[The author of this article has recently written THE SECRET GLOSS. A FILM PLAY ON THE LIFE AND WORK OF SOREN KIERKEGAARD, published by Elliott & Thompson]

‘After which they all go quietly home - having spent a very pleasant evening’. (Kierkegaard, EITHER/OR)

Soren Kierkegaard went to the opera on most evenings. He never sat through a complete performance, not wanting to be considered a serious person. The repertoire in Copenhagen at the time was Cimarosa, Cherubino, Cavalli, Bellini, and Balfe. He chose a different act to attend each night of the week. So over the years he would get through the lot. He toyed with the idea of putting together a generic opera ‘in five and half acts’ from the titbits in his head.

Opera for him was a table d’hôte. You nibble an aria, half listening to the recitatives of the audience. Serio on stage was buffa in the boxes: hysterical sopranos competing with tipsy men-about-town, bosoms wobbling on the high notes, wineglasses thrown on stage. There was one glorious exception, Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI. Even the gods sang along with it. Soren dined on the DON in a box with the curtains drawn. The crooked smoke of his cigar wafted in the air during the interval, the only sign of life. He sat through the entire performance, with his eyes closed. Mozart’s score for him was the banquet, and Da Ponte’s libretto the crumbs under the table. The frippery of costumed staging and plot was for others (‘the mere external essence’). What was happening was the music, which had an existence all of its own.

In Kierkegaard’s first great work, EITHER/OR (1843), a collage of fictional diaries, one act plays, shadowgraphs and psycho-philosophical parodies, he called the existential element in music ‘the immediate erotic’. In the style of a comic Hegel, he described Mozart’s musical erotic, dialectically: yearning - Elvira’s day dreaming; seeking - Zerlina’s flirting; and desiring - the Don’s insatiable dreich. His posthumous published diaries reveal how personally he took DON GIOVANNI. In his own life he never got beyond the second stage. He had no confidence in his body and regarded others as beyond possession. This sense of ‘melancholy impotence’ made him break off his engagement to Regine (‘the only woman that would have me’).

The voice of Mozart in the opera, the lyric tenor, Don Octavio, speaks to and for him. His IL MIO TESORO is a wave to Regine. Octavio’s manly promise to avenge the violation of his fiancée, Donna Anna, by the base baritone, Don Giovanni (‘in pochi istanti vendicarvi prometto’) is neutered by the wispy bel canto. The tender waverings of Octavio echoe his, offering Regine, perhaps, some consolation (‘What a lucky escape!’).

Soren didn’t feel good about leading a nice girl up the garden path. His failure as a man wasn’t her fault. She was his original yearner, who never quite reached the third stage, desiring. On the threshold of it, he jilted her because he knew he couldn’t make her happy. As a decent human being ‘in a small way’, he had done his best to warn her against himself and, when that failed, to put her off by making a show of indifference when they met so that she wouldn’t be tempted to come running back. Nevertheless, he was haunted by Don Octavio/ Mozart’s ‘io vo’ con lei’. He craved to follow his Donna Anna through life, sharing her sorrow. Together they could live with her violation. Soren banished the thought as contradictory, and unfair to Regine. She was no dramatic soprano. Instead, faute de mieux, he encouraged a worthy suitor to marry her, and got on with thinking of what had happened and what might have been.

His rejection of the immediateerotic could be said to be musical. When Bishop Mynster, Denmark’s foremost divine, dismissed music as ‘inarticulate noises’, and presbyterians condemned church organs as ‘the devil’s bagpipes’, he began to have second thoughts about Christianity, and the failure of his own, as filtered through his doom-laden father. Faced by the musical erotic that Regine offered he found himself in a state of dread twisted by irony, tone deaf to the joys of life he could so relish in his mind and writings.

Though he reproved Emmanuel Kant ‘for not making clear that the duty of human understanding is to understand that there are things which cannot be understood’, he never gave up investigating his failure, and Regine endured the intrusive penetration of his ratiocinations which, though published anonymously, were widely known as Soren’s (Copenhagen was a small town). It was a conceptual violation, of sorts, he knew. But as his raison d’être was to write up the experiment that was his life, there wasn’t much he could do about it. Either/or, Regine came to embody for him an idea that he wasn’t able to live with, or without, the ‘existential sensual’ which wasn’t for him.

Don Giovanni was the incarnation of the immediateor musical erotic for him. Octavio / Mozart was its antithesis. Mozart’s pathological jealousy of his sprightly wife, Constance (surely Zerlina, the soubrettein the opera), meant he saw Don Giovannis everywhere, and felt helpless. Underscoring the musical erotic are the strains of ‘melancholy impotence’. The motif is not exclusive to Octavio / Mozart. An ineffable sadness touches all the male characters, even Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant and Fool (the women are simply angry, except Zerlina, who is enjoying every moment).

In the ‘The Diary of the Seducer’ (Either/Or), Kierkegaard, to get under the skin of Don Giovanni, tells himself a fable.

‘There once was a primordial paradise on a mountain called Venus, where wild pleasures could be experienced in their natural state. Dance rather than language was its music. There was no place for reflection. You didn’t think twice before you leaped. This is where Don Giovanni was born, and grew up at home with his sensuality. He existed for it. That is, until Christianity came, and the flesh lost its independence. Mind over body imperatives brought hesitation into the paradise of the existential sensual. The delights of the flesh were invaded by the snake of doubt and dread’.

And so began the descent into the three stages of the musical erotic, and all hell opening.

Stage 1: Yearning. Desire without object. Reveries, sentiments. No fear and trembling in them. You sleep in the beauty of it. Nothing can wake you up, least of all a kiss. In Soren’s daydream, he sleepwalked behind ‘The March of the Leprechaun’ (The Brothers Grimm had not yet stolen the march for their Pied Piper). The leprechaun bewitched children into following him and turned them into changelings. Being a bit of a changeling himself, Soren would have been drawn to the Irish legend. His father was inclined to be whimsical about who his real mother was. Though the facts are clear. The maidservant stood in for his wife, the vessel of virtue who died long before Soren was born.

Stage 2: Seekeing. Desire begins to focus. Yet its object is too generalised to be desired (‘Desire has its absolute in the particular, desiring the particular absolutely’). Don Giovanni comes down from Mount Venus as a gentleman caller. The step quickens but not sufficiently to dance. Walks with the musical erotic are chaperoned. The search has the formal grace of a medieval romance. Courtship, chivalry and dulcet tones. It ought to end happily.

Kierkegaard’s pursuit of Regine never got past this stage. Although he wrote continuously throughout his life about their courtship, he never compromised Regine by revealing more than essential details (her touchingly bad piano-playing), and his own existential ruminations. Yet in his diary he did let drop that when she showed signs of needing more than an arm, he didn’t let the situation get out of hand. But in a note he slyly blurs the picture. ‘After my death, no one will find amongst my papers a single explanation as to what really happened (this is my consolation). No one will find the words which explain everything, and which often made what the world would call a bagatelle into an event of tremendous importance to me, and what I look on as something insignificant when I take away the secret gloss which explains all.’

Stage 3. Desiring. Kierkegaard said ‘Don Giovanni had the great art, or rather the gift, of desiring’. The Don takes his bow and leads the dance. His figures of eight make others want to join in - his seductions are the awakening of latent desire. But the erotic is not as it was on Mount Venus. The act of possession has lost its immediacy, is no longer an unambiguous embrace between two consenting dance lovers. Now the individual ‘dancer’ is responsible to social expectations, rather than to the partner. The Don is seen to be claiming his droit de seigneur over Zerlina. But his only sexual act in the opera is an attempted rape of Donna Anna, a social equal. He is revolting against being made into a ‘representative person’. Who wants to be a star, a proxy for others, when you’re a demi-god?

Once Don Giovanni shows his mortal side, everybody turns on him, most surprisingly his servant. A posse is formed - Donna Anna, Elvira, Leporello, Zerlina, and her young man, Masetto. The quintet’s hired killer is the basso profundo, the Donna’s father’s ghost, the Stone Statue. Nobody is himself or herself anymore - all sing from the same hymn-sheet. Only the Don, the carrier of the dying flame of the musical erotic, is a person in his own right. But the music has lost its beat, and the Don’s dance staggers to a conclusion. And he invites his nemesis, the Stone Statue, to supper. As the Corsican trap opens under him, the Don goes willingly into the flames wanting, no doubt, to return to his former state. ‘Ah!’ he cries, triumphantly. (‘Ah!’, groans Leporello. He’s out of a job).

Mozart’s score contradicts the pious sentiments of the quintet. This is not damnation for fleshly excesses. Rather it affirms the purification and renewal, by fire, of the ‘existential sensual’. And, indeed. the musical erotic is not dead. Zerlina drags Masetto home - a cenar in compagnia - for a pleasant evening together.