Stone as Witness: Mute Speech, Don Juan, and the Ear of the Future

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The depiction of stones that speak has long been used as a literary and philosophical device to reflect upon the limitations of human language (i.e. language as a petrification of thought and action). Jacques Rancière has described stone’s capacity to bear witness as a form of "mute speech," noting how "any stone can also be language," as a part of the "testimony that mute things bear to mankind’s activity." In exploring the character of this form of testimony, and asking how we hear it, this article examines the function of the Stone Guest in the legend of Don Juan, across Molière and Pushkin’s theatrical versions, a short film version by Marina Fomenko, and Mozart and Da Ponte’s operatic version, so revered by Kierkegaard and others. The character of the Stone Guest is often seen as casting judgement against the aesthetic mode of life, yet the power of the character lies not in his ghostly humanity or sense of retribution, but in his stoniness—his capacity to bear witness, just as a stone monument bears witness or commemorates a past trauma. In a number of versions of the Don Juan story, the Stone Guest is announced by approaching footsteps or knocking. This acousmatic device mirrors the uncanny separation of sound and source in opera—the way in which music mediates between the conflicting imperatives of language and the corporeal or material aspects of the singing voice, lending opera its vaunted mechanical qualities. Using stones that speak as a heuristic, the article draws together ideas about the limitations of language and the mechanical qualities of opera in order to excavate the auditory affordances of the stone’s form of testimony, in all its inorganic liveliness.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)29-44
Number of pages16
JournalAngelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jul 2023


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