Review | Death Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde by Roger Scruton

The Foxhunting Philosopher and Wagner’s Lovedeath

Of all composers, Richard Wagner has surely received the most attention from philosophers. Schopenhauer may have had a weakness for Rossini, but since Nietzsche, Wagner has aroused the most interest. The latest philosopher to try his hand at writing about Wagner is the English conservative Roger Scruton. Unlike his left-wing counterparts, Scruton does not take Wagner to task for his unpleasant politics or consider what role they play in his operatic works. Instead, he describes Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde as a “vindication” of Wagner’s Tristan. The aims of his own book go further than a defense of Wagner’s work against its many critics. Indeed, the defense of Tristansometimes appears to be an extension of the writer’s ideas of sexuality, love, and culture.

The book puts Tristan in the context of Scruton’s own conception of erotic love, which he sees as the relationship between two subjects who can give meaning to their world by adopting a heroic attitude towards life. Scruton takes Wagner’s talk of redemption very seriously. The redemption found by the lovers in Tristan is based, Scruton says, on their choice of death, which proves their transcendental freedom as subjects. Without this sense of the sacred made possible by such experiences of love and death, he argues, life can have no meaning, and desire degenerates into perversion, pornography and pedophilia. Instead of the sense of the sacred found by connecting with another subject, there is only a voyeur’s pleasure in an object. The death of Tristan and Isolde elevates us, he suggests, by showing us a victory of the transcendental subject over mere empirical reality.

Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton is perhaps the most well known conservative public intellectual in Britain. Unlike in the States, with its many conservative think tanks and periodicals, being a British conservative writer can be a rather lonely business, as Scruton has often lamented. He has edited what may be Britain’s only conservative intellectual journal, The Salisbury Review, and, along with figures such as Maurice Cowling, he was an important influence on the early days of Thatcherism with the Conservative Philosophy Group in the 1970s. Since then he has effectively left academia to be a “writer, philosopher, publisher, journalist, composer, editor, businessman and broadcaster” (Scruton, “Curriculum vitae”). Politically he is closely involved with the so-called Countryside Alliance, a British pro-foxhunting lobby group that has brilliantly managed to elide its cause with very different rural concerns such as public transport and environmentalism.1 Writings such as his The Aesthetics of Music of 1997 reveal Scruton’s interest in music. He even wrote a short opera in 1994, The Minister. His tastes in music are, of course, conservative. His vitriol against popular culture has threatened to get him into trouble at times, notably when he was reportedly sued by the Pet Shop Boys after accusing them of not making their own music. Even this book, which has nothing whatever to do with such things, includes apparently random attacks on pop music.

As a self-proclaimed authoritarian conservative, it is not surprising to see Scruton defending the canon in the shape of Tristan. In An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, as in much of his work, he made a passionate defense of high culture against what he saw as the trahison de clercs committed by the Left in dethroning “Art.” In this book on Wagner, however, this overt cultural pessimism is less apparent. Occasional barbs aimed at “modern” productions of Wagner are to be found, but these are the commonplaces of older Wagnerians and do not constitute an exposition of broader theories concerning the decline of culture.

The first chapter of Death-Devoted Heart deals with Wagner’s relationship to religion. Scruton describes the paradoxes of Wagner’s ideas on religion succinctly and clearly. Acknowledging that Wagner had little time for formal Christianity, he correctly argues that the composer’s attitude to myth was in some ways highly religious. However, the way in which Scruton portrays Wagner’s ideas is very much in line with Scruton’s own thinking, and he simply ignores many problematic aspects of the composer and his works, most obviously Wagner’s anti-Semitism and later use by the Nazis. In the second chapter, Scruton furthers this examination of myth with a study of Wagner’s sources for the opera in Celtic myth and medieval romance, especially Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan. Scruton looks at the religious and philosophic implications of the way courtly love attempted to give erotic love a sacred element. Without this sacralization, erotic love is left meaningless. In the next chapter, Scruton outlines Wagner’s treatment of the material with an excellent, well observed musical-dramatic summary of the opera

The fourth chapter turns to the music of the opera, which Scruton quite rightly points to as bearing much of the real drama of the piece. Although there is arguably little new in his view of the music, he gives a perceptive and musically literate outline of the musical language of Tristan. In particular, Scruton leans heavily on Ernst Kurth’s Schopenhauerian interpretation. Scruton points out that the music at the opening of Act 1 Scene 2, especially the octave drop on C, shows the inevitable link between Isolde’s desire and the couple’s deaths. When it comes to the tricky question of form in the opera, Scruton wisely avoids giving a clear answer, instead choosing to show the problems with Alfred Lorenz’s theories, pointing to the work’s “dramatic unity” and alluding to the work of scholars such as Carl Dahlhaus and Anthony Newcomb on the subject. 

Aubrey Beardsley, “How King Marke Found Sir Tristram”

The fifth chapter, “The Philosophy of Love,” discusses the combination of Schopenhauerian Pessimism (that the world of phenomena is best understood as meaningless and painful) and Wagner’s idea of the erotic that is the basis of so much of Tristan. Whereas many have responded to this with a smirk, Scruton sees Wagner’s attempt to graft sexuality onto Schopenhauer’s rather prudish worldview as a masterstroke. He argues that it reflects an understanding of erotic love close to his own—a relationship between subjects redeemed by a sense of the sacred that he locates in the heroic. Scruton’s conservative background is expressed more clearly in this chapter than elsewhere. He attacks the “mechanical view of sexuality” promoted by Freud and Kinsey (“the standard merchandise of disenchantment”) and advocates a conservative defense of traditional sexual morality as a guard against a sexual marketplace and alienation (1). Elsewhere Scruton has outlined what he means by conservative sexual morality (hostility to homosexuality, for instance), but here he limits himself to a few wistful lines about the decline of modesty and chivalry. 

Chapter Six contrasts the nature of the lovers’ sacrifice inTristan with Attic tragedy, in which the victim accepts guilt, and shows its similarities to Christian martyrdom, in which the victim forgives those responsible. The final chapter brings all of these themes together, demonstrating the way in which a Kantian notion of selfhood is behind Tristan and any convincing account of erotic love. Dying for love, as Tristan and Isolde do, is shown to be a triumph of the transcendental subject. Even if we cannot live up to that ideal, he argues, we should love “as if” to give life meaning.

Aubrey Beardsley, “How Sir Tristran Drank of the Love Drink”

As mentioned above, this book barely mentions Wagner’s problematic political ideas. It is remarkable that Scruton does not even feel the need to explain this lack of interest in the crimes often associated with Wagner’s name. Indeed, the role of myth and the re-enchantment of the world in the worst periods of the twentieth century might give pause regarding Scruton’s enthusiasm. When transferred to the real world, such ideas can prove dangerous. As Thomas Mann observed, myths in politics are called lies. The power of myth and the heroic ideal certainly play a vital role in the impact of Wagner’s work, as Scruton’s account states, but any discussion that fails to look into the darker aspects involved cannot do full justice to the subject. 

The only political ideas that enter into Scruton’s analysis of Tristan reflect, rather, contemporary England. One recurring theme in Scruton’s larger work can also be found in Death-Devoted Heart. Like other cultural conservatives such as Daniel Bell, Scruton blames the intellectual Left for the nihilistic social and cultural “market” without paying much attention to the role of capitalism in that process. Scruton’s dilemma is that the capitalist Thatcherite politics he advocates as a bulwark against Socialism also devour his sacred cows, creating, as he says, a “market” for desire. Neo-liberalism and political conservatism are not necessarily easy bedfellows, a tension that this book does not address.

In some ways, this book is an excellent introduction to Tristan und Isolde. It takes the opera seriously as drama and gives a good account of the music and the music’s relationship to the drama. Much has been written about the erotic in Tristan, but Scruton’s look at the question of love is original and insightful. Even Scruton’s opponents have to admit that he writes with clarity and precision. Readers with very different sympathies from Scruton’s could enjoy this book by skipping a few passages, and his conception of erotic love does not demand acceptance of his conservative views. Readers looking for a analysis of the often dubious political aspects of Wagner’s works will find very little here. But perhaps the book’s greatest achievement is showing why Wagner works so well as a religion for atheists.

James Kennaway

WORKS CITED

Scruton, Roger. The Aesthetics of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Pres, 1997.

———. “Curriculum Vitae.” Roger Scruton. February 1, 2005 <http://www.rogerscruton.com>.

———. An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture. London: Duckworth, 1998.

Wagner, Richard. Tristan und Isolde. Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin and Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan. EMI Records CMS 7 69319 2, 1998.

  1. His journalistic career suffered a significant setback, however, when it was revealed that he was receiving about $7,000 a month from a Japanese tobacco conglomerate as a PR consultant, which ended his career writing for the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal.
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