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Slavoj Zizek
Opera
[space] © lacan.com 2004

 

• - Walhalla's Frigid Joys

• - The Sex of Orpheus

La Clemenza di Tito,
or the Ridiculously-Obscene Excess of Mercy

 

Rossini's great male portraits, the three from Barbiere (Figaro's "Largo il factotum," Basilio's "Calumnia," and Bartolo's "Un dottor della mia sorte"), plus father's wishful self-portrait of corruption in Cenerentola, enact a mocked self-complaint, where one imagines oneself in a desired position, the one bombarded by demands for a favor or service: the subject assumes the roles of those who address him, and then feigns a reaction to it. The culminating moment of the archetypal Rossini aria is this unique moment of happiness, of the full assertion of the excess of Life, which arises when the subject is overwhelmed by demands, no longer being able to deal with them. At the highpoint of his "factotum" aria, Figaro exclaims:

"What a crowd
of the people bombarding me with their demands
Have mercy, one after the other
uno per volta, per carita! "

Referring therewith to the Kantian experience of the Sublime, in which the subject is bombarded with an excess of the data that he is unable to comprehend. And do we not encounter a similar excess in Mozart's Clemenza - a same sublime/ridiculous explosion of mercies? Just before the final pardon, Tito himself exasperates at the proliferation of treasons which oblige him to proliferate acts of clemency:

"The very moment that I absolve one criminal, I discover another. /.../ I believe the stars conspire to oblige me, in spite of myself, to become cruel. No: they shall not have this satisfaction. My virtue has already pledged itself to continue the contest. Let us see, which is more constant, the treachery of others or my mercy. /.../ Let it be known to Rome that I am the same and that I know all, absolve everyone, and forget everything."

One can almost hear Tito complaining: Uno per volta, per carita! - "Please, not so fast, one after the other, in the line for mercy!" Living up to his task, Tito forgets everyone, but those whom he pardons are condemned to remember it forever:

SEXTUS: It is true, you pardon me, Emperor; but my heart will not absolve me; it will lament the error until it no longer has memory.
TITUS: The true repentance of which you are capable, is worth more than constant fidelity.

This couplet from the finale blurts out the obscene secret of clemenza: the pardon does not really abolish the debt, it rather makes it infinite - we are FOREVER indebted to the person who pardoned us. No wonder Tito prefers repentance to fidelity: in fidelity to the Master, I follow him out of respect, while in repentance, what attached me to the Master is the infinite indelible guilt. In this, Tito is a thoroughly Christian master.

Usually, it is Judaism which is conceived as the religion of the superego (of man's subordination to the jealous, mighty and severe God), in contrast to the Christian God of Mercy and Love - one opposes the Jewish rigorous Justice and the Christian Mercy, the inexplicable gesture of undeserved pardon: we, humans, were born in sin, we cannot ever repay our debts and redeem ourselves through our own acts - our only salvation lies in God's Mercy, in His supreme sacrifice. However, in this very gesture of breaking the chain of Justice through the inexplicable act of Mercy, of paying our debt, Christianity imposes on us an even stronger debt: we are forever indebted to Christ, we cannot ever repay him for what he did to us. The Freudian name for such an excessive pressure which we cannot ever remunerate is, of course, superego. It is precisely through NOT demanding from us the price for our sins, through paying this price for us Himself, that the Christian God of Mercy establishes itself as the supreme superego agency: "I paid the highest price for your sins, and you are thus indebted to me FOREVER..." Is this God as the superego agency, whose very Mercy generates the indelible guilt of believers, the ultimate horizon of Christianity? One should effectively correlate the superego unconditional guilt and the mercy of love - two figures of the excess, the excess of guilt without proportion to what I effectively did, and the excess of mercy without proportion to what I deserve on account of my acts.

As such, the dispensation of mercy is the most efficient constituent of the exercise of power. That is to say, is the relationship between law (legal justice) and mercy really the one between necessity and choice? Is it really that one HAS to obey the law, while mercy is by definition dispensed as a free and excessive act, as something that the agent of mercy is free to do or not to do - mercy under compulsion is no mercy but, at its best, a travesty of mercy? What if, at a deeper level, the relationship is the opposite one? What if, with regard to law, we have the freedom to choose (to obey or violate it), while mercy is obligatory, we HAVE to display it - mercy is an unnecessary excess which, as such, HAS to occur. (And does the law not always take into account this freedom of ours, not only by punishing us for its transgression, but by providing escapes to being punished by its ambiguity and inconsistency?) Is it not that showing mercy is the ONLY way for a Master te demonstrate his supra-legal authority? If a Master were merely to guarantee the full application of the law, of legal regulations, he would be deprived of his authority and turn into a mere figure of knowledge, the agent of the discourse of university. (This is why even a great judge is a Master figure: he always somehow twists the law in its application by way of interpreting it creatively.) This goes even for Stalin himself, a figure which we definitely do not associate with mercy: one should never forget that, as the (now available) minutes of the meetings of the Politburo and Central Committee from the 1930s demonstrate, Stalin's direct interventions were as a rule those of displaying mercy. When younger CC members, eager to prove their revolutionary fervour, demanded instant death penalty for Bukharin, Stalin always intervened and said "Patience! His guilt is not yet proven!" or something similar. Of course this was a hypocritical attitude - Stalin was well aware that he himself generated the destructive fervour, that the younger members were eager to please him - but, nonetheless, the appearance of mercy is necessary here.

And, if anything, in our late capitalist societies, this perverse logic of mercy is brought to extreme, as the ultimate expression of the weird unity of the opposites that permeates our attitudes. Today's hedonism combines pleasure with constraint - it is no longer the old notion of the right measure between pleasure and constraint, but a kind of pseudo-Hegelian immediate coincidence of the opposites: action and reaction should coincide, the very thing which causes damage should already be the medicine. The ultimate example of it is arguably a chocolate laxative, available in the US, with the paradoxical injunction "Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate!", i.e., of the very thing which causes constipation. Do we not find here a weird version of Wagner's famous "Only the spear which caused the wound can heal it" from Parsifal? And is not a negative proof of the hegemony of this stance the fact that true unconstrained consumption (in all its main forms: drugs, free sex, smoking...) is emerging as the main danger? The fight against these dangers is one of the main investments of today's biopolitics. Solutions are here desperately sought which would reproduce the paradox of the chocolate laxative. The main contender is safe sex - a term which makes one appreciative of the truth of the old saying "Is having sex with a condom not like taking a shower with a raincoat on?". The ultimate goal would be here, along the lines of decaf coffee, to invent opium without opium: no wonder marihuana is so popular among liberals who want to legalize it - it already IS a kind of opium without opium.

We encounter the same unity of opposites in the new capitalist ethics, where the ruthless pursuit of profit is counteracted by charity. Commendable as it is in itself, Bill Gates' charitable activity of gigantic proportions in no way redeems his economic pursuits. More generally, charity is, today, part of the game as a humanitarian mask hiding the underlying economic exploitation: in a superego-blackmail of gigantic proportions, the developed countries are constantly helping the undeveloped (with aid, credits, etc.), thereby avoiding the key issue, namely, their COMPLICITY in and co-responsibility for the miserable situation of the undeveloped.

And the same paradox occurs even at the military level of the "war on terror." The category of homo sacer, reactualized recently by Giorgio Agamben - those who, according to the ancient Roman law, could have been killed with impunity and whose death was, for the same reason, without any sacrificial value -, is best fitted to cover this newly emerging entity of the excluded, who are not only terrorists, but also those who are on the receiving end of the humanitarian help (Ruandans, Bosnians, Afghanis...): today's homo sacer is the privileged object of the humanitarian biopolitics - in both cases, the population is reduced to an object of biopolitics. It is thus is absolutely crucial to supplement the usual list of today's homo sacer (les sans papiers in France, the inhabitants of the favelas in Brasil, the African-American ghettos in the US, etc.) with the humanitarian side: perhaps, those perceived as the receivers of humanitarian aid are THE figure of homo sacer today.

One should therefore assume the paradox that concentration camps and refugee camps for the delivery of humanitarian aid are the two faces, "human" and "inhuman," of the same socio-logical formal matrix. This is another facet of the new global order: we no longer have wars in the old sense of the regulated conflict between sovereign states in which certain rules apply (the treatment of prisoners, the prohibition of certain weapons., etc.). What remains are two types of conflicts: either struggles between groups of homo sacer, i.e. ethnic-religious conflicts which violate the rules of universal human rights, do not count as wars proper, and call for the »humanitarian pacifist« intervention of the Western powers, or direct attacks on the US or other representatives of the new global order, in which case, again, we do not have wars proper, but merely »unlawful combatants« resisting forces of universal order. In this second case, one cannot even imagine a neutral humanitarian organization like the Red Cross mediating between the warring parties, organizing the exchange of prisoners, etc.: one side in the conflict (the US-dominated global force) ALREADY ASSUMES THE ROLE OF THE RED CROSS - it does not perceive itself as one of the warring sides, but as a mediating agent of peace and global order crushing down particular rebellions and, simultaneously, providing humanitarian aid to the local populations. This weird coincidence of the opposites reached its peak when, in April 2002, Harald Nasvik, a Right-wing member of the Norvegian parliament, proposed George W. Bush and Tony Blair as the candidates for the Nobel peace prize, quoting their decisive role in the "war on terror" as the greatest threat to peace today - the old Orwellian motto "War is Peace" finally becomes reality, so that, sometimes, military action against Taliban is almost presented as a means to guarantee the safe delivery of the humanitarian aid. We thus no longer have the opposition between war and humanitarian aid: the two are closely connected, THE SAME intervention can function at two levels simultaneously: the toppling of the Taliban regime was presented as part of the strategy to help the Afghani people oppressed by the Taliban - as Tony Blair said in September 2001, perhaps, we will have to throw more bombs on Afghanistan in order to secure the food transportation and distribution. Perhaps, the ultimate image of the treatment of the local population as homo sacer is that of the American war plane flying above Afghanistan - one is never sure what it will drop, bombs or food parcels. War itself, the ruthless bombing destined not only to annihilate the enemy, but to produce "shock and awe," is legitimized as being in the service of mercy... It is against this historical background that we should read today Mozart's Clemenza. The entire canon of Mozart's great operas can be read as the deployment of the motif of pardon, of dispensing mercy, in all its variations. The first two masterpieces, Idomeneo and Die Entfuehrung, still rely on the traditional absolutist-monarchic figure of the Master dispensing mercy: at the very point of the lowest despair, when the hero heroically assumes readiness to die, to sacrifice himself for the beloved, the authority intervenes and shows mercy. Le nozze di Figaro marks the first big break: in its finale, it is the Master himself (the Count) who, in the inversion of the »normal« situation, has to kneal down and ask for mercy from his wife and his subjects, and when he is pardoned by them, the opera can conclude with the assertion of universal brotherhood. Don Giovanni introduces an additional twist: in the terrifying finale, when confronted with the Stone Guest, the hero is offered mercy if he just renounces his sinful past and repents, but don Giovanni proudly rejects the offer, preferring eternal damnation to betraying his existential choice of seducer. The lowest point is reached in Cosi fan tutte, the only Mozart's opera with a failed finale; however, far from condemning this failure, one should perceive it, in an Adornian way, as anh injdication of Mozart's truthfulness - after the abyssal imbroglio of betrayals, any reconciliation of the two couples can only be a fake. With The Magic Flute, the reign of mercy is reinstalled, but with a price: the register shifts from the grim realism of Don Giovanni and Cosi... to the artificially resuscitated fairy-tale magic.

And, in order to grasp properly the place of La clemenza, it is crucial to read it together with The Magic Flute. The ridiculous proliferation of mercy in Clemenza means that power no longer functions in a normal way, so that it has to be sustained by mercy all the time: if Master has to show mercy, it means that the law failed, that the legal state machinery is not able to run on its own and needs an incessant intervention from the outside. (One encounters a similar paradox in the state Socialist regimes: when, in a mythical scene from Soviet hagiography, Stalin takes a walk in the fields, meets there a driver whose tractor broke down and helps him to repair it with a wise advice, what this effectively means is that not even a tractor can function normally in the state Socialist economic chaos.)

The obverse, the truth, of the continuous celebration of the wisdom and mercy displayed by Tito is therefore the fact that Tito as a ruler is a fiasco. Instead of relying on the support of faithful subjects, he ends up surrounded by sick and tormented people condemned to eternal guilt. And this sickness is reflected back into Tito himself: far from radiating the dignity of the severe but merciful rulers from the early Mozart's operas, Tito's acts display features of hysterical self-staging: Tito is PLAYING himself all the time, narcissistically fascinated by the faked generosity of his acts. In short, the passage from Basha Selim in Die Entfuehrung to Tito in Clemenza is the passage from the naïve to the sentimental. And, as is usual with Mozart, this falsity of Tito's position is rendered by the music itself which, in a supreme dislay of the much-praised Mozartean irony, effectively undermines the opera's explicit ideological project.

Perhaps, then, the fact that La clemenza was composed in the midst of the work on The Magic Flute is more than a meaningless coincidence: one is tempted to risk the hypothesis that La clemenza is the obverse, the hidden truth, of The Magic Flute, its necessary shadowy double, the obscene reactionary political reality that underlies the reinvented "magic" of the Flute universe. Back in the 1930s, Max Horkheimer wrote that those who do not want to speak (critically) about liberalism should also keep silent about fascism. Mutatis mutandis, one should say to those who detract La clemenza as a failure in comparison with The Magic Flute: those who do not want to engage critically with The Magic Flute should also keep silent about La Clemenza di Tito.

 



to be continued...

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography



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