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.

Political Implications of the Incarnation and the ‘Death of God’

Introduction

Recently someone observed that there are hardly any professed “atheists” in political office. This is remarkable not because atheists represent a large portion of the population, but because atheism is hardly even controversial in present-day society. If someone tells you that he does not believe in God, you are not shocked. You may think he is mistaken, but you are not offended by his unbelief, nor do you think he is a bad person simply because he is not convinced of God’s existence. So it is odd that there are so few professed atheists in elected office. Whether or not a person believes in God doesn’t seem to have much to do with how he or she would fulfill the duties of the public trust.

If it is nevertheless true that the public doesn’t trust atheistsas voting patterns suggest, perhaps it is because they see atheists perpetually engaged in the comic but macabre project of beating the corpse of a medieval idea, or tilting at ruined 15th-century windmills. Atheists have liberated themselves from belief, but it stings them to be reminded of what they have left by others’ faith. They seem to be crusaders for positive unbelief in the public square. This attitude, perhaps, annoys the public, who are for the most part uncomfortable with True Believers of any strain, and happy with their customary distinction between private belief (“church”) and public action (“state”).

Yet perhaps both the raging atheists and the comfortable bourgeois secularists are wrong. If God does not exist, a society of liberal Western institutions needs to reconsider its first principles, including the value of personal liberty and human rights, to see whether there is still any support for them. Can the influence of Christianity in promoting human rights be written off as insignificant? Is there a post-religious path to individual liberty? On the other hand, if God is a real omnipotent being, how is it even possible to partition him away from the public sphere?

Few seem willing to face the implications of God being either absent or present. Western liberalism, with modern roots in the Enlightenment and subsequent intellectual developments, builds upon an understanding of human equality which developed, albeit imperfectly, during the period when Christianity shaped European culture. Yet the influence of religious beliefs and institutions in the development of these liberal tenets, individual liberty and human rights, is less recognized.

I would like to discuss three connected ideas in this essay, by means of a few concepts. The first is the “death of God” as encountered in modern philosophy. The second is the “kingdom of God,” which, if it exists, must necessarily have political implications. The third is the crucial distinction between Christ and Antichrist. These three ideas are necessary for an adequate understanding of Western history and culture. For good or ill Christianity has influenced the direction of historical development toward what we see at present. If God is missing in modern Western political culture, the absence is distinctly Christ-shaped, as attempts to replace Christianity inescapably show. But if Jesus Christ is in fact reigning over the world as king, what does this mean? In closing I will suggest an interpretation of Western history in which the reign of Christ and the pretensions of various forms and manifestations of “antichrist” have continued through the epochs in a dialectical conflict which frustrates the efforts of historians and philosophers to attach the label of “Christian” to any particular nation or political order. Continue reading Political Implications of the Incarnation and the ‘Death of God’

Incarnation and Eating

The Hipster Conservative is honored to feature this guest post from Hännah of Wine and Marble.

October 2012

Loving your food

I love to eat what I eat. My pleasure at the stove and table are sincere and coherent.

— “Learning How to Eat Like Julia Child” by Tamar Adler, New Yorker

I think about this a lot—what food means to us, what it should mean to us, how we use it, how we taste it, how we feel about it, what it means to relate to food as a human being.

It’s frustrating to see people using food, instead of relating to it. “Eating is a chore,” says a friend, and it’s not the first time I’ve heard someone say those words. This utilitarian, eat-because-I-have-to relationship with food is unhealthy at best, and is perhaps a reflection of more serious issues: displacement, non-identification with one’s physical self (is there a word for this?), and a lack of ability to savor life outside of the manufactured world of technology, efficiency, and production.

I would argue, even, that it is anti-Christian to have a merely utilitarian relationship to one’s food. I’ll write more about this later, but if God Incarnate as the man Jesus made such a point of instituting the sacrament of communion and said that the bread was his body and the wine his blood, food can never again be just something we put in our bodies (“fuel” says that horrible industrialist metaphor) to provide energy for our day. God has eaten with us and made the very act of eating together something that he not only identified with, but made a vital part of how we relate to him and each other. Continue reading Incarnation and Eating

The Incarnation in Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins

In Walker Percy’s apocalyptic novel Love in the Ruins, the protagonist Dr. Thomas More recalls a road trip with his ex-wife, Doris.  It is the epitome of a young married couple’s romp: full of passion, intimacy, and carnality.  He remembers the times they used to drive out to little motels on obscure roads and “swim in the pool, take steaming baths, mix many toddies, eat huge steaks, run back to the room, fall upon each other laughing and hollering and afterwards like dreaming in one another’s arms watching late-show Japanese science fiction movies way out yonder in the lost yucca flats of Nevada. “

After nights of young conjugal bliss, Dr. More, a practicing Catholic at this point in his life, sneaks out before Doris, who was raised Episcopalian but dabbles in new age and eastern spirituality, awakes. He finds some out of the way Catholic parish and takes communion. He then heads back to the motel, beaming and renewed, having “touched the thread in the labyrinth.” Continue reading The Incarnation in Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins

Straight Blows with Crooked Sticks: Flannery O’Connor and the Incarnation in Literature

The Hipster Conservative is pleased to feature this essay from Colin Cutler, who is a teacher, a warrior-poet, and the author of “The Ward of Heaven and the Wyrm in the Sea.”

“Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.” ~Flannery O’Connor

Christian art ain’t what it used to be. Compare Veggietales to the Second Shepherd’s Play, Frank Peretti to the Divine Comedy, Beverly Lewis to the Fairie Queene, the Crystal Cathedral (the one in California or the one in Dillwyn, VA) to Notre Dame in Paris. And let’s not start on the music.

It’s my contention that Christian art has lost its soul because Christians have lost sight of what it means for the Logos to have become Sarx—for God to become incarnate and to join Himself with human flesh.  “Christian” art will be neither good nor thoroughly Christian until we regain this understanding.  Since I am a writer, I will take Christian literature as my chief theme and Flannery O’Connor as my chief example.

Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic short story writer from the 1950s, argued that the unique concern of Christianity is the Incarnation: “It’s not a matter in these stories of Do Unto Others.  That can be found in any ethical culture series.  It is the fact of the Word made Flesh.”

Perhaps the most explicitly incarnational of her stories is “Parker’s Back.” Continue reading Straight Blows with Crooked Sticks: Flannery O’Connor and the Incarnation in Literature