Howard Jacobson: Don't use Wagner to test your marriage

Love on the stage
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The Independent Online

Thought my marriage was over last week. Or at least the free and open, disputatious, relishing dissent and disagreement part.

The occasion was the BBC Proms concert presentation of Act 2 of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, an opera I have long been in a dozen minds about but whose best bits I wanted my wife to enjoy as much as I did, Wagner having largely passed her by.

My being in a dozen minds about Wagner has nothing to do with his Jew-hating. An artist may hate Jews if he wishes. If it isn't Jews, it will be someone else. All you can ask is that the art itself rises above the hatred, harmonises all the ugly flotsam of single-mindedness that fed it. We make art to be better than we are when we are not making art. There is no more to say.

Which said, I've heard it argued that the Orphic inflexibility that made Wagner an anti-Semite remains residually there in the music; and I suspect anyone who goes to pagan saga for his inspiration, not because the stories aren't overwhelmingly wonderful, but because a pre-Christian heroising is the usual motive, an admiration for aristocratic man before what Nietzsche called "the slave revolt in morals" was initiated by the Jews.

But all this is by the by, as we weren't watching Der Ring des Nibelungen but Act 2 of Tristan und Isolde, a distinctly post-Christian legend, where what's imperilled is chivalry not Valhalla, and what does the imperilling is love or, if you prefer – because there can be a difference – sexual desire. Concert performances of opera are often thin gruel, but in the case of Tristan und Isolde there is something apposite about the principals just standing there, never touching, scarcely looking at each other, simply delivering their protestations of erotic abandonment as though to the unseen forces of the air. They aren't, you see, in the slightest bit interested in each other. Ask Tristan what Isolde is wearing and he wouldn't be able to tell you; ask Isolde to enumerate the personal qualities for which she loves Tristan and she'd be hard pressed to come up with any. This is not a complaint. I don't ask them to be lovers in the romantic comedy mould. They are, after all, only in love because a love potion made them so. They have, in other words, no choice in the matter, so it's neither here nor there what either thinks of the other. Love strikes, and that's it. Which is sometimes, and maybe more than sometimes, the way of it.

I might be in a dozen minds about Wagner but I am sure of this: that the music of Tristan und Isolde celebrates an erotic transport that is entirely impersonal, and that this superbly orchestrated swoon of self-consummation describes love better than it is comfortable for us, in our 21st-century sentimentality about affection and the family, to admit.

Isolde does not want Tristan's baby. Tristan does not want to introduce Isolde to his friends. All Isolde hopes for is to vanish from the world while protesting her love of Tristan. He the same. Though the music is orgasmic, even sex isn't really what it's about. Death is what it's about.

I don't mind admitting that I am swooning to the music. When Tristan and Isolde finally and as it were in the abstract get it together, calling on love to "free them from the world", I am a goner. Death can free me from the world as well. My wife is motionless in her seat, barely breathing. She irradiates love's tragedy, the great paradox at the heart of desire – loss in plenty, plenty in loss. Has death claimed us both?

It's at this point that I believe she has begun to judge me – not as a man, not as a lover, but as an artist. Why am I not Wagner? More specifically, why have I not sought to make tragic art as uncompromising as this? There is no comedy in Wagner. One laugh and that's the trance blown. But I have always argued for the primacy of comedy; comedy is what makes Mozart greater than Wagner. I don't mean jokes, I mean the illumination of another way of seeing, the sudden turning of an action on its head, not to make light of it but to enrich it, in such an instance as this, for example, to show the lovers why life has more going for it than death. Hence my own practice as a novelist, which is to take comedy into the very heart of desolation, to affirm life when it is most threatened.

At the end of an exhausting day at the theatre, watching tragic heroes putting out their eyes and tragic heroines murdering their children, Greek audiences would be treated to the wild burlesque of a satyr play – the invigorating comic obscenity of man as beast sating his lusts and never mind the consequences being what they finally took home with them. In the satyr play I have seen my own justification. Once upon a time I just wrote the satyr play, leaving the preceding tragedies to others. Now I try to create the whole cycle, but always going for that final invigoration of comedy. But what if I am – what if I always was – wrong?

There's no trace of satyr play in Tristan und Isolde. Of all lovers, Tristan and Isolde would be the last to admit that they share concupiscence with a goat. They own no allegiance to life in any of its robust forms; their medium is night, far from "day's empty fancies". They seek to be beyond corporeal existence, bodiless, obliterated, distilled into nothingness. They are satyr proof. And I am lost in the music that celebrates them. As is my wife. And how can she be thinking other than what I'm thinking – that this, Wagner, unremitting, exhausting, serious to the point of annihilation, is what art's about?

We leave the Albert Hall in silence and walk home through the park. I am wondering if she is thinking about leaving me for a writer who doesn't revere comedy, a true artist who never deviates from the sacred task of life-renunciation. After half an hour of walking I dare to look at her. "Well?" I ask.

"I don't know how to tell you this," she says. "I know how much it's moved you ..."


"I really don't want to say this to you."

"Go on."

She breathes hard. "I hated it."

I gather her up in my arms. "Thank the fuck for that," I say.