The Land of Non-Being
I have now become exclusively preoccupied with
a man who -- albeit only in literary form -- has entered my lonely life like a gift from heaven. It is Arthur Schopenhauer, the
greatest philosopher since Kant, whose ideas -- as he himself puts it -- he is the first person to think through to their logical conclusion. The German
professors have -- very wisely -- ignored him for 40 years; he was recently rediscovered -- to Germany's shame -- by an English critic. What charlatans all these
Hegels etc. are beside him! His principal idea, the final denial of the will to live, is of terrible seriousness, but it is uniquely redeeming. Of course it did
not strike me as anything new, and nobody can think such a thought if he has not already lived it. But it was this philosopher who first awakened the idea in me
with such clarity. When I think back on the storms that have buffeted my heart and on its convulsive efforts to cling to some hope in life -- against my own
better judgement -- indeed, now that these storms have swelled so often to the fury of a tempest, -- I have yet found a sedative which has finally helped me to
sleep at night: it is the sincere and heartfelt yearning for death: total unconsciousness, complete annihilation, the end of all dreams -- the only ultimate
Without Schopenhauer the creation of Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal is unthinkable, out of the question, for essential to their
substance are metaphysical insights which Wagner had indeed absorbed into his living tissue and made authentically his own but which he would have been wholly
incapable of arriving at by himself.
[Bryan Magee, Wagner and Philosophy (also available as The Tristan Chord), p. 193]
Several scholars have shown that seeds of the
love tragedy theme -- of the profound, often perplexing, Eros renunciation interplay -- were present in Wagner's works long before he had read Schopenhauer, Burnouf or Köppen.
[Guy R. Welbon, The Buddhist Nirvana and its Western Interpreters, 1968, p.179]
Renunciation in one form or another runs
through all Wagner's works from The Flying Dutchman to Parsifal. The Dutchman gains redemption, according to Wagner's explanation of the plot,
"through a woman who shall sacrifice herself for the love of him. Thus it is the yearning for death that spurs him on to seek this woman."
[Elliot Zuckerman, The First Hundred Years of Wagner's Tristan, p.34]
Wagner formulates two different answers to
unattainable love: union and fulfilment in death as in Tristan und Isolde, and complete renunciation and union on a higher plane as in Die
[Carl Suneson, Richard Wagner och den indiska tankevärlden, 1985]
n the final act of Die Sieger, the Chandala girl Prakriti is offered a difficult choice by the Buddha (Gautama Shakyamuni). For the first time the Buddha will accept a
woman into the religious community, if Prakriti will accept a life of chastity and humility. So she can join her
beloved Ananda, but only after she has renounced sex. Prakriti
chooses renunciation so that she can be with Ananda, not as his wife or lover, but as a sister. (Later, for no
obvious reason, Wagner changed the name of the character to Savitri, the name of the heroine of an entirely separate story.)
Köppen's account of the Buddha's decision to
admit women into the order stressed the Buddha's initial refusal and the role played by Ananda in causing him to reverse that prohibition. Wagner chose to see in
this final decision the [final] perfection of the Buddha himself -- the redeemer redeemed -- "one final advance to consummate perfection. Ananda, standing nearer
to life as yet, and directly affected by the young Chandala maiden's impetuous love, becomes the medium of this last perfecting".
[Guy R. Welbon, The Buddhist Nirvana and its Western Interpreters, 1968, p.179]
In the words quoted above, written to Mathilde Wesendonk, Wagner means, beyond any doubt, the perfection of wisdom (prajñápáramitá) which his
(fictional) Buddha Shakyamuni obtains through compassion for the outcast maiden Prakriti.
It is a beautiful feature in the legend, that
shows the Victoriously Perfect [
der Siegreich Vollendete] at last determined to admit the woman. [In the margin:] Love -- Tragedy.
[R. Wagner, On the Womanly in the Human, February 1883. The very last words that Wagner wrote.]
advocates withdrawal and non-cooperation in order to impose one's own meaning on the essential meaninglessness of life, Wagner's lovers rush to embrace this will
with such abandon and vigour that it is difficult to tell whether the force is overcoming the individuals or the individuals are momentarily mastering the force.
[A. Goldman and E. Sprinchorn, Wagner on Music and Drama, p.28]
For much of the time when Tristan and Isolde
are not narrating or recalling they are gasping their longing for one another. The German word for longing (Sehnen, with a capital as a noun and a small
's' as a verb) provides the focal concept of the Tristan libretto in the same way as Mitleid ('compassion') is the focal concept of the
Parsifal libretto; and in each case there is an elaborate substructure underpinning it in the form of Schopenhauer's
philosophy, for longing is the key concept of Schopenhauer's metaphysics of existence, and compassion the key concept of his ethics.
[Bryan Magee, Wagner and Philosophy (also available as The Tristan Chord), p. 215]
n what many have regarded as Wagner's most Schopenhauerian work,
Tristan und Isolde, the composer worked out his derivative of Schopenhauer's philosophy. Here is the romantic death- wish,
again, expanded into a philosophy or even perhaps, as Michael Tanner has suggested, a religion. Although there is no obvious Indian
model for any of the text, Isolde's ecstatic transfiguration, with which the work ends, uses (like the 1856 ending of Götterdämmerung) language strongly
suggesting the influence of Indian religious literature and Buddhist or Brahmin concepts of deliverance.
t is a frequently encountered view of Wagner's engagement with the ideas of
Schopenhauer and Indian religion respectively, that sees Tristan und Isolde as the drama most affected
by these influences. Even in Guy R. Welbon's study, it is Tristan that is Welbon's focus of attention when he discusses
Wagner. Bryan Magee's recent comment, above, redresses the balance. Schopenhauer was equally important as the inspiration for
Tristan and for Parsifal, although in the latter case Burnouf and Wolfram too were key
elements at the creative moment. As Bryan Magee knows, Schopenhauer insisted that his metaphysics and his ethics were inseparable. It
should be noted that the key difference between Tristan and Parsifal is one of emphasis: where the former emphasizes metaphysical ideas, the
latter emphasizes ethical ideas. Specifically, those of Schopenhauer's essay On the Basis of Morality, in
which, as Magee remarked above, the key concept of his ethics is compassion.
t might also be argued that there are no specifically Buddhist ideas in
Tristan. Both Günter Lanczkowski and Guy R. Welbon have suggested that there are,
while Carl Suneson was sceptical. On internal evidence alone, it is not clear whether either Tristan or Isolde find deliverance at the
end of the drama, and perhaps Wagner did not consider the question important. The subject of his Tristan und Isolde is not salvation but the suffering
caused by the desire for extinction. Whether that deliverance or extinction takes the form of absorption into Brahman or transition into nirvana is
unimportant, in the context of the drama. From a remark that Wagner made to Cosima many years later, that Kundry had undergone Isolde's transfiguration a thousand
times, it would appear that he had reached the view that Isolde had not yet escaped from samsara, which in notes in the Brown Book he equated to the realm of day; in contrast, nirvana was the realm of night. So there is sufficient evidence from
which to conclude that, if not during the composition of Tristan und Isolde then at least in reflecting on it later, Wagner thought of Tristan yearning
for nirvana1, the realm of night.
agner's Parsifal deals with (among other Buddhist concepts)
samsara (the cycle of rebirth, which can be heard in the music of Kundry) and deliverance or redemption from this cycle of rebirth. In one passage in the
second act, after the critical kiss, Kundry and Parsifal speak of desire as burning. In his Fire Sermon the Buddha used burning as a metaphor for suffering. In the
most widely accepted etymology of nirvana, the word means blowing out, as in the blowing out of a flame. Therefore, at least on etymological arguments,
nirvana is the end of suffering, the blowing out of the flame when it is no longer fuelled by ignorance and desire. In Parsifal there is more
than a hint of a sub-text about nirvana. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, unlike Isolde, Kundry is released from samsara into
nirvana, not by her own efforts but by the intervention of a Bodhisattva, that is, Parsifal.
The bodhisattva doctrine includes a description
of the transfer of merit [Sanskrit: punya] from a bodhisattva to those in need of help. The being who receives this help is freed from further rebirth
and the consequences of their actions in earlier lives, karma, are not brought to maturity but absorbed in the depths of the
bodhisattva's boundless sea of mercy.
[Carl Suneson, Richard Wagner och den indiska tankevärlden, 19852]
sthoff is surely right when he says of Kundry:
her deliverance [Erlösung] is extinction in the Buddhist sense. None of the other commentators on Parsifal have given this sub-text any attention.
Reciprocally, it is the compassion awakened in Parsifal by Kundry, in exact analogy to Wagner's treatment of the Buddha and Prakriti, that brings to Parsifal the
medium of his last perfecting.
n a recently published and thoughtful essay3, Ulrike
Kienzle has expressed the view that the realm of night in Tristan und Isolde is equivalent to nirvana (as it was understood by Wagner, that is,
the "selige Nichts"). Kienzle points to the entry in the Brown Book, mentioned in my article above, in which Wagner equated
nirvana to night and samsara to day. Although Kienzle claims that Isolde enters into nirvana at the end of the opera, this idea is
difficult to reconcile with Wagner's statement that Kundry had undergone Isolde's transfiguration a thousand times.
Various recent commentators on Tristan u. Isolde
have mentioned that the rising phrase which opens that score was
prefigured in an orchestral fantasy by Hans von Bülow which Wagner was studying in October 1854 (see his letter to von Bülow of 26 October), shortly before he made
his first sketches for Tristan u. Isolde
. The title of the fantasy is Nirwana
, opus 20. This shows how ideas about nirvana and samsara were very
much current in Wagner's circle of friends and colleagues. Also that these ideas were associated with Tristan u. Isolde
from the very beginning.
Suneson's brief discussion of the doctrine of the "transfer of merit" might have been based on his reading of primary sources
but it is likely that his main source was the summary of this doctrine in Har Dayal's The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature
188-193. Wagner probably came across this idea in Köppen
's Die Religion des Buddha und ihre Entstehung
. According to
Dayal, in early Buddhism and contemporary Hinduism (Brahmanism) the doctrine of karma
was rigidly interpreted. The consequences of one's
karma (actions) led to personal merit or demerit, which according to the Brahmins followed the atman
(soul) through successive rebirths. In Buddhism too
it was emphasised that the consequences of actions were inescapable; every man or woman reaps as he or she has sown. This idea was used by Wagner in developing his
scenarios for Die Sieger
(where the one who carries a burden of sin or demerit is Prakriti) and Parsifal
(where the one burdened
is Kundry) respectively. It was generally regarded as a hard teaching and both in later Buddhism and in Hinduism it was softened. In Maháyána Buddhism the doctrine
of "transfer of merit" became widespread and it became one (the seventh) of the páramitás of the advanced Bodhisattva, who willingly gives away the merit that he
has earned by his good works for the benefit of others.
Footnote 3: Wagner Spectrum: Schwerpunkt 'Wagner und der Buddhismus', 2007, page 47.
© Derrick Everett 1996-2016. This page last updated (tweaked slightly for mobile devices; reduced page width to 800px; increased some font sizes)
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