Please find below Gordon Banks’ intriguing essay, “Don Juan as Psychopath”:
“What kind of man is this Don Juan Tenorio?”, asks Leo Weinstein in his monograph on the Don Juan legend, “Why does he bend all his efforts to deceive women?. . . To the modern, Freud-oriented reader, Tirso de Molina’s hero is likely to remain enigmatic. . . .” Rather than permit the thought that the enigma is due to the lack of psychological depth and subtlety in the creation of a 17th century priest, I intend to demonstrate that the opposite is the case, and that nowhere earlier in literature is a description of the psychopath found more sharply delineated than in this brilliant play of a Spanish friar named Gabriel Téllez, who wrote El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de Piedra, under the pseudonym Tirso de Molina (portrait shown on the right) in the first part of the seventeenth century.
While it was not until the nineteenth century that physicians began to elucidate the nature of that disturbing category of human beings that we now call psychopaths, history and literature show that they have always been with us. Although psychopathic behavior was displayed by literary characters as early as Ulysses of The Iliad, (that same psychopathic Ulysses was later revisited by Dante in Inferno Canto 26), this Burlador(trickster), Don Juan Tenorio, has come to occupy a place in western literature alongside the other great legends of Don Quixote, Faust, and Hamlet. Later, under the successive ministrations of Molière, Hoffmann, Mozart, Da Ponte (Mozart’s librettist), and Byron, the character of Don Juan lost much of the vicious edge given him by his creator, and was gradually transmuted into the character we identify with the name of Don Juan today: the profligate lover and often, a romantic seeker for ideal womanhood.
Scientific study of the psychopath is hindered by the fact that the subjects recognize no defect in their own psyche, no need to change. We mainly know them through the those captive populations who have had difficulty with the law and are institutionalized. Those who are “successful,” can only be studied at a distance. While some psychopaths undoubtedly correspond to the popular view of the brutal killer, criminal, or rapist, many, if not most, do not. Often they are referred to by the term sociopathy or antisocial personality, emphasizing the chaotic relationships with other people and society, but while this aspect of these personalities is most readily apparent, there are many other features of this character disorder having nothing to do with other people which also show considerable deviation from normal behavior. For this reason, I prefer the older term psychopath. In recent years, there has been a growing realization that there are many psychopaths who successfully avoid trouble with the law, and estimates of the percentage of psychopaths in the population (formerly estimated at about 3%, based on studies of prisoners) have been revised upward.
As is common in medicine, and especially in psychiatry, where there is often no “litmus” test which can be applied, diagnosis is a matter of nosology and categorization. This is bound to lead to disagreements between various authorities as to which manifestations warrant inclusion or exclusion of an individual from a given diagnosis. Naturally, this has led to various schools of thought on the subject of psychopathy.
The first writings by doctors on the subject seem to originate around the beginning of the 19th century, but the earliest formal description of what he called “moral insanity” is given by Prichard in 1835. The 19th century physicians recognized that there were some walking among other men who were of sound reason and intellect, but when it came to the moral realm were “deranged”. They described individuals who had no sense of right and wrong, no feelings of guilt or shame for wrongdoing, and had a marked propensity to lie, cheat, and engage in other activities which normal society considered reprehensible. During the last 40 years, psychopaths have been more intensively studied and recent research seems to indicate that they actually represent a variant of human beings with abnormal brain function.
Demographic studies of psychopaths are somewhat suspect because they rely so heavily on the institutionalized segment of the population of psychopaths, but they show that males outnumber females by at least 5:1, and that they almost always come from severely disturbed families. The deviant behavior is manifest even as young children. The period from adolescence to mid-thirties is marked by the most severe deviance. As they age, many psychopaths seem to mellow, at least in their more aggressive antisocial behavior.
In describing the clinical features of psychopaths, I will rely heavily on the most complete description in the literature, the monograph which constituted the life-work of psychiatrist and neurologist Hervey Cleckley entitled:The Mask of Sanity.
While the psychopath often recognizes that other people have a “conscience”, and will feign remorse to avoid punishment, as Cleckley explains, “he shows almost no sense of shame. His career is always full of exploits, any one of which would wither even the more callous representatives of the ordinary man. Yet he does not, despite his able protestations, show the slightest evidence of major humiliation or regret. This is true of matters pertaining to his personal and selfish pride and to esthetic standards that he avows as well as to moral or humanitarian matters.”
Lack of insight and judgment
It is in this realm that the psychopath comes closest to the psychotic. While seemingly in full possession of his reasoning ability, by all the means of clinical psychology to test and assess them, the psychopath demonstrates an inability to comprehend the meaning and significance of his behavior for other people, and to judge their probable reactions to his behavior. He is often astounded to find that people are upset by his exploits. Although he knows intellectually what punishment is decreed for certain crimes, when caught, he puts up elaborate rationalizations and defenses, and seems surprised when he is actually punished. Mark Hofmann, an ingenious forger of rare documents and murderer, included among his victims many scholars, the Library of Congress, the U.S. mint, the Mormon Church, private collectors, and several forgery experts. His career began as a child with the alteration of mint-marks on coins. He recently revealed his thinking on the subject of his forgeries: “It’s not so much what is genuine and what isn’t as what people believe is genuine. When I forged a document and sold it, I was not cheating the person that I was selling it to because the document would never be detected as being a fraud. Obviously if I would have known they would some day be detected, I wouldn’t have done it. I didn’t feel like I was cheating them.” This statement shows not only a lack of guilt and remorse, but a semantic lack of understanding of the concept of authenticity. Psychopaths can be thought of not as being hypocrites, but as actually not understanding or using language in the same way other people do.
While the psychopath has likes and dislikes and fondness for the pleasures that human company can bring, analysis shows that he is completely egocentric, valuing others only for their enhancement of his own pleasure or status. While he gives no real love, he is quite capable of inspiring love of sometimes fanatical degree in others. He is generally superficially charming and often makes a striking impression as possessed of the noblest of human qualities. He makes friends easily, and is very manipulative, using his ability with words to talk his way out of trouble. Many psychopaths love to be admired and bask in the adulation of others. With the lack of love, there is also a lack of empathy. The psychopath is unable to feel sorry for others in unfortunate situations or put himself in another’s place, whether or not they have been harmed by him.
Inability to form Meaningful Relationships
While psychopaths are notably sexually promiscuous, their inability to love or to show any but the most superficial kindness to others prevents them from forming meaningful relationships with others, including parents and spouses. The promiscuity seems more related to their lack of restraint than to an exaggerated sexual drive. Bizarre and indecent liaisons are common.
The psychopath is remarkably free of both the psychological and physiological manifestations of anxiety. They often pass lie detector tests (as did Mark Hofmann), and are well known for their valor in war, risking their own lives, and often recklessly endangering their entire units and disobeying orders in the process. It is said that the decision often comes whether to award a man the Medal of Honor or to court-martial him, and the “Rambo” stories of former war heros in trouble with the law have basis in real life. The famous psychopath, Aaron Burr, directly disobeyed the orders of his superior in winning a battle and fame during the American revolution. It is this “bravery” that often helps the psychopath win the affection of followers and accord him a respected place in society, which is later disillusioned by his subsequent exploits. Another aspect of the fearlessness, is the obliviousness of the psychopath to punishment. Not only does the threat of future punishment have no power to deter him, but actual punishment does not reform him. Most psychiatrists consider psychopaths untreatable.
Irresponsibility, Insincerity and Unreliability
While the psychopath is charming and makes friends easily, those who come to rely upon him soon painfully find out that he has no sense of responsibility. Continually promises are made and broken without regard for the gravity of the consequences, for which the psychopath will then deny responsibility. He can solemnly lie while looking the victim in the eye, showing no anxiety whatever.
The inability to restrain his impulses is what often leads to the downfall of the psychopath. While he theoretically knows what is considered proper behavior, and can even provide sage advice, it is in carrying out the actual process of living that the psychopath runs into trouble. There is a tendency toward continual excitement and stimulation. This impulsiveness may lead to a scandal or to the commission of a theft, rape, or other crime. It is this obliviousness to the consequences of risk taking that often leads to the uncovering of a “successful” psychopath who was previously well esconced as a doctor, lawyer, teacher, politician, or some other respected person in the community.
Prior to the past 30 years, psychiatry operated largely apart from the tools of modern biological investigation, and most theories of abnormal behavior were based on moral and later psychoanalytic notions, which largely were grounded in the belief that the individual was shaped by the environment. When it comes to explaining the psychopath, psychoanalytic theory has been speculative and not very credible, based as it is more on theory and dogma laid down many years ago by Freud rather than on scientific observation, and recent investigators have turned to studies in genetics, electrophysiology, and language in an attempt to explain why such a constellation of character defects crops up so frequently and consistently. Opinion now seems to favor a defect in the function of the brain, possibly the limbic system.
Synopsis of El Burlador de Sevilla
In this synopsis, we will highlight the quotations which illustrate Don Juan’s psychopathic character, to be analyzed in more detail later. The plot of the play consists of four burlas or “tricks” wherein Don Juan, a Sevillan noble, through deception is able to seduce four different women, two of the nobility and two commoners, and a fifth, where el burlador himself is the victim.
The play opens in the palace of the King of Naples, where Don Juan’s uncle Don Pedro Tenorio is the Spanish ambassador. Don Juan is in the darkness with Isabella, a noblewoman who is under the impression that he is her fiance, Duke Octavio. Don Juan has “enjoyed” her under this guise.
Duquesa, de nuevo os juro
de cumplir el dulce sí.Isabela ¿Mis glorias serán verdades,promesas y ofrecimientos,regalos y cumplimientos,voluntades y amistades?Don Juan Sí, mi bien.
Isabella discovers her mistake as the king enters with Don Juan’s uncle. The king charges Don Pedro to arrest the unknown couple and retires.
Prendelde.Don Juan ¿Quién da de osar?Bien puedo perder la vida;mas ha de ir tan bien vendida,que a alguno le ha de pesar.Don Pedro orders the guards away whereupon Don Juan reveals his identity and begins to manipulate his uncle with rationalizations and flattery.
Aunque tengo esfuerzo, tío,no lo tengo para vos….mozo soy y mozo fuiste;y pues que de amor supiste,tenga disculpa mi amor.This was not the first time Don Juan had been in serious trouble, as his uncle reminds him.
Di, vil: ¿no bastó emprendercon ira y con fuerza extrañatan gran traición en Españacon otra noble mujer,sino en Nápoles también?But Don Juan is unrepentant, and feels no guilt for what he has done.
No quiero daros disculpa,que la habré de dar siniestra.Mi sangre es, señor, la vuestra;sacadla, y pague la culpa….A esos pies esoy rendido,y ésta es mi espada, señor.Don Pedro. …Alzate y muestra valor,que esa humildad me ha vencido.Mis cartas te avisaránen qué para este sucesotriste, que causado has.Don Juan. Para mí alegre, dirás.Thus Don Juan successfully enlists his uncle to cover up for him until he can make his escape.
In this first scene, we already see in Don Juan cardinal features of a psychopathic personality. He is sexually promiscuous and obtains his love object with lies and deceit, abandoning her when he has achieved his ends. He is charming and manipulative when he seduces a woman or needs to talk his way out of trouble. He is brave and fearless, willing to risk his life rather than surrender. He feels no guilt for his behavior.
In the next burla, the victim is a woman whose folk are fishers on the coast. Fleeing from the trouble in Naples, Don Juan and his servant Catalinón are shipwrecked and wash up on the beach. The beautiful Tisbea comes to their aid, and the drowned Don Juan “awakens” with his head in her lap. She suspects he was feigning death, but he begins to flatter her and profess his love. Tisbea, who is being courted by the young men of her village, now falls for Don Juan. Don Juan plans to “enjoy” Tisbea, and then make a quick escape. He instructs his servant to saddle the mares for their escape:
Al fin ¿pretendes gozara Tisbea?Don Juan. …Si burlares hábito antiguo mío,¿qué me preguntas, sabiendomi condición?Catalinón. Ya sé que eres<> castigo de las mujeres.Don Juan. Por Tisbea estoy muriendo,que es buena moza.Catalinón. ¡Buen Pagoa su hospedaje deseas!Don Juan. Necio, lo mismo hizo Eneascon la reina de Cartago.Catalinón …Los que fingís y engañáislas mujeres, de esa suertelo pagaréis con la muerte.Don Juan. ¡Que largo me lo fiáis!Catalinón serves as a sort of conscience that Don Juan utterly lacks. Don Juan exhibits here another characteristic of the psychopaths: he is impulsive and can not delay gratification of his desires. He seeks to silence Catalinón’s nagging by reference to Aeneas. He again exhibits his lack of concern or fear for the consequences of his actions, although he does not deny he may someday be punished.
Following his abandonment of Tisbea, Don Juan returns to Seville, where he encounters his “oldest friend”, the Marquis de la Mota, an admirer of Don Juan and his escapades, who fancies himself a bit of a rogue also. They exchange anecdotes as to their respective amorous conquests and Don Juan learns that the Marquis is in love with another noblewoman, Doña Ana de Ulloa. The Marquis foolishly piques Don Juan’s interest with descriptions of Doña Ana’s beauty. A woman who has seen Don Juan in the company of the Marquis passes him a note, which Don Juan swears he will deliver to the Marquis. Don Juan, of course, reads the note, the purpose of which is to arrange a rendezvous between the Marquis and Doña Ana, for that evening at eleven. As he contemplates his next burla,Don Juan scoffs:
¿Hay suceso semejante?
Ya de la burla me río.
Catalinón continues to warn Don Juan that “el que vive de burlar burlado habrá de escapar pagando tantos pecados de una vez.”
Don Juan’s father, Don Diego, shamed because of Don Juan’s exploits, informs him that in punishment for the escapade in Italy he is banished from Seville. He remonstrates with Don Juan and warns him that after death, God will call him to answer for his crimes, to which Don Juan characteristically replies, “¿En la muerte? ¿Tan largo me lo fiáis? De aquí allá hay gran jornada.” Don Diego replies, “Pues no te vence castigo con cuanto hago y cuanto digo, a Dios tu castigo dejo.” Don Juan brushes off his father’s grief and criticism with the remark, “Luego las lágrimas copia, condición de viejo propia”, and rushes off to prepare his next trick.
Don Juan informs the Marquis that the rendezvous is arranged for midnight, then, borrowing the Marquis’ identifying cape, he himself keeps the appointment for eleven. Doña Ana, discovering that Don Juan has tricked her, raises the alarm, bringing her father, Don Gonzalo, an aging knight, who attempts to prevent Don Juan’s departure at swordpoint. Don Juan warns the old man away, but they fight, and Don Gonzalo is killed. As Don Juan flees, he meets the Marquis, arriving an hour after Don Juan, and returns his cape, whereupon the Marquis approaches the scene of the crime and is promptly arrested for Don Gonzalo’s murder.
Don Juan is banished by the king to Lebrija as punishment for the affair with Isabella. On the way, Don Juan and Catalinón pass through the village of Dos Hermanas, where preparations are underway for a wedding between Aminta and Batricio, two young peasants. They drop in on the wedding feast, and due to his station as a noble, Don Juan is seated next to the bride. The charming and sophisticated Don Juan quickly usurps the rustic Batricio, and with his clever mocking remarks drives him from his own wedding feast.
Later, Don Juan seeks out Batricio, and informs him that he and Aminta have previously been lovers. He tells Batricio that he intends to reclaim her and threatens his life if he does not withdraw. Believing that Aminta’s honor has been compromised, he withdraws. Don Juan gloats:
Con el honor le vencí,
porque siempre los villanos
tienen su honor en las manos,
y siempre miran por sí.
Que por tantas falsedades,
es bien que se entienda y crea,
que el honor se fué a la aldea
huyendo de las ciudades.
Pero antes de hacer el daño
le pretendo repara:
a su padre voy a hablar
para autorizar mi engaño.
Bien lo supe negociar:
gozarla esta noche espero.
La noche camina, y quiero
su viejo padre llama.
Estrellas que me alumbráis,
dadme en este engaño suerte,
si el galardón e la muerte
tan largo me lo guardáis.
Here again, we see how Don Juan despises the honor that others hold dear, and is especially gleeful that he can make their own morality a weapon against them in his despoilation of the innocent peasants. He orders Catalinón to saddle the mares, to prepare “para el alba, que de risa muerta, ha de salir mañana, de este engaño.” Catalinón’s warnings of impending doom provokes the usual “¿Tan largo me lo fiáis?” and “Vete, que ya me amonhina con tus temores estraños.”
Don Juan now sneaks into Aminta’s bedroom, and informs her that he is in love with her, and Batricio has cleared the field for him. Although she does not believe that Batricio has truly abandoned her, she is tempted by the prospect of marriage to a nobleman and succumbs to him. Don Juan enjoys her and returns to Seville. Don Juan is informed two weeks later that Aminta, although abandoned, continues to call herself Doña Aminta, to which he replies “¡Graciosa burla será!” Catalinón remarks, “Graciosa burla y sucinta, mas siempre la llorará.”
Tirso wrote a morality play, and in the end, Don Juan must receive his comeupance. While passing the tomb of Don Gonzalo, Don Juan notices his statue, and the inscription “Aquí aguarda del Señor, el más leal caballero, la venganza de un traidor.” Realizing who the “traidor” is, he mockingly pulls the statue’s beard, remarking “del mote reírme quiero. ¿Y habéisos vos de vengar?” He then invites the statue to seek vengence by coming around to his house for dinner that night.
That night, Don Gonzalo’s ghost, in the form of his statue, comes to Don Juan’s quarters to accept the invitation. Catalinón and the other servants are so petrified they can hardly serve dinner, but Don Juan maintains his equanimity as he dines and converses with his stone guest. Finally, the ghost leaves, inviting Don Juan to be his guest the following night at his tomb. Don Juan agrees, and after shaking hands, the ghost leaves and Don Juan feels fear for the first time, but dismisses it, intending to turn the upcoming visit into another exploit.
Pero todas son ideas
que da la imaginación:
el temor y temer muertos
es más villano temor;
que si un cuerpo noble, vivo,
con potencias y razón
y con alma, no se teme,
¿quién cuerpos muertos temió?
Mañana iré a la capilla
donde convidado soy,
por que se admire y espante
Sevilla de mi valor.
The next night, Don Juan keeps the appointment in the chapel of Don Gonzalo’s tomb. Don Gonzalo appears and tells Don Juan, “No entendí que me cumplieras la palabra, según haces de todos burla.” Don Juan asks if Don Gonzalo thought him a coward, to which Don Gonzalo replies that he did indeed, since Don Juan had fled after killing him. Don Juan answers “Huí de ser conocido, mas ya me tienes delante. Di presto lo que me quieres.” After being served a gruesome supper, Don Gonzalo asks Don Juan to take his hand if he is not afraid. “¿Eso dices? ¿Yo temor?”, Don Juan replies, and takes his hand, whereupon Don Juan is dragged down to hell by the ghost.
Analysis of the Character of Don Juan
Throughout the play, even unto his final end, Don Juan expresses no feelings of guilt or remorse (asking for confession at the end only indicates his acknowledgement of infractions against God’s laws, not remorse). Quite the contrary, he glories in his exploits and takes pride in his reputation as El Burlador. There is no plan to change, as he continually reminds Catalinón. Making insincere promises to obtain the objects of his seduction, he never will carry through on any of them. The only promise he keeps is the one made at the end, to dine with the ghost, and that for the purpose of garnering the applause of Seville for his bravery.
Don Juan lacks insight as to the significance of his behavior for himself and other people. His father’s grief at his behavior is seen as a tendency of the elderly to cry easily. Everything is a joke. He doesn’t see what everyone is upset about. He is clearly oblivious to punishment. He is reminded continually of punishment to come by Catalinón, his father, and those women he tricks. He is not an atheist , and intellectually believes that he will be punished, but it does not really register in his mind. “¡Que largo me lo fiáis!” is his characteristic refrain. As to earthly punishment, he believes “si es mi padre el dueño de la justicia, y el la privanza del rey, ¿qué temes?”
Don Juan’s affairs are loveless and shallow. Nothing deeper than gozar (to enjoy) is intended by Don Juan. They are driven by his impulses. He is obsessed with the idea that he must “enjoy” his particular conquest of the moment “por Tisbea estoy muriendo” and “¡Esta noche he de gozalla!”. A lasting relationship is definitely unwanted. He has friends and admirers, such as his oldest friend, the Marquis de la Mota, who even tries to emulate Don Juan as aBurlador, and upon whom he plays one of his most scurrilous tricks. No one is immune from being drawn into Don Juan’s web. The central theme of Don Juan’s seductions is not even the sexual enjoyment, but playing the trick. Cleckley’s comment regarding the sexual affairs of psychopaths is particularly apropos:
“Entanglements which go out of their way to mock ordinary human sensibility or what might be called basic decency are prevalent in their sexual careers. To casually ‘make’ or ‘lay’ the best friend’s wife and to involve a husband’s uncle or one of his business associates in a particularly messy triangular or quadrilateral situation are typical acts. Such opportunities, when available, seem not to repel but specifically to attract the psychopath. Neither distinct appeal of the sex object nor any formulated serious malignity toward those cuckolded or otherwise outraged seems to be a major factor in such choices. There is more to suggest a mildly prankish impulse such as might lead the ordinary man to violate small pedantic technicalities or dead and preposterous bits of formality as a demonstration of their triviality.”
Also relevant to the character of the Burlador, psychoanalyst Ethel Spector Person writes: “The psychopath’s insight is always directed toward his internal needs. These needs are not what they appear to be. He is not predominantly hedonistic, although some of his behavior, particularly sexual, might lead one to think so. Instead, he is motivated primarily by the need to dominate and humiliate either the person he is ‘taking’ or, very often, someone connected to a person with whom he is involved. He may, for instance, seduce a friend’s girlfriend.”
That feature of Don Juan’s character which has won admiration over the years has been his bravery. His father would lead us to believe it was manifested early, as he tells the king:
Gran señor, en tus heröicas manos
está mi vida, que mi vida propia
es la vida de un hijo inobediente;
que, aunque mozo, gallardo y valerosos,
y le llaman los mozos de su tiempo
el Héctor de Sevilla, porque ha hecho
tantas y tan extrañas mocedades,
la razón puede mucho.
When caught in his acts of illicit seduction, he is ready to die rather than submit. While his servants quail in the face of the convidado de piedra, Don Juan keeps his cool. He even has his servants sing verses for entertainment at the dinner which echo his seduction and “¡Que largo me lo fiáis!” theme. Only the premonitory handshake with the ghost evokes a physiologic fear response, which Don Juan quickly shrugs off. Don Juan keeps his final appointment despite the warnings, but even here the courage is tempered by vanity: “por que se admire y espante Sevilla de mi valor.”
Other Psychological Interpretations
In this century, Don Juan has been subjected to much psychological analysis. Not surprisingly, given their literary and humanistic bent, psychoanalysts have provided the bulk of this material. Much of this is devoted not to Tirso’s character so much as the myth that evolved from it, and attempts to explain why the myth has found such resonance in western thought.
No psychologist has devoted more study to Don Juan than Otto Rank, one of Freud’s followers, and his is representative of the psychoanalytic view of Don Juan. He states that “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.” Rank even attributes Oedipal feelings to Tirso in that “he has fantasized, in addition to the traditional punishment, the crime that psychologically corresponds to it” (the serial seductions).
While no psychoanalyst has suggested that Don Juan is a psychopath, Rank’s analysis of him does fit with current psychoanalytic thinking about the psychology of psychopaths: “One can understand the psychopath’s psychodynamics by referring to several interrelated theoretical models. From the classical point of view, certain predominant dynamics are apparent. A psychopath spends his life directly and indirectly recreating the never-resolved oedipal constellation and symbolically reenacting, over and over, the oedipal struggle of the little boy who hopes to best his father and take on his possessions. The wish to best the father is usually extended into the wish to discredit and destroy him.” Modern psychoanalysts tend to see psychopathy as representing an immature stage in psychologic development, having strong narcissism and weak superego (that which controls impulses).
Gregorio Marañon finds Don Juan to be a feminine character because he lies, which he regards as a defense mechanism of the weak, and he brags in relating his exploits, which he does not consider to be a masculine trait. Others, such as Lenormand and Unamuno have agreed, calling him homosexual or at least neutral. One could certainly question Marañon’s opinions regarding the propensity of men vs. women to lie or brag. Suffice it to say he provides insufficient scientific evidence for his speculations. While psychopaths will often admit to homosexual experiences, it has not been established that homosexuals are more likely to be psychopaths than heterosexuals.
Possibly the most interesting psychological observation to be made on Don Juan was that of Gonzalo R. Lafora, a Spanish Neuropathologist. He viewed Don Juan as displaying the typical hysterical symptoms of “lying, exaggeration, egocentrism, disproportionate irritability resulting in violent psychological reaction to insignificant events, a rigid sense of etiquette, and an excessive predominance of the affective, emotional, and sexual over the intellectual and cerebral forces.”[But the burlas often involve more intellectual than erotic pleasure for Don Juan. -author’s note] This hysteria, Lafora remarks, “makes people continually seek to exchange old emotions for new. They are like children who want a plaything very badly until they get it, and take it to bed with them in order to see it on opening their eyes the first thing in the morning; after which the toy lies about the house broken and despised, replaced by another better or worse that has attracted the little one’s attention another day.” Weinstein comments on the metaphor: “Lafora’s comparison is a striking one. We can see a series of broken lives all around Don Juan’s bed.” Lafora’s observation is particularly interesting in that a connection between hysteria and psychopathy has long been recognized. Female relatives of male psychopaths show an increase in prevalence of hysteria, and many female psychopaths and some males are also hysterics.
Who was Don Juan?
Was there a real Don Juan? A great deal of speculation has revolved around possible models for Tirso’s character. While there were real noble families in Seville named Tenorio, de Ulloa, and de la Mota, no historical record exists chronicalling the exploits of one like Don Juan. Some have pointed to Miguel Mañara, Sevillan noble and libertine in his youth as the model, but Mañara was born too late, in 1626. Mañara later became quite penitent with guilt over his early misbehavior. This is uncharacteristic of a true psychopath. While their aggression and violence may temper with age, true reform or cure is almost unknown. Tirso did have literary models of characters somewhat like Don Juan in other plays of the Siglo de Oro, such as Leonido in Lope de Vega’s Fianza satisfecha (1612), and Leucino in Juan de la Cueva’s Infamador (1581), but none describe the psychopathic character with the clinical precision of El Burlador de Sevilla. “Could such a character have existed in Spain’s golden age?” asks Weinstein. Maeztu writes, “I do not believe that the figure of Don Juan can have arisen in Spain or any other country, because the elements that make up his psychology cannot be reduced to a common denominator. He runs after women yet does not fall in love; he is a libertine yet does not lose his strength; he is a spendthrift yet does not ruin himself; he disavows all ideas of social and religious duty yet always remains a nobleman proud of his stock and his pure Christian blood. Don Juan is a myth; he has never existed, he does not exist and will never exist except as a myth.” Taking the opposite view, Austen says, “In no other country and in no other age, could the stage have found such a hero as in Spain of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: and few other races would have received so naturally the legend which so completely expresses this character. Spain’s racial history, her climate, religion, and social life produce the very type which the legend demands at a time when this legend, older than her history, had become one with all the religious instincts of her people.”
Psychopaths are found to be operating in every race and culture that has been closely studied, thus we can infer that they indeed existed in Spain’s siglo de oro. While we can not rule out that Don Juan was created wholly by Tirso from his imagination, the consistency with which he fits the mold leads me to the opinion that Tirso was a careful observer of human nature and had come to know well at least one true psychopath. As a priest, he would certainly be in a position to observe the grief that can be wreaked upon humankind by the psychopath.
The Meaning of Don Juan
Tirso’s immediate purpose in using the Don Juan character may have been that of the practical moralist: he wished to inveigh against the notion of deathbed repentance as a defense against a libertine disregard for the laws of God and king, especially rankling when found among young nobles who could use their family position to avoid the normal punishments which would be accorded to the disobedient commoner. At the time the play was written, the issues of justification by grace and the role of good works in obtaining salvation were the subject of great debate. The Lutheran idea of justification by grace alone indeed allowed for such a deathbed repentance, and it is possible that Tirso had a theological point to make as well as a practical lesson (Underlined when he refused confession to Don Juan at the last).
On an allegorical level, Feal suggests that Tirso’s Don Juan represents “una figura diabólica”. Like the serpent in Eden, Don Juan approaches the women (Eve) beguiling them into a loss of honor with lies and promises. Tisbea and Aminta, peasants as they are, can certainly be seen as representing the innocence of Eve in the garden. What is more, they share the blame for their own downfall for being dissatisfied with their lot and harkening to Don Juan’s promises of elevation of station by marriage to a noble, something that could be seen as a violation of the natural order in Baroque times. Don Juan’s methods for seducing the noble women are cruder and not scrutinized as closely in the play, coming under cloak of darkness or cloak of (borrowed) cloak. While Don Juan is finally punished by God in the form of the avenging death, Don Juan also serves God’s purpose by functioning as Catalinón says, as a “castigo de las mujeres” The punishment is deserved, since, as confesses Tisbea in her “fuego” soliloquy: “Yo soy la que hacía siempre de los hombres burla tanta; que siempre las que hacen burla, vienen a quedar burladas.”
Those who have been close to and then deceived by psychopaths often see them as diabolical, and this view has been expressed in other literary works about them. Gary Gilmore’s tortured girlfriend Nicholle in Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song asks him: “Are you the Devil?” The psychopathic preacher played by Robert Mitchum in Charles Laughton’s film Night of the Hunter carries with him many of the accoutrements of the Prince of Darkness.
While Tirso’s purpose in presenting the Don Juan character may have been to encourage repentance, as George Bernard Shaw remarked, “the lesson which the moralist wishes to teach is not always the lesson his hearers choose to learn.” With the creation of Don Juan’s character, Tirso struck a chord which is still resonating today. Like a magnificent black panther: powerful, dangerous, and alien, the psychopathic character has a dark, perfect beauty that simultaneously attracts and repels us. One can imagine that the affect of the Don Juan character on the young caballeros of el siglo de oro may have been somewhat different than Tirso intended. Arrogant and fearless before even God and king, proud, quick to resort to the sword to defend his own honor, making no apologies for his behavior, like the conquistadores of the New World, Don Juan took what he wanted as if by right (Aminta: ¿En mi aposento a estas horas? Don Juan: Estas son las horas mías.). Austen argues that many of these ideals characterized the culture of Spain at that time and since, and Weinstein believes that burlar una mujer was a popular game played by young blades of the time.
Don Juan has also found his defenders in our time. The philosopher Camus finds in Don Juan something of an existentialist hero, a natural (or absurd) man: “This life gratifies his every wish, and nothing is worse than losing it. This madman is a great wise man. . . . Why should he give himself a problem in morality?. . . How easy it is to understand why the men of God call down punishment on his head. He achieves a knowledge without illusions which negates everything they profess. Loving and possessing, conquering and consuming–that is his way of knowing.” Literary men in our time have also glamorized and even championed the psychopath, but it is in film (the modern equivalent to Tirso’s theater) that the psychopath is portrayed to us most often, usually as a villain, but sometimes with sympathy. In our own society, there are subcultures which exalt frankly psychopathic ideals. Examples are the fringe right-wing groups such as “The Order”, left-wing terrorist groups, “Soldier of Fortune” devotees of Ramboiana, and the urban street gangs of young males. While all of these groups may contain non-psychopathic individuals who are merely following a different morality, these subcultures attract psychopathic leaders who often see the group as an opportunity for adventure and power.
Now for some speculation: why are there psychopaths? The answer one gives to this, of course, depends upon one’s philosophy. Tirso may have answered: “because of fallen human nature and sin”, or even “to tempt us and to punish men (women?) for their sins.” A scientist must look elsewhere for an answer. While we are a social species, the engine of evolution is variation. The psychopath is common enough, with uniform enough characteristics, that he might be thought of as a variant upon normal. Variants that survive and are genetically passed on must carry some advantage for at least a significant portion of the variant organisms. While many if not most psychopaths seem to be misfits, spending much of their lives incarcerated in penal institutions, it has been recognized that many are clever enough or restrained enough, to avoid being “unmasked.” It is easy to think of fields of endeavor (politics, business, even science) where a lack of ethics might present a decided advantage, provided the unethical behavior can be shrouded from the scrutiny of associates and society. Even when the misdeeds are uncovered (often through the psychopath’s poor judgement), the psychopath may succeed in maintaining the respect and admiration through his charisma, talents, and abilities. (Does the world in general respect Nixon or Carter more?) Many of the “greatest” politicians and businessmen have made their fame and fortunes living according to their own rules and full-speed-ahead-damn-the-torpedos, with their own agendas. Those who succeed, have their faults forgotten. Perhaps the psychopaths then, even serve a social purpose in our species. At least, we must recognize that sometimes the line between psychopathy and genius grows fine.
Like Walt Whitman apropos the stars, Weinstein appears to disapprove of the attempts to study Don Juan psychologically as an “interesting case”. He feels that this reduces the myth and strips it of its power. Such might be the case, if we could fully understand such a complex subject, but although we can describe the psychopath, we do not understand him. What we do know, for me at least, does not reduce but expands the wonder at the beautiful complexity of brain and behavior. One of the values of literature is vicarious experience. We can experience persons and situations that we would never meet in the flesh. We can absorb some of the wisdom of dead people and vanished cultures. One can never definitively explain a work of literature or art. Because such explanation would not only embody every thought put into it by its creator, but every thought which will be evoked in every reader, even those not yet born, every work is infinite.
For a fictionalized representation of a psychopathic social predator, check out my new novel, The Seducer, previewed on the links below:
Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness