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Bargatsky: "Nature & Myth in Wagner's 'Ring' "

PostPosted: Tue Feb 19, 2013 11:47 am
by alberich00
Dear Discussion Forum members/visitors:

This review of Dr. Thomas Bargatsky's (Prof. of Anthropology at the Univ. of Bayreuth) lecture at the Univ. of Bayreuth (part of the Wagner Worldwide 2013 bicentennial symposia) entitled "Nature and Myth in Wagner's 'Ring': An Anthropoligical perspective," is the second of my responses to presentations made there in 2011-2012 (the first being my response to a comment made by Dr. Nicholas Vazsonyi in his lecture "Wagner and the Global Marketplace")

Bargatsky notes initially that it may surprise some to learn that Wagner studies can be claimed by the field of anthropology.

[PH] Bargatsky's remark made me feel quite at home, since Anthropology was my major in both my undergraduate (Franklin and Marshall) and graduate (Southern Illinois Univ. at Carbondale) studies. I am very glad to see someone addressing this link in our bicentennial year. Readers of my introduction to my online book "The Wound That Will Never Heal," posted here at, will know that I pay special tribute to the influence that the well known structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss had upon my study of Wagner's "Ring." In this, my work is kin to that of Dr. Jean-Jacques Nattiez who similarly paid tribute to Claude Levi-Strauss in his book "Wagner Androgyne." Bargatsky cited Levi-Strauss's remark that he regarded Wagner as the undeniable originator of the structural study of myth.

Bargatsky echoes Vazsonyi in noting the contradiction underlying Wagner's attempt to market an art which he did not regard as a commodity.

[PH] I refer readers to my Vazsonyi review for my solution to this conundrum.

The centerpiece of Bargatsky's lecture was his thesis that redemption, and particularly redemption through art, always had for Wagner both a social and a political significance, in spite of the fact that in the "Ring," which George Bernard Shaw noted was (among other things) a critique of modern capitalist society and the modern state, Wagner doesn't provide us in the end any clear prescription for how the world might be reorganized to make a freer existence unencumbered by our self-alienation within the state possible. In fact, he supposes that the "Ring" ends pessimistically, with not only an end to the social/political order, but to the cosmos itself.

[PH] Readers of my's online book, "The Wound That Will Never Heal," will find that an end of the cosmos is one of several hypotheses I present to explain that finale in "Twilight of the Gods" which Wagner had so much difficulty conceiving and which, ultimately, as Bargatsky notes, Wagner left for music alone to explain, for it ends symphonically with an orchestral arrangement of various crucial musical motifs, particularly the so-called (but incorrectly called) Redemption Motif, which is actually the music to which Sieglinde extolled Bruennhilde's intervention to save Sieglinde's as-yet-unborn child (in V.3.1), as Bargatsky points out.

But Bargatsky notes that while completing the "'Ring" Wagner lost faith in the social revolution and progress which had been at least part of what he intended to depict in this work as he originally conceived it.

Bargatsky goes on to describe how British and American anthropologists like Tyler and Lewis Henry Morgan influenced Karl Marx by providing him the concept that the new communist state, which would replace the modern state and thus redeem man from his self-alienation and enslavement to property, would be in a sense a restoration (but now on a higher plane) of an older social order, like a tribal order, with property in common, etc. Bargatsky notes that this anthropological concept seems to have been important in Wagner's creation of the "Ring," particularly the notion of the stages of evolution of society. Bargatsky observes that Wagner added one more stage to the original three, and represented them in the four distinct parts of the "Ring" tetralogy.

[PH] I fully concur with the general thesis being presented here, that Wagner was concerned in the "Ring" to present different stages in the evolution of man and society, though my treatment of this question is more detailed and differs somewhat with the general position Bargatsky presents in his lecture. For instance, I divide the "Ring" into two halves: the first half, covered by "The Rhinegold" and "The Valkyrie," represents the period when religious belief held sway, and man preserved a mythological view of himself and his world, and the second half, the half belonging to Siegfried and Bruennhilde from "Siegfried" to "Twilight of the Gods," concerns the modern era in which man's attention is divided between the practical world known to science and politics, and the religious longing for transcendent value which survives in modern, secular times, in art. My interpretation of Elsa in my "How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried" of course corresponds with Bargatsky's remark that Elsa's asking the forbidden question brings about the end of myth. (see below)

Bargatsky noted that the "Ring" falls between Wagner's two Grail operas, "Lohengrin" and "Parsifal." Bargatsky reminds us that Wagner, in his "A Communication to my Friends," observed that "Lohengrin" is actually a primeval myth, not Christian in origin. He also states that through her asking Lohengrin the forbidden question Elsa destroys the power of myth, thus ending the old order of Grail knighthood from which Lohengrin (claims) he comes. Bargatsky says the new order is the modern state, and that "Lohengrin" is a drama about the artist (as Wagner said himself, calling Lohengrin an Absolute artist, a concept Wagner critiqued as incomplete and needing something which was missing).

[PH] Bargatsky's remark that Elsa's asking the forbidden question destroys myth and thus destroys the old order to make way for a new one corresponds with my older readings of both "Lohengrin" and the "Ring" as Wagner's allegories in which he presents a critique of religious faith and proffers its replacement by secular art (but also science, with which the Wagnerian artist-hero is in conflict).

Bargatsky states that in the "Ring," unlike "Lohengrin," Wagner presents a more radically pessimistic view of the world, and that there the seeds of destruction are already planted in the dreamtime which Bargatsky says corresponds with the era, in the beginnings of human life on earth, when the gods allegedly walked the earth and influenced things directly, a time since replaced with that long period of human history in which the gods no longer directly participate in the world but exist now as natural forces and in ritual, which reenacts mythic events alleged to have occurred once in reality (as in the Eucharist, reenacted in "Parsifal"), but which in a sense exist outside of time, eternally.

[PH] Actually, in my reading of "Lohengrin" as found in "How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried," the seeds of destruction are also planted in man's religious world-view from the beginning, since Lohengrin's vulnerability consists in the fact that, as with illusory religious beliefs, faith in him can't stand up to reasoned scrutiny. That is precisely why Elsa's offer to protect Lohengrin from the consequences of exposing this terrible knowledge to conscious thought is actually, in Wagner's view (based on Feuerbach), secular art's ability to express man's religious longing for transcendent value without religious faith's vulnerability to contradiction by fact, since art either confesses itself an illusion, or expresses itself as pure feeling, as in music, which stakes no claim to truthfulness, which could be refuted, and therefore can't be exposed even as an illusion.

Bargatsky adds that in the "Ring" catastrophe is actually inbuilt into the cosmos's very design.

[PH] This, of course, is one of the speculative readings of Wagner's finale in "The Twilight of the Gods" which I have been proposing since at least 1983 when I presented copies of my extended essay "The Doctrine of the Ring" to more than a dozen speakers who presented papers at the "Wagner in Retrospect Symposium, a Centennial Reappraisal" sponsored by the Univ. of Illinois Chicago campus in 11/1983. Wagner's thesis, as I presented it, is that in reflectively conscious man the universe, or Mother Nature, in a sense becomes conscious of herself and wakes up, in order that she may end her present cycle or form in chaos (the probably inadvertent result of man's Promethean quest for knowledge of the building blocks and mysteries of nature. a reading of the end of times which Wagner himself once proposed), in order to be reborn in a new form.

Bargatsky notes that "Parsifal" is Wagner's representation of a world which exists after the collapse of the modern state.

[PH] My reading of "Parsifal," which you can find at by clicking on "Resources," and then on "Papers on Wagner," is that it represents Wagner's alternative to the "Ring" holocaust or catastrophe. In my reading man heals the formerly unhealing wound caused by his futile historical quest to affirm his transcendent value in illusory religious beliefs and art, by acknowledging his true identity as a mortal animal and product of nature, and refusing any longer to sin against, and figuratively murder his mother, Nature, by affirming and acknowledging her instead of renouncing her.

Presumably following Levi-Strauss's nature/culture distinction, Bargatsky speaks of the conflict between nature and culture in Wagner's "Ring."

[PH] In my evolving interpretation of the "Ring" I have long proposed that in man's historical advancement in knowledge over time, he gradually comes to see that what he calls the divine, and divinely inspired culture (according to him a divine creation, distinguishing man from nature and the other animals) i.e., that which is transmitted by man uniquely through symbols and the gradual accumulation of knowledge which symbolic thought permits, was simply (as Feuerbach said) a projection of his own earthly impulses and fears, multiplied to infinity by man's unlimited gift for abstraction and generalization, and that man would eventually see that God and human culture are only nature. This is at least a part of the meaning of the Good Friday Spell in "Parsifal," where Mother Nature regains her innocence (i.e., man no longer wounds her by positing a supernatural realm in opposition to her).

As he nears the close of his lecture, Bargatsky notes that Wagner often redirects the original intent of his mythic sources, and adds that therefore, in order to grasp his highly sophisticated message or meaning, we must bring to Wagner-exegesis the most modern conceptual tools at our disposal.

[PH] Absolutely right! Bargatsky is precisely on the right wavelength here. And I might add, in this respect we've only just begun to explore Wagner. Any comparison, for instance, of my "The Wound That Will Never Heal," with what is currently on offer as conceptual analysis of Wagner's "Ring," will show just how far modern scholarship has to go to even begin to plumb these depths.

Bargatsky states that the catastrophic finale of "Twilight of the Gods" plunges the world back into the dreamtime, but also that both nature and culture in their present form are destroyed.

[PH] In "The Wound That Will Never Heal" I have argued that if Alberich's Ring and its power can be construed as a metaphor for the human mind and its power, then, when at the end the Ring plunges back into the Rhine and is dissolved, this implies that human consciousness comes to an end, but also, since natural law remains unaltered, through a process of evolution the cosmos, somewhere, and sometime (by the laws of statistical probability, given enough time/space/matter/energy), consciousness will evolve again, and may well evolve here and there all the time, concurrently. But surely at the very least the earth itself plunges back into animal preconsciousness, if man destroys himself. Of course, the question remains who the Gibichungs - who watch this end-of-days moved to the depths of their being - are: are they survivors of this catastrophe, or representatives of us, Wagner's audience?

It's wonderful to find Bargatsky citing Gerhard Hauptmann, who was extravagantly in awe of Wagner and thought his "'Ring" was the most unprecedented, singular event in art history.

[PH] In a sense I agree. There is something unique about Wagner's mature music-dramas, and about the "Ring" in particular, even in comparison with our other greatest art treasures (and I'm not implying anything so silly as suggesting that Wagner supplants Shakespeare or Beethoven, for Wagner himself rated them at the very apex of art, pillars without which the "Ring," which learned from their example, would never have been conceived). It's just that Wagner saw genius as part of a historical continuum of stages in the evolution of human thought. It was inevitable, for instance, that a greatest dramatist and a greatest composer (if we wish to speak in these terms) would be the precondition for the greatest synthesis of drama and music in the music-drama.

Bargatsky notes how Wagner redirected various mythological tropes. For instance, Siegmund's and Sieglinde's sibling incest is finds a parallel in royal marriages in certain bronze age societies and chiefdoms, such as Egypt, Peru, and Hawaii. But Bargatsky notes that while in these traditional societies the descendents of this sacred incestuous union have the highest rank, its legitimate heirs who sustain it, Siegmund and Sieglinde give birth to the revolutionary hero who overthrows the traditional society.

[PH} I might add the obvious point that where, in Wagner's model for incest, Oedipus's marital union with his mother, once they become aware of their true blood relationship they are horrified with shame, whereas Siegmund and Sieglinde, becoming aware they are brother and sister, and can preserve the blood of their heroic race from taint by admixture, so to speak, glory in their sibling-incest.

Similarly, Bargatsky says, Wotan places Bruennhilde within a Mandala-like ring of fire in order to punish her (in a sense) by leaving her, the formerly divine and chaste Valkyrie, as wedded wife for the revolutionary hero Siegfried, the man of the future. Bargatsky states that whereas, in a conventional religious setting, the Mandala is man's way of inviting God to sit with him, to be present with him, in this instance the God Wotan kisses Bruennhilde's divinity and holy chastity away, in order that Siegfried can destroy the old order, the gods.

Bargatsky then expresses his admiration for the "Ring" as a true myth in which the various characters are neither wholly good nor wholly evil.

[PH] I note Cosima's remark that she and Wagner admired the notion that God is neither wholly good nor wholly evil, a concept popular with, she says, the Marcionite heresy.

Bargatsky feels Wagner's "'Ring" is distinguished from his other operas and music-dramas in this respect (i.e., that the characters are neither wholly good nor wholly evil), suggesting that in those other works such dichotomies as good-vs-evil remain more intact.

[PH] I would strongly disagree with this, though obviously Wagner's sophistication in characterization and plotting grew as his art grew.

Bargatsky also mentions the seeming contradiction that the gods' existence ends, yet they are eternal, and how only through understanding the unique language of myth can we grasp that this is not inconsistent, but merely describes how time may flow from a past to a present and future, with things coming and passing away, and yet something eternal persists within this flux. This is a timelessly eternal return.

[PH] In my "The Wound That Will Never Heal" I have proposed that one possible meaning of the finale of "Twilight of the Gods" is that the "Ring" cycle, which is Wagner's allegory representing the evolution and demise of consciousness during one phase of the cosmos (or at least of our local part of it), can be said to repeat eternally. But this eternal return depends upon existence in time, to attain its eternity, since it must repeat an evolutionary process, in time, over and over again, to attain its eternity.

Bargatsky tells us that with the end of the "Ring" it's not clear what, if anything, is coming, but he also notes that by ending this great cycle with music, and specifically the music to which Sieglinde extolled Bruennhilde's intervention to save the as-yet-unborn man of the future, there is hope.

Bargatsky makes the observation that the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan stated in (I believe) the 1870's that property had become an unmanageable power, that man had lost control of his own creation, and that the next phase of social or cultural evolution was for man to revolutionize society in such a way that man could place property back in its proper, subservient position in relation to human life. And this, he notes, obviously corresponded with the concurrent writings of Marx and Engels, and with what Wagner was writing and presented in the "Ring." So Bargatsky calls this simultaneous conversion of concepts in Morgan, Marx, Engels, and Wagner the true "Fellowship of the Ring."

Bargatsky noted that Beethoven's 9th Symphony (PH: which Wagner regarded as the launching pad for his own revolutionary music-dramas, in a sense, since in the 9th Beethoven's music reached out for and in a sense produced the word, since it culminates in Schiller's Ode) is a work of music which ends with words, while Wagner's "Ring" is a music-drama which ends in music.

When Bargatsky states that "Parsifal" was Wagner's idea of a communal artwork of the future which reconciles man with nature, and in which Amfortas's wound is healed, [PH] he is absolutely right. It is precisely because Parsifal reconciles man with his true nature and natural origin that Amfortas's wound, caused by man's former futile quest to affirm his supernatural or transcendent value in the face of his own advancement in knowledge that this is untrue, that Amfortas's wound is healed. Of course, Bargatsky isn't nearly so specific in outlining how this reconciliation occurs. I wonder if he would concur with my thesis.

Bargatsky states that by the time Wagner creates "Parsifal" "Mastersingers" is no longer his model of the artwork of the future.

[PH] I have noted in detail in my "The Wound That Will Never Heal" that "Mastersingers" allegorically represents a phase in art history which, according to Wagner, was the golden age when secular art was supplanting religious faith as man's primary value-giver, but the unconsciously inspired artist still remained innocent of his status as the unwitting perpetuator of religious man's sin against Mother Nature, his denial of nature's truth, in art. By the time Wagner creates "Parsifal," he has been launching a critique of his own art as a means to redemption (this is at least partly why he said that in "Tristan" he discovered that the love he had been extolling previously was actually devastating: he was referring to his metaphor, the loving couple - hero and heroine, who represent the unconscious artistic inspiration of the male artist-hero by his unconscious mind and muse, the heroine-lover) for some time, and this culminates in Parsifal's rejection of any further seeking for salvation through loving union with the muse of art (Kundry), because man is now too conscious to draw benefit from her services, which is why the salves Kundry offers Amfortas (Parsifal's and Klingsor's audience, metaphorically speaking) no longer heal, even temporarily, but merely increase the pain, the sense of futility in continuing to posit transcendent meaning in the face of mans' rising consciousness of the truth that there is only nature and nothing else. In fact, Parsifal's feeling of guilt that through neglect he killed his mother, Herzeleide (just as Tristan's mother died giving him birth, and Siegfried's mother died giving him birth), is Wagner's metaphor for the modern artist-hero Wagner's rising consciousness that in his art he has unwittingly (as a fool) been perpetuating religious faith's sin against Mother Nature, the sin of world-renunciation (Pessimism as Nietzsche defines it).

Bargatsky tells us he loves Wagner's "Ring" the most because of its realism, poised at the abyss. He also says that even destruction sounds great in the "Ring," musically, that is. (PH: I note that Wagner once said, humorously, that if the world were ending some composer could be found to celebrate it in music, so to speak.). He proffers that there is a deep humane message in the "Ring," that the world may be crap, but we individually can redeem moments in this continuum, so to speak, with beauty, love, grace, art, etc.

Dr. Vazsonyi noted during the Q&A that hope is a better word to describe the mood of the "Twilight of the Gods" finale than redemption.

[PH] Paul Heise concurs.

In answer to another point made by Vazsonyi about the possible influence of Herder on Wagner, Bargatsky's response was interesting. He noted that Herder was a co-founder of the academic study of anthropology and was the inventor of the concept of "Culture" as a description of a people as opposed to a description of how cultivated we are as individuals. He also suggested that the notion of "Culture" as a secular religion is one of the messages of 'Mastersingers."

Vazsonyi and Bargatsky then discussed the notion of the State as a work of art, citing Schiller, who evidently believed that an artistic education was essential to the formation of an enlightened state, while Wagner, Vazsonyi said, reversed this, arguing that we must first reform the state (i.e., the context within which the artist works) before we can support a revolutionary, enlightened art, so to speak.

Anno Mungen proffered that Wagner ultimately couldn't express ugliness in his comprehensive "Ring" because its representation there is too beautiful. (PH: This sounds like one of the problems which exercised Aristotle).

[PH] I would answer that Wagner's expression of ugliness in the "Ring" and his other mature music-dramas becomes beautiful in overall context, as part of a grand structure which is beautiful in itself, but that Wagner did a damned good job of expressing ugliness when considered within this context. Actually, in a sense Wagner was able to be more shockingly candid in the "Ring" than other great artists have in most other works of art, to show us the terrible truth of man, precisely because it was expressed within this overall context of healing. In other words, music's power to heal any wound Wagner opened gave him the liberty to go where no artist (with the possible exception of, say, Shakespeare) had dared to go before.

Bargatsky closed the Q&A with a citation from an author whose last name is Picht, who wrote "Myth and Art." Picht noted, he said, that a true work of art can't lie. The "Ring" shows the world is ugly, but there is beauty in it. So the "Ring" can't lie.

[PH] This recalls Wagner's remark (can't recall the source at the moment) that through art illusion becomes truth.