Stay informed: Sign up for eNews Subscribe
Read Chapter 1
Chapter One


Two or Three Things I Know about Her

House Lights Down

Two or Three Things I Know about Her is a movie released in 1966 by Jean-Luc Godard. It consists of a series of images, interviews, and vignettes that sketch the life of a bourgeois housewife who is also a part-time prostitute. The woman does not, of course, "just happen" to be a prostitute. Like many others, she is working to support a habit—in this case precisely the habit of being a bourgeois housewife. The desire she withdraws from her sexual performances is reinvested in the material pleasures of ownership and consumption.

In form, Godard's movie is innovative. Its discontinuous, nonlinear, antimimetic technique, placed in the service of demystifying the facades of normal, or normative, life, can be said to prefigure the advent of deconstruction, which occurred just a year later, in 1967, with the publication of Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology. In content, however, the movie is positively nostalgic, despite an abundance of ostentatious hard edges. It can seen as a variation on an old theme from nineteenth-century opera. Variants of the underlying logic proliferate across the spectrum of nineteenth-century narratives: the price of being a proper self is susceptibility to an improper love that the self must destroy or—often and—be destroyed by. La Traviata had long since shown the intimate connections between prostitution and bourgeois yearnings—the yearnings of being bourgeois, the yearning to be a bourgeois. It had given those connections palpable, not to say palpitating, substance in its seductive music. And Godard notwithstanding, those connections are still being mystified as the stuff of true love and romance. It's scarcely a coincidence, speaking of movies, that the opera to which Richard Gere takes Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (1990)—same story, happy ending, but the music makes the prostitute-heroine played by Roberts cry—is La Traviata.

With operas less explicit than this one, the same connections may underwrite the impression of profundity. Isn't it possible to understand Götterdämmerung, for example, as an archetypal bourgeois tragedy? One of the secrets of the potion that alters Siegfried's desires, and in so doing reveals their true content, is that by forgetting Brünnhilde Siegfried can retire from active duty as a mythic hero. He can settle down as a pillar of polite society with an attractive wife and a couple of good after-dinner stories about a dragon and some magic fire. But in order for that to happen there must first be a mutual commodity exchange: Gunther must pimp Gutrune to Siegfried, and Siegfried pimp Brünnhilde to Gunther. If only the saturnine Hagen hadn't had other ideas . . .

The chain of associations from Godard to Götterdämmerung can be taken to suggest that opera has an exceptionally equivocal relationship to sexually mediated normality, or, more accurately, to the identification of social normality with a certain psychosexual disposition. Since the nineteenth century, such normality has generally hinged on the centrality of one version or another of bourgeois identity, from which other modes of identity may be understood to deviate by degrees. I take this fact, however, to be more exemplary than definitive; my overarching concern is not with the content of normality but with normality itself as a social and psychological function. In saying that this is also one of opera's primary concerns, I may risk seeming to reinvent the clichés that declare opera to be a uniquely extravagant, incredible, or artificial art form. At the same time I may seem to ally myself with recent revaluations that take operatic extravagance as a medium of freewheeling opposition to social and sexual norms. Both the clichés and the revaluations, however, assume the prior existence of a stable, effective, unquestioned normality, the referent of both enforcement and defiance. It is precisely in not making that assumption that my own effort begins.

Following Michel Foucault, I regard the device of the norm and the associated concepts of the normal and abnormal not as elements intrinsic to all social organization, but as historical formations specific to modernity. My suggestion is that opera, at least since the nineteenth century, has been actively involved in the production of normality and abnormality as mechanisms of social regulation, especially in the arenas of sex roles, the vicissitudes of desire, and the classification of human types. Opera's distinction is that it openly, perhaps even compulsively, seeks to do with these categories what most other cultural and social practices seek unsuccessfully to avoid doing. Exploiting the power of music to mold itself to any and every occasion, Opera destructures the field of values and desires structured by the regime of the norm. It discloses itself as alienating, questioning, or redefining both normality and abnormality in the very act of helping to produce them by various combinations of enforcement and defiance. The result tends to be that the combinations themselves, revealed or rendered as volatile, tortuous, and electric, grand love-hate romances in their own right, upstage the values whose demands set them in motion.

My aim in this chapter is to offer some reflections on this process which will contribute to an understanding of its specificities, both historical and theoretical. These reflections will be discontinuous, nonlinear, and antimimetic—just like Godard's movie, but without the subtext of nostalgia. First, however, I will have to reflect a little on the possibilities of such reflection itself, both in general and in relation to other recent efforts to reconceptualize opera. That done, I will return to opera proper—or improper, oblique to the proper in every sense of the term—and try to convey two or three things I know about her. Three things, actually, each of which emerges from a different scene in which opera is construed. The scenes depend, successively, on images, interviews, and vignettes from the world of nineteenth-century normality and abnormality. In the first, Walt Whitman listens; in the second, Sigmund Freud reads; in the third, Hagen sings a song.

But first the curtain raiser.


To begin with I would like to float a simple, even naive, idea, then submit it to a series of refinements. The object is to get a generic fix on the notion of opera from, roughly, Mozart to Puccini, with emphasis on the term "notion." What I'm interested in here is the ideal type suggested and often represented by a majority of the core repertoire pieces within the range suggested, including the Wagner and Strauss pieces on which this book centers as "best examples" of the type. The result is not a statement about an empirical phenomenon, but about a cultural fiction, which in this case I have proposed to call Opera—capital O, like the big Other—and to understand as a symptom of modernity.

Which is a symptom of what, exactly? Jürgen Habermas in a famous essay calls modernity the incomplete project of Enlightenment. Elaborating on an idea of Max Weber's, Habermas proposes that Enlightenment reason chiseled a once-unified worldview into several competing platforms. The three spheres of knowledge ("science," Wissenschaft), morality, and aesthetics disengaged from each other and became autonomous. If that is more or less right—and it seems plausible enough—Opera can be understood as one of the consequences.

Opera's mode of knowledge is typically allegory, that is, the mode of open difference between form and meaning. Wotan is overtly more and other than a Norse god, Salome overtly more and other than a Judean teenager. Opera emphasizes the gap internal to allegory by embedding dramatic action and words in an all-embracing but nonspecific support system, namely music, the semiotic openness of which both articulates the gap and fills or even overfills it. In this sense Opera is the antitype of the European novel that flourished during the same era.

This allegorical openness is the medium for the "true" action of Opera, which is staged between the other two terms of Habermas's triad. To oversimplify, but not as much as it may seem, opera constructs itself out of a divided allegiance to morality and the aesthetic, giving judicial and rational priority to the first and subjective priority to the second. This does not necessarily involve a conflict: Opera does not confine itself to embodying the typical modern condition of the head and heart at odds. The construction is a dynamic one, one of mutual interference in the service of mutual support. "Modernity," says Habermas, "revolts against the normalizing functions of tradition; modernity lives on the experience of rebelling against everything normative" (5). (The Foucauldian idea that the normative as such is itself an invention of modernity does not controvert this point; it restates the point from a reverse perspective, no matter that Habermas branded Foucault a conservative antirationalist.)

But Opera proposes a modernity without revolt. Opera embraces morally the norms it spurns affectively. It embraces those norms morally in order to spurn them affectively. Opera reinforces the moral norm with the strength of renunciation or denial that the norm imposes. Opera reinforces deviation from the moral norm by the degree of transgressive pleasure, including guilt and libidinal excess, that repudiation of the norm affords. The result is a "spiral of power and pleasure" like the one Foucault described for nineteenth-century sexuality: "Pleasure spread to the power that harried it; power anchored the pleasure it uncovered." Controlling and classifying sex became sexual acts; evading classification and control exercised sex as power. Key to the operation of these Foucauldian spirals is their not being acknowledged by their participants, whether as a result of pretense or real disavowal. They are the perpetual subtext of regulatory exchanges between "parents and children, adults and adolescents, educator and students, doctors and patients, the psychiatrist with his hysteric and his perverts" (45). But Opera's is a spiral rendered available for enjoyment and instruction, almost rendered consumable, not one reserved for the exclusive observation posts of the disciplines.

One might say emblematically that, in the arena of divided allegiance, Mozart's Don Giovanni is the first Opera. And among the first instances of post-Opera—again speaking emblematically—are works such as Britten's Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, which refuse the division of allegiance and explicitly criticize the fetishizing of the norm.

But this Habermasian model remains too simple, even with a Foucauldian overlay. One way to refine it, but not one to Habermas's liking, is to call on Derrida, another thinker whom Habermas regards as a conservative antagonistic to the idea of reason that he, Habermas, is trying to salvage.

A simple Derridean critique of Habermas's view would point out that the myth of modernity as a dissociated field of knowledge, morality, and aesthetics, though certainly powerful, has too much confidence in the autonomy of its components, which on Habermas's reading actually preserve (within their specialized and professionalized boundaries) the integrity supposedly lost by the metaphysical-religious unity whose breakup produced them. This preservation can indeed be said to occur, but only in splinters. Each term in the system leaves fragmentary remainders in the others; each is always already invested by claims, images, rhetorics, and dispositions to communicative action typical of the others. A reading of Opera, to be genuinely responsive to the phenomenon of Opera, should be situated within the field of this Derridean différance, a field that is simultaneously historical, rhetorical, and theoretical. So, to suggest a provisional protocol for such a reading, which the rest of the volume will develop, I will turn to some classic statements by Derrida and link them to Opera through the critical initiatives, originally provoked by questions of gender and sexuality, that in the decade of the 1990s substantially reconfigured the study of opera across the board.

Derrida, to be sure, may be a problematic resource. For some, he has already dated, and dated badly, in ways, for example, that Habermas has not. To some degree the concepts under review are more artifacts than current tools. I will return to this point in a little while. But this business of dating is more complex than it appears. As Derrida says of what he calls overturning (see below), "It is not a question . . . of a page that one day simply will be turned, in order to go on to other things. . . . The time for overturning is never a dead letter."

In Positions, the earliest of several books collecting the interview transcripts by which he loves to reduce speech, literally, to writing, Derrida outlines what he calls "a double gesture" through which deconstruction must pass and continually repass. An extended quotation will be necessary here:

On the one hand, we must traverse a phase of overturning. To do justice to this necessity is to recognize that in a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-à-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy. . . . To deconstruct the opposition, first of all, is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment. To overlook this phase of overturning is to forget the conflictual and subordinating structure of opposition. Therefore one might proceed too quickly to a neutralization that in practice would leave the previous field untouched. . . . We know what have always been the practical (particularly political) effects of immediately jumping beyond oppositions, and of protests in the simple form of neither this nor that. . . . On the other hand, to remain in this phase is still to operate . . . from within the deconstructed system. . . . We must also mark the interval between inversion, which brings low what was high, and the irruptive emergence of a new "concept," a concept that can no longer be, and never could be, included in the previous regime. (41-42)

Derrida notoriously offers a surplus of names for "the irruptive emergence of a new 'concept,'" but the one he favors in Positions is "dissemination," which he characterizes as "an irreducible and generative multiplicity" of meanings (45).

I will shortly suggest that the course of recent efforts to reconceptualize opera has corresponded fairly closely to Derrida's double gesture, but without fully realizing the disseminal character of the second phase. The reason for this new gap or interval (it is in no sense a failure) is that the disseminal phase does not constitute a unified field—as, on its own terms, it ought not to do. A closer reading of Derrida's text suggests that his disseminal phase incorporates a double gesture of its own, a second double gesture that recapitulates the original movement from overturning to dissemination.

On the one hand, Derrida outlines what we might call a phase of mixture, in which an opposition breaks down when it encounters a concept it cannot assimilate. The result is to scramble and conjoin the terms that the opposition is meant to keep separate. Mixture is marked by the appearance of "undecidables": terms that "inhabit" an opposition without belonging to it and "without ever constituting a third term" by which the opposition could be resolved dialectically (43). The best known of these undecidables is différance: the movement through which the elements of "language, or any code, any system of referral in general" enter into the interrelationships of difference and deferral by which, and by which alone, they become meaningful. The movement of différance is wayward, unsimple, constantly "enmeshed in [a] work that pulls it through a chain of other 'concepts,' other 'words,' other textual configurations" (40). Yet it is not purely contingent because the production of difference and deferral is unremitting. Any classical opposition is inhabited by something that "indicates that each of [its putatively self-standing] terms must appear as the différance of the other, as [itself] the other different and deferred."

Opera, as it happens, furnishes a fine example in the classical form of its conjuncture of words and music. As Avital Ronell observes, "In the demand that their encounter make sense, opera figures the irreducible difference between words and music. Language, for its part, is left a little emptied by the encounter, for it discovers that it can never hear itself unless music plays the other of itself. . . . [But] music finds in language that it has been critically denied access to saying what it means."

On the other hand, Derrida envisions a phase in which the terms dislocated by mixture enter into a pure conceptual mobility, an unbounded generativity from which previously unsuspected meanings proliferate. At a certain point (Derrida simply invokes a floating "then"), "the operator of generality named dissemination insert[s] itself into the open chain" of undecidables. In contrast to the phase of mixture, which is said to produce resistance and disorganization within a conceptual field, the more radical phase of dissemination "explode[s] the semantic horizon." Dissemination is even glossed as, in effect, the différance of différance itself: it is "seminal différance" (Positions, 44-45).

Opera criticism after 1990 can be said to have "overturned" the reigning assumption that opera is a form of drama in which the dramatist is the composer (Joseph Kerman's phrase) in favor of understanding it as a preeminently multimedia and, so to speak, multimediated (culturally saturated) form. The way was led by feminist critiques of operatic representation based on critical concern with the same problem that preoccupied opera itself in the 1890s: the problem of "woman," or, more exactly, the construction of "woman" as, precisely, a problem. In a classic instance of overturning, Catherine Clément's Opera, or the Undoing of Woman treated opera as a form grounded, not in the transcendence of shoddy librettos by beautiful music, but in the use of beautiful music to glamorize feminine suffering and death. Susan McClary's Feminine Endings grounded opera's frequent representation of madwomen in the need to control a fascinating but threatening feminine excess. These initiatives were quickly followed by studies in mixture (already implicit in McClary's text) along the now-familiar lines of power and resistance, compliance and transgression. The "phase" of such mixture is ideally that of a principled ambivalence that cannot, and should not, be overcome. It is an ambivalence that must be practiced. The practice of it in opera studies has given rise not only to accounts of gender, sexuality and sexual orientation, and the body, but also of theatricality, subjectivity, the supersensual and numinous, and more. The initial concern with, broadly speaking, questions of desire and identity has continued, but it has also diversified and inspired diversity.

In sum, there was, there has been and continues to be, a shift in priority from opera as music to opera as musical theater. Music, to be sure, remains the sine qua non: if the music fails, the opera fails, whereas an opera can survive bad staging, bad acting, a bad libretto, and even bad singing on the strength of its music. But opera as a conglomerate form and a barometer of cultural styles in subjectivity has become the center of attention. Opera is no longer art, exactly; it is a heterogeneous patchwork of media contributions, no one of which has automatic priority in shaping either aesthetic value or cultural meaning.

What is still missing from this heady mixture is the force of dissemination, the force that makes Opera something intractably strange, something unfolded through music but never fully rationalized or normalized by it. To some degree, the very acts of focus on gender, sexuality, noumenal subjectivity, and so on that have opened up the study of opera to new, increasingly sophisticated modes of understanding have tended to edge the unruly operatic patchwork toward the more monolithic status of the Gesamtkunstwerk, even without anyone wanting or intending that outcome. There is really no way to avoid this, but there is also no need to rest content with it. The disseminal force, which is to say the multifaceted, thick-description-seeking, intertextually dense activity of opera, the experience of opera, and writing about opera, can also be made available. It can be let loose.

Which is also, surprising as it may seem, to let history loose. The concept of dissemination belongs to a short-lived era of high theory that has been superseded largely because of its insufficient attentiveness to history. Part of the intent of recent opera scholarship has certainly been to restore the historical (that is, the worldly and contingent) import so often blunted by too exclusive a focus on strictly musical questions. Yet that intent has itself been somewhat blunted, as just noted, by the idealizing tendencies of its own discourse—something for which dissemination is a well-known pharmacy item.

Dissemination, I would suggest, can help us comprehend opera historically because there is a sense in which the disseminal is the historical, the very phenomenon it is commonly denounced for opposing. Dissemination is the mode of operation of historical contingency at the level of meaning. Mixed media applications depend on its potentialities—the open field of combinatory possibility, up to and including sheer chance. Opera, as mixed in its media as an art form can be, and as historically saturated, is dissemination as (musical) theater.

Opera plays out this paradox all the time. Its plots and styles are often blatantly historical—Opera is the bodice-ripper genre of high art—but its historical, mythographic, costume-drama features are presented as the agencies of transcendental tropes: opera produces history as metaphysics, metaphysics as the conjunction of voice and body with historical fictions. Many recent studies have tended to perpetuate this mystique in the act of analyzing it, whether their transcendental terms of choice have been gender, voice, body, or the noumenal. My effort here is not to oppose this trend. The world that made these tropes, and that these tropes make, is my world too, and I welcome the widening range of subject matter gained by exploring it. But I do want to contextualize, and therefore detranscendentalize, the trend's initiatives by working always within earshot of the sociohistorical formations within which the physical and metaphysical tropes make sense. With Opera, that brings us back to the regime of the norm, and especially to the correlated extremes of supremacy and debasement.

The regime of the norm might be said to enable the forms of excess or transcendence against which it seeks to protect the good subject, but on whose energies it must draw in order to make that subject plausibly animate: good to have as well as good to be. One might speculate that the social function of opera within this historical envelope is to allow the good subject to adopt figures of excess—characters overlapping with the singers who impersonate them—as ego ideals, imaginary persons who translate common, nontransgessive actions into something tacitly higher, grander, and more pleasurable, guides or imagoes that reward precisely the ego that does not emulate them, except figuratively. This explains the intensity of identification that radiates through the world of opera—or rather of Opera—and the magnification of person that will appear in each of the essays in this book. Opera reassures those who love it that it loves them back, or more exactly loves their secret selves. Opera reassures the good subject that its ordinary life is secretly sublime.

Another name for this sublimity is dissemination, the whirligig of meaning in motion behind the facade of the good subject and the guiding spirit of the three acts to follow starring Whitman, Freud, and Wagner. The curtain is ready to go up.

First Scene: Walt Whitman Listens

Whitman's favorite music was serious Italian opera, and he cheerfully admits that his taste for it is perversely erotic. When he lists his favorite scenes in "Proud Music of the Storm," nearly all of them turn out to involve despairing love and impending death. His response typically combines a voyeuristic fascination with erotically charged details and a masochistic identification with someone in anguish:

I see poor crazed Lucia's eyes' unnatural gleam,

Her hair down her back falls loose and dishevel'd.

I see where Ernani walking the bridal garden,

Amid the scent of night-roses, radiant, holding his bride by the hand,

Hears the infernal call, the death pledge of the horn.

(ll. 78-82)

At their peak, these erotic responses fuse into an orgasmic sense of being filled, physically penetrated, by the operatic voice from which "passionate heart-chants [and] sorrowful appeals" (l. 43) stream forth. This is from Song of Myself:

I hear the violoncello ('tis the young man's heart's complaint),

I hear the key'd cornet, it glides quickly in through my ears,

It shakes mad-sweet pangs through my belly and breast.

I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,

Ah this indeed is music—this suits me.

A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,

The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.

(ll. 596-602)

Opera thus seems to be the medium in which Whitman's sexuality achieves its greatest clarity and intensity. It is not that opera reflects his sexuality, or feeds his sexuality, but rather that it becomes his sexuality. In particular, Whitman's way of listening to mournful bel canto song gives him access to certain kinds of pleasure that he otherwise feels compelled to deny to his textual body.

In the passage about the tenor from Song of Myself, the pleasure is homosexual, in particular a pleasure suggestive of anal penetration; note the chain of associations leading from the young man's heart's complaint, through the cornet singled out by its phallic key, to the gliding-in that shakes transgressive pangs through belly and breast. The identification between the ear, traditionally the most spiritual of orifices, and the anus, traditionally the most corporeal, fulfils erotically a claim that Whitman has made rhetorically earlier in the poem: "I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart" [520]. When the tenor appears, his voice supplies the loving same-sex body, large and fresh, by which the listener is filled. It is even possible that a particular tenor role is the latent origin of this sequence. The identification of the young man's heart's complaint with the sound of a cello suggests the conjunction of a solo cello with Edgardo's dying lament in the final scene of Lucia di Lammermoor. The scene is one that focuses intense sympathy on the suffering young man through an on-stage group of male onlookers, and in this respect it may form what for Whitman is the Ur-scene, or primal scene, of operatic pleasure.

The role of the cornet in mediating between this scene and the orbic mouth of the primal tenor (large as creation) is intriguing enough to warrant some speculation. The cornet assumes a virile character through its popularity as a military band instrument, despite its "soprano" voice—which, in relation to Edgardo's cello, may almost have a visionary-transgressive value here resembling that of Lucia's flute. At the same time, the cornet's size and shape are such that, of all brass instruments, it brings the player's mouth, the "keys" (valves), and the bell into closest proximity. Its voice is thus literally closer than any other to the player's, which, correspondingly, comes closer than any other to singing through its "key'd" instrument.

Where the singer in Whitman is a woman, the pleasure she offers in parallel with the tenor's is a lachrymose sentimentality that draws the poet into a posture of abjection. The focus of this sentimentality is motherhood; for Whitman, the diva is always maternal, even if she is singing Lucia.

Consider, for example, "The Singer in the Prison," an embarrassing poem by latter-day standards but by the same token a revealing one. Here Whitman commemorates a concert he may have attended at Sing Sing, where a famous diva, flanked by "a little child on either hand," supposedly reduced an audience of hardened convicts to "deep, half-stifled sobs, the sound of bad men bow'd and moved to weeping,/And youth's convulsive breathings, memories of home,/The mother's voice in lullaby, the sister's care, the happy childhood" (44-46). As they often do in nineteenth-century texts, the spasmodic sobs and tears form the basis of a publicly sanctioned mode of hysteria. Their presence allows a convulsive eroticism to appear as edifying moral grief, the ultimate reference for which is the childhood innocence preserved (only) in the image of the mother. (Consistent with the masochistic pleasure it incites, that image is sometimes slightly detached or cold. The diva in Sing Sing is a "large calm lady" who "vanish[es] with her children in the dusk" immediately after her performance.) What Whitman adds to this cult of the mater dolorosa is the location of its eroticism in the operatic sound of the mourning maternal voice "Pouring in floods of melody in tones so pensive sweet and strong the like whereof was never heard" (3). The voice in this role counts as what Jacques Lacan calls the object a: the seeming object of a desire that exists only insofar as no object can ever satisfy it.

The operatic passage from Song of Myself supplies the (phantasmatic) origin of the scenario in "The Singer in the Prison" when a soprano takes the place of the tenor. Combined with or dissolving into the orchestra, the female voice gives pleasure by wrenching Whitman away from his usual sense of identity and throwing him figuratively from planetary to oceanic space with casual and cruel omnipotence. The music is less something he hears than something he swallows; he feels it in his throat like a sob or a gasp or the classic globus hystericus, as lacerating and smothering as it is ecstatic:

I hear the train'd soprano (what work with hers is this?)

The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,

It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess'd them,

It sails me, I dab with bare feet, they are lick'd by the indolent waves,

I am cut by bitter and angry hail, I lose my breath,

Steep'd amid honey'd morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death.

(ll. 603-8)

The "honey'd morphine" suggests the satiation of the infant "steeped" in the mother's breast that soothes away all bitter and angry wounds. The "indolent" waves licking the poet's bare feet present the same suggestion from a reverse perspective. (Mother Music tends you from head to foot, bathing and nourishing; like the singer in the prison, she goes with her children everywhere.) But music as honey'd (mellifluous?) heal-all is also music as sweetened poison. It must register as poisonous because by reducing Whitman to a helpless, preverbal state, it doubly suspends his subjectivity. It gags him both as a speaking subject and as a poetic voice. Traces of this gagging carry over, together with traces of bliss, into the verses that describe both. The images of steeping and throttling press back on the rhyming exhalations of "breath" and "death" that enfold them; the sighing vowel sounds of "steep'd amid honey'd morphine" adjoin the plosive-glottal bolus of "-pipe throttled."

Although Whitman is genuinely absorbed in (and by) the maternal image, his receptivity to male "tremulousness" is even more acute. This is how "Proud Music of the Storm" evokes a beloved scene from Donizetti's La Favorita:

From Spanish chestnut trees' dense shade,

By old and heavy convent walls a wailing song,

Song of lost love, the torch of youth and life quench'd in despair,

Song of the dying swan, Fernando's heart is breaking.

(ll. 86-89)

This vignette is striking for the undisguised purity by which it transcribes erotic pain as erotic pleasure, a pleasure conveyed viscerally in the hypnotic rhythms grouped around the word "song." Even more striking is the surge of syntactic distortion; the coherence of the passage as a statement collapses under the pressure of its urgency as a rhythmic event. Instead of producing the "normal" effect of poetic speech, the illusion that a referential transparency has fused seamlessly with a rhythmic impulse, this passage appears less as reference than as substance, a material manifestation of the poet's pleasure. It becomes a dab of honey'd morphine.

For Slavoj zizek, this kind of passage constitutes what he calls a "phallic anamorphosis." In other words, it is a structural deformity—a blot, stain, or nub—that "sticks out" of the work in which it appears. Except for the quibble on "sticks out," the phallic character of the blot has nothing to do with male anatomy. zizek uses the term phallus in a strict Lacanian sense to refer to "a signifier without a signified." The effect of this opaque signifier is one of simultaneous discovery and concealment. The lack of the signified endows the text with mysterious depths of meaning—the very depths, so to speak, in which the signified has been lost. The opacity of the signifier marks the site of this loss and blocks all attempts to plumb the depths with certainty. As if on a perverse treasure map, the signifier is the spot that marks an X.

Lacan calls this "master signifier" the phallus by analogy to the Oedipal prohibition that both awakens and punishes primary desires. Whitman, however, is not a strict Lacanian. In producing the phallic anamorphosis, he also reunites the phallic function to an idealized image of the virile body, in particular the tenor's body. In the passage on La Favorita, this reunion becomes evident in the traditional phallic image of the torch, which, though quenched for the fictitious Fernando, is reignited in the tenor's torch song. All the verses need to do is sing along. Instead of seeking to plumb the depths of the mystery produced by the blot, Whitman simply enjoys the blot as substance, as fluidic pulsation, by linking it to a homoerotic fantasy. In another poem, "The Dead Tenor," he even more explicitly juxtaposes the tenor voice as pulsating erotic substance, "So firm—so liquid-soft— . . . that tremulous, manly timbre!" with the same voice as the signifier of an indecipherable "lesson" that constitutes "[the] trial and test of all."

For Whitman, this combination advances the social experiment of American democracy by identifying cultural work, not with the repression or sublimation of sexuality, but with its channeling, the creation of a national circulatory system for the fluid dynamics of desire. As a sexual politics, this program requires the affirmation of both heterosexual love and the cult of maternity. Cultural supremacy, however, belongs to a specific form of homosexuality, the masochistic reception of the tenor voice.

The channeling of this sexuality is realized most complexly in the passage quoted earlier from Song of Myself:

A tenor large and fresh as creation fills me,

The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.

(ll. 601-2)

Another anamorphosis here: these lines compel special attention because on the surface they make so little sense. The tenor is not a piece of fountain statuary spouting water from the mouth. Nonetheless, it is the music pouring from the tenor's mouth that fills the poet full, and that corresponds to the earlier phallic gliding of the key'd cornet. At one level, the equation of the music with a kind of penetrating fluid is probably literal. Whitman was a believer in animal magnetism, and what he is recording here is probably the sensation of having his body charged (literally "thrilled") by an influx of electrical fluid. Emitted from the tenor's mouth, the fluid passes as from a mesmerist to his subject, completing the charismatic circle of magnetic treatment. This process was often represented as having a phallic character. What allows it to act phallically for Whitman, however, is once again the overlay of a penile fantasy on the phallic nub. The imagistic blend of orbic flexing with pouring and filling endows the music with the "firm— . . . liquid-soft" character that grounds Whitman's homosexual desire. At its height, the operatic experience becomes an encounter in which two men, without touching each other except in the magnetic medium, come together in their "pensive" sadness and—come together.

Second Scene: Sigmund Freud Reads

Shortly before the end of the nineteenth century, one of Freud's patients, described in The Interpretation of Dreams as "a young man with strong homosexual leanings, which were . . . inhibited in real life," dreamed the following dream:

He was attending a performance of Fidelio, and was sitting in the stalls at the opera beside L., a man who was congenial to him and with whom he would have liked to make friends. Suddenly he flew through the air right across the stalls, put his hand in his mouth and pulled out two of his teeth.

The young man added shamefacedly that "the state of sensual excitement provoked by his [frustrated] desire" for a similar "friend" had once led him to masturbate twice in rapid succession. We can surmise that he acted twice in order to stage the masturbation as mutual, once on behalf of his own body, once on behalf of the absent body of his "friend." The young man, it turns out, had never made love to anyone, male or female, and "pictured sexual intercourse on the model of . . . masturbation." Freud, who can take a sexual hint, located the dream's transcription of this double masturbation in the pulling out of two teeth. He adds that the same action also gives a double visual form to a German slang expression for masturbation, sich einen ausreissen, "to pull one out."

But why set this scene at the opera? And why at Fidelio in particular? Freud's answer depends on noticing a small textual adventure. The finale of the opera contains a joyous phrase, "Wer ein holdes Weib errungen" (He who has won a lovely wife), lifted from Schiller's "Ode to Joy"; the same phrase thus also occurs in the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. What makes this important is that the young man described his feeling of flight as one of being "thrown" (geworfen) in the air, and that the key phrase in the symphony is immediately preceded there by another one:

Wer der grosse Wurf errungen,

Eines Freundes Freund zu sein

[He who has won the great throw

To be the friend of a friend]

On this reading, the dream identifies the young man's masturbatory scene as the "great throw" of homosexual love. Freud adds that this image of the throw is ambivalent. On the one hand, the throw represents rejection, the feeling of being "thrown out," and repeats in symbolic form the dreamer's compensatory act of double masturbation in the friend's absence. On the other hand, the throw fantasizes a blissful fulfillment of the dreamer's homosexual desire. We might even add that it fulfills his specific wish for a mutual masturbatory consummation—to pull two out, eines Freundes Freund zu sein.

Freud's construction of this chain of associations exemplifies the kind of reasoning that often infuriates empirically minded readers. The chain is not constructed by linking each well-grounded association to the next, but by filling in the gaps between the best-grounded associations. Evidential value is invested more in the associative pattern as a whole than in any of its components. This is hardly the place to present a rationale for this practice. Suffice it to say that the primary resources for filling associative gaps are language habits and practices, which are understood to inform all speech acts continuously. At issue in this case is the influence of a text so familiar in the milieu of Freud and his patient that Freud's expository paragraph does not bother to identify it; that everyone has it by heart goes without saying. I do not find this much of a stretch. From a latter-day perspective, however, one might also suggest that the resemblance between Schiller's phrase and the central dream image is indicative of the discursive positioning of homosexual desire in culture. Such desire, one might say, is always a gamble; and in the passage from the homosocial in Schiller to the homosexual in Freud's patient, the throw of the dice becomes something more violent, a throw of the body. This troping on the throw, implicit in the meaning of Wurf, also points to the pervasive theme of violence in the dream, which always positions the dreamer as victim.

At this point Freud stops, but if we want to know something about opera we have to go further. When the young man displaces material from the Ninth Symphony into Fidelio, he sexualizes the social relationship of male friendship. The logic of the dream suggests a pair of complementary motives for this process.

First, the opera provides a compelling parallel to the dream's image of a bliss that becomes mutual by dividing into two identical parts. Florestan and Leonora find such a bliss in the duet "O Namenlose Freude!" which is in every sense the climax of Fidelio. The peculiar quality of a self-twinning pleasure is figured not only in the intertwining and echoing of Leonora's and Florestan's voices, but also in their very articulation of the key phrase: "O namen- namenlose Freude!" Even more important in this context, however, is the duet's visual doubling. The fact is so obvious that no one makes anything of it, but the duet is a drag scene: although what we hear is Florestan and Leonora, what we see is Florestan and the cross-dressed Fidelio, a man and a youth. In the "nameless joy" of this couple, Freud's dreamer may well have found an image of his own "unspeakable" desire.

That image, moreover—and here the second motive emerges—is an altogether idealized one, the very nucleus of a redeemed community as the opera presents it. In "real life" the young man found his desires shameful, but there is no trace of shame in his dream. With his great throw, he visualizes the literal uplifting, the sublimation, of his desires onto the edifying plane of Beethoven's music, and especially onto the superidealistic plane of the Ninth Symphony. The displacement from the Ninth to Fidelio is a way of affirming that operatic sexual crossovers carry their own idealism, and that male friendship can freely be sexualized without losing its ideal character.

But the dream also contradicts this affirmation in a startling way. The dreamer appears in the act of masturbation when he puts his hand in his mouth and pulls out two teeth; but he also appears, proleptically, as the actual substance that "takes flight" from the "great throw" of the masturbatory climax. In other words, the dream identifies the young man with his own semen. What's more, it propels him, in that form, "right across the stalls," which is to say that it propels him right toward the adjacent orchestra pit and stage. It is literally toward the opera, and away from his friend in the stalls, that the dreamer-as-semen is traveling. Only by marking the opera with this sign and substance of his desire can he hope to gratify that desire. Only, it seems, by thus defiling and adhering to the opera can he render himself visible to his friend as an object of mutual desire, as Florestan is to Fidelio, and vice versa.

This aspect of the dream is obviously an index of the young man's desperation, and as such it demands an empathetic response. It may, however, also picture a recognition of something distinctive to opera. It is worth noting that although both Freud's interpretation and mine make reference to specific scenes in Fidelio, the dream does not. The young man as semen-subject is actually thrown toward the locus of opera as such, regardless of what appears there at a given moment. This perplexing gesture makes the most sense if we interpret the semen, not primarily as the bodily fluid produced by a particular sexual act, but as a representative of the adhesive quality of sexual desire in general—of what Whitman called "the fluid and attaching character" and Freud, of course, called libido. In a more recent formulation, Lacan characterizes the libido as an imaginary bodily organ he calls the lamella or l'hommelette. The latter term means both "omelet" and "little feminine man"; Lacan offers it as a witty play on Plato's myth that human beings were originally egg-shaped androgynes who were only later divided into the two sexes. Lacan, knowing how to make a good French omelet, also knows how to capture the floating, insistent, sometimes queasy character that desire assumes when imagined or intuited apart from its objects. He simply breaks some eggs: "Let us imagine it, a large crepe moving about like the amoeba, ultra-flat for passing under doors, omniscient in being led by pure instinct, immortal in being scissiparous. Here is something you would not like to feel creeping over your face, silently while you are asleep, in order to seal it up." Isn't it possible that what is thrown toward the opera in the dream of Freud's young man is not something proper to the dreamer's body but the adhesive substance of l'hommelette? And since the throw targets no specific scene, but only the operatic conjuncture of music and drama, orchestra pit and stage, wouldn't it be possible to see in the throw a recognition that opera is always already the site of l'hommelette, always already covered at every point of its surface with the substance of desire?

Perhaps when Ernst Kurth described the harmonies of Tristan und Isolde as forming "a light, thin, and extraordinarily sensitive film," he recognized unawares not only the erotic substance Wagner produced by breaking a twinned subjectivity into a musical hommelette, but also the libidinal substance of opera in general. The singularity of this substance in Tristan is simply that the harmonies make it more humid, so that it gets in the listener's face more than usual.

Third Scene: Hagen Sings a Song

No one ever has a good word to say for Hagen. Most dramatic villains elicit at least a twinge of human sympathy; not this one. Hagen is more like Iago than like Shylock, both of whom he resembles in important ways. He is so awful that when he treats Alberich with contempt we even feel sorry for the old wretch with his plaintive refrain of "Hagen, my son." Besides, Hagen wrecks havoc not only dramatically but also musically, smearing blots and croaks across the texture of Götterdämmerung with his snarling basso profundo. He even has the chutzpah to interfere with the sublimity of the final conflagration by shouting "Hands off the ring!" (Zurück vom Ring!).

One has to admire Wagner's ingenuity with Hagen: this monster is hateful for what he does, not what he is, but there is no way to keep the two apart. And what is Hagen but the archetypal half-caste degenerate of nineteenth-century racialist anti-Semitism? Not a Jew in any literal sense, he is the object of cultural phobia that Jews are imagined to embody: the Other who is not quite other enough, the Sigismund by which every son of Siegmund is shadowed. Hagen is the half-assimilated pariah whose very existence bespeaks a contamination of once-pure bloodlines. He is the parasite who feeds on the virtues of a nobler but more vulnerable breed whose weaknesses he draws out with his superior, amoral cunning. You can tell, once again, by the baseness of his voice.

But perhaps the very virulence of this portrait should prompt us to give Hagen his due: "Stand up for bastards!" to call on Shakespeare again. After all, Hagen is the only character in Götterdämmerung who is absolutely true to himself, if to no one else. His integrity, however malign, may be more palatable than Gunther's tortured ressentiment, Gutrune's abject wheedling, and even Siegfried's tedious vanity. Only Brünnhilde's rage rivals Hagen's mania in purity—but Hagen is not engaged in self-betrayal as Brünnhilde is, and besides, the rage and the mania both have the same outcome: the spear in Siegfried's back.

The core of Hagen's purity is his absolute lack of sexuality. Alberich may have renounced love, but Hagen alone lacks desire—lacks it, indeed, with no sense of lacking anything. His intent to possess the ring is not even fetishistic; it is more like an empty placeholder, a purely formal function of his purely abstract integrity—just something, as he tells Alberich, that he has sworn to himself. Hagen's dark voice marks the void left behind where desire has been abolished.

It is no wonder, then, that when Hagen wants to round up some wedding guests he does so in the form of a call to arms. On learning that Siegfried, in Gunther's form, has come home after abducting Brünnhilde from her rock, and that she and Gunther are near, Hagen takes the stage by himself. Perched on a high rock of his own, he summons the Gibichung vassals with striking vehemence:

Hoiho! Hoihohoho!

Ihr Gibichsmannen, machet euch auf!

Wehe! Wehe! Waffen! Waffen!

Waffen durchs Land! Gute Waffen!

Starke Waffen! Scharf zum Streit.

Not is da! Not! Wehe! Wehe!

Hoiho! Hoihohoho!

[Hoiho! Hoihohoho!

You Gibich vassals, rouse yourselves!

Woe! Woe! Weapons! Weapons!

Weapons throughout the land! Good weapons!

Strong weapons, sharp for the strife!

Danger is coming! Danger! Woe! Woe!

Hoiho! Hoihohoho!]

This call deserves some reflection. It constitutes the one moment in the opera when Hagen "lets himself go" expressively, and baleful as it is, it is compelling, too. With the fate of the others in his grasp, Hagen sings a song. The "Hoiho! Hoihohoho!" with which he frames his call has a saturnine jauntiness to it, a sunless exuberance that, just for a moment, can become infectious. It is certainly infectious for the orchestra, which responds by overlaying the grinding bass geared to Hagen's voice with brassy outbursts and turbulent flourishes. In the swirling music of this scene, Hagen already enjoys possession of the ring of power, though he doesn't know it.

Hagen's song is yet another phallic anamorphosis, another blot that produces deep truths by seeming to distort their appearance. Why give stage time to the trivial act of calling the vassals? And why should Hagen himself stage the call as such a charade? He otherwise conducts his villainy with exquisite economy; the ham-handed joke of his wedding call is superfluous. We might say that his lack of desire hobbles him here by acting something like autism. Hagen can name desire but not comprehend it, so his invitation to a wedding flips over into a war whoop. Belligerence is something he does comprehend, or at least knows how to mimic. But the music of this scene bespeaks grotesque power, not blustering automatism. We are meant to remember the power when Hagen later uses his plangent "Hoiho" motive to prefigure the announcement of Siegfried's death. What the music of this scene says is that Hagen is telling the truth when he cries out that danger is coming. It is coming—and coming in the form of Gunther's bride.

Hagen's erotic autism, then, acts in this scene not as a lack but as a positive force or presence. As such, and strictly following the logic of the blot that both demands and resists interpretation, the autism points beyond Hagen himself to the other characters. They, after all, not he, are the ones who swirl in currents of lust, envy, delusion, jealousy, and rage. Hagen is simply their phallus, a kind of golem pieced together from the rejected pieces of their desires.

Chief among these pieces is Siegfried's desire for Brünnhilde, which is supposedly cloaked by Hagen's magic potion. In slightly anachronistic terms: when Siegfried accepts this drink from his new hosts, he acquires a repressed desire; he becomes a Freudian neurotic. This formula is the outcome of a symbolic one, according to which Hagen's potion (like its counterpart in Tristan und Isolde) only does what its victim wants; the "symbol" becomes most revealing when it is understood with the greatest literalness. On these terms, what Siegfried wants is to shift his desire for Brünnhilde onto a more conventional mate. This change of heart has nothing to do with the mimetic plausibility it so obviously defies; instead it represents the position that Siegfried must occupy to enter the social order of the Gibichungs, an order constituted by kinship alliance, the homosocial bonds of blood brotherhood, and "normal" heterosexuality, the pivot on which all else turns. Hagen's potion in effect accelerates the process by which desire becomes socialized; the heavy-handedness of the symbolism exposes the machinery of normalization, the coerciveness of what Lacan would call the symbolic order. (Siegfried, victim of a Dickensian childhood, enters that order belatedly; hence the hurry.)

Like Hagen's "autism," Siegfried's lack of desire for Brünnhilde is not just a negativity, but a destructive force. The object of hostility is, of course, the former object of desire, whose presence at the desire's point of origin almost has the power to reawaken it. Siegfried's rejection of this reawakening fuels the cruelty of his actions. When Siegfried-as-Gunther reenters the ring of magic fire that once mirrored his desire and protected it from the world, Brünnhilde asks him who he is. His voice falters as he replies; the voice he assumes, deeper than his own (dann redet er mit verstellter—tieferer—Stimme an)—the voice in which he hears Gunther but in which we can hear Hagen—quavers a moment (mit etwas bebender Stimme beginnend). Just for that moment, Siegfried's surly Gunther-music catches in his throat. The words that would reawaken desire are on the tip of his tongue. No matter: it is too late for old flames.

The sheer strangeness of the love between Siegfried and Brünnhilde helps make sense of this outcome. At the end of Siegfried, the couple achieve a sexual consummation that the music tells us is unparalleled. But no sooner has Siegfried loved Brünnhilde than both agree (in the Prologue to Götterdämmerung) that he has to leave her. His love for her constitutes a heroic ideal; it is meant to guide his conduct as an image, not to constrain him by domestic or sexual demands. Although Siegfried's relationship to Brünnhilde is consummated by a sexual act, it is not a sexual relationship. Only Gutrune offers him that. Torn between these women, Siegfried suffers from a particularly subtle and perplexed form of the infamous nineteenth-century division of all women into either objects of love or objects of desire. In seizing Brünnhilde for Gunther, he is trying to choose desire over love. But he can do that only if he violates the bond of love with the maximum of brutality. That is why the abduction scene assumes a ritualistic, quasi-sacrificial form, crowned by a piercing scream from Brünnhilde and her collapse "like something shattered" (Sie schreit heftig auf . . . sie wie zerbrochen in seinen Armen niedersinkt). And that is why the music of the scene is so full of gloating malevolence; the ponderous fanfares of heavy brass, pretending to judicial gravity, are Hagen's serenade. The violent two-note figure that punctuates the end of the scene even bears comparison to Hagen's "Hoiho." Deep-voiced and false-faced, Siegfried is Hagen's mouthpiece here. Yet Hagen, through this mouthpiece, once again speaks the truth. Siegfried's abuse of Brünnhilde is the positive, aggressive form of his disavowed desire for her. In that form it will feed his garden-variety desire for Gutrune, to whom he will boast about his exploit when he gets home. It's a kind of foreplay.

Poor Siegfried: he can't hold on to the phallus because his penis keeps getting in the way. Even after his marriage, he is tempted by the charms of the Rhinemaidens like Alberich before him. Except in the dragon and fire business, he is really a very ordinary fellow. His charisma can be restored only through his death—only, indeed, through his corpse: by the unknown power that raises his dead fist to keep the ring from Hagen's grasp, by the mourning community brought into being through the orchestra's funeral music, and above all by Brünnhilde with her heart and voice set on immolation. By comparison, Siegfried's own self-restoration in his dying moments is a smallish thing. Yet it is not a contemptible thing. In its own way, as Siegfried once again chooses love over desire, heroic truth over social fabrication, and as the orchestra wraps him in a shroud of lyricism, his death is a kind of minor Liebestod.


In the readings offered here, these constructions of Opera by Whitman, Freud's patient, and something in Wagner—it is not quite Wagner himself—all tend to support the same conclusion. Let me approach a first formulation by recalling Godard. In exposing the relation of prostitution to bourgeois luxury, Two or Three Things I Know about Her employs a classic technique of unmasking by which the abnormal is shown to be the hidden truth of the normal. Opera, in contrast, suspends the difference between the normal and abnormal, so that the two terms can neither supply each other's truth nor fail to do so.

In order to make this point more rigorously, I will frame it twice more, first deconstructively, then psychoanalytically. First, then, Opera suspends the difference between the normal and the abnormal by presenting each of these terms as always already enmeshed in the movement of différance, always already the trace of a presence "that dislocates itself, displaces itself, refers itself [elsewhere]" en route to the semantic "explosion" of dissemination (24). Opera, indeed, opens up something that Derrida regards as impossible, a veritable "kingdom of différance" (22). For Derrida, différance is "definitively exempt from every process of presentation by means of which we would call upon it to show itself in person" (20). It never becomes perceptible in itself, but only in textual traces. Opera seems bent on revoking this limitation. Its différance appears materially, seductively, in and as the bodily interplay between singing voice, instrumental envelope, and receptive ear.

Second, Opera suspends the difference between the normal and the abnormal by suspending the "deeper" differences supposed to ground this proximate one: the differences between policing and transgressing, edification and debasement, the symbolic and the imaginary, eros and the death drive. One consequence, already implicit throughout this chapter, is that Opera constitutively undermines its own aesthetic pretensions. Opera is always in danger of being exposed as a purveyor of what Freud called the "forepleasure" that screens fantasy; Opera as high art continually risks being reduced to an alibi for the practical art of psychosexual equivocation.

In response, we might look for evidence to support the alibi; some alibis, after all, are true. But we might also choose to believe our ears. We might recognize Opera as part of a historical project that required the ingredients of aesthetic pretension and forepleasure, alibi and equivocation, regardless of how they fit together in any given case. Among recent critical theorists, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe has emphasized the persistence of a quasi-sacramental operatic aesthetic from the Florentines through Wagner and beyond, while zizek and Avital Ronell have emphasized the parallel persistence of irreducible difference, both within operatic subjectivity and in the "broken contract" between music and language. These disparate insights are bound together by their common concern with the process of "binding" itself. Opera, on this reading, would register both an urgent and historically specific need for such binding, as if, in the age of Opera, human subjectivity had somehow come undone. The most familiar name for that coming undone, a name that also applies to widening circles of experience during the age of Opera, is modernity. Could it be, then, that Opera is part of a broad cultural effort that first crystallizes in the early-modern period and has only recently, if at all, begun to wane? Could Opera be part of an effort to deal with a human subjectivity understood—I would say formulated, designed to be understood—as a tendency to wander, a potential ab-errance or ab-normality, that becomes intelligible only by means of the techniques meant to regulate it?