- Don Juan at the Mount of Venus?Kierkegaardian Encounters with Tannhäuser
Søren Kierkegaard's Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, a two-volume book published in 1843, contains one of the great interpretations of Mozart's Don Giovanni,1 although, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as "Kierkegaard's interpretation of Don Giovanni." This is because every section published in Either/Or is attributed to one or another of several fictitious authors. Kierkegaard's name did not even appear in the first edition of Either/Or. In fact, for some time no one knew who was writing one book after another under a series of different, and obviously fictitious, names. Three years later Kierkegaard publically acknowledged his authorship and stated bluntly, "I am impersonally or personally in the third person a souffleur [prompter] who has poetically produced the authors, whose prefaces in turn are their productions, as their names are also. Thus in the pseudonymous books there is not a single word by me. I have no opinion about them except as a third party, no knowledge of their meaning except as a reader, not the remotest private relation to them…."2 Rather than being mouthpieces for Kierkegaard, the fictitious authors are all expressions of a series of different, and often conflicting, perspectives from which one can view the task of living a genuinely human life.
Two such perspectives are presented in Either/Or. In Volume I, a writer known to the reader only as Author A3 presents an esthetic/hedonistic way of living in a series of texts that include his essay on Don Giovanni, "The Immediate Erotic Stages OR The Musical Erotic." It is important to keep in mind that the essay is Author A's interpretation, not Kierkegaard's. In Volume II, Author B, whom the reader comes to know as Judge William, writes an extended critique of Author A's esthetic way of living, developing an ethical/religious alternative, but without mentioning Don Giovanni. In this way, Kierkegaard, working behind the scene, confronts the reader with an Either/Or: EITHER choose an esthetic way of living, which means refusing to commit oneself to anything or anyone, OR choose an ethical way of living, [End Page 97] symbolized by marriage, which requires a deep and permanent commitment to another person. In using his fictitious authors, Kierkegaard is not, or not explicitly, taking sides. The whole point is to throw life-decisions (what the Judge calls either/or choices) back on the reader by robbing the text of any authority on the author's part.4
In a discussion of the origins of the legend of Don Juan in the Spanish Middle Ages, Kierkegaard's esthete notes that in the Germanic Middle Ages we find the legend of the Mount of Venus. This is the place where sensuousness is given free rein, and the esthete emphasizes the parallels between the life of Don Giovanni, unconstrained by Christian morality, and life at the Mount of Venus. At the Mount of Venus, "sensuousness has its home; there it has its wild pleasures, for it is a kingdom, a state."5
It has only rarely been noted that just as Kierkegaard's esthete was drawing this connection between the Spanish legend of Don Juan and the Germanic legend of the Mount of Venus,6 Richard Wagner began sketching out his opera Tannhäuser, which opens at the Mount of Venus.7 Both Don Giovanni and Tannhäuser deal with the erotic and its relation to Christian spirit. Mozart's opera ends with Don Giovanni going to hell when he refuses to repent; Wagner's ends with Tannhäuser attaining salvation when he gives up the erotic in favor of a purely spiritual love. While we have no historical record that Kierkegaard was familiar with any of Wagner's operas, since he wrote such an extensive interpretation of Don Giovanni, one must wonder what he might have written about Tannhäuser had he been given the opportunity.8
Imagine Kierkegaard going to Dresden in 1845 for the premier production of Tannhäuser and then writing a critical study of the opera...