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  • Look and Spectatorship in Manon Lescaut
  • Alessandra Campana (bio)

In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre formulated the problem of "the existence of Others" in terms of the subject's relation to its visual field; in particular, in the section entitled "The Look," his argumentation proceeds through a series of vignettes in which "the subject" appears as if on a stage, confronted by the menacing presence of "the look of the Other."1 One of these vignettes is particularly poignant, in that it is shaped around an exquisitely dramatic turn of events:

Let us imagine that moved by jealousy, curiosity, or vice I have just glued my ear to the door and looked through a keyhole. . . . Behind that door a spectacle is presented as "to be seen," a conversation as "to be heard." . . . The door, the keyhole are at once both instruments and obstacles. . . . Hence from this moment "I do what I have to do." But all of a sudden I hear footsteps in the hall. Someone is looking at me! What does this mean? It means that I am suddenly affected in my being and that essential modifications appear in my structure. . . . All of a sudden I am conscious of myself as escaping myself, . . . in that I have my foundation outside myself. I am for myself only as I am a pure reference to the Other.2

The abrupt turn of events is triggered just by the sound of footsteps—or it could be the rustling of leaves, or the slight movement of a curtain—a banal occurrence that signals the presence of others. But its effect is far greater, in that it entails a crucial revelation: that the self is "figured" from outside, that the image which represents the subject is conceived through the look of the Other: "I do not reject it as a strange image, but it is present to me as a self which I am without knowing it; for I discover it in shame and, in other instances, in pride. It is shame or pride which reveals to me the Other's look and myself at the end of that look."3

I shall return to Sartre's "primal scene," but for now I want to pause on the feeling of shame that colors the final revelation: shame at being caught as a voyeur, in a position of desire (while lurking, eavesdropping), but also at the discovery that the "I" is denied the possibility of control over and knowledge of its own image.

Shame of some sort seems to concern Jerry Fodor as well. In his review of Michele Girardi's book on Puccini, the philosopher and opera lover claims that [End Page 4] Puccini's operas are powerful "theatrical machines" that elicit an ambivalent response: "One is often moved to be sure; but there is also a sense of being complicit in something not entirely nice. The puzzle about Puccini is why this should be so."4 A reason for this uneasiness is found in a dramaturgical feature—the gratuitous quality of the characters' suffering: "The audience is required to acquiesce in a suffering that signifies nothing but itself. That, however, is the aesthetic of a voyeur. No wonder one feels spasms of ambivalence; no wonder one feels jerked about and put upon. And Puccini knows his business."5

Fodor, like the protagonist of Sartre's story, seems to have heard footsteps while looking through the keyhole. His observations might be easily dismissed, but their candor (the candor of the philosopher complaining that he feels manipulated into "something not entirely nice" by Puccini) is compelling. This "something" is hardly ever studied (or even admitted) by musicologists. Puccini operas are indeed theatrical machines, whose functioning depends on the position assigned to the spectator. Consequently, a study of these operas cannot avoid considering their system of address; but also, most important, cannot avoid being itself a form of spectatorship. I will not delve further into Fodor's fears, but I think his response is particularly well suited to the case of Manon Lescaut.

Puccini's third opera, premiered in Turin on February 1, 1893, was a triumph, and contemporary critics pronounced its creator the foremost...


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