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Wagner & Politics

This implies that the “deeds of music made manifest” which, as he was finishing the Ring, Wagner said were offered in his work,13 and the psychological/ ethical/political significance of the text (or rather, one should say, the action), can only be understood in terms of each other. It is no peculiarity of Wagner that what the work means is not given merely or primarily by the action: it is true of all opera, or at least of all great opera. But Wagner’s style does make the dramatic relations between music and action at once more pervasive and emotionally more immediate. We have already seen one consequence of this, that one cannot adequately explain the power of Wagner by simply appealing to the music. There is another consequence, in (so to speak) the opposite direction: that if someone feels that there is something ethically or politically suspect about, in particular, the Ring, that feeling, whether it is correct or incorrect, is not going to be met simply by appealing to the action or, more narrowly, to the text.

It is a paradox that some defenders of Wagner, having elsewhere extolled the unity of music and text in his works, think it is enough to meet these ideological criticisms to point out that, according to the plot, oath-breaking and theft do not pay off. Whatever the hopes may be for recovering an overall sense of the end of the Ring, you are not going to find it in its closing words, and it is a significant point, a point which comes back again to the figure of Siegfried, that one of the most overwhelming and also, I am going to suggest, unnerving episodes of Götterdämmerung, the funeral music, has no words.

Wagner is, more than any other, a “totalizing” artist; in any given work, all the elements relate to one underlying conception or tone. Mann, once more, puts this very well, in terms which, from a technical point of view, are no doubt exaggerated, but which express something entirely recognizable:

It is this infinite power of characterization that…separates the works from each other, and develops each of them from a basic sound which distinguishes it from all the others; so that inside the totality of the oeuvre, which itself constitutes a personal world, each individual work again forms a self-contained unity, like a star.

Nietzsche said that in any given work of Wagner’s it is as though it were all presented by one impersonator with a very distinctive voice; and, since the biographical presence is also strong, this impersonator may easily be taken for the composer.14 All doubt, duality, or underdetermination is either internalized into the action (the characters are represented as undecided or in conflict), or it is externalized, existing outside the work altogether (the work stands against the rest of the world); doubt and duality do not exist at the level at which the work offers itself. The work itself voices or implies total unity and certainty. Because the voice of the work is so distinctive in Wagner’s case, and, once again, the historical presence of the composer is close (for instance in suggesting what the whole enterprise stands against), the sense is not of a world assumed, but of an outlook asserted.

The extreme modernism of Wagner’s later style implies that he is not taking for granted the ethical or social assurances which give structure to many other confident dramatic works of the nineteenth century, such as those of Verdi. But at the same time, though he represents ambivalent characters and actions that have ambiguous or perverse consequences, he was not disposed in the least to the typically modernist development by which ambivalence and indeterminacy become part of the fabric of the presentation itself, so that it is essential to the work that it does not finally tell its audience what to make of it. There are few operas, in fact, that have achieved this effect, but they include two of the greatest among twentieth-century operatic works, Pelléas and Lulu.


I come back to the absence of the Goethean spirit that I mentioned earlier in connection with Die Meistersinger and the project of founding a German art. Part of the suspect quality of Wagner lies in the fact that although he portrays conflicts and contradictions, such as Wotan’s indecisions, his recognition that he cannot directly achieve what he wants, the tensions between power and love, and so on, Wagner’s tone in presenting these things seems to have at each point an indomitable assurance. He is telling us what it all adds up to. This aspect of Wagner’s style can produce fear and resentment; one can have the sense of being locked inside Wagner’s head; and it can also give a sense of fraudulent manipulation. Moreover, as soon as Wagner’s assurance—the feeling that he thinks he has a hold on what is unconditionally significant—encounters the political, particularly in his trying to transcend it, it can become deeply alarming.

These features and the reactions they arouse may mean that some of his devices simply do not work. But sometimes Wagner’s inventions work when it seems that they should not, and then our resistance (and hence our conflicts) can be especially strong. More than one consideration that has already come up leads us to particular and very central examples of this, the funeral music in Götterdämmerung, the orchestral interlude between the scene of Siegfried’s death and the final scene of the whole Ring. The funeral music is almost entirely retrospective in its effect, and it is essential to our experience of the Ring that this should be so. No one, I think, could describe it as regretful, or melancholy, or resigned. It is manifestly triumphant. It is offered as the celebration of the life, just ended, of a great hero. Yet, as many critics have noticed, the subject of this shattering musical memorial scarcely exists as a person.

Siegfried is the least self-aware, in every sense of the word the least knowing, of Wagner’s heroes. He does not know much about anything, least of all about himself, and a lot of what he does know he forgets for most of Götterdämmerung, under the influence of Hagen’s drug. Although, in his dying moments, the memories of his love for Brünnhilde are restored to him, they do not bring with them any greater understanding, but only a return to a blissful past. In this, and in his relation to these magic drinks, he is quite unlike Tristan, who in his great monologue in the third act comes to see how everything that happened flowed from himself—that he himself, as he says, brewed the love potion. To Siegfried, on the other hand, the machinery of spells remains external, and represents nothing in his motivations or his wishes. If he had any character at all, it would be only a limitless—one might almost say clinical—guilelessness.

His encounter with Brünnhilde did teach him something, fear. This gave him, we are told, a new experience, but it is notable that we are not given much more than the telling of it. There is a good deal of psychological material in the last scene of Siegfried after Siegfried awakens Brünnhilde, and it is of course expressed in the music, but it almost entirely concerns Brünnhilde’s transition from warrior to lover. Siegfried as lover gets new music, but very little of a new psychology. What he carries forward from the encounter is nothing but a blissful memory; and when he reasserts his individuality as a hero and returns to the world of action, there is no project for him except action itself. “Zu neuen Taten!” (“New deeds!”) is the first thing that Brünnhilde says to him in Götterdämmerung, and, if we take it for granted that he is to resume the only life he is able to live, there is nothing else for her to say. What matters is the absence of an inner life, not in itself the absence of intelligence. Parsifal is defined by a holy lack of intelligence, but in the course of the action he gains an inner life; the confrontation with memory and sexuality that is enacted in such extraordinary terms in the second act changes him completely, whereas to Siegfried nothing significant happens at all.

It is not impossible for a great hero to lack an inner life: as Walter Benjamin pointed out, the heroes of epic and ancient tragedy are often presented with a notably reticent indication of their subjectivity. But it is much harder to present as a great hero one who is simply naive and unimaginative, and whose great deeds, the slaying of the dragon and the journey to Brünnhilde, are not so much emblems of courage as the products of an infantile fearlessness. This is no Achilles. He appears, moreover, in a drama in which subjectivity, self-consciousness, reflection, personal ambivalence, and so on are pervasive, expressed in the artistic means themselves, and, above all, central to the existence of another character, Wotan, who has a better claim to be the hero.

Because the celebration represented by the funeral music is of the seemingly uncelebratable, there is a crisis of theatrical production at this point. Recently we have often been given an empty stage or Siegfried’s body lying undisturbed. On the occasions I have seen them, these came out as lame or desperate devices; but it is not surprising that there is desperation. Critics complain of a willful, contemptuous rejection of the heroic. But it is not the directors’ fault that there is a failure of the heroic. They are reacting, if inadequately, to a feature of the work which, if it is allowed to emerge, is bound now to seem empty or potentially alarming.

Since there is this dramatic failure, it is a real question why the funeral music can indeed be effective, in fact overpowering; and it is not enough to say that it is an astonishing piece of music, since it is a piece of dramatic music in the deepest Wagnerian sense. I think that there is an answer to the question of how it can move us so much, and I shall come back to this. But the problem that comes first, one that is signaled by the directors’ difficulties, is that of heading off a different kind of message—an implicitly political message—which can readily fill the gap left by Siegfried’s absence as hero. I said that the funeral music, granted that absence, can be alarming. The reason for this lies in its relation to the political, or rather, unpolitical aspects of the Ring.

The serene and reconciling motif that appears in the last moments of Götterdämmerung used to be called “Redemption through Love.” None of these labels for the leitmotifs has any authority, but this was worse than most. For what, even in Wagner’s overgenerous use of such words, has been redeemed? Brünnhilde of course sacrifices herself by riding into Siegfried’s funeral pyre, but if this is to count as redemption, rather than suttee on horseback, it has to have some further result. She says, “This fire, burning my frame, cleanses the curse from the ring.” Indeed, the gold is now purified, because it has been returned to the Rhine—the only place, as the Rhinemaidens sang in the last words of Rheingold, for what is close and true:

  1. 13

    In the essay “Über die Benennung ‘Musikdrama,”’ 1872.

  2. 14

    Nietzsche contra Wagner, second section (“Where I Offer Objections”; Leipzig: C.G. Naumann, 1889).

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