The current issue of the invaluable Wagner Journal includes an article by Michael Trimble, Dale C. Hesdorffer and Robert Letellier on “The Mystery of Wotan’s Missing Eye.” It reports on a study of production photographs concluding that, though the author never provided for instructions, nearly all actors playing Wotan portrayed a damaged left eye rather than right. They include an extensive explanation offered by Sir John Tomlinson, reporting a “feeling” that the left eye represents the unconscious or intuitive, while the right denotes intellect and reason.
The authors’ most telling observations extrapolate on Tomlinson’s and speculate on the moral consequences of Wotan’s sacrificial act. In order to gain the runes that are imbued with order, politics, power and civilization, Wotan gave up inner vision and self-comprehension, intuition and even love.
Accepting this analytical structure, the progress of the play is remarkably poignant. Wotan acknowledges to Brünnhilde in his Act II monologue in Walküre that her capacity as his will provides to him “that other self for which I yearn, that other self I never see.” Her act of disobedience is in the realm of compassion, intuition, and self-development, all of which are denied Wotan. He can enforce but cannot engage. Going further, Siegfried is a necessary historic event not because he is anarchic but because he can learn, change, and understand himself – none of which Wotan can do, given the loss of his own self-insight. That postulate, in turn, lends coherence to one of the most obscure lines of the text: the Wanderer’s telling Siegfried that the eye Wotan is missing is now being used by Siegfried to see the one that Wotan retains. That is to say, Siegfried possesses the very capability that Wotan sacrificed in order to gain power.
As a child I once asked my professor-father whether he was an “expert” in his field, and he said that if you devote yourself to studying the extramarital behavior of the left-handed pitchers for the Chicago Cubs in the 1927 baseball season, you don’t need to do much in order to become recognized as an expert in the topic. Some of my friends might shudder at the prospect of my enjoying so much a study of whether Wotan sacrificed his right or his left eye, offstage, in an event that happened before even the prologue to the play began. Ah, well. I think the topic’s just peachy.