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December 12, 2005

On Love and Humanity: Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde - Roger Scruton

Posted by David Conway

Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde
by Roger Scruton
Pp. 246. Oxford University Press, 2004
Hardback, £17.99

David Conway finds his imagination seized by Roger Scruton's book, Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde.

One opinion clearly shared by Roger Scruton and Karl Marx is that:

philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
But there would be significantly different nuances in their interpretation of this opinion. Amongst the changes in the world since 1845 is that of the status of philosophers; in those days, they were conceived of as people who had original insights, whereas nowadays they are mostly people who have university tenure and write about other philosophers.
Scruton is a throwback to those earlier days.

Another difference is that Marx's desired changes were to be made manifest, primarily, in the material world; Scruton's mission to change is more of a thought experiment. If people believed in the principles he believes in, the requisite changes in the material world would come about. Indeed he has some evidence for this, in the form of his involvement with covert movements for democracy in Eastern Europe the 1970s and 1980s.

Death-Devoted Heart – although billed in its subtitle as Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde – is part of Scruton's mission and is, despite its compact size (198 pages plus notes), much more than just an opera guide.

That is not to say however that it does not provide a rich background to those who are interested in Wagnerian opera and no more. Of course, a true Wagnerian – such as Scruton – would claim that Wagnerian opera has no borders. He makes his stand as a Wagner worshipper clear from the first page where he notes that,

Wagner could be fairly described as one of the great humanists of modern times
- and on the second we read that in Wagner's consideration of the degeneration of Germany from its supposed atavistic nobility and morality,
Wagner was too serious a thinker to respond with dates, places, and persons.
Such statements about Wagner's abilities and qualifications are open to argument, (and I do mean "open to argument", space for which is lacking here, and not at all "deserving of instant condemnation") but, quite correctly, the context in which we may assess the judgements of our guide is made clear from the outset.

What we get in Death-Devoted Heart (the title being Isolde's description of herself in her tirade against Tristan in Act I), is eight chapters concerned with the role of erotic love in society, radiating out from a discussion and analysis of Wagner's opera. This discussion is broadly contained in chapter 2, which discusses the literary sources of Tristan, chapter 3 which contains a detailed treatment of Wagner's libretto and chapter 4 in which Scruton provides a detailed musical analysis. These three chapters by themselves are invaluable for anyone with a serious interest in the opera. They are superbly informed, draw one's attention to many previously unnoticed aspects, and increase one's understanding of this masterpiece both in breadth and depth.

As a consequence, without the slightest hyperbole, they offer convincing arguments to establish Wagner as an outstanding genius of the theatre – a genius which, to give away my own opinion, remains unparalleled. Of great practical use is the appendix containing a table of the opera's musical motives, giving the (often very different) names ascribed to them by previous authorities on the opera, itself indicating the variety of interpretations the opera has evoked.

Although the musical discussion provided by Scruton requires from the reader a reasonable technical knowledge of musical theory – steer clear of these passages if you are fazed by minor ninths and diminished sevenths – the survey of Tristan as a whole is a true landmark, one that must serve as a primary point of reference for the future.

Scruton's description of Tristan is, then, invaluable, but the purpose of the book is the text which encloses it. In Tristan Wagner presents us with a vision of a love so transcendent that it can only be fulfilled by death. Set out blandly like this, the proposition seems paradoxical, or even nonsensical. Yet in the context of the opera, or more specifically to those present at a performance, it seems somehow to carry a great truth. It is this paradox and its implications that Scruton's book investigates.

Wagner wrote Tristan under the influence of his reading of Schopenhauer, for whom love was just one of the many tragic misconceptions which humanity endures as it is put through its paces by the Will. Coition (leading to reproduction) is for the benefit of the species and not, as the lover may fondly imagine, for the gratification of his or her carnal desire – a sort of anticipation, I suppose, of the "selfish gene" school of thought on a metaphysical plane. However Wagner came up with a reinterpretation of Schopenhauer. In a letter to the philosopher – which he never sent – he wrote:

Our predisposition to sexual love represents a way to salvation leading to self-knowledge and self-denial of the will.
This is because (as I understand Wagner's intentions, and Scruton's interpretations of them), true erotic love is directed at the transcendental essence of a single other in which we wish to lose ourself; that such love is transcendentally asserted apart from any of its material presentations (in the flesh); and that such love therefore provides a means of penetrating the veil between the material world we experience through our senses and the transcendental. The carnal correlates of this love – that is, broadly, "sex" – are materialist irrelevancies to this sublime objective. It is relevant and important to both Wagner and Schopenhauer (and hence to us as those who experience Wagner's music), that music itself in Schopenhauer's system also has a function as a gateway between the material and the transcendent – as Scruton writes:
Simply put, Schopenhauer's theory argues that music acquaints us with the will.
This concept of "true" transcendental love – which is what Scruton intends by the term "erotic" –Scruton believes is in danger of being lost or repressed, greatly to its detriment, in modern western society; because it should be something we respect as a fundamental component in our relation to our fellow men (and women). His concept of "erotic love" is closely related to the idea of sacrifice or renunciation for others which lies at the heart of many - perhaps all - religions. Common access to the transcendental plane – through ritual, music and love – has been a binding, if hidden, factor in human society. Through such access we recognise the value of others and our essential equality.

Materialist society – involving the decay of and contempt for religion, and the commodification of sex as opposed to the appreciation of love – corrupts this access. Wagner's concept of music theatre allows us to understand the importance of this ancient communion, and its practice in fact gives us an access to it. The composer's clear conviction of the transcendental essence of erotic love, coupled with his musical mastery, form a uniquely powerful combination, (intuitively supporting the post-Schopenhaurian framework in which Scruton has posited them). We leave Tristan feeling ennobled even if we are not sure, on first analysis, exactly why; and on Scruton's arguments, this may make us better people. As Wagner wrote (quoted by Scruton):

It is reserved to art to salvage the kernel of religion, inasmuch as the mythical images which religion would wish to be believed are apprehended in art for their symbolic value, and through ideal representation of those symbols, art reveals the concealed deep truth within them.
I hope both that this highly compressed summary of Scruton's arguments is a fair representation as far as it goes, and also that it does not deter anyone from reading this book carefully and interpreting it for him or her self – because the essence of Scruton's mission is to engage people to consider these issues and their implications.

This review is an early reaction to the book. I shall continue to ponder it and to return to it for some time. Its compactness means that there are many issues arising from it which Scruton does not resolve or discuss. Perhaps he may return to these in the future – I hope so; I will set out two or three of them, as they have occurred to me.

I am interested in the philosophical difference between listening to Tristan on a recording (I have just been listening to the attractive if very slightly over-coloured CD version with Domingo, conducted by Pappano – an ideal Christmas present) and experiencing it at a theatre. I referred to Wagner earlier in this article as a genius of the theatre rather than of music because I have always found that his compositions (certainly from the Ring onwards) only truly make sense in the context of live performance. When I listen to them later on recording or the radio I am conscious of "reading" into them what I have previously seen and experienced. Before I saw a production of Tristan, I was unable to engage with its music. It seems to me that Wagner's later stage works need to have at least a physical incarnation in the imagination to be truly effective.

I was struck by a philosophical paradox in Scruton's chapter on Wagner's music. He prefaces this with an outline of Schopenhauer's theory on music, including the notion that music "acquaints us with the will", the will which in itself is unknowable through the senses. He then provides a very detailed analysis of why and how it is that Wagner's handling of the music – in its themes, harmonies and rhythms – may evoke conscious and subconscious emotional responses in the listener. Is this not close to saying that, in some way, we might deduce something about the "unknowable" will through such analysis? (Rather like the behaviourist B. F. Skinner's concept of the brain as a "black box" which we can hope to understand by assessing its reaction to inputs).

Lastly, I was made to reflect once again on a topic admittedly well beyond the book's scope - why it is that a huge proportion of those philosophers who have generated the ideas which we still debate about life and purpose – including Schopenhauer – had no children; was this cause or effect?

If Scruton's book could induce even me to strike out into such complex territory, there is every reason to think that the more who read it, the more his objectives may be fulfilled. I urge you to become one of this select band.

To read David Conway's previous review of Roger Scruton's opera Violet see: Violetta for Me - Roger Scruton's Violet at the Guildhall School of Music.

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I wouldn't agree with the following thought, although I'm not sure that it is relevant in the bigger picture:

"Coition (leading to reproduction) is for the benefit of the species and not, as the lover may fondly imagine, for the gratification of his or her carnal desire – a sort of anticipation, I suppose, of the "selfish gene" school of thought on a metaphysical plane."

I don't think that is what is meant by "the selfish gene" at all. I think that, from the point of view of science - which is that which Richard Dawkins was trying to give - coition is NOT "for the benefit of the species". It no more "for" the benefit of the species than it is "for" the benefit of the lovers. Our natural history being what it is, it is simply is what happens. That is to say, it is fact and only that.

Dawkins is a man who likes to play with words and he was using "selfish" in a deliberately metaphorical sense, (which, surprisingly, some casual commentators seem to miss). The point about the "selfish gene" metaphor is that evolutionary biology might be better seen not in terms of species, but in terms of genes, since these endure longer than species.

I suppose an appropriate response would be that that viewpoint is a truth but not the truth. It may be appropriate to evolutionary biologists but it is not of interest to lovers. And if anyone wanted to discuss human conduct (to use Oakeshott's term) in terms solely drawn from evolutionary biology then he would be guilty of _ignoratio elenchi_.

Posted by: Michael at December 12, 2005 03:40 PM

Why has David Conway let us all down by not employing his famous gift for mocking humour? Wagner and sex is an obvious target. Is not a Geyler almost an Adler? If Frau Mathilde Wesendonck was the inspiration for Isolde does this make adultery a sacrament? If the fruit of Wagner's passion is foisting a bastard on von Buelow does this enoble the child? How does King Ludwig's vile and unnatural but self-sacrificing passion for Wagner fit into the Scrutonian ethic? What fun Prof Conway could have had at Wagner and Scruton's expense. Does Cosima's clinging to Wagner's corpse for 24 hours after he had died constitute undying love? Did Cosima not murder Wagner by making a fuss about his passion for sexy Carrie Pringle driving him into his death-anger?
What a chance you missed Dr Conway!

Posted by: Alec at December 12, 2005 07:56 PM

Let me first demur at the honours to which Alec has raised me: I am not a Dr. (yet) and unikely to be a Professor (ever). I could certainly go on at length, and may well do so when the appropriate opportunity arises, about the eccentricities of Cosima and the inconsistencies of Wagner himself - but to do so in the context of discussing Scruton's book would be - well, 'ignoratio elenchi'. Erotic love happens to be one of my few simple pleasures; I ask your indulgence for taking it seriously. After all, to paraphrase Empson, 'a guy can't go on laughing all the time'.

Posted by: David Conway at December 13, 2005 01:56 PM

Questions various people have asked the Social Affairs Unit - and Alec's comment above - suggest that there is a certain confusion as to the identity of David Conway, the Social Affairs Unit Web Review's music reviewer.

David Conway, the Social Affairs Unit's music reviewer, is not the same person as David Conway, formerly of Middlesex University and now with the think tank Civitas. They merely share the same name.
Social Affairs Unit

Posted by: Social Affairs Unit at December 13, 2005 02:10 PM

It seems that Wagner fell off one side of Luther's donkey and regarded sex/love as something to be worshipped, which is idolatry. But the "just evolutionary biology" brigade then fall off the other side. An article like Addicted to love, beauty or sex? by a distinguished Behavioural Neuroscientist can end up like one of those featured on MSN with visible titles like "10 Ways to Find the Perfect Partner" but could well be subtitled "10 Tips for Love Rats".

Nevertheless, evolutionary biology is perhaps one of the best demonstrations that "flesh and blood shall in no wise inherit the Kingdom of God". Which suggests that if someone says "Evolution leads to despair" and then, following the 'Creation Scientists' says "Evolution is wrong", this is a prime example of *ignoratio elenchi*.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at December 14, 2005 09:10 AM
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