Monday, 18 July 2011

Tannhauser's dilemma and Krishna's Visvarupa

Tannhauser's dilemma is an example of Rational Choice Hermeneutics. The argument presented is that somehow Tannhauser's bizarre behaviour during the song contest- he says love is purely sensual and ends up singing the praises of Venus- evidences not a Neitzchean amor fati but is actually a rational choice. Had Tannhauser stuck with the notion that love's true awakening is in the memory of church bells, not the Venusberg ballet, then he'd win the hand of his beloved Elizabeth and remedy the disgrace of having lost the previous contest. Instead, he has to go off on pilgrimage to Rome to seek penance. The Pontiff says the meistersinger will be as soon forgiven as his own staff of office puts forth green leaves. Elizabeth dies of a broken heart as does Tannhauser and the news reaches too late that the Papal staff has indeed flowered.

I don't pretend to understand the reasoning behind the essay in question. The authors quote Paisley Livingston's 'Literature and Rationality' (2001) to the effect that there is no rationality without intentionality- conscious or unconscious. However, they fail to see- though their analysis uses counterfactuals- that in a literary work the 'counterfactuals' are competing systems of values or intentionalites (meta-preferences) not states of the world. 

They write- 'The crucial question is: What are Tannhäuser’s options once the tournament has begun? If he plays by the rules, he simply has to put some effort in conjuring up a song. And since we who are in the audience have reason to believe that Tannhäuser is the most talented of all the Wartburg poets, we have little doubt that, if he wants to win the tournament, he can. Hence, if he plays by the rules Tannhäuser must simply make up his mind about whether or not he wants to win the tournament. In what follows we shall argue that both options are bad options, confronting Tannhäuser with a terrible dilemma—a dilemma he can only solve by breaking out of the boundaries set by the courtly rules, by sabotaging the contest—by an act of creative destruction that exemplifies the true hero.

Losing the contest is a bad outcome for obvious reasons. Having just rediscovered his love for Elisabeth the thought that somebody else might claim her as his prize must be appalling. But winning the contest is not a good idea either and it is quite straightforward to see why. As we have seen Tannhäuser does understand that he has gravely sinned and there is also no doubt
that he has a keen sense of Elisabeth’s purity. By asking for her hand and marrying her without having been granted absolution first, he would act against his own beliefs about Elisabeth’s nature and betray his own decision to repent. Moreover, he would significantly add to his sins. The Catholic Church is very clear on this point: Before getting married, spouses must approach the sacrament of penance because marriage is itself a sacrament; see, for example, the code of canon law (codex iuris canonici 1983, 1065§2) or Hörmann’s encyclopaedia of Christian morality (1976, 190-214).

So, what can Tannhäuser do? Both possible outcomes of the tournament have bad consequences. And, of course, the whole tournament, right here and right now, was not Tannhäuser’s idea. In fact, given his predicament, he must feel quite gulled by the sudden announcement of the tournament shortly after his arrival at the Wartburg. As with many dilemmas, the way out requires a creative, unusual solution—requires not to play by the rules. And this is what Tannhäuser does. His outburst sabotages the tournament and it does so very effectively. The first prize is never awarded and this is really the best outcome Tannhäuser could have hoped for. Of course, it might be his emotions that make Tannhäuser praise Venus after listening to the tame Wolfram and Walther, but the point is that his emotions solve his dilemma for him—and in a rather brilliant way. Not only does he not lose Elisabeth, he also gains time to do penance and seek absolution. Further, if one is willing to accept this view there is absolutely no surprise in Tannhäuser’s reaction once chaos

has broken out and the angry knights and singers, along with the Landgrave, send him away, off to Rome. This is precisely what, on some deeper level, he had wanted (and, prior to his reunion with the Landgrave and his knights, had planned).

Tannhäuser’s outburst is an act of creative destruction and as such an heroic act—lighting, in Emily Dickinson’s words, the Possible’s slow fuse—solving the apparently unsolvable.
Heroes of all times and cultures committed such acts or, rather perhaps, were made through such acts: Heracles who captures Cerberus by treating it with kindness instead of enmity; Alexander who severs the Gordian knot instead of trying to untie it; Columbus who breaks the
egg’s shell to make it stand up; Schumpeter’s entrepreneur who destroys a monopoly through radical innovation; or Luke Skywalker who triumphs over his father’s dark side not by wounding him but by being wounded. '

I don't know German and have only seen Wagner's Opera on TV with subtitles. Still, this doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Win the contest and then get absolution as part of the run up to your wedding is the obvious way to go.

Similarly, one might argue, in the Gita, the obvious thing for Krishna to do is to say to Arjuna- listen mate, Drona and Bhishma have received the boon never to be killed in battle. They will protect your cousins. All you need to do is to shoot down their arrows to protect your brothers. It's a stalemate. Nobody gets hurt and sooner or later the various allies and mercenaries on both sides will just up sticks and go home.

The authors of the Tannhauser essay conclude by saying 'Thus, we can now see that Tannhäuser’s salvation in the Virgin Mary necessitates his public praise of Venus—seemingly a paradox but only seemingly...' and later on- ''Where previous authors have argued that Wagner’s Tannhäuser libretto suffers from serious logical blunders, Rational Choice Hermeneutics  is able to restore coherency. In fact, if one is willing to accept the premises of RCH, we have shown that there is not the slightest flaw in Wagner’s conception of the opera. On the contrary, the construction of the opera with the centrally located tournament of song and its ensuing high drama must then be viewed as an immensely ingenious coup de théâtre.  .'

As I said, I know nothing about the critical reception of Wagner's opera. To me it looks straightforwardly Schopenhauerian- Love is of the Will but Music is free-'if the Universe perish, Music will remain'. Add in Nietzche's notion of amor fati and the whole thing couldn't be otherwise than it is and not degenerate into a sort of Shavian sit-com .

The problem with this essay is that the authors assume Tannhauser could have sung on any theme he wished. He could have made any argument. Is this true? Would Tannhauser really be a 'meistersinger'- would his song interest us- if not Truth, not Sincerity, but expediency governed his performance? There are plenty of medieval legends about some fiddler or other  quibbling his way out of a pact with the Devil. They just aren't a fit subject matter for Wagner, the student of Schopenhauer.

This is not to say Game theory has no place in Hermeneutics. It's just that rational choice across states of the world aren't what great literature does for a living. On the contrary, the 'counter factuals' one needs to be looking at have to do with meta-intentionalities and reverse mereologies such as that whereby Lord Krishna's Visvarupa is an axe which cuts down not the tree of Dark Anger (Manyu) but the Gita itself as the essence of the hymn leaved banyan whose roots are in heaven and branches down here below.


  1. Like you, I don't know German and it may be that the authors of this essay are looking at a different libretto from the one summarized on the National Public Radio site- vide but there is a huge gap in the argument in that the (male?) authors assume that Elizabeth's hand in marriage is the prize for the song contest. This isn't true. In the Courtly love tradition, she is the 'midons' who might equally possibly prescribe a quest or a crusade rather than grant her hand to the winner. It isn't Tannhauser who is making rational choices to sabotage the contest but Elizabeth who does so, by intervening to prevent the knights from slaying Tannhauser. Furthermore, Elizabeth prays to the Virgin Mary- invocation of whom had freed Tannhauser from Venusberg- that her might life end so she can intercede for her lover in Heaven. Thus, it is Elizabeth- not Tannhauser- who makes all the decisive moves and it is her values that prevail, not those of the male knights and minstrels or even the Pope himself.
    Indeed, in Heine's poem, Venus is a gemutlich sweetheart whom Tannhauser leaves in a fit of jealousy because she is immortal and has had many lovers and will have many more. But, it turns, out the Pope has no power over Venus and so the minstrel returns to his wife who makes him a nice broth and asks after his disillusioning travels. At this point, Heine makes an equation between Venus and the Sabbath-
    "To Frankfort I on Schobbas came,
    Where dumplings were my food.
    They have the best religion there:
    Goose-giblets, too, are good.

    before getting off a typical piece of satire-

    "In Weimar, the widowed muse's seat,
    Midst general grief I arrive.
    The people are crying 'Goethe's dead,
    And Eckermann's still alive!'"[A]

    There's an article on the Tanhhauser legend in Heine, Herzl and Perez here-

  2. @Sheila- thanks for this! I'd love to hear what you think of Rational Choice Hermeneutics. Have you read this Paisley Livingston guy? More generally, I'd love your opinion of 'evo devo' lit crit and other such harbingers of the Apocalypse.

  3. @Sheila- sorry, forgot to add, I loved the bit about the equation, in Heine, between Venus and the Sabbath- is this your original contribution or something in the literature? I don't have access to MUSE at the moment so can't read the essay you suggest.
    I have a poem on the 'Lekhah Dodi' theme in my 'Mirror's messiah'
    "Lekhah dodi!" I said, by the day's wasting light
    "Come welcome the Sabbath in her sable of Night"
    "Light thou the menorah?" my shadow replied
    "Keep thy Torah! My Sabbath's denied."