Seduction may be baneful, even tragic, but the seducer at his work is essentially comic. It is a question whether there is such a thing as seduction when the affections play a part; and yet this is a murky matter because of the way affections, even those of tenderness and concern, have a tendency to diminish and augment, to transform themselves under the influence of experience, satisfaction, or disappointment. The seducer as a type, or as an archetype, hardly touches upon any of our deep feelings unless there is some exaggeration in him, something complicated and tangled and mysteriously compelling about a nature that has come to define itself through the mere fact of sex. For the most part the word, seduction, indicates effort of a persevering, thoughtful sort. When it is successful we naturally look about for a lack of resolution and resistance in the object; guile and insistence are clever at uncovering pockets of complicity. A seduction is the very opposite of the abrupt, which is, of course, rape.
The most interesting seducers are actually rapists; for instance, Don Giovanni and Lovelace. Their whole character is trapped in the moil of domination and they drudge on, never satisfied, never resting, mythically hungry. The fact that the two characters mentioned are gentlemen gives a stinging complication to their obsessions. Ritual comes natural to them and birth bestows rights and blurs cruelties. What we may feel is a misplaced elaboration of desire in a gentleman would be in a man of less imagination and of inferior social and personal decoration simply coarse or criminal. In the common man, excessive demand for sex is repulsive. Gentlemen merely run the risk of being ridiculous. To have in Espagne alone, mille e tre, is a most exhausting dedication, and also quite funny.
The danger of ridicule must, in literature, be circumvented if the man is to retain force, magnetism, spirit. (Dignity is scarcely at stake, since it is the mark of a gentleman to look upon dignity as a quality given and once given the last to crumble.) When the Don in Mozart’s opera is found in the first scene dragging Donna Anna about, rushing into her bedroom like a burglar, we know that he is a complete fool. (“How can I believe a nobleman guilty of such a crime?” Don Ottavio, another fool, asks.) It is only when the Don murders Donna Anna’s father, the Commendatore, that he is redeemed as a character, a creation. He who was a fool has suddenly become sinister, evil, damned; the attention immediately shifts from the victim, the assaulted, sobbing woman, back to the great violator himself. The Don still does not have motive and we cannot understand his raging pursuits, yet we see how complete is his will, his defiance, how devastating his empty energy. The Don will ultimately have, in the opera, a cruel, useless courage in living out his nature to its very end.
In the waste of sensuality, boredom, compulsion, the…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.