People Music: From Mozart to Climate Change
David Yearsley’s fine article “Disaster Music” in April 12 Counterpunch generates thoughts about what can be called People Music. At present, global political and environmental events unfold disastrously. Yearsley writes about people in the past facing the forces of natural catastrophes, framed as People versus God in Handel’s powerful music: “…earthquakes on land and beneath the ocean will presage the coming of the Lord,” and Yearsley writes “The tsunami of retribution is the seal on God’s covenant.”
The 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment/Age of Reason, “the best of all possible worlds,” also saw vicious, now forgotten wars fought solely for power, including the Seven Years war with up to 1.4 million fatalities, the War of Spanish Succession with up to 1.2 million fatalities. Fifty years after Handel, during revolutionary times, Mozart’s greatest operas depict People versus People. There is no God figure. The finales of Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro show psychopathologies of conscience interfacing with class structure and law. These extraordinarily beautiful operas tell far more about people than behavioral psychologies and the checklist diagnostic classifications of American psychiatry (DSM).
The differences between Handel and Mozart have repercussions today: climate change is often personified as an omnipresent force that “we” need to battle against, and Earth is abstracted as a generous or punitive Mother we need to protect and re-find. In much climate framing there is relative inattention and insufficient rage about the criminality and banality of actual perpetrators and colluders who are the ones who bring horror to the world’s people. War, according to international law, is a supreme crime, but not anthropogenic climate catastrophe.
Entitlement and Redemption
The two Mozart operas focus on entitled aristocratic men. Wealthy Don Giovanni kills the father of a woman he tries to abduct. He seduces thousands of women whose nationalities and physical characteristics are recorded on a list kept by his servant whom he humiliates and taunts. Don Giovanni believes he can have whatever he wants. He is boastful and his meanness comes through in many scenes. In the finale, the father’s ghost comes to demand that Don Giovanni repent. Three times he repeats “Pentiti” and Don Giovanni resoundingly replies “No.” The ghost father’s “deathly cold hand” clasps Don Giovanni’s hand to drag him to his fate in Hell. Don Giovanni does not have an inner conscience; there is no guilt, no inner pain, and he cannot even acknowledge that his tormentor is the father he has killed. The only possible brake comes from external authority. He experiences physical sensations but not emotional feelings. He does not connect the physical pain that begins to consume him with what he has done.
“Who lacerates my soul?
Who torments my body?
What torment, oh me, what agony!
What a Hell! What a terror! where do those flames of horror come from?”
In The Marriage of Figaro, Count Almaviva claims the droit de seigneur, the right of “first night” over his servant Figaro’s fiancée. The plot revolves around couples: the count and countess, the servant Figaro and his fiancée, an older couple, and a homosexual person’s first infatuation. Out of these people’s capacity to love and to feel concern about the Countess’ pain due to the Count’s narcissistic, thoughtless betrayal, they devise a way to confront him with his hurtful behavior. In the finale, the Count suddenly sees through other people’s eyes what he has done. His face expresses inner pain and shame. In the Metropolitan Opera staging, the Count bows down before his wife and with lowered eyes he sings “Perdone” and rests his hand on hers. Three times he says to her “Perdone” and she answers that she is kinder than him and that she will forgive him. The music expresses the utmost tenderness.
Finnish psychoanalyst Pentii Ikonen has written about what he terms the phallic narcissistic universe. A body-focused narcissistic phase of early childhood is an expectable time of pride and pleasure for both boys and girls, a time of “look at me. See what I can do.” Yet fixations and developmental arrests at this phase are deeply pathological and dangerous to others. “What matters is one’s own purpose, not the purpose of the other, and so mutuality is of no concern… The mutuality that takes another into consideration is seen as a sign of weakness or guile.” Ikonen writes of the disappointment of living within limits. He states that phallic fantasies are in one way or another violent; there is a phallic equivalence between destructiveness and sexuality so that “any sort of breaking (spoiling or conquering) will pass for a phallic display of sexual power or potency.” Phallic meanness is irrational. “It is motivated solely by the desire to hurt another, to injure him or even kill him. The motive is not the need for food or money, nor revenge, jealousy or competition over something, although imagined malice will often masquerade as some such motive.”1
Certainly these traits are readily observable in many women and men in positions of power. What draws them together are the incapacity to use realistic guilt and shame and to have a constant sense of the realness of other people. Quinn Slobodian’s history of the Geneva School neoliberals shows them to be oblivious to ordinary human experience, ominously similar to Hannah Arendt’s understanding of Eichmann. It was reported that after the first atom bomb test at Alamogordo:
“the overjoyed inhabitants [nuclear scientists] of Los Alamos gathered in groups all over town to celebrate. ‘There were tears and laughter…. We beat each other on the back, our elation knew no bounds … the gadget worked!’… Feynman got his bongo drums out and led a snake dance through the whole Tech Area.”
Years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many brilliant scientists still can’t see the human world.2
Contrast this with First Nations political prisoner Leonard Peltier who puts it beautifully:
“You must understand… I am ordinary. Painfully ordinary. This isn’t modesty. This is fact. Maybe you’re ordinary, too. If so, I honor your ordinariness, your humanness, your spirituality. I hope you will honour mine. That ordinariness is our bond, you and I. We are ordinary. We are human. The Creator made us this way. Imperfect. Inadequate. Ordinary… Imperfection is the source of every action. This is both our curse and our blessing as human beings. Our very imperfection makes a holy life possible. We’re not supposed to be perfect. We’re supposed to be useful.”
This does not in any way imply that being ordinary means acquiescing to malignantly narcissistic and indifferent people. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro shows ways that people can be decent and confront appalling behavior in the powerful. Ordinary people throughout history “rage against the dying of the light” (Dylan Thomas). There is an understanding by Mozart of the critical difference between the malignity of narcissistic people and the helpfulness that is expectable in ordinary people. This is a difference applicable to addressing climate change and it focuses a spotlight on the centrality of people’s relationships with other people. This is much more fraught, much more emotionally complex than people’s relationship with the physical environment or with emblematic animals like polar bears and moose.
Too often what is missing in climate discourse is the terrible threat to human life, either from climate impacts or from the militarization of climate security wherein climate victims are treated as a security threat. What is seen in the Marriage of Figaro is the capacity for concern about other people. In real life, this was seen when 20 million extreme storm victims in Pakistan were taken into other people’s homes, or when the Sinhalese and Tamil enemies worked together to help people in the Sri Lanka tsunami, or the help afforded to each other in Hurricane Katrina. To listen to Mozart’s extraordinary music is to feel that this beauty should never be lost. •