In Defense of Don Giovanni: A Feminist Mythobiography

Who wants to champion the figure of Don Giovanni in the time of Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo? Don Giovanni is a rapist, murderer, serial seducer and liar. Can he ever be held up as a role-model or seen as a figure to be enjoyed? This is the task that the eminent Italian historian and life-long feminist, Luisa Passerini, sets herself in In Defense of Don Giovanni.

Passerini has been in dialogue with Don Giovanni for over fifity years. Longer in fact, since her own father was a Don Giovanni himself, a ladies’ man and bon-vivant adored by his daughter, for whom his success with women seemed justifiably deserved. As she developed her career as a pioneering oral historian, Passerini also worked tirelessly for radical and feminist movements in Italy and Africa from the 1960s onwards. Radical leftist politics and feminism went hand in hand with experiments in living. Don Giovanni, as she recounts in her book, became not only her role model but also a secret object of research.

Taking her method from oral history, with its live voices and conversations, Passerini creates a series of characters with whom she discusses the forms and incarnations of the myth of Don Giovanni across both time and space, from its first appearance in early medieval Spain and Commedia dell’Arte to its many European variations and its transposition to the colonial and post-colonial world in the Middle East, the Americas, and Africa. Pivoting round Don Giovanni’s best known incarnation in Mozart’s opera, Passerini and her interlocutors meet in different locations from Venice and Bern to Paris and Turin. They discuss and attend plays, films, and operas and talk about art, novels, and psychoanalytic interpretations of the myth while also telling their own life stories, in which Don Giovanni figures often play parts that may be destructive but both mischievous and full of joie-de-vivre.

From his early beginnings in the Iberian Peninsula to recent analysis of the sexuality of colonial conquest and postcolonial revenge and return, Don Giovanni shape-shifts between rapacious hyper-masculinity, comic trickster, and morally vacuous loser whose annoyingly persistent nemesis Don Ottavio can emerge as an alternative and ultimately better object of desire. As she tracks Don Giovanni’s image across the world and through the centuries, however, Passerini comes to see that it also plays another role, that of a mirror, in which women can see themselves emerge as individuals with their own life force.

Hovering over the narrative and engaging in a series of mordantly witty conversations with Passerini is Don Giovanni himself, mockingly assessing her obsessions and her progress. The result is a book that is both impeccably researched, ranging far and wide from Tirso di Molina, Molière and Byron to Otto Rank, Paul Klee, Ellery Queen, Tayeb Salih and John Berger, and also disarmingly frank and bold in its analysis of the options available to women from youth to old age in life, work and love from the 1950s to the present day.