A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)

Don Giovanni: The Absolute Man and the Patience of God

Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture 2/2 (Summer 2006), 47-59.

Something strange, and theologically significant, happens when you listen to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The peculiar phenomenon I have in mind has been reported by ordinary music lovers as well as by some of the most insightful critics ever to ponder the work of Mozart. What happens is this: Don Giovanni performs despicable acts of exploitation, seduction, and violence right before our eyes, and we enjoy every minute of it. It is not that we, the audience, are tricked into approving of the actions. They remain loathsome in themselves, and we are never invited to think of the Don as anything but a rogue. Nor is it that we merely anticipate with relish the final judgment which we know awaits the Don, with its reassertion of moral equilibrium: “This is the end which befalls evildoers, and in this life, scoundrels always receive their just deserts.” Either of these possibilities might explain how watching the actions of a villain could please us, but neither of them is quite as singular as what occurs in Don Giovanni. The pleasure delivered by this opera is something else, something unique and central to this work so frequently hailed as “the perfect opera.”

Beethoven, Kierkegaard, and a host of later writers have explored this question, but I would like to bring the theological insights of Karl Barth to bear on it. Although Barth’s devotion to Mozart is well known, nowhere among his essays and remarks on Mozart’s music did Barth address himself directly to the Don Giovanni phenomenon, which so exercised other thinkers. But surely such a careful, lifelong student of Mozart must have some insight to offer on this interpretive crux. What follows in this essay is not an attempt to reconstruct Barth’s own overall view of Don Giovanni, even though that task might just he possible, given the plentiful scattered references and asides to Giovanni themes and characters in his works. Instead, it is an interpretation of the opera using some Barthian categories, which seem directly relevant to it. There are two tracts of Barth’s thought which are especially illuminating for this problem: his theological interpretation of Western culture in the eighteenth century in a prelimi nary chapter of his Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, and his account of divine patience in Church Dogmatics II/1. Before turning to those resources, though, let us state the aesthetic and theological problem posed by Don Giovanni more fully…