On First Looking Into Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’


In 1852, after unceremoniously abandoning his position as conductor of the Dresden Opera, Richard Wagner fled to Zurich where he had a fateful first encounter with someone else’s wife. Mathilde Wesendonck — wife of Dick’s new patron, silk merchant Otto Wesendonck — became his new muse, but whether or not she became his lover is unclear. Certainly, Wagner’s wife Minna thought something was up. She famously wrote Mathilde the nineteenth century equivalent of a nasty email before she left Wagner, quipping:

I must tell you with a bleeding heart that you have succeeded in separating my husband from me after nearly twenty-two years of marriage. May this noble deed contribute to your peace of mind, to your happiness.

Whether or not Minna’s ire was justified, we do know that Wagner temporarily shelved his Ring Cycle to compose ristan und Isolde as a tribute to Mathilde, whatever that implies. The opera is adapted from several versions of a twelfth century legend that not only inspired Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet but was also a precursor to the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot love triangle from Arthurian legend. The story is probably familiar to you, even if you haven’t seen the dreadful James Franco movie: guy kidnaps Queen of Ireland as a war bride for his uncle, kidnapper and Queen fall in love en route, guy delivers object of affection to her new husband but the pair carry on a deeply tortured love affair in secret; guy and Queen inevitably get caught by furious husband and all hell breaks loose culminating in tragic death or double suicide, depending on which version you’re reading. We’ve all heard it before in some incarnation or another, but you haven’t really heard it, until you hear Wagner.

At the end of January, I had the privilege of seeing Tristan und Isolde at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. It was a four-hour cerebral experience distinguished by delightful unorthodoxy and great skill. That said, I would not be so bold as to write a review because I couldn’t tell coloratura from a ham sandwich (OK — I could). What I will do, though, is expand on the philosophical rabbit hole I glimpsed briefly at the bottom of a martini that night but struggled to reach for days after.

Tristan und Isolde is a meditation on two conflicting philosophical approaches to desire. Desire is a tricky thing to conceptualize but my favorite philosophers unanimously agree that true desire (not love, not need — desire) necessitates an object that is impossible to attain. (While you’re reading this, it’s essential to remember that “impossible” is an absolute term. Passing your math test is not impossible, although it may be unlikely. Walking through walls is impossible. Falling in love with someone you cannot be with under any worldly circumstances is impossible.)  In Act Two of the opera, the textual motif of “night” is introduced. At night, the lovers can be together, but only when they’ve shaken loose the duties and constraints of day. It is a fantasy realm where the impossible can be achieved but only temporarily as morning inevitably follows. As dawn approaches, the lovers recognize the futility of their blind night time trysts and realize, perhaps morbidly, that they can only really be together in death — which, I think, is a pretty way (or delusional, and is there much difference?) of saying “not at all.”

Tormented by his own impossible love for Mathilde Wesendonk, Wagner was heavily influenced during the composition of Tristan by the works of Arthur Schopenhauer, philosopher and first sort-of-Bhuddist celebrity of the Western world. In The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer posits that the world is driven by unachievable desires, that we continually strive toward things we can never reach, and that this compulsion toward the impossible makes us continually miserable. The implications of his argument resemble Bhuddist thought: it follows that recognizing and extinguishing these unobtainable desires is the only way to alleviate one’s suffering and find inner peace. In Act Three, as Tristan lays dying in Brittany, he echoes Schopenhauer by cursing the love potion that Isolde “poisoned” him with, railing against the consequential torment he suffers in her absence. Certainly, he would be better off if he could shake his passion for her — but would we?

If it were up to inner peace, there would be no opera. While the characters might fall in line with Eastern tradition’s preference for extinguishing desire, the opera itself directly defies this argument. An opera about two people meeting cute but ultimately getting over each other would lack the resonance of Wagner’s masterpiece; Tristan und Isolde is still relevant and necessary over 150 years after its premiere precisely because its lovers can never be together. In plainer terms, we all saw what happened when Niles and Daphne got together on Frasier, right? We stopped caring. We care about this, though. We are haunted by this and, although Tristan and Isolde, as individuals, would be better off without their fatal attraction to each other, the success of this masterpiece that hinges their doomed relationship falls in line with modern psychoanalytical thought.

Jacques Lacan separates desire from need, arguing that need is biological (“I need food, I need a reproductive partner”) while desire is the misguided expectation that satisfying such a need will fill an emotional void. One can acquire a lover, a latte, a rare item or whatever the current fixation may be but, once that object is attained, desire dissipates. Wanting something is only possible when you don’t have it, therefore, desire is characterized by a necessary lack. Implicit in all of this is that it is the chase that’s productive and significant; the object of one’s desire, whatever it is, doesn’t matter. Schopenhauer was right to say that wanting something unattainable is the source of great misery, but desire’s grief is ultimately part of a good beyond ourselves. It drives people mad; it drives them to take irrational, futile actions; but the most important thing is that it drives them. Real desire — unreachable, never to be satisfied — is the force that keeps us from stagnating. It is the producer of life, of itself, and of our most enduring works of art.

Don’t mistake me — I don’t for a second believe my argument is original. Deep down, anyone worth knowing knows this. Here’s Ty King, writing for Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which I feel is the 90s greatest philosophical work):

Passion. […] It lies in all of us. Sleeping, waiting, and though unwanted, unbidden, it will stir — open its jaws and howl. […] Passion rules us all, and we obey. What other choice do we have? Passion is the source of our finest moments: the joy of love, the clarity of hatred, and the ecstasy of grief. […]If we could live without passion, maybe we’d know some kind of peace. But we would be hollow. (Buffy 2×17, “Passion”)

The solution to the paradox of desire, I guess, is not to read it as a good/bad binary. Peace is peaceful and desire is productive and we each need to pick one. As for me, I know which one I always, always prefer. Desire is what shoves you toward the precipice and demands that you jump. The ride down won’t look anything at all like zen or raking tabletop sand gardens but god, wouldn’t you rather bleed out to the Liebestod than fade like so many sheets of colored paper in the sun?

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