William Scott: Unspeakable Songs: History/Sex in Tannhaeuser

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

Moderators: alberich00, Justin Jeffrey

Post Reply
Site Admin
Posts: 427
Joined: Tue Apr 19, 2011 11:03 am

William Scott: Unspeakable Songs: History/Sex in Tannhaeuser

Post by alberich00 » Fri Aug 30, 2013 1:14 pm

Another in my series of mini-reviews of lectures from the Univ. of South Carolina's bicentennial symposium on Wagner in winter of 2013:

"Unspeakable Songs: History and Sexuality in Tannhaeuser" by William Scott (Univ. of Pittsburgh)

Scott asks whether "Tannhaeuser" is a Christian allegory. Usually, the suffering from sin resolves in redemption.

Tannhaeuser's songs of sensuality in praise of Venus before the Wartburg court, and its negative reaction, show that a key theme of this work is sexual repression. Tannhaeuser's enjoyment of his sexual dalliance with Venus is presented as timeless, as outside of time and space. But in his complaint to Venus Tannhaeuser tells her that he suffers from historical consciousness. Adorno described the Venusberg as a phantasmagoria.

To be redeemed, Tannhaeuser suggests he must return to linear time. Tannhaeuser, while at court, has had to suppress the memory of a secular past. This is a secular history never to be spoken of, but Tannhaeuser often sings of it. [PH: I noted in http://www.wagnerheim.com that Venus's inspiration of Tannhaeuser's art in the Venusberg is Wagner's representation of unconscious artistic inspiration, something which Tannhaeuser has always forgotten in the past when he awoke from a dream of inspiration to sing before the court and Elizabeth, but in Act II for the first time recalls to memory. I noted that this is the basis for Tristan's and Siegfried's fatal revelations of their true relationship to their muses of inspiration, Isolde and Bruennhilde. What makes his revelation to his audience of his forbidden journey to the Venusberg so disturbing is that Tannhaeuser is revealing that what the Wartburgers have heretofore understood to be divine revelation or inspiration from on high, is actually physical, earthly, in origin. I also noted that what Wotan could not bear to tell Bruennhilde aloud, in words, in his confession to her, she understands subliminally, musically, and this is what she communicates of Wotan's forbidden hoard of knowledge - as Siegfried's muse of artistic inspiration - to the artist Siegfried during their loving union in S.3.3]

Does "Tannhaeuser" present only a mind/body dichotomy, an opposition between the spiritual and the human?

Society must ward off open expression of sexual desire [thus the fierce reaction against Tannhaeuser in the court after he's sung his song]. Scott notes that in Tannhaeuser's complaint to Venus he expresses his need to escape her paradise and to restore time, pain, and death. [PH: This passage in "Tannhaeuser" Wagner seems to have lifted straight out of a passage in Feuerbach's "Thoughts on Death and Immortality"].

Scott says that musical enjoyment is kin to sexual enjoyment. Venusberg's timelessness can satisfy all desires. Redemption and sacred history seeks a temporal world. [PH: One of the primary arguments in Feuerbach's critique of the psychology of religious belief/faith is that believers seek in heaven, which unknown to them is merely a product of their poetic imagination, merely a sublimated satisfaction of earthly desires, disguised as spiritual needs. This is precisely why the revelation that Tannhaeuser's art, which had formerly entranced Elizabeth and all the court, was inspired by Venus and not by God, is so disturbing to the court; it is an implicit critique of the very idea of the holy, and of redemption, which is central to their notion of the meaning of life].

Scott says that Tannhaeuser thinks he can do both, i.e., praise Venus yet live in a temporal world. Tannhaeuser longs for freedom from her. But she curses him, saying that if he leaves her he will never find redemption. [PH: Venus is correct: as Feuerbach said, in man's religious longing for redemption from the limits imposed by man's physical nature, man wished to smuggle into his paradise of redemption a sublimated version of all that he longed for in the real, physical world. What this means is that ultimately Tannhaeuser can only find redemption from man's physical limits in the art which she inspires, since there is no true realm of spiritual transcendence. But another way out would be for Tannhaeuser to simply reconcile himself to man's physical limits without positing any transcendent meaning, either religious or artistic. Wagner, I think, was never satisfied with his "Tannhaeuser" because he didn't know how to resolve this issue, at that time. Also, note that Venus's curse is the model for Kundry's curse on Tannhaeuser, that he will seek his way back to the Grail realm but never find it.]

Scott says that Venus equates sexual satisfaction with redemption. Tannhaeuser can find salvation in her arms, she says. [PH: If we consider Venus only a metaphor for sexual desire, then even here we can see a basis for Wagner's eventual critique of Schopenhauer's argument that redemption is to be found only in a stilling of the will. Wagner said, instead, that in sexual love, if carried to the point of merging one's individual will with the world will, one can find redemption. But Wagner was speaking of sexual love as a metaphor for his own unconscious artistic inspiration (which is the true subject of Tannhaeuser's adventures in Venusberg). In other words, it is in his unconsciously inspired art, heir to lost religious faith, and freed from religious dogma and from religion's claim to transcendence, that the artist-hero can find his sole approximation to what religious folk called salvation. But it is only temporary.]

Scott says that Mother Mary [PH: Tannhaeuser calls on her to exorcise Venus and the Venusberg, to escape their hold on him, reminding us of Parsifal's making the sign of the cross to exorcise Klingsor's Magic Garden and the Flowermaidens and Kundry; in both instances we find Wagner's metaphor for his own secular art as a substitute for dying religious faith] sublimates both sex and the desire for redemption. Tannhaeuser's true love Elizabeth is a surrogate for the Virgin Mary.

Music, Scott says, can enslave the listener just as sexual desire does, implies Wolfram, who asks how Tannhaeuser's music won Elizabeth's heart.

Tannhaeuser invokes a deep forgetfulness of his past when Elizabeth asks where he was. Tannhaeuser has suppressed his memory of his secular and sexual existence. This is a terrifying enjoyment. Why must Tannhaeuser atone and not Elizabeth, who was overwhelmed by his music (and, Scott implies, by sexual desire for him)?

Tannhaeuser uses his sojourn in the Venusberg to undermine the social order in the song contest. Tannhaeuser sings of complete love, which includes the body, not merely romantic love. Tannhaeuser praises Venus, and invites the entire court to join him in the Venusberg. Tannhaeuser infuriates his audience, and Elizabeth expresses her shame, as Tannhaeuser has pierced her heart. Scott says that Elizabeth has suppressed her enjoyment to be worthy of Mary. Elizabeth is angel-like. Tannhaeuser tries to atone for shaming Elizabeth and offending the court by traveling to Rome in atonement, where he will seek the Pope's pardon. This is an allegory of repressed libidinal force and sexuality, and tells us of the dangers of music.

Scott referenced Abbate's "Unsung Voices." The "myth of intrusion."

The enjoyment of music sublimates repressed sexuality. [PH: This is a classic trope in Wagner scholarship, that the hold of Wagner's music over us is that it unleashes sexual and other desires normally repressed by society, giving them a safe, because artistic, means for expression.] It is music which is the timeless utopia. Disorder lurks beneath ordered society.

Tannhaeuser confesses to Wolfram his desire to return to the Venusberg after he could not attain atonement of his sin through the Pope in Rome.

Q&A: Deathridge noted that the entire opera collapses musically: its music can't match the complexity of the ideas it tries to express, to which Scott responded that Wagner was never quite satisfied with "Tannhaeuser."

Scott also stated that there is a contradiction between Tannhaeuser's wanting to leave Venusberg, and later inviting others to join him there [PH: Yes, after giving up on spiritual transcendence as an alternative way to satisfy man's longing for transcendent value].

Another questioner asked about the other songs in "Tannhaeuser," such as those of the shepherd, and the pilgrims. [PH: I didn't catch Scott's answer; I'll have to listen to that part again; the problem is that I am constantly being interrupted in my home and have a hard time finding my place and getting back into the right frame of mind when I return to my computer; it is precisely for this reason that I've had to postpone completing my promised revision of "The Wound That Will Never Heal" for publication, until further notice].

Another questioner spoke of "Tannhaeuser" as Wagner's most treacherous opera, and asked, why does Tannhaeuser atone? Scott answered that Tannhaeuser is a confused and repressed guy who is changeable. Mardi-Gras vs. Ash-Wednesday.

The moderator opened up the floor to general questions for the speakers in this particular segment, so the following is a general question for Trippett:

Wagner employed electrical rather than gaslight for striking moments in "Parsifal." Electricity here depicts the miraculous. One thinks of a revival of Titurel as an electrically galvanized corpse [PH: a joke about Wagner's absurd conceit of having Titurel wake from the dead and bless all present in the final tableau, an idea which thankfully Wagner suppressed].

Deathridge: Wagner used electric light to shine on the Rhinegold in 1876. Electric light demonstrated the weakness of gaslight, its inadequacy.

Somebody noted that Kundry is a sort of combination of Elizabeth and Venus [PH: True].

Deathridge: Obsession with diametrical opposites in Wagner's operas is too simple for Wagner.

Anno: A bit more on Wagner's place in German music

Berry: Schoenberg tries to reconcile Brahms and Wagner

Deathridge: Wagner is more modern than anyone else who is considered more modern [PH: Here, here!!!] Wagner introduces the idea of the modern into the arts. Wagner responds to his own failures, to better himself. "Parsifal" can be considered the 5th opera of the "Ring."

[PH: I would very much like to hear Deathridge on Wagner's relationship to modernity. As for Scott's talk, it presents some worthy material, but I think his association of Venus and the Venusberg with sexuality is simplistic; I have long considered Tannhaeuser's sojourn there, with her, an early metaphor for his own notion of unconscious artistic inspiration, which, if you will recall, Wagner once described to Mathilde Wesendonck as a marriage of himself to himself].
Post Reply