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Book Review

Wagner and Suicide

Wagner and Suicide
John Louis DiGaetani
McFarland and Company. 2003. 195 pages
ISBN-10: 0786414774
ISBN-13: 978-0786414772
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There are many tragic stories ending in the death of the main characters and quite a few ending in suicide. Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary come immediately to mind, for instance, as characters who saw the prospect of continued life as more disastrous than the decision to die. The operas of Richard Wagner, Die Meistersinger excepted, all have characters with death wishes, some of long standing, and Wagner himself, while living out a long life with a bipolar disorder, had considered ending his own life on a number of occasions.

Suicide and death wishes, bipolarism, and the emotional cycles of depression/mania in that disorder, as well as cyclical time, notably the succession of darkness and light, are DiGaetani's main themes in this study. He refers often to Vico, the 18th century writer who made much of cyclical time. In addition to chapters on Wagner's ten major operas there is an introductory chapter, "Wagner's Bipolar Life: Mania and Depression," and additional chapters, "Suicide in Opera and Drama," and "Wagner, the Decadents, and the Modern British Novel." DiGaetani claims that Wagner's own experience with depression and manic mood swings became material for his operas. As an important aside, he argues persuasively that Wagner's notorious anti-Semitism was not something he put into his operas, as others have suggested.

Most of DiGaetani's analysis is based on Wagner's librettos and letters. It helps the reader to have seen the operas (and I have seen all of them at least once or twice myself) although not all productions are faithful to Wagner's specifications. Wagner wrote his own librettos and he often spent more time and effort writing them than in composing the music. DiGaetani quotes from Wagner's letters of the 1850's and 1860's, to Franz Liszt and Mathilda Wesendonck, to the young Cosima, (whom Wagner later married) and from her diary, in which she expressed a wish to die. There is not evidence that Wagner ever attempted suicide, however.

Der Fliegende Holländer is filled with the Dutchman's longing to die, as an old curse. condemns him to eternal wandering at sea, except through the unconditional love of a woman even unto death. He finds in Senta such a woman and does find death. What seems odd is that the plot outcome requires her actual suicide (by drowning in the text but by her blowing them both up in a recent Munich production) rather than simply a faithful relationship. In Tannhäuser, the depressed title character tells Venus he must leave her even at the cost of his own life, and he speaks of seeking death; Venus tells him to return when "death itself flees from you." The virtuous Elizabeth, who loves Tannhäuser, even sensually, and who represents the polar opposite of Venus, is unable to get Tannhäuser to forget Venus. At the end both Tannhäuser and Elizabeth die, though not by suicide and, in fact, not from clear causes.

Lohengrin is discussed in terms of prominent dream elements, as well as the cyclical appearance and disappearance of some of the characters and the moral polarity of others. The theme of unconditional love reappears and DiGaetani suggests that Wagner had never experienced this himself. Tristan und Isolde of course begins with a suicide pact gone astray and ends with the Liebestod. In Die Meistersinger the cycle of the seasons as well as that of night and day is significant; the big celebration is of the summer solstice. I believe that DiGaetani psychologizes the rejoicing in the final act too much; I don't think that finding any trace of mania here is appropriate. However, his observation that the praise of German art at the end is more a matter of art than of nation is apt.

One observation that surprised me, having never thought about it, is how often Wagner's dramas came close to the classical unities of time and place, even in the Ring cycle, notably Das Reingold, Die Walküre, and Siegfried, but even the individual acts of Götterdämmerung. And within the periods of a day, the succession of night and day is important: Siegfried, for instance, begins in the dark and ends in full sunlight, according to the stage directions.

The chapter on Parsifal is subtitled "Beyond Polarity" and DiGaetani finds no concern with natural cycles in it. Pain and death is another matter. DiGaetani, with Freud, suggests we all have unhealed wounds and that this is part of the Opera's appeal. As for the "longing for death, and the suicidal impulse that is a logical extension of this longing," a logical extension that I question, it is noted that Amfortas says to his father who is already in his coffin, "Live, live and let me die."

I do agree with this author that a creative writer strongly tends to write about what he knows through direct experience, and there is strong documentary evidence of depression to the point of suicidal thoughts on the part of Wagner. If there was mania, it was most manifest in Wagner's unrestrained spending on luxuries to the point of huge indebtedness, which required him to leave a number of locations in a hurry. I wish that DiGaetani had made more of a distinction between passive longing for death and active consideration of suicide, and this is the strongest criticism I wish to make of his very interesting discussions.

There is much more to this book, including observations about Wagner's poetic style. DiGaetani is a Professor of English, as it happens. Discussion of Wagner's music is not a main consideration here, although DiGaetani, an author of other books on Wagner and one on Puccini, is a lover of opera of very long standing. His book is well worth reading. The book includes a bibliography and index.

Copyright © 2010, R. James Tobin