The Quest for Life

Part I. Love and Death

This first conference in the series took place against the backdrop of the Dutch Opera’s new production of Tristan und Isolde in 2001. From this opera, it takes its leading question: what is love? Is it the single passion that ends only in death? Is it abandonment to the greatest possible number of passions? Or is it the dedication of one’s life to compassion? What are the distinguishing features of real love? Can anything be eternal, besides death? And why does love actually exist at all? What do we know of love, and what does love know of us? And why do communities which dream of creating a utopia based on love end up producing a nightmare? If love is life, then what is its relationship with death? In general, we can say with Denis de Rougemont’s L’Amour et l’Occident that in Western society, love has lost its transcendental focus and appears to be without relevance for a future society. So what remains of love?

Tristan und Isolde is not merely a lesson on and an interrogation of love, but it is also – and perhaps to an even greater extent – an ode to death. In life, we are all touched by death. The encounter with death induces one person to search for the meaning of life, and the other to yearn for death. What is the meaning of death to our lives? Why do we experience either fear of death or longing for it? What does death teach us about life? What is the relation between the sacredness of life and the sacredness of death? Nietzsche saw matters clearly. In essence, Tristan und Isolde is a tribute to redemption. But what is redemption? Perhaps the most important question raised by the opera is: can love or death redeem us? What is the secret of love, and of death? What is the secret of Tristan und Isolde?