This compilation arose out of Jonathan Miller's 1985 production of Don Giovanni for the English National Opera, and his introduction to the book is agreeably illuminating, not least for those who for one reason or another never go to the opera. The main characters of Don Giovanni, he notes, have a prior and conspicuous existence outside the opera, being well-established figures of myth, a fact which both helps and hinders. Miller is not the only contributor to glance at that other great legendary example: 'Faust loses his soul by impudently using it to purchase omniscience. Don Giovanni spends his soul trying to assert sexual omnipotence.' This summary - broaching two different senses of 'knowing' - indicates why the Faust legend is distinctly the richer, potentially as in actual literary treatment. Don Juan belongs to a specific sort of society, a circumscribed activity, and to fantasy; Faust is evergreen, universal, and darkly close to reality. Sex is the essence of the former story (2065 conquests! It sounds like somebody's bank balance); in the latter sexual desire is present as one strand of human experience or ambition among others. (Traditionally, marriage is out of the question, because it is made in heaven.) In accord with the spirit of the particular age, Faust can feature as either villain or hero; so can Don Juan - O.V. de L. Milosz's protagonist (1913) repents and becomes a holy man and miracle-worker - but he is less convincing, less central, in whichever role.
LRB 16 August 1990 | PDF Download