Living through Literature

by Matthew Koslowski on October 7, 2009
in Essays

In This Essay

Don Juan DeMarco
Don Juan by George Gordon, Lord Byron
Mozart’s Don Giovanni by Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

I first saw Mozart’s Don Giovanni while studying at an Italian language institute in Rome during the summer of 2004. That summer was my introduction to opera. I saw both Carmen and Don Giovanni. Don Giovanni stuck with me, however.

That first performance piqued my interest, both in opera and the Don Juan legend.

Since moving back to Massachusetts, though I am not sure what triggered it, I have become increasingly more interested in the Don Juan legend. I saw the opera again when the Boston Lyric Opera performed Don Giovanni last season. I purchased a recording of Mozart’s Don Giovanni by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and have listened to it almost to the exclusion of all else since I bought it. I have reread Molière’s Don Juan. I read Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell as well as Baudelaire’s. I reread most of the first Canto of Byron’s Don Juan, and despite my renewed interest found Byron’s poetry dry. Next I want to read Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Sevilla which is thought to be the first written version of the Don Juan legend.

While looking at the works of the Don Juan legend, I stumbled across Don Juan DeMarco. I was intrigued by the description on Wikipedia. I ordered it from the public library and watched it this weekend.

Don Juan DeMarco

“You must not forget, my friend, that the power of your love, the power of the love of Don Juan is eternal, and will not be denied.”
–Dr. Jack Mickler as Don Octavio de Florez

The film follows a young man who claims to be Don Juan DeMarco and Dr. Jack Mickler, the psychiatrist who tries to help him. The young man casts a spell over the whole hospital. Although he is being treated for a delusion disorder, in many exchanges within the film, it is Don Juan who seems sane.

Don Juan DeMarco creates a personal mythology that is adapted from Byron’s Don Juan but is extended. Byron’s Don Juan was initiated into love by a married 23-year old woman when he was only 16-years old, as was Don Juan DeMarco; Byron’s Don Juan was sold into slavery in a sultanate, used as a love slave by one of the sultan’s wives, and was forced to dress in drag to hide, as was Don Juan DeMarco.

Although sharing some elements with Byron’s Don Juan, Don Juan DeMarco’s origin story is distinctly his own. He discusses his initiation into love and how tragedy that ensued. The mythology is elaborate and internally consistent and Dr. Mickler and his supervisor Dr. Showalter discuss how it resembles a tragic Greek myth and how well it fits into Freudian theories.

Sanity and Insanity, Delusion and Truth

The conversation between Dr.s Mickler and Showalter is surreal. We listen to what Don Juan DeMarco says, his penetrating insights into the lives of the people around him, his ability to inspire them to great happiness; then we are presented with these two psychiatrists reducing this man to a series of symptoms. The situation seems even further surreal because we see how Don Juan DeMarco has been able to reignite the passion in Dr. Mickler’s life.

This exchange between Don Juan DeMarco and Dr. Mickler, who he refers to as Don Octavio, shows how lucid Don Juan is.

Mickler What would you say to someone that, erm, that said to you, this is a psychiatric hospital, and that you’re a patient here, and that I am your psychiatrist?

Don Juan I would say that he has a rather limited and uncreative way of looking at the situation. Look, you want to know if I understand that this is a mental hospital? Yes, I understand that. But, then how can I say that you are Don Octavio and I am a guest at your villa, correct?

Mickler Yeah.

Don Juan By seeing beyond what is visible to the eye. Now, there are those, of course, who do not share my perceptions, it’s true. When I say that all my women are dazzling beauties, they object. The nose of this one is too large; the, the hips of another they are too wide perhaps; the breasts of a third, they are too small. But I see these women for how they truly are — glorious, radiant, spectacular, and perfect — because I am not limited by my eyesight.

Women react to me the way that they do, Don Octavio, because they sense that I search out the beauty that dwells within them until it overwhelms everything else. And they cannot avoid their desire, to release that beauty and envelop me in it. So, to answer your question, I see as clear as day that this, great edifice in which we find ourselves, is your villa, it is your home. And as for you, Don Octavio de Florez, you are a great lover like myself. Even though you may have lost your way… and your accent.

In the end, during a deposition, Don Juan DeMarco, who we find out was born as John R. DeMarco in Queens, NY, and raised in Phoenix, AZ, admits that he fell in love with a centerfold. He was Byron’s Don Juan at that time. He thought to himself that she would not accept him as John DeMarco but would believe they were meant to be together if he was Don Juan.


Perhaps I’ve been thinking of his because I’ve been reading Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf and W.B. Yeats’s poetry, but theme explored of the fluid nature of identity explored through imagery of masks and references to masks seen and unseen was profound in Don Juan DeMarco. John DeMarco dons the mask of Don Juan DeMarco; Don Juan DeMarco dons a physical mask; Dr. Mickler dons the mask of Don Octavio to enter Don Juan DeMarco’s delusion and gain his trust; Don Juan questions the mask Dr. Mickler dons of being nothing but a psychiatrist.

Living through Literature

Who hasn’t ever wished to be someone different?

John DeMarco was unsatisfied with himself. Who hasn’t felt the same dissatisfaction? In order to find his own strength, he turned to a figure of literature and adopted those qualities that made him better, that gave him the strength he needed to approach the world. He became truly alive through literature.

John learned to be himself by learning to be Don Juan the same way that children learn to be adults by pretending and playing, by adopting social masks for a while and then discarding them. If you watch the play of children while a group are imagining themselves in a specific circumstance or as specific characters, the play is not free and random. The children play within their own world and need to keep things internally consistent to enjoy the game.

We can retain this into adulthood. We can draw on literary figures to become someone else for a time. There are times that I am feeling insecure or shy and I think, “Don Juan wouldn’t shy away from this.” There are times that I feel afraid and I think, “Luke Skywalker would find the courage and carry on.” There are times that I am not sure how to face the absurdity of the world and I think, “Dr. Rioux of The Plague found meaning in caring for his friends and the ill and the dying.”

Literature provides us a way to recognize ourselves, as I do in Harry Haller from Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Literature also provides us models of who we want to become. Each of us can find who we want to be in the stories we read.

This is one of the greatest gifts of literature.


6 Responses to “Living through Literature”
  1. Lee Marcotte says:

    Thanks for this lesson, I often use literature to escape, but had never consciously thought to use literature as a way of re-creation.

  2. Sibel says:

    Hermann Hesse is amazing!

    Matthew Koslowski Reply:

    I agree. When I first discovered Hermann Hesse, I developed something of a mania for him. I read Siddhartha, Demian, and Steppenwolf. I bought a book called The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse which were so bizarre to me, the endings so abrupt, that I couldn’t read them. Then I purchased The Glass Bead Game, the work that won him the Nobel Prize, his magnus opus, but could not get through the prologue. Hermann Hesse had an incredible insight into becoming, into the actualizing of a person but he could not get out of his own head. Perhaps because I read them so closely together, all I could see was that Hermann Hesse wrote the same novel half a dozen or a dozen times.

  3. Jessica says:

    As I picked up yet another book by my favorite author, Orson Scott Card, I remembered this post and the thought that it inspired in me of first having read it. I find that I return to authors who do a fantastic job of giving their characters depth and personalities. I had realized before that this plays into why I continue to return to Orson Scott Card, as he never fails to create characters who come alive in my mind. What I hadn’t realized was that all of his main characters have personalities and characteristics that are not only common across his different novels, but are characteristics that I am aspiring to. They almost never fail to be both heroic and noble, but also caring and wise. I believe that you are quite right that one of the fantastic gifts that literature has to offer, especially to young people who are still trying to figure out who they want to be, is a plethora of characters from whom to draw inspiration and who provide that model that you speak of.

    Another inspiring post. Keep up the good work!

    Matthew Koslowski Reply:

    Jessica thank you for coming back to “Living through Literature” to add your thoughts. I’m glad to see that you found my essay relevant and true to your life.