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Keynote Address

"Wagner's Oceanic Feelings"


With the term “oceanic feelings” Sigmund Freud expanded a major aesthetic and philosophical concept into the field of psychology. At the beginning of the nineteenth-century in aesthetics this concept was defined dualistically as romantic, as opposed to classical: intimations of the infinite as opposed to the perfections of the beautiful. The term originated in the correspondence between the writer and musicologist Romain Rolland and Sigmund Freud, who quoted Rolland in his late book Civilization and its Discontents (1930) as describing “an emotion that one would like to call the feeling of ‘eternity,’ an emotion of something without borders, parameters, ‘oceanic,’ so to speak.” In his discussion Freud confessed an aversion to these feelings, which he interpreted as the dangerous breakdown of the Ego’s boundaries.


Richard Wagner explored an arguably romantic and Freudian dissolution of boundaries through water imagery in his aesthetic writings. I examine how Wagner equated music with the sea and sound with a primal fluidity in The Artwork of the Future (1849) and Opera and Drama (1851). These images take on additional significance when considered along with the gendered metaphors that drive his poetics of music drama in these Zurich writings. Music is famously designated a woman, with whom Poetry/man procreates. The combined music/water/woman imagery is repeatedly and insistently subjugated to the man in control. But as he worked his way towards the music drama through these analogies and figures of speech, Wagner also found himself depicting the lure of losing control and being swept away forever into a dark, vast, formless flowing. Examining these “oceanic feelings” can deepen our understanding of Wagner’s attitude toward music and the feminine. I conclude that although Wagner described music/woman as subservient to poetry/man in the Zurich writings, his imagery portrays a more complex relationship that resonates with later psychoanalytic theories.



Sanna Pederson

Dr. Sanna Pederson, Mavis C. Pitman Professor of Music at University of Oklahoma since 2001, specializes in German nineteenth-century music and culture. She has published articles relating Beethoven and German music to nation building, historiography, masculinity, and anti-romanticism. She is currently working on a book called A History of Absolute Music; her article "Defining the term 'Absolute Music' Historically" appeared in Music and Letters in 2009. She received the Charles A. Ryskamp Research Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies in 2005. She serves on the editorial board of the Journal of the American Musicological Society. Pederson received the Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania with a dissertation on the history of German music criticism. She has previously taught at Wesleyan University, Bates College, and Macalester College.

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