The Land of Non-Being
[R. Wagner to F. Liszt, 16? December 1854, tr. Spencer and Millington]
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 redemption!
[Bryan Magee, Wagner and Philosophy (also available as The Tristan Chord), p. 193]
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.
[Guy R. Welbon, The Buddhist Nirvana and its Western Interpreters, 1968, p.179]
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.
[Elliot Zuckerman, The First Hundred Years of Wagner's Tristan, p.34]
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."
[Carl Suneson, Richard Wagner och den indiska tankevärlden, 1985]
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 Sieger.
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.)
[Guy R. Welbon, The Buddhist Nirvana and its Western Interpreters, 1968, p.179]
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".
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.
[R. Wagner, On the Womanly in the Human, February 1883. The very last words that Wagner wrote.]
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.
[A. Goldman and E. Sprinchorn, Wagner on Music and Drama, p.28]
Where Schopenhauer 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.
[Bryan Magee, Wagner and Philosophy (also available as The Tristan Chord), p. 215]
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.
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.
[Carl Suneson, Richard Wagner och den indiska tankevärlden, 19852]
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
sthoff is surely right when he says of Kundry:
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.
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