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Roger Scruton’s Death-Devoted Heart
Part Two: The Sacred

4,445 words

Why does Scruton not examine the role of Melot in Death-Devoted Heart more closely?

Tristan und Isolde echoes themes from Romeo and Juliet and Othello, so it is unlikely that Wagner did not have both plays in mind when he composed his opera. The Othello theme is especially clear in the regrets expressed by King Marke that he could not clearly see, just as Othello could not clearly see. Melot, like Iago, faces death if he cannot make good the claim of adultery; except, of course, that Melot can prove that he was right. Or can he? Melot is only “right” in that conventional world with which the love between Tristan and Isolde is contrasted, and there is besides a doubt as to whether their love was physically consumed. This aspect of the legend is entirely omitted in Scruton’s analysis in favor of an analysis that sees the two lovers as sacrificing themselves. Sacrificing themselves? For what, exactly? Scruton writes at great length about sacrifice, but fails to convince me that the lovers are sacrificing themselves. That is to say, paying a price so that others may be released or saved. What else is the meaning of sacrifice? Scruton states that “it is not the community that will benefit from their death.” (p. 184) So what is this sacrifice? In this passionate and fascinating — but to my mind, not enlightening — explanation, Scruton writes:

The redemption through love that Wagner dramatizes in his mature operas is not an escape into another world in which the sufferings of this one are finally compensated. It is rather a demonstration of the value of this world by showing that something else is valued more. The sacred moment, in which death is scorned for the sake of love, casts its light back over the entire life that led to it. Redemption does not consist in some Platonic ascent towards the transcendental. It consists in a changed conception of the empirical world — a recognition that freedom really does exist in this world and that we too possess it. And this freedom is discovered in the most earthbound of our passions — the passion of erotic love. As with the Christian vision, redemption requires incarnation; but in Wagner, incarnation is no longer God’s means to redeem us from the world but our means to redeem ourselves in it. (p. 183)

The sacrifice then, the internal sacrifice of eros, is to demonstrate to the communal world that we all have the freedom to sacrifice ourselves to love. Readers may make of this what they will.

The different elements of the study are not well integrated. There is Roger Scruton, the Richard Wagner enthusiast following in a long tradition of paeans to great artists, linked to yet separate from an analysis of Wagner musical technique. There is the art historian’s consideration of the legend of Tristan and Isolde and how Wagner tells the tale of their fate. There is the philosopher examining the influence of predominantly German philosophers — notably but not exclusively Kant, Schopenhauer, and Hegel — upon Wagner’s music, and finally, there is Scruton’s own apparent conviction, running deep and affirmed with passion, that Wagner is entirely successful in his mission to replace a religious faith which had become skin deep with a new kind of religion, a belief in sanctity and sacrifice.

The center of this book is the fifth chapter called The Philosophy of Love. It is the part of this study which “justifies” Scruton’s arguments in the sense that it unites to a degree the writer’s unbound enthusiasm for Wagner with his musical analysis of the role played by Wagner in the history of music and the need to create a new sacred order. It is also the part of the book which makes scant reference to the opera itself.

I have pointed out that Scruton, following Christian theologians, distinguishes between two fundamental kinds of love: agape, or caritas in Latin, charity (this is love meant in the trilogy of virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, or Faith, Hope, and Love from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians) and eros, erotic love.

Death-Devoted Heart has an approach towards erotic love which is simultaneously and paradoxically one of suspicion and attraction. Scruton draws the reader’s attention to what is indeed a remarkable feature of Tristan und Isolde, a musical, emotional, and poetic leitmotif: the association of love with death and night. “If Wagner’s Tristan shows nothing less, it at least must convince us that there is a kind of erotic love which has non-existence as its secret or not so secret goal.” (p.121)

“Erotic love,” continues Scruton, “is more like an affliction than a choice.” It is not clear at this point if Scruton is speaking for Wagner, for himself, or for both; and it does not seem to matter greatly, for Scruton at no point in the entire book admits to any difference between his worldview and Wagner’s.

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Scruton’s brief summary of Kant’s and Schopenhauer’s philosophy in this chapter is impressive, and it is easy to see how it unfolds in the Tristan drama, one in which Tristan repeatedly curses the day and longs for eternal night, superbly symbolized by the quenching of the torch and Tristan’s denunciation of the “envious day” as the lovers embrace in the wild surging music, despite Brangwyn’s warnings and the musical warnings of the hunting horns in Act Two. Scruton notes the influence that Schopenhauer had on Wagner, and here we come to a brief examination of Kant and Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer built on Kant’s “philosophical anthropology” that posed a dual existence for humans: the subjective willed, and the objective contemplated being. Kant had posed a belief in human beings as the summit of creation without the need for any abstraction of a God to justify or account for that position. Darwin before the word, in fact.

Kant argued, and Scruton evidently concurs, that the human being exists as a dichotomy; Homo sapiens is a biological organism, an animal of flesh and blood and physical appetites, yet simultaneously a person bound as a person by social laws created by an objective understanding of the world. The human being is therefore wholly animal and at the same time more than only animal. This is entirely compatible with Christian theology, of course. The animal in man is held by the Devil. The soul belongs to God, unless man abandons his soul to the Adversary through sin. Kant’s vision of the human psyche was similarly dualistic. We identify with other humans and are conscious of a humanity that transcends our individuality, and to this, Kant gave the name of transcendental idealism — or objective idealism in Hegel’s writing.

Scruton ably describes the manner in which Schopenhauer appropriates Kant, and crucially adds the possibility of the individual not only being able to objectively contemplate others but also contemplate itself, as it were, from outside itself. As Schopenhauer put it, “we ourselves are the thing-in-itself.” Nature is indifferent to the individual. “Nothing awaits the individual in this life, save striving without reward, suffering without purpose, and conflict without resolution. . . The will falls into individuality and lives for a while trapped in the world of representation, sundered from the calm ocean of eternity which is its home.” (p.129)

However, Scruton does not accord as strong an influence of Schopenhauer upon Tristan und Isolde as many have done, referring laconically to Schopenhauer’s influence in these words:

It goes without saying that Tristan und Isolde contains many echoes of the Vedic philosophy and of Schopenhauer’s rather less vaporous theory of will and representation. (p.129)

. . .and vestiges of this philosophy are certainly discernible in Wagner’s opera. (p.130)

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For Scruton, the essential difference between Wagner’s presentation of a Kantian world in Tristan und Isolde and Schopenhauer’s understanding and modification of Kant was the element of erotic love. Erotic love is essentially individualizing, notes Scruton; its intentional object is “the irreplaceable incarnate subjectivity of the other. . . What is valued in erotic love is precisely the other person as an individual, and not the impersonal will behind appearances. . . Erotic love is a defiance of death and death’s dominion.” (p.130)

At this point, Scruton writes what I consider his finest sentence in this book, an observation both clear and profound:

It is surely evident that the yearning expressed in his music is precisely not a form of concupiscence but rather the yearning of a love that wants to exalt, preserve, and immortalize the moment of reciprocal attachment. (p. 131)

This is immediately followed, however, by the dismissive, even callous remark, that it is a “tenable view that Isolde in Wagner’s version died a virgin.”

Despite everything — Schopenhauer and the tragedy of this story, and the ending of the guiding light of Christian faith — Scruton believes that Tristan und Isolde is a sustaining and even an optimistic opera. “Optimistic” is not how most people regard the opera. The entire tone of both the drama and music, and the tale itself, is superficially dark, tragic, and depressive. Scruton nevertheless insists that Wagner has overcome in Tristan und Isolde that pessimism of Schopenhauer, which holds that all suffering is caused by the pointless striving of the human will captured within the confines of the perishable material body. For Scruton, the crucial difference between Schopenhauer as philosopher and Wagner as tragic artist is that in Wagner’s opera death is a redemptive sacrifice in which the human individual is no longer alone but bound through love; whether agape, as in Parsifal, or eros as in Der fliegender Holländer or Tristan und Isolde. Through Wagner’s operas, so Scruton, we are taken to a notion of the sacred which is communal and life-affirming, for that is, after all, the meaning of sacrifice: through death to attain more life or a higher form of life.

Although Scruton describes eros as the driving force of the opera, he shows restraint — arguably even distaste — with respect to sexual attraction in itself, at least when it does not merge with other elements of attraction, such as commitment to sacrifice or perpetual union. In fact, Scruton offers a stylistically robust case for the old dictum that sex is bad in itself and bad for those who like it. Scruton writes, in a long chapter which only holds a tenuous relation to Wagner’s opera, this critique:

If we try to describe sexual desire with the categories of human biology, we miss precisely the intentionality of sexual emotion, its directedness towards the embodied subject. Freud’s description of desire is the description of something that we know but shun. An excitement that concentrates on the sexual organs, whether of man or woman, that seeks to bypass the complex negotiation of the face, hands, voice, and posture, voids desire of its intentionality and replaces it with a pursuit of the sexual commodity, which can always be had for a price. We have become habituated to forms of sexual interest in which the person, the freedom, and the virtue of the other are all irrelevant to the goal. But we should see this not as a gain of freedom but as a loss of it, since it involves setting freedom aside as an irrelevant adjunct to the object of desire. (p. 141)

What Scruton is describing here is not sexual desire as such, but pornography — and extreme pornography, at that: sexual desire entirely stripped of personalization. Sexual desire, contrary to what Scruton says, most certainly does focus on parts of the body other than the sexual organs. Scruton’s apparent distaste for the sexual element of erotic love leads him to the utterly preposterous statement that sexual attraction is so obsessed with the sexual organs that it is hardly interested in the human face. On the contrary, sexual desire is particularly aroused by a lovely face — and is easily destroyed by an unattractive face. Scruton even acknowledges as much himself in his evocation of the realization of love between Tristan and Isolde as the realization contained in what he calls “the look,” for which in Scruton’s idiosyncratic view, the love potion is but an allegory of the erotic glance. He also writes that “the love potion symbolizes the idea of sexual desire as rooted in the flesh.” (p.174) Where else is sexual desire ever rooted?

So why does Scruton refer to the solely biological sexual excitement which “concentrates on the sexual organs?” Such concentration, as he is very well aware — who better? — is manifestly absent in Tristan und Isolde, whereas very much present is the juxtaposition of longing and consummation.

In his chapter on Tragedy and The Sacrifice, Scruton finally explains what he understands by Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk. He refers to Aristotle’s famous notion of tragedy as a catharsis, or spiritual cleansing, and finds it unsatisfactory as an explanation of why people enjoy tragedies (“and is ‘enjoy’ in any case the right word?” muses Scruton), and then considers that religious ceremony performs much the same function as tragedy: it ritualizes the tragic in our lives and redeems. Scruton questions whether we “enjoy” tragedies in the way we certainly “enjoy” comedies. He goes very far indeed in arguing what it is that is inspiring in tragedy. In a long consideration of the origins of tragedy and theories about the meaning of sacrifice, he moves towards the conclusion that tragedy in art is akin to religion:

It is possible to live through an act of ritual sacrifice in imagination, while nevertheless experiencing the moment of transition as the burden of human guilt is collected by a single individual and then discharged through some awe-inspiring downfall, then we can obtain the benefits of sacrifice without the costs. The victim would be purely imaginary but the sacred moment all the more intense. The tragic audience would benefit from the spectacle in something like the way that the religious congregation benefits: by a movement of reconciliation that lifts the burden of anxiety and restores the community to itself. (p. 169)

If we leave aside Die Meistersinger, conceived as a comedy, all of Wagner’s operas are tragic and all involve sacrifice. But Tristan und Isolde differs in one notable respect from the others and it is striking that Scruton does not so much as mention it. In all of Wagner’s tragic operas, (Rienzi perhaps is an exception) sacrifice is the necessary fulfillment of the redemptive act. Whether it is Senta throwing herself into the sea to release Daland from the curse, the loyalty of Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, and so on. Only in Tristan und Isolde is this notion of redemption far from clear. Is there any redemption at the end of this opera? Is Isolde’s farewell not better described as a release from the world which the day imposes on them? “Der öde Tag zum letzen Mal / The desolate day for the last time” are Tristan’s words at dawn at the opening of the third scene of Act Two when they are discovered, the day which Tristan repeatedly curses from the moment he has drunk the love potion. And is it not a fact that Tristan und Isolde is the only Wagner opera (unless we consider Götterdämmerung as an isolated composition and not an integral part of the Ring cycle) which offers no redemption and no hope? It ends with King Marke’s “if only” declaration. If only things had been different, if only he had arrived a little earlier, if only. . . And after this, there is the Liebestod, the culmination of the opera in which death and love achieve union and the lovers embrace oblivion. Scruton does not draw his readers’ attention to the contrast between the ending of Tristan und Isolde and the uplift which concludes other Wagner operas. To do so would be to undermine what he considers to be the successful redemptive quality of the necessary death of the lovers.

This opera, for Scruton, is not a tale of thwarted passion, but of sacrifice. And it is Isolde, like Iphigenia, who is sacrificed. She has changed from being the “snarling beast,” as he calls her, of Act 1, to the “representative of the community” in Act 3. She has come to release Tristan from his agony with love as she intends, but with death as the tragedy, reaching what is for Scruton its necessary and redemptive conclusion. I have argued that Tristan und Isolde is the one Wagner tragic opera in which the tragedy is not resolved or expiated. Scruton clearly sees it differently, which is no surprise, since nowhere in the book does he indicate any belief that this is a tragedy borne down by Schopenhauerian pessimism and world-weariness. On the contrary:

When Tristan tears the bandages from his wound, it is clear that he is offering himself and that his death is the final “singling out” that brings love to fruition. Meanwhile, the world has assembled in a posture of forgivenesses, recognizing the blameless nature of the victims and the rightness of all that has been done. Now, at last, the sacrifice can be completed, and it sheds its redeeming light over the audience, compelling the feeling that all is as it should be and that, through their suffering, the lovers have risen to a higher plane. In this way, their death justifies their love, just as their love justifies their death. (pp. 186, 187)

By their sacrifice, “they restore belief in our human potential and renew in us the will to live. Hence the redemption of the lovers in death is also a renewal of the community in life. And that is the religious meaning of Tristan und Isolde.” (p. 194)

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Scruton has been carried so far in his enthusiasm by Richard Wagner’s belief in his mission to replace established religion with art that he is close to stating that Wagner’s operas — at least Tristan und Isolde — offer an artistic liturgy to replace outworn religious rituals. It seems to me that Tristan und Isolde offers Roger Scruton a solace for a man who has himself lost his conservative religious faith. What we are being offered in the guise of Wagner’s triumphant Gesamtkunstwerk and religiosity as a credible alternative to dying religions is, in fact, Scruton’s subjective experience of Wagner presented as an experience of mankind’s own possible sacrifice and an affirmation of human freedom. Thus the Wagnerian vision for Scruton is the harbinger of a new religious impulse.

This extreme interpretation of Tristan und Isolde is open to objections. Firstly, the banal, but wholly valid, objection that opera has become such a minority taste that its appeal can hardly be expected to encompass anything approaching that of an ersatz religion, less today even than in Wagner’s time. Significantly, Scruton makes no comparison, favorable or unfavorable, between opera and any form of non-classical music, and whether other music forms might have any kind of liturgical role to play. Since opera — by the very nature of the art — presents sexual desire as a matter of constraint, it is not surprising that Scruton provides us with a very conservative interpretation of the nature of sexual attraction in this opera, and he does not closely examine the vexed question, already mentioned, of the consummation or otherwise of the two lovers. This restraint and distancing from the persona as people is necessary, should he wish, and he does wish, to place upon the opera the burden of unfolding a kind of liturgy.

A second aspect of the opera which is not ignored but downplayed by Scruton, who finds otherwise time and space to discourse widely, is the inversion by Tristan of day and night. This theme, including Tristan’s vampire-like feebleness during the day opposed to his passion during the night, is one which continues from his drinking of the love potion until his death. Tristan rejects the day, does not want to face the day, and longs for night until he finally embraces that final night: death. Is this longing for the enduring night and the disparagement of the day not typical of lovers whose love is consumed? Is the love of the guilty — those with something to conceal — not a dominant theme of Tristan und Isolde? From Horace’s lente lente currite noctis equi, to Ronsard’s Ô l’aimée des Dieux, mais plus encore aimée / Des étoiles compagnes, to the lark which Romeo and Juliet hope and wrongly believe is the nightingale, lovers love the night for the reason that it provides them with the opportunity to love. Why should Tristan and Isolde be any different? Yet Tristan’s loathing of the day goes further. It is weighed down with world-weariness, with exhaustion and pessimism. If he must be sacrificed, he does so without joy, and in this, he contrasts with Isolde who does embrace her destiny. Scruton does not explore the differences between Tristan and Isolde to their impending sacrifice. He regards theirs as a dual sacrifice:

Tristan and Isolde are not destroyed by external forces or overcome by fate, but instead approach their death in a spirit of quasi-Christian renunciation, wanting nothing from the world save their final union in nothingness. If we are to understand the drama, therefore, we should try to make sense of the idea that something is achieved by the death of the lovers, something for which “redemption” is not too exaggerated a term. (p. 175)

But redemption from what? Scruton offers no satisfactory answer.

Scruton concludes his work with a reminder of the influence which he believes Wagner had on modern art. “Tristan und Isolde planted in the minds of modern artists a new vision of their goal, which was to present the secret regions of the psyche in ritualized and symbolic form.” (p. 195) “Humanity cannot live by desacration,” (sic) says Scruton. Indeed, insofar as humanity to seeks to be something of higher attainment than the beasts, this is true, but Scruton thinks that modern art (that modern art which he admires) only exists thanks to Wagner, not only in music, but in literature, too. Following from Wagner in a line of ascent (or descent?) leading to modern art admits a belief in progression, implicitly of improvement, which is incompatible with a conservative belief in something timeless and immutable at the source of creative talent.

Scruton implies at end of Death-Devoted Heart that he believes in the notion of artistic “progress” and “development,” a currently fashionable interpretation of artistic achievement, a kind of Darwinism or Hegelianism of art history. In its extreme form, this view of art may regard Bartók as more “advanced” than Wagner and Wagner more “advanced” than Bach, by chronological order alone, by virtue of what one composer has learned and built on from his predecessor. This lauding of artistic progress at the cost of artistic creation is brilliantly parodied by Thomas Mann in Dr. Faustus. Secondly and crucially, in all his talk of religion, sacrifice, and regeneration, Scruton writes as though he is little concerned with popular appeal. A religion without popular appeal? At least Wagner believed, however vainly or naively, that his operas would one day enjoy widespread popularity. It is unlikely that a writer as intelligent as Scruton writing in the early twenty-first century believes that opera will become widely popular, or even that opera could survive as an art form without substantial financial subsidies from the state or at least highly wealthy benefactors (in Wagner’s day, King Ludwig of Bavaria).

Tristan und Isolde is a complex and challenging opera and tragedy, too complex to be summarised as a substitute for religious rapture. Be that as it may, Tristan und Isolde, like all great artistic accomplishments, is wrapped up with no single interpretation, and is dependent on the emotions it evokes and the experience which each individual listener brings to it. Scruton could have applied his own famous axiom about the subjectivity of wine-drinking to the experience of this legend. Whether the love is consumed or ever-delayed, whether Tristan is driven by a retreat from life because of the idealization of love which life cannot endure, or whether, as Scruton sees it, the sacrifice is one of redemption which offers relief to all who “enjoy” this opera — those are all matters of debate, and a debate which probably could not, even should not, be settled.

Despite my disagreements with Scruton, there is a core thesis at the heart of this discursive, dogmatic, and meandering work with which I intensely agree. It is that Tristan und Isolde is a hymn to the sacred, an affirmation of it — and the meaning of what is sacred, as Scruton implies and I shall explicitly state, specifically to European man or as de Rougemont called it, to the Occident. The stream of modern endeavor in what is called “the entertainment industry” is striving in very much the other direction, the direction of dissolution and desolation, and desacralization, to borrow Scruton’s term, moving today towards ever more blatant and disclosed Satanism.

Why did Roger Scruton, here and elsewhere, not express his views less esoterically and with more candor?

The paradox is that Roger Scruton writes about the committed Wagner and Wagner’s art depicting ultimate and terrible commitment. Yet Scruton himself drew back from committing for his entire life. He did not take that step, make that sacrifice, which would have led him to radically oppose the social order which he so acutely criticized but with which he never broke. Never radically rejecting the modern world in his writing, here and elsewhere, Roger Scruton did, on the other hand, challenge the mantras and fashions of a society from which he could not free himself. That is why — despite its evident brilliance — there is something unsatisfying, incomplete, unconvincing about Death-Devoted Heart.

But let Scruton’s final superb conclusion offer its own redemption:

The task of resacralizing a desacralized world still occupies the attention of serious artists, writers, and composers; but their voices have been overwhelmed by a culture of desecration. The Kantian morality I have advanced in this book tells us that humanity cannot live by desecration, that if we do not rediscover the sacred moment we shall lose the perspective in which our freedom resides. Our lives will become literally meaningless. Wagner set out to rescue us from this predicament. His triumphant success in Tristan und Isolde is a beacon for all our lessor efforts and a reminder, in an increasingly dehumanized world, of what it is to be human. (p. 198)

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