In contrast to the irony of Wagner’s Tristan in which truth lies in dramatic events that contradict the music, truth in Mozart’s Così fan tutte lies in the music that contradicts words. Mozart’s work, therefore, rather than standing as an exemplar of classical opera, is modern in its staging of the misfit between subjectivity and practical acts.

The Fast Runner, a unique film retelling an old Inuit (Eskimo) legend, was made by the North Canadian Inuits themselves; the authors decided to change the ending, replacing the original slaughter in which all participants die with a more conciliatory conclusion-they claimed that such an ending is more befitting to today’s times. The paradox is that precisely this readiness to adapt the story to today’s specific needs attests to the fact that the authors were still part of the ancient Inuit tradition-such “opportunistic” rewriting is a feature of premodern culture, while the very notion of the “fidelity to the original” signals that we are already in the space of modernity, that we have lost the immediate contact with tradition.
One should bear in mind this fundamental paradox when one deals with numerous recent attempts to stage classical operas by not only transposing them into a different (most often contemporary) era, but also by changing some basic facts of the narrative itself. There is no a priori abstract criterion which would allow us to judge the success or failure: each such intervention is a risky act and must be judged by its own immanent standards. Only one thing is sure: the only way to be faithful to a classic work is to take such a risk-avoiding it, sticking to the traditional letter, is the safest way to betray the spirit of the classic. In other words, the only way to keep a classical work alive is to treat it as “open,” pointing towards the future, or, to use the metaphor evoked by Walter Benjamin, to act as if the classic work is a film for which the appropriate chemical liquid to develop it was invented only later, so that it is only today that we can get the full picture.
Among the cases of such successful changes, two stand out: Jean-Pierre Ponelle’s Bayreuth version of Tristan in which, in Act III, Tristan dies alone (Isolde stayed with her husband, King Marke, her appearance at the opera’s end is merely the dying Tristan’s hallucination), and Hans-Juergen Syberberg’s film version of Parsifal (in which Amfortas’ wound is a partial object, a kind of continually bleeding vagina carried on a pillow outside his body; plus, at the moment of his insight into Amfortas’ suffering and rejection of Kundry, the boy who played Parsifal is replaced by a young cold girl). In both cases, the change has a tremendous power of revelation: one cannot resist the strong impression that “this is how it really should be”…
Imagine, along these lines,–my private dream–a Parsifal taking place in a modern megalopolis, with Klingsor as an impotent pimp running a whorehouse; he uses Kundry to seduce members of the “Grail” circle, a rival drug gang. “Grail” is run by the wounded Amfortas whose father Titurel is in a constant delirium induced by too much drugs; Amfortas is under a terrible pressure from the members of his gang to “perform the ritual,” i.e., deliver the daily portion of drugs to them. He was “wounded” (infected by AIDS) through Kundry, his penis bitten while Kundry was giving him fellatio. Parsifal is a young inexperienced son of a single homeless mother who does not get the point of drugs; he “feels the pain” and rejects Kundry’s advances while she is performing fellatio on him. When Parsifal takes over the “Grail” gang, he establishes a new rule for his community: free distribution of drugs…
The same could be done for Tristan: imagine the action transposed into a conflict between two patriarchal-gangster-fishermen Sicilian families, a kind of Tristan transposed into Cavalleria rusticana. The capo of one of the families (“Marke”) sends his nephew (“Tristan”) across the bay to the other family to bring him “Isolde”: the marriage is arranged to end a family feud. On the boat, the two recall their past encounter and, “Isolde”‘s servant accompanying her later gives here a placebo drink instead of poison… Such experiments, of course, are risky, and often ridiculously misfire-however, not always, and there is no way to tell in advance, so one has to take the risk.
Among the recent stagings of Mozart, it is Peter Sellars version of Così fan tutte (available on video and DVD) which triumphantly succeeds in such an exercise of subtly changing the narrative. Apart from the convincing transposition of the action in the present setting (a US naval base, with Despina as a local bar owner, and the two gentlemen–naval officers – returning not as “Albanians,” but as violet-and-yellow-hair punkers), its main premise is that the only true passionate love is the one between the philosopher Alfonzo and Despina, who engage in their experimenting with the two young couples in order to act out the deadlock of their desperate love… This reading hits the very heart of the Mozartean IRONY which is to be opposed to cynicism. If, to simplify it to the utmost, a cynic fakes a belief that he privately mocks (publicly you preach sacrifice for the fatherland, privately you amass profits…), in irony, the subject takes things more seriously than he appears to–he secretly believes in what he publicly mocks. Alfonzo and Despina, the cold philosophical experimentor and the corrupted dissolute servant-girl, are the true passionate lovers using the two pathetic couples and their ridiculous erotic imbroglio as instruments to confront their traumatic attachment.
What makes Così the most perplexing, traumatic even, among Mozart’s operas is the very ridicule of its content: for our psychological sensitivity, it is almost impossible to “suspend our disbelief” and accept the premise that the two women do not recognize in the couple of Albanian officers their own lovers. No wonder, then, that, throughout the 19th century, the opera was performed in a changed version in order to render the story palpable. There were three main versions of these changes which fit perfectly the main modes of the Freudian negation of a certain traumatic content:
(1) the staging implied that the two women knew all the time the true identity of the “Albanian officers”–they just pretended not to know it in order to teach their lovers a lesson;
(2) the couples reunited at the end are not the same as at the beginning, they change their places diagonally, so that, through the confusion of identities, the true, natural love links are established;
(3) most radically, only the music was used, with a wholly new libretto telling a totally different story.
Edward Said drew attention to Mozart’s letters to his wife Constanze from 30 September of 1790, i.e. from the time when he was composing Così; after expressing his pleasure at the prospect of meeting her again soon, he goes on: “If the people were to be able to see into my heart, I would have to be almost ashamed of myself…” At this point, as Said perspicuously perceives, one would expect the confession of some dirty private secret (sexual fantasies of what he will do to his wife when they will finally meet, etc.); however, the letter goes on: “everything is cold to me – cold like ice”.(1) It is here that Mozart enters the uncanny domain of “Kant avec Sade,” the domain in which sexuality loses its passionate, intense character and turns into its opposite, a “mechanical” exercise in pleasure executed by cold distance, like the Kantian ethical subject doing his duty without any pathological commitment… Isn’t this the underlying vision of Così: a universe in which subjects are determined not by their passionate engagements, but by a blind mechanism that regulates their passions? What compels us to bring Così close to the domain of “Kant avec Sade” is its very insistence on the universal dimension already indicated by its title: “they are ALL doing like this,” determined by the same blind mechanism… In short, Alfonso the philosopher who organizes and manipulates the game of changed identities in Così, is a version of the figure of the Sadean pedagogue educating his young disciples in the art of debauchery. It is thus oversimplified and inadequate to conceive this coldness as that of “instrumental reason.”
The two men in Così want to have their fiancées SEE THEMSELVES HUMILIATED: the point is not just to test their fidelity, but to embarrass them by way of compelling them to confront publicly their infidelity (recall the finale, when, after the marriage contract with the two “Albanians,” the two men return in proper dress and then let the fiancées know that they were the “Albanians”). The desire that is enigmatic here is not the feminine one (is it stable or are women’s emotions fleeting?), but MAN’S desire: what kind of “imp of perversity” propels the two young gentlemen to submit their fiancees to such a cruel ordeal? What is pushing them to throw in disarray the harmonious idyll of their love relationship? Obviously, they want their fiancées back, but properly humiliated, confronted with the vanity of their feminine desire. As such, their position is strictly that of the Sadean pervert: their aim is to displace to the Other (victim) the division of the desiring subject, i.e. the unfortunate fiancées must assume the pain of finding their desire itself repulsive.
The traumatic core of Così resides in its radical “mechanical materialism”, in the sense of Pascalean advice to non-believers: “Act as if you believe, kneel down, follow the ritual, and belief will come by itself!” Così applies the same logic to love: far from being an external expression of the inner feeling of love, love rituals and gestures generate love-so act as if you are in love, follow the procedures, and love will emerge by itself… A propos of Moliere’s Tartuffe, Henri Bergson emphasized how Tartuffe is funny not on account of his hypocrisy, but because he gets caught in his own mask of hypocrisy:

He immersed himself so well into the role of a hypocrite that he played it, as it were, sincerely. This way and only this way he becomes funny. Without this purely material sincerity, without the attitude and speech which, through the long practice of hypocrisy, became for him a natural way to act, Tartuffe would be simply repulsive. (Bergson 1937, p. 83)

Bergson’s precise expression “purely material sincerity” fits perfectly with the Althusserian notion of Ideological State Apparatuses, i.e. of the external ritual which materializes ideology: the subject who maintains his distance towards the ritual is unaware of the fact that the ritual already dominates him from within. This “purely material sincerity” of the external ideological ritual, not the depth of the subject’s inner convictions and desires, is the true locus of the fantasy which sustains an ideological edifice. Moralists who condemn Così for its alleged frivolity thus totally miss the point: Così is an ETHICAL opera in the strict Kierkegaardian sense of the “ethical stage.” The ethical stage is defined by the sacrifice of the immediate consumption of life, of our yielding to the fleeting moment, in the name of some higher universal norm. If Mozart’s Don Giovanni embodies the Aesthetic (as developed by Kierkegaard himself in his detailed analysis of the opera in Either/Or), the lesson of Così is ethical–why? The point of Così is that the love that unites the two couples at the beginning of the opera is no less “artificial”, mechanically brought about, than the second falling in love of the sisters with the exchanged partners dressed up as Albanian officers that results from the manipulations of the philosopher Alfonso-in both cases, we are dealing with a mechanism that the subjects follow in a blind, puppet-like way. Therein consists the Hegelian “negation of negation”: first, we perceive the “artificial” love, the product of Alfonso’s manipulations, as opposed to the initial “authentic” love; then, all of a sudden, we become aware that there is actually no difference between the two-the original love is no less “artificial” than the second. So, since one love counts as much as the other, the couples can return to their initial marital arrangement. This is what Hegel has in mind when he claims that, in the course of a dialectical process, the immediate starting point proves itself to be something already-mediated, i.e. its own self-negation: in the end, we ascertain that we always-already were what we wanted to become, the only difference being that this “always-already” changes its modality from In-itself into For-itself. Ethical is in this sense the domain of repetition qua symbolic: if, in the Aesthetic, one endeavors to capture the moment in its uniqueness, in the Ethical a thing only becomes what it is through its repetition.
Niels Bohr, who gave the right answer to Einstein’s „God doesn’t play dice” („Don’t tell God what to do!”), also provided the perfect example of how a fetishist disavowal of belief works in ideology: seeing a horse-shoe on his door, the surprised visitor said that he doesn’t believe in the superstition that it brings luck, to which Bohr snapped back: „I also do not believe in it; I have it there because I was told that it works even if one does not believe in it!” What this paradox renders clear is the way a belief is a reflexive attitude: it is never a case of simply believing-one has to believe in belief itself. Which is why Kierkegaard was right to claim that we do not really believe (in Christ), we just believe to believe-and Bohr just confronts us with the logical negative of this reflexivity (one can also NOT believe one’s beliefs…).
This perspicuous example compels us to complicate a little bit Pascal’s „Kneel down and you will believe!”, adding an additional twist to it. In the „normal” cynical functioning of ideology, belief is displaced onto another, onto a „subject supposed to believe,” so that the true logic is: „Kneel down and you will thereby MAKE SOMEONE ELSE BELIEVE!” One has to take this literally and even risk a kind of inversion of Pascal’s formula: “You believe too much, too directly? You find your belief too oppressing in its raw immediacy? Then kneel down, act as if you believe, and YOU WILL GET RID OF YOUR BELIEF–you will no longer have to believe yourself, your belief will already ex-sist objectified in your act of praying!” That is to say, what if one kneels down and prays not so much to regain one’s own belief but, on the opposite, to GET RID of one’s belief, of its over-proximity, to acquire a breathing space of a minimal distance towards it? To believe–to believe “directly,” without the externalizing mediation of a ritual-is a heavy, oppressing, traumatic burden which, through exerting a ritual, one has a chance of transferring it onto an Other… If there is a Freudian ethical injunction, it is that one should have the courage of one’s own convictions: one should dare to fully assume one’s identifications. And exactly the same goes for marriage: the implicit presupposition (or, rather, injunction) of the standard ideology of marriage is that, precisely, there should be no love in it. The Pascalean formula of marriage is therefore not “You don’t love your partner? Then marry him or her, go through the ritual of shared life, and love will emerge by itself!”, but, on the contrary: “Are you too much in love with somebody? Then get married, ritualize your love relationship, in order to cure yourself of the excessive passionate attachment, to replace it with the boring daily custom-and if you cannot resist passion’s temptation, there are extra-marital affairs…”
This insight brings us back to the power of Sellars’ staging, enabling us to formulate the difference between the two couples of young lovers and the additional couple Alfonzo-Despina. The first two simply exemplify the Bergsonian “purely material sincerity”: in the great love duets of Act II of Così, the men, of course, hypocritically fake love to test the women; however, in exactly the same way as Tartuffe, they get caught in their own game and “lie sincerely.” This is what music renders–this sincere lie. However, with Alfonzo and Despina, the situation is more complicated: they enact–through others–the rituals of love for the sake of their own love, but in order to get rid of its direct traumatic burden. Their formula is: “We love each other too much-so let us stage a superficial love imbroglio of the two couples in order to acquire a distance towards this unbearable burden of our passion…”
What all this implies is that Mozart occupies a very special place between pre-Romantic and Romantic music. With the rise of Romanticism, a fundamental change occurs in the very ontological status of music: no longer reduced to a mere accompaniment of the message delivered in speech, it starts to contain/render a message of its own, “deeper” than the one delivered in words. It was Rousseau who first clearly articulated this expressive potential of music as such, when he claimed that, instead of merely imitating the affective features of verbal speech, music should be given the right to “speak for itself”–in contrast to the deceiving verbal speech, in music, it is, to paraphrase Lacan, the truth itself which speaks. As Schopenhauer put it, music directly enacts/renders the noumenal Will, while speech remains limited to the level of phenomenal representation. Music is the substance which renders the true heart of the subject, which is what Hegel called the “Night of the World,” the abyss of radical negativity: music becomes the bearer of the true message beyond words with the shift from the Enlightenment subject of rational logos to the Romantic subject of the “night of the world,” i.e., with the shift of the metaphor for the kernel of the subject from Day to Night. Here we encounter the Uncanny: no longer the external transcendence, but, following Kant’s transcendental turn, the excess of the Night in the very heart of the subject (the dimension of the Undead), what Tomlison called the “internal otherworldliness that marks the Kantian subject.”(2) What music renders is no longer the “semantics of the soul,” but the underlying “noumenal” flux of jouissance beyond the linguistic meaningfulness. This noumenal dimension is radically different from the pre-Kantian transcendent divine Truth: it is the inaccessible excess which forms the very core of the subject.
However, upon a closer look, one cannot avoid the conclusion that music itself – in its very substantial “passionate” rendering of emotions, celebrated by Schopenhauer – not only can also lie, but lies in a fundamental way, as to its formal status itself. Let us take the supreme example of music as the direct rendering of the subject’s immersion into the excessive enjoyment of the “Night of the World,” Wagner’s Tristan, in which the music itself seems to perform what words helplessly indicate, the way the amorous couple is inexorably drawn towards the fulfillment of their passion, the “highest joy (höchste Lust)” of their ecstatic self-annihilation-is this, however, the metaphysical “truth” of the opera, its true ineffable message? Why, then, is this inexorable sliding towards the abyss of annihilation interrupted again and again through the (often ridiculous) intrusion of the fragments of common daily life? Let us take the highest case, that of finale itself: just prior to Brangaene’s arrival, the music could have moved straight into the final Transfiguration, two lovers dying embraced – why, then, the rather ridiculous arrival of the second ship which accelerates the slow pace of the action in an almost comic way–in a mere couple of minutes, more events happen than in the entire previous opera (the fight in which Melot and Kurwenal die, etc.)–similar to Verdi’s Il Trovatore, in which in the last two minutes a whole package of things happen. Is this simply Wagner’s dramatic weakness? What one should bear in mind here is that this sudden hectic action does NOT just serve as a temporary postponement to the slow, but unstoppable drift towards the orgasmic self-extinction; this hectic action follows an immanent necessity, it HAS to occur as a brief “intrusion of reality,” permitting Tristan to stage the final self-obliterating act of Isolde. Without this unexpected intrusion of reality, Tristan’s agony of the IMPOSSIBILITY to die would drag on indefinitely. The “truth” does not reside in the passionate drift towards self-annihilation, the opera’s fundamental affect, but in the ridiculous narrative accidents/intrusions which interrupt it–again, the big metaphysical affect LIES.
Crucial for Tristan is therefore the gap between this opera’s “official ideology” and its subversion through the work’s texture itself. This subversion in a way turns around the famous Mozartean irony, where, while the person’s words display the stance of cynical frivolity or manipulation, the music renders their authentic feelings: in Tristan, the ultimate truth does not reside in the musical message of passionate self-obliterating love-fulfillment, but in the dramatic stage action itself which subverts the passionate immersion into the musical texture. The final shared death of the two lovers abounds in Romantic operas-suffice it to recall the triumphant “Moriam’ insieme” from Bellini’s Norma; against this background, one should emphasize how in Wagner’s Tristan the very opera which elevates this shared death into its explicit ideological goal, this, precisely, is NOT what effectively happens-in music, it is as if the two lovers die together, while in reality, they die one AFTER the other, each immersed in his/her own solipsistic dream.
Now, we can formulate the uniqueness of the Mozartean irony: although music is already fully autonomized with regard to words, it DOES NOT YET LIE. The Mozartean irony is the unique moment when the truth really “speaks in music,” when music occupies the position of the Unconscious rendered by Lacan with his famous motto “Moi la vérité, je parle.” And it is only today, in our postmodern time, allegedly full of irony and lacking belief, that the Mozartean irony reaches its full actuality, confronting us with the embarrassing fact that – not in our interior, but in our acts themselves, in our social practice – we believe much more than we are aware of. One cannot but recall here the wonderful “Soave sia il vento” trio from Mozart’s Così fan tutte, with its appeal to the “elements” (of the real) to respond benignly to our desires:

Gentle be the breeze,
calm be the waves,
and every element
respond benignly
to our desires.

–an appeal sustained by the suspicion that our beliefs are a fake, that the there is no match between our desires and reality, that their discord is irreducible, that our desires themselves are in no way gentle, that they tend to explode in a violence and thus to provoke an even more violent answer of the Real. The trap one has to avoid here is that of reading this trio as proof that Mozart was the last of the pre-modern (pre-Romantic) composers who still believed in the pre-established harmony between the turmoil of our inner lives and the ways of the world. On the contrary, Mozart was the first post-classicist, truly modern composer: his appeal to the elements to respond gently to our desires already implies the Romantic gap between subjectivity and the ways of the world.


Bergson, H. (1937) An Essay on Laughter (London: Smith).
Said, E. W. (1997), “Così fan tutte,” Lettre international 39 (Winter 1997), p. 69-70.
Tomlison, G. (1999) Metaphysical Song (Princeton: Princeton UP).


1) See Said (1997).
2) Tomlison (1999, p. 94).

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis