Water, blood, healing balm, magic potions-fluids play a decisive role in this mythology.

Wagner’s stories are often launched from a water-world. An arrival by water and a departure by water frame the plots of The Flying Dutchman and Lohengrin. The Ring saga begins literally in the water, below the river Rhine’s surface (to end, four operas later, with a cosmic duet of water and fire). Wagner’s most delirious exploration of fluidity, Tristan and Isolde, begins and ends with journeys over water. Act One takes place on a noble vessel commanded by Tristan that is taking the Irish princess Isolde, who is affianced to Tristan’s uncle, King Marke, to Cornwall. Preceding this journey was an earlier sea voyage, when Tristan, grievously wounded, had set off alone in a frail skiff for Ireland, in the hope of being ministered to by Isolde, renowned for her healing arts. Since the foe who wounded him and whom he killed was Isolde’s fiancé, he could not say who he was. (Solitary people with mysterious or disguised identities – Lohengrin, the Dutchman, the wounded Tristan at the Irish court – usually arrive by water.) Act Three takes place on a rampart overlooking the sea, where Tristan, re-wounded mortally at the end of Act Two, waits for a boat to arrive bearing Isolde, who has been summoned not as his lover but as his once successful healer. As she appears Tristan dies, and she follows him in death. Journeys over water are associated in Wagner’s mythology with a redemption that does not happen, as in Lohengrin, or happens in terms other than those originally sought, as in Tristan and Isolde, which has almost everybody die, either senselessly or beatifically.

Parsifal, like Tristan and Isolde, is very much a story of fluids. However, in this last of Wagner’s 13 operas, what is defined as redemption – finding someone who will heal, and succeed, the wounded king Amfortas – does take place, and in the hoped-for terms. A virgin, this time male, a holy fool, does appear. Perhaps this fulfilment of expectations makes it inevitable that the water-world is largely excluded from the opera. A majestic outdoors, the forest, and a vast sanctified indoors, the Grail Hall, are its two positive locations (the negative ones, Klingsor’s domain, being a castle tower and a garden of dangerous flowers). To be sure, Act One has water just offstage:a lake to which the wounded king is brought for his hydrotherapy, and a spring where Kundry procures water to revive the fainting Parsifal after brutally announcing to him his mother’s death; and in Act Three, there is water for a consecration, for a baptism. But the main story of fluids is about blood – the unstanchable haemorrhaging of the wound in Amfortas’s side, Christ’s blood that should stream in the Grail chalice. Amfortas’s essential duty as King of the Grail knights, which is to make Christ’s blood appear in the chalice on a regular basis, for the knights’ eucharistic meal, has become agony for him to perform – weakened as he is by this wound, inflicted by Klingsor with the very spear that pierced Jesus’s side while He hung on the Cross. The plot of Parsifal could be summarised as the search, eventually successful, for a replacement for someone who is having trouble making a fluid appear.

Several kinds of fluid enter the body in Wagner’s stories but in only one form does fluid leave it, blood, and this in male bodies only. Women have bloodless deaths: usually they simply expire, abruptly (Elsa, Elisabeth, Isolde, Kundry) or they immolate themselves, in water (Senta) or in fire (Brunnhilde). Only men bleed – bleed to death. (Therefore it doesn’t seem too fanciful to regard semen as subsumed, metaphorically, under blood.) Though Wagner makes the prostrate, punctured, haemorrhaging male body the result of some epic combat, there is usually an erotic wound behind the one inflicted by spear and sword. Love as experienced by men, in both Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal, is tantamount to a wound. Isolde had healed Tristan but Tristan had fallen in love with Isolde; Wagner’s way of signalling the emotional necessity of a new physical wound is to make it, shockingly, virtually self-inflicted. (Tristan drops his sword at the end of Act Two and lets the treacherous Melot run him through.) Amfortas had already been seduced by Kundry – Klingsor’s spear just made that wound literal.

In Wagner’s misogynistic logic a woman, who characteristically doubles as healer and as seducer, is often the true slayer. This figure, of whom Isolde is a positive version, appears in Parsifal with both the negativity and the eroticism made far more explicit. The person who flies in, early in Act One, bearing a vial of medicinal balm for the stricken king – it can relieve but not cure him – is the same person who caused the king’s wound. Wagner makes Kundry systematically dual: in her service role, a bringer of fluids; in her seducer’s alter ego, a taker of them.

Seduction is eloquence, service is mute. After the failure of Kundry’s maximal eloquence, her attempt to seduce Parsifal in Act Two, she is represented as having nothing left to say. Dienen! Dienen! (To serve! To serve!) are the only words she is allowed in all of Act Three. In contrast, Isolde, who is characterised first as a healing woman, one who successfully administered balm (the background of the opera’s story), and then as a focus of desire, becomes more and more eloquent. It is with Isolde’s rush of ecstatic words that Wagner concludes the opera.

The fluid administered by Isolde in her role as healer is in the past. In the story Wagner has chosen to tell, the fluid she offers Tristan is what they both believe to be a lethal poison. Instead, it is a de-inhibitor, which makes them confess their love for each other.

A fluid-that-changes-everything is essential to the Celtic legend of Tristan and Isolde which has been circulating through the veins of European culture for more than seven centuries. In the fullest account, from the 13th century, Gottfried von Strassburg’s novel-length verse epic Tristan, it is a love-philtre, concocted by Isolde’s mother (also named Isolde, and the healing woman in the original tale) for her daughter and King Marke to drink on their wedding night, which during the voyage an ignorant servant offers to Marke’s nephew and the bride-to-be as wine. Wagner’s version turns accidental calamity into necessity. Der Liebestrank (the draught of love) which Brangaene. Isolde’s servant, has deliberately substituted for the poison does not make Tristan and Isolde feel their own feelings – they already feel them, are being marytred by them. It simply makes it impossible for them to go on not acknowledging their love.

The love-potion is treated in a comic register in another opera, Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (1832). Handsome Tristan procures from a saggio incantatore (a wise sorcerer) a certo elisir d’amor (a certain elixir of love); no sooner has the indifferent Isolde taken a sip than a matching love is created.

Cambiata in un istante
quella belta crudele
fu di Tristano amante
visse Tristan fedel.

The drink that makes someone fall in love belongs to the same family of potions, spells and charms that transforms princes into frogs and mermaids into princesses: it is the instant metamophosis of fairy-tales, mere fairy-tales. Not only does such magic not exist, according to Donizetti’s buffa realism, it isn’t necessary: the fluid sold by an itinerant quack to the opera’s hero to woo the woman he thinks (wrongly) doesn’t love him is actually Bordeaux. Instead of what is given as wine being really a magic potion, what is fobbed off as a magic potion is mere wine – the inevitable, comic deflation of the fantasy.

Its tragic dissolution is Wagner’s, a quarter of a century later: a potion that, rather than making something possible, heightens impossibility, loosening the tie to life. The fluid that Brangaene gives the hapless pair does not just reveal (and therefore unleash) a feeling. It undoes a world. Love subtracts them instantly, totally, from civil society, from normal ties and obligations, to cast them into a vertiginous solitariness (rather than a romantic solitude à deux) that brings on an inexorable darkening of consciousness. Where are we? asks Isolde at the beginning of the opera. Where am I? she asks at the end of Act One, after they have drunk the potion, as the boat lands in Cornwall. The King is here, someone says. What king? says Tristan. And Tristan does not know where he is when he awakens in Act Three. What herds? What castle? What peasants? he asks – as his loyal retainer Kurwenal explains that he has been brought home to Brittany, his own kingdom, that he is lying on the rampart of his own castle. Love is an antignosis, a de-knowing. Each act begins with a tormented, paralysing, anguished waiting by one for the other, followed by the longed-for arrival – and concluding with other, unanticipated arrivals, which are not only disruptive but, to the lovers, barely comprehensible. What duty? What shame?

Passion means an exalted passivity. Act One opens with Isolde on a couch, her face buried in the cushions (Wagner’s stage direction), and Act Three has Tristan in a coma at the beginning and supine throughout. As in Parsifal, there is a great deal of lying down and many fervent appeals for the surcease of oblivion. If the opera ended after its first two acts, one could regard this pull of the horizontal in Tristan and Isolde, the paeans to night, the dark, the equating of pleasure with oblivion and of death with pleasure, as a most extravagant way of describing the voluptuous loss of consciousness in orgasm. Whatever is being said, or being done on the stage, the music of the Act Two encounter is a thrillingly unequivocal rendering of an ideal copulation. (Thomas Mann was not wrong when he spoke of the opera’s ‘lascivious desire for bed’.) But Act Three makes it clear that the eroticism is more means than end, a platform for the propaganda against lucidity; that the deepest subject is the surrender of consciousness.

Already the emotional logic of the words of the Act Two duet is a sequence of annihilating – and nihilistic – mental operations. The lovers do not simply unite, generically, as in the unsurpassably elegant formula of Gottfried von Strassburg:

A man, a woman; a woman, a man;
Tristan, Isolde; Isolde, Tristan.

Imbued with the elaborate understanding of solitude and exploration of extremes of feeling that seems the most original achievement of the Romantic movements in the arts, Wagner is able to go much further:

TRISTAN: Tristan du, ich Isolde, nicht mehr Tristan!

ISOLDE: Du Isolde, Tristan ich, nicht mehr Isolde!

When the world is thought to be so easily negated by the pressure of extreme feeling (the still regnant mythology of the self we owe to the 19th-century writers and composers), the feeling self expands to fill the empty space: selbst dann bin ich die Welt (I myself am the world), Tristan and Isolde had already sung in unison. The inevitable next move is the elimination of the self, gender, individuality. Ohne Nennen, ohne Trennen, they sing together … endlos, ewig, ein-bewusst. For one self to seek to fuse with another is, in the absence of the world, to seek the annihilation of both.

When lovers unite in opera what they do, mainly, is utter the same words; they speak together, as one. Their words unite, rhyme, to the same music. Wagner’s libretto for Tristan and Isolde carries out this formal principle more literally and insistently than any other opera: the lovers return to, echo, each other’s words throughout. Their fullest exchange, in the garden of Act Two, has them voluptuously repeating their words back to each other, competing in their expressions of desire to unite, to die, and their denunciations of light and day. Of course their texts are not identical – and neither, for all their desire to merge, even to exchange identities, are the two lovers. Tristan is given a more complex awareness. And having sung with Isolde of the bliss of their death-bound yearning in Act Two, Tristan expresses another relation to death in the last act, in the form of a soliloquy in which he separates himself from Isolde, cursing love. It had been Tristan alone in Act Two who dwelt ecstatically on the potion – that flowed through him, that he drank with endless delight. In Act Three the fluids he invokes are all bitter: Liebestränen (lovers’ tears) and the accursed potion, which he now proclaims, in his delirious unravelling of what Wagner makes the story’s deepest layer of emotion, he himself brewed.

The characteristic, plot-generating situation in Wagner’s operas is one that has gone on too long, and is infused with the anguished longing to terminate. (‘Unending melody’ – Wagner’s phrase for his distinctive musical line – is one formal equivalent of this essential subject of prolongation, of excruciation.) Blood flows unceasingly from Amfortas’s wound but he can’t die; meanwhile his father Titurel, the former Grail King, who already lies in his tomb, is being kept alive by the Grail ceremony. And ageless Kundry, painfully revived in each act, wants nothing more than to go back to sleep. Wagner turns the legend of Tristan and Isolde into a first, secular version of the longings expressed in Parsifal – with Tristan taking the lead. The Tristan of Act Three is a pre-Amfortas: a suffering man who wants to die but can’t – until, finally, he can. Men are given a more developed death wish than women. (Kundry, whose longing for extinction seems even stronger than Amfortas’s, is the exception.) Isolde tries to die only in Act One, when, with Tristan, she drinks the potion she believes to be poison, while Tristan actively provokes his death in all three acts, succeeding at the end by tearing the bandages from his wound when he is told that Isolde is approaching. Isolde even has a moment of doubt (or common sense) in Act Two, when she evokes dies süsse Wörtlein: und (this sweet little word ‘and’), as in Tristan and Isolde. But won’t dying separate them? she asks. No, he answers.

Viewed from the narrowing and ever more excruciating perspective of the last act, the opera is (or becomes) mostly Tristan’s story. Viewed more inclusively, as the story of both, Wagner’s version of the old Celtic legend has an arbitrariness in its dénouement that makes it closer in feeling to the traditional Japanese tragedy of the double-suicide – the voluntary death of lovers whose situation is not entirely hopeless – than to, say, Romeo and Juliet. His Tristan and Isolde are not, as in Gottfried von Strassburg’s poem, star-crossed lovers thwarted by the standard obstacles: that the man has slain a close relative of the woman; that the woman is betrothed to an older male relative of the man, to whom loyalty is owed. Wagner requires something beyond these objective impediments, whose importance signifies that the lovers are members of a society, a world. The world-transcending obstacle is, then, the very nature of love – an emotion always in excess of its object. The eroticism Wagner exalts is one that has to self-destruct.

When Marke arrives at the end, it is not to grasp for the first time the claims of this passion but now to wish, when it’s too late, as Capulets and Montagues do, that he’d been more understanding. Having learned from Brangaene that the lovers were compelled by a love-philtre to betray him, Marke (who functions as Tristan’s father, and in some early versions of the story is his father) has decided to release Isolde from her vow and let the lovers marry. But union is not what Tristan and Isolde want, what they ever wanted. They want the lights turned off. Isolde’s last words – the last words of the opera – are a description of losing consciousness:

ertrinken, versinken
unbewusst höchste Lust!

Wagner’s opera is about being overcome, destroyed by feeling; and is not only about extreme experience but is intended to be one. That Wagner equates being satisfied or inspired with being overwhelmed is typically a Romantic idea of art, art that is not only about excess (Tristan and Isolde overwhelmed by their passion) but employs, in an almost homeopathic spirit, extravagant and outsized means, such as unusual bulk or duration. The element of ordeal, even of risk, for the audience in all this seemed only appropriate. A good performance of Tristan and Isolde, Wagner had predicted to Mathilde Wesendonk while composing the last act, is ‘bound to drive people mad’. One of Wagner’s favourite notions about his work was that only the strong could immerse themselves in it with impunity. When the first Tristan, the tenor Ludwig Schnorr, fell ill after the first performances in Munich in 1865, both he and Wagner worried that it would be said that he had been laid low by the role’s unprecedented exertions and intensities; and when Schnorr died a few weeks later, Wagner (and not only Wagner) felt that perhaps the opera had killed him.

Wagner was hardly the first composer to associate the lethal, at least metaphorically, with the lyrical. But previous notions of the lethal lyrical had focused on the singer. To the librettist with whom he was working on I Puritani, Bellini wrote: ‘Grave on your mind in adamantine letters: A musical drama must make people weep, shudder and die through the singing.’ The great singers were those who could provoke audiences to an ecstasy bordering on delirium, a standard that was set by Farinelli, Pacchierotti and other celebrated castrati of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the first divas in the modern sense, whose voices made people swoon and weep and feel that they were being driven out of their senses, and whose appearance and extravagantly artificial manner were erotically captivating to both sexes. Napoleon declared, in praise of his favourite singer, that he felt he was going mad when he heard Crescentinising. It is this longing to have one’s normal consciousness ravished by the singer’s art that is preserved in an irrepressible phenomenon usually dismissed as a mere oddity or aberration of the opera world: diva worship. The distinctively high-pitched adulation surrounding one or two sopranos (sometimes a tenor) in every generation refers to, and affirms, this much-prized experience.

Wagner opens a new chapter in this operatic tradition of creating beauty that is erotically troubling, soul-piercing – the difference being that the intensity has been heightened by becoming, as it were, diffused. Though borne by the singer’s voice, lyricism does not climax in the experience of the voice. Rather than being specifically, corporeally, identified with the singer’s voice as it floats above the music, it has become a property of the music as a whole in which the voice is embedded. (This is what is sometimes called the ‘symphonism’ of Wagner’s operas.)

Audiences have relished being excited, disturbed, troubled by the beauty of voices – their sweetness, their velocity. But there was, at least initially, considerable resistance to a dérèglement du sens produced by music as such. What the voice did seemed superhuman and as a display of virtuosity was, in itself, admirable. The sound produced by the castrati suggested something disembodied – the words ‘seraphic’ and ‘heavenly’ were often used to describe these voices, though the singers themselves were clearly objects of erotic fantasy as well. Wagner’s maddening lyricism had nothing seraphic about it, whatever the spiritual messages and ‘higher’ feelings being urged on us by the words; if anything, it seemed to come from ‘below’, and, like the potion in the opera, to invite repressed feelings to flow forth. Berlioz described the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde, where no voices yet sing, as one long ‘groaning and moaning’. Renouncing all the effects (and relief) of velocity, Wagner had chosen to slow down sequences of deep feeling that then became either thrilling (and addictive) or unbearably oppressive.

The new emotional, as distinct from lyrical, intensity that Wagner brought into opera owes most to the way he both amplifies and makes agonisingly intimate (despite the epic settings) the distinctive mix of feelings depicted: lust, tenderness, grief, pity, euphoria, world-weariness. Wagner utterly transforms feelings that are staples in opera’s long tradition of representing exalted sentiments, such as the association of love and death. Hearts wounded by love, death that is preferable to separation from the beloved or the loss of love – this is the common coin of lovers’ plaints, of lovers’ ecstasies, long before Wagner, long before what we call Romanticism. Wagner, in Tristan and Isolde and elsewhere, made these old hyperboles of opera, understood to be expressive exaggerations, shatteringly literal. To speak nakedly and with insistence about feeling, to be overwhelmingly intimate with audiences – his sensualism, his emotionalism was experienced as invasive – was new territory for art, and it seems inevitable that such shamelessness (as it was then judged by many) be attached to the licence given by opera’s rich, unabashed commitment to heightened states of feeling. His treatment of time is certainly one of Wagner’s principal innovations – to extend duration being then invariably a means to intensify emotion. But the depth and grandeur of feeling of which Wagner is capable is combined in his greatest work with an extraordinary delicacy in the depiction of emotion. It is this delicacy that may finally convince us that we are in the presence of that rarest of achievements in art, the re-invention of sublimity.

Bruno Walter once said to Thomas Mann, as they were walking home after Walter had conducted a performance of Tristan and Isolde: ‘That isn’t even music any longer.’ Meaning, it is more than music. Wagner thought he was offering some kind of transforming experience or idea that transcended mere art. (Of course, he considered that his works were much more than mere operas.) But such claims seem mainly like an idea of art, a peculiarly modern idea of art, in which there is a great deal of expressed impatience with art. When artists aren’t trying to subvert the art-status of what they do (saying, for instance, that it is really life), they often claim to be doing something more than art. (Religion? Therapy?) Wagner is an important part of this modern story of the inflation and coarsening of expectations about art, which has produced so many great works of art, among them Tristan and Isolde.

It was observed from the beginning that Wagner has the same effect as the continuous consumption of a psychotropic drug: opium, said Baudelaire; like alcohol, said Nietzsche. And, as with all de-inhibiting drugs, sometimes there were violent side-effects. In the early years of Tristan and Isolde occasionally someone had to be evacuated from the theatre, fainting or vomiting, in the course of the performance. It is perhaps as hard now to imagine the impact on early audiences of Wagner, particularly this opera – and the scandal became part of that impact (I mean, of course, leaving aside the issue of Wagner’s repugnant political views, aesthetic scandal)– as it is to imagine the fainting and spasms of tears produced by the voice of Farinelli. But the scandal was immense, as was the passion with which he was defended – and the incalculable influence of his work. No single artist of the 19th century was to be more influential.

Though Wagner was the first composer ever that people boasted of not just admiring passionately but of being addicted to, there have been others since. And the enchantments of addiction, in art, are now rarely viewed as anything but positive. In the era of rock and roll and of Philip Glass and John Adams, it seems normal and desirable for music to aspire to be a narcotic. We live in the time of the triumph of the ‘theatrocracy’ that Nietzsche deplored, in which we can find many descendants of Wagner’s favourite dramatic form, the pseudo-spiritual pageant of redemption. And Wagner’s characteristic means (the garrulous, soft-focus libretto; the exacerbated length; the organised repetitiveness) and themes (the praise of mindlessness, the featuring of the pathos of heroes and rulers) are those of some of the most enchanting spectacles of our own day.

Wagner’s adaptations of the myths of the European and, specifically, the Germanic past (both Christian and pagan) do not involve belief. But they did involve ideas. Wagner was highly literate, and reflective in a literary way; and he knew his sources. The creators of Einstein on the Beach made it clear that they knew nothing about Einstein, and thought they didn’t have to. The emblems and bric-à-brac of heroic mythologies of the past that litter the work of the modern Wagnerians only express an even more generic pathos, and a generalised striving for effect. It is firmly thought that neither the creator nor the audience need have any information (knowledge, particularly historical knowledge, is considered to have a baleful effect on creativity and on feeling – the last, and most tenacious, of the clichés of Romanticism). The gesamtkunstwerk becomes a vehicle for moods – such as paranoia, placidity – that have floated free from specific emotional situations, and for non-knowing as such. And the aptness of these anti-literary, emotionally remote, modern redemption-pageants may have confirmed a less troubled way of reacting to Wagner’s very literary, fervent ones. The smarmy, redeeming higher values that Wagner thought his work expressed have been definitively discredited (that much we owe the historic connection of Wagnerian ideology with fascism). Few puzzle any more, in the way generations of Wagner lovers and Wagner fearers did, about what Wagner’s operas mean. Now Wagner is just enjoyed – as a drug.

‘His pathos topples every taste,’ Nietzsche’s rueful remark about Wagner seems, a hundred years after it was made, truer than ever. But is there anyone left even to be ambivalent about Wagner now, in the way that Nietzsche and, to a lesser extent, Thomas Mann were? If not, then indeed much has been lost. I should think that ambivalence (the opposite of indifference – you have to be seduced) is still the optimal mood for experiencing how authentically sublime a work Tristan and Isolde really is – and how strange and troubling.

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