Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The Wish for Annihilation in 'Love-Death' as Collapse of the Need for Recognition, in Wagner's Tristan Und Isolde

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The Wish for Annihilation in 'Love-Death' as Collapse of the Need for Recognition, in Wagner's Tristan Und Isolde

Article excerpt

Wagner's Tristan und Isolde holds a central position in Western music and culture. It is shown to demonstrate consequences of interruption of developmental processes involving the need for recognition of subjectivity, resulting in the collapse of this need into the wish for annihilation of self and other through 'love-death' [Liebestod]. A close reading of the musical language of the opera reveals how this interruption is demonstrated, and the consequent location of identity outside of language, particularly suitable for expression in music. Isolde's dynamics are presented as distinct from that of Tristan, and in contrast to other interpretations of Tristan and Isolde's love as an attack on the Oedipal order, or as a regressive wish for pre-Oedipal union. Isolde's Act I narrative locates the origin of her desire in the protagonists' mutual gaze at a traumatic moment. In this moment powerful and contrasting emotions converge, evoking thwarted developmental needs, and arousing the fantasy of redemption in love-death. By removing the magical elements, Wagner enables a deeper understanding of the characters' positions in relation to each other, each with his or her own needs for recognition and traumatic experiences. These positions invite mutual identifications resulting in rising tension between affirmation of identity and annihilation, with actual death as the only possible psychic solution. The dynamics described in the opera demonstrate the function of music and opera in conveying meaning which is not verbally expressible.

Keywords: Tristan, Isolde, Wagner, Liebestod, recognition, opera

Psychic development involves a process of identity formation in which the infant forms the sense of a separate and unified self; this takes place in the infant's early relationship with the other (the caregiver or mother), who both affirms the child and remains separate from her. Through the figure of Isolde, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde traces the consequences that may ensue when this early developmental process has failed. Wagner conveys these tra- gic consequences most clearly through the non-semantic qualities of the music of the opera. Appreciation of this current of the music can serve to deepen our understanding of the qualities of experience to which a failure of identity formation gives rise.

In Wagner's narrative, conveyed in both words and music, Isolde's early failure of identity formation has led to an experience of self that is outside of meaning. This, I will suggest, is a consequence of failure of recognition processes. Her desire for Tristan is awakened when she makes renewed con- tact with the something that stands outside of coherent meaning, and which we, as listeners, make affective contact with through the music. Wagner pre- sents this nebulous something in the gaze that occurs between the two char- acters. In Tristan's gaze, Isolde experiences both the affirmation of her own subjectivity and its dissolution: she merges with the other person rather than experience the tension of separateness. Simultaneously experiencing both the binding power of love and the annihilation of death, she harbours fan- tasies of her own death, and is ultimately driven to play these out in the climactic 'love-death' [Liebestod] concluding the opera.

It is this relationship between the psychical something outside of clear meaning, captured in the music of the opera, along with ensuing fantasies of love and death, that will form the focus of this paper. This is considered first in terms of the plot of Wagner's opera and then in terms of his music. I use Benjamin's relational framework of recognition in order to understand the initial failure of Isolde's identity formation as it is re-evoked in the story of the opera. Following this, I draw on some Lacanian insights to illumi- nate the consequences of this failure.

The Tristan myth and the opera

The Tristan myth is known to have existed since the early 12th century, with the most well-known literary version of it being that of Gottfried von Strassburg, from the 13th century. …

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