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  • Wagner after Freud: Stages of Analysis
  • Tom Grey (bio) and Adrian Daub (bio)


In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud cites the following joke from before World War I: “Why have the French rejected Lohengrin?” The punchline: “Elsa’s wegen” because of Elsa (“Elsa’s” = Alsace). This is to some extent symptomatic for Freud’s treatment of opera: opera provides the ready-made grist of the analytic mill—the stuff of jokes and examples, rather than the object of in-depth analysis. Freud’s prodigious commentary on and analysis of the products of culture seem to have largely skirted the field of opera, dwelling instead on the written word and the visual arts. Even the Elsa/Alsace-joke depends on linguistic signification and eschews tackling the unique musical-dramatic scene of the opera stage.

To be sure, opera did not play the central role that Freud gave to literature in his everyday life, his thought and his oeuvre. But it isn’t the case that it played no role. Given that, there is something peculiar about the way in which Freud’s thinking often seems at pains to shunt opera to the margins. Within the field of opera, Freud’s personal tastes ran toward rather traditional fare. Mozart appears to have been a particular favorite (Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro), along with Carmen. The only Wagner opera about which he expressed any interest was Die Meistersinger.1 Meistersinger was a safe choice for conservative cultural respectability around 1900, a Wagner opera for people who “didn’t really like Wagner” but who also realized that the early operas were now a bit dated.

Significantly, it is the one mature Wagner work that eschews psychologically freighted mythic symbolism. On the other hand, as Freud did notice, Meistersinger is the one Wagner opera to address the “interpretation of dreams,” if only as the creative source of a relatively innocuous “Mastersong.” “I was sympathetically moved by the Morgentraumdeutweise,” he wrote to Wilhelm Fliess on December 12, 1897, describing his impressions of Walther’s Prize Song, apparently after attending a performance. “Moreover, as in no other opera, real ideas are set to music, with the tones of feeling attached to it lingering on as one reflects upon them.”2 For a brief moment, Freud models himself on Wagner’s Hans Sachs, letting the strains of Die Meistersinger “linger” as he reflects on them, just as Sachs reflects on Walther’s [End Page 116] unruly Trial Song. At the same time, he can’t resist the opportunity of turning Wagner into another joke (a Jewish joke, at that), in a parenthetical and slightly obscure pun: “I would have liked to add Parnosse to ‘paradise’ and ‘Parnassus’” (Parnosse being a Yiddish term for “earning a living”).3

When we look for opera in Freud’s published works, the first thing we find is not a performance, but rather the means of watching one; namely, opera glasses—a motif that crops up frequently in his other writings, in Freud’s own and his analysands’ dreams, diaries, parapraxes. And why not? In the New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis Freud suggests that the dream-work transforms unconscious contents “as though one were seeing them through the wrong end of a pair of opera glasses.” (32) The image is made all the more striking by the fact that it isn’t really followed up on in his other writings. If there is something about watching an opera that resembles the workings of our conscious mind on unconscious content, then why would this act not warrant close attention?

Stranger yet is the immediate context of the comparison: when figures in a dream appear small, “as though one were seeing them through the wrong end of a pair of opera glasses,” Freud argues, “it is remoteness in time that is meant, and we are to understand this as a scene from the distant past.” One doesn’t need to be a Wagnerian to notice that the effect Freud ascribes to the opera glasses of our dream-work in this passage dovetails precisely with Gurnemanz’s description of the spatio-temporality of the grail castle in Parsifal, a description...


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pp. 116-133
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