Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is a operatic piece that senior at St. John’s study. Eric Evans draws from it inspiration for this blog post. He is a frequent contributor to The Johnnie Chair, graduated in 2014 and frequently visits the Annapolis campus. Eric was also Waltz Committee Archon for one year. Below is a piece from the opera for your enjoyment:
The Question: Love = Death?
The Text: Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde
In Tristan, we might say that where love shows up, it’s only a substitute for death: Isolde means to drink a death potion with Tristan, but thanks to her party-pooper handmaiden they drink a love potion instead—love where death should’ve been. Then there’s the fact that Tristan and Isolde spend their entire first date openly fantasizing about their own deaths.
But I think their love is real. After all, they seemed in love even before they drank the potion. And on their date Isolde stresses that though she wants to die, she will point-blank refuse to do so unless it’s with Tristan. Tristan agrees; and in the end he ensures his own death (by taking the bandages off his own severe wounds for no reason) only when Isolde’s arriving. Death isn’t enough; they want a death together. So there’s something real in their confessions of love, even as they use the flimsiest excuses as pretexts to die.
So what’s Wagner saying about love and death? In Act 2, Tristan and Isolde’s death-fantasy culminates in being nameless, being released from the world, being undelimited. To me this means they resent their own specificity. They disparage day as bringing them to light in untrue roles. It’s the obscurity of night that allows these paradigms to drop away, allows them their love. Night is good because indeterminacy is their real sweet spot.
The world forces even uncommitted souls to the detailed choices of life. That so, even one’s own actions can feel like impositions by the world rather than honest expressions of a self. Maybe our heroes love each other’s indeterminate souls, and not each other’s earthly details. We meet them on the sea—the undifferentiated beginning of all life. In the end, they return to the undifferentiated endplace of all life, freed from their own distasteful specificity. A paradox: to die is a specific choice they make. But it’s the one choice that will free them from all choice. I think that’s why in the entire opera the only chord that truly resolves is at the end: it’s the one determinate sound that will allow for (indeterminate) silence.
The adventure continues… #itsphilosophytime on Instagram