Opera and the Politics of Tragedy

Conversing with Enlightenment Polemicists

It occurred to me to wonder what an Enlightenment littérateur might make of this book, which found me buried so often in playful dialogues and epistolary exchanges that it was hard not to stage imaginary conversations with some of the historical figures animating its pages.  

Louis de Jaucourt, one of the Enlightenment’s most prolific writers who contributed over 17,000 articles to Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, would presumably wonder why academics today take so long to produce relatively little. On several occasions, I have envied his superhuman efficiency, although not the production process he had to endure. While I was writing about the prevalence of shipwreck metaphors in 18th-century discussions of operatic tragedy, it was difficult not to think about the very real marine catastrophe that befell Jaucourt’s 6-volume medical dictionary, the only copy of which sank to the bottom of the sea while on route to the printers. Imagining the work of 20 years sinking into soggy oblivion certainly prompted me to hastily backup my manuscript and be grateful that my book would not have to set out on a literal sea voyage before reaching its readers. 

Pierre-Valentin Faydit, whose main claim to fame is the exhaustive critique he penned denouncing François Fénelon’s epic novel The Adventures of Telemachus, would presumably not cherish the idea that 21st-century scholars are still dedicating time and energy to analyzing what he considered trash literature. If his original review of Fénelon’s novel is anything to go by, he may not have waited to read my book before publishing a 600,000-word critique excoriating me for squandering pages upon pages on Fénelon’s drivel of a novel that had, thanks to the passing of time and fading of memory, finally been relegated to the “great unread.” With any luck, Faydit’s hyperbolic pedantries might have boosted sales for Fénelon’s modern translators, as it did some two hundred years ago. From our vantage point today, Fénelon’s book is possibly the most famous book that was ever (mostly) forgotten. By reversing some of that cultural amnesia, I hope to have opened new perspectives on the intricate back-and-forth between opera and literature throughout the Enlightenment.  

If his reputation for warm good humour and modesty is true, the relatively unknown writer Antoine Houdar de la Motte might have professed delight at finding himself a main character in a book on opera. Having penned several libretti long since relegated to the footnotes of musicological lexicographers, de la Motte would presumably be glad of the new publicity for his singular achievement: to have irked Voltaire into a vociferous and very public quarrel about the possibility of prose poetry. Though we might side with Voltaire to agree that de la Motte’s own prose poetry is atrocious, history has since vindicated his theory that poetry could free itself of rhyme and rhythm.

Unpacking the antiquarian culture underlying early modern politics and its operatic expressions, I became interested in how the genre of the academic monograph might be modified to make it more compatible with the fluid intertextualities it aims to navigate. There is a common museological spirit across the Enlightenment’s various cultural spheres – the theatre, the opera house, the encyclopedia, and the archaeological dig sites that so inspired several generations of writers, artists, and musicians. A monograph that aspires to exhibit an eclectic collection of literary, visual, and musical works struck me as an appropriate framework for showcasing the Enlightenment’s tangled sense of politics, history, and modernity. Admittedly, as writer and translator Paul Jérémie Bitaubé astutely pointed out in 1775, books that depart from conventional structures risk leaving their readers wondering how exactly to classify them. Is this particular book – this Mozartean Museum – an exhibit or a monograph, in the end? Am I happy for it to have, in Bitaubé’s words, an “amphibious existence”? Yes! (One has to admit that amphibiousness is certainly preferable to permanent submersion in the wreckage of Jaucourt’s ill-fated ship.) An amphibious book will hopefully persuade readers to swim with various currents of historical debate to experience the tide of cultural-political change that compelled so many authors, composers, and artists to jump in with theories, convictions, proposals, and experiments.

This guest post was written by Katharina Clausius, Assistant Professor in the Department of Literature and World Languages, Université de Montréal, Canada. Her book Opera and the Politics of Tragedy: A Mozartean Museum is out now in Hardback and ebook. Blog readers save 35%:

Hardcover: £85/$99 – Blog Price*: £55.25/$64.35
Ebook (EPUB/EPDF): £24.99/$29.95 – Blog Price*: £16.24/$19.46
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