A Note on Tristan’s Death Wish

A Note on Tristan’s Death Wish


Karol Berger

date de sortie





Tristan und Isolde, a story of love’s consummation in a transfiguring death, raises two obvious questions. Is death as inevitable an issue of love as this opera suggests? And what exactly is the sense of the “transfiguration” at the end, how does it differ from death tout court? The first of these ques­tions is answered within the opera; the second is not, and hence is more challenging. The final orchestral cadence, by providing the ubiquitous Tristan chord for the first and only time with a tonic resolution (but one a whole tone higher than what had been implied throughout the opera, B major rather than A minor), assures us that the “transfiguration” hinted at in the accom­panying stage direction does indeed take place, but it does not explain what the precise content of that transfiguration might be. By leaving us with­out a clear answer, Wagner forces us to come up with something on our own.


The two questions are related and troubling: they go to the heart of the unease with which the work leaves us. No matter how highly we value Wagner’s artistic (musical and dramatic) achievement in Tristan und Isolde (and it would not be easy to overestimate that), it is hard not to entertain some doubts about the ultimate significance of the work. After a perform­ance of any of Wagner’s music dramas, one leaves the theater exhausted and full of the highest admiration, but also with a more or less distinct under­tone of resistance. A serious consideration of a music drama should account for both the admiration and the resistance, and indeed, from Nietzsche on, the most interesting Wagner critics attempted to account for both.


In Tristan’s case, the source of the resistance is easy to identify (although it is surprising how rarely it gets explicitly acknowledged—perhaps precisely because it is so obvious): the protagonists of this story are in love with death. Death is not something they accept as a necessary evil, a high price worth paying for their ecstasy; rather, it is a good worth longing for in its own right, the desired outcome and fulfillment of their passion. Mindful of the Fascist cult of death and of its roots in Romanticism, mindful of how the wish to escape the terrestrial reality, which is the essence of Romanticism, fed the Fascist wish to invent a new aestheticized politics-beyond-the-everyday-politics, we cannot be wholly indifferent to the veritable orgy of necrophilia unleashed in Tristan—even if we remember, as we should, that the opera is concerned exclusively with the private sphere.1 The orgasmic “jauchzenden Eil” (scream­ing-with-joy haste; Act 3, 1278–79) with which Tristan tears the dressing from his wound and greets the free flow of his blood just before he dies—“Ahoy, my blood! Flow now cheerfully!” (“Heia, mein Blut! Lustig nun fließe!;” Act 3, 1267–70)— leaves even the unsqueamish disturbed and ill at ease.2


To be sure, it is not simply death the two lovers seek: they wish to die together, in each other’s arms. The easiest way to assuage our doubts about the opera’s infatuation with death would be to see death in Tristan as nothing more than a time-honored metaphor of erotic fulfillment and to see the opera as a whole as a dramatization of a particularly drawn-out and satisfying sexual encounter. But the temptation should be resisted. It is not that death in Tristan does not function as a stand-in for erotic fulfillment—it does, of course. But to reduce the issue to no more than that would be to trivialize it beyond recognition. It is not difficult to see where the triv­ialization lies in this case: it consists in the depriving of sex of its metaphysical dimension which, quite evidently, mattered to Wagner.


To recapitulate, then: the intertwining of love and death is the central issue this opera raises. To understand Tristan is to understand this inter­twining. And though death does stand for erotic fulfillment, it cannot be wholly reduced to it. We need to go deeper.


Wagner himself spelled out his intention for what he hoped to achieve in Tristan und Isolde with unusual clarity. It was “to erect a…  monument to this most beautiful of all dreams”—the “true happiness of love,” which he has never known in real life—“a monument in which this love will be properly sated from beginning to end,” as he wrote to Liszt in December 1854—that is, after he first conceived the work in the fall of 1854, but long before he began the prose draft (August 1857) or composition (October of the same year).3 “Dream” is the key word here. Erotic love, whose monument the opera was to become, was not love as it exists among us humans, even at its best tran­sient, intermittent, and shot through with disappointments and compromises exacted from it by our finitude and by the social world, the world of Day, that we cannot completely escape. It was not love as it is, but as it should be, purified of all accidental imperfections, love as an ideal, a “dream.” The aim of the opera was to capture what was essential about love. (An examina­tion of love in the light of Day, love suitable for the finite and social beings that we are, was to be undertaken in Die Meistersinger.)


The opposition that governs the two lovers’ self-understanding in the love duet of Act 2 (“O sink’ hernieder, Nacht der Liebe,” 1117–1631) and beyond is that of existing in a world split into two metaphysically distinct levels—in their language, Day and Night. Day is the realm of conscious­ness, that is, of separation between subject and object, between the I and the World with its multiple phenomena, and this unbridgeable separa­tion necessarily breeds unappeasable desire. Night is the realm of oblivion where the separation between subject and object, between the I and the World, is canceled, where the multiplicity of phenomena turns out to be illusory, where all is one, where the desire born of separation is appeased. Since what love aims at is, precisely, the appeasement of desire and the can­cellation of any separation between subject and object, clearly what the lovers wish for, in their duet and beyond, must be to leave the world of Day behind and merge together into the Night.


But, of course, the wish to escape Day and merge into Night implies death: it is the logic of love that, since it aims at obliterating the distance between subject and object, if pursued with sufficiently radical single-mindedness and exclusivity, if “properly sated from beginning to end,” has to issue in obliv­ion and death. The upshot of the lovers’ colloquy in the love duet is that their common death would not be in alliance with Day, it would not interfere with their love and bring it to an end; on the contrary, it would, in alliance with Night, remove all obstacles to their complete and permanent union. It would be hard to maintain that the logic of the argument is entirely faultless, but for the lovers it is strong enough to allow them to talk themselves (or, to be precise, to allow Tristan to talk Isolde) into what an unsentimental observer can only call a suicide pact. In the second cantabile of the duet Tristan spells out the conclusion toward which their argument was driving them, and Isolde obediently repeats after him, “We would die so as to live only for love—unseparated, forever endlessly united, without waking, without fearing, namelessly enveloped in love, given completely to one another!” (“So stürben wir, um ungetrennt, ewig einig ohne End’, ohn’ Erwachen, ohn’ Erbangen, namenlos in Lieb’ umfangen, ganz uns selbst gegeben, der Liebe nur zu leben!”; Act 2, 1377–1424). The form of the cantabile, with its seem­ingly redundant, almost exact repetition of the same words and music (exceedingly rare in late Wagner), brings to mind a solemn oath-taking, with one party reciting the text of the oath first and then both parties repeating it. What began in the first cantabile as a love duet (“O sink’ hernieder”; Act 2, 1117–1210) is transformed by the second cantabile section into a death, or love-death, duet. Where death is a synonym of Night, a “night of love” (Nacht der Liebe or Liebesnacht) is bound to be transmuted into a “love-death,” or literally, a “death of love” (Liebestod).


In short, as Tristan and Wagner both thought (there is no need to dis­tinguish the two in this case), death clearly belongs to the essence of love; it is its proper goal, its consummation. Erotic love begins with two distinct separate persons, each reciprocally the subject and object of the desire to become one with the other, to cancel the separation. Hence it is bound to end—if pursued radically enough to its logical conclusion, and if successful—with precisely this: the annulment of the distinction between the subject and object, the merger and disappearance of the two separate persons. Thus death is the appropriate name for the ultimate destination of the erotic desire. More positively, one might also talk of a complete and permanent union of two individuals, without forgetting, however, that death of the individuals is what such a union implies.


This seems to be the strongest case one can make in defense of the inter­twining of love and death in the opera. But death remains death, even when it is dressed up in fancy philosophical vocabulary. From the standpoint of Day, “Frau Minne” (the tutelary goddess of love) is to be feared and avoided, or at least civilized, but surely not worshipped unconditionally—unless one can give some concrete positive sense to the final “transfiguration,” unless, that is, one can show that the lovers not only die but are also transfigured, and can explain what the value of such a transfiguration might be.


In other words, to be transfigured is to be raised to a different, higher ontological plane, to transcend existence as it is here and now, and the erotic desire is precisely a desire of transcendence. The separation of subject and object, the subject’s lack of immediate access to object, is what defines human finitude. To overcome the separation of subject and object is to go beyond the limitations of human condition, to leave behind the finitude of Day for the infinity of Night. No less than Plato in the Symposium, Wagner understood that Eros drives us on to transcend our limits, to reach outside the confines of self and nature, to raise ourselves from our transient and conditioned state toward the permanent and unconditioned realm beyond.


It is on purpose that I invoke the Symposium here. On April 9, 1870, Cosima noted in her diary: “R. places this work [Symposium] above every­thing else: ‘… what would the world know of redeeming beauty without Plato?’” She further quoted Richard as saying: “‘I, too, thought today of Tristan and the Symposium. In Tristan it is also Eros who holds sway, and what in the one is philosophy is music in the other.’”4 Ultimately, it is this Platonic view of Eros as driving us to transcendence that lies behind the intertwin­ing of love and death and needs to be confronted in any interpretation of Tristan und Isolde. The desire for transcendence, if satisfied, has to end in self-annihilation. What is its point, then? Does it have a point? Or is it rather—as Nietzsche and his numerous successors, Dewey and Heidegger, Rorty and Derrida, in their various idioms urged—merely a self-destructive temp­tation to be avoided at all costs, a siren song that accompanied European philosophical and religious tradition for a few millennia bringing us noth­ing but grief, a song we should finally stop listening to and leave behind?


A quick clarification is in order here: even if we answered this last ques­tion in the affirmative, this would not count against Wagner’s opera. Wagner can be, and has been, accused of many sins, but moralism is not one of them. His aim in Tristan und Isolde was surely not to teach us how we should live, but, as he suggested, to erect a monument to a particularly glorious and terrifying divinity; and this aim he did accomplish brilliantly. Success in cases like this one is measured by the truthfulness and depth of the portrayal, and Wagner’s picture of love is both true and probing. Eros, on his account, inspires and deserves worship as a giver of ecstatic bliss; equally, he inspires and deserves fear as a bringer of most terrible suffer­ing and destruction. When Isolde apostrophizes Frau Minne in an aria-like culmination at the end of the first scene of Act 2 (370–471), what she finds important about this “administrator of the world’s becoming” (“des Weltwerdens Walterin”; Act 2, 386–88) is that “life and death, which she weaves out of bliss and sorrow, are subordinated to her…” (“Leben und Tod sind untertan ihr, die sie webt aus Lust und Leid…”; Act 2, 389–97).


But, in any case, it is not clear that our question will be answered in the affirmative. The simplest, and only preliminary, answer might take a clue from Isolde’s words: Frau Minne dispenses both bliss and sorrow, brings ecstasy that takes us beyond our narrow everyday limits as well as suffering and annihilation. Each one of us will have to calculate the bene­fits and risks individually, but Isolde’s and Tristan’s heroic choice to worship at Frau Minne’s altar (assuming that one has a choice in such matters) might be taken to be the less craven, more admirable one.


An answer of this sort, however, while an acceptable first step and cor­rect as far as it goes, is insufficient; it does not go to the heart of the matter. For both Plato and Wagner, more was at stake in the erotic drive to tran­scendence than the decision whether to take life-threatening risks for the sake of life-transforming ecstatic experiences. The question raised by them both is, rather, whether the pursuit of transcendence is the pursuit of a chimera that brings us nothing worthwhile, a bargain whereby we stop pay­ing attention to the only existence we have in order to chase an empty dream.

Now, in a certain sense of the term, transcendence is something we could not avoid even if we wanted to. We may, and should, be wary of the Platonic, or Christian, or Kantian dualisms, of the splitting of reality into two distinct levels, the realms of appearance and truth, of human earthly temporal muta­bility and divine heavenly eternal permanence, of the phenomenal and noumenal—the former invariably mediated and contingent, the latter avail­able immediately if at all and unconditional, the rock-bottom foundation of all there is. Much intellectual effort of the modern era (Spinoza, Hegel, Nietzsche and the pragmatic tradition he inaugurated) has gone into the overcoming of such dualisms, into providing a monist vision of reality. But even the most hardnosed monists, convinced that the realm of appear­ance is all there is (and hence that calling it “appearance” does not make much sense), cannot avoid going beyond the world immediately at hand. Unlike other earthly creatures, humans do not live in the present moment alone; rather, in addition to experiencing the world in the present, they also recollect it in the past and anticipate it in the future. Even a most rigorous monist could not limit himself to the present only; our world is necessarily split between the actually experienced present and the imagined past and future. It is in this modest sense that transcendence, going beyond the actu­ally experienced present, is something inevitable. Since, to use a Hegelian idiom, we humans must supplement the dumb nature with the self-conscious spirit, we cannot but confront the actual with the imagined.


But normally, when we talk of transcendence, we have in mind some­thing stronger than that, something that requires a full-blown dualist worldview: the transcendent realm in this stronger sense is the realm not only beyond here and now, but one representing a completely distinct onto­logical level. In this sense it is not so much the realm of personal imagination, remembrance and expectation, as it is one of abiding truth beyond the changeable appearances, the unconditional foundation of everything.


Both kinds of transcendence have a similar point: their job is to provide a standard against which the real can be evaluated. This is obviously the case with the strong transcendence. The value of items in the realm of appearances, or in the earthly city, is measured by their proximity or dis­tance from their models in the realm of ideas, or in the heavenly city. But it is also the case with the weaker form of transcendence. Our ability to imagine the future is particularly relevant here. It implies that we have available to us not only the world as it is and was, but also the world as it might or should be. We do not just confront the actual with the imag­ined, we confront what is with what should be. Moreover, we evaluate and judge what is in the light of what should be. This is how real things, persons, events acquire sense and value for us. “Transcendence” in the most general sense is the name for our best and most comprehensive vision of what should be and how it relates to what is. If the pursuit of transcen­dence is to have any value for us, is to be more than a pursuit of a chimera, it is in this general, comprehensive sense of the idea that we should look for this value.


What, then, is the content of the transcendence our lovers pursue and attain at the Transfiguration?


It would be hard not to notice that the protagonists speak the dualist lan­guage. We have seen that their fundamental outlook is articulated in terms of the opposition between Day and Night, between the surface realm of illu­sion and the deep realm of truth. The world of Day is the normal world they share with all of their contemporaries, the social world of separate indi­viduals relating to one another through a system of traditional feudal rights and obligations—the “custom” (Sitte) that is the initial subject of Isolde’s and Tristan’s conversation when they finally face each other in Act 1 (Tristan, “Sitte lehrt, wo ich gelebt,” 1378ff). The world of Night is one whose very existence is not suspected by most of their fellows, even by such socially exalted personages as King Marke, not to mention Kurwenal or the Shepherd. When Marke inquires after the deepest causes of his nephew’s actions, Tristan tells him: “O King,…  what you would know, that you can never learn” (“O König,…  was du frägst, das kannst du nie erfahren”; Act 2, 1893–1904). And Kurwenal tells the Shepherd, when the latter asks what is wrong with their lord: “Do not ask, since you can never know” (or “learn”) (“Laß die Frage: du kannst’s doch nie erfahren”; Act 3, 128–31); but it is doubtful that Kurwenal himself knows much more. It is the world beyond, preceding and succeeding all individuality, and hence one in which traditional rights and obligations are irrelevant. Most important, Day, we have seen, is where consciousness reigns and hence where subject and object, the I and the multiple phenomena of the World, are separate; thus it is also where unappeasable desire can arise. Night is where oblivion reigns, and hence where the separation between subject and object is canceled, where the very multiplicity of phenomena turns out to be illusory; thus it is also where the desire born of separation can be appeased.


The Schopenhauerian origin of this outlook is obvious, well documented, much discussed, and undeniable. But precisely because the outlook of the protagonists (and of Wagner, at this point) is Schopenhauerian, its ostensibly dualist structure may not matter all that much. (It is not even clear that Schopenhauer himself should be considered a dualist: he rather talks as if the realm of Representation and that of Will were two differ­ent perspectives on the same worldly reality—the world is Representation when it appears to us; in itself it is Will.) The realm of Night as the pro­tagonists conceive it, like the realm of Schopenhauer’s Will, is certainly neither the domain ruled by God, nor even one ruled by Reason. For Isolde of the Transfiguration it is “the blowing all of the world-breath” in which she asks “to drown, to be absorbed, unconscious…”—the realm where all consciousness ceases (“[in] des Welt-Atems wehendem All, — ertrinken, versinken, — unbewußt”; Act 3, 1680–89). For Tristan of the first monologue in Act 3 it is the domain of “divinely eternal, primordial oblivion”(“göttlich ew’ges Urvergessen”; 319–22)—again the realm where all consciousness ceases, the kingdom of non-being, of nothingness, whence one emerges at birth and with which one will merge again when one dies.


However, whether All or Nothing, it is clear that Night cannot provide us with a standard against which the real could be evaluated, that it is not where we shall find models against which the multiple phenomena in the realm of Day could be measured. The world of Tristan and Isolde is closer to that of Schopenhauer and Darwin than to that of Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, let alone to the world of Paul, Augustine, and Luther. Neither God nor an autonomous, self-legislating Reason underwrites the meaningful­ness of the opera’s universe—in fact, it is hard to see this universe as intrinsically meaningful at all. The vision of fulfillment the lovers aim at has obviously nothing in common with the modern desire to live within bounds drawn by their own autonomously self-legislating Reason; but neither has it anything in common with the Christian desire to be reconciled and united with the lov­ing Creator. Human existence, as they see it, comes from nowhere and goes nowhere. Since neither God nor Reason will be found there, not even the most intimate acquaintance with Night will tell us anything about what “should be.” But, if this is the case, can Tristan’s desire to go back to the realm of Night and Isolde’s wish to follow him there be at all justified? Enthusiasm for death can be justified only when death is the door through which one escapes a defi­cient reality to enter a better world, or when it offers the only available respite from a wholly insufferable existence. These conditions do not seem to obtain here: Tristan and Isolde are not (nor are we) led to believe that in their final Night they will be vouchsafed a beatific vision of one sort or another—all they and we can expect is eternal unconsciousness and oblivion; and one can imag­ine a fate much worse than Isolde’s at King Marke’s court, even if “unloved,” she must “see the most glorious man always nearby” (“Ungeminnt den hehrsten Mann stets mir nah zu sehen—!”; Act 1, 961–73).


Briefly put: Eros drives our lovers to transcendence, makes them leave the finitude of Daily existence and enter the infinite Night; but the Night offers them Nothing. Unless one is able to take the thoroughgoing Schopenhauerian pessimism seriously, unless one truly believes that nothing is better than some­thing, one’s doubts about the ultimate significance of Wagner’s work seem to be confirmed at this point: the opera appears to be no more than yet another Romantic glorification of the nihilistic death wish—entrancing and sublime, to be sure, but all the more pernicious for its sublimity.


And yet, both the protagonists and we experience the ending of Tristan und Isolde as a success, not as a failure. Now, they may be mistaken about this, they may take a failure for a success, but we cannot be: Wagner’s resolu­tion of the Tristan-chord at the end is calculated, we have seen, to make sure that we understand the ending not as a mere cessation but as a tri­umph, that we believe in the final transfiguration. Is this sense of final triumph simply a lie, a mendacious consolation proffered by skillfully deployed cadential resources of tonal harmony?


One might argue at this point that this, after all, is a story of a couple that in the end triumphs rather than fails: in the second cantabile of the love duet the lovers solemnly undertake to “die so as to live only for love—…forever endlessly united” and, though unable to fulfill this oath then and there, they do fulfill it in the end. In this one crucial respect Wagner and his protagonists part company with Schopenhauer: the lovers’ tra­jectory does not aim at resignation—they want their love perfectly and completely fulfilled, not abandoned. And what is more, they succeed: their project ends in triumph, not failure. Here Wagner’s heroes might be seen to anticipate early Nietzsche, accepting Schopenhauer’s premises (the world is at bottom nothing but pointless striving that produces incessant oscillation between the torments of desire and the boredom of satiety), but rejecting his conclusions (that the wise will opt for resignation as the only sensible attitude to existence).


But to this argument a skeptic will respond: yes, they do manage to die at the end, but surely not to “die so as to live… forever endlessly united.” The realm they enter at the end, the realm of Night, is where all individ­uality and all consciousness ceases. This is not the kind of place in which the idea of living forever endlessly united, in the posthumous manner of, say, Paolo and Francesca, makes any sense. The dissolution of all particularity in the Night’s solvent makes nonsense of any notion of unity of particu­lars. If Tristan and Isolde think they triumph at the end, they are deluded.


There is only one way, it seems to me, that we can take our unmistak­able final sense of triumphant success rather than tragic failure seriously, in spite of the natural skepticism aroused by the fact that what we see as the curtain goes down contradicts what the orchestra is telling us. What we see are two dead bodies on top of each other instead of the apotheosis that opera since Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo has accustomed us to expect, that Isolde imagines, and that the orchestra hints at. From now on, after the opera’s ending, we can tell ourselves, Tristan and Isolde will “live only for love—… forever endlessly united” in our memory, in cultural memory, transfig­ured (not for nothing did Wagner call the final tableau a Transfiguration and directed that we see Isolde “as if transfigured”) into protagonists of an endlessly repeated myth of a love that trumps all competing considera­tions. The complaint that they will not literally live so, permanently and perfectly united, will be seen to lose much of its force once we reflect that finite beings like ourselves cannot really know or imagine what it would mean for such a union to be literally permanent and perfect; we can see such things only through a glass, darkly, if at all. Nevertheless, the complaint is well taken: for the lovers themselves, their project ends in failure. But not for us. Tristan and Isolde’s permanent and perfect union as uniquely single-minded lovers in a myth that our culture endlessly recycles, not least in Wagner’s own telling, is the only form of such a union we can truly imagine and understand.


And this is also, it seems to me, the only way one can make sense of the protagonists’ eagerness for death. Their dying together is the pre­requisite for their transformation into figures of myth. As long as they live, their story is not completed and hence not ready to be told. Perhaps more important, as long as they live they are subject to the usual earthly con­tingencies and accidents that stand in the way of any permanent and perfect union and may at any moment spoil their story: aging, disease, the unex­pected withdrawal of the passionate tide in which they drown now—the list is endless. As long as they live, their story cannot be “a monument in which this love will be properly sated from beginning to end.”


Without the aesthetic transfiguration of their lives into a story, their existence would have to be considered a tragic mistake and failure. With that aesthetic transfiguration, it still remains a failure for them, but not for us. The transfiguration leaves them empty-handed: the content of the tran­scendence they attain turns out to be Nothing (or, what amounts to the same thing, All). But it does not leave us empty-handed: we are left with “a monu­ment to this most beautiful of all dreams,” a vision of love at its most radical and uncompromising and hence necessarily tragic. The lovers’ transfigu­ration into a myth does take place, and although it is of no use to them, it is of use to us. They may be under the impression that they sacrifice themselves on the altar of Love; in fact, they sacrifice themselves on the altar of Art.



 George L. Mosse, The Fascist Revolution: Toward a General Theory of Fascism (New York, 1999).

 Citations of text and musical passages are indicated by act and measure number (within acts) throughout. The measure numbers in Act 1 include the Prelude.

 Richard Wagner, letter to Franz Liszt in Weimar, Zurich, 16 (?) December 1854, in Wagner, Selected Letters, trans. and ed. Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington (New York,1988), 323.

 Cosima Wagner, Diaries, ed. Martin Gregor-Dellin and Dietrich Mack, trans. Geoffrey Skelton (New York and London, 1978–80), 1:208.



Karol Berger is the Osgood Hooker Professor in Fine Arts at the Department of Music, as well as an affiliated faculty at the Department of German Studies, and an affiliated researcher at the Europe Center at Stanford University.  In 2011-12, he has been the EURIAS Senior Fellow at the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna.  His Musica Ficta received the 1988 Otto Kinkeldey Award of the American Musicological Society, and his Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow the 2008 Marjorie Weston Emerson Award of the Mozart Society of America. In 2011 he received the Glarean Prize from the Swiss Musicological Society.