Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Rounding the Table

Watching the rather mediocre, but nonetheless romantic, 2006 film version of Tristan and Isolde recently, I've gone on my own quest for the Holy Grail of Love. Is it the forbidden aspect of romantic love that gives it its thrust, its jolt?
Tristan and Isolde

From the "Dark Ages" of Medieval Europe to the dark depths of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Freud, it does seem that the real kick in erotic love comes from being taboo, forbidden, denied, delayed, or even repressed. Take a read from Wikipedia: Schpoenhauer's influence on Wagner's opera version of Tristan:

Influence of Schopenhauer on Tristan und Isolde

Wagner was introduced to the work of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer by his friend Georg Herwegh in late 1854. The composer was immediately struck by the philosophical ideas to be found in “Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung” (The World as Will and Representation), and it is clear that the composer and the philosopher had a very similar world-view. By the end of that year, he had sketched out all three acts of an opera on the theme of Tristan and Isolde, although it was not until 1857 that he began working full-time on the opera, putting aside the composition of Der Ring des Nibelungen to do so. Wagner said in a letter to Franz Liszt (December 1854): “Never in my life having enjoyed the true happiness of love I shall erect a memorial to this loveliest of all dreams in which, from the first to the last, love shall, for once, find utter repletion. I have devised in my mind a Tristan und Isolde, the simplest, yet most full-blooded musical conception imaginable, and with the ‘black flag’ that waves at the end I shall cover myself over – to die.” By 1857 Wagner was living as the guest of the wealthy silk merchant Otto von Wesendonck, and during the composition of Tristan und Isolde was involved with Wesendonck’s wife, Mathilde, although it remains uncertain as to whether or not this relationship was platonic.
Nevertheless, the twin influences of Schopenhauer and Mathilde inspired Wagner during the composition of Tristan und Isolde. Schopenhauer’s influence is felt most directly in the second and third acts. The first act is relatively straightforward, consisting mostly of an exposition of how Tristan and Isolde come to be in their current state. However the second act, where the lovers meet, and the third act, in which Tristan longs for release from the passions that torment him, have often proved puzzling to opera-goers unfamiliar with Schopenhauer’s work. Wagner uses the metaphor of day and night in the second act to designate the realms inhabited by Tristan and Isolde. The world of Day is one where the lovers must deny their love and pretend they do not care for each other, where they are bound by the dictates of King Marke’s court: it is a realm of falsehood and unreality. Tristan declares in Act 2 that under the dictates of the realm of Day he was forced to remove Isolde from Ireland and to marry her to his Uncle Marke. The realm of Night, in contrast, is the representation of intrinsic reality, where the lovers can be together, where their desires reach fulfillment: it is the realm of oneness, truth and reality. Wagner thus equates the realm of Day with Schopenhauer’s concept of Phenomenon, and the realm of Night with Schopenhauer’s concept of Noumenon. While none of this is explicitly stated in the libretto, Tristan’s comments on Day and Night in Acts 2 and 3 make it very clear that this is Wagner’s intention.
In Schopenhauer’s philosophy, the world as we experience it is a representation of an unknowable reality. Our representation of the world (which is false) is Phenomenon, while the unknowable reality is Noumenon: these concepts are developments of ideas originally posited by Kant. Importantly for Tristan and Isolde, Schopenhauer’s concept of Noumenon is one where all things are indivisible and one: and it is this very idea of one-ness that Tristan yearns for in Acts 2 and 3 of Tristan und Isolde. Tristan is also aware that this realm of Night, or Noumenon can only be shared by the lovers in its fullest sense when they die. The realm of Night therefore also becomes the realm of death: the only world in which Tristan and Isolde can be united forever, and it is this realm that Tristan speaks of at the end of Act two (“Dem Land das Tristan meint, der Sonne Licht nicht scheint”).
Tristan rages against the daylight in Act 3 and frequently cries out for release from his desires (Sehnen): it is also part of Schopenhauer’s philosophy that man is driven by continued, unachievable desires, and that the gulf between our desires and the possibility of achieving them leads to misery. The only way for man to achieve inner peace is to renounce his desires: a theme that Wagner explores fully in his last opera, Parsifal.
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Which brings me to Sir Lancelot of the Lake. Even more than Tristan, he is the very image of the marriage (and struggle) of the Apollonian and the Dionysian-- to use Nietzsche's ideas. His love for Arthur merges with and fights with his love for Guenivere. Lancelot's passion is contrasted with Arthur's cool. Arthur is able to preserve his high regard, his cool-headed love for both. His understanding transcends the mores of Medieval society, of possessive love, of jealousy, of church, state, and culture. His wisdom cuts through the situation like Excalibur. Now there is a film that magically embraces the mysticism and fervor of Medieval romance.
(Read Salon's review)
(David Keyes' Review)

What if Arthur prevailed? What if the king truly ruled society, and the love triangle just went on without protest, without villains spying, without the downfall of Camelot? Would we have true love... or no love at all? Or at least not the passionate, erotic, romantic love in the deep forest that Lancelot has with Guinivere?
Worse still, what would happen to art? To poetry, literature, painting?

The highest peak of love may need, at the base, dragons to slay.


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