Top 7 Books to Read through the Trumpenreich

I’ll spare you my election hot takery. Frankly I don’t really think anyone has a good grasp on the particulars of how this happened, where it happened and why. We probably need to wait a few weeks to see how it shook out once we have the full story. From there we can distill and discuss.

Nonetheless it doesn’t take an oracle to realize this is a massive upset. For many across the political spectrum; mainstream Democrats, hardline progressives and conservatives of many stripes, it was a confusing result. Alarming even. In particular for young conservatives who will bear the brunt of the legacy of this moment, we are stuck wondering, “Where do we go from here?”

I don’t rightly know, but I do know there’s some reading that can help elucidate how we got here and how we can help rebuild the cause of prudence, virtue and tradition. So in true millennial style, here’s my listicle:

The Top 7 Conservative Books to Read through the Trumpenreich

7. Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam.

Cover of Bowling Alone by Robert PutnamYou must read this book if you want to understand some of the root causes of our modern political dysfunction. Putnam records the increased decline in institutional trust, civic decline and social capital in America. Trump v. Clinton does not happen in a country with a healthy civic culture. A Trump victory does not happen in a country with strong, trusting communities. Social scientists quibble over Putnam’s proposed causes and solutions, but it is a critical diagnosis if we are to move forward.

6. Coming Apart by Charles Murray.

Cover of Coming Apart by Charles MurrayMurray writes on a similar theme: There is something rotten in the state of Denmark. While Putnam speaks to Denmark as a whole, Murray hones in on specific provinces. It’s not necessarily that America writ large that is dysfunctional, it’s downscale whites. In particular he convincingly lays how out how the biggest cultural chasm in America is between white Americans. Since 1960 outcomes for white working class Americans has stagnated or declined. The reverse holds true for middle and upper class white Americans. More poignantly, white Americans of different classes live in totally different worlds. One tribe is educated, the other is not. One goes to church, one shows up for holidays, if that. One stays married, the other doesn’t bother or divorces. One succeeds, the other fails. Meanwhile the successful ones disdain or totally ignore their hapless kin. These are harsh generalizations and other conservatives have contested his casual prognosis, but facts remain facts even if they are uncomfortable. America’s core cultural/ethnic grouping is coming apart at the seams.

5. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.

Cover of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. VanceStop what you are doing and read this author’s interview by Rod Dreher. The social science of Murray and Putnam, backed up by footnotes and copious numbers, can only penetrate the mind so far. Vance brings it home with a haunting, complicated and uplifting personal narrative about rural white poverty in the Greater Appalachia. If you want an up close look at the hardcore Trump voter, look no further. What’s novel is Vance accomplishes this without the saccharine, tokenizing nonsense that much of the right’s commentariat indulges themselves in. The same people that crow as loud as the day is long about the broken culture behind Hispanic and black poverty work themselves into a triggered fit of self pitying rage when the same is pointed out about poor, rural white communities. Are you a liberal trying to find some way to connect with Trump voters but can’t find the heart? Read this book. Are you a conservative with some nostalgic, rose-tinted view of “real America?” Read this book.

4. After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre.

Cover of After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyreMacIntyre’s book is totally different from the first three I just suggested. But this Scottish Thomist speaks to the cultural and moral moment we find ourselves in.  To sum it up: liberal modernity ain’t all it’s cracked up to be and the current way we talk about moral and political ethics leaves the “modern man” woefully unfulfilled. To wit, “In the dominant liberal view, government is to be neutral as between rival conceptions of human good yet in fact what liberalism promotes is a kind of institutional order that is inimical to the construction and sustaining the types of communal relationship required for the best kind of human life. The moment we find ourselves in is largely due to the absence of virtue in our civic life.

3. The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk.

Cover of The Conservative Mind by Russell KirkWhither goest thou, Conservatism? Part of the reason why Conservatism, Inc. is in such a crisis is because of how intellectually shallow it really is. It’s a comically tragic attempt to keep Reaganism (itself an occasional, unique adaption to the late Cold War) alive, like an ideological Weekend At Bernie’s. Trump tore through conservative pieties mainly because modern establishment conservatism had all the roots of a day old leaf shoot. If you’re a conservative and you’re looking for something more (that also isn’t the hodgepodge of national greatness populist horse manure that Trumpism aspires to), this is a great introduction to the depth and breadth of the wider Anglo-American intellectual tradition. Also, on a side note, it’s bizarre to me how many liberal friends of mine pontificate on conservatism and yet have never even heard of this book.

2. The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbet.

Want to truly make America great again? Want to make sure another Trump doesn’t come across the political horizon? Read this book and follow its advice. Radically reject the atomization of society that breeds demagoguery, statCover of The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbetism and civic corruption. Join one of Burke’s little platoons of society. Talk to your neighbors. Do the hard, necessary work of building your local community. Alarmed communities produce elections like this one. Peter Hitchens put it like this, “This is a frightened society. Many people live in a constant level of fear. There is a general decay of social obligation. There is a sense you don’t intervene. I think the answer is the reestablishment of the free and ordered society we so recently had.” Voting isn’t the answer, nor is your signaling on social media. The best activism you can actually engage in is helping build a robust local community.

1. The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher.

Cover of The Benedict Option by Rod DreherThis is more geared toward orthodox Christians (small or large “O” depending on your preference). We need to face facts. The Religious Right is dead. If it wasn’t dead before, it has finally given up the ghost by hitching its wagon to a venalvice peddlinghedonisticgroping serial adulterer who brags about how he doesn’t need God’s forgiveness. But even if Trump had never happened, the writing was on the wall. Christians are going to have to fess up to the reality that we live in an increasingly post-Christian culture. Named about St. Benedict, who helped build strong Christian communities which weathered the fall of Rome, Rod Dreher lays out a strategy for how Christianity can survive in the modern West and enrich our communities in the process.


Regrettably we live in interesting times. America escaped a very bad candidate and in return got one that is arguably worse. In the meantime Americans are divided, scared and angry at each other. These books aren’t magic recipes but they are good starts (also we will all need something to do while sitting around in between our morning and evening Public Displays of Praise for our Dear Leader). No one is going to rebuild public trust for us. We will have to do it ourselves.

I’ll leave you with my favorite quotation from President Abraham Lincoln (who is criminally under-appreciated among conservatives today):

We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Get reading, kids.

Featured image: “Daily News, India” by Bo Nielsen (BY-NC-ND 2.0)

John Wayne vs. Pest Control

When teaching high school history, I always enjoyed the class conversation when I asked the following question:

“While the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, the right to vote was already given to women as early as 1869 at the state level in certain parts of the country. Who knows the first state to grant this?”

The students would immediately guess California or somewhere on the East Coast. Of course the first state to grant this was “The Equality State,” as it was later known. But if you close your eyes and imagine Wyoming in the year 1869, empowered women are probably not what come first to your mind. In fact, the whole “Wild West” evokes images of Colt-wielding rugged white guys, and the roles of women or minorities are eclipsed by this typical imagery — except for the maltreated Indians, of course.

We don’t spend much time learning about the women in Wyoming, nor the first congresswomen to be representatives of frontier states. Similarly, not a lot of time is spent learning of people like the Exodusters, the surprisingly high proportion of black and Hispanic cowboys, nor the discriminated-against Irish seeking land ownership on the frontier.

So, why the West? Big Sky country wasn’t exactly a breeding ground for Progressive ideology, and yet it seemed to be a haven for many disenfranchised folks.

There are many explanations of Wyoming’s politics (and many other western states and territories that quickly followed), but one theory always stuck with me. I appreciate its simplicity, and potential for a theory of all human society:

When society is primitive, and people are barely scraping by, institutionalized inequality has no time or place to establish itself. When you are not sure if your town will make it through the winter, you don’t have time to establish racial, sexual, ethnic, or economic hierarchies.

Of course, there has never been such a thing as a completely equal society. In the same way stronger people could catch more food in early hunter-gatherer societies, the West had rich prospectors, poor farmers, wealthy speculators and struggling prostitutes. Some towns were diverse, some very white. Laws shared this diversity. Some towns had terrible gun violence, others had none. Some towns outlawed guns, some towns lived confidently because everyone carried one. The West was as diverse as a “society” could be, but shared one commonality: there was little evidence of institutionalized inequality relative to the rest of the nation.

Inequality is a lack of justice. And in the West, justice was an entirely local phenomenon.

The Cowboy form of justice relied on a few simple principles — a clear and widely understood definition of justice, and an intimate grappling with truth because the responsibility of ensuring justice usually fell on you or your immediate community. Despite what Westerns portray, this did not usually encourage gun-toting, reckless vigilantism. It simply allowed individuals and communities to do what they thought was best.

Meanwhile, the rest of us have opted for justice as what can only be described as a form of federal pest control. Rather than help ourselves or our fellow man, we beg Pest Control to label an entire species as the enemy of our neighborhood (based of course on anecdotal evidence). Finally, we legislate blanket definitions of “types” of people to consider enemies. We can even put those creeps on watch lists. When we see something wrong, being helpless without Pest Control, we call and wait on hold until we can complain to a bureaucrat who will send an underpaid stoner-turned-raccoon-catcher to take care of it for us.

So, what about today? As a white male satisfied with his own gender, who adheres to a Judeo-Christian morality, there is little I can say about justice for those who feel its absence. Yet despite how cushioned from reality I may be, I share a similar fear.

This lack of justice does not make me fear for my life. But, when we see something terrible and cry for outrage and support from an institution who within hours of the events had literally changed the law to avoid prosecuting a precious matriarch in its Royal Family, I fear dreadfully for this nation.

When the frontier closed in the early 1890s, many saw it as the end of democracy. With no well of opportunity for malcontent pioneers, the role of the rugged, independent and responsible individual who had no choice but to be a good part of his or her community has perhaps died. We lost the idea that nature was our common enemy, and when pitted against it, humans and our issues are very, very small.

While there is no frontier anymore, perhaps we can remember the surprisingly diverse cowboys that roamed it. We can look at righteously angry blacks, agitated police officers, overeducated socialists, worried family-value supporters, disgruntled workers hoping someone can make the country “Great Again,” and see shared, common desires to live our lives the way we and our communities think best. Despite what birds-eye view the media feeds us, there are not many excused from these desires because they feel too “privileged.” The desire to take back our lives and identities is real and growing.

Some might reduce the idea of John Wayne to a white man who shot red men. They are probably the same people who think it is ok to fester in factions that name-call, interrupt parades, and hinder free speech in hopes of gaining the favor of Pest Control.

What’s our goal, then? Provoke nationwide anger? Widespread action? Legislation? Insist more humans die for narratives that negate statistics? If you fear institutionalized injustice, the problem may be the belief that we need to compete for favor from an institution in the first place.

I know, I am jumping into a moment of righteous anger from a community I don’t exactly belong to. But this is precisely why I bring it up right now. It is too ironic that factions squabble over who deserves justice on the day that our federal government changed the very definition of it.

If there was ever a chance for a society to unite, it is over this: Each one of us is an individual, capable of recognizing and opposing evil, and capable of doing good and giving thanks for it.

Featured image by Priscilla Westra

Marxism’s exhausted legacy:
A conservative reads Norman Birnbaum

If there is really a such thing as “Cultural Marxism,” it is no doubt represented in the person of American socialist sociologist Norman Birnbaum, who has taught for a long time at Georgetown University. I happened to pick up his book The Radical Renewal: The Politics of Ideas in Modern America because it was either free or quite cheap. Also, it had a back-cover blurb by Robert Bellah, author of Habits of the Heart, which I enjoyed in my undergraduate political theory studies.

Recently I’ve been exchanging pleasantries on Twitter with a professed Marxist who is distressed by the lack of political solutions advanced by Marxists. I thought I would read this book on his behalf, since, if any discipline is likely to to advance political recommendations worth heeding, it is certainly sociology and not economics.

So I’ll be reading and blogging about this book with no particular program other than to explore and engage with Birnbaum’s ideas. Continue reading Marxism’s exhausted legacy:
A conservative reads Norman Birnbaum

Souls made to order

Pattaramon Chanbua, a Thai surrogate mother, was in the news when the couple who hired her to carry what turned out to be twin children refused to take one of the children, who has Down syndrome, or remit the payment they had agreed upon. Continue reading Souls made to order

The End of Hipstery and the Last Culture

By Jacob Stubbs

All-Inclusive Disclaimer: In this essay I do not necessarily use philosophers’ thoughts as they intended. Any reference to a philosopher will probably be a heterodox or downright incorrect interpretation. I do not use Hegel as a “hipster” would, nor do I claim that Hegel is himself a hipster. His great critic Søren Kierkegaard might have something to do with hipsters, especially since he was into the whole irony thing, but I do not have the purity of heart to elucidate this connection…

***

G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx are known as philosophers of History. That is, they focus on the process of man making himself and focusing on himself in such a way that he betters the world through technology. Alexandre Kojéve, the French philosopher who created the European Union, synthesized Hegel and Marx to argue that society lives at the “end of history.” For Kojéve, we live in a time where man has evolved to the point where all political, philosophical, and cultural developments have reached their highest apex and man lives as truth.

This “end of history” appeared with the advent of liberal democracy, given that democracy has found a way in which everyone’s rights can be respected so that each  person has the freedom or liberation to pursue satisfaction as he sees fit. The dialectical processes that fueled the movement of history have ultimately negated themselves and history has entered a “void of nothingness.” We see this happening tangibly in the ways that man has gained an understanding of nature, made technology, and used technology to counteract or negate nature. This led to a synthesis of the natural and contra-natural that causes man to live in “nothingness,” a realm that is beyond the demands of nature. Continue reading The End of Hipstery and the Last Culture

“Mixed Marriages” and Ethnic Identity in Lithuania

Mid-20th century encyclopedia illustration of Lithuanian traditional costume
Lithuanian folk costume – illustration by Vitautas Palaimas

I thought the tautological slogan “Lithuania for Lithuanians,” beaming with solid platitude and platitudinous solidity, had been put under the sod for good. However, while I was browsing the Internet, a fairly well-done minimalistic poster caught my attention. It carried two slogans in black and white: “Lithuanian women for Lithuanian men,” and “Lithuanian men for Lithuanian women.”

Beneath these slogans in smaller text the legend read: “NATIONIA – the movement for the survival of nations.” On the official website of the “movement,” this legend is accompanied by an English caption explaining that Nationia is a movement of peaceful nationalism. Going to the main page, I found a construction that interested me because of its first three elements: “Nation diversity → Human diversity → Abilities diversity → Mankind progress, essence” [sic]. The suggestive interplay of these ideas enticed me to spend more time investigating this nationalist movement.

Nationia‘s “philosophy” features some random rallying cries for nations and patriots to act to forestall national disappearance. In parallel, they propose that “diversity” is a prerequisite to discussion and progress. A group of people with diverse abilities can solve problems more quickly. So far everything looks nice, right? But then comes a new proposition stating that human diversity is determined by internal and external factors.

The “external” ones include social, cultural, and political elements, while “internal” ones are of an anthropological, mental-psychological, and physical nature. The internal factors are illustrated by three samples of dominant features, including hair, eyes, physical, and character features. A parallel is drawn between these samples and nations. [Ed. note: For any reader unfamiliar with European politics, this is none-too-subtle code for 20th-century race ideologies, which still fuel various European far-right wing political parties.] I set aside the reading at this point, as footnotes from the tracts of Nazi eugenics started running through my mind.

To preserve “diversity” as described above, Nationia suggests the collaboration of nations without mixture, i.e. avoiding the formation of “mixed marriages.” They base this prescription on the premise that a child born in a “mixed” marriage, i.e., one of spouses from different national backgrounds, would be unable to choose either of four potential identities.

The proponents of this idea claim that such a person might be the citizen of one country, but his “national” identity is not based on language, choice, or opinion. According to Nationia, nationality is “a fusion of human behaviour, physical features, temperament, and outlook, inner and uncontrolled, natural reactions to the surrounding world and which are characteristic to a particular group of people who evolved alongside.”

Why am I so concerned with such a marginalized, outdated race ideology? The reason is that it offers a perfect illustration of what I call failed nationalism. The real, ugly face of this nationalism, concealed under archetypal symbols and historical tracts, may be familiar to American readers as it is portrayed in the emblematic movie “American History X.”

For adherents of failed nationalism, the fetish of a blond blue-eyed girl dressed in the national costume, something that has turned into a barely attainable ideal, is the only thing that protects our Lithuanian identity. Yet Lithuania is in the heart of Europe. Thousands of years of European turmoil saw many peoples, cultures, and nations meet and mingle in what is now the Lithuanian territory. It is no wonder that my mother is brown-eyed with dark-hair, I am green-eyed with brown-hair, and one of my cousins is the ideal blue-eyed blonde — although for more than four generations the names in our family have been entirely Lithuanian.

Now, we can hardly be surprised to see a representative of another race on the streets of Vilnius. From early childhood, we were accustomed to seeing a variety of facial shapes, the absence of which was utterly shocking to me when I traveled in Hungary. Yet, despite Lithuanians’ easily observable diversity, people interested in phenotypology usually assign most Lithuanians to the “Baltic” (blue-eyed, blond) phenotype.

The question of what makes us a nation, given the variety in our physical appearance and character features, can be answered with the simple description by the theoretician of nationalism, Anthony D. Smith, whose basic theory remains unchanged despite being rewritten a thousand times: The nation defines and perceives itself as a community, with common myths, common collective memory, values, and traditions, which resides in a territory to which it feels specific historic attachment, creates its own public culture, and shares common laws and duties.

This definition is valid in most cases, and Lithuania is definitely not the most extreme case. Hence, it is easier to describe a Lithuanian by answering several relatively basic questions, rather than by a person’s appearance or behavior.

There is another issue that the self-appointed guardians of Lithuanian identity confront. Who is a more legitimate Lithuanian: a Vietnamese child adopted and raised by a family of Lithuanians, or a blonde, blue-eyed offspring of a Lithuanian couple who learned his/her first words from a South African couple? Because of their physical appearance, both children are aware of their external differences, but the essential attributes of a community (and, as stated, a nation is a community), such as the language, morale, and aesthetic perceptions, will be assimilated from the environment in which the child grows up.

Despite painstaking efforts, these children will hardly be able to identify themselves as part of their nation of origin. It is likely that a biological Lithuanian may be fond of her country of birth, or that a Vietnamese person shall nurture affection for the people and culture of Vietnam. Yet these affections are themselves culturally mediated and developed, like the respect of a second-generation Greek-American for his grandparents’ culture. The phrase from the movie Gattaca sums it up: “Blood has no nationality.”

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the concept of a “pure nation” is permeating our streets and courtyards through the subcultures of skinheads and mobs of the 1970s, reaping their share of Hitler’s gleanings. One way or another, we are all the products of a mixture of different genes; but genes, as depicted in the movie Gattaca, are not a factor that determines the rest of our lives. Much more depends on external factors, proper education and, in particular, our own wills. We should protect our traditions and national culture instead of forbidding an ash-haired girl to start a family with a Brazilian who is resolved to stay in Lithuania in pursuit of love.

Nations cannot be conserved as they resemble continuously evolving unicellular organisms: they mutate, change, vanish, and separate into two similar but different particles. Looking through the time prism, this interplay of influences is fascinating. Let us not embrace an artificial history, for fate tends to play tricks on us. Furthermore, the “diversity” Nationia claims to value will never bloom if it is root-bound by the constraints of failed nationalism. The result would be too many people thinking only within the restrictive limits of the same national pattern.

National identity is important; let us not forget the great Lithuanian interwar philosophers, including Maceina, Girnius, and Šalkauskis, who never sought to sacrifice an individual’s freedoms for the prosperity of a nation or the unity of the state.

Finally, and quite patriotically, I am certain that the Lithuanian nation is prudent enough to sift through the multitude of nationalistic concepts and choose the most rational and morally-correct way.

 

Mr. Skarolskis is a young Lithuanian columnist. A previous version of this article appeared in the iconic though now defunct Atgimimas, as well as the Lithuania Tribune.

Gnostic Love in Tristan und Ysolde

Last weekend my wife and I went with another couple to see Wagner’s Tristan und Ysolde. This opera is in many ways the quintessential modern re-telling of the medieval tale of two doomed lovers, vexed by duty, misunderstanding, and jealousy, and toiling under a magical enchantment.

The medieval legend, as told by Malory, is straightforwardly melodramatic. As the earnest of a peace treaty, the Lady Iseult of Ireland is to marry King Mark of Cornwall. Mark’s nephew and knight, Sir Tristram, is given the task of escorting Iseult across the Irish Sea in safe passage to Mark. Iseult bitterly hates Tristram, since she alone knows that he is responsible for the death of her brother in a contest of arms. While on the ship, the two enemies mistakenly drink a love-philtre intended to cement the union of Mark and Iseult, with tragic consequences. Eventually Tristram is discovered in Iseult’s bedchamber and slain by a jealous Mark, and Iseult, overcome by grief, falls down dead over Tristram’s body.

Wagner raises the story to a higher degree of tragedy. Fate plays a much larger role in Tristan and Ysolde’s downfall, especially since Mark eventually relents and releases the lovers to be together. As in any good tragedy, this news comes to the lovers too late, since Tristan is already dead, but it would not have made a difference. The love of Wagner’s Tristan and Ysolde is not the natural affection of spouses, nor even the star-crossed passion of ill-fated lovers, but a particular kind of fatal enchantment.

Ysolde’s Revenge

In the early part of the opera, Ysolde tells her maid Branganë of her hatred for Tristan, how as an enemy of her people Tristan came to her under an assumed name for healing after a battle, and how she discovered through the notch in his sword that he was the killer of her betrothed. Nevertheless, she did not exact revenge on him or reveal his identity to her relatives. This strays not too far from the medieval legend, in which Iseult begins to love Tristan against her will.

In Wagner’s telling, Ysolde’s mother, a renowned sorceress, has prepared various potions for her use: some for healing, one for undying love, and one for death and oblivion. Ysolde tells Branganë that she will drink the death-draught with Tristan, and so avenge both her love and her honor, which was compromised when she refrained from killing him. Branganë pleads with her not to do this, and instead of the death-draught, gives them the love-philtre to drink. Tristan, suspecting foul play, drinks it for the sake of honor, and is confirmed in his suspicions when Ysolde snatches the half-drunk cup and finishes it, exulting that she has atoned for both her lover’s death and her own dishonor.

The Love-Philtre

As the potion takes effect, both expecting to meet death, they realize that they have come under a spell more subtle but no less awful. They become possessed of a heedless, consuming passion for one another. The irony of the “love-draught” is that the “love” it instills is identified with death. Tristan comes to see himself as fated for death; the love between him and Ysolde is the love of a “death-devoted heart.” In the love scene in Act II, Tristan curses “daylight’s lies,” singing that he is a child of the night. Not the moonlit night of romance, though, but the black night that is the opposite of day; the absence of being and personality; nothingness. The love-philtre makes him reject the real world in favor of a spiritual void in which, somehow, everything about him and Ysolde is obliterated except for their transcendent “love.” Ysolde at first protests, but by the end of the duet she too is devoted to this eternal love that is an absence of personality.

In this way, Ysolde’s hatred of Tristan and of herself, the doom of death she planned to carry out, is fulfilled in a more terrible way than she imagined, as the lovers renounce life and earthly happiness in favor of death. Wagner himself called this duet “Liebestod” or “love-death,” although most apply this term to Ysolde’s final aria, which Wagner himself, fittingly, called “Transfiguration.”

Gnostic Love

This idea of a disembodied spiritual “love” clearly fits the Gnostic mold. Gnosticism teaches that people are fragments of the Divine Spirit that have been imprisoned in the “evil” material world. Gnostics try to escape the influence of the body and all other aspects of the material world, to become once again pure “spirit.” This directly contradicts the Biblical tradition in which human beings are a unity of body and spirit, created to live in the physical world as their natural home. Christianity adds to this the belief that the son of God took on the nature of humankind. Many early Christian heretics were Gnostics who attempted to deny, in some way or another, that Jesus was indeed fully human and fully divine, because they thought that for God to be truly incarnate would diminish the glory of the Divine.

The Christian and Western understanding of love and marriage stems from the knowledge of human beings as rightly incarnate souls. Human marriage is a “one flesh” union encompassing souls and bodies, and integrating a couple within the world through children and family ties. By contrast, the ‘love’ that Tristan and Ysolde experience as a result of the enchantment is strongly gnostic in its character, demanding total separation from the world and abandonment of the lovers’ own physical existence and individual personalities. But I think it would be wrong to say that Wagner is unreservedly advocating this kind of love.

It is shown throughout the opera that Tristan and Ysolde are both psychologically troubled. Tristan’s death-fixation seems to be the result of being born an orphan. He feels that he has been marked by death from the beginning. This seems very Freudian, although it predates Freud. Ysolde also explicitly embraces death in her morbid hatred of Tristan, even before they drink the love-philtre. To what extent did the potion cause this gnostic equivocation between love and death, and to what extent was it the result of the lovers’ unresolved neuroses?

Surrealist painting "Tristram and Isolde" by Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali, “Tristram and Isolde” (1944)

Fatal Passion in Context

The other characters in the opera are normals, apparently designed to offset the morbidity of the lovers. Branganë, Ysolde’s maid, and Kurwenal, Tristan’s bodyguard, typify common sense and conventional notions about life and love. When Ysolde orders her to pour the death-draught, Branganë substitutes the love-philtre instead, presumably out of a belief that even a dangerous, inconvenient, forbidden love is better than death. For Tristan and Ysolde, though, love and death are precisely the same thing. Branganë operates in the mode of melodrama suggested by the medieval legend, while Ysolde is seeing things in an opposite light. In Act II, Branganë reasonably fears a trap and urges Ysolde not to signal Tristan to come to her chamber, while Ysolde recklessly extinguishes the warning torch. As the lovers sing of love and death, Branganë’s voice breaks in, warning of the dawn and the return of the king: “Take care! Take care!” Wagner’s musical contrast between the lovers and the maidservant is breathtakingly sublime, as the music perfectly reflects the contrast between the opposite worldviews.

Similarly, Kurwenal acts out the conventions of the faithful friend. While in Act I Tristan retreats in a mist of doubt and doom, Kurwenal jauntily boasts of his master’s prowess to Branganë, inflaming Ysolde’s wrath. In Act III, Kurwenal carries the wounded Tristan back to his ancestral home and nurses him, summoning Ysolde to come and work her healing arts. Tristan, though, still “death-devoted,” ruins his servant’s hopes. When he sees Ysolde’s ship landing he rips off his bandages and dies just as she arrives, achieving (as he believes) the unity of love and death.

Finally, King Marke, the jealous, churlish villain of the medieval legend, is transformed in Wagner’s rendering into a truly noble and sympathetic character. He is deeply grieved by Tristan’s betrayal in Act II, yet refrains from violence. Instead, Tristan is betrayed and stabbed by Melot, an envious friend who Wagner seems to have invented just for the purpose. Marke, by contrast, goes so far as to pardon Tristan and Ysolde in the final act, releasing them to be together (although Tristan already lies dead). Marke’s brief aria would place the opera in the sublime realm of classical tragedy, and in a conventional opera he or the chorus would have the final word. Here, though, Ysolde steals the final scene. Still under the influence of the love-philtre, she now recapitulates the themes of the love-duet and ends in a triumphant musical climax, joining Tristan in death as the curtain falls.

How to Listen to Tristan und Ysolde

When experiencing this opera, it is a good idea to be aware of the use of leitmotifs, tunes and musical phrases which reference specific ideas. Wagner uses leitmotifs to great effect in Tristan, achieving a unity of music, words, and ideas. Leitmotifs allow Wagner to shade the sung text with meanings beyond those expressed in words, and create subtle or even bold effects of foreshadowing and fate. For instance, the motif for death appears when Ysolde is singing of the love-philtre, reminding the listener that the distinction between the two potions is less clear than it might seem.