Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Don Juan and David Bentley Hart

In the newest issue of First Things, David Bentley Hart examines the various incarnations of the literary Don Juan through the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, as well as his subsequent fading in Western consciousness in the following centuries, and what these changes signify. The piece, titled A Splendid Wickedness, appears in First Things and requires a subscription to read, but Hart recently gave a lecture on this same topic that ended up on YouTube and covers much of the same material (though I still recommend a subscription to First Things).

One of my favorite flourishes in the piece discusses a few aberrant incarnations of the character, such as the 'Don John' of The Libertine:
The most arresting seventeenth-century version [of the Don Juan story], however, is certainly Thomas Shadwell’s lurid and demented extravaganza, The Libertine (1676), whose “Don John” is not merely a burlador or rake, but something like Satan’s less reputable twin brother. The antinomian monster at the center of this play is a prolific murderer and rapist, who has murdered his own father and is laying plans to rape several nuns; he is also a thief, a blasphemer, and—almost as bad—a philosopher. As he and three equally evil boon companions rampage across the stage, committing one atrocity after another with delirious gaiety, they also spin out elaborate but perfectly cogent rational justifications for their actions, of an almost proto-Nietzschean kind. And, even on the brink of damnation, amid a roiling phantasmagoria—ghosts of his victims, devils, the living statue, hell’s fire—he expresses neither fear nor remorse but goes to his perdition proudly affirming his unshakable loyalty to himself, with a courage so insane it almost deprives hell of any significance. When the curtain falls, one is left wondering whether the devil is ready to receive him, or might rather be too shocked at his morals. 
Hart argues that while Don Quixote is a more timeless figure, Don Juan belongs to -- and is only possible in --  a particular historical, epochal context. That the vibrancy of his moral indiscretion and rebellion is only really interesting or intelligible anchored in a particular, coherent moral universe. A universe that we moderns, or postmoderns, do not naturally inhabit. Given this fact, it's inevitable that the character had to fade from our collective consciousness. Even his hedonistic, sensualist sensibilities -- characteristics which seems prima facie to fit quite comfortably into our cultural context -- are ultimately out of sync with the late modern ethos:
Our culture, with its almost absolute emphasis on the power of acquisition, trains us to be beguiled by the bright and the shrill rather than the lovely and the subtle. That, after all, is the transcendental logic of late-modern capitalism: the fabrication of innumerable artificial appetites, not the refinement of the few that are natural to us. Late modernity’s defining art, advertising, is nothing but a piercingly relentless tutelage in desire for the intrinsically undesirable. 

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