• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Wagner & Politics

Traulich und treu
ist’s nur in der Tiefe.15

The gold has been redeemed, if one insists on the word. But there is no suggestion that the gold’s return, or the deaths of Siegfried and Brünnhilde, have also redeemed the world, at least if that means that the world has become a better or freer place. The future of the world, at the end of Götterdämmerung, is plainly not a concern, while the gods have no future at all. This is an embarrassment to the familiar political interpretations of the Ring. They all begin with a great impetus from Rheingold, with its manifest images of ex-propriation, self-impoverishment, and slavery, but even the most resourceful of them tend to peter out as the cycle proceeds, finding material at its end only for some vapid aspiration to a politics of innocence.

The problem with this is not that the Ring, as it proceeds, avoids politics. It is rather that the hope for a politics of innocence is one thing that it seems to reject. If one wants transportable lessons from the Ring, a conclusion to be drawn from the story of Wotan will be that there is no politics of innocence, because nothing worth achieving can be achieved in innocence. Only in the depths, where nothing has been imposed on nature or wrested from it, is the tender and true. But the nobility and grandeur of the funeral music stand against this. Not because of what it says (it says nothing) but, all the more, because of what it does, it can carry the suggestion that perhaps there could be a world in which a politics of pure heroic action might succeed, uncluttered by Wotan’s ruses or the need to make bargains with giants, where Nibelungs could be dealt with forever: a redemptive, transforming politics which transcended the political.

Such ideas had in Germany a long, complex, and ultimately catastrophic history. Politics, or at least “ordinary” politics, the politics of parties, power, bargaining, and so on, was seen as something divisive, low, materialistic, and superficial, in contrast to something else which was deep, spiritual, and capable of bringing people together into a higher unity: something, moreover, which instead of peddling satisfactions, demanded renunciation and suffering. There were two main candidates for this higher thing, art and the nation, or, indeed, the two together.

Such ideals informed the influential conception of the Sonderweg, the idea of a special path that German development might follow, distinct from (in particular) Britain and France; and one expression of the difference lay in a supposed contrast between Kultur, which was German and deep, and Zivilisation, which was shallow and French. (Thomas Mann himself had supported such ideas during the First World War, and still in part sought to justify them in the diffuse work which he published in 1918, significantly called Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (“Reflections of a Non-Political Man”16 ). All the elements of this tradition were to be exploited in a desultory but ruthlessly opportunistic way by Hitler.17 Hitler was far from unpolitical, but he pretended to be, and perhaps himself believed that in him the nation had transcended politics: that the politics which brought him to power and which, together with terror, kept him in it, was indeed a politics of transcendence.

Wagner was certainly deeply committed to the nationalist ideals of the Sonderweg, but it is rare in his works (as opposed to his writings) that the will to transcend politics points in a distinctively political direction. Die Meistersinger certainly has political implications; as Nietzsche rightly said, it is against Zivilisation, German against French. Moreover, it invites questions, which it notably fails to answer, about the politics of art. Hans Sachs believes in the judgment of the Volk, and in the last scene the young knight Walter gets their enthusiastic approval, with a composition which, we are told, reconciles inspiration with tradition. Wagner no doubt thought that the same could truly be said of his act as a whole. But in fact nothing in this bland formula, or in the way it is worked out in Die Meistersinger, is going to close the gap between Wagner’s intensely radical avant-garde experiments and music that could be straightforwardly popular as, for instance, Verdi’s was.

The politics of art—the relations of Wagner, his music, and the German people—remains at the end of the opera an unsolved question. But the relation of all this to politics in a narrower sense, the politics of government, is not even a question in Die Meistersinger. Although in the last moments of the work (in a notably obtrusive passage, which Wagner seems to have put in at Cosima’s insistence) Wagner gets Sachs to declare the ideals of artistic nationalism, he is careful not to commit himself to what its political implications might be. Sachs’s last words on the subject are

Even if the Holy Roman Empire
dissolved in mist,
yet there would remain
holy German art!

And this in its context can fairly be taken to say that the ideals of German art can survive, even if politics change radically or go badly wrong. This might be called the avoidance of politics.

With Parsifal, the one work that Wagner wrote after he had completed The Ring, the situation is different again. Nietzsche was clearly wrong when he said that Wagner had ended up by prostrating himself in front of the Christian cross. Wagner did nothing of the sort: roughly speaking, he took some colored snapshots of the Eucharist and used them to illustrate his journey into the psychology of sex, guilt, memory, and pain. (He thought that Nietzsche lacked a sense of humor, because he presented him with a copy of the Parsifal poem inscribed from “Richard Wagner, Oberkirchenrat”—as it were, “The Right Reverend Wagner”—and Nietzsche did not find it funny.) But the work does undoubtedly steal some of its resonance from Christian ritual and its associations, and in particular, Wagner’s recurrent theme of a redeemer sustains in this case much of its familiar religious meaning. Indeed, in the magnificent climax to Act III, Gurnemanz, crowning Parsifal as king, uses language so dense with references to redemption and salvation that it has even been suggested that he is addressing not Parsifal but the Redeemer Himself.18

Although Parsifal becomes a king, he is not a king over any subjects. Nor does the opera suggest that mankind is reclaiming its identity from religion, as in the more Feuerbachian moments of the Ring. Here we can speak of a genuine absence of politics. What we have is the exploitation of religious remnants in the interests of a drama that operates almost entirely at the level of depth psychology. This involves a kind of trick, because in places the work has to pretend that the whole of human life is transcended and justified by something higher (as it is represented in the final scene, indeed, literally higher), the Holy Spirit. But the psychological material is so powerful, the symbols of the wound and the spear are strong enough, and, above all, the musical invention is so compelling that Wagner’s Allmacht, his capacities as a magical manipulator, enable him just about to get away with it. The director is left with some nasty problems, but we need not be, and certainly not any that have to do with politics.

It is not an objection to Parsifal that at the time of writing it Wagner wrote increasingly crazy articles tying its story together with themes of racial purity. It might be, for some people, an objection to going to see Parsifal: they might feel that they did not wish to be associated in any way with a work written by a man with such an outlook. That is, as people say, their privilege. But it has nothing at all to do with interpreting or responding to Parsifal, because whatever theories Wagner may have had, they do not structure the work, or surface in it, or demand our attention in experiencing it.

When Robert Gutman, for instance, says, “Parsifal’s sudden insight in the magic garden was the realization that by yielding to Kundry he would dilute his purebred strain,” he is not reporting the plot, the text, or any implication of the music’s associations. He is simply saying how it might look to someone who thought about little but Wagner’s racist writings. My point here is not to reinstate the distinction between the work and the man, which I have already said is not a helpful device in Wagner’s case. The point is just that one cannot decide in advance, either positively or negatively, what facts about the man, his views, and their history may be relevant to responding to a given work. In particular, if we acknowledge its power, it is a question of what it is in us that does so, and in the case of Parsifal we have a good enough idea of what that is to know that it has nothing essentially to do with Wagner’s racist ravings.

In Die Meistersinger, politics is avoided, and from Parsifal it is merely absent, but with the Ring, neither of these is true. The cycle emphatically addresses issues of power, and if at its end it suggests that the world in which they arise is overcome, it is hard not to be left with the feeling that the questions of power and its uses have not so much been banished as raised to a level at which they demand some “higher” kind of answer.

I said earlier that there is an explanation of why the funeral music can move us so much even when we recognize that the supposed object of its triumph does not exist. I suggest that it makes sense because we hear it as the celebration not of a man but of a process, of all that has gone before in the Ring. The Ring as it moves toward its end elicits a cumulative sense of its own complexity and power, and it is this that the funeral music celebrates. The music itself helps to bring this out, as motifs associated with earlier parts of the story come to the surface. In celebrating its own fulfillment, the work can make us feel that the whole disaster-laden history has been worthwhile.

What this expresses is not—and it is very important that it is not—the idea that life is redeemed by art, the idea that real life, and real suffering, cruelty, and humiliation, are justified because they can issue in great works of art. It is doubtful that Wagner believed this even about his own works. It is not that the splendors of the Ring can justify real life. Rather, the Ring‘s celebration of what it has presented can symbolize for us ways in which life even in its disasters can seem to have been worthwhile. In these terms the Ring emerges as what it should be, an affirmative drama, and not in a way that invokes a hypothetical and deeply suspect politics of heroism and sacrifice.

The problem still remains, however, whether the part that Siegfried plays in the story can, on any adequate reading, bear the weight that it is required to bear. Some of the strains in the work come, without doubt, from the complex changes of mind that Wagner underwent as he wrote it. But the problem is not just that the work is imperfect. What really matters is a product of history, that the strains pull us toward a sense of the work in which the transcendence of politics tends to suggest not the absence of politics, but a higher, transcendental, politics, of a peculiarly threatening kind.

This is signaled by problems of theatrical production, and those problems remain even if we come to hear the funeral music as a tragic affirmation rather than the celebration of an embarrassingly nonexistent hero. The questions that emerge concretely as problems for the theatrical director are in any case questions for all of us, if we do not allow Wagner’s extraordinary ingenuity to deflect us from them. Particularly with regard to the Ring, but not only there, it may be impossible, even in our imagination, to re-create Wagner’s works altogether adequately. It may be that the total unity of psychology, myth, and morally redemptive significance to which Wagner aspired is an illusion, not just in the sense that it is unattainable—that is true of Beethoven’s ideals of freedom—but because, as Nietzsche said, it is based in some part on a pretense that a set of theatrical, often grandiose, gestures can reveal the nature of the world. If that is so, then to that extent no honest treatment of it can make it work as a whole. We can do it justice—but then it comes out guilty of that pretense, and justly associated, for indelible historical reasons, with a politics that has since Wagner wrote moved into the gap left by that pretense. Or it can come out less guilty—but then theatrical re-creation will have negotiated this as an accommodation between historical memory, what Wagner tried to bring about, and what we can now, decently and (as we say) in all honesty, accept.

If, at least for some of Wagner’s works, a production which “did them justice” would find them guilty, this will constitute the historical vengeance of the ethical on an artist who uniquely raised the stakes high enough for such a vengeance to be even possible.

  1. 15

    In Andrew Porter’s translation: “Goodness and truth dwell but in the waters.” See Richard Wagner, The Ring of the Nibelung (Norton, 1977).

  2. 16

    Translated by Walter D. Morris (F. Ungar, 1983).

  3. 17

    The presence of this among other cultural legacies in Nazi discourse, and above all in Hitler’s own speeches, is the subject of J.P. Stern’s fascinating book Hitler: The Führer and the People (London: Fontana/Collins, 1975).

  4. 18

    See Lucy Beckett, Richard Wagner: Parsifal (Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 52-53.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print