February 14th, Valentine’s Day: Why did Nietzsche like Carmen?

Friedrich Nietzsche

Why did Nietzsche like Carmen? That is what I found myself thinking about on Valentine’s Day at the dress rehearsal production of Bizet’s Carmen, (Pacific Opera Company), hemmed in on all sides by a packed crowd of teenagers from various private schools and Girl Guide brigades of the City of Victoria. The potential for teenage enthusiasm in all its disruptive excess was, I felt, admirably held in check by the students’ sense of the formal decorum required at the Royal Theatre, except for one poor girl somewhere behind us at the beginning of the third act who was in the grip of an uncontrollable fit of giggling. So maybe it was the combination of barely bridled explosiveness and constraint that lead my thoughts to Nietzsche, or maybe it was just my own brain’s tendency to rattle away in pursuit of random issues, but by intermission I was so enthralled by the question that I found myself mentally re-clothing the crowds of students in 19th century garb as if we were all there with Nietzsche himself at his first viewing of Carmen in Genoa in 1881.

We had gone to the opera to celebrate the theme of love on Valentine’s Day, a ritual Valentine’s Day’s outing to totemize the underlying passion of our bond (as Emile Durkheim might put it). Yet like the other ambiguous totems of Valentine’s Day—chocolates (hyperglycemia and sugar crash), fancy dinners (masticating, dissolving in stomach acids and excreting), cut flowers (already dead), lace panties and bras (the cult of youthful but ultimately decaying bodies)—this opera’s celebration of love is not exactly fluff and candles. It cuts in a steady downward spiral towards violence and tragedy and ends with Carmen’s bloody corpse lying on Don José’s lap. As Nietzsche puts it in The Case of Wagner (Section 2), “ I know no case where the tragic joke that constitutes the essence of love is expressed so strictly, translated with equal terror into a formula, as in Done José’s last cry, which concludes the work:

Yes, I have killed her,
I – my adored Carmen!”

In Carmen the essence of love is a tragic joke so terrifying that it seems to lead in a more or less straight line to murder, or at best a compromised contract of mutual renunciation. I’m not sure if the teenagers in the crowd got that.

The conductor quipped to the audience in his pre-show speech that we should think of the character Carmen not as previous generations have done, that is, as a tart who gets what she deserves in the end, but as one of a long line of women who know their own minds but have underestimated the limitations of men. This got him a laugh and it seemed quite a contemporary way of thinking about it—post feminist and ironic. In the light-heartedness of the 21st century, nobody wants to state the obvious, that for both Carmen and Don José, love is a wild ride that leads to pain, anguish, suffering, and hatred, not to mention tragic violent death (not on Valentine’s Day at least).

So why did Nietzsche like Carmen? He claimed to have seen it 20 times between 1881 and 1888. “I almost think Carmen is the best opera there is” he wrote on a postcard to his friend Peter Gast. His appreciation was no doubt bound up with his criticism of Wagner, a criticism which by the time of The Case of Wagner (1888) was possibly unrestrained by sanity, as his biographers suggest. But if we hold his impressions of Carmen apart from this obsession with the Wagner phenomenon, do they still make sense on their own terms? Carmen seems to be held together by catchy melodies and stock romantic notions of love, but there is not much in the way of philosophical originality and inquiry. Nevertheless Nietzsche writes of Carmen as being emblematic of health, of a much needed “Mediterraneanization of music”, a “return to nature, health, cheerfulness, youth, virtue!” (The Case of Wagner, Section 3). The music “liberates the spirit.” It “gives wings to thought” (Section 2).

In Carmen, love is emblematic of those border concepts like violence or madness that define the limits of social relationship per se. The “thesis” is strictly speaking anti-Valentinesian: there can be no love relationship. Where there is a relationship, love has been crushed. Where there is love, no relationship is possible. Love is a powerful affect, not a condition to be contained in words, exchanges, morals or laws. At best it is the substrate on which these exchanges gain their tenuous rationale. In love only the invocation of perpetual flight is possible, (“Into the hills we both would ride! Galloping through the countryside,” sings Carmen). The impossibility of love is of course the theme in Carmen’s first aria “L’ Amour est un Oiseau Rebelle” where she sings, “Love is a rebel bird that nothing can tame … Love is a child of Bohemia that has never known the law.” Love comes from a different dimension, like a calling, and as such it is cut from an essentially different cloth than the regular, tame, dutiful, law bound nature of social exchange and relationship. It has a non-negotiable, messianic quality. Through a chance encounter, Don José and Carmen are torn from the stability of their social routines and are not able to put themselves back together again.

Nietzsche puts it in slightly different terms:

Finally, love—love translated back into nature. Not the love of a “higher virgin”! No Senta-sentimentality! [i.e. Senta, the heroine of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman] But love as fatum, as fatality, cynical, innocent, cruel—and precisely in this a piece of nature. That love which is war in its means, and at bottom the deadly hatred of the sexes!

If by “nature” in this passage Nietzsche is being true to his Spinoza-ist roots I think he means that love is “substance” or again affect, not something couples “work on” in counseling, not something they purify “higher virgin-wise” so that it aligns with their life priorities, but something they literally fall into. And tragically so, because who can stand up in that maelstrom? Who get can get their head on straight? Love as nature is a bigger reality. It underlies and undercuts the smaller reality of our conscious, moral or social schemes. Love as fatum—cynical, innocent, and cruel—is not to be bound by the little agreements and exchanges that make up our day to day social contracts and comfortable reciprocities. Love is to a relationship as a fuse is to a stick of dynamite.

Martin Heidegger

As an aside, it seems to me that this characterization of love in Nietzsche’s appreciation of Carmen is evidence that Heidegger had it all wrong when it came to Nietzsche. Heidegger sees Nietzsche as the last metaphysician who seeks to enframe the world as the will to power. He cites Nietzsche’s statement, “The world viewed from inside would be will to power and nothing else.” For Heidegger, Nietzsche collapses ‘Being’ into the ‘truth’ of the will to power. In this case the study of the force of love as a rebel bird is another way of filling in the mystery of Being too quickly. I have to be honest and say that I’ve never understood Heidegger’s position on this point and imagine that there has to be something more to it that I’ve been missing. The point that I would make though is that in his interpretation of Carmen, Nietzsche seems to be evoking the fatum of love, not to replace the mystery of Being with the will to power, but to reveal the affect of love as mystery, as un-enframable. The rebel bird is essentially elusive: “Think you’ve caught her and she’ll escape you, Think you’ve escaped and she’s caught you!” sings Carmen.

As an affect love is an experience not representable in language or ideas (Spinoza). There are (ontic) ideas that we hold about the loved one, there are hopes we entertain about them, and these are what get both Don José and Carmen into trouble, these are what lead eventually to the “deadly hatred between the sexes.” But love itself lies somewhere prior or elsewhere to these. Love is the clearing one finds oneself in, like the atmosphere of ethereal smoke accompanying the cigarette girls in the first act on which wafts “the sweet talk of lovers, their gushing and their vows.” Unfortunately for Don José and Carmen, it is not the sort of clearing that promotes thinking (in Heidegger’s sense). The couple’s immediate headlong rush into tragedy is more or less the poster child for Heidegger’s complaints about forgetfulness of Being.

The other type of love in Carmen is the love belonging to the sensible marriage contract and embodied in the drama between Don José and Micaela. This part of the drama I imagine is supposed to be like one of those moments of situational irony in horror films when you feel like shouting to the hero that it’s not safe to go up the stairs. “Don’t be stupid Don José; don’t throw your life away! Go with Micaela and stay out of trouble!” But the way this is presented, you actually want to urge him on to his fateful encounter with Carmen. Throw all caution to the wind man! Micaela’s love, apparently sensible, wholesome and redeeming, comes with the baggage of the maternal superego: Don José’s mother’s offer of forgiveness for previous transgressions. “She sends you a kiss. José, I give it you as she then gave it to me.” He receives a kiss from his mother through Micaela, which is also the mother’s seal of approval of Micaela and for their betrothal, and he then returns a kiss to his mother through Micaela, which is his acceptance of the deal which will keep him from harm. Where is Micaela in all this? The doubled kiss is the sum of the erotic content of his relationship with Micaela. They kiss “maternally,” which seems to lend a whole other dimension to the love of a “higher virgin” that Nietzsche attacks. After Micaela kisses Don José he sees his mother standing before his eyes, although he is looking right at Micaela. “She’s there before his eyes …” Micaela sings. Difficult to know what she thinks about it, but it seems hardly important in terms of the story. It’s not her but his mother’s “charm” that breaks Carmen’s intoxicating spell and replaces it with another spell, albeit temporarily. In this way one could imagine that Micaela would remain a virgin even after marriage with Don José, even when he was making love with her, because with these doubled kisses she is hardly a sexual being in her own right. She’s a kind of token of exchange between mother and son.

The script here seems pretty twisted, even for opera. The opposite of the rebel bird is not exactly the tame or sensible bird, but submission to the caprice of the maternal superego; the mother’s ability to hold and withhold her love and approval.

So Don José is stuck in an awkward position between Carmen and Micaela and like the conductor said, he does not acquit himself of his task in a very impressive manner. He attempts to tie the volatile love bond to a new bargain with Carmen. In exchange for his self sacrifice (going to prison for freeing her from custody), he secures her promise of love in return:

Carmen, I am like a man intoxicated,
If I give in, if I surrender,
Will you keep your promise?
And if I love you Carmen, Carmen
Will you love me too?

But when he’s released from prison, he tries to put his career in the military ahead of the demands of love (i.e. running off into the hills with Carmen and her smuggler friends) and gets burned. In Carmen’s take on the situation, love is not a matter of compromise and negotiation. It’s all or nothing. It’s better to burn out than to fade away. Don José ends up in a chronic emotional bind as a result. He can’t accept the Bohemian freedom of the vagabonds nor the sensible bourgeois solution of marrying Micaela. He’s stuck. And where his rival for Carmen’s love, the Torreador, is able to go out and kill a bull, he has nothing to kill except Carmen.

Paul Ree

Paul Ree

Lou von Salome

Lou von Salome

So what did Nietzsche see in all of this? At one level the opera bears an uncanny resemblance to Nietzsche’s own tempestuous struggle with love, and might simply have compelled him as a kind of dramatization of his own dilemmas. (See Verkerk’s Nietzsche on Love for some of the background on Nietzsche’s philosophical comments on love).  In September 1882 when Nietzsche saw Carmen for the 3rd or 4th time in Leipzig, he had just broken with Lou Salome and old his friend Paul Ree and would never see either of them again after the complicated ménage-à-trois they’d enjoyed fell apart. He had only met the 21 year old Lou Salome in  late April, 1882, and on May 5 they took their famous hike up Monte Sacro near Lake Orta, Italy, where Nietzsche apparently proposed to her. “The most enchanting dream of my life, I owe to you,” he said. (This scene was dramatized in the film When Nietzsche Wept (2007)). Lou Salome said later in her diary that she couldn’t remember whether she’d actually kissed Nietzsche that day or not, (a task that would have been quite difficult, as Paul Ree had joked, given the magnitude of Nietzsche’s moustache). In July however, Lou and Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth had a fight over Nietzsche’s “wild marriage” proposals. Elisabeth characterized Lou as an “evil, egotistical, and immoral character” and later in August when Nietzsche’s mother found out about all this, she said he was “a disgrace to his father’s grave.” Enter the maternal superego, with Elisabeth cast in the role of Micaela. This led to years of quarrelling and estrangement among the Nietzsches. Aside from the overt parallels with Carmen, the whole situation lends new light to the well known photograph Nietzsche commissioned in Lucerne with Lou Salome holding a whip while he and Paul Ree are posed pulling her in a cart. The notorious line that he later gave to the character of the old woman in Thus Spake Zarasthustra (On Little Old and Young Women)—“You are going to women? Do not forget the whip!”—might be therefore read another way than the typical misogynistic one. It is the man who gives himself to love who will be whipped.

Nietzsche, Ree and Salome

But that seems a superficial reading of why Nietzsche liked Carmen. Only a psychologist could believe in such a simple biographical explanation, which in any case does not account for everything Nietzsche has had to say about Carmen. In a letter to Lou Salome from Leipzig on September 16, 1882, he describes having a cognac (“the second cognac of the year”) and reflecting on whether he had “some predisposition to madness” after the end of their relationship. (He still seemed hopeful that something could be salvaged). “Then the Carmen music began, and for half an hour I was submerged in tears and felt the beating of my heart.” He has this moment of sadness, which Spinoza (and Nietzsche through Spinoza) might characterize as a moment of powerlessness. “Sadness [is] any passion whatsoever which involves a diminution of my power of acting…” (Deleuze). This would seem to be the outcome of his relationship with Lou.

The overall feeling he has about Bizet, however, has more to do with his understanding of health. “Bizet makes me fertile. Whatever is good makes me fertile. I have no other gratitude, nor do I have any other proof for what is good” (Case of Wagner, Section 158).

“The grey sky of abstraction rent as if by lightning; the light strong enough for the filigree of things; the great problems near enough to grasp; the world surveyed as from a mountain.”

Thus the music which signaled a “return to nature, health, cheerfulness, youth, virtue!” was good because it was healing. It was a passage to the feeling of health, although certainly not health in the simple biomedical sense; not health as the absence of pathology or the unimpaired functioning the body. This is the corollary from Spinoza: “…joy [is] any passion involving an increase in my power of acting” (Deleuze). Health is indissolubly associated with the feeling of happiness, which in turn is the “feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome” (The Anti-Christ, Section 2). Health in Nietzsche’s sense is “the overflowing feeling of life and strength” (Twilight of the Idols, last section) or the experience of “overflowing power and abundance” (Gay Science, Section 382). So in the strange amalgam of festive joy, sensual intoxication, and sombre fatalism that more or less defines Carmen, one can also find the matrix of Nietzsche’s own experience from which the great triumphs of his philosophy were fashioned. Carmen clearly struck him as an antidote to despair and illness, an ally in his endeavor to transform his life, not to mention the life of “present day man” as a whole. “If I can not, like an alchemist, make gold out of this muck, then I shall be lost!” (letter to Overbeck, Dec.25, 1882).

4 thoughts on “February 14th, Valentine’s Day: Why did Nietzsche like Carmen?

  1. Nice to see Nietzsche, Spinoza, Deleuze, and Carmen joined together (and Wagner and Heidegger relegated to the upper circle). As for “the affect of love as mystery, as un-enframable” and “As an affect love is an experience not representable in language or ideas (Spinoza)”, this would evoke a notion of the sublime, a thing beyond good and evil?

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