Topic: Enlightenment: New Ideas (2010) by Debbie McCauley

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This discussion of 'The Encyclopedie' and 'Don Giovanni' was written by Debbie McCauley on 4 April 2010 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

The Encyclopédie (published 1751-1772)

Above all we should not lose sight of one consideration, which is that if man or some thinking or contemplative being is banished from the face of the earth, the sublime and pathetic spectacle of nature would be no more than a sad, mute scene. The universe would be dumb; night and silence would reign. Everything would turn into a vast solitude, where unobserved phenomena would move dimly and unheard. It is the presence of man which makes creatures interesting and what better way can be found of dealing with the history of these creatures than to accept this view? Why not give man the same place in our work as he has in the universe? Is there any place in infinite space which would give us a better starting point for the infinite number of connecting links which we want to lead to all the other points? That is what made us decide to take the principal faculties of man as the general headings under which we have classified our work.

You may follow any other path you prefer, provided that you do not substitute some mute, insensible, cold creature for man. Man is only the starting point to which you return, if you want to arouse pleasure, interest, involvement in even the most arid matters and the driest details. Take away my existence and the happiness of my fellow men and what does the rest of nature mean to me? – Denis Diderot, 1755.

The Encyclopédie, an impressive compilation of 28 volumes of knowledge, is thought by numerous people to be the most magnificent accomplishment of the period known as ‘The Enlightenment’ or the ‘Age of Reason’. Many authors contributed to the work with one of the most prolific and dedicated being the Encyclopédie’s editor, Denis Diderot. Diderot, a significant figure of the Enlightenment, spent almost thirty years of his life on the project which aimed to catalogue all human knowledge.

During this period in history people were starting to cluster together in cities rather than the traditional rural areas. The development of industrialisation enabled new endeavours in human activity. These could be investigated first hand, organised and shared with the rest of mankind by the authors who contributed to the Encyclopédie. Their work still exists today as a fascinating insight into many historical processes such as manufacturing needles, steel, agricultural machinery, shirts and silk stockings.

The aim of the Encyclopédie was the improvement of the human condition through a catalogue of new ideas in numerous areas as a resource for all of humankind. With many controversial articles it challenged such things as the authority of the church, the government and social status. As a voice for reform, the Encyclopédie was a profound and powerful vehicle for the Enlightenment in the search for truth and included articles on politics, religion, trade, industry and the economy.

The extract provided in the introduction of this paper (from volume 5 of the Encyclopédie) clearly conveys Diderot’s conviction of the absolute importance of humankind. Without man he relegates nature to “no more than a sad, mute scene” that the entire universe “would be dumb; night and silence would reign.” Without mans observation everything would be “a vast solitude.”

Diderot uses reason as an argument about providing a means for mankind’s advancement; “Take away my existence and the happiness of my fellow men and what does the rest of nature mean to me?” Perhaps Diderot means that without trying to help his fellow man advance himself his continuation is meaningless.

The extract is typical of the Enlightenment theory that the provision of information and understanding to as many people as possible would lead to the widespread improvement of humanity, and therefore to greater happiness. The Open University (2005) further explains that the Enlightenment consisted of “The belief that the expansion of knowledge, the application of reason, and dedication to scientific method would result in the greater progress and happiness of humankind” (p. 8). To a large extent this was made possible by the development of the print medium which enabled ideas to be circulated to an increasing amount of people who would formerly have only restricted access to information. The possibilities presented by the information contained within the Encyclopédie had the potential to improve individuals personal situations, sense of belonging to society and, in the long term, the greater public good.

Reason and intellect take centre stage in the Enlightenment, with the Encyclopédie providing a metaphor for the organisation of the civilised world. Take Diderot’s sentence for example: “Why not give man the same place in our work as he has in the universe?” The essence being that as humankind is absolutely central to the universe so should the doings of man should be central to the Encyclopédie and the way that it is organised using the faculties of memory, reason and imagination (“that is what made us decide to take the principal faculties of man as the general headings under which we have classified our work”). The Encyclopédie aims to be a structured and ordered body of knowledge available to all: a single work encompassing all knowledge of the civilised world.

The period of the Encyclopédie and Enlightenment ideals were tumultuous and played a major part in the advancement of civilisation. The continuing influence on how we see and experience the world today can be found in the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and sense of belonging to public life. Also, there is the sense of life as a worthwhile and interesting experience, both enhanced and advanced by the pursuit and provision of knowledge, which can lift humanity from hardship, ignorance and wretchedness.


Don Giovanni (Prague 1787)

In the finale to Act One (Scene IV, Scena 20) of the opera ‘Don Giovanni’, Giovanni welcomes his masked guests (Anna, Ottavio and Elvira) into his ballroom with a toast to freedom: “Viva la libertá!” (long live liberty). Librettist Da Ponte’s words in collaboration with Mozart’s music appear to achieve a multifaceted affect in the context of the opera as a whole when viewed alongside the political, societal and gender issues of Prague in 1787; just two years prior to the French Revolution.

Giovanni’s self-indulgent lifestyle, fed by his aristocratic standing, may well be the distorted consequence of such Enlightenment ideals as social and political liberty as well as individualism. As The Open University (2005) states “Don Giovanni presents a challenge to the tidy world of Enlightenment ideals, at a time when the forms of society in which the Enlightenment had flourished were crumbling at the edges” (p.153).

Don Giovanni was written and composed on the cusp between the Enlightenment and Romanticism periods and it is possible that both influences may be distinguished within the opera. Enlightenment ideals such as reason, individual freedom, reason and standing against social status as well as the dictates of organised religion can be deduced. The self assured and egotistical Don Giovanni seems to represent Enlightenment ideals but his lecherous pursuit of pleasure, while lending the opera vitality, can be viewed as abhorrent and at variance with the Enlightenment ideal to benefit society as a whole.  Hence the influence of the Romantic Movement’s focus on spontaneous passion, romantic excess, freedom over reason and a return to a belief in divine retribution by Mozart and Da Ponte previously abandoned by the Enlightenment. In this case it leads to Giovanni’s ultimate retribution by demise into fiery damnation.

“Viva la libertá!” is sung both individually and together several times by Giovanni, Leporello, Elvira, Anna and Ottavio with glasses frequently held aloft. The words appear harmonious but almost certainly have various meanings for each character’s personality and situation reflecting the diverse relationships and behaviour that the opera explores as well as the various roles which the characters fulfil or even transcend.

Giovanni evades responsibility, is immoral and injures others with his behaviour. During one of his “Viva la libertá!” refrains he is looking straight at Zerlina with his glass upraised as if enticing her to abandon all restraint in an ‘ironic’ interpretation of the exclamation. Anna, Ottavio, Elvira, Leporello and Masetto may also be looking for liberty from Giovanni’s philandering ways. As Fisher (2005) explains “for those three masked characters, liberty is their freedom to enter Don Giovanni’s iniquitous world and unmask, expose, and punish the profligate seducer and evil murderer”. (p. 25).

Newlywed peasants Zerlina and Masetto may also be giving a pre-revolutionary challenge to the very fabric of a restrictive class society: “Giovanni’s ball, in the responses it evokes, becomes the focus of all the forces that are gnawing away at the fabric of the old order: upper-class irresponsibility, bourgeois militancy and the anger and resentment of the lower orders” (Arblaster, as cited by The Open University, 2005, p. 152).

The plot of the opera can be viewed as a political statement about balancing individual liberty with social responsibility, a tribute to humankind’s liberation. The fervently repeated fortissimo (very loud) vocalisation, “Viva la libertá!” highlights the differences in the onstage characters. As well as enhancing the plot the refrain could well have been directed at the original audience of the opera. “Viva la libertá!” could conceivably be seen as a tribute by Mozart and Da Ponte to society’s continuing liberation under Enlightenment ideals as well as a fitting finale to Act 1.

The staging of the Act 1 finale is dramatic. Stage directions call for “a hall [in Don Giovanni’s house], lit up and prepared for a grand festive ball.” Numerous levels to the animated scene can be observed from the orchestras onstage to the various positions of the characters. This is very different to the clinically modern version of Don Giovanni, directed by Bernhard Fleischer in 2006. Fleischer’s stage is starkly white, made up of interlocking circles. For this scene the stage is overlaid in a blue haze with ‘villagers’ holding candles that eerily illuminate their faces and abrupt changes in lighting. For instance, in Fleischer’s version when the last “Viva la libertá!” is uttered there is an abrupt change in lighting and the ‘villagers’ rush off the set to return dressed in white stockings, shoes, gloves and underclothes to the dramatic flickering of stage lighting. I wonder if Mozart would be impressed with the modern interpretation of his stage directions.

In the traditional version, when the masked figures arrive, the orchestral music undergoes a key-change and the trio make their entrance in a formal manner with all the grandeur that the entrance of royalty or aristocracy would provoke, indicating the concern with different ‘class political’ agendas within the opera. The figures, who unknown to Giovanni are looking for retribution, take centre stage in an almost pompous entrance with the villagers standing aside in deference to these people of ‘importance’. The music develops intensity and the tempo escalates. Trumpets and drums provide a dominating military-type rhythm, rousing and strong, that is scattered throughout the piece and seems to back up “Viva la libertá!”

From Giovanni’s first baritone “Viva la libertá!” then Anna, Elvira and Zerlina’s soprano’s, Leporello and Masetto's bass and Ottavio’s tenor the effect is cohesive and harmonious with the orchestra providing a celebratory backdrop.

After “Viva la libertá!” three separate orchestras are on stage at once, playing simultaneously and representing the three different social classes present: “a Minuet for the gentry, a Contradanza for the middling folk, and a Deutscher or fast waltz for the peasantry” (The Open University, 2005, p. 152). The assortment of metres and speeds serves to enhance the chaos under which Giovanni attempts his continued seduction of Zerlina.


by Debbie McCauley (April, 2010)



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