Tristan and Isolde

Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is one of the great musical and theatrical achievements of the modern era, creating a new musical language to depict the intense erotic yearning and tragic fate of the eponymous couple.

The new production at the Royal Opera House, however, has been criticised for lacking passion, and indeed I am inclined to agree with this view. The blame for this can be lain squarely on the shoulders of the main ‘idea’ of the production, viz. that Tristan and Isolde never actually touch each other and their desire is expressed not through rapturous embrace, but physical separation and frustration.

On the face of it this is quite a good idea. The love between Tristan and Isolde is doomed from the start, not only because of their social positions or because it is a drug crazed mania (it’s caused by a love potion!), but because there is something inherently unstable about intense erotic passion.

Freud extends this instability to all sexual life when he claims that there is something about the sexual instinct which makes it essentially impossible to satisfy. A modern psychoanalyst might notice that Tristan’s mother died giving birth to him – a circumstance which is difficult to rectify simply by falling in love later in life, no matter how intensely. As Emily Dickinson puts it: ‘You cannot solder an abyss with air”.

During the magnificent love duet in the second act there is a meditation on the word ‘and’ (Tristan and Isolde), emphasizing the linguistic copula that joins the two together (and keeps them apart). Everything focuses on the two protagonists in their impossible desire to merge together.

There is another factor which I think gets lost in most productions. Freud argues that it is not simply the separation but what causes it which is of importance.

Freud’s position on this matter is that you don’t get feelings of ‘love’ unless there is a relation to a ‘taboo’; that is, unless there is an obstacle to love. Think of ‘Courtly Love’ for instance, to which the Tristan legend can be subsumed. There is always a triangular structure, with a central axis of the structure being the relation between the young lover and the older, more powerful husband.

In the Tristan story, this function is occupied by the figure of King Mark. Moreover the ‘symptoms’ of erotic love are rather similar to the symptoms of fear – and this is a peculiar fact. What are the dangers involved – dangers which arise from our earlier experiences of love and dependence in relation to our parents, and the taboos and imagined or real dangers that surround them? Thus this intense ‘dualistic’ love story (in which all the characters actually have a kind of ‘double’ – Tristan and Kurwenal, King Mark and Melot, Isolde and Brangane) reveals itself as rooted unavoidably within the ambit of the Oedipus Complex.

But then you would expect me to say that, wouldn’t you?

To bring back the intensity and meaning of the story, especially if the protagonists are not to touch each other, we have to bring back the function of King Mark. Exploring the role of King Mark and the Oedipal dynamics of the story could make an original contribution to the history of Wagner productions. At least I have not seen it before.

One point can be made immediately, I believe. Although the prohibitive function of the father is often stressed in Freud’s work, there is a facilitating function which is also an essential aspect of his role. At the end of the Opera Mark has travelled to Brittany to marry the couple. (Of course he arrives too late and everyone is dead). The father, even in his terrifying aspects, can often point towards the future and towards legitimated pleasures. The regressive pull towards merging with the mother leads only, according to Freud, to death. (See Freud in England/The Family Freud)

Love and Romance: Some Freudian Texts

  • Observations on Transference Love (1915)
  • Some Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Homosexuality, and Paraoia (1922)
  • A Special Type of Object Choice Made by Men (1910)
  • On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love (1912)
  • The Taboo of Virginity (1918)
  • On Narcissism (1914)
  • Delusions and Dreams in Jensen’s Gradiva (1907)
  • The Uncanny (1919)
  • On Fetishism (1927)
  • Mourning and Melancholia (1917)
  • And for a discussion on the tendency towards merging with the love object: Civilisation and its Discontents (1931)

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