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Don Juan Legend

Don Juan Legend

by Otto Rank

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Originally published in 1924, this study of the Don Juan legend is a powerful interpretation of one of the most popular themes in Western culture. Also valuable for the insights it offers into Rank's thought immediately before his break with Freud, the book has not been available in English until now. Rank's study draws on psychoanalysis, literature, history, and


Originally published in 1924, this study of the Don Juan legend is a powerful interpretation of one of the most popular themes in Western culture. Also valuable for the insights it offers into Rank's thought immediately before his break with Freud, the book has not been available in English until now. Rank's study draws on psychoanalysis, literature, history, and anthropology to suggest some psychological mechanisms that operate both within the principal characters of the legend and within the audience or reader.

Originally published in 1975.

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Princeton University Press
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The Don Juan Legend

By Otto Rank, David G. Winter


Copyright © 1975 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-08605-7



The immortal name of the Spanish love hero, with its magical sound, instinctively evokes a series of erotic images and anticipations that appear indissolubly bound up with it. We have decided to write down under this title certain reflections and thoughts which were stimulated by an outstanding performance of Mozart's masterpiece [Don Giovanni] at the Vienna Opera (November 13, 1921). Yet it must be said in advance that we shall discuss only a few of the generally fascinating aspects of the Don Juan figure. We shall say even less of Mozart, who had perhaps an even greater share in the immortality of his hero (as seems obvious to us from the fact that this musical version of the material, which is so popular with poets, remains the only one of enduring and profound effect).

If one is straightaway disposed to approach the Mozart opera from a psychoanalytic point of view — a disposition which happened to suggest itself to the author through work with certain circles of thought — then to some extent one excludes from consideration the conscious goals of the erotic hero. Thus one notes readily (though not without surprise) that the action portrays anything but a successful sexual adventurer; on the contrary, it presents a poor sinner pursued by misfortunes, who finally arrives at the destiny of the Christian hell that is appropriate to his era and background. Imagining the happy, gratifying time of the real Don Juan is left to the fantasy of the audience — who appear only too happy to make use of this privilege — while the stage is given over to presentation of the tragic features of the moral law. Therefore, in submitting this obviously painful aspect of Don Juan to psychoanalytic scrutiny, we are merely following the path indicated by tradition and poetry.

Thus our interest is first directed away from the finished form [of the legend] toward its development; yet even a quick glance at the numerous incarnations of Don Juan shows us that we can find no clarification there. For the type immortalized by Mozart enters into literature fully developed, while the easy conqueror of women, so familiar to popular consciousness through its traditions, has in fact never existed. Consequently we can conclude that the essence of the Don Juan material is more profound than the frivolous breaking of hearts; rather, that from the beginning the legend and drama must have sought and found something else. The typical erotic love hero, even in such a grand manner, probably could be represented more easily and perhaps better by another figure. On the other hand, the Christian spectacle of hell, so laden with all the guilt feelings of original sin, also would seem to us as strange as the surviving medieval religious morality plays, if great men and artists had not rescued them in the way that Goethe created Faust out of the spiritual puppet play of the sorcerer, or in the manner in which Shakespeare created Hamlet out of the earlier ghost dramas. They have recovered the universal human content, stripping away all kinds of overgrown accretions and expressing it in eternal symbols.

The tradition clearly shows that the description of unbounded sexuality was not the principal motif of the Don Juan material. Nor do we need to consider the plain historical evidence that a real Don Juan figure never existed in order to confirm our assumption that the un-checked, conquering nature of the hero is really a poetic fantasy construction; for this view is fully confirmed by the results of research in literary history. From the legendary traditions, the author of the Burlador took only the theme of the dead man, who was mocked, getting revenge on the arrogant blasphemer (i.e., the Burlador).

It was left to the author of the Burlador to make the off ender a seducer of women in the grand manner; and to that extent he deserves the credit for making of his hero the first recognizable Don Juan. ... The Burlador already laid the essential foundations; 150 years later would be erected on them the splendid structure in which the Don Juan material finds its most gifted formulation-Mozart's Don Giovanni. (Heckel, 1915, pp. 7-8 [Rank's emphasis])

Again in agreement with our view, we also see that the literary development of the Don Juan material prior to Mozart does not elaborate the seduction motif that is so attractive and poetic to the popular consciousness. Rather, as though under a mysterious force, it elaborates the ancient, painful-tragic motif of guilt and punishment. In a superficial way this is already indicated by the double title of the first play by Tirso de Molina: El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado d e Piedra [The trickster of Seville and the stone guest], for the second part of the title — "The Stone Guest" [or "Stone Banquet"] — is the title of most Don Juan plays until the middle of the eighteenth century; while the imposing name of the hero does not appear at all in the title. Thus by keeping to the tradition that the motif of guilt and punishment is more meaningful than that of sexuality, we have narrowed down the problem of investigation.

On the basis of psychoanalytic theory, we are prepared to derive such forces of overwhelming guilt and punishment — connected with strongly sexual fantasies — from the Oedipus complex. Clearly the endless series [of seduced women] along with the "injured third party" characteristics of the Don Juan type appear to confirm this analytical interpretation: that the many women whom he must always replace anew represent to him the one irreplaceable mother; and that the rivals and adversaries whom he deceives, defrauds, struggles against, and finally even kills represent the one unconquerable mortal enemy, the father. This psychologically elemental fact has been discovered through the analysis of individuals; yet when psychoanalysis is applied to an extra-analytic theme it can only serve as the starting point for advancing our understanding, rather than as a result that is known in advance and only has to be confirmed. For the transformation of this type, who in his unconscious remains true to the inviolable mother, into the treacherous, cynical person who despises women presumes the operation of repression, displacement, and transvaluation. By tracing the paths and mechanisms of these processes, we have of ten learned our most important and interesting lessons.

After these limitations and justifications, we return to the Mozart opera as the point of departure. Two problems chiefly attract our attention: the first involves the topic of artistic form, and the second involves some analysis of content. Although these two problems differ basically in character, psychologically they are closely connected with each other and with the essence of the Don Juan material. In the end the problem of the material refers to the affect connected with guilt and punishment, and the problem of form involves the process of fantasy construction and the social function of art.



Following our orientation, we direct our gaze away from the surpassing figure of Don Juan. Our attention is then drawn to a striking characteristic of his no less famous servant Leporello, a characteristic that, after a short digression, leads back again to the hero. On the one hand, this servant is really a friend and confidant in every love intrigue; yet on the other hand, he is certainly not a willing companion and helper, but rather a cowardly, anxious, cringing soul who is concerned only for his own interest. In his first aspect, he permits himself unbounded critical observations ("The life that you are leading is that of a good-for-nothing!"). He demands — and perhaps also gets — a share in kind of the prey of his master. In his second aspect, he fearfully tries to avoid every danger. Very often he refuses further service and is kept on only with money and threats. To complete the picture of the servant, he nibbles scraps from the banquet table even while he is serving.

One could say, "Like servant, like master," and thus point out that Don Juan permits him these liberties because he needs him. For example, just before the famous "catalogue" aria, when Donna Elvira demands an explanation from the hero, he evades this painful situation and pushes forward Leporello. Even before she is aware of what is happening, the adroit adventurer has disappeared and in his place Leporello reads to her the list of abandoned women, with the proper servant's pride that comes from identification with the power [Herrschaft] of the master.

This touches on a motif that is more clearly developed in the course of the action, but one which is already present as a motto in Leporello's first words at the beginning of the opera: "I want to be a gentleman, and I don't want to serve any more." The tragedy of Leporello is that he is permitted to represent his master only in the painful and critical situations. Thus a second time, during the vain attempt to seduce Zerlina, Don Juan would punish his servant as the guilty one. In what seems to Leporello to promise a delightful adventure, Don Juan next exchanges cloak and hat with him in order to seduce Donna Elvira's chambermaid, while Leporello is to take the abandoned lady for himself. Though amusing at the outset, this adventure only leads to his harm; for in the meantime the steadily increasing band of those bent on revenge (Donna Anna, Octavio, Masetto, Zerlina) have pursued Don Juan to Donna Elvira's house, where they seize the presumed criminal, who finally turns out to be Leporello, protesting his innocence and begging for mercy.

The adroitness with which he frees himself from this dangerous situation, by suddenly disappearing, gives us a clue that he is more than a mere pupil of his master, that he is perhaps identical with him. But before we can explain what this might mean, we shall refer to the scene just before this one and the scene that follows it; both clearly confirm the identity of master and servant. They demonstrate not only that Leporello represents his master on occasions when a personal appearance would be painful, but that Don Juan plays the role of Leporello — as with Donna Elvira's chambermaid, and in a subsequent episode (which is only recounted) that leads on to the banquet, which is the second part of the Don Juan drama. As master and servant meet again in the cemetery after the episode of exchanging garments, something they were lucky to survive, Don Juan tells of another adventure that he has had in the meantime, an adventure which he owes to the switch of identity with his servant. Leporello at once supposes that the adventure could only have been with his wife, and reproaches his master for finding this so amusing. Don Juan observes that "I have only got even for what you did to me" — thus betraying a deep motive of revenge in his behavior, and clearly illuminating the interchangeability of master and servant. At this moment the voice from the statue of the Commander sounds ("Audacious one, let the dead rest in peace!"), and the second theme of the banquet of the dead begins — a theme that apparently is only loosely added on to the Don Juan material. We shall postpone discussion of it in order to ask ourselves what this identity of the two figures of Don Juan and Leporello means, and what it can contribute to the understanding of the plot, the development of the Don Juan figure, and the psychology of the poet and the audience.



We must above all be clear that in expressing such a formulation involving the identity of Don Juan and Leporello, we have already departed from the basis of the usual literary-aesthetic considerations in favor of a psychological interpretation that completely disregards the overt meaning of the figures. Thus, for example, in Heckel's description of the striking characteristic of Leporello we have not so much the portrait of a whole personality, but rather an intimation of the close psychological connection between these two figures (1915, p. 24):

As this negative hero is bound to the audacious seducer, who does not tremble before death and the devil; as he always wishes to be free from him and yet cannot extricate himself from the spell of the stronger personality; as he time and again becomes the scapegoat for the tricks of his master, tricks of which he is entirely innocent; that has, in the deepest sense, an almost tragic effect.

We cannot imagine Don Juan without his servant and helper Leporello. This is not only a consequence of their actual dependence on each other as expressed in the plot, but is much more an intuitive sense of their psychological connection as a poetic effect. By this we mean that the poet has neither taken this "negative hero" from real life, nor invented him for the purpose of enlivenment or contrast in the plot; rather, that the figure of Leporello is a necessary part of the artistic presentation of the hero himself. It would be an agreeable task to demonstrate the generality of this mechanism of poetic creation in a whole series of works, for in doing so one could show that the most elegant examples are to be found in the greatest writers of world literature. For our purposes it is sufficient that one such example has been pointed out in the psychoanalytic literature — and indeed, by Freud himself (1916, in connection with an observation by Jekels, 1917), who believed that Shakespeare often split up one character into two persons, each of which appeared incompletely comprehensible as long as one did not put the one together with the other into a unity. We find the same fashioning of mutually complementary characters in all great literary art; from its elementary expression in a Cervantes, Balzac, Goethe, or Dostoevski up through the modern "psychologizing" literature, which has sought to give a more or less conscious account of this artistic problem of form. We are not concerned with the notion that the poet projects a part of his own ego on to the figures of his fantasy — a notion which has already become psychologically banal, and which Leon Daudet, for example, has recently tried to substantiate again in his book L' Heredo: Essai sur le Drame Interieur (1916) by use of the heredity doctrines of the French psychiatrists. Rather, we are here concerned with a very special, secondary division (as it were) of one form into two figures, who together constitute a complete, understandable, and unified character — as for example Tasso and Antonio in Goethe, or Shakespeare's Othello, who can be so naive and credulous because his jealousy is split off in the figure of Iago.

In a like manner, it would be impossible to create the Don Juan figure, the frivolous knight without conscience and without fear of death or the devil, if a part of that Don Juan were not thereby split off in Leporello, who represents the inner criticism, the anxiety, and the conscience of the hero. With this key we can at last understand why Leporello must represent his master precisely in all the painful situations, and why he is permitted to criticize him and, as it were, to take the place of the conscience that the hero lacks. We can understand, moreover, that the enormity of Don Juan's wickedness is due to the splitting off of the inhibiting element of his personality.

If we consider the plot from this perspective, then we see not only that Leporello clearly represents his master in the scenes already mentioned, but also that he stands for the criticizing and anxiety-oriented conscience of the hero in general. In the first act of the opera he appears as the criticizing agency [of the superego], condemning the dissolute life of his master and acquiescing in it only against his will. Beginning with the scene in the house of Donna Elvira (Act II), where master and servant are at the same time mortally threatened, the guilt feeling comes to the fore. In the cemetery scene and further in the banquet scene, this feeling increases to a terrible anxiety about the ghost of the dead and an unbearable torment of conscience which finally leads to death. If we recognize in Leporello a manifestation — certainly an extraordinarily formed one — of Don Juan's ego ideal, we shall not only be using a formulation of Freud (1914b, 1921), but also approaching a deeper understanding of the whole psychic mechanism.


Excerpted from The Don Juan Legend by Otto Rank, David G. Winter. Copyright © 1975 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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