Sacrificing Roger Scruton

Title: Death Devoted Heart: Sex and Sacred in Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde"

Author: Roger Scruton

An eloquent atheist like Scruton finds that he has much in common with Richard Wagner. Not that Scruton desires to bear the usual criticisms hurled (sometimes unfairly) against Wagner. But there is something about Wagner which appeals to Scruton and he has a sympathy which cannot be disguised.

It is helpful to have such a guide as Scruton when considering Wagner's Tristan und Isolde because otherwise we might be forgiven for trying to impose a Christian worldview on this work.

This rapturous evocation of the love object translate the once living Tristan into waves, clouds, scents, sounds, and finally into the “world-breath’s billowing all” as Isolde sinks into the joyful and all-knowing unconsciousness by the Upanishads and by the Hindu doctrine of Nirvana - release from the world - as the highest state of being. (p.72)

Wagner owed much of his own philosophy to Schopenhauer, whom Scruton expounds thus:

Nothing awaits the individual in this life save striving without reward, suffering without purpose, and conflict without resolution. Individual existence is, from the individual point of view, a mistake, yet one into which the will to live is constantly tempted by its need to show itself as an Idea. The will falls into individuality and exists for a while trapped in the world of representation, sundered from the calm ocean of eternity that is its home. Its life as an individual (my life) is really an expiation for original sin, which is “the crime of existence itself”.

Although the intellect is in most things the slave of the will, helplessly commenting on processes that it cannot control, it has one gift in its power: the gift of renunciation. The intellect can overcome the will’s resistance to death by showing that we have nothing to fear from death and everything to gain. Death cannot extinguish the will, and though what survives death is not the individual but the universal, this should not worry us, since it was the mistake of existing as an individual that caused all our suffering in the first place. (p.128-9)

As time goes by, Scruton draws the threads closer:

Wagner is presenting in dramatic outline the image of man as his own redeemer. He is suggesting that we can achieve the transfiguration for which it is in our nature to yearn with no help from God. At the same time this transfiguration has all the sacred character of a religious experience. (p.185)

... he set out to discover a redemption that needs no God to accomplish it. In pursuing this idea Wagner could fairly be described as one of the great humanists of modern times. But he was a humanist of a peculiar kind, who recognised humanity’s religious need and tried to make man his own redeemer, so as to ennoble the human beyond the divine. (p.3)

Of course this is not a matter of an alternative religion to Christianity. This is a religion of Wagner's own invention intended to corrupt the principles of Christian thought. Hence:

For Wagner, however, redemption is not a condition that is purchased through sacrifice. It occurs in the act of sacrifice itself. (p.191)

Sully the idea of redemption being purchased through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ by suggesting that it is more noble to be naturally moral and die unredeemed (although Wagner suggested that sex was the path of redemption). It is hard not to feel that this paragraph at the end of the book was the point of all that had gone before:

Religion provides that meaning and overcomes that fear; but it does so through baseless promises that offer redemption from a point outside our human world and on a metaphysical assumption that is no longer credible. Only if man can produce meaning from his own resources, and vanquish the fear of death in the same act, is the consolation of religion now available. The lingering after image of an old theology tells us that meaning lies in some reward offered when life is over. But more noble, more dignified, and more in tune with the deep needs of religious man is the belief that meaning is its own reward. On this view, life becomes meaningful when it throws rewards away - in other words, when it is self-sacrificed. By enfolding this sacrifice within the sacred aura of the erotic, Wagner offers the final proof that man can become holy to himself with no help from the gods. (p.190)

A recent commenter on this site echoed these same words of Scruton, insisting that the atheist is the only one who can live well now because he is not looking for future reward!

Such people must love the music of Wagner. They must enjoy the restless searching of his Tristan score. And they must square up to the fact that atheism does not produce one noble virtue. In abandoning - in despising - the atonement of Jesus Christ, they reject the whole idea of sacrifice. If man is his own redeemer then it should be no surprise that he has no true love for anyone but himself.

Wherever I perceive evident contentment, or the intention of ensuring the same, I turn away with a certain sense of inner horror. As soon as another’s existence seems to me to be lacking in suffering and carefully calculated to keep all suffering at bay, I can follow it only with unsmotherable bitterness, so remote is it from what I regard as the real solution to man’s task.

Letter written by Wagner from Venice on 1st October 1858 to Mathilde Wesendonck

The question here is not what the other person suffers but what I suffer when I know him to be suffering... Thus my fellow-suffering makes the other person’s suffering an actual reality, and the more insignificant the being with which I can suffer, the wider and more embracing is the circle which suggests itself to my feelings...

Letter written by Wagner from Venice on 1st October 1858 to Mathilde Wesendonck

Selected Letters of Richard Wagner translated and edited by Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington p.422-3