Reflections on Der Ring des Nibelungen
Die Familie hat als die unmittelbare Substantialitt des Geistes
seine sich empfindende Einheit, die Liebe, zu ihrer Bestimmung,
The central narrative theme of the Ring interests philosophically. For it is just this: Faced with an insoluble problem, Wotan's self breaks up, temporarily, into selves almost, but not quite, distinct and separate; and in the ignorance of fact and motive thus made possible, the problem can be escaped.
Selves - on the account here adopted - are one among the kinds of
continuants: things which persist for a time in space. If we
wish to understand how a continuant of kind F is the same throughout
its history, and different from other F's, it is natural to suppose
there to be:(2)
A synchronic F-unity relation, binding regions of a world-slice into discrete F-stages.
A diachronic F-unity relation, binding series of F-stages into
It is clear, and, if it had not been, Minkowski would have taught
us, that these cannot be wholly distinct: the synchronic and
diachronic relations must reveal themselves as aspects of a single
unity relation for F, binding point-events into four dimensional
Put the technicalities aside, but keep vivid an image that Minkowski's lesson should present: the picture of a continuant as a causal river in spacetime. Reflection upon how we would trace the same river in space may guide us in tracing the same F in spacetime.
In particular, think of the way in which the "transverse" unity relation of a river may temporarily fail to be satisfied when the stream flows around a large island; it might be unclear, from a limited perspective, whether one was seeing a river break into two rivers, or one river flowing for a time through two channels.
The best way to see what the appropriate unity relations for self are is to consider cases in which we are at least disposed to say that a self divides.There are two kinds of case, quite different, one from the other. Each suggests, however, a roughly similar account of the relations.
First we have the well-known cases of commissurotomy, whose subjects have come to be referred to as "split brain" patients:
The two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex are connected by
several "lines of communication", of which the most massive
is the corpus callosum. The function of these great
commissures was unknown until a dozen or so patients suffering
recurrent epileptic seizures underwent commissurotomy (the hope was
that cutting the commissures would inhibit the spread of the seizures
from one hemisphere to the other).(5)
Leave aside the (often fascinating) details. The high points are
these: (1) In their normal daily activities commissurotomized
subjects appear almost entirely normal; (2) under controlled
conditions, when sensory input can be given to one cerebral
hemisphere but not the other, it appears that the unstimulated
hemisphere remains ignorant of the content of the stimulus (the
evidence here resting on, and contributing to the confirmation of,
lateralization of language ability and contralateral motor control);
(3) occasionally subjects appear to suffer conflicts of desire,
expressed, for example, by the left hand's attempting to undo the
work of the right.(6)
A wholly natural response to these facts is to come to believe that the split-brain patients are split-minded: associated with each patient are two psyches. Each cerebral hemisphere could be viewed as a potentially independent data processor which, in normal subjects, is tied by data transfer across the corpus callosum into a single system which uses the capabilities of both hemispheres; in split brain subjects the transfer ceases, and the two hemispheres become independent systems. So one line of thought would go.
On the other hand, there is a pull toward saying only one psyche. Everyday activities seem all of a piece, as ours do. To a great extent, no doubt, this can be explained by the fact that, outside the laboratory, each hemisphere observes almost exactly what the other does, and the fact that emotional states are communicated through the brain stem (so that one hemisphere may knowingly feel embarrassed, but not know what about).
What matters for present purposes is that what tugs us in the two directions - one psyche versus two - is the very same kind of consideration: how much integration and communication is there between the two hemispheres? If a lot, as when the corpus callosum is intact, the hemispheres are simply subsystems of one psychic unit; if (comparatively) very little, as between your whole cortex and mine, two. In the broad, loose, sense of "information" nowadays favoured, what is important is amount and quality of information exchange among neural subsystems.
Think of the commissurotomy cases as establishing the conceptual possibility of more than one psyche in a body, on account of the physical segregation of information, belief, attitude, etc.. Our second class of phenomena, multiple personality, is less clear: There is no physical damage to the brain. There is no obvious, distinct, anatomical location for each of the (alleged) psyches; segregation is achieved rather by functional clustering of information. Nor is segregation uniform and bidirectional - there is "leakage" and "co-consciousness". One may even suspect that what is really happening is that one person is consciously playing roles in order to escape a dilemma. The splitting seems to be a motivated act; but who knows all the facts necessary to execute the act... ?
A classic clinicians' report of this is The Three Faces of Eve(7)
. At one point during treatment the patient(s) consisted of three personalities, Eve White, Eve Black, and Jane Black (introduced in the order in which the therapists encountered them). Jane Black could be aware of at least some of the experience of each Eve; Eve Black of Eve White's, but not Jane's; Eve White of neither Black.
Put thus, it may seem that what is before us is a case in which one personality, Jane Black, has a part, Eve Black, which has a part, Eve White. But that is not how the story impresses itself.(8)
For one thing, Eve Black's awareness of Eve White's experience is not continuous - she may be bored, or for some other reason inattentive. More important, the mode of awareness of Eve White's thoughts and feelings is very different for Eve White and Eve Black. Both are directly and noninferentially aware of Eve White's headache, for example; but Eve White is aware by feeling it, Eve Black by knowing that it is happening to Eve White. The best I can do by way of (contrary to fact) analogy is: Suppose you saw colours, as now, but you also had a faculty of non-inferential judgement about colour, which allowed you to know what the colours of things were. Using either modality you could obtain information about the colours before you - but the difference in modality would be an important difference. One might call such a faculty of non-inferential judgement "nonsensuous perception"; just so one might call Eve Black's awareness of Eve White's feelings "nonempathetic telepathy". We cannot, then, view Eve White's thoughts and feelings as a subset of Eve Black's: the "part of" relation seems inappropriate to capture the way Eve White and Eve Black stand to one another.
Though Eve White cannot, by her own will, gain access to Eve Black's thoughts, Eve Black's will can force them upon her. To Eve White's perception it is as if she hears a voice. A silent one, I suppose: I imagine it as being like talking to oneself without volition. So there is the possibility of two-way transfer of information. But the fundamental asymmetry is, of course, unaltered; information does not flow as it does among the "parts" of an undivided mind.
* * *
Among the main characters of the Ring Wagner creates a structure of relations homologous to the diachronic and synchronic relations that constitute personal identity. In this way he keeps Wotan's fragmented unity always at the edge of our attention.
The common opinion of mankind has it that offspring are, in some blurred sense, continuations of oneself. And of course Wotan is thus linked to the Wälsungs and the Valkyries. But that they, in particular Siegfried and Brunnhilde, are Wotan continuing is true in a sense unblurred; for Wagner is at pains that that continuity be unshared:
Dramatically, Siegfried's grandmother is a cipher, only mentioned when Siegmund and Sieglinde remember their childhood separation, and when Fricka berates Wotan for his adultery. One can even contrive to doubt whether the dam of the Wälsung twins is a mortal woman or, literally, the she-wolf Fricka names her.
Brunnhilde's mother is no cipher, but nor is she a person, with whom Wotan's lineage would be mixed. She is Earth, a force of nature personified. For Wotan to bring forth the Valkyries out of Erda is not for him to mix his personality with another, but to wrench from the natural world substantial continuing lines of himself.
The choice of Erda, mother of the Norns, has its point. The power of Wotan's personality has derived from the laws free beings give themselves by treaty. Here he embraces the impersonal deterministic law of objective nature. From the confluence of these two sources of necessity comes the terrible fatalism of the Ring.
The synchronic aspect of the relation of which parent-and-offspring is the diachronic aspect falls into two: that which binds siblings and that which binds lovers. Mankind's common opinion, as confessed in implicit claims that universal brotherhood and sisterhood make the other as dear as oneself, holds that siblinghood shares something with sameness.
That what passes between lovers makes one out of two is no doubt a clichÃ©, but hardly less our common opinion for that. It can be made fresh, as Donne, writing to the beloved of his soul and hers, with one quirky, delightful, image, makes it:
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two,(9)
Diachronic unity will not be assured unless the two sides of the synchronic unity relation are combined; and so the amorous life of Wotan's love-children is always incestuous. Wagner dwells upon this when he tells the first love story of the drama: Siegmund and Sieglinde take joy in being brother and sister, bridegroom and bride. Later, we need no reminding that Siegfried and Brunnhilde are related as nephew and aunt.
* * *
Wagner sometimes teases us with little seeming paradoxes that could speak only to an audience's metadramatic sense. At the cusp, in Act III of Siegfried, he speaks over the characters:
There are three encounters: Wotan with Erda, Wotan with Siegfried; and the wonderful meeting of Siegfried and Brunnhilde.
In the first Wotan and Erda trade denials of thought identity:
Du bist nicht
was du dich nennst?
Du bist nicht
was du dich whnst!(10)
Then, incredibly, Wotan claims freely to embrace the downfall of
the gods, to make Siegfried his heir, and to acquiesce in
Brunnhilde's awakening: all this while we know that Wotan will very
soon resist Siegfried's entry to the rock. There are Wotans
and Wotans here.(11)
During the second encounter Siegfried remarks that Wotan lacks an eye. Wotan's reply makes no internal sense in the surface drama:
Mit dem Auge,
das als and'res mir fehlt,
erblickst du selber das eine,
das mir zum Sehen verblieb.(12)
Yet Siegfried is made to find it amusing.
When Siegfried reaches Brunnhilde, they both know immediately that they are one. Brunnhilde sings:
Du selbst bin ich,
wenn du mich Selige liebst.
Was du nicht weisst,
weiss ich fr dich:
doch wissend bin ich
nur weil ich dich liebe.(13)
And later, when she pleads for their individual identities:
Sahst du dein Bild
im klaren Bach?
Hat es dich Frohen erfreut?
Rhrtest zur Woge
das Wasser du auf;
zerflsse die klare
Flche des Bachs:
dein Bild shst du nicht mehr, ....(14)
Overdone, mixing story and meta-story can be vulgar; but done with tact it can, as here, create an affectionate collusion between artist and audience.
* * *
From time to time in the drama, central characters come into possession of ungrounded knowledge; ungrounded, that is, if their surface separateness is taken as presented. Siegfried and Brunnhilde have been mentioned. Sieglinde, in Act One of Die Walkre, tells how, at her wedding feast, she knew Wlse, and knew why he had thrust the sword into the ash-tree. She and Siegmund, too, recognize one another: here, perhaps, she has grounds; her words prefigure Brunnhilde's to Siegfried:
Im Bach erblickt' ich
mein eigen Bild -
und jetzt gewahr' ich es wieder:
wie einst dem Teich es enttaucht,
bietest mein Bild mir nun du!(15)
But the most striking instances of such knowledge are those provided by the Woodbird in Act II of Siegfried. It is clear that she stands to Siegfried as the Ravens do to Wotan (an otherwise gratuitous exchange between Wotan and Siegfried in Act III underlines the point). The Ravens are Wotan's conduits of knowledge; so long as the Wotan persona is the dominant one in the triad, they embody his awareness of the other personae (when he ceases to be dominant, he ceases to command the Ravens). The Woodbird puts flesh to the flow of information which the Siegfried persona needs.
One could not read the Woodbird otherwise. A reading which took her as an independently existing character would be odd indeed: as has often been remarked, even so unreflective a one as Siegfried would hardly murder the person who reared him from infancy just on the unsupported word of a bird met for the first time this day.
* * *
Wotan's plight is formally similar to Eve White's. More, the course by which a resolution is achieved in the two cases is similar. The Eve White persona in time disappears, with her alter, Eve Black, both to be replaced by the more complete Jane Black. Wotan's story is more complex, but in outline the same: from Die Walkre to Gtterdmmerung Brunnhilde grows, albeit with stutters and setbacks, in vitality and stature, while Wotan diminishes. The person Wotan is, in Die Walkre, most clearly represented by the character Wotan; by the end of Gtterdmmerung that person, grown up and consciously willing to do what must be, is represented only by Brunnhilde.
On the surface of the drama the end of the power of the Wotan character appears to come when Siegfried breaks the Spear. But he has lost control of events long before; the Brunnhilde persona acquiesces in her own temporary suppression, at the end of Die Walkre, because she can be sure that the Wotan persona has already lost the will to destroy the Wälsungs. She has taken over the project of dissociation; all she needs from Wotan is inaction.
While Brunnhilde sleeps it seems that the Wälsung personality, embodied in Siegfried, is becoming independent. But Siegfried, recall, can only do what he does because he is appallingly ignorant; there is little there to build a person on. And, as we would expect, as soon as he has awakened Brunnhilde he begins to wither. In Gtterdmmerung he is little more than a toy personality, manipulated by the serious dramatis personae, a prop in the tiny court drama among the Gibichungs. The important characters even treat with contempt one of the more salient aspects of the diachronic unity-relation for 'person': Siegfried's experience-memory is turned on and off ad lib..
Brunnhilde, by contrast, learns more and more from Act I Scene 2 on. And it is she who plays the Wotan role in the scheming and betrayal (as if Rheingold had to be re-enacted) that lead to the resolution of the drama.
By Act III, Scene 2, she knows everything. Siegfried is dead, Wotan is an empty husk, Brunnhilde is the Wotan person reintegrated, with the courage to know that to die is the only way to expiate her guilt. She says:
Alles weiss ich:
alles ward mir nun frei!
Auch deine Raben
hr ich rauschen:
mit bang ersehntner Botschaft
send' ich die beiden nun heim.(16)
The powers that once belonged to Wotan are now hers. She commands the Ravens; by her will the Wotan persona will know what has happened beside the Rhine. She commands those forces of Nature that Wotan had subdued: through the Ravens to Loge she says:
der dort noch lodert,
weiset Loge nach Walhall!
Denn der Gtter Ende
dmmert nun auf:
so - werf' ich den Brand
in Walhalls prangende Burg.(17)
Brunnhilde, the character, now knows all that the character Wotan knew, commands all he commanded. She the person rebraids the strands of Wotan's self. Gone, now, is the god's illusion of immunity from consequences: finally wise, Wotan becomes whole, and bids Loge light the kindling long set. One fire destroys his selves and his works, at Valhalla, on the banks of the Rhine.
1. Hegel, G W F, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, e158.
The family, as the immediate substantiality of mind, is specifically characterized by love, which is mind's feeling of its own unity. (Trans. from T M Knox, Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1942.)
2. I draw here on my "Can I Cease to be a Person", Dialogue 21/2 (Summer 1982), and "The Schematics of Continuant Identity", Dialogue 25/2 (Summer 1986).
3. "F", here, is a lazy schematic letter. We suppose that, in detail, the unity relations for one kind of continuant will differ from those for another kind. Schematic talk of Fs, and of F-unity relations, filled in, will be talk of, say, horses and equine-unity relations.
4. On Minkowski's contribution to the interpretation of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, see any introduction to the latter, or any reputable general encyclopedia.
5. There is an extensive literature on commissurotomy. A sampling:
Gazzaniga, Michael S. , The Bisected Brain, New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970.
---------------------, (with J E LeDoux) The Integrated Mind, New York, Plenum, 1978.
---------------------, "The Split Brain in Man", Scientific American, 217, 1967.
---------------------, (with J E LeDoux, D H Wilson) "Beyond Commissurotomy: Clues to Consciousness", in Gazzaniga (ed. ), Handbook of Behavioral Neurobiology, V. 2. , New York, Plenum, 1979.
Sperry, R W, "The Great Cerebral Commissure", Scientific American, 210, 1964.
6. One subject, P. S. , had fairly good language capacity in the usually languageless right hemisphere; it was able to articulate preferences and attitudes significantly different from those articulated by the left. See Gazanniga (1979).
7. Thigpen, C. H. , and H. M. Cleckley, The Three Faces of Eve. New York, Toronto, London: McGraw-Hill, 1957.
8. See ibid. , p. 237ff.
9. "A Valediction: forbidding Mourning"; I quote from John Donne: The Complete English Poems, A. J. Smith, ed., Penguin Books, 1983.
10. I use the libretti and translations distributed with the mid-60's London recording of the Ring: Die Walkre, London OSA 1509 A 4509, trans. G. M. Holland and Peggie Cochrane; Siegfried, London OSA 1508 A 4508, trans. Peggie Cochrane; Gtterdmmerung, London OSA 1604 A 4604, trans. G. M. Holland.
You are not what you
give yourself out to be?
You are not
what you imagine yourself to be!
11. There are problems with the name "Wotan", on this reading of the cycle. Wotan is the person who dissociates into several personae, represented by characters in the drama; but one of those is Wotan.
With the eye I lack
you yourself are looking at
the other one which is
left me to see with.
Your own self am I,
if you do but love me, fortunate maid.
What you do not know,
I know for you:
yet I am wise
only because I love you.
Have you never seen your own image
in the clear stream?
Did it not please you, blithe boy?
Were you to ruffle
the clear surface of the brook
you would see your image no more, ....
In the stream I perceived
my own image -
and now I perceive it again:
as once it rose from the pool,
you present my image now to me!
All things, all
now I know:
all is clear to my eyes.
The wings of thy ravens
I hear rustling:
I send them home to thee,
with news both feared and longed for.
... and bid him go
For the end of the gods
is now dawning.
See - I throw the firebrand
into Valhalla's glorious citadel!