Wandering Jew

The Doctor: Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the Fourth Dimension? Have you? To be exiles? Susan and I are cut off from our own planet – without friends or protection. But one day we shall get back. Yes, one day….

In the very first pisode of Doctor Who, 50 years ago, we are given a description of the human condition; forever exiled and doomed never to return. In an attempt to make the main character appear alien and mysterious the writers tap into a fundamental myth of mankind, exiled from and endlessly in search of paradise. Adam and Eve were the original exiles, as it were, cast out of Eden. The mythical tale of their sons take the theme of exile even further describing the conflict between the sedentary tiller Cain and the archetypal herdsman Abel. Jealous of his brother, Cain slew Abel and in an ironic twist was condemned to roam the earth, to take up the despised nomadic life of his brother.

So many of the tales that follow those early myths, from the wandering Aramean to the desert wanderings of Moses and his people, via the exiled Joseph brethren, share similar settings as if they are but echoes of the basic theme of exiled wandering humanity.

The exiled wanderer is a potent, romantic recurring figure in Western culture; Odysseus, Pilgrim, the Ancient Mariner, Parsifal, Childe Harold, Tannhauser, the Wanderer and, of course, the Doctor – to name a few.

For The Flying Dutchman, Wagner’s first major opera, the 13th century legend of the Wandering Jew provides the germ of an idea.  It was an idea that stayed with him throughout his life when he makes a much more explicit reference in his description of Kundry in his final work, Parsifal, though by now he has transformed the mythical Ahasuerus into a woman and into a much more complex and ambiguous character.

The idea of the Flying Dutchman is based in part on a poem by Heinz, itself based on the legend of the wandering Jew, and partly on a bad sea crossing which Wagner experienced. The Dutchman is cursed to wander the seas with his ghostly crew with only a doomed hope in salvation once every seven years, when he is allowed on to dry land to seek a devoted wife. The promise of salvation should he find a woman to love him is an invention of Heine’s and does not appear in any of the earlier versions of the legend.

The exiled ‘hero’, or even anti-hero, is one in which Wagner would invest much sympathy since he spent so much of his own life in exile, unable to return to his homeland because of his part in the uprisings of 1848 (and also because he was constantly being pursued by his creditors).

Wagner does something interesting with these otherwise one-dimensional stock Romantic figures. The Dutchman is doomed more by his pessimistic personality than he is by the original curse that has fated him to travel the seven seas for eternity.  Having found his salvation in the love of a woman, it is his pessimistic outlook that causes him to reject that love and return to his doomed eternal wanderings.

Senta is even more fascinating than the doomed anti-hero of the Dutchman, and the most intriguing person in the opera – Wagner’s women so often are. She is the first in a series of strong, assertive, sexually aware, defiant young women that Wagner creates in his operas; Isolde, Sieglinde, Brünnhilde, Eva, Kundry. Senta’s obsession with the Dutchman could be said to conjure him into existence, and it is her self-sacrifice that provides the redemption the Dutchman had abandoned


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