Transcendence of Art Forms: A Study of Literary Synesthesia (Final)

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Transcendence of Art Forms: A Study of Literary Synesthesia

FRENCH 112: Final Project


Where Shakespeare’s drama meets Beethoven’s music, here we experience the ideal work of art.  The union of lyricism and symphony, the “two great halves of a universal whole,” was introduced by Richard Wagner (1813-1883) as the supreme art form (Bentley, 289).  The German composer and critic presented to mid-19th century Europe the term Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art.”  He revolutionized classical opera into “music dramas,” where the poet adapts his own epic to his musical composition.  The artist is at once poet and musician, stimulating all senses to reach aesthetic beauty.

Unable to see his operas produced while in exile, Wagner occupied his time writing, attributing the failures of the 1848 Revolutions to the loss of Ancient Greek principles (Wagner, 30).  In the wake of the Revolutions of 1848, ad hoc revolutions based on political discontent across Europe, and his exile from Germany, polemicist Wagner wrote about the role of art in society in his long essay “Art and Revolution” (1849), the first of a series of three essays.  He presented the decay of his society in stark contrast to the ideal of Ancient Greek drama, which combined dance, music, and poetry into a singular coherent whole.  He expounds how the Greeks perfected Drama in their unity of artworks “that lived in the public conscience.” The decay of Drama, and hence Art, is attributed to the component art forms “pursuing its own development […] in lonely self-sufficiency […] in the conscience of private persons” (Wagner, 52).  As the hero, Wagner applied this unification principle to his own work.

Richard Wagner

Synthesizing the poetic, visual, and musical into the realm of drama, Wagner realized his concept of Gesamtkunstwerk in his four opera cycle Der Ring Nielungen(1848-1874). [click here for a trailer of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of 2012]  However, Wagner did not coin this term.  Indeed he only used the exact term Gesamtkunstwerk on but few occasions, in his essay “Art and Revolution,” and in the second essay of the polemic series “Artwork of the Future” (1849).[1]  Still, the term became essential to his conception of aesthetic ideals.  Wagner demanded two main factors be present in a total work of art: “poetry, carried to its utmost limits in drama; and music carried to its utmost limits as the interpreter and deepener of dramatic action” (Bentley, 309).  To apply Wagner’s definition of Gesamtkunstwerk as the perfect artwork for unifying all art forms evokes “synesthesia,” the harmonious associations of disparate artistic sensations.  Synesthesia extends beyond mere automatic sensory experience to also include the evocation of past experiences.

While Wagner’s use of the term Gesamtkunstwerk likely applies solely to his notion of operatic drama, here we will explore how the elements of Gesamtkunstwerk also work their way into the great Symbolist and Decadent literary oeuvres.  We will demonstrate how Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences” and Wilde’s play Salomé, although not per se operatic, in fact achieve Gesamtkunstwerk because their works satisfy all the necessary elements of a total work of art.

The collaboration of all art forms interested the French Symbolists.  At the origin of the Symbolist movement is Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), acclaimed French poet and critic.  While Baudelaire had no formal musical training, he reveled in Wagner’s talent “à peindre l’espace et la profondeur, matériels et spirituels,” (to paint space and depth, material and spiritual) (Baudelaire, 217).  Baudelaire, with a level of narcissism, viewed himself as the translator of the soul, the musician of French poetry.  Upon hearing Wagner’s music, Baudelaire wrote “Il me semble que cette musique était la mienne” (it seems to me that this music is mine) (Marie, 49).  In Wagner, Baudelaire found synesthesia and Gesamtkunstwerk. 

Charles Baudelaire

Our French poet, struck by the magnificence of Wagner, wrote a critical text to music called “Richard Wagner et Tannhäuser à Paris” (1861). [click here for full text]  Baudelaire cites Wagner himself, explaining how the unification of art forms “contribuent ensemble à jeter l’esprit dans cet état de rêve qui le porte bientôt jusqu’à la pleine clairvoyance, et l’esprit découvre alors un nouvel enchaînement des phénomènes du monde, que ses yeux ne pouvaient apercevoir dans l’état de veille ordinaire” (together contribute to throw the spirit in this dream state that soon transports to the full clairvoyance, and the spirit discovers a new sequence of phenomenon in the world, that the eyes could not see in the ordinary waking state) (Marie, 50).  Achieving this higher spiritual state can be effected when the artist supplies the audience with a total work of art, drawing upon synesthesia to manifest this transformation.  Baudelaire inscribed the first two stanzas of his famed poem “Correspondences” (1857) as the translation of Wagner’s music. [click here for the full poem] He saw – and heard—a symbiosis of sound and color of the Idea.

La nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles ;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

(Nature is a temple, where the living

Columns sometimes breathe confusing speech;

Man walks within these groves of symbols, each

Of which regards him as a kindred thing.

As the long echoes, shadowy, profound,

Heard from afar, blend in a unity,

Vast as the night, as sunlight’s clarity,

So perfumes, colors, sounds may correspond.)

(translated by James McGowie).

When we examine a poem, on the surface not a “total work of art” in the broad Wagnerian sense, elements of Wagner’s intuitive concept are still evoked.  Baudelaire applied his esprit beyond allegories and representations, advancing symbols to stimulate a transformative state of mind. The Symbolist artists also exercised this practice, a similar state of mind induced by Gesamtkunstwerk.  When reading the poem, Baudelaire transports his audience beyond mere synesthesia, the association of between sounds, scents, and sight.

The synthesis of impression, combining and confusing “les parfums, les couleurs et les sons” materializes into the “forêts de symboles.”  Yet, unlike the synesthesia of associations, this poem evokes a unity between these correspondences.  In the first quatrain, “nature” is expressed as a system of perpetual analogies, where everything accords.  Human beings are not aware of a total unity of nature, but “man” may experience soft sounds “doux comme les hautbois,” or fresh scents “parfums, frais comme les chairs d’enfants.”  These associations are not random, they “se répondent,” the five senses answering, indeed echoing, one another.  In this fashion, we experience an element of the Gesamtkunstwerk, here reflected both in symbols and sensations.

In his Alexandrian sonnet, Baudelaire added a further layer of musicality.  His prosodic lyrics are harmonious, tying together syllables of its title throughout the poem.  This first syllable, [kɒ] from “correspondences,” appears in line 2 “confuses,” line 5 “comme,” “échos,” and “confondent,” line 7 “comme,” line 9 “comme,” line 10 “comme,” line 11 “corrompus,” and line 13 “comme.”  Another syllable is [põ] from “correspondences.”  This syllable appears and accumulates through phonetics in line 2 “parfois sortir de confuses paroles,” line 5 “longs…confondent,” line 6 “profonde,” line 8 “parfums…respondent,” and line 11 “corrompus…triomphants.” This reverberation of sounds flowing through the poems demonstrates a musicality and lyrical wholeness, both key elements underlying Gesamtkunstwerk. [click here to listen to the poem read in French]

Returning to Wagner’s theory from the essays “Art and Revolution” and “Artwork of the Future,” this incorporation of musicality to prose realized the harmony of Modern Speech: This harmony, “in itself a thing of thought,” (Bentley, 303) expresses a bond between absent and present emotions.  Likewise, Baudelaire’s poem demonstrates this transformative thought, carrying sensations beyond the quotidian into the realm of spirituality.  The first stanza, for example, hints at a nostalgic view of nature degraded by sin.  However, the celebration of this ecstasy of the senses prevails.  Nature, a quasi-divine living temple where man wanders blindly, aids this “man” to participate in a full experience.  Still, Nature is not the sole link between the sensory and the spiritual.  A transcendent element corresponding to these aspects is required.

The poem itself manifests these correspondences.  The language in the art of the poem suggests a “higher plan of spiritual awareness,” joining Nature with art (Varty, 140).  The Symbolists practiced how to establish these repetitive links that bind the world, both real and imaginative, together.  Baudelaire’s repetition of similes (“comme”) demonstrates the “capacity of man to escape his dereliction thanks to the synthetic power of imagination,” (Michon, 23).  Not any “man” can connect distant words; the exception is the poet.  The poet uses these similes to synthesize the disarray of sensory experience into organized, spiritual transcendence.

This unity of disparate artistic elements exhibited in the poem reminds us of Gesamtkunstwerk, the integration of music and lyric that carries the reader towards a higher state.  Baudelaire’s symbolist document connects the reader with nature and the metaphysical world.  Our poet is able to impart these correspondences only through words.  Yet, these words are arranged in such a way as to manipulate and unite musical tones, dramatic effect, synthesized emotion, and past experience.  Through forceful sensory presence coupled with repetitive musicality supplied by the poet, the reader may achieve the “temple,” a spiritual realm no unlike that envisioned by Wagner.  While “Correspondences” is but a poem in form, its power of language functions as a total work of art, precisely the objective aspired by Gesamtkunstwerk.

Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé functions much in this same way.  As a written play, it, like Baudelaire’s poem, is not, at first glance, what Wagner’s envisioned in Gesamtkunstwerk.  Still, the play itself, destined for the Symbolist stage, achieves the criteria for a total work of art.  Before the staging, the work creates the elements of harmony sought by Wagner.

The style in Salomé relies heavily on repetition.  Salomé’s phrases are periodic and insistent.  “I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan” or “suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan” are repeated twelve times throughout the play (Wilde, 590-605).  Perhaps Salomé’s self-echoing is a sign of obsession, but she is not the only character who repeats phrases.  Another example is the Page of Herodias who warns “something terrible may happen” five times, repeated by Herod just before the execution “I am sure that some misfortune will happen” (Wilde, 584-604).  This use of repetition, as we observed with Baudelaire, adds a dimension of musicality to the words.

As Wagner uses leitmotifs, the short, constant musical phrases associated with a person, place, or idea in his operas, so does Wilde in his plays.  Although not composing music, Wilde applies this very technique.  The moon, gaze, and death are all reoccurring symbols that are intimately and concretely related to a person or idea.  In this sense, the musicality of the motif is infused directly with the theater character: One recognizes the play’s characters, not only by the spoken word, but also by the “musical” themes with which they are associated.  Wilde himself reflected on “the refrains whose recurring motifs makes Salomé so like a piece of music and bind it together as a ballad” (Wilde, 1026).  Words arranged by the artist affect a quality as if borrowed from music, exhibiting a total work of art.

Another insistent motif employed by Wilde is color.  Every object possesses color, from the scenery of the terrace in “green bronze,” to the three “purple, yellow, and red” wines Herod drinks, to the gold and silver of the Chaldeans.  This “color symphony reaches its height” as Salomé states her obsessive desires “which she can only express in colors” (Jackson, 12).  By use of motifs, expressed as similes, Salomé is consumed by Jokanaan’s white body, repeating shades of “white” seven times, his black hair, repeating “black” five times, and his red mouth, repeating shades of “red” thirteen times.  This symphony of color is only described in the play, not seen by the reader, yet these motifs of color still infuse the experience, giving rise to the sensory element intrinsic in Gesamtkunstwerk.

Salomé is not only symphonic in its emphasis on color, but the rhythm and repetition that “follow a musical technique” (Jackson, 13).  In this way, Wilde’s written play is able to combine drama and music, precisely as Wagner envisioned in total work of art.  Moreover, the play was intended to be staged for the Symbolist theatre.  Symbolist theater “sought to provoke a cumulative overflow of sensual impressions” and to “transport the audience into a strange, fascinating aesthetic universe of emotional excess” (Dierkes-Thrun, 62).  Many experts have written about staged Salomé as a total work of art, yet, even in this form, the staged play does not fit, at least at first glance, Wagner’s definition of Gesamtkunstwerk.  Wilde does, however, apply Wagner’s principles in order for this oeuvre to function as Gesamtkunstwerk. 

We could describe Salomé as “total theatre” that “strives to orchestra sound, light, movement, costumes and décor, speech, music, and dance, blending visual and aural effects to create one whole and indivisible staged entity” (Tydeman and Price, 3).  Wilde never had the opportunity to witness the staging of his play, yet as a proponent of Wagner’s concept, he saw the stage as the “meeting-place of all the arts” (Tydeman and Price, 3).  Wilde envisioned “a highly stylized stage set, costumes, and performance style that would produce such comprehensive sensation and synesthesia” (Dierkes-Thrun, 62). [click here and scroll to page 47 to see Wilde’s own stage sketch] In addition, Wilde planned color schemes and even braziers of perfumes, clearly imagining Salomé “as a fest for the senses, combining Wagner’s and the Symbolists’ synesthetic ideals of Gesamtkunstwerk production” (Dierkes-Thrun, 63).  The complete indulgence in the sensory experience allows the audience, like the reader of Baudelaire, to transcend the ordinary, natural world, achieving a higher, spiritual realm, the transcendent realm of Gesamtkunstwerk.

The staging of Wilde’s script, first as a Symbolist play, then as a modern opera, more clearly meets the criteria for Gesamtkunstwerk because their productions can serve the sensory experiences of touch, smell, sight, and sound, all elements within a total work of art.  The first performance of Salomé was produced and directed by Max Reinhardt (1873-1943), an Austrian stage director.  The “displacement of language by sound, movement and dance” of Wilde’s play, “led Reinhardt to a quasi-operatic form of production” (Tydeman and Price, 32).  Reinhardt desired to “reinvent the theatre as a space that would speak to all the senses and provide a stage for ‘the music of the world’ ” (Dierkes-Thrun, 64).  Putting to the stage Wilde’s envisioned play, without technically producing Wagner’s music-drama, Reinhardt celebrates Gesamtkunstwerk.

Max Reinhardt

Reinhart’s staging directly influenced Richard Strauss (1864-1949), a German composer, who attended Reinhart’s opening night.  Strauss transformed Wilde’s play into an operatic rendition, literally the music-drama Wagner conceived.  Critics described this modernist oeuvre as “ ‘a harmonic tour de force,’ ” an “ ‘intentional cacophony’ ” (Dierkes-Thrun, 65).  The music is thunderous and sensational, ubiquitously using “dissonances, bitonal surprises, and dramatic effects”, as Strauss intended for “something monstrous, stimulating the nerves in the extreme’ ” (Dierkes-Thrun, 66).  As Wilde intended, and as Wagner specified, Strauss’ operatic Salomé overwhelms the senses in true expression of Gesamtkunstwerk.

Richard Strauss

Richard Wagner illustrated how the combination of words, movement, and orchestra may achieve a total work of art.  When separated, each art form is inherently limited.  Wagner identified the integrated combination of all forms of art as a superior artwork. Gesamtkunstwerk not only induces synesthesia, but also transforms thought, allowing the audience to achieve a higher spiritual realm.  To produce the objectives of Gesamtkunstwerk, a work of art does not have to literally embody the operatic music-drama, like Wagner composed.  Baudelaire, in his poem “Correspondences,” through prosodic and synesthetic speech, supplies his reader with glimpses of a metaphysical journey.  Likewise, Wilde presents his Salomé reader with indulgence of the senses, painting his words and weaving rhythmic fabric into the script.  The written play rises above its mere words to evoke spiritual transcendence.  In this way, both this poetry and this script function as a total work of art.

The supreme art form, whether operatic or literary, may achieve Gesamtkunstwerk, uniting sensations and experience to materialize thoughts in a harmonic cacophony of the senses.  The audience or reader does not need to see and hear opera to experience the transcendent spiritual realm envisioned by Wagner.  Where poetry and theatre, each an independent art form, satisfy the elements of a total work of art, synesthesia and transcendence are achieved.

[1] In Richard Wagner’s Prose Works (1895), p.34, where the word is translated as ‘great united work’; p.52 where it is translated as ‘great unitarian Art-work’; and p.88 (twice) where it is translated as ‘great united Art-work’.  In the translation, the actual term “Gesamtkunstwerk” never appears, yet, there are frequent references to this “perfect,” “noble,” “highest” art form.

Works Cited and Consulted

Behr, Shulamith, David Fanning, and Douglas Jarman. Expressionism Reassessed. Manchester [England]: Manchester University Press, 1993.

Bentley, Eric. The Theory of the Modern Stage: an Introduction to Modern Theatre and Drama.Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.

Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. Salome’s Modernity : Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.

DiGaetani, John Louis. Richard Wagner and the Modern British Novel. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1978.

Jackson, Halbrook, Wilde, Oscar, and Alfred Bruce Douglas. Salome: a Tragedy In One Act. New York: The Heritage Press, 1945.

Marie, Gisèle. Le Theatre Symboliste: Ses Origines, Ses Sources, Pionniers Et Realisateurs. Paris, A.-G. Nizet, 1973.

Michon, Pascal “Rhythm, Organization of Signifiance and Subjectivity in Baudelaire’s Correspondances,” Rhuthmos, 25 June 2010 [online].

Powell, Kerry. Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Tydeman, William, and Steven Price. Wilde–salome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Varty, Anne. A Preface to Oscar Wilde. London: Longman, 1998.

Wagner, Richard, and William Ashton Ellis. Richard Wagner’s Prose Works. 2nd ed. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1895.

Wilde, Oscar. Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. 5th ed. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003.



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