I went to see Wagner’s Tannhäuser two weeks ago, which has the following plot. Tannhäuser has spent uncountable aeons beneath the Venusberg, luxuriating in the grotto of Aphrodite. Every night he burns with passion, and every night his passion is sated by a throng of dancing virgins. Eventually he has had enough, and declares to Aphrodite that he must leave her realm:
The time I have sojourned here
I cannot measure.
Days, moons – mean nothing to me any more,
for I no longer see the sun,
nor the friendly stars of heaven;
I see no more the blades of grass, which, turning freshly green,
bring the new summer in;
the nightingale that foretells me the spring,
I hear no more.
Shall I never hear it, never behold it more?
A long argument follows, that ends with Tannhäuser calling to the Virgin Mary and leaving for Earth. Eventually, after polite society heaps shame on him for having been in the Venusberg, he returns to Aphrodite in shame, and when he’s on the moment of entering her kingdom forever, his heavenly salvation is announced and he dies.
The opera, in short, is about a fundamental opposition between two kinds of pleasure. One is hellish—the delights of the flesh and the burning passion of sexual love. The other is heavenly. It consists of the fresh spring air, the sound of water and birdsong, and firm attachment to friends. The fruits of learning and wisdom are presumably included too, as well as our love for children.
I would like to object. As Wagner would have it, the devil can offer only a paltry satisfaction to the body and spirit. Tannhäuser is offered all the pleasures of the flesh, but he still longs for the spring, for true friendship, for fresh air and freedom—and these, supposedly, he can only have if he puts his trust in Maria instead of Aphrodite. This doesn’t give pleasure nearly enough credit. Tangled limbs and flesh are one thing, but they’re only one flower in the garden of earthly delights. And it’s not the most beautiful one at that. Even the frolicking shepherds in Arcadia are exhausted by it:
Consider, fond shepherd, how fleeting’s the pleasure
that flatters our hopes in pursuit of the fair!
that flatters our hopes in pursuit of the fair!
The joys that attend it by moments we measure,
but life is too little to measure our care.
And here’s the pleasure-loving Lucretius, giving what has been called the best description of sex ever put to paper:
|Ut bibere in somnis sitiens quom quaerit et umor|
non datur, ardorem qui membris stinguere possit,
sed laticum simulacra petit frustraque laborat
in medioque sitit torrenti flumine potans,
sic in amore Venus simulacris ludit amantis,
nec satiare queunt spectando corpora coram
nec manibus quicquam teneris abradere membris
possunt errantes incerti corpore toto.
Denique cum membris conlatis flore fruuntur
aetatis, iam cum praesagit gaudia corpus
atque in eost Venus ut muliebria conserat arva,
adfigunt avide corpus iunguntque salivas
oris et inspirant pressantes dentibus ora,
ne quiquam, quoniam nihil inde abradere possunt
nec penetrare et abire in corpus corpore toto;
nam facere inter dum velle et certare videntur.
usque adeo cupide in Veneris compagibus haerent,
membra voluptatis dum vi labefacta liquescunt.
Tandem ubi se erupit nervis coniecta cupido,
parva fit ardoris violenti pausa parumper.
Inde redit rabies eadem et furor ille revisit,
cum sibi quod cupiant ipsi contingere quaerunt,
nec reperire malum id possunt quae machina vincat;
usque adeo incerti tabescunt volnere caeco.
De Rerum Natura, IV.1096–1120———————————————————–––
|Just as when in a dream a thirsty man seeks to drink and no liquid is granted him, which could allay the fire in his limbs, but he seeks after images of water, and struggles in vain, and is still thirsty, though he drinks amid the torrent stream, even so in love Venus mocks the lovers with images, nor can the body sate them, though they gaze on it with all their eyes, nor can they with their hands tear off aught from the tender limbs, as they wander aimless over all the body.|
Even at last when the lovers embrace and taste the flower of their years, eagerly they clasp and kiss, and pressing lip on lip breathe deeply; yet all for naught, since they cannot tear off aught thence, nor enter in and pass away, merging the whole body in the other’s frame; for at times they seem to strive and struggle to do it. And at length when the gathering desire is sated, then for a while comes a little respite in their furious passion. Then the same madness returns, the old frenzy is back upon them, when they yearn to find out what in truth they desire to attain, nor can they discover what device may conquer their disease; in such deep doubt they waste beneath their secret wound.
To these poets, the pleasures of the flesh are too fleshy and not pleasant enough. But even if we attribute to sex the greatest delight available to mankind, it’s inescapable that man will eventually long for other food.
So let’s make a better case for Mephistopheles. If Aphrodite had really wanted to win Tannhäuser forever, she had it in her power, as goddess of delight, to give him everything he wanted. He wanted to see the moon, and taste the evening air? She could have given him the moon and the air. He wanted adventure? Real emotional commitment? Tranquility? Sure thing.
If the high and low pleasures join their floods, there is almost no stern religion, no fanatical asceticism, that can stand upright in the surge of their waters. Puritans like Wagner, aware of this fact, attempt to keep the two firmly separate, hoping to slander pleasure by identifying it with its most shameful-seeming aspects. But the right-thinking man will not make a moral choice between wholesome and unwholesome pleasures. (That’s a matter of aesthetics.) His choice, if he sees one at all, is between pleasure and not-pleasure. Satan, if we want to call happiness by such a slanderous name, rules the springtime and the hearth in addition to the caverns. So if you want to renounce pleasure, then renounce it: but the choice is harder than it might seem.
My point is that a dark, jewel-incrusted underground cavern filled with feasts and orgies is a straw man for hedonism. If we want a life of real pleasure, we’ll probably stay out of Jabba’s palace. We will spend it in living rooms with our family on cold December nights. We’ll spend it at baseball games in the sun, munching on an overpriced pretzel and explaining everything to our bewildered European guest. We’ll write poetry for the people we love. We’ll see the Rockies. An Epicurean life is not bounded by any rigid form: it is exactly as colorful, as free, and as loving as we have the power to make it. We can choose whatever position we want between etherial joy and subterranean gratification, and most likely end up in the middle on the green earth.
And what is real chastity? What is real denial of the flesh for the sake of God? Chastity is uncompromising detachment. It means giving up all the pleasures, including the springtime and the comforts of human love. It’s a false inoculation to merely give up one particularly painful and fiery delight, and then to claim that you have completely overcome your will. Follow instead the purest man who ever lived, who was tortured to death for his refusal to give even an inch to the temptations of the sordid world. Jesus gave up marriage, children, piety, poetry, books, and sex. He gave up the rivers and mountains, the humming of bees, and the intense beauty of the world. He went up an unwatered and steep road to the cross, steeper than almost anyone is able to climb. He obeyed the iron law which Jews recite twice every day, from the time they first learn to read: You shall do the commandments of God, and you shall not follow your hearts and your eyes, by which you are prostituting yourselves.
But for those of us who don’t want to go to Golgotha, this earthly garden should do just fine. It is wide enough for all the joys of man, and if we’re lucky enough to escape suffering, we can live happily off its bounty until we go back to the dust. For my part, I have loved this world too much to be chaste. Under a setting sun, I once took a lonely canoe ride across a glassy lake. It gave me a savage pleasure that, if exposed, would have shocked the pious.