Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Don Giovanni and the Storytelling of Isak Dinesen: Mosaic Art and the Articulation of Desire

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Don Giovanni and the Storytelling of Isak Dinesen: Mosaic Art and the Articulation of Desire

Article excerpt

Focusing on Don Giovanni and the stories of lsah Dinesen, particularly on "Babette's Feast" and "The Dreamer," in which the protagonists sing Mozart's opera, this essay examines the function of mosaic aesthetics in narrative and music in the terms of Charles Sanders Peirce, particularly "iconic" sensuousness.

  Life is a mosaic work of the Lord's, which he keeps
  filling in bit by bit.
  --Isak Dinesen, "The Roads Round Pisa"

In this essay, I consider ways that Mozart's Don Giovanni and the fiction of Isak Dinesen give rise to desire. To this end, I examine both music and narrative in the terms of Charles Sanders Peirce to describe how music overwhelms both the indexkal (or referential) and symbolic impulses of language by means of its iconic sensuousness, moving from sound to sound, from object to object, without finding a resting place. Soren Kierkegaard describes a similar metonymic quality of desire in his

essay on Don Giovanni in Either/Or. "Desire turns toward the object," he writes; "it is also internally moved. The heart beats, sound and happy; the objects swiftly appear and vanish, but before each disappearance there is nevertheless an instant of enjoyment, a moment of contact, short but sweet, glowworm brilliant, fitful and fleeting as the alighting of a butterfly" (80). (1) Don Giovanni--both character and opera--he argues, most fully embodies this sense of desire: "the object of his desire," he writes, "is the sensuous and this alone" (98). Such sensuousness, he says, exists "in a succession of instants," and "the only medium that can present it is music" (57). Moreover, "the full force of the sensuous [...] is born in anxiety" and "Don Giovanni himself is this anxiety, but this anxiety is precisely the demonic zest for life" (129). What Kierkegaard says of the overture to Don Giovanni can be said of desire itself: "it flees and escapes, but this flight is precisely its passion" (127). This passionate and anxious flight, I am saying, situates desire as both phenomena within experience and a felt force that creates the impression that it is the transcendental source of experience altogether.

Isak Dinesen organizes her storytelling in a manner that is as thoroughly metonymic as the art that Kierkegaard describes in Don Giovanni, even if she replaces the anxiety Kierkegaard feels within sensuousness with a kind of gaiety. In her early story "The Monkey," the young protagonist, Boris, describes the metonymic energy that is characteristic of her narratives. He notices that "the real difference between God and human beings [...] was that God cannot stand continuance. No sooner has he created a season of a year, or a time of the day, than he wishes for something quite different, and sweeps it all away," even while humans "imagine paradise as a never-changing state of bliss" (Seven 121). In the end, however, people might "become one with God, and have taken to liking" His "whirlpool of change" (122). The "whirlpool of change" nicely captures the dark spirit of Mozart, and especially of Don Giovanni, even while the comedic redemption Boris describes also captures what I am calling the mosaic art of Dinesen's storytelling.

The discontinuities and leaps of the musical and discursive mosaics of Mozart and Dinesen can be traced through the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce, whose analysis of the meanings of sign systems is remarkably apposite to Kierkegaard, Dinesen, and Mozart's opera. In his work, Peirce (who has been described, as one might describe Giovanni, as someone who "began everything and finished nothing") describes three categories of signs: the iconic sensuousness of experience, indexical referentiality pointing to "facts" in the world, and symbolic meaningfulness. Peirce himself describes these three categories more generally: "My view," he writes, "is that there are three modes of being, and [I] hold that we can directly observe them in elements of whatever is at any time before the mind in any way. …

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