Wagner has kept me awake at night. Sleepless, I turn my thoughts to Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s most extreme work and the nec plus ultra of love stories, and I notice a kinship between aspects of Tristan and Isolde’s passion and the experience of a certain kind of insomnia. The second act of Tristan und Isolde is Romanticism’s greatest hymn to the night, not for the elfin charm and ethereal chiaroscuro of moonbeams and starlight, the territory of Chopin and Debussy, but night as a close bosom-friend of oblivion, a simulacrum of eternity and a place to play dead. Insomnia is a refusal to cross the boundary between waking and sleeping, a bid to outwit Terminus by hiding away in ‘soundless dark’, a zone beyond time. As garlic is to vampires, so clocks are to insomniacs, not because they tell of how much sleep has been missed, but because they bring the next day nearer. As Philip Larkin, poet of limits, knew so well, sleep has the one big disadvantage that we wake up from it: ‘In time the curtain edges will grow light,’ he wrote in ‘Aubade’, bringing ‘Unresting death, a whole day nearer now’. For Tristan and Isolde, too, night must not give way to day, not for the trivial reason that day will end their love-making, but because dawn brings death one day nearer. They must stay awake, for to sleep is to allow the night to pass, to awake from the night is to live and to live is to die. And when, inevitably, day dawns, they have only one recourse. To Tristan and Isolde, in their delirium, it seems that by dying they will preserve their love for ever: by dying, they will defy death.
more from Nicholas Spice at the LRB here.