Love, Death and Redemption in Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde"

Edsel Kreisler

The Liebestod or "love-death" scene in Richard Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde is the musical and dramatic climax of the opera. We attend as Isolde, the Irish princess skilled in the magic arts, wills herself into ecstatic death over the corpse of her lover Tristan. My aim in this essay is to shed some light on the origins and significance of the Liebestod in Wagner's work.

A first encounter with Wagner's Tristan can be disorienting. To begin with, there is the freakish language of the libretto itself, which, in the wake of its premiere in the Munich Court Theater on June 10, 1865, was roundly denounced as simply bad poetry. (We should note here that Wagner composed all his own librettos, and typically made them available to his friends and followers well in advance of the operas' actual composition. His private, dramatic recitations of the librettos are much attested in surviving correspondence.) The characters in Tristan and Isolde typically speak in short rhymed verse phrases of a few words that are usually more symbolic and elliptical than descriptive. Translating the libretto's text into English has often been said to be impossible. Even a working knowledge of German is supposed to be of little help to a non-native German speaker in grasping its deeper meaning. Wagner's language is willfully arcane, exotic, esoteric, more so surely than in any of this other operas.

Beyond the difficulties of translation and poetical license lies a second source of bafflement, and that is the bizarre dialectic which emerges between the two main characters. This dramatic dialog is couched in an unusual vocabulary that we must sample to fully appreciate. The dialectic expresses a murky metaphysics of love and desire, the will, suffering, self-denial and redemption, consciousness, death, and immortality. On first encounter, it is a challenge to know what to make of this dark, erotic stew. Here is the duet "O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe", which occurs early in Act II. Tristan and Isolde have furtively re-joined to consummate their love. After a frenzied outpouring of joy in their mutual love, the music subsides momentarily, and then Tristan begins to sing,

Descend, o night of love, grant oblivion, that I may live; take me up into your bosom, release me from the world! Extinguished now the last glimmers; what we thought, what we imagined; all thought, all remembering, the glorious presentiment of sacred twilight extinguishes imagined terrors, world redeeming.

Here is a further sampling of passages from the libretto that reveal the strangeness of the material we are going to discuss:

I wished to flee into Night, to take you with me... there to pledge to you eternal love, to consecrate you to Death in company with myself.

Spiteful Day... its vain glory, its flaunting display are mocked by those to whom Night has granted sight.

Before him who has seen with love death's Night, before him to whom she has confided her dark secret, are scattered the lies, the renown and honor of Day, power and advantage shining and glorious as the paltry dust caught in the sunbeam! Amid the vain fancy of Day he still harbors one desire -- the yearning for sacred Night where all-eternal, true alone, love's bliss smiles on him!

Then I am myself the world; floating in sublime bliss, life of love most sacred, the sweetly conscious undeluded wish never again to waken.

What could die but that which troubles us?... Thus we might die, that together, ever one, without end, never waking, never fearing, namelessly enveloped in love, given up to each other, to live only for love!

Now banish dread, sweet death, yearned for, longed for death-in-love [Liebestod]! In your arms, consecrated to you, sacred elemental quickening force, free from the peril of waking.

It is the dark land of Night out of which my mother sent me when he, whom she bore on her deathbed, left her in death to reach the light.

From that which, when she bore me, was her fortress of love, the wondrous realm of Night, I then awake.

The strange dialog in the libretto appears in the first order as a contest between Day and Night for the allegiance of the lovers. Day is the realm of deception, lies, vanity, grievance, envy, insolence, love disguised as hatred, and every form of sorrow, misery, and dread. Odd as it may seem, Day is also the realm of loyalty, honor, and duty. The realm of Night is that into which we, or at least a favored few, pass when we die. Here we find a paucity of definite attributes, but among the discernable few we can tally true and eternal love in unity with the beloved, sublime bliss, a forgetting and disburdening of all things associated with Day, and a hint of some sort of redemption. There is yet another suggestion that Night is our original home, it is from Night that we were born, and death is a return to our native realm.

Of course and most importantly, it is sexual love that not only illuminates and motivates the passage from Day to Night for the lovers, but it is this sensual love alone that directs the outcome: the two become one, the two individual egos merge into a single egoless point of purest happiness. It is only the consummation of sexual love, along with the simultaneous abjuration of all things connected with Day, that vouchsafes the lovers' passage into the realm of Night's eternal bliss.

Here, a side note about the music. It is no doubt an obtrusive failing of my presentation that I have nothing whatever to say about what, to Wagner, is surely the most important issue regarding this or any of his operas, and that is their effectiveness as musical dramas. I will only note in passing that even the sanest and most judicious commentators are often reduced to helpless babble when attempting to gauge the musical/dramatic impact of this opera. Here, for example, is Joachim Koehler in his otherwise estimable new critical biography of Wagner: "The drama was resolved in new, unheard-of sounds... Wagner devised a musical language impossible to justify by existing standards... Wagner created a kind of musical supernova by dint of constant refractions, inversions, mirror images and interlinkings... Its light outshone everything that existed in the operatic firmament... Wagner's ocean of sound had engulfed all terra firma." And so on in like vein. I intend to pass by the music entirely, content that my incompetence in this area leaves me at no great critical disadvantage.

I aim instead to unravel the philosophical fabric of the opera in such a way that the erotic dialectic of the libretto can be seen as an expression of Wagner's very personal metaphysics. We begin with a quotation from a letter Wagner wrote to Franz Liszt around 1855:

I have found a sedative which has finally helped me to sleep at night; it is the sincere and heartfelt yearning for death: total unconsciousness, complete annihilation, the end of all dreams--the only ultimate redemption.

What allusive riches we find here! Sedative, sleep, night, heartfelt yearning for death, unconsciousness, annihilation, dreams, ultimate redemption! What are we to make of this despairing outburst? To begin with, we note the date. In 1854, the year prior, Wagner had his first encounter with Arthur Schopenhauer, and it is in this letter to Liszt that we hear for the first time Schopenhauer's voice in the background of Wagner's writings. Much has been made of Wagner's indebtedness to Schopenhauer, a debt Wagner humbly professed to the end of his life. As we look into the Schopenhauerian elements that are evident in Wagner's Liebestod, we must bear in mind one peculiar fact: Of all the thinkers, writers, composers from whom Wagner freely borrowed over the course of his creative life, it is only toward Schopenhauer that Wagner maintains this reverence; the rest are either dismissed as of no consequence, or are simply discarded without comment. Why is this? Scholars have offered a suggestion: If Wagner expresses contempt for Hegel, or is dismissive of Feuerbach, this contempt and disregard are in direct proportion to the degree to which Wagner's mature views coincide with theirs. The claim is not that Wagner stole his metaphysics from these philosophers and then denied it. Rather, Wagner discovered that his own innermost metaphysical musings had already been given philosophical voice in the work of others, and he was unwilling to give them credit for what he perceived as his own independent discoveries. With Schopenhauer the case is different in one crucial regard. As we will see, Wagner credits Schopenhauer with providing him with the philosophical language with which to express the explosive psychological intuitions he was then furiously attempting to turn into musical form. Yet Wagner's exhilaration with Schopenhauer was tempered from the beginning with an awareness that his own intuitions did not in the end square with Schopenhauer's on the deepest of the elements in the Schopenhauerian world view. This felt distance between his own views and those of Schopenhauer, which eventually grew into a profound discomfort, provided Wagner the luxury of claiming allegiance to the worldly philosopher and at the same time pursuing his own very personal evolution of that view.

Schopenhauer arrived in Wagner's life at a crucial juncture. By 1857 Wagner had already been laboring six years, with little distraction but with mounting frustration, on what was to become his greatest composition, The Ring of the Nibelung. In the middle of his work on Siegfried, the third opera in the Ring cycle, he abruptly broke off, and began to write Tristan. There is no doubt that Schopenhauer provided Wagner the metaphysical ground in which to plant his emerging intuitions regarding human suffering and the possibility of redemption through erotic love, and that this revelation in turn emboldened him to recast the main arc of Wotan's ambition, struggle and abdication in the Ring. Wagner's great undertaking in Tristan was to formulate a new solution, to propose a new redemption, to the burden of human suffering. Schopenhauer's contribution to the project was to reveal to Wagner, for the first time, exactly what that burden was.

According to Schopenhauer, our knowledge of the world through our senses is knowledge only of the world of appearances, or representations. The world itself, the thing-in-itself, we do not directly apprehend. The hidden essence of the world, the thing-in-itself, Schopenhauer calls the will. The will encompasses all of reality, from inert matter floating in space to the highest forms of conscious life. The will itself is not conscious, and it has no ultimate purpose or aim. Yet its nature reveals itself everywhere as a "blind striving", which is manifested primarily in "the will to life", the propagation of species through sexual reproduction. At the level of the individual of the species, Schopenhauer tells us,

That mandate of the will which objectifies itself in the species exhibits itself in the consciousness of the lover under the mask of the anticipation of an infinite blessedness which is to be found for him in the union with this female individual.

For Schopenhauer, it is not only the agonies of love and all its deceptions that are at the behest of the prime directive, "the will to life". He sees the entire course of the individual's existence as a physical, psychological, spiritual vector aimed by the will at its own blind satisfaction. All the joys and all the sufferings of the human life are mere byproducts of the erotic combustion required to continue the species. He says,

The species alone has infinite life, and therefore is capable of infinite desires, infinite satisfaction, and infinite pain. But these are here imprisoned in the narrow breast of a mortal. No wonder, then, if such a breast seems like to burst, and can find no expression for the intimations of infinite rapture or infinite misery with which it is filled.

If this pessimistic metaphysics resonated with Wagner, rather less so did Schopenhauer's own resolution to it. Schopenhauer famously argued that the only way to confront the burden of the knowledge of our bondage to the will, was to deny the will. He says,

The knowing self must eventually throw off its yoke, and, free from all the aims of the will, exist purely for itself, simply as a clear mirror of the world.

For Schopenhauer, this conscious escape from the will's demands can occur in only two ways: through experience of the sublime in art or nature, or through ascetic withdrawal, the conscious suppression of all desire. Death is the third avenue of escape, but the conscious self does not survive that transformation.

Nevertheless, we can already make out the basic features of the metaphysics that underwrite the anguished drama in Tristan and Isolde. The lovers burn in the mighty fires of the furnace of the will; they recognize the meretricious trappings of the bondage of the will in the delusions of the realm of Day; they yearn to be free of that bondage, to "throw off its yoke", to "exist purely for themselves"; at the same time they are willing, eager, to sacrifice themselves in their attempt to satisfy the will's mandate. This state of affairs seems superficially to cleave to Schopenhauer's gloomy view of things, and to capture the melancholy spirit of Wagner's confessional letter to Liszt. Yet with Tristan, Wagner has already departed from the Schopenhauerian view, and not by a little.

Central to both Schopenhauer's view and to Wagner's diverging conception was the notion of the redemption of the individual through denial of the will. The goal is the same: the conscious individual, leaving all desire behind, becomes, or returns to, its true nature. The path to redemption, for Schopenhauer, is a path that only the solitary, enlightened individual may tread. The successful journey leads to a state of ego-oblivion that Schopenhauer movingly describes:

We lack conceptions for that which it now is; indeed all data for such conceptions are wanting. We can only describe it as that which is free to be will-to-live or not. Buddhism denotes the latter case by the word Nirvana. It is the point which remains for ever unattainable to all human knowledge.

Wagner's first point of departure from this picture is to assert that the path to this point of ego-less bliss is taken not by an individual, but by two together, both of them driven, paradoxically, by the very erotic passion which Schopenhauer declared to be the essence of the individual's bondage to the will. Wagner's hopeful twist on this erotic madness is to envelop his lovers not in a base carnal lust that is driven solely towards its own satiety, but rather, he infuses them with a self-denying love that achieves its completion only in the recognition of itself in the other. It is too easy to parody this overheated language, and I will not trot out any further examples of it from the opera, but for now we may anticipate that for Wagner this was more than a mere sentimental gesture borrowed without shame from the romantic poets. We will take another look at this issue when we discuss Feuerbach.

The second main point of conflict with Schopenhauer's view is Wagner's claim that the end-point, the payoff of the sacrifice needed to abandon the burden of desire, is achieved not in this life, i.e. not in the ego-oblivion of the living individual, but in the next (the realm of Night). And it is not the apotheosis of a single consciousness but the merging of two individual selves into a unary field of love.

Did Wagner ever believe that his version of human redemption, leading by way of strenuous erotic exertion, (somehow) through a denial of the will, and thence into death, could be made compatible with Schopenhauer's much grimmer metaphysics? Take, for instance, Wagner's insistence that the lovers survive, somehow, their own deaths. Given Schopenhauer's general view of the human individual as no more than an expendable vehicle for the propagation of the species, as a temporary excrescence of the will to life, it might seem unlikely that he would countenance any such survival. But consider this passage from The World as Will and Idea. Schopenhauer here contrasts the self-conscious ego with the individual's character or essence. (I have truncated the text):

It is our true self, the character, which produces that other thing, the knowing self. Our true self does not sleep with it when the knowing self sleeps. The true self remains unimpaired when the knowing self becomes extinct in death. The character itself, the true self, is still itself, it endures; for it alone is unchangeable, indestructible, does not grow old, is not physical but metaphysical, does not belong to the phenomenal appearance, but to the thing in itself.

Could one blame Wagner if he were tempted to read (or rather, mis-read) Schopenhauer's account of the manifestation of the will in the individual to suit his own needs?

This is a speculative reconstruction of Wagner's personal and artistic engagement with Schopenhauer's philosophy. But lest one think that this attempt to impose an implausible metaphysics on Wagner is unfair, when surely one ought to accuse him of no more than an inflated literary imagination, I offer the following as evidence. In 1858 Wagner sat down and penned a letter to Schopenhauer, which he never completed or mailed. In this letter, Wagner attempts, with due deference, to refute Schopenhauer on the problematic issue of the suicide of frustrated lovers. Schopenhauer had expressed astonishment at the stupidity of such people who throw away the only life they can possibly enjoy, in the vain hope of a chimerical future bliss in mutual destruction. Wagner retorts:

I am eager to presume that you really have found no explanation for this, so that, as I flatter myself with having a connection to this subject, I may share with you an intuition, in which a healing path in the matter of sexual love presents itself to me, a path to self-knowledge and denial of the will, and indeed not merely of the individual will.

You alone give me the substance of the concepts through which my intuition is expressible philosophically, and if I attempt to make myself clear, it is only by trusting in what I have learned from you.

If I succeed in explaining your case of mutual suicide only by way of digression, you may attribute that to lack of practice, and perhaps lack of dialectical ability. I begin in particular with an account of the highest and most perfect appearance of what I mean by the denial of the will. The case of mutual suicide I can account only as an imperfect and lower grade of this."

Here of course Wagner is referring to the Liebestod, the redemptive cure for all that ails humankind. The point, at this point, is only that, for Wagner, the wild metaphysical adumbrations of Tristan and Isolde were more than mere artistic devices to enrich a melodramatic musical spectacle. The metaphysics beneath this opera, and in fact all his operas, was deeply personal to him. He often spoke of suffering the sufferings of his characters. He spoke of repeatedly breaking down in bouts of weeping during the composition of Tristan. And, as his letter to Liszt reveals and as is documented in the painful passages of his life, he experienced every facet of Day's delusions and of the will's torments, and desired nothing more than to dismount the wheel of Ixion.

Thus far I have been working to outline points of agreement and divergence between Wagner and Schopenhauer within the metaphysical framework of Tristan and Isolde. I have suggested two points of contention: (1) the motivating power of erotic love as selfish, blind and solitary (Schopenhauer) or as a selfless, other-directed awareness (Wagner); (2) the outcome of erotic love as mere sensual satiety followed inevitably by disappointment and disillusion (Schopenhauer) or as the conscious merging of two selves into a single point of ego-less mutual recognition (Wagner).

There is another element in the Tristan metaphysics that we need to elaborate, before we address the final question of Wagner's understanding of the idea of redemption. In 1882, the year before his death, Wagner remarked that his opera Tristan and Isolde was "the greatest of tragedies". In Tristan's premature death, and Isolde's climactic love-death, nature was "thwarted in its highest task". In spite of the ecstatic reunion of the lovers in death, something fundamental had not been achieved. Wagner explained that nature itself constantly seeks out love, for only in love can it "produce something great and redemptive". It is not enough then, for Wagner, that his lovers find personal redemption through an erotic yet selfless strenuousness that obliterates the weight of the will. It is of the utmost importance that in the very redemption achieved by the lovers through death, something new and greater is created. Mere oblivion, even blissful, love-filled oblivion, is not sufficient. In their redemption in death, the lovers must merge to become a new and more wonderful thing.

Wagner, we may imagine, will again have sought validation from the Master for the adoption of this generative aspect of redemption. As it happens, there is an enigmatic passage in Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Idea in which he expounds on a peculiar metaphysical implication of his theory of the will, and it relates to Wagner's concern. Here is what Schopenhauer says (I have truncated the text):

The will to live desires to objectify itself in a perfectly definite individual, which can only be produced by this father with this mother. This metaphysical desire of the will has no other sphere of action than the hearts of the future parents, which accordingly are seized with this ardent longing, and now imagine themselves to desire on their own account what really has only a purely metaphysical end, i.e. an end which lies outside the series of actually existing things. Thus it is the ardent longing of the future individual to enter existence which has first become possible here, a longing which proceeds from the lofty passion of the future parents for each other...

Schopenhauer seems to suggest, darkly, that the will itself, through the agency of the erotic passions of the man and the woman, aims at the creation of a future individual which pre-exists as a metaphysical seed in the womb of the will itself, and which ardently longs for its own future existence. Whether Wagner took note of this sibylline utterance is unknown. In any event, we have already noticed another remarkable passage in which Schopenhauer speaks of the condition of the redeemed individual sublimated into the ego-less point: "We can only describe it as that which is free to be will-to-live or not." A desperate Wagner might well have tried to hang a large weight on this flimsy point: indeed it appears to be the key to Wagner's solution to the metaphysical dilemma he posed for Wotan in the Ring. Recall that the character of Siegfried was to be the first of a new species of human being, a creature free from the bondage of the universal lust for power (here read the bondage of the will), and thus free to challenge the gods themselves for supremacy of the world. Wotan must contrive to create this new creature without saddling him with the mortal stain of subservience to his own divine providence. Siegfried can come into existence only through the love of two individuals, Siegmund and Sieglinde, who defy Wotan's commands, abjure all worldy strivings and cast themselves willingly into death in order to consummate their love. The metaphysically necessary becomes the psychologically inexhorable. Siegfried is the product of that human redemption through love, the new creature who is free not to be the will to live, free to live a life untethered from the bondage of the will.

Yet the deeper puzzle remains. In spite of all of Wagner's artistic toils in Tristan, the meaning of redemption, the need for redemption, is still unexplained. What is it about the human condition, as Wagner perceived it, that cries out for this elemental healing? What is so broken, wounded, damaged, about the world, about humanity itself, which only the most extreme sacrifice of determined lovers can overcome?

Wagner's personal life was a testament to the experience of erotic love as the source of deepest human anguish and despair, as well as the most intense sensual joy. He also knew the ennobling, purifying joy of the chaste love between brother and sister, friend and friend. This tension between the vile, debasing, merely sensuous aspect of love, and its salvific, healing potential in selfless devotion, was the demon that haunted Wagner all his life. As he matured as an artist and expanded his philosophical base, he adopted different artistic and theoretical strategies to confront the demon. But even in his earliest works, we see one thing clearly: Wagner felt a profound need to disburden the human spirit of the unclean, destructive element in the erotic impulse. This release from the original sin of the sexual drive Wagner would eventually label "redemption". Until very near the end of his artistic life (until, that is, Parsifal appeared), Wagner imagined death as the sole adequate purgative of the bondage of desire: death as liberation.

Wagner was all of fifteen when he completed his first play (and indeed his first extant work) Leubald. This lurid drama is saturated with lasciviousness, pregnancy, rape, adultery, incest, multiple murders including patricide, witches, and madness. We also witness a fatal, forbidden love affair between a brother, the hero Leubald, and his too-late-recognized sister, Adelaide. Listen to the blood-chilling curse that Adelaide's dying father heaps on her head: her "appalling love", he screams, was "pimped by devilish cunning, given suck by a salamander bloated with venom, concealed beneath a dragon's scaly wings and, filled with poisonous vermin, her gravid body swelled by a scorpion's hideous brood". (As one critic has delicately noted, "Such biblical hyperbole suggests that the relationship between Leubald and Adelaide has transgressed the bounds of normalcy.") And finally the death scene, the first of many love-deaths in Wagner's mature output: Leubald mortally wounds his sister, then both sink down on the bed, "wedded together" by death. The morning sun rises above them in a gesture of reconciliation. The play ends with voices that hint at the nascent union of the lovers in a better, purified existence: "Bring them to bed! They are asleep!"

So here we see it clearly for the first time: the young Wagner felt that the suffering of his lovers was directly owed to what he called the "sinful morass" of "contemptible sensuality". Their deaths were a form of expiation, atonement for the guilt of unharnessed erotic instinct. To their death scene Wagner added the symbolic touch of smiling nature, the sun rising like a healing balm over a now closed wound. For the young Wagner, humanity's dual sexual nature was the great wound that needed healing. Human sexuality is nature divided against itself. There is scant evidence of redemption for the lovers in Leubald; but we are concerned here with Wagner's psychological need for redemption.

From this point on, Wagner's search for redemption for his dramatic characters would evolve through stages very much anchored to the philosophical system most attractive to him at the time. We already know of his infatuation with Schopenhauer. But Wagner was enough of a Schopenhauerian to understand that the repudiation of sexual passion in death cannot heal this wound of the human spirit. Wagner's deepest disappointment with Schopenhauer's philosophy was his belated acknowledgement that the Master allotted no place whatever for the idea of the redemptive power of love.

Wagner found this power in the writings of his contemporary, Ludwig Feuerbach. Feuerbach grounds human nature in two fundamental principles. The first, which he gets from Hegel, is that human self-consciousness only emerges in relationship to another self-consciousness. As Feuerbach puts it, the I (Ich) only emerges along with a Thou (Du). Only a social person is a person. The human species is exemplified in community, not in individuality. The second principle Feuerbach calls "Glueckseligkeitstrieb", the drive towards happiness or self-fulfillment, to which every living organism is subject. Feuerbach's great accomplishment is to weave these two principles into a moral vision that engenders the notion of duty to others and provides an answer to the perennial problem of moral motivation. His argument is that the I-Thou relationship as incarnated in the sexual union is the fundamental ethical relationship because in the sexual act the giving of happiness to the other is also the source of happiness in oneself. What one finds to be good for oneself is achieved first through the good for the other. Human nature is so structured that one's own drive to happiness can only be satisfied by the welfare of others.

For Wagner, however, what counted most in Feuerbach was that he locates the redemptive power of love in his own version of the love-death. Erotic love binds man to another non-interchangeable individual. In the object of his love, man discovers "the depth, divinity and truth of love". In so doing, man's love mounts to the infinite and becomes immortal as he leaves his finite mortality behind. But the cost of this immortal, divine love is high. Feuerbach says that the only immortality is that which is granted us through death. In the throes of this divine love, the lover becomes dead to himself. Death, says Feuerbach, is "the revelation of love". In the self-sacrifice of his death, the lover overcomes the very egoism that Schopenhauer felt was embodied in sexuality. And that overcoming Wagner could optimistically interpret as not only the redemption of the individual, but indeed the redemption of nature itself: the raging of the will in the dead lover has been not simply suppressed but sublimated and overcome. In light of all of this, we have warrant for concluding that it is Feuerbach's philosophy and not Schopenhauer's that is the animating spirit of Tristan.

The final scene, the end of the opera: Isolde joyfully embracing death through all of her senses:

Friends! Look! Do you not feel and see it? Do I alone hear this melody so wondrously and gently sounding from within him, in bliss lamenting, all-expressing, gently reconciling, piercing me, soaring aloft, its sweet echoes resounding about me? Are they gentle aerial waves ringing out clearly, surging around me? Are they billows of blissful fragrance? As they seethe and roar about me, shall I breathe, shall I give ear! Shall I drink of them, plunge beneath them? Breathe my life away in sweet scents? In the heaving swell, in the resounding echoes, in the universal stream of the world-breath -- to drown, to founder -- unconscious -- utmost rapture!