Friday, June 24, 2016

St John’s Day

Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, written back to back at the midpoint of the nineteenth century, represent a single, two-headed philosophy. They are based on the same philosophical principle, which Richard Wagner had read in Schopenhauer: The visible world is an expression of insatiable will, and since the world is divided against itself, there is never any satisfaction to be had by any particular instantiation of that will, whether rabbit or philosopher. Seen from another angle, an individual creature’s desires are unlimited, but its capacity to sate them is strictly limited. This means that conscious life is frustrating and disappointing by its very nature.

(This thought was not original to Schopenhauer by any means. It is the kernel of Koheleth, the Theravāda, and of the early Christians. Giacomo Leopardi, by Schopenhauer’s own admission, elaborated the frustration of human desires far more clearly than he did.)

Now, this way of thinking—infelicitously called “pessimism”—is not inherently tragic. In in Wagner’s mind, at least, it was simply the way things are; and capable of bearing both grimness and mirth. Tristan and Die Meistersinger are twin expressions of pessimism, but the former is a horrible tragedy and the latter a lighthearted comedy. Schopenhauer’s pessimism pervades both operas equally.

Tristan is a portrait of wild frustration from beginning to end. It opens with Isolde’s fierce complaint against Tristan, who killed her betrothed lover Morold. Tristan and Isolde drink the love potion and long to be dissolved into each other. But it’s not long that they find each other alone before Brangäne warns them that the dawn is coming, and with it the interrupting king. Only death can answer their passion for each other.

Tristan und Isolde is a play of desire hurling itself, ever vainly, against the walls of the world. The world isn’t even evil—King Mark is an all-right chap, after all. It’s just inconvenient. But that changes nothing: the world of sunlight and human beings is enough, just by being itself, to staunch every human desire. (Hardy: “These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown / Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.”)

Die Meistersinger has the same philosophy, but its characters come out all right. This is partly because that the dangerous love affair is consciously aborted by the prudent lovers. Schopenhauer had advised this tactic in book IV of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, counselling that ascetic denial of the will and its erotic loves was the only way out of human suffering.

But there is another opportunity that Wagner suggested for overcoming the will. He spoke through Hans Sachs. Sachs begins his famous monologue with Wahn, Wahn, überall Wahn: madness, madness, everywhere madness! Men, women, children eat each other alive. The world is all askew; a goblin did it; the glowworm’s lost his mate; and there’s no staunching the train of longings that want impossible satisfaction from the physical world. These words are spoken at night. But then the sun comes up and Sachs cries:
How peacefully in her firm customs,
trusting in deed and work,
in the middle of Germany
lies my beloved Nuremberg!
It is dawn on the 24th of June, St John’s Day. The shortest, softest night of the year is over, and the sun comes up warm and benign. Men and women set about saving themselves when it shines. We see a country dance at the beginning of the opera’s finale, and the craftsmen of Nuremberg lustily boast their trades: the tailors, the bakers, the cordwainers have their part, and finally, the crown of all the craftsmen, the master-singers. Poetry and singing are chief of the crafts, because they are the hardest and the noblest.

We are shown a way out: the characters leave the night-world of Tristan und Isolde without ceasing to recognise the stifling fruitlessness of the world. They live in the daylight for a day. They take pride in their sweated work, they sing their carefully sawn songs, they scoff at the entanglements of love, they bow to their elders, and they are loosed from the lusting will.

Of course, firm roots are necessary for this: pride in one’s life and labour cannot exist under the colossal thumb of an alien city. A man cannot make a song if he has no material to build it with, any more than if he has no breath with which to bring the old materials to life. It is a grim fact that Nuremberg has been burnt into ashes, and rebuilt as a tourist’s Disneyland.

The sudden and recent strangling of tradition aside, there is still a way to vanquish the will in the daytime. Just like in Wagner’s century, there is still one night a year that is nearly vanquished, besieged on both sides by the creeping evening and dawn. A man was born that night—it can be us!—who walked free in the desert, eating honey and living with the lions. What is sweeter than honey; what is sweeter than a lion?


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