Part 10: Millington on 'Tristan' & 'Mastersingers'

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

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Part 10: Millington on 'Tristan' & 'Mastersingers'

Postby alberich00 » Mon Feb 11, 2013 2:52 pm

Dear members and visitors to the discussion forum:

This is Part 10 of my review of Barry Millington's new book "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth." I hope to include brief commentary here on a few remarks of note from his chapters on "Tristan and Isolde" and "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg."

[BM] Chapter 17 - "Fatal Attraction: 'Tristan and Isolde'

"Sex for Schopenhauer was tantamount to suffering. The sexual impulse was the expression of the 'will to live', he claimed, but that will had to be denied. The egoism that, for him, was implicit in the sex act was an unalterable law of human life. Wagner's philosophical outlook was close to this, but he departed from Schopenhauer in two fundamental respects. He did not agree that sexual love was egoistic, inclining more to the Feuerbachian view that it was the distillation of the 'I-you' relationship between two individuals. But he went further, in the process turning Schopenhauer's thesis on its head. Where the misogynistic philosopher denigrated the loving impulse and advocated denial of the will, Wagner suggested that denial of the will and the self-knowledge that flowed from it could be achieved through the very act of sex itself. Excited by this discovery that he could square the circle of Schopenhauerian renunciation and Wagnerian self-indulgence, he even drafted a letter to the philosopher to inform him where he had gone wrong. The letter was never sent." ("The Sorcerer of Bayreuth," Page 171)

[PH} It goes without saying that by construing, as I do in my interpretation of Wagner's artworks from at least "Tannhaeuser" onward, the sexual union of the hero and heroine as Wagner's metaphor for the artist-hero's ecstatic and unconscious artistic inspiration, this offers an understanding of Wagner's critique of Schopenhauer in an entirely new dimension, and voids the tendency of so many commentators to allude to Wagner's self-indulgence, as if his artistic inspiration were mere self-indulgence in the same sense that a purely exploitative sex act would be.

[PH] Readers of this review who wish to obtain a thumb-nail view of my interpretations of "Tannhaeuser," "Tristan and Isolde," "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg," and "Parsifal" (my interpretations of "Lohengrin" and "The Ring of the Nibelung" are more than adequately represented by my article "How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried," posted in 3 parts here in this discussion forum, a much more elaborate essay-length version of that study which expands upon my lecture of the same title, and which includes a thorough examination of Feuerbach's influence on "Lohengrin," and my substantial study of Wagner's "Ring, "The Wound That Will Never Heal," posted here online as the centerpiece of can read thumbnail sketches of my interpretation by going to, clicking on "Resources," then on "Papers on Wagner," and finally clicking on my "Introduction to 'The Wound That Will Never Heal'," in order to compare my essays on these artworks with Millington's. Also, my essay-length elaboration of my paper "How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried" which I mention above (which has all the Feuerbach citations) alluded to above, can also be found at the Wagner Society of Florida website.

[PH] My interpretation of "Tristan and Isolde," unlike Millington's approach, is predicated on Wagner's own remark from his "Epilogue to the 'Nibelung's Ring'," that the plots of "Twilight of the Gods" and "Tristan" are essentially identical. This fact is also detailed by Nattiez in his book "Wagner Androgyne," where Millington must have read it since he cites Nattiez in "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth." But there is no evidence that Millington profited from this insight in his chapter on "Tristan." In essence, in my interpretation both artworks depict the final days in which unconsciously inspired art could still function, until Wagner himself, in his "Tannhaeuser" and "Ring" and "Tristan," and even "Parsifal," depicted the artist-hero's unwitting and involuntary betrayal of the formerly unconscious secret of his artistic inspiration (and thus retrospectively the secret of religious revelation) in the very plot of his music-drama.

[BM] Chapter 18 - 'Art is What Matters Here': 'Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg'

"Wagner ... produced a second and third prose draft [of 'Mastersingers'] in the middle of November 1861, fleshing out the character of Sachs and placing him very much at the centre of the drama, rather as Wotan gradually replaced Siegfried as the moral fulcrum of the "Ring" over the course of its composition. In part this had to do with the fact that Wagner came increasingly to identify with Sachs. The latter is a skilled artisan, but also a creative artist who perceives the need for the best of German tradition to be allied with the music of the future - that is the lesson the impulsive, youthful Walther learns in the workshop of the cobbler-poet. And just as Wagner was fascinated by dreams, so the Schopenhauer-inspired Sachs tells Walther: 'Believe me, man's truest illusion is disclosed to him in dreams: the whole art of poetry and verse is nothing more than true interpretation of dreams.
Interwoven with this idea of the renewal of art is the love interest. There is never much doubt that Walther is the one who will get the girl, humiliating the pendantic Marker, Beckmesser, in the process. And yet the mildly incestuous flirtation between Sachs and Eva (we learn that when she was young she was cradled in his arms, Sachs having lost his own wife and child, and apparently the thought had occurred to both that she might be 'wife and child in one') adds a frisson." ("The Sorcerer of Bayreuth," Page 179-180)

[PH] In my interpretation, from a conceptual standpoint Sachs is more or less identical with Wotan. Wagner described Sachs as the creative spirit of the "Folk," and Wotan, as I've noted elsewhere, is God as Feuerbach describes him, i.e., a metaphor for collective, historical man, who initiates history in religious faith and mythology, and later, thanks to the historical advancement in knowledge, bifurcates the old religion into science (Hagen) and secular art (Siegfried's loving union with Bruennhilde). It is Sachs's main concern, as it is Wotan's, to insure that only the authentically unconsciously inspired hero, i.e., he alone who is worthy to court Wagner's archetypal muse for art, Eve-in-Paradise, wins her as his bride. The meaning of this is that the authentically unconsciously inspired artist-hero alone has the ability to confront, during unconscious artistic inspiration (his dreaming, if you will), fatal knowledge of mankind's irresolvable existential dilemma, to obtain from this knowledge of man's bitter "Noth" the means to salve this unhealing wound with the balm of secular art, which alone can make man feel as if lost paradise has been restored. Note the symbolism of the shoe: it is thanks to Eve's sin in asking the forbidden question (i.e., seeking knowledge God forbade) that mankind was banished from the paradise of preconscious animal instinct and feeling by virtue of acquiring reflective, symbolic consciousness, that consciousness which allowed man to foresee his own death, and to suffer from existential fear. Only the Wahn of, first, religious faith, and then, when religious faith is dying in the face of the advancement of scientific knowledge, secular art, can help man to feel as if his wound is healed.

[PH] By the way, though Wagner wrote an elaborate essay, "Beethoven," in response to Schopenhauer's writings on dreaming, he really could find most of what he needed in Feuerbach, since Feuerbach describes in detail how primal man collectively, unconsciously dreamed his religious myths, his gods, into existence, but because this invention was unconscious it was also unwitting. Wagner captured this concept in the gods' waking to discover Valhalla, the home of the gods, completely constructed by the Giants, Wagner's metaphor for the fundamental human instincts of self-preservation (Fafner) and sexual desire (Fasolt). Valhalla represents civilization predicated on religious belief. Wotan dreamed it into existence while the Giants, waking, constructed it. This was Wagner's metaphor for our transition from preconscious animality, instinct, to reflective, symbolic consciousness.

[PH] It is precisely Sachs's playing with fire by revealing this formerly unconscious and forbidden knowledge to the Folk, by singing his cobbling song in Act II, and also by virtue of the inability of Beckmesser's inauthentic and uninspired serenade to Eva to heal this wound of knowledge, that Sachs instigates the riot and charivari, symbol of social breakdown, in Act II. Only Walther's unconsciously inspired Mastersong, a song inspired by Sachs's confession of knowledge imparted to Eva alone, but not grasped by Walther (just as Wotan imparts to Bruennhilde the basis of Siegfried's unconscious artistic inspiration, a hoard of forbidden knowledge, which Siegfried cannot think but only feels, and which is the source of that unconscious artistic inspiration through which alone Siegfried can conquer his fear which Bruennhilde's hidden knowledge imparted to him, so that Siegfried is inspired to undertake adventures, in the outer world, of artistic creation and performance), can offer redemption to his audience in the finale of "Mastersingers." The point of "Mastersingers," and the secret of its conceptual relationship with "Tristan" (to which Sachs alludes when he tells Eva that he best not seek her hand in marriage, a marriage which would make her both his wife and child, since he might succumb to Marke's fate), is that unlike the case with Wagner's three other mature music-dramas, the artist-hero remains unconsciously inspired throughout and does not betray the forbidden secret of his unconscious inspiration, his womb of night, to the light of day, whereas Siegfried and Tristan give that secret away by giving their muse of art and her secrets (which she formerly maintained in silence) away to their audience (Gunther and Marke). And in "Parsifal," Parsifal sees his old self in Klingsor, an artist who has grown so "conscious" that he can no longer woo the muse of unconscious artistic inspiration Kundry, and thus gives her away to his audience deliberately, with the conscious intent to make man suffer the unhealing wound of his irresolvable existential dilemma permanently. Parsifal, seeing this is what has become of religion-and-art as a means of creating transcendent value, renounces all of it in favor of facing the bitter truths of mother nature (which of course also embrace her bliss, since they are inseparable).

[PH] Note that in winning Eva's hand Sachs would possess both wife and child. Once we reckon with the allegorical logic of "Mastersingers," that the legitimate wife is Wagner's muse of unconsciously inspired art, who holds for Walther the forbidden knowledge that Sachs/Wotan confessed to her to protect him from suffering its wound, and that the child is the work of art itself, which masks unbearable "Noth" with Wahn (Illusion, self-deception), and is baptized, we realize that if Sachs won Eva he would win with her not merely the inspired work of art which offers man redemption from the bitter truth, but consciousness of that bitter truth itself, which the muse possesses. Thus Sachs would in this allegorically logical sense suffer the same fate as Gunther, Marke, and Amfortas. But "Mastersingers" is a comedy precisely because the artist-hero never confuses his lover-muse with his mother (Mother Nature), and never involuntarily gives her and her secrets away to his audience. Thus "Mastersingers" is Wagner's artistic paradise.

[BM] "The appropriation of 'Die Meistersinger' by the Nazis has already been alluded to, and although many would like to exculpate Wagner he cannot be let off the hook quite so easily. That Wagner's anti-Semitic outlook pervades the work is scarcely surprising, given the all-consuming nature of his obsession at the time of its composition. As Berry Emslie's important new study makes clear, Wagner anathematized the Jews as incapable of both genuine creativity and love. The Marker, Beckmesser, embodies this double lack: on the one hand he invites humiliation on account of his own risible Serenade (Act II) and his botched attempt to render Walther's Prize Song (Act III). On the other hand, the very idea of the crabby old critic providing a soulmate for Eva does not bear thinking about. Beckmesser, then, fails on both counts, art and love. His inability to match words and music (the test of a true composer in Wagner's world view) results in a hilarious debacle (if one can overlook the inherent cruelty) on the festival meadow in Act III. But his artistic sterility is, for Wagner, part and parcel of his lovelessness." ("The Sorcerer of Bayreuth," Page 180)

[PH] If one reads his serenade closely one can find the main clue to why Beckmesser can't woo the authentic muse of art, and that is that he is, unlike Walther, is not unconsciously inspired by dreams. The Wagnerian artist-hero must, in a sense (borrowed somewhat from Christian theology, that one must die to this world to be reborn in the spirit), die while in unconscious confrontation with forbidden, secret knowledge of the irresolvability of man's existential dilemma, his unhealing wound, in order to be reborn, to redeem and heal himself, through the creation of an inspired work of art. But Beckmesser, in what seems like a throwaway line, sings to Eva in his Serenade that he doesn't think of dying, but only of wooing. But wooing for Wagner, from "The Flying Dutchman" onward, is Wagner's metaphor for the artist-hero's quest for redemption, his futile quest to heal the unhealing wound, which again and again compels him to dive down into the flood of his unconscious inspiration, to figuratively die there (the real reason Siegfried initially fears sexual union with Bruennhilde is that he instinctively knows she is the repository for Wotan's confession of man's irresolvable existential dilemma), in order create a new work of art which can make him feel as if he has been reborn and healed. By the time we get to "Parsifal," of course, historical man has advanced so far in self-consciousness that all efforts of the muse of unconsciously inspired art, Kundry, to place a balm on man's unhealing wound, only make it worse. So Parsifal decides it's healthier to face the bitter truth of man's identity and nature than to perpetuate an ever more futile quest to deny it through religion and art. In any case, Beckmesser's inability and unwillingness to die in order to be reborn, i.e., to do what only an authentically unconsciously inspired artist-hero can do, disqualifies him from winning Eva's hand.

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