It is a source of unspeakable pleasure for me to learn new things just about every time I attend a Wagner performance. This is especially true where, as is the case with Carmen Jakobi’s production in Longborough, the action of the play is presented so uncluttered and so unencumbered, and the artists’ mission is understood to be inquiry into the very content of the work, rather than flaunting their talents (however considerable) or imposing their views (however interesting).
Imagine that Kant and Schopenhauer were right – that, parallel to this world of being and objects that we see and touch, there is all around us another world, comprising the sense of things as they really are rather than as replicated, their essences as it were, incapable of our sensing because they exist on a plane that defies seeing, hearing or touch. Indeed, this is a universe of objects entirely independent of the human mind or any of the constructs of meaning, existence, morality, time or cause. Like the special doors that the children could create by slicing the air in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, we can gain access to at least a glimpse of this terrifying world of ideal existence only briefly and only in moments of spiritual excess.
Bryan Magee, in The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy, cites three paths to momentary experience of the noumenal: deepest meditation, sexual orgasm, and music.
Now take Isolde at her word: That in the course of caring for a wounded stranger in time of war she recognized him as the murderer of her lover and espoused, and her revenge was thwarted by his opening his eyes. And that something happened in that moment – something very like their catching a glimpse of this other, noumenal, universe. That window closed, but the images they saw were necessarily dependent upon the other, and were brought back to life when he returned to claim her as Marke’s bride.
During the voyage from Ireland to Cornwall, how fiery is her anger and indignation that he dare not be in her presence, denying what they both know to be true – even inevitable? And how resolute is his insistence that, if he is a man of honor in a world of dignity and service, he cannot see her, lest he be drawn unwillingly to re-enter that other world, where such concepts are mere constructs with no meaning? He cannot endure it, and neither can she. This way of living is unsustainable. So they are both committed to death and oblivion.
So we come to the potion. She promises it is a potion of death, which he eagerly accepts. Brangägne later confesses she substituted a potion of love. But what it really is, perhaps, is a potion of permission. They actually see again, as Wagner’s motif insists and insists. They see not only each other, but that world of essence rather than object. And when they do, this time they refuse to close the window. All sense of the phenomenal world and its moral constructs dissolves for good. “What King?” asks Tristan. And Marke later observes, what meaning has loyalty if Tristan betrays?
Committed to the world of the noumenal, the lovers seek the stealthy dark rather than the revealing light – the night rather than the day, and death rather than life. And the death they aim towards is neither oblivion nor redemption, but rather the ecstatic, unworldly synthesis of all phenomena into a plane of existence hitherto unexperienced – one where, as Isolde reports on the portal of the door, Tristan’s body glows, where his breath emits sweetness and a music that only Isolde can hear, where the air bears people aloft and translates itself into waves, into sound, into a World’s-Breath in which one drowns, not in desperation, but in delight.
Much is written of the revolutionary Wagner of 1849. But in Tristan his revolution is not merely political, and not even (at least not consciously) against the diatonic tradition of music. It is, at heart, a proclamation of the entitlement of sexual lovers to live a life of ecstasy, and of those who have glimpsed the noumenal world to forego mere reality in order to exist in it. The events of Tristan constitute a rejection of concepts such as honor, promise, loyalty and social obligation, not because they are corrupt, but because they are irrelevant. Just as the structure of the work is divided into three Acts – Isolde’s story, Tristan and Isolde’s story, and Tristan’s story – so we can adduce that the inevitable urgency that drives the story is also in three stages – The acceptance of experiencing the noumenal, the celebration of the noumenal perception, and the necessary consequences of accepting the insufficiency of the merely phenomenal world.