- Wagner and Suicide
John Louis DiGaetani is a professor of English at Hofstra University whose passion for opera has resulted in such works as An Invitation to the [End Page 376] Opera (1986), Carlo Gozzi: A Life in the 18th Century Venetian Theater, an Afterlife in Opera (1999), and Puccini the Thinker: The Composer's Intellectual and Dramatic Development (second edition, 2001), as well as several important studies of Wagner. In his most recent work, Wagner and Suicide, DiGaetani sets out to examine why so many of Wagner's operas either end in suicide, ponder the desirability of an early death, or appear to glorify the taking of one's own life. Beginning with Senta's leap into the sea that redeems the Dutchman and continuing through Kundry's centuries-long pilgrimage toward obliteration in Parsifal, DiGaetani explores the theme of suicide both in Wagner's own work and among the composer's literary and artistic contemporaries. Indeed, among the highlights of the book are the author's two concluding chapters on the theme of suicide in non-Wagnerian opera and on Wagner's successors among the literary movement now known as "the Decadents." The examination of Wagner's role in the development of the modern British novel expands upon several themes that DiGaetani has explored in book-length treatments as early as 1977.1
Let's begin with the bad news. The central premise of Wagner and Suicide is not at all convincing, the book could have profited from another round or two of scrupulous editing, and some of the author's observations are so general as to be practically devoid of significance. It is the first of these problems that is the book's real Achilles heel. DiGaetani suggests that Wagner suffered from the psychological condition now known as bipolar disorder. Thus DiGaetani believes that Wagner's preoccupation with death was something more than the almost legendary gloominess of the Romantics. The focus on suicide in Wagnerian opera was, the author states, a reflection of the composer's own bipolar nature, a tendency that similarly caused him to be attracted repeatedly to extremism in philosophy, politics, and art. During his manic phases, Wagner would dream of saving the world. He would see himself as the most important artistic figure in human history, spend borrowed money that he had not the slightest hope of repaying, and convince himself that he was on the verge of greater achievements than anyone had ever attempted before. Inevitably, however, a depression would follow these moments of ecstasy, and Wagner would suddenly view his situation as hopeless, seeing death as the only possible release from his misery.
This entire argument is based on a combination of close reading of the music dramas and sifting through the many pages of Wagner's letters, essays, and autobiography. The result is a very mixed bag. Bipolar disorder can be notoriously difficult to identify in living subjects, even with all of today's sophisticated diagnostic tests at hand. Diagnoses of historical figures produce still more dubious conclusions, particularly when the person making the diagnosis is not professionally trained in clinical psychology. That Wagner could have been manic-depressive is not entirely beyond the [End Page 377] realm of plausibility. Kay Redfield Jamison and a host of other scholars have already demonstrated that there is a significant correlation between bipolar disorder and the heightened creativity demonstrated by numerous artists and authors.2 Undeniably, too, the theme of self-destruction or longing for death appears repeatedly throughout Wagner's mature works. Nevertheless, there remains a huge chasm between identifying the prevalence of suicide as an artistic theme in Wagner's dramas and positing any meaningful conclusions about Wagner's own state of mental health. This is a case where A simply does not get you to B.
For one thing, suicide, as DiGaetani demonstrates that he knows perhaps better than anyone else, was a favored theme, not simply of Wagner, but among the Romantics as a whole. The idea of languishing for the perfection of a love...