Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Dangerous Fascination

Updated: Please see below.

I feel remiss for not mentioning in our recent discussion of Santayana's Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe two points of intersection with the dramas of Richard Wagner. Here will will look at the first point of comparison, regarding Dante and his treatment of the lovers Paolo and Francesca. Santayana writes,
Love itself dreams of more than mere possession; to conceive happiness, it must conceive a life to be shared in a varied world, full of events and activities, which shall be new and ideal bonds between the lovers. But unlawful love here cannot pass out into this public fulfillment. It is condemned to be mere possession–possession in the dark, without an environment, without a future. It is love among the ruins. And it is precisely this that is the torment of Paolo and Francesca–love among the ruins of themselves and all else they might have had to give to one another. Abandon yourself, Dante would say to us,–abandon yourself altogether to a love that is nothing but love, and you are in hell already. Only an inspired poet could be so subtle a moralist. Only a sound moralist could be so tragic a poet.

Canto V, 127

Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto
  di Lancialotto come amor lo strinse;
  soli eravamo e sanza alcun sospetto.

Per piu` fiate li occhi ci sospinse
  quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso;
  ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vinse.

Quando leggemmo il disiato riso
  esser basciato da cotanto amante,
  questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,

la bocca mi bascio` tutto tremante.
  Galeotto fu 'l libro e chi lo scrisse:
  quel giorno piu` non vi leggemmo avante.

Translation: Allen Mandelbaum

One day, to pass the time away, we read
  of Lancelot–how love had overcome him.
 We were alone, and we suspected nothing.

And time and time again that reading led
  out eyes to meet, and made our faces pale,
  and yet one point alone, defeated us.

When we had read how the desired smile
  was kissed by one who was so true a lover,
  this one, who never shall be parted from me,

while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth.
  A Gallehault indeed, that book and he
  who wrote it, too; that day we read no more."

The tale is of course a familiar one, as Dante himself tells us earlier in Canto V:

Vedi Paris, Tristano; e piu` di mille
ombre mostrommi e nominommi a dito,
ch'amor di nostra vita dipartille.

"See Paris, Tristan. . ."–and he pointed out
  and named to me more than a thousand shades
  departed from our life because of love.

But the comparison here is rather more specific:

Tristan und Isolde: Act II
Isolde! Geliebte!... Tristan! Geliebter!
Jon Vickers & Birgit Nilsson


Mein! Tristan mein!

Mein! Isolde mein!

Mein und dein!
Ewig, ewig ein! 

The scene for all of its beauty is rather overwhelming and as such a little uncomfortable. The lovers are so seized, so heedless of time, everything. . . and we too grow transfixed by the scene which grows more and more detached and ethereal as the motives of transport and love weave together. Somewhat frighteningly effective, I think, which led Nietzsche to say how it exercises "such a dangerous fascination, such a spine-tingling and blissful (süssen) infinity." [1] (emphasis mine)

Indeed. "Why cannot these lovers shroud themselves forever in the sweet twilight of night and death that should indissolubly unite their souls and their destinies?!". . . Dante was filled with such pity he fainted after Francesca told her tale.

 René Kollo and Johanna Meier. 1991.

Update: I did not intend to suggest Wagner shared Dante's view of the lovers' situations, merely that  we might me inclined to compare them. Indeed one might find something quite different in Wagner, for example:

"The redemption through love that Wagner dramatizes in his mature operas is not an escape into another world in which the sufferings of this one are finally compensated. It is rather a demonstration of the value of this world by showing that something else is valued more. The sacred moment, in which death is scorned for the sake of love, casts its light back over the entire life that had led to it." –"Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde" by Roger Scruton. 2004.

See also:
Death Drive: Eros and Thanatos in Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde"
Linda Hutcheon & Michael Hutcheon
Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 11, No. 3. (Nov., 1999), pp. 267-293.

[1] Ecce Homo. Warum ich so klug, 6.

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