DEATHRIDGE CHAPTER NINE: WAGNER'S GREEKS, AND WIELAND'S TOO
JD P. 109: "Schadewalt was ... right to stress Wagner's awareness of the historical distance that separated him from the Greeks. This is not the same thing, however, as saying that Wagner recognized that one of the main differences between himself and the Greeks was the idea of history itself, almost as if he regretted that the ancient tragedians had never read the complete works of Hegel. As a consequence, and contrary to what he himself expected, his new tragedies ... today look less like 'timeless' myths than historical allegories in mythic guise about the tenacious illusions of modernity ... ."
PH: Yes, the "Ring" is an allegory of world history, but at the same time Wagner - I think rightly - seems to have conceived of it as a sort of master-myth from which all specific myths could be generated. That is to say, though it follows what Wagner took to be mankind's universal historical trajectory, it penetrated the timeless essence of human nature. So, it is at once timeless and historical.
CHAPTER TEN: DANGEROUS FASCINATIONS (ABOUT "TRISTAN AND ISOLDE")
JD P. 116: "... since "Tristan" was first put before its astonished audiences in Munich in 1865, nothing quite like it has ever been heard again, despite the many distinguished composers who have tried to emulate it. To this day it is a work about which we can safely say that without it Western music since the nineteenth century would have taken a different course. Not even Wagner's most implacable enemies could afford to ignore it; but neither have his many friends, especially those who prepared the way for what we understand today as modern music, ever been able to recapture entirely the power of its radical spirit."
PH: A few thoughts on "Tristan": I first became acquainted with the "Tristan" spirit as a child when watching that old tear-jerker "Humoresque" starring John Garfield and Joan Crawford. "Humoresque" has always struck me as capturing the aura and glamour of classical music somewhat in the sense that "The Red Shoes" captured the aura and glamour of ballet, i.e., of the high arts in general. Who, having once experienced it, can forget Joan Crawford drunkenly drowning herself in the Atlantic Ocean off of Long Island while listening on the radio to an arrangement of the Love-Death and Transfiguration music of Tristan for solo violin and orchestra, the violin solo played in the movie by John Garfield's character! Joan Crawford has realized to her dismay that John's greatest love is music, not her. The tragic finale of "The Red Shoes" conveys a similar message, except that there the heroine-dancer, Moira Shearer, can't decide between love and art and therefore commits suicide. So, as we read in Elliott Zuckerman's superb study of "Tristan," this work has always conveyed what Nietzsche described as a dangerous fascination.
PH: That dangerous fascination is another expression of the notion of the wound that will never heal, man's penchant for a dangerous idealism which inspires those subject to it to desire to throw life itself away for an illusion. Man's notion of what "ought" to be becomes infinitely more important than what "is," even though, as Feuerbach argued, what we feel "ought" to be is constructed by our imagination solely out of material taken from the world that "is." It's that eternal longing for what lies always on the other side of the hill. It's what drove Wagner's Dutchman to insist he would never give up trying to transcend nature by striving futilely to round the Cape of Good Hope until doomsday, and taken at his word by Satan, delineating a relationship which Wagner later developed in much greater depth and scope in the relationship of Wotan to Loge (keeping in mind that Loge is the archetype for Wotan's Waelsung heroes, and in particular the artist-hero Siegfried).
JD: JD speaks here of the timelessly radical nature of the "Tristan" music and musico-dramatic experience.
PH: Quite frankly, I regard "Tristan" as more modern and avant-garde (in a good sense) than almost anything which has come after. Wagner was dealing with questions about the nature of man which only a few other artists before him had had the courage to address, and I think for that very reason only a radically new music could express this.
CHAPTER ELEVEN: PUBLIC AND PRIVATE LIFE
JD P. 121-122: "Anyone who wants to see the sketches and score of "Tristan" as 'gifts from heaven' will probably take refuge in the idea that Wagner already had the entire work in his head before he wrote it down. But the composition sketches, although they are generally fluent, show that he was often not at all clear how the music should continue after sending what he had just finished off to the printer. His sense of form was always one that groped its way forward. In this respect Wagner was unlike Beethoven, who ... was in the habit of going back to music he thought he had finished and changing it significantly in order to create, retrospectively, the right balance in accordance with a long-range perspective of formal coherence. (...)
In a sense, while writing 'Tristan' Wagner resembled Orpheus in that he was not allowed to look back. The music constantly presses forward in search of formal possibilities that seem permanently open-ended - a radical aspect of the opera that had an even greater influence on modern music (Pierre Boulez's preoccupation with permanently evolving, nonrepetitive forms, for instance) than its much-vaunted chromaticism."
JD: JD then quotes Wagner to the effect that: " 'The process of correcting the proofs of the second act, while I was simultaneously in the throes of composing the ecstasies of the third act, had the strangest, even uncanny, effect on me; for it was in just those first scenes of this act [i.e., the third] that I realized with complete clarity that I had written the most audacious and original work of my life.' "
PH: Wagner addressed this issue of seeming improvisation in his composing. He noted that though he often did not know what was coming next, where he would go next, he plunged forward in confidence because he knew that he was composing in accordance with an unconscious plan. The point I make in paraphrasing this remark is that there is no way to know, no matter what a composer's technique is, no matter what written documents the composer has left behind, precisely what the innermost fount of the compositional process is. What ultimately matters is the final product. For instance, Mozart's music doesn't necessarily rise in my estimation because he could compose it all entirely in his head, apparently with little or no correction or experiment, and put it down on paper as if entire masterworks had first dawned on him in their complete, definitive form. It is quite possible that a composition cobbled together from bits and pieces saved over a long period of time, and constantly refined, as I understand was the technique which Beethoven often employed, could surpass a musical composition of similar genre and scope by Mozart. Or not!
PH: By the same token it is not a mark for or against a great artist what means they used to stimulate themselves to composition, whether it be silk garments and perfumes, or hashish, or the smell of rotting apples: what counts is the power and sublimity of the final product.
JD P. 131-132: "Not even Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet', at first sight the work "Tristan" most closely resembles, is as bleak. Far from a glorification of love, however, at the core of "Tristan" is the idea that the secret, all-else-excluding passion between two people is just as much an illusion as the public political sphere of human relations that threatens to invade it. They are martyrs in the name of freedom, not only from the public world that has caught them in its vise, but also from the torment of love itself, the dark allure of 'night' they both eventually reject as vehemently as they do the bright realm of 'day.' (...)
To put it another way: Wagner's staging of the private in metaphysical, quasi-religious form takes on, before its final redemption, a drastic, almost tyrannical character that is not so much at odds with social authority as peculiarly reliant on it.
(...) This existential predicament ... led him to write some of the most searing and emotionally disturbing music ever heard in the theater. Indeed, since 'Tristan and Isolde' was first put before its astonished audience in 1865, nothing quite like it has ever been heard again. The strange tensions between the public and the private encoded in the drama, and even in the way the music unfolds, are doubtless one reason for the hold it still has on our imagination."
PH: In my unified interpretation of Wagner's operas and music-dramas, "Tristan" is construed as a part of Wagner's critique of art itself, and his art in particular, as a means of achieving redemption. That is part of what Wagner meant when he said that ultimately he found love to be a drastic and dangerous thing, because we must always remember that for Wagner the loving relationship of hero with heroine in the music-dramas is his metaphor for the artist-hero's unconscious inspiration, and the artist's muse is his unconscious mind understood to be a repository for knowledge which is forbidden to the public, and only accessible to the artist in the throes of unconscious inspiration, so that, upon waking (as Tannhaeuser wakes after leaving the Venusberg suffering amnesia about what he experience there, and as Siegfried forgets his relationship with his muse Bruennhilde), he can forget and thus remain safe from his true, fateful source of inspiration. The torment of love in this reading is the torment of becoming too conscious, too aware of who one really is, to be capable of drawing inspiration from the unconscious any longer. Thus the hero and heroine ultmately betray their relationship: the artist-hero unwittingly gives his muse of inspiration away to his audience, exposing her secrets to the light of day. That is for me the deeper meaning behind Tristan's torture in being unable to escape the light (of his rising consciousness) back into the womb of night. This is the meaning of Alberich's threat that when his hoard (in my reading, a hoard of forbidden knowledge) rises from the silent depths (of the unconscious) to the light of day, the gods will be overthrown.
PH: But the point for Wagner, as for all authentically inspired artists, is that they must always risk exposure to the light of day, because their art is not merely a private affair (if it were, it would be madness, not art: this is part of what Wagner means by "Wahn"), but must be placed before a public, an audience, to function as redemptive art. Thus Tristan moves back and forth from the womb of night to day, just as Tannhaeuser moves back and forth from the Venusberg to the Wartburg.
CHAPTER TWELVE: POSTMORTEM ON ISOLDE
JD P. 135-136: JD introduces the old Nietzschean critique of Wagner, that his music may compel belief in dubious things: "... Nietzsche famously accused Wagner of exploiting it [music's dangerous power of seduction] in the name of a spurious religion of redemption. It is not that Wagner's music is true or untrue, Nietzsche claimed; the problem is that it is taken to be true - a point that, as Dahlhaus rather glibly [PH: but I think rightly] remarks, may be no more than the futile critical ploy of denouncing the theater for being the theater." JD is discussing here Catherine Clement's book "Opera, or the Undoing of Women," in which Clement evidently set out to demonstrate how the glory of the music written for heroines of opera belies their oppression by men in the several hundred years of operatic history, so that music lies.
JD: Following Clement's lead (though disagreeing with her in some details), JD acknowledges that: "The obvious xenophobia, anti-Semitism and misogyny in his [Wagner's] works have linked some of the greatest moments in German culture with the eruption of barbarity. But in a far more problematic and ambiguous way, so too have the seductive high points of his music, with their promise of freedom from social constraint and their utopian celebration of nothingness and death. The overt political moments in Wagner, in other words, are unobtrusively linked with those moments where his music, appearing at its most pure and 'musical,' enters into its subtlest contract with the extramusical in order to preserve, as a vision of the absolute, its formidable social power."
PH: I'm not sure which of the greatest Wagnerian moments in German culture are specifically linked with xenophobia, anti-Semitism, or misogyny, since in my reading of Wagner's mature music-dramas (and to a lesser extent his Romantic operas) these issues don't come into play, at least not in the sense that JD implies. My reading of Wagner's leading male characters as either artist-heroes, representations of collective, historical man, or representations of scientific consciousness, doesn't lend itself to JD's critique. For instance, the freedom from social constraint and the utopian celebration of nothingness and death are inextricably linked in Wagner's allegorical logic to the highly idiosyncratic inner life of inspired artists who, within Wagner's world, experience life in a radically different way from the majority of humans. In this sense Wagner is not necessarily leading humanity as a whole down a path to self-destruction: rather, what he's telling us is that the greatest, most inspired artists (or at least Wagner himself alone, if one doesn't wish to extrapolate from his personal experience to all great artists), suffer from a certain sort of alienation from their fellow men and women and society, and from life itself, as a matter of course (why else would they create an alternative reality of the imagination? I recall Dieter Borchmeyer addresses this issue in his "Richard Wagner - Theory and Theatre"). Also, Wagner holds that the great secular artists have fallen heir to religion's sin of world-denial.
JD: JD points out that the majority of musicological discourses on Isolde's death ignore its potential extra-musical meanings. But he notes that nonetheless "Wagner really did conceive the work as a monument to the supposed purity of music [in JD's scheme night represents the world of music, day the regular old world we know]. As JD points out, Wagner himself described how in "Tristan" he had let himself go musically, freeing himself from his theoretical strictures in order to concentrate on musical expression for its own sake.
PH: Of course, part of the meaning of "Tristan" is that even this sublime and pure-seeming musical world is ultimately tied to the real world of day, just as Tristan's and Isolde's love [music] can't escape its "Und" (i.e., the lover's love doesn't have absolute meaning but only meaning in a real world of relations).
JD: JD quotes an interesting remark by Adorno: " 'music's aesthetic autonomy is not its original condition, but a revocable one acquired late and laboriously'."
PH: Wagner himself noted that absolute music (at least in the Western tradition) was the last of the arts to develop, and it is implicit that this music ought perhaps to be construed as a distillate of the other arts which preceded it, their essence, so to speak.
JD: JD offers the following interesting paraphrase of Lydia Goehr: "Two basic rules, assiduously dissected by Lydia Goehr, can be summarized as follows: (1) there shall be an essential core of the musical that can be severed from the world of concrete significance and raised to the level of the universal; and (2) the meaning of music shall be moved from its exterior to its structural interior."
JD P. 137: "The change from the eighteenth century notion of music as imitation to the nineteenth century view of musical autonomy left composers, who were aware of the social role of their music, with a dilemma. Their obligation to the community made them unwilling to loosen the bond between music and the real world completely, though in the name of art for art's sake they were not prepared to tighten it too much either. Thus the problem for some musicians - including Wagner - was how to establish a connection with reality that could underscore the supreme mission of art in society without also sacrificing the purity of music on the altar of a supposedly alien outside world."
PH: Considering Feuerbach's and Wagner's thesis that music at its most sublime is a distillate of religious feeling, i.e., man's longing for transcendent value, it is no wonder that the insistence on absolute music's wholesale autonomy from the mundane world of concepts and images corresponds with the notion often expressed in Christian and Jewish theology that God is in some deep sense unknowable, and even incommensurable with the human. Wagner himself equated these two concepts. The point, it seems to me, of this desperate religious urge to jettison all that links man's longing for transcendent value with the allegedly tainted, corrupt, and fallen real world of mundane human experience, is to insure the safety of its claim to transcendence, to insure it can't be traced back to man's physical longings and fears. As Feuerbach said, once belief in God could no longer be sustained as a concept in the face of the historically inevitable replacement of the gods with indifferent nature by scientific consciousness, God could live on, safe from reduction, in musical feeling. I truly believe this is what is behind the insistence that pure or absolute, instrumental music is somehow privileged and irreduceable, even to the other arts. The whole pathos of Wagner's "Tristan," it seems to me (echoing to some extent Michael Tanner's similar remarks), is the impossibility of transcendence, and the impossibility that man could ever give up striving for it.
JD: "But Wagner did not see the action and poetic text of his opera only as the smelling salts of the sublime, as a way of reviving listeners exposed to the druglike effects of his music. Rather, he regarded them as an encoded message of the sublime itself ... ." JD discusses Wagner's Schopenhauerian essay "Beethoven" in this light. "One of the centerpieces of 'Beethoven' is a reinvention of Schopenhauer's idea of the allegorical dream that Wagner likens to a purely musical experience, but one still retaining a tenuous link with the conceptual world. The perception of scenic events in his stage works is only the outer surface of an inner musical experience that is analogous to a dream in a state of half-sleep poised delicately between the real and the unconscious world, and often vividly recalled when waking."
PH: Wagner's notion was that the true, original dream which inspires the waking dream we can actually experience and remember, remains unremembered and hidden. In the entire scope of Wagner's theoretical writings and librettos two possible interpretations arise: (1) This innermost, unremembered dream is inherently incapable of being represented to the conscious mind because it is pure Will, or feeling; or (2) This innermost, unremembered dream is unremembered because, if it were exposed to the light of day, it would reveal the fateful truth about human nature, that all human thought, feeling, words, and action, stem ultimately from egoism and sublimations of egoism (sublimations which mask the mundane origin of human motives, in something like the same sense that Marx maintained that the commodity masked its origins in labor, as if it were somehow magically produced without uncompensated overtime). In my interpretation of Wagner's artworks I attempt to show how Wagner presents both hypotheses simultaneously. This is the basis of the essential crisis, or existential dilemma, in all of Wagner's operas and music dramas from "Dutchman" onward, including even "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg." It is, in my view, surely the agenda hidden behind Lohengrin's prohibition on revealing his true identity and origin. It is Elsa herself, his muse and redeemer, who offers to share with Lohengrin the burden of keeping his secret because she fears that if it were exposed to the light of day, Lohengrin would suffer terrible consequences. In my interpretation of the "Ring," Wotan's Valhalla, which he first dreamed and then woke to find an accomplished fact, is the waking dream or allegorical dream (Feuerbach called religious belief a waking dream), and Alberich's renunciation of love and forging of his Ring of power (the power of thought) the unremembered dream which is the true source of Wotan's inspiration. Thus Motif #19, the Ring Motif, gives birth to the first segment of the Valhalla Motif, #20a, and Wotan is Light-Alberich. This thesis directly links the sublimity of music with dangerous and forbidden knowledge.
JD P. 137-138: "... Wagner summed up the notion, ... with "Tristan" principally in mind, with the ingenious phrase 'deeds of music made visible.' This was one of the most effective slogans in his campaign to legitimize his concept of symphonic drama, which, on account of its intense concentration on complex music, was in danger of being regarded as fundamentally alien to the theater."
PH: The main point here is that for Wagner, music and images and ideas are inherently linked. Thus Tristan's alte Weise and Siegfried's Woodbirdsong constitute their link between the conscious daylight world and their unconscious mind with its fatal forbidden knowledge of their true but hidden identity, just as Wagner's musical motifs provide a clue to the innermost secrets of his unconscious artistic inspiration in his womb of night.
JD P. 141-142: "In terms based on Lacan, Michel Poizat has evolved a sophisticated interpretation of the orchestra's dominance in the last few pages of "Tristan," especially the substitution of the orchestra for the voice that completes the trajectory of Isolde's monologue at the end. The substitution, he claims, 'is the very image of the function of music in opera, which is ... to avoid that final step where perfect beauty turns to horror' [PH: See my little biographical sketch of my experience of dreaming in this discussion forum.] The point is not dissimilar to Clement's about music as an inveterate deceiver, a purveyor of illusions about unacceptable realities, with the difference that in Poizat's view Wagner actually toys with moments of intolerability only to use music's power to sidestep them in the end."
PH: I have proposed in "The Wound That Will Never Heal" that Wagner's astonishing ability to make him feel as if he had healed his unhealing wound through music made him liable to unwittingly take risks in revealing more of his unremembered dream to his own consciousness, and therefore to that of his audience, than would have been advisable. Wagner was dealing with some of the most profound questions we can ask about who we are, why we are here, what we are to do (or not do), etc.; as the repository and unwitting guardian of man's most secret thoughts (such as Feuerbach's assertion that we unwittingly and unconsciously invented the gods and invented the whole notion of transcendent value as expressed in religious faith, altruistic ethics, and art), Wagner was at risk of revealing this knowledge to himself and to his audience. This danger, in my view, explains to a considerable degree the danger involved, and what is at stake, when Tannhaeuser, Siegfried, Tristan, and Klingsor reveal the secrets of their muse (Venus, Isolde, Bruennhilde, and Kundry) to their potential audience (the Wartburg Court, Gunther and the Gibichung Court, Marke, and Amfortas), so that, instead of offering healing for man's unhealing wound, these artist-hero's rip it open. In Klingsor's case this is done consciously and deliberately because he has seen through man's quest for transcendent value, having failed to realize it in himself, and therefore, like some of Dostoevsky's characters who once sought holiness and redemption but saw through it, wreaks revenge on himself and all others who still strive futilely to resolve man's irresolvable existential dilemma. Note, for instance, how Tannhaeuser, Siegfried, and Tristan become so enrapt in their musical rapture that they become oblivious to their danger, and the danger of revealing their secret source of inspiration to the world! Note Lohengrin's terrible fear that his own secret will be revealed (even to him).
JD P. 142: JD speaks of "The long-standing prejudice that ultimately the extramusical cannot meaningfully relate to the music of a work like 'Tristan' ... ."
PH: It is a prejudice: the "Tristan" libretto/drama works brilliantly and seamlessly with the music to bring out the clash between the private inner world of the unconsciously inspired artist, and the outer world within which he must share his inspiration with a public. To privilege one half of this essential Wagnerian equation and ignore the other is to demolish the Wagnerian experience, which rests on this contrast.
JD P. 143: JD references Denis de Rougemont's thesis that in the "Tristan" romance the lovers deliberately thwart their own satisfaction in love because the lovers are not in love with each other but with love itself, which can only have being in art and fantasy and not reality, so that, in effect, they are twin narcissists aiding and abetting each others' narcissism.
PH: I recall that Nietzsche called the "Tristan" music the loneliest music in the world, and Wagner's great-granddaughter Nike Wagner has also (if memory serves) written that Tristan, in effect, remains alone. It has long been my thesis re "Tristan" that this artwork, like all of Wagner's other canonical artworks, is a metaphor of the life of the artist, and that the love of Tristan and Isolde is in fact Wagner's metaphor for the loving union of the artist with his own unconscious mind (what Wagner called a "marriage of myself to myself"), in unconscious artistic inspiration, an inspiration which in "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" does in fact give birth to a healthy baby, an inspired work of art, the Mastersong, but in "Tannhaeuser" and "Twilight of the Gods" and "Tristan" gives birth to a final work of art, in which the secret which, so long as it remained unconscious, gave birth to religions and inspired works of art, had become too conscious to produce a redemptive work of art. In other words, Tristan and Isolde, Siegfried and Bruennhilde, Walther and Eva, and Klingsor/Parsifal and Kundry, represent the artist's conscious and unconscious minds. In this sense they are narcissistic and in fact quite lonely meditations on the human condition. On this view, there is an almost autistic quality to the artist-hero as Wagner conceives him/her.
JD P. 143-144: JD references John Updike's critique of Rougemont: "Updike rightly points out that de Rougemont's analysis of the Tristan legend is only the center of a virtuoso sequence of ideas that boldly puts the blame for the Western obsession with romantic love on Catharism, a neo-Manichean heresy that, before being crushed by the Albigensian Crusade, flourished in twelth-century Provence. ... Updike sums up the sequence as follows:
'Manichaeanism, denying the Christian doctrine of the Divine Creation and the Incarnation, radically opposes the realms of spirit and matter. The material world is evil. Man is a spirit imprisoned in the darkness of the flesh. His only escape is through aestheticism and mystical "knowing." Women are Devil's lures designed to draw souls down into bodies; on the other hand, each man aspires toward a female Form of Light who is his own true spirit, resident in heaven, aloof from the Hell of matter. Moreover, in some permutations of Dualist mythology the Mother of Christ becomes Maria Sophia, ... an Eternal Feminine that preexisted material creation ... ."
JD quotes Updike as noting the obvious influence of this heresy on the songs of the Troubadours and the legend of Tristan and Iseult, etc.
PH: One can't help noting the similarity of the plot of "Tannhaeuser," with its two contrasting muses for art, Venus (the earthly) and Elizabeth (the heavenly), to Updike's description of Manicheanism above. A little personal footnote: my old friend (now deceased) Andrew Gray told me he'd been a classmate with Updike, I believe at Harvard (I don't trust my memory on this one), and said that Updike had once told him that Updike's series of "Rabbit" novels was based to some degree on Wagner's "Ring." I can't verify this, but I can't help recalling it as I see Updike's commentary on "Tristan" above.
PH: Cosima mentions, on at least one if not more occasions, how sympathetic she and Richard were to some of the views of the Christian heretics. As I've noted in my study of the "Ring," one can see the influence of such heretics as Jakob Boehme and Spinoza on Wagner. This should give pause to certain Wagner commentators (I'm thinking here specifically of Joachim Koehler in his "Richard Wagner The Last of the Titans") who have suggested that Cosima's and Liszt's Catholicism played a big role in Wagner's later life and had an influence on "Parsifal." "Parsifal" is way, way too complex and ambiguous to be assigned to any given religion or even synthesis of religions such as early Christianity, and Buddhism, though the influence of these worldviews on Wagner in general and "Parsifal" in particular is clear.
PH: Wagner, interestingly, compared the doctrine of a divine creation with what he regarded as the false claims of absolute music to be unworldly: he pointed out not only that the most absolute of absolute music consists of imaginative variations on various forms of physical motion and dance and song, i.e., that even the most abstract music (if it has any power as music at all) subtly references the real world of objects in motion, and human psychology. Otherwise, how could it have any effect upon the human soul, the aesthetic sense, or feeling, at all! In any case, he felt there was no more a divine creation than there was an absolute music, and he praised Beethoven's mature music for demonstrating how musical form evolves out of cells or seeds, showing how music comes to birth. In other words, and in a manner of speaking, evolution of species is built into his music of transition and transformation of motifs. And judging from the evidence it is equally disturbing for some.
JD P. 146: I'm very fond of JD's following remark: "... it is part and parcel of the intriguing dialectics of the music of "Tristan" that Wagner managed to convey this feeling of a final retreat from the surrounding external world of the senses, despite the fact that he was repeating, practically note for note, two passages [JD speaks here of the "Tristan" finale, with Isolde's parting song swallowed up by the orchestra], two passages from the love duet in act 2 that, in sharp contrast to the exalted saintliness of Isolde's renunciation of earthly desire in her death scene, is well known as being second to none in its graphic musical representation of the sexual act."
PH: When Wagner introduced the subject of his special art of transition in music, he pointed to a supreme example, the Act II Love Duet from "Tristan," in which, as he put it, what begins in sensuous longing ends in a state of spiritual exaltation (until, of course, it is broken off in the famous coitus interruptus of Act II when Melot and Marke interrupt the proceedings as dawn is breaking, a coitus interruptus, by the way, which I'm sure is modeled on Ortrud's interruption of Elsa's progress towards the Minster in Act II of "Lohengrin."). Wagner noted that through his musical art of transition he was able to naturally link the sensuous pillar with the spiritual pillar. What is frightening about this for the faithful is that Wagner thus expressed the sensuous roots of man's allegedly spiritual longing to transcend the real world. Man doesn't want to transcend the real world. Man simply wants, as Feuerbach said, to distill what is blissful in life and separate it from what is painful, though the one can't exist without the other (the "Und" problem again). Wagner also pointed out that in his music-dramas he would begin with something mundane and common in life, something all can understand, and show, through a process of musical transformation, how what was once mundane can evolve into something exceptional, heightened, spiritual. This problem is similar to that faced by human beings conditioned by early education to believe in the existence and unity of a transcendent human soul, when faced with the possibility that what we call consciousness, and personal identity, is a summing of an almost infinite number of parts, all of which have a mundane origin and are subject to natural law because they are part of nature.
JD P. 147-148: "The Christian symbols woven into the 'Liebestod' ... reflect similar parallels with religion in Wagner's main medieval source, by Gottfried von Strassburg. (The Bed of Love in the Cave of Lovers serving as the altar and the church where the protagonists are sustained by the sacrament of love are two instances.) ... the allusions to religious practice in the medieval poem are in Wagner's "Tristan" without the elaborate philosophical overlay that one might be tempted to call blasphemous were it not for the fact that in many circles in the nineteenth century, aesthetics and the cult of 'inwardness' had long since begun to replace theology as the focus of intellectual and subjective experience."
PH: Secular art's (feeling's, or love's) gradual takeover of religious belief's (the power of thought's) former status as the (unwitting) inventor and guarantor of man's transcendent value is of course central to my reading of Wagner's romantic operas and music dramas, and if we add the fact that from "Lohengrin" onward Wagner addresses the third party, objective thought, or scientific consciousness, as the antagonist to religious belief and art, we have the main pillars of what I regard as Wagner's allegorical logic. Both Michael Tanner and Roger Scruton have written at length about the religious significance of "Tristan and Isolde."
JD P. 148: Speaking of the "Liebestod" (otherwise known as Isolde's transfiguration, which concludes "Tristan"), JD says, beautifully, that: "The exorbitant seductiveness of its music and its enactment in time give it such sensuous immediacy that it seems to be not just a representation of death, but a culturally constructed experience of it with the heightened emotion, the fleeting last-minute vividness of doomed memory, and the final flush of exhausted vitality that one imagines death involves. And for the allegory to work, the Beethoven-inspired symphonism of Wagner's music into which Isolde throws herself, Senta-like [PH: keeping in mind that Wagner often compared music with water, and especially the ocean], to commit suicide, must itself, after achieving wholeness through Isolde's self-sacrifice, be brought to a close and extinguished."
JD P. 149: "Poizat reads both the arrival of Isolde and her death as Tristan's hallucinations and comes to the conclusion that Isolde's death is therefore no more than the death of Tristan and the final dimming of his fantasy of plenitude in the Woman. But these final pages can also be seen as Tristan's experience of a second death - an inversion of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection and the life everlasting that presents a hitherto unexplored iconic image in Wagner's theatrical liturgy."
PH: Throughout my interpretation of Wagner's operas and music-dramas, from "Dutchman" onward, I posit the hero and heroine, taken together in their love, as Wagner's metaphor for the artist-hero himself, who includes both his conscious (male) and unconscious (female) parts. Though in this sense Tristan and Isolde, and Siegfried and Bruennhilde, are one and the same (as they themselves aver), nonetheless human beings are inwardly divided against themselves in this distinction of the conscious (what Feuerbach calls the "I") from the unconscious (what Feuerbach calls the "Not-I," in the self). It is the "Not-I" which, according to Feuerbach, links our individual ego or consciousness with the "All," or with what Schopenhauer called the Will-in-Nature. This is at least part of the reason why Bruennhilde's mother is Erda, i.e., Mother-Nature, and Isolde's sorceress mother is reputed to control the forces of nature.
PH: Tristan wants to die, presumably so that he can enjoy love unencumbered by its physical limits and conditions, but, as Feuerbach pointed out, love could not be enjoyed in any sense without the limiting conditions which make it possible. But more than that, Tristan wishes to be able to affirm death in, as Wagner put it, the truest sense of the word, i.e., absolute death which makes no allowance for the illusions of immortal life, or eternal rebirth. Tristan, in other words, wants to jump off the futile band-wagon of artists as a formerly unwitting perpetuator of the religious illusion that man has transcendent value. Wagner has conflated the endlessly repeated rebirth in Hinduism and Buddhism with the artist-hero's endless cycle of death and rebirth during each experience of unconscious artistic inspiration, which gives birth to a redemptive work of art. Amfortas's unhealing wound is rendered all the more unbearable because of his seeking redemption in the illusion of transcendent spirit (the Grail), when the only way to heal the unhealing wound is to cease to posit transcendence, to cease to seek redemption from the real world, and instead to embrace Mother Earth (this I believe is the meaning of the Good Friday Spell, which takes place on the date of Christ's crucifixion instead of his resurrection).
JD P. 149-150: Hooray for JD for disavowing the following Nietzsche/Adorno critique: "Since Nietzsche and Adorno, the supposed link between his [Wagner's] aesthetics and the creation of illusion and hence manipulation of perception has become de rigueur among critics, who lose no time in creating precedents for the cinema, modern advertising techniques, and even fascist political propaganda, many of them based on unquestioned premises."
PH: I recall Nietzsche's remark that through what he described as Wagner's constant repetition of musical motifs (not taking account of how they are almost always in a process of transformation, and when repeated are almost always so in a different context each time), Wagner repeats himself so often that we're compelled to believe. I've always found Nietzsche's critique absurd: he knew, or ought to have known, Wagner's artworks well enough to know better.
JD P. 152: "... the discovery of the unconscious was already ideology for Wagner, who from the start of writing "Tristan" relied clearsightedly on an understanding of music, now familiar from psychoanalysis, as an archaic language capable of simulating a return to a state of primal bonding. In the prose sketches Tristan in his act 3 monologue only has this to say:
'My mother died as she gave birth to me
now I'm living, I'm dying of having been born: why?'
Parzival's refrain - repeated by the shepherd -.
'The whole world [is] nothing but
unrelieved longing! How will it ever be stilled?'
(...) The text ... links three conspicuously motherless heroes. Siegfried's words in "Siegfried" on hearing the news of his mother's death at his birth (so starb meine Mutter an mir?) are paraphrased by Tristan, who in turn is visited on his sickbed by Parsifal. All three have been, or will be, guilty of at least one violent act and finally, in the presence of a powerful soprano voice, rectify the badness of life with their own deaths, or through radical self-denial."
PH: It is not merely that all three heroes will be guilty of at least one violent act. More to the point, it is that all three hold themselves in one way or another to be responsible for their mother's death, both Tristan and Siegfried because their mothers died giving them birth, and Parsifal because his mother dies of a broken heart thanks to his neglect. In my interpretation of these three heroes each, as artist-heroes who perpetuate, perhaps unwittingly, religion's sin of world denial, are guilty of what Feuerbach described as religious man's sin of matricide, of denying and therefore figuratively killing their mother, Nature, by positing a spiritual realm which allegedly transcends and is wholly autonomous from nature, even though this realm is entirely a product of a subtle sublimation of natural impulses. Since the inspired secular art the artist-heroes produce (or are capable of producing, though Parsifal never takes Kundry's bait, having lived through the suffering so many times before in his former incarnations) offers a substitute for Mother Nature, for the real world, the artist's muses are surrogate mothers. Thus in Tristan's delirium in Act Three his imagination links together his unhealing wound, Isolde's healing of that wound through love, and the fact that his mother died giving him birth. Similarly, Siegfried momentarily confuses Bruennhilde with his mother, and Bruennhilde offers herself as substitute. Finally, Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal by offering herself, in effect, as his surrogate mother, by offering him his dying mother's parting kiss. But in Parsifal's case, having seen the damage that artistic Wahn has caused through the millennia in perpetuating man's sin against Mother Nature, he renounces the muse of art and restores mother nature to her rights: thus we have the Good Friday Spell in which nature's innocence, besmirched previously by religious man's hatred for the body and for nature, is restored. This, in my view, is the true sense in which Parsifal would offer Tristan a way out.
JD P. 153-155: JD closes this chapter with a critique of the notion that Wagner's ultra persuasive music, especially in climactic and cataclysmic moments like Isolde's death-song, provided a model for the Nazi's ritualistic rallies. JD points out that many of the pseudo-religious and romantic elements borrowed by the Nazis for their rallies are "ubiquitous" in "religious and romantic belief systems before the advent of Hitler," and therefore "it would be rash to categorize any of them as uniquely totalitarian or fascist."
General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung
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