Essays on Psycholanalysis

Senta, Tristan and Walther “On the Couch”


Psychoanalysts Steven H. Goldberg, M.D., and Lee Rather, Ph.D., have edited an enjoyable collection of essays under the title “Opera on the Couch: Music, Emotional Life, and Unconscious Aspects of Mind” (Routledge 2022).  Three of the essays address Wagner characters: Senta, Walther and Tristan.

L. Eileen Keller, Ph.D., a psychoanalyst in private practice in California, authored “Transformation Through the Other: Senta and The Flying Dutchman.”  Dr. Keller posits a symbiotic relationship between Senta — a victim of an abusive and motherless family — and the Dutchman — victim of his own arrogance.  She traces the sources of each character’s desperation, and the fitting answer that each finds in the “other.”  “All of us rely on others’ care but are conflicted about acknowledging this care, she observes.  Indeed, these two characters predicaments are products of that refusal to surrender to the help of others: Dutchman’s hubris in insisting upon sailing the Cape, and Senta’s frustrated desires to be the perfect daughter to her father.  When they meet, “we see romantic love blossom in both of them, a transformative love for each other:”  The Dutchman seeks to protect “the other” rather than achieve his own goals, and Senta exhibiting “maternal protectiveness and generosity toward him.”

John J.H. Muller IV, a professor at The Juilliard School of Music,  studies the character of Tristan in his essay, “The Orpheus of All Secret Misery: The Expression of Profound Grief in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.”  Muller suggests that the subject of the work as a whole is not love, but rather grief: ” a profound, persistent grief that has colored Tristan’s entire life.”  The title of Muller’s essay comes from Nietzche, who wrote that Wagner was “a master at finding the tones in the realm of suffering, depressed and tortured souls….”  Muller emphasizes the losses that characterized Wagner’s own life, giving rise to dramas featuring parental absence and tragedies arising from paternal tensions.  So in Tristan we have a man who is externally heroic but internally lost, despairing, seeking night and death.  Musically, “Tristan’s themes relate to sickness or to his anguish.”  Even the triumph of love in Act II is (dramatically) a set-up for the attenuated exegesis upon grief and loss that is Act III.  The characters of Isolde and Marke are similarly seen by Muller as walking vessels of grief and loss.  Marke “journeyed to Kareol to let Tristan know he was forgiven…. Instead, he blesses the dead.”

Jeanne C. Harasemovitch, a psychoanalyst and member of the Berkeley (Cal.) Psychoanalytic Society, studies Die Meistersinger as “Wagner’s creative dream.”  She charts the extent to which dreams not only play an essential part in the narrative, but event infuse the structure of the work itself.  Reflecting Sachs’ teaching in Act III, Harasemovitch says that the theme of the work is “that it is the task of the artist to dig deeply into the chaos of the unconscious and transform its dark matter into a work of art.”  She posits that “Wagner conceived music as having the character of a dream and as a vital bridge between our conscious and unconscious worlds,” and that the story of Walther’s ascension into success is the narrative of that bridge.  She includes in her essay a persuasive interpretation of the Wahn monologue that renders this perception explicit: Sachs charts the process whereby, with all people and in all circumstances, chaos and darkness are rendered clear and purgative.

The volume includes essays on Don Giovanni, Magic Flute, Lucia di Lammermoor, Wozzeck, Billy Budd, and other works, and delivers a responsible and defensible “alternative” perspective on many of the great musical works for stage.

Add Comment

By PeterP

The Wagner Blog

The Wagner Blog is a forum for discussion of contemporary themes arising from the works of Richard Wagner. Discussions relating to Wagner’s musical, literary, theatrical, philosophical, political and theoretic work are all appropriate for this forum.

Recent Posts


Recent Comments