The Sachs Fantasy

Not to waste one more word on Lost in Translation, but it circuitously reminds me of a similarity between Wagner and Woody Allen that I’ve never seen anyone pick up on. Sounds crazy, but stay with me a moment. The basic fantasy of Lost in Translation, if you will, is the fantasy of an older man tempted to have an affair with a young woman, and who maturely decides not to, right? (Perhaps, becoming an older man myself, the assumption that an older man should know better than to see himself as a romantic lead doesn’t sit well with me lately.)

Richard Wagner wrote his masterpiece Die Meistersinger in the 1870s. It’s about an older man, Han Sachs, who flirts with a young woman, Eva. Eva is to be wed off to the best singer in a singing contest, and as the greatest of the meistersingers, the widowed Sachs, as the libretto hints, could conceivably want that prize for himself. Instead, he paternally helps Eva win Walther, the young man she’s in love with.

Zip ahead 110 years. Woody Allen makes the film Husbands and Wives, in which he plays a college professor tempted to bed a beautiful young graduate student who flirts with him. Allen’s character decides, at film’s end, not to get involved with her.

Here’s the parallel. While Wagner was writing Die Meistersinger, he was having an affair with Cosima Wagner, his best friend’s daughter and the wife of his young conductor protege Hans von Bulow. He stole Cosima from von Bulow and married her. In short, in the character of Han Sachs, Wagner portrayed a man who, in the same position as Wagner, made the admirable choice that Wagner couldn’t bring himself to make.

And Woody Allen wrote and directed Husbands and Wives while he was involved with his girlfriend’s adopted daughter Soon Yi, whom he subsequently married. In the film he protrays himself making the opposite of the choice he made in real life.

Now: why would two artists as disparate as Richard Wagner and Woody Allen, both getting scandalously involved with young women to whom they originally seemed to be paternal figures, both create works of art depicting, as honorable, men who made exactly the opposite decision?

Is there perhaps a kind of artist who succeeds in his art to allow himself to fail in his life?

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