Tristan's Shadow: Sexuality and the Total Work of Art after Wagner

Tristan's Shadow: Sexuality and the Total Work of Art after Wagner

by Adrian Daub


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Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and Siegfried. Parsifal. Tristan und Isolde. Both revered and reviled, Richard Wagner conceived some of the nineteenth century’s most influential operas—and created some of the most indelible characters ever to grace the stage. But over the course of his polarizing career, Wagner also composed volumes of essays and pamphlets, some on topics seemingly quite distant from the opera house. His influential concept of Gesamtkunstwerk—the “total work of art”—famously and controversially offered a way to unify the different media of an opera into a coherent whole. Less well known, however, are Wagner’s strange theories on sexuality—like his ideas about erotic acoustics and the metaphysics of sexual difference.

     Drawing on the discourses of psychoanalysis, evolutionary biology, and other emerging fields of study that informed Wagner’s thinking, Adrian Daub traces the dual influence of Gesamtkunstwerk and eroticism from their classic expressions in Tristan und Isolde into the work of the generation of composers that followed, including Zemlinsky, d’Albert, Schreker, and Strauss. For decades after Wagner’s death, Daub writes, these composers continued to grapple with his ideas and with his overwhelming legacy, trying in vain to write their way out from Tristan’s shadow.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226082134
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/25/2013
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 12.00(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Adrian Daub is associate professor of German Studies at Stanford University. He is the author of Uncivil Unions: The Metaphysics of Marriage in German Idealismand Romanticism and of Four-Handed Monsters: Four-Hand Piano Playing and the Making of Nineteenth Century Domestic Culture. He lives in San Francisco.

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Tristan's Shadow




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ISBN: 978-0-226-08213-4


Mother Mime: Wagner and the Metaphysics of Sexual Difference

In a letter to Theodor Uhlig in 1851, Richard Wagner writes that his Young Siegfried "has the enormous advantage that it presents the important mythos to the audience in a playful manner, the way one presents a fairy tale to a child." Even when Young Siegfried, the prelude to a projected Siegfried's Death, transformed into the "second day" of the Ring Cycle, the opera remained something of a hybrid: Siegfried is mythos condensed into a fairy-tale setting, or conversely a fairy tale that hides a mythos. The doubleness that Wagner seems to find so advantageous, however, also constitutes Siegfried's central contradiction. Act 1 of Siegfried, in particular, sees the story of the Nibelungs and the gods of Valhalla grind to a halt, as the cast pauses to stage a production of the Grimms' story of the "youth who went forth to learn what fear was." The hybridity at the heart of the opera plays out both in the erotics and the music of Siegfried. The fairy-tale setting and the mythos that frames it come to speak about the music drama as form (as Gesamtkunstwerk), but they do so through the medium of sexuality.

As Carl Dahlhaus suggested with respect to Siegfried, a classic fairy tale is characterized by both timelessness and immanence. In setting up its protagonist, in outlining that protagonist's travails and their eventual resolution, a fairy tale does not draw on any external resources, be they social, historical, or even logical. It answers exactly the questions that it poses, without leaving anything unresolved. Both mythos and fairy tale of course are centrally concerned with family and parentage, but they deploy it altogether differently. Where mythos concerns itself with origins, lineage, and causation, often with a connection to the present, the fairy tale tends to present its families as a static constellation of types. Insofar as they have mothers and fathers at all, they act only as ciphers, be they the absent parents of "Hansel and Gretel" or the classic evil stepmother. When Wagner distinguishes between Mythos and Märchen, he seems to be drawing on the same distinction between the historical axis and dynastic concerns of the epic/mythos, and the compressed and self-contained temporality of the fairy tale.

In Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen, this contradiction between genetic temporality and pure, ostensibly static form becomes a contradiction of genres. The cycle's "second day," Siegfried, as Dahlhaus argued, constitutes not only a fairy tale, but one upon which something foreign, namely the mythos, is always already encroaching: Instead of a "happily ever after," this fairy tale inaugurates a lengthy narrative, but that narrative "takes place outside of the world of the fairy tale and destroys it. The fairy tale of young Siegfried is like one of the Fortunate Islands, which is swallowed up by the myth[os]."

A stark dualism seems to characterize Wagner's understanding of mythos and fairy tale, but at the same time the opera's undertakes to overcome that dualism. Siegfried stages an opposition between an epic plot, namely the story of the Nibelungs and the end of the gods of Valhalla, and a fairy-tale plot, the story of Siegfried leaving his forest and reaching (sexual) maturity. And since the intersection between the epic plot that needs to be advanced and the fairytale antiplot that attempts to suspend its development occurs precisely in the realm of sexuality, sexuality becomes a central thematic node of Siegfried. What is more, the dualism of self-enclosure and epic development plays itself out in Siegfried's music as well, in ways that raise important issues for the immanence not just of the fairy tale, but operatic form itself. They were issues the generation of composers immediately after Wagner had to confront in thinking through the twinned legacy of Wagnerian erotics and Wagnerian operatic form.

The hero of both mythos and fairy tale persists in, or rather exists as, the intersection of fairy-tale timelessness and mythic provenance. He emerges from somewhere outside concrete historical sequence (like Romulus and Remus suckling on the teat of the she-wolf ), yet comes to influence and even inaugurate historical sequence (the foundation of Rome). The spot where timelessness and development intersect is inherently contradictory, and the hero's position at that point in the story overdetermined—he or she belongs to two worlds at once. In Siegfried, more importantly, the hero is not alone at the intersection of myth and fairy tale: his foster parent and cunning exploiter, Mime, occupies that same vexed spot. In Mime's case, the opera obsessively asserts the impossibility of his position, turning him into the tortured citizen of two worlds. In the case of Siegfried, however, it just as strenuously denies that he is in an impossible position. Mime becomes in many respects the sacrificial lamb of Siegfried's hybrid plot, or perhaps what Julia Kristeva has termed "the abject"—a loathed quasi-object, whose obsessive and repeated exclusion allows the opera to repress its own generic contradictions. Mime's object is to preserve the immanence of the self-enclosed, imaginary space of the enchanted forest. What undoes him are the rumbles of the Mythos that, to return to Dahlhaus's image, threatens to engulf Mime's little island. And the rumbles become audible in Siegfried's music.

Through the medium of sexuality, Wagner allows his Siegfried to transcend the limitations of the fairy tale toward the greener pastures of the mythos. Conversely, he forces Mime to act out the contradictions between the two through a sexual charade, by associating the epic with familial, dynastic sexuality and the fairy tale with a kind of asexual reproduction. In the course of act 1, Siegfried is launched on a quest to discover his provenance. And an increasingly panicked Mime, desperate to maintain the illusion that he is the boy's (sole) point of origin, begins to take on all roles, culminating in his desperate claim that "I am your father / and mother as well." Siegfried wants to know where he comes from, and suspects that it might not be Mime: "Now Mime, where have you got / your loving wife, / so that I may call her Mother?" While Siegfried associates the woman he wants "to call mother" with sexual love, Mime refuses to acknowledge that link between sexuality and motherhood. Instead, he lays claim to being a nonsexual mother, an example of "cunning" manipulation based on the causal chains of instrumental reason. But it is sexual causation, of which Mime appears incapable, that proves to be his downfall.

Mime's dizzying carousel of sexual personae is at once strangely desexualized (in many ways it is the simple fact of sexual difference that proves Mime's undoing) and a kind of drag, and it is clearly played for a laugh in the opera. Mime's voice and use of figurative language already subvert the claims his charade forces him into, in the eyes of both Siegfried and the audience, for whose benefit Wagner supposedly turned mythos into fairy tale in the first place. As Mime's claims become increasingly outlandish, his voice, his mien, and the music that he is given to sing disclose with spectacular eloquence that for Mime sexuality is but a cunning machination. He tells Siegfried that he is his "father and mother," but his musical means betray that he is incapable of sexual reproduction and parental love.

Of course, being incapable of sexual love is not an incidental affliction in Wagner's system of thought, in which sexual love (Geschlechtsliebe) occupies a central position. Wagner's unsent letter to Arthur Schopenhauer speaks of "the predisposition toward sexual love" as "a path to salvation, to selfknowledge and self-negation of the will." Being capable of love is the same as being capable of transcending the narrow bounds of the self—love "drives the subject beyond itself and forces that subject to connect with another:" But not everything that goes by the name "love" can claim to accomplish this much: "Not that 'revealed' love, imparted, taught and forced upon us from above—which for that reason has also never become real—like the Christian [love], but that love which springs from unalienated, real human nature; which is in its origin nothing other than the most active living assertion of this nature, which expresses itself in pure joy over sensuous existence, and which, starting with sexual love, progresses via the love of children, brothers, and friends to the love of all mankind." Only sexual love is real in a concrete and effective way, as opposed to abstract kinds of love that are "taught and ordered." Thus when Mime tells Siegfried that he has taught him to love "his Mime," when he tells him that "you have to love him" (so mußt du ihn lieben), he is clearly imposing this false kind of love rather than the love on which the metaphysician Wagner pinned his hopes.

The figure of Mime is central to any consideration of Wagnerian metaphysics and Wagnerian aesthetics, but above all to any discussion of Wagnerian anti-Semitism. Mime's cunning corresponds to a common topos of nineteenth-century anti-Semitism, and Wagner's score and stage instructions strengthen this parallel. Nevertheless, I do not contend that Wagner thinks of Mime as Jewish and of Jews therefore as somehow external to the metaphysics of sexual difference. Not because that argument cannot be made, but rather because, as Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, one cannot "characterize" a Jewish stereotype. Indeed, although Mime appears undersexed and emasculated, Alberich has been read in precisely opposing terms. Wagner's image of the Jew is not self-consistent, since a racist phantasm derives its force not from an inner stringency but rather from its functionality. In Siegfried, a particular set of organizing oppositions stages the coherence of Wagner's spectacle, as well as that of his intended audience; in doing so, these oppositions overlap, but are by no means coterminous, with Wagner's anti-Semitism.


In German, the word Geschlecht can refer to both gender and to a dynasty or family. Siegfried could be described as a tale of two Geschlechter in that double sense. It concerns the existence of two sexes and the fact that they reproduce, and thus the question of motherhood. But behind this question looms the standoff between not just two families, but rather two kinds of families, which differ precisely with respect to reproduction.

In his 1908 article "Family Romances," Sigmund Freud points to a common fantasy that replaces the subject's own family with another. This "family romance" (Familienroman) unfolds in two stages. Children as yet unaware of sexual procreation believe themselves to be switched or adopted, or their older siblings to be bastards; once children become aware of sexual procreation, they understand that pater semper incertus est, the mother certissima. Children then turn to the fantasy that a mysterious, unknown father from a higher station has sired them.

In many respects, the first act of Siegfried presents us with this kind of constellation: Siegfried, the orphaned spawn of the illicit love between siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde, is raised in complete isolation by the Nibelung blacksmith Mime. Mime is perfectly aware of his charge's illustrious provenance but tries to keep the youth in the dark about it, hoping to use him to reclaim the treasure of the Nibelungs. Scene 1 of act 1 traces Siegfried's discovery of his true origins; in scene 2, those origins themselves arrive in the guise of his grandfather Wotan.

And yet, the two scenes diverge in significant ways from the scenario Freud describes. For one thing, throughout Siegfried's attempt to decipher his true parentage, it is Mime who is certissimus; the mysterious object of the young man's fantasies is his mother. For another, Siegfried's interpretations are not firmly rooted in either awareness or unawareness of sexual difference, for he knows sexual difference but only by having observed it in the animal kingdom. At issue in his interrogation of Mime is sexual difference as such—whether it pertains to humans and what it means. Mime's sole concern in laying claim to androgynous parenthood is to keep Siegfried from realizing that there is such a thing as love between mothers and fathers.

In trying to convince Siegfried that they are a family, Mime recreates something along the lines of what psychoanalysts have described as the imaginary configuration between infant and mother, a dyadic construction in which the self is caught in a complex web of identifications and misidentifications with the mother. Mime himself suggests as much when he pleads with Siegfried to appreciate the fact that he "cared for you / as if you were my own skin." This puzzling line sets up a strange parallelism in which narcissism is adduced as the metaphoric support for love: I love you as exclusively as I love myself. The way in which Mime sets up this imaginary circuit that knows no outside eventually undermines his attempts, hinting that the fairy tale is a defective form of myth, just as Mime's and Siegfried's dyad is a defective or pseudofamily. There is, in other words, something necessary in the unraveling of their dyadic pseudofamily and the fairy-tale world Mime sets up around it.

Wotan's appearance on the scene might seem to complete this defective family. But this itinerant father figure does not stabilize Mime's mother role. To the contrary, Mime notes with chagrin that "weak before [him] grows / my mother wit." When Mime speaks of his Mutterwitz, his choice of words betrays the complex interplay between his subterfuge and questions of family and heredity. Prima facie Mime is simply complaining that Wotan is otsmarting him in their guessing game. Mime, as Theodor Adorno noted, represents for Wagner the failings and moral shortcomings of instrumental reason—the ability to manipulate the causes of the outside world without any insight into their quiddity or their raisons d'être, a preoccupation with mechanical causes and effects. It is central to his attempts to manipulate the forces of nature (above all Siegfried) before which he is by himself powerless. The word Mutterwitz links the idea of instrumental reason with maternity and thus heredity. In nineteenth-century German, the word designated nothing more than what modern German knows as Gewitztheit, "cunning." It refers to a quick ability to grasp and manipulate givens—a purely reactive, unoriginal facility, with a clear pejorative edge.

Although in its nineteenth-century usage, the "motherhood" of this Witz seems extraneous, the word's etymology points to the hereditary character of this kind of cunning, a matter of instinct rather than of acquired skill. This etymology appears to have formed the basis for the Wagner family's use of the word. In Deutsche Kunst und Deutsche Politik, Richard equates Mutterwitz with "the natural understanding of a people"; Cosima's diary calls it "the wit that one has inside." Wagner's personal understanding of "Mutterwitz" thus tends to valorize the word, as referring to wit that springs naturally from the autonomous individual or from the wisdom of a people. As such, it appears to be distinct from, and superior to, the rootless, roving cleverness of Mime. More important is the fact that the opera forces Mime into a revealing turn of phrase when he refers to his lack of Mutterwitz. Mime's language has a strange way of slipping out of his control; his wit and his language constantly bespeak what they lack, namely a natural, instinctual, inherited basis.

Mime's faltering "mother wit" constitutes his most damning disqualification in an opera in which the question of motherhood is a central preoccupation. In act 1, the recognition that Mime cannot be his mother launches Siegfried out of his fairy-tale enclosure. In act 2, the Waldvogel, who allows Siegfried to see through (and slay) his false mother Mime, seems to act as a medium of sorts, speaking for the dead mother: "It would surely tell me something, perhaps about my dear mother?" It is the bird, speaking for the "dear mother," who first redirects Siegfried's "yearning" (Sehnen): "Ho! Siegfried has killed / the evil dwarf ! Now I know for him / the most marvelous woman." The moment he has slain his false father, Siegfried can accede to his true mother/lover. And in act 3, Wotan the wanderer who has lost his place in the world descends to Erda, the mother of Brünnhilde, who alone has remained stationary since we last saw her in Das Rheingold. The final scene of the opera then transposes mother into lover, as Siegfried finally learns to be afraid when he lays eyes on the female form: "O mother! Mother! / Your brave child! / A woman's lying asleep: / and she's taught him to be afraid." The mother's image dominates the entirety of the opera's climactic scene. As Lawrence Kramer has observed, Siegfried "responds to the miraculous awakening with a maternal invocation that Brünnhilde at once echoes, the musical phrases of the couple overlapping and intertwining: 'O Heil der Mutter, die mich gebar,' 'O Heil der Mutter, die dich gebar' (Hail to the mother that bore me/you)." When Brünnhilde informs Siegfried that his mother will not return, he is able to substitute her for his mother, the original object of desire.

Excerpted from Tristan's Shadow by ADRIAN DAUB. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction · Tristan’s Shadow: The Fate of Sexual Difference in Opera

1 · Mother Mime: Wagner and the Metaphysics of Sexual Difference
2 · Mime’s Revenge: The Total Work of Art and the Ugly Detail
3 · Taceat Mulier in Theatro: Richard Strauss’s Guntram, Arthur Schopenhauer, and the Exorcism of the Voice
4 · Erotic Acoustics: The Natural History of the Theater and Der ferne Klang
5 · Congenital Blindness: Visions of Marriage in the Operas of Eugen d’Albert
6 · Occult Legacies: Eroticism and the Dynasty in Siegfried Wagner’s Operas
7 · The Power of the “Verfluchte Lohe”: (Post-)Wagnerian Redheads in Das Rheingold, Fredegundis, and Irrelohe

Coda · “I’m a Stranger Here Myself ”

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