Opera’s Second Death, Slavoj Žižek

1051885My only serious complaint is that the book doesn’t treat Massenet’s Thaïs. Imagine what Žižek and Dolar could have done with this?! My only other complaint: in the chapter “Run, Isolde, Run!,” there’s a consideration of other possible ending to Tristan and Isolde, which betrays no awareness of the varient endings already available in the medieval tradition. There’s an Italian ballad, I believe, where Mark shows up and Tristan kills him. For example.

Essentially a long commentary on the Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, with extended considerations of Wagner’s Parsifal, AND the trial of Joan of Arc, this is perhaps the most “medieval” or “medievalist” of Žižek’s books. It’s strange, then, that it doesn’t get cited in Cinematic Illuminations, given that book’s attention to the grail as an ‘anamorphic blot’ disturbing the screen in, for example, Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois, and Syberberg’s Parsifal.

If you’ve stopped halfway through, keep at it: the Žižek clichéd jokes and mapping of Hegelian/Lacanian triads (here he is on Joan for instance, “Do we not encounter hear, yet again, the Lacanian triad of the Real-Imaginary-Symbolic: the Real of the hallucinated voices, the Imaginary of the dress, the Symbolic of the ecclesiastic institution?”), in other words, the Žižekian automatism, gives way, shockingly, to close (and accurate?) readings of the above operas plus a few others, including Rosenkavalier, Cosi fan Tutte, Fidelio, more Wagner, Turendot (“a monstrously perverted version of a Kantian ethical machine, whose message to us is “You can, because you must!”), and a few obscure atonal modernist pieces. Also surprising: the book’s feminist critique of Wagner’s idealized attachment to the Feminine Thing (which means the sacrifice of actual women), its sympathy with Derrida and with Butler on Antigone (“Antigone is a “living dead” not in the sense (which Butler attributes to Lacan) of entering the mysterious domain of ate, of going to the limit of the Law; she is a “living dead” in the sense of publicly assuming an uninhabitable position, a position for which there is no place in the public space”).

One of my favorite bits is their reading of the opening of Der Rosenkavalier: “This anti- (or, rather, post-) Wagnerian thrust is nicely rendered in the opposition between Octavian and the Marschallin in the very first scene: while, in a mockingly Wagnerian mood, Octavian babbles about the dissolution of the frontier between Me and You in the love act, about his wish to remain immersed in the night and avoid the day,” the Marschallin just says, here, hide behind this screen. To read this opening as an extension/subversion of Tristan and Isolde! Brilliant!

..and here’s a typical moment: “e have here four attitudes towards sexual love: the Wagnerian deadly immersion into the unremitting jouissance of the Night; the Meistersinger-Rosenkavalier resigned “wisdom,” acceptance that time passes, rendered in a “half-imaginary, half-real” dreamy Mozartean mode; Shostakovich’s brutal naturalism of the vulgar daily life – “just the story of an ordinary quiet Russian family whose members beat and poison each other,” as Shostakovich himself put it sarcastically; and, finally, Schulhoff’s assertion of the “undead” spectral compulsion as the ultimate dimension of sexual love.”