Love, Tristan Style

Love, Tristan Style May 1, 2015

In his Tristan and Isolde, Gottfried of Strassburg lays out a non-courtly, non-comic, mystical vision of love. As WTH Jackson puts it in The Anatomy of Love, Gottfried rejects the comic vision of love as uncomplicated and easy joy. He also rejects the idea that the lover seeks the moments of joy in the presence of the beloved. “It is precisely this idea of love with which Gottfried disagrees. He does not believe that love can be entirely happy, not because he is thinking of lovers’ tiffs and the squalls that disturb the blue sea of affected but because love in the sense that he understands it, the total merging of one being with another, is incompatible with society as it was constituted in the romances or in life. If real love exists -and he wrote the Tristan to prove that it could – then it is not a succession of halcyon days of enjoyment but a demanding power which forces its subjects to love whatever sorry it puts upon them. Those who cannot understand this can gain little from Gottfried’s poem. . . . Gottfried’s world consists of people who know that love is always composed of joy and sorry and that the lover can hardly tell which is which, so inextricable are they bound together” (54). 

For Gottfried, the paradoxical sweet-bitterness, life-in-death and death-in-life of love “is not merely play with words. It is a visual and aural representation of the state of love and, further, a progressive representation, for the first states described are those of physical and emotional sensation, mixtures of love and sorrow such as any lovers could experience.” He’s not concerned with the fact that love survives death so much of “the fact that death was welcome because of the impossibility of continuing the struggle against the forces which prevented their suffering and the example which their death provided to lovers who love and suffer. Death can be dearer and more significant than life to the true believer, and Tristan and Isolde are models for the true believers in love” (54).

There are religious overtones, and specifically “Gottfried is making use of the terminology of the mystics and in particular of that of Bernard of Clairvaux.” This is only one element of love in Gottfried’s view, but it is a critical one. It is the element missing in the poems that Gottfried rejects at the beginning of his poem, poems that depicted love as a “service-reward relationship” in which “a mystical element was impossible” (55). Mystics longed for union with God “to such a degree that in ecstasy the soul felt itself becoming part of the divine. If such a relationship can be thought of in secular terms, it can mean only the complete and mutual absorption of one personality into the other, a mutual absorption, since neither of the lovers can be regarded in objective terms as superior to the other, even though each would claim that in yearning for the other he or she regarded the other partner as an object of veneration” (55-6).

As Jackson sees it, Tristan-love is “not Christian or anti-Christian but a-Christian. It exists in its own world, as Gottfried clearly says: der welt wil ich gewerldet wesen (It is of that world that I wish to be a citizen). Gottfried is prepared to show the complete dedication of his hero and heroine to the cause of love by using a terminology which to his audience would indicate complete dedication to the mystic love of God. Each is completely absorbed, each is incapable of living in terms other than those proposed. Death is not physical annihilation but the absence of the beloved, life is not the beating of the heart but the certainty of being loved. The terms might be used of a Christian in his love for God; they can certainly be used of Tritan and Isolde in their love for each other” (56).

Gottfried states explicitly the notion that love bestows honor: “Love is such a blissful thing, such a delightful duty, that no one has quality or honor without it” (quoted 60). Jackson comments, “Love alone makes true virtues and only the kind of love that mixes joy with sorrow and, more important, recognizes that sorrow is an essential ingredient of love, so much so that no one who has not suffered can say that he has loved” (60).

Jackson catches the Eucharistic overtones of the final lines of the Prologue: “If the dead Tristan and Isolde are thought of as bread for other lovers, they seem to be a parallel to the body of Christ, dead in a mortal sense but still living for Christians in the bread of the Eucharist. Gottfried realized full well that his words would call forth such a comparison and that such a comparison, if taken literally, must be regarded as blasphemous, since Tristan and Isolde would then be to followers of true love what Christ is to Christians. It is impossible to decide how far Gottfried wished to push the comparison. He undoubtedly wished to stress the exemplary aspects of the lovers’ story. As Christ had died for all men, so Tristan and Isolde had died for lovers. As His life remained an example to all Christians, so did theirs for all edele herzen.” In reading Gottfried’s poem, lovers are nourished by the bread of the story of Tristan and Isolde” (62).

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