How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried ACT THREE

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

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How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried ACT THREE

Postby alberich00 » Mon Oct 03, 2011 4:24 pm

We come now to Lohengrin's night of love with Elsa, who brings to their intimate union Ortrud's gift of doubt:

Ist diess nur Liebe? - Wie soll ich es nennen,
diess Wort, so unaussprechlich wonnevoll,
wie, ach! - dein Name, den ich nie darf nennen,
bei dem ich nie mein Hoechstes nennen soll!
Nur, wenn zur Liebesstille wir geleitet,
sollst du gestatten, dass main Mund ihn spricht.
-- Einsam, wenn Niemand wacht;
nie sei der Welt er zu Gehoer bebracht!
(Act III, Scene 2; GS II, 102)
[Is this but love? What can I call it - this word, so ineffably delightful as, alas! your name, which I must never know, by which I can never call my greatest treasure! [...] If only in the seclusion of love's peace you'd permit me to pronounce it! [...] Alone, when no one is awake, never will the world hear it!]

Elsa has, in effect, asked Lohengrin to let her help him maintain his taboo on knowledge by sharing that knowledge with her in sexual union ("the seclusion of love's peace"). An odd concept, perhaps, but sexual love as a metaphor for an exchange of knowledge is also the very essence of Wotan's bond with Erda, since Wotan couples with her both to learn his fate and to seek means to escape it.

Lohengrin, hoping Elsa will grant him the faith that he granted her, says in response:

Wie mir die Duefte hold den Sinn beruecken,
nah'n sie mir gleich aus raethselvoller Nacht:
so musste deine Reine mich entzuecken,
traf ich dich auch in schwerer Schuld Verdacht.
(Act III, Scene 2; GS II, 102)
[As this delightful fragrance charms your senses, though it comes from mysterious night, so your purity enchanted me, though I found you accused of heavy guilt.]

Lohengrin wants Elsa to remain content to feel, rather than think, his noble identity, to follow his example in accepting a subjective feeling or intuition as an objective assertion of fact. He says that he was enchanted by her purity in spite of the charge against her. But Lohengrin's faith in Elsa's innocence merits praise only if he did not yet know whether Elsa was guilty. His remark appears to be hypocritical, since Lohengrin later tells Elsa that he knew Godfrey was under the Grail's protection all along (Act III, Scene 3) and therefore must have known her innocent of the literal offence of fratricide before they met. This lends credence to the notion that her crime is figurative and not literal, since, for Lohengrin to be innocent of contradicting himself, he must have thought it possible that Elsa was guilty of some crime against Godfrey that did not preclude his coming under the Grail's protection.
This also suggests that Elsa's innocence is a function of her acceptance of Lohengrin's protection, as seemed implicit when Lohengrin made the following ambiguous remark:

Zum Kampf fuer eine Magd zu steh'n,
der schwere Klage angethan,
bin ich gesandt: nun lasst mich seh'n,
ob ich zurecht sie treffe an! -
(Act I, Scene 3; GS II, 74)
[To stand in battle for a maid on whom is placed a heavy charge I was sent here: now let me see whether I find this justified.]

Since Lohengrin already knows that Elsa is innocent of fratricide, he cannot mean that he must determine if this charge is justified. He must mean that his offer of protection depends not on her innocence as such but on her agreement to accept him as her spouse and to remain ignorant of his identity. Accordingly, he does not declare her innocent until she has agreed. But Elsa will not comply. She demands that they share "conceptual" knowledge of Lohengrin's identity in their night of love:


Koennt' ein Verdienst mich dir vereinen,
duerft' ich in Pein fuer dich mich seh'n!
Wie du mich trafst vor schwerer Klage,
o! wuesste ich auch dich in Noth!
Dass muthvoll ich ein Muehen trage,
kennt' ich ein Sorgen, das dir droht! -
Waer' das Geheimniss so geartet,
das aller Welt verschweigt dein Mund?
Vielleicht, dass Unheil dich erwartet,
wuerd' es den Menschen offen kund?
O, waer' es so, und duerft' ich's wissen,
duerft' ich in meiner Macht es seh'n,
durch Keines Droh'n sei mir's entrissen,
fuer dich wollt' ich zum Tode geh'n!
Lass dein Geheimniss mich durchschauen,
dass, wer du bist, ich offen seh'!


Ach, schweige, Elsa!


Meiner Treue
enthuelle deines Adels Werth!
Woher du kamst, sag' ohne Reue: -
durch mich sei Schweigens Kraft bewaehrt!
(Act III, Scene 2; GS II, 103)
[Elsa: Would that some merit could unite me with you, that I could see myself in pain for you! As you found me gravely accused, oh that I knew you also in distress (Noth). That bravely I might bear troubles, I wish I knew of dangers threatening you! Would the secret which you conceal from all the world be of this kind? Perhaps disaster would await you if it became known to all the world? Oh were it thus and I allowed to know it, if I had it in my power, no threats could tear it from me, I would be ready to die for you! [...] Let me share your secret that I may clearly see who you are! Lohengrin: Ah, be silent, Elsa! Elsa: Trusting in me, reveal your noble origin! Say without regret whence you came, that the power of silence be proved in me!]

Elsa has again identified her "Noth" with Lohengrin's "Noth." Offering to share, and keep secret, the anguish (Noth) she fears that Lohengrin suffers from, Elsa suggests that through the protection of her love Lohengrin may gain his own redemption. Lohengrin may be suggesting this when he tells Elsa that "your love must compensate me highly for what I left for your sake" (Act III, Scene 2; GS II, 104). His affirmation seems implicit when, later, he says that through her love he found "new happiness" (Act III, Scene 3; GS II, 110). While Lohengrin reasonably expects faith in return for the protection he confers, his remarks raise the question whether he sacrificed something of value for Elsa's sake or sought through Elsa's love to restore something of value that he had lost. Perhaps both assertions are true. If Elsa's love not only compensates Lohengrin for lost bliss, but can even protect him from some hidden danger if he will share knowledge of it with her, then by possessing knowledge of Lohengrin's identity she could perhaps compel Lohengrin's loyalty, as Frederick suggested. Elsa evidently can learn Lohengrin's identity by letting Frederick wound him, but her desire both to know and to conceal his identity seems itself tantamount to giving him this wound and also healing it. What if Elsa is both the cause of Lohengrin's loss or grief (Noth) and also his only means to assuage it? This may seem improbable, but it might also explain why Bruennhilde frightens Siegfried yet restores his courage, and why Tristan blames Isolde for wounding and healing him in a recurring cycle. We might learn why Sachs tells Eva that since Eve is responsible for Adam's Fall she must also inspire Adam (Walther) to create that "Wahn" which restores lost paradise, and why Klingsor tells Kundry that she serves the Grail knights only to compensate for the harm she causes them.

It is curious that Lohengrin affirmed in Act I, Scene 3 that he had victory through Elsa's innocence, but now tells her: "You owe me thanks for my great confidence, since I willingly believed your vow" (Act III, Scene 2; GS II, 103). He refers here to her promise not to ask his identity. He had every reason to trust her vow, since he knew she was innocent of the literal charge of murder even before his victory, and there seems to be some hidden link between her alleged innocence and Lohengrin's trust that she will keep her vow. Furthermore, the folk did not merely consider Elsa to be innocent of Godfrey's death but pure in general, and Lohengrin himself later says (Act III, Scene 3) that the Grail sends its knights to protect the virtuous. On the other hand, if he thought that she might be in some sense guilty, then his willingness to trust her vow would indeed deserve thanks since she does not merit it. Christ similarly offered redemption to fallen man, not perfected man. In any case, while Lohengrin naturally feels that he has earned Elsa's love, his affirmation of Elsa's innocence, or his willingness to trust in it, surely deserves no thanks if Lohengrin gained victory through it.

Elsa seems to think that Lohengrin has a noble origin, but she also implicitly seems to doubt it since she collaborates with those who doubt it, namely, Ortrud and Frederick. Suppose, then, that he is not noble, that the redemption that he offers is predicated on an illusion, as Frederick and Ortrud suggest. If this is so, then Elsa's offer to keep his secret by sharing it might actually be an offer to redeem him by keeping this sin secret. True, it appears that Elsa could keep his secret simply by not asking him to divulge it. If, however, Lohengrin is unaware that he is an imposter, but consciously believes that he serves the divine, Elsa would have to keep this sin a secret even from him, and for this reason would need to know it herself. How Lohengrin could teach Elsa something he himself does not grasp is a paradox that we will resolve later.

Learning from Lohengrin that "not from night and suffering but from light and joy I came here", Elsa says to him:

Das Loos, dem du entronnen,
es war dein hoechstes Glueck:
du kamst zu mir aus Wonnen,
und sehnest dich zurueck!
Wie soll ich Aermste glauben,
dir g'nuege meine Treu'?
Ein Tag wird dich mir rauben
durch deiner Liebe Reu'!
Ah! Dich an mich zu binden,
wie sollt' ich maechtig sein?
Voll Zauber ist dein Wesen,
durch Wunder kamst du her: -
wie sollt' ich da genesen?
wo faend' ich dein Gewahr?
(Act III, Scene 2; GS II, 104-5)
[The lot you left behind gave you greatest happiness; you came to me from joy and yearn to return! How will I, wretched that I am, believe that my fidelity will suffice? Some day I shall lose you, as you will rue your love! [...] Ah! How could I have the power to bind you to me? You are of magic nature, through a miracle you came here; how could I recover, where find protection?]

Elsa recalls here both Ortrud's warning that Lohengrin would leave her some day, and Frederick's promise that by wounding him and thus revealing his true (mortal or natural) identity to her, she could ensure his fidelity. Elsa implies that she could better bind Lohengrin to her if he were not in fact divine, and this would be especially true if he depended on her to sustain the illusion that he was divine.

Elsa then imagines the swan (soon to be transformed back into Godfrey) coming at Lohengrin's command to take him away, and says: "Nothing can give me peace [...] but - even though it cost my life! - to learn who you are" (Act III, Scene 2; GS II, 105). Elsa originally said that she would be ready to die to keep Lohengrin's identity secret if this would protect him from harm, and now she is prepared to pay with her life to force him to reveal it because she fears that he will leave her. Evidently "death" is the price that she must pay to secure her bond with Lohengrin in order to redeem him. Her demand that he tell her his name seems, of itself, to produce Frederick, who fails to deal him the wound because Elsa warns Lohengrin of danger. But she had already wounded Lohengrin when she asked the question that forces him to reveal his identity. By warning him of Frederick's intent, she seeks to heal the wound she gave.

Now day breaks into their night of love. Because Elsa insists on knowing his identity, he must now reveal it publicly, and must leave. If he must leave because humanity has too little faith to sustain the redemption that he offers, how strange that the folk remained faithful, while Elsa, the chosen innocent, did not! But Elsa was motivated by some instinctive sense that Lohengrin sought his own salvation through her, that accepting him as her spouse was to be his needful reward for defending her. In Elsa's view, this entailed an obligation to entrust her with knowledge of his identity, which Lohengrin would not meet. Instead, Lohengrin rejected Elsa's offer to redeem him either because he does not need redemption or because he is unable to admit that he does. If he is divine, it is not credible that he needs redemption, so that Elsa's offer must be predicated on the assumption that he is not. We can no longer sustain the thesis that his origin is too spiritual for human understanding, since he will presently either reveal his identity in words in a public forum or, if not, perjure himself. Surely his origin is not God or heaven. Since everyone presumes that Lohengrin was sent by God from heaven, what more is there to reveal? His public confession holds a clue:

drinn ein Gefaess von wunderthaet' gem Segen
wird dort als hoechstes Heiligthum bewacht,
es ward, dass sein der Menschen reinste pflegen,
herab von einer Engelschaar gebracht.
Wer nun dem Gral zu dienen ist erkoren,
den ruestet er mit ueberird'scher Macht.
Selbst wer von ihm in ferne Land' entsendet,
zum Streiter fuer der Tugend Recht ernannt,
dem wird nicht seine heil'ge Kraft entwendet,
bleibt als sein Ritter dort er unerkannt:
so hehrer Art doch ist des Grales Segen,
enthuellt - muss er des Laien Auge flieh'n;
des Ritters drum sollt Zweifel ihr nicht hegen,
erkennt ihr ihn, dann muss er von euch zieh'n. -
(Act III, Scene 3; GS II, 110)
[A vessel of wondrous power is guarded as the holiest of treasures: so it might be tended by the purest of men, a host of angels brought it down to this earth. [...] He who is chosen to serve the Grail is armed with supernatural power. [...] When he is sent by it to distant lands, armed as champion for defence of virtue, his sacred power is not taken from him if, as its knight, he there remains unknown: but so holy is the Grail's blessing that, once revealed, he must flee the layman's eye; and so you should not harbour doubts about the knight, for once you know who he is, he must depart.]

Lohengrin does not say that the Grail knight's origin cannot be known by laymen, but that they must not know it if they hope to receive the knight's blessings. This is not a traditional appeal to faith. We can no longer contend that the Grail is identical with the divine, and Lohengrin cannot literally mean that the Grail is holier than divinity, since God and heaven are the holiest things imaginable. But if it is neither identical nor holier, it must be more profane.

Lohengrin, compelled by Elsa's seeming treachery, now reveals what she wanted to conceal in silence - his true identity as Parzival's son. In response, Elsa grows faint: "It is night! O air! Air for the unfortunate one!" (Act III, Scene 3; GS II, 110). If Elsa's suspicion that Lohengrin needs redemption through her is true, then a knight of the pure Grail realm - where, as Lohengrin says, "no mortal footsteps tread" (Act III, Scene 3; GS II, 109) - does not come from paradise. Elsa may instinctively feel the weight of this terrible truth. It poses the question whether the "divine" lacks something that only mortal woman can provide, whether God or the redeemer needs redemption. Lohengrin has hinted as much. Wagner offers an interpretation of Lohengrin's need for redemption which may also explain why Lohengrin placed a prohibition on knowledge of his identity:

Fuehlt' ich, zu dir in Liebe schnell entbrannt,
Mein Herz des Grales keuschem Dienst entwandt;
Nun muss ich ewig Reu' und Busse tragen,
Weil ich von Gott zu dir mich hingesehnt,
Denn ach! der Suende muss ich mich verklagen,
Dass Weibeslieb' ich goettlich rein gewaehnt! -
[The Grail's chaste service did my heart disown. / But having turned from God in love's excess. / atonement and remorse must I endure, / for ah! the shameful sin must I confess / Of deeming woman's love divinely pure!]

Having quoted from a part of the "Lohengrin" text that he did not set to music, Wagner goes on to say: "I think it would be sufficient for the audience to deduce from what Lohengrin says that the bonds of earthly love are, strictly speaking, unbecoming for a knight of the Grail" (letter to Hermann Franck of 30 May 1846: SB II, 513-14). Wagner evidently assumed that service to the Grail required chastity [PH: I had originally intended to say place "celibacy" here instead of "chastity"], and that Lohengrin broke this rule in his desire for love. It would be indelicate, then, for a Grail knight publicly to reveal that he betrayed his oath of celibacy. For Lohengrin, sin seems to follow from knowledge, and purity to follow from ignorance, as Ortrud said. Here we may have learned something that Wagner considered implicit in Lohengrin's confession that is not implicit in the folk's assumption that he is divinely inspired, for the oath of chastity which Wagner apparently assumed was required of Grail knights implies a restraint upon our mortal nature, not the absolute autonomy from nature that we would associate with the divine place where "no mortal footsteps tread". In the text that he set to music Wagner was not, of course, so explicit, preferring the word "rein" (pure) to the more explicit "keusch" (chaste), but apparently he supposed that his audience would assume that a "pure" Grail knight is sworn to chastity, and that this is because the knight is human, not pure, and thus is subject to temptation.

Can Lohengrin break his vow of celibacy? Wagner says: "Renunciation, repudiation of the will, the oath of chastity separate the Knights of the Grail from the world of appearances. The knight is permitted to break his oath through the condition which he imposes on the woman - for, if a woman could so overcome a natural propensity as not to ask, she would be worthy of admission to the Grail. It is the possibility of this salvation which permits the knight to marry" (CT, 1 March 1870).

Here Wagner associates the knight's lover with the notion that all women have a "natural propensity" to succumb to temptation, an idea originating in Eve's temptation. Further, he again suggests that a knight sworn to celibacy can have sexual union if no one finds out, since he says that if the knight's lover does not ask his identity he can marry. That Lohengrin cannot refuse to answer Elsa and must do so publicly he confirms in Act III, Scene 3. While Wagner says that the woman who does not ask gains admittance to the Grail, the knight in turn draws advantage from this arrangement in the joy of marriage. Since Elsa asked Lohengrin to reveal his identity during their first night of intimacy, we must ask whether he did, indeed, break his vow of celibacy. If not, he did not receive the blessings that he hoped marriage would confer. The benefits of a conventional marriage are obvious, but Lohengrin's marriage to Elsa is rather unconventional, so that we are bound to ask what he was hoping for. If the oath of chastity separates the knight from the "world of appearances" and is a repudiation of the "will" (Schopenhauer's "will-in-nature"), sexual union is by implication a metaphorical union with the "will" or the "world of appearances". Sexual union is here described as metaphysical, a union with Mother Nature herself. This supports the thesis that Ortrud and Elsa are both "nature" as grasped distinctly by Frederick and Lohengrin and also suggests that Lohengrin hoped to find something in nature that the divine lacks.

In his letter to Hermann Franck, Wagner suggested that it was improper for Lohengrin to assume that Elsa's love was pure. This may mean that it was improper for him to assume that she was innocent of any guilt towards Godfrey. After all, we have seen that her innocence may depend on her ability to keep her vow not to ask Lohengrin's identity, and now that his secret is revealed he has accused her of sinning against himself [PH: the editor had put "herself" where I have substituted the correction, "himself"].

Of course, the world of appearances, Mother Nature, might expose the hypocrisy of Lohengrin's oath-breaking. Speaking of "Lohengrin," Wagner said: "The symbolic meaning of the tale I can best sum up as follows: contact between a metaphysical phenomenon and human nature, and the impossibility that such contact will last. The moral would be: the good Lord would do better to spare us His revelations since He is not permitted to annul the laws of nature: nature - in this case human nature - is bound to take her revenge and destroy the revelation. This seems to me to be the meaning of most of those wonderful legends which are not the work of priests" (letter to Harmann Franck of 30 May 1846: SB II, 511-12).

Wagner seems to confirm my thesis that Ortrud represents Mother Nature's truth ("the laws of nature"), or "Noth," which has a special, jealous relationship with Elsa ("nature - in this case human nature"). This may be described as follows: Elsa, Eve, or Mother Nature gave us fatal knowledge of nature's bitter truths - i.e., delivered the wound - but in sympathy compensated us for exiling us from paradise by inspiring us unconsciously to invent an antidote to nature's "Noth" in the false ideals of "God", "immortality" and "free will" - i.e., she heals the wound. These false ideals, or "Wahn", are a substitute or artificial form of nature, a sort of "surrogate mother". By inventing this surrogate world we renounce our true mother, nature. Figuratively speaking, we "kill" her. Remarkably, the same post-"Lohengrin" heroes who hold themselves responsible for their mother's death - Siegfried, Tristan, and Parsifal - also associate their dead mother with their lover (in Parsifal's case, his potential lover Kundry).

But it is not enough to substitute a preferred image of the world for an abhorrent but true one. What is to become of our knowledge of nature's truth, which in open contest with our metaphysical pretensions necessarily refutes them and forces them to escape into the purely subjective, non-conceptual world of "feeling" in which Lohengrin feels safest? The answer lies in Elsa's offer to redeem Lohengrin. In Wagner's discussion of "Lohengrin" in "A Communication to my Friends" he argues that Lohengrin needed redemption from the sterility of the Grail realm through the earthly love that only Elsa could provide. A single extract will suffice: "With his entire conscious being he [Lohengrin] wanted nothing more than to become and be a full and complete human being, able to give and to inspire love, - that is, authentically "human" and not divine. [...] Thus he yearned for womankind - the human heart. And so he descended from his blissful but empty loneliness when he heard this woman's cry for help. [...] But around him remained the tell-tale aura of exalted spiritual rank" (GS IV, 296; PW I, 341)

Wagner here suggests that those who have access to the chaste, sterile Grail realm, who seek there to be redeemed from the world, in turn seek relief from this abstract utopia in the carnal and earthly, the realm of sin. This implies that paradise is merely a projection of the earthly, as Ortrud suggested, since it is much more likely that imperfect man would imagine perfection and seek it than that perfected man would seek imperfection. In this case, the hypocrites who disowned nature exploit it in secret.

Wagner recognised the unity of God and nature and saw what a danger this could pose to mainstream religious belief:

But, alas, how is culture possible when religion has such defective roots, and even terminology is so little defined that one can talk of spirit and
Nature as if they were antitheses?" (CT, 29 June 1872).

R. spoke recently of the heresy of the Marcionites, which consisted in recognizing a primal being who was neither completely good nor completely
evil; admiration for this sensible form of cognition (CT, 1 July 1874).

A recollection of Aeschylus's chorus (the female hare and the eagle) causes him to remark on the nobility of this outlook, and he feels it was things
like this that might have led to accusations of blasphemy against Aeschylus, this connection between holiness and Nature was probably at the
bottom of the Eleusinian mysteries. In our times, R. continues, religion should seek to influence ethics, and allow faith to be represented by art,
which can transform illusion into truth. (CT, 14 November 1879)

Curiously, in this last quotation Wagner hints that art can do what religion, bound by a fearful taboo on knowledge, cannot do, namely, affirm the unity of holiness and nature. Perhaps art can redeem religion as Elsa's earthly love can redeem Lohengrin's sterile holiness. Since Elsa offers to redeem Lohengrin only if he will entrust her with knowledge of his secret identity, we must ask how this might be applied to the relationship of art to religion.

To answer this question we must also ask what Elsa had offered to redeem Lohengrin from. It is a threefold sin: Lohengrin has committed two sins and may commit a third. Lohengrin's first and greatest sin was to deny Mother Nature's truths by affirming an unnatural, chaste world presumed to be free from its true roots in Mother Nature. All the trouble began here because dependence on a lie leaves one vulnerable to truth. Lohengrin, casting off Mother Nature's (Ortrud's) woe and refusing to acknowledge her claim upon him, seems in effect to be responsible for his mother's death. We noted previously that Siegfried, Tristan and Parsifal, gradually gaining self-knowledge, come to hold themselves responsible for their mother's death. It should come as no surprise, then, that in the years following his completion of "Lohengrin" Wagner debunked religious world-renunciation and praised instead the Feuerbachian notion that God was made in man's image:

Let us glance, then, for a moment at this future state of Man, when he shall have freed himself from his last heresy, the denial of Nature, - that heresy
which has taught him hitherto to look upon himself as a mere instrument to an end which lay outside himself ("Art and Revolution": GS III, 33; PW I,

Man erred, from the time when he set the cause of Nature's workings outside the bounds of Nature's self, and for the physical phenomena subsumed a
super-physical, anthropomorphic and arbitrary cause ("The Art-Work of the Future: GS III, 43; PW I, 70).

Second, Lohengrin sins through hypocrisy. Having affirmed the freedom from nature which Grail knighthood allegedly confers by taking the oath of celibacy, he none the less can redeem the sterile Grail realm from meaninglessness (restore fertility to the wasteland, so to speak) only by smuggling the earthly - which he had renounced - back into it. In a word, he first denied nature, which was sinful enough, and then he hypocritically reaffirmed her by distilling the blissful feelings that only physical nature could provide, without paying nature's price in pain and death. Since these blissful feelings are not spiritual in origin but have a natural origin, Wagner could say that: "It took Nature a very long time to produce passion; this is what can lead one to the heights; music is its transfiguration, is, alone among all the arts, directly connected with it" (CT, 5 January 1883). Our feeling of having transcended nature is but a product of nature, and music, the art most divine, is in fact nature's gift. Even as early as May 1841 Wagner seems to have had an intimation of what would later develop into his concept of the special relationship between Mother Nature as objectively known to man, represented by Ortrud, and Mother Nature as known sympathetically through feeling, or music, represented by Elsa, for in his article "Der Freischuetz" he writes: "It seems to be the poem of those Bohemian woods themselves, whose somber aspect lets us grasp at once how the lonesome forester would believe himself, if not the prey of a daemonic nature-power, at least irrevocably subject to it. [...] Albeit terrible, this notion does not here become downright remorseless: a gentle sadness shimmers through its awe, and the lament over Nature's lost Paradise knows how to soften the forsaken mother's vengeance" (GS I, 212; PW VII, 174-5). Ortrud fills the role of the "forsaken mother" who seeks vengeance, and Elsa that of the "lament over Nature's lost Paradise [which] knows how to soften the forsaken mother's vengeance". Perhaps this lament finds a specific parallel in Elsa's cry of woe which reached heaven and inspired Lohengrin to come to her.

Lohengrin can redeem us only if he does not admit involvement in this hypocrisy, even to himself. Concerning our need for this unacknowledged hypocrisy, Wagner wrote: "There is a considerable difficulty with this 'Paradise' [...]. This act of denying the will is the true action of the saint: that it is ultimately accomplished only in a total end to individual consciousness - for there is no other consciousness except that which is personal and individual - was lost sight of by the naive saints of Christianity, confused, as they were, by Jewish dogma, and they were able to deceive their confused imagination by seeing that longed-for state as a perpetual continuation of a new state of life freed from nature" (letter to Franz Liszt of 7 June 1855: SB VII, 204-8).

That Wagner also associated the hypocrisy embodied in religious world-renunciation with chastity we see from the following passage: "We decide that the excesses to which the insistence on chastity led constituted a terrible feature; they were due to the impossibility of realizing something felt to lie deep within the human character, the desire to set oneself outside Nature and yet to go on living" (CT, 3 November 1878).

Third, Lohengrin is liable to become guilty of the unforgivable sin of exposing the very hypocrisy that he perpetuates. This sin is irredeemable because it brings the very notion of redemption-from-the-world into disrepute. Since Lohengrin and the other Grail knights - i.e., the heroes of religion and art as later embodied in the "dead" heroes of Valhalla - had made us so emotionally dependent upon this self-deception (Wahn) for our happiness, to expose the truth would bring unbearable pain (Noth), opening in us an "unhealing" wound. But if religious faith cannot abide truth, what are we folk to do?


Weh'! Wehe! Musst du von uns zieh'n?
Du hehrer, gottgesandter Mann!
Soll uns des Himmels Segen flieh'n,
wo faenden dein wir Troestung dann?
(Act III, Scene 3; GS II, 111)
[Woe! that you must leave us, you noble man, whom God sent! If heaven's blessing is to leave us, where then shall we find solace?]

Elsa, fighting for an apparently lost cause, seeks to atone for having exposed Lohengrin's secret and tries to restore the folk's hope:


Bist du so goettlich, als ich dich erkannt,
sei Gottes Gnade nicht aus dir verbannt!
Buesst sie in Jammer ihre schwere Schuld,
nicht flieh' die Aermste deiner Naehe Huld!
Verstoss' mich micht, wie gross auch mein Verbrechen!
Verlass' mich nicht, verlass' mich Aermste nicht!


Nur eine Strafe giebt's fuer dein Vergehen, -
Getrennt, geschieden sollen wir uns sehen, -
diess muss die Strafe, diess die Busse sein!
(Act III, Scene 3; GS II, 111)
[Elsa: If you are as divine as I thought, then may God's mercy not be banished from your heart! If she atones by misery for her great guilt, do not deprive the wretch of your presence! Do not reject me, however great my crime! Do not, ah! do not leave me, wretched that I am! Lohengrin: There is only one punishment for your crime! [...] We shall be separated, torn asunder: this is your punishment and atonement!]

Elsa has asked Lohengrin to be her merciful redeemer rather than a just God, but she offers to atone for a sin that she herself calls irredeemable ("He who doubts his mission will never recover from disaster" (Act II, Scene 4; GS II, 93). Lohengrin, however, hints that she can atone if she remains separated from him. If my earlier speculations are accurate, Lohengrin must be able to break the Grail knights' taboo on sexual union, i.e., seek within nature the means to transcend it, without risking making this shameful "Noth" conscious, even to himself. We can grasp how Elsa can atone for exposing Lohengrin's identity if we reinterpret both his prohibition against revealing it and her offer to share this knowledge in a more "inward" sense than is the case with a mere prohibition against public, or "external", exposure. Something quite remarkable happens if we substitute for "public" the notion "conscious". We discover the one special condition that Elsa needs to add to her original offer to share his "Noth" in love's night: she can protect him from harm and keep the secret of his identity in the strictest sense "by knowing it for him, so that he need not know who he is". In view of his need to keep his true identity as a hypocrite a secret even from himself, it would be a great advantage for Lohengrin to cease to be conscious of who he is, to become a divine "fool", and thus to regain his own lost innocence by letting Elsa take on the burden of his guilt. This can be done if Elsa conceals even from him his "conceptual" knowledge of who he is, namely, his "Noth".

This concept could explain a peculiarity of Wagner's subsequent operas. It is probably no mere coincidence that Siegfried tells Fafner, "I still don't know who I am" ("Siegfried", Act II, Scene 2; GS VI, 138), and that shortly afterwards Bruennhilde tells Siegfried, "Your own self I am, if you but love me in my bliss. What you don't know I know for you" ("Siegfried", Act III, Scene 3; GS VI, 168). Perhaps this also explains why Parsifal does not remember his name but that Kundry does, and can help us understand why Isolde learns Tristan's hidden identity but preserves him from harm through her love by keeping his secret in silence. That Sachs in his Cobbling Song teaches Eva the secret of Walther's unconscious inspiration, in a confession whose meaning Walther does not understand, is probably not an accident either. Since the subject of Sachs's song is Eva's responsibility for compensating humanity for the harm Eve and Adam caused, by inspiring Walther's redemptive art ("Wahn"), the link with "Lohengrin" seems clear.

But let us finish the tale. The king and men beg Lohengrin to lead them to victory against the Hungarians. Since this is a real, external threat, not a psychological or inward one, King Henry had originally depended upon Frederick to protect his realm from it. Lohengrin, however, declines: "I must not go with you! If the Grail's knight, once recognised, fought for you in disobedience, he would be deprived of all his manly strength!" (Act III, Scene 3; GS II, 112). Surely this is not an appeal to faith! The plain truth is that Lohengrin cannot compete with Frederick and Ortrud before the tribunal of reality. As an embodiment of man's longing to renounce the world and yet live (religion), a contradiction now liable to be exposed, Lohengrin must sacrifice himself, his "conscious self", so that Elsa can atone for exposing this contradiction. Elsa must somehow restore and keep safe the innocence that she has placed at risk of being lost, and to accomplish this she must make "chaste" Lohengrin's hypocritical longing for illicit love less vulnerable to exposure. By holding for him secret knowledge of his identity as a hypocrite, Elsa could continue to protect Lohengrin from the danger of exposing it unless Lohengrin himself unwittingly revealed the secret of her special relationship to him by betraying their love in some way. Since Lohengrin must have sexual union with Elsa to be redeemed through her love, it follows that if Lohengrin remains chaste and does not embrace her, he might, paradoxically, expose the secret of his relationship to her, reveal his identity and lose his ability to heal his hidden wound (Noth).

This should allow us to understand better the meaning of Siegfried's betrayal of Bruennhilde, for Siegfried remains chaste with her, betrays her by giving her away to Gunther, unwittingly reveals the secret of his true relationship with her and is fatally wounded as a consequence. Tristan similarly betrays his true love Isolde by preserving her chastity and giving her away to Marke, with the result that he reveals his true relationship with her and suffers from a wound she can no longer heal. When we consider lastly that Klingsor castrates himself - carrying chastity to an extreme - and maliciously gives Kundry away to Amfortas, who thereby suffers from an unhealing wound, we can begin to see how Wagner develops this concept in his later operas.

Though removing himself from the scene in seeming defeat, Lohengrin paradoxically promises the king eternal victory, as if his self-sacrifice and Elsa's punishment and atonement, her separation from him, can draw eternal victory from temporal defeat. Mortal Godfrey will soon return as the folk's leader. Somehow he will abide the light better than the allegedly immortal Lohengrin. But how? Since it seems that Lohengrin is becoming too conscious of his three sins, whose essence is that he depends on the self-deception of dreams to make waking life bearable, he seems too aware of being dependent on "fear" of the truth, of needing a taboo on knowledge. Perhaps Godfrey, restored to human life as beneficiary of Lohengrin's self-sacrifice and Elsa's atonement, can be the folk's new leader because he is free from Lohengrin's handicaps.

In the end, Lohengrin was so conscious that he could not accept Elsa's offer to be his "unconscious mind". By offering to share the secret of his identity Elsa had potentially offered to let him store, or repress, his abhorrent self-knowledge (Noth) in her, a potential attainable only if Elsa protects him from this knowledge, so that he can be freed from fear of the truth. Lohengrin was too self-conscious to redeem himself through her love and thus could no longer offer the folk the Grail's redemption. Wagner says:

In Elsa I saw from the outset the antithesis to Lohengrin that I was looking for - not, of course, an opposite in the absolute sense but rather the other
half of his own being - or that opposition already inherent in his own nature and only that complement to it that he necessarily yearns for. Elsa is the
unconscious, the instinct in which the conscious, purposive element in Lohengrin's character seeks to redeem itself; yet this yearning is again itself the
unconscious instinctive necessity in Lohengrin through which he feels affinity with Elsa's nature. Through the power of this "unconscious consciousness",
such as I myself felt along with Lohengrin, the nature of woman came to me - particularly as I was compelled to depict it with the greatest fidelity -
with an increasingly inward understanding. Through this power I succeeded so utterly in identifying myself with this female principle that I came to
feel total sympathy with its expression in my loving Elsa. I grew to find her so justified at the final outbreak of her jealousy that it was from this
outbreak that I first fully comprehended the purely human nature of love ("A Communication to my Friends: GS IV, 301; PW I, 346).


Wagner says that Lohengrin was too conscious, yet Lohengrin rejected Elsa's offer to redeem him from self-consciousness. He defines redemption-by-love as a restoration of the innocence of paradise attained by submerging our conscious, egoistic self-knowledge into our unconscious mind. He identifies conscious mind with manhood and equates redemption from knowledge, through unconsciousness of it, with womanhood. Sexual union thus becomes Wagner's metaphor for repression of self-knowledge into the unconscious mind. This repressed knowledge of "Noth", which Elsa offered to share with Lohengrin, is, as Ortrud implied, the true source of inspiration for Lohengrin's redemptive "Wahn". It follows that this secret "Noth" could inspire Lohengrin's "magic" only if it remained unconscious. Since Wagner in "A Communication to my Friends" actually praises Elsa's breach of faith as the inspiration for his new concept of woman and his new art, Elsa's offer to share Lohengrin's dangerous self-knowledge in loving union, in conjunction with the above quotation, represents Wagner's new understanding of redemption by love.

If Lohengrin is too self-conscious, he needs a hero freed from this liability, who will not know who he is. If sin for Lohengrin means being conscious of the truth, then the hero who commits sin unconsciously is, in this sense, innocent. Only in this way can Lohengrin manage not to find his now discredited self in his hero. He needs a hero who can do what he cannot do: unwittingly, instinctively break his own law without suffering from consciousness of guilt and hypocrisy. His hero must be so unconscious of committing this sin that he will not feel fear of exposure, will not run and turn his back on the truth. In consequence, his hero can redeem the chaste Grail realm from impotence through love without being aware that he serves the Grail, as otherwise, becoming too conscious of who he is, his hero will expose this contradiction and be ruined. Now free from divine protection, his hero can without the disadvantage of conscious religious belief - which stakes a refutable claim on truth, i.e., seeks power - affirm our desire for transcendence, even in the face of truth, without fear of contradiction. Offering art to King Ludwig as an alternative to religious world-renunciation, Wagner described our hero's remarkable redemptive act:

The illusionary image [Wahngebilde] as presented must never afford the pretext to arouse or revert to a possible dispute about ultimate meaning in its
actuality and basis in proof as religious drama [PH: "drama," or "dogma"?] does: rather it must exploit its most inherent power precisely by achieving
the substitution of conscious illusion for reality. This is what art accomplishes; and I therefore designate it [...] as a source of benign redemption that
to be sure does not lead us truly and fully beyond life, but instead raises us above life from within it, so that, even if in fact it appears dark and
frightening, it is none the less presented to us as really only that illusionary image that consoles us and elevates us above the miserable truth (Noth)
about things. The noblest work of art will thus be welcomed so that it may, while substituting for the seriousness of life, give rise to the beneficent
illusion in which this reality eventually appears only as illusionary ("On State and Religion": GS VIII, 28-9; PW IV, 33).

But the hero will not actually be innocent. His other half, the heroine-lover who, as his unconscious mind, holds for him knowledge of his true, sinful identity, will take the burden of his sin - knowledge - from him in redeeming him by love. Since sin equals "death", and Elsa twice says that she will accept death as the price of sharing Lohengrin's self-knowledge, her atonement necessarily involves death, at least in the figurative sense, a sort of "Liebestod". This "going-under" is Elsa's atonement for the irredeemable sin of exposing Lohengrin. Should the hero again be at risk of becoming too conscious of who he is, he can always return to his love-womb, his muse, for healing and inspiration. Thus she can ensure his fidelity, since through her atonement he can safely acknowledge, in secret loving union with her, the "Noth" which, if conscious, would bring irredeemable woe, but which, if unconscious, inspires his redemptive "Wahn". Yet Elsa must also be in some way separated from him because his conscious mind instinctively abhors the hidden, dangerous "Noth" from which his unconscious mind protects it. Therefore, any return visit to his muse for sexual union, i.e., unconscious inspiration, will be a fearful affair. The hero will desire, yet fear, union with Elsa, since he must unconsciously confront the dangerous knowledge that she holds in order to gain from it the inspiration to redeem himself from this knowledge and forget his fear again. This will be true of all Wagner's future heroes and heroines.

Elsa had begged Lohengrin not to reject her offer to atone, no matter how great her crime. Lohengrin, because he is too conscious, must himself reject this offer and no longer acknowledge her. But the hero who replaces him will, unlike him, have exclusive access to the protection that her love grants. This hero is the mortal who alone can offer a substitute for the loss of heaven's (religion's) consolation which left with Lohengrin's passing. He is Godfrey, in whom Lohengrin is reborn; or, to be more accurate, he is Siegfried:

O Elsa! Nur ein Jahr an deiner Seite
haett' ich als Zeuge deines Glueck's ersehnt!
Dann kehrte, selig in des Grals Geleite,
dein Bruder wieder, den du todt gewaehnt. -
Kommt er dann heim, wenn ich ihm fern im Leben,
diess Horn, diess Schwert, den Ring sollst du ihm geben.
Diess Horn soll in Gefahr ihm Huelfe schenken,
in wildem Kampf diess Schwert ihm Sieg verleiht:
doch bei dem Ringe soll er mein gedenken,
der einstens dich aus Schmach und Noth befreit!
leb' wohl! Leb' wohl! Leb' wohl, mein susses Weib!
(Act III, Scene 3; GS II, 112-113)
[O Elsa! For one year only I longed to be beside you as witness of your happiness! Then, blessed by the Grail's protection, your brother, whom you believed dead, would have returned. When he comes home and I am far from him in this life, this horn, this sword and this ring you shall give to him! This horn will help him when he is in danger, in wild battle this sword gives victory; but by the ring he will remember me, who once freed you from shame and distress (Noth)! Farewell! Farewell! Farewell, my sweet wife!]

Thus Wagner found his inspiration for that great scene in which Wotan turns away from his daughter Bruennhilde in the hope that her love for Siegfried will do what he no longer can: redeem the gods and the world. Elsa will hold for Godfrey the ring, or knowledge, which unconsciously reminds Godfrey of Lohengrin's frustrated intent to redeem Elsa - the world - from the knowledge that she gave. Since this knowledge banished us from nature's paradise but also inspired us to invent an alternative spiritual utopia which can no longer be sustained, this unconscious knowledge will likewise inspired Godfrey, the mortal hero who replaces the god, with the unwitting intent to recreate, or restore, Lohengrin's lost paradise. That is, the ring will be Godfrey's unconscious remembrance of his own true identity as Lohengrin, of art's true identity as covert religion. Protected now from conscious remembrance of who he is by Elsa's offer to hold this knowledge for him, Lohengrin will be in some sense reborn in Godfrey. Wotan's relationship with Siegfried is rooted in this paradox.

The ring that Lohengrin tells Elsa to give to Godfrey in remembrance of him will soon develop into the Nibelung's (Alberich's) ring. Wotan, like Lohengrin, will leave his hero Siegfried heir to the ring after passing away. This ring will unconsciously remind Siegfried that he is Wotan, reborn, and inspire Siegfried unwittingly to do what Wotan can no longer consciously do. Lohengrin would not acknowledge that he needs redemption, but Wotan will, for, unlike Lohengrin, he will accept Bruennhilde's offer, made prior to his great confession, to hold knowledge of his secret "Noth" for him in silence so that his conscious, ideal mind, Siegfried, freed now from fear of the real, need not suffer from it. Elsa, as Eve, called upon her knight to help her atone for giving us fatal knowledge. She wished to inspire a deed, the redemption of the world from knowledge through love. This, as a metaphor for the redemption of religious longing from science by art, is the model for Bruennhilde's relationship with Siegfried, for Elsa had shown Wagner that Wotan - "religion" - must vanish in order to make way for the artist, Siegfried:

this woman [...], who goes from worship to love precisely by the outbreak of her jealousy and reveals this nature to a hitherto uncomprehending man
by her downfall; this glorious woman from whom Lohengrin must vanish because of his inability to understand her from his own specific nature - I had
now discovered her: and that random arrow that I had shot at the target that I had sensed but not known was there was in fact my Lohengrin, whom I
had to give up as lost if I was to find the certain path to the "truly feminine" that would one day bring redemption to me and everybody else, after the
masculine egotism, even in its most exalted form, had broken in self-immolation in the face of it. Elsa, the woman, [...] made me a revolutionary in
one stroke. She was the spirit of the folk to which I, too, as man and artist turned for my redemption ("A Communication to my Friends": GS IV, 301-2;
PW I, 347-8)

And thus it was that Wagner concluded:

I remain convinced that my Lohengrin [...] symbolises the most profoundly tragic situation of the present day, namely, man's desire to descend from
the most intellectual heights to the depths of love, the longing to be understood instinctively, a longing which modern reality cannot yet satisfy. [...]
This is where my art must come to the rescue: and the work of art that I had no choice but to conceive in this sense is none other than my "Nibelung
poem" (letter to August Roeckel of 25/6 January 1854: SB VI, 66-7).

In a later paper I shall show how Wagner's "Ring" develops this allegory of the war between truth (power) and value (love), implicit in "Lohengrin," into a cosmic epic depicting the conflict between our quest for knowledge of the world embodied by science and our desire to escape the world as found in religion and art.

Paul Brian Heise

(This paper was edited by Chad Taylor. The translations from "A Communication to my Friends" were made specially by Andrew Gray, who also provided editorial assistance.)

NOTE: To fill in some of the logical gaps in this old paper please consult the more elaborate and recent version of "How Elsa Showed Wagner the Way to Siegfried" which can be found online at, by clicking on "Resources," and then clicking on "Texts on Wagner," where you will also find essay-length elaborations of several talks I've presented over the years, and a more comprehensive version of my chronological anthology of extracts from Wagner's writings and recorded remarks than is to be found in Appendix II of

NOTE: Readers will find an interesting complement to my paper "How Elsa Showed Wagner the Way to Siegfried" (first submitted in 1991 in an earlier version to Stewart Spencer for consideration as an article to be published in WAGNER, and published by him in the revised version posted above, in 5/95), in Dr. Berthold Hoeckner's (Univ. of Chicago Dept. of Music) 1997 study "Elsa Screams or the Birth of the Music Drama," first presented as part of a dissertation at Cornell Univ. in 1994, and subsequently published by the Cambridge Opera Journal in 1997.
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