Part 5: Scruton's critique of my book, & my response:

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

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Part 5: Scruton's critique of my book, & my response:

Postby alberich00 » Fri Jul 29, 2016 8:43 am

And there are dozens of single sentences and whole passages in the libretto text which become more mysterious and inexplicable the more closely we read them (something we’re unlikely to have the presence of mind to do during our experience of a performance, since Wagner’s music creates a dreamlike atmosphere in which our normal critical faculties are temporarily arrested, as they are in an actual dream).

PH: But Wagner said that the "Ring" was not only meant to be experienced in performance. He said it was also there to be studied and reflected upon. From my earliest days experiencing recordings of Wagner’s "Ring," libretto in hand, I felt the entire "Ring" as a musical, dramatic, and conceptual/philosophic unity. But for a long time I merely felt this, but could not think it, i.e., I couldn’t grasp why the "Ring" seemed to me to be more meaningful than what was self-evident about it, or what various scholars said was at stake in it. It always seemed to me that the "Ring" felt like it meant much, much more than my conscious mind could construe in performance. My experience was something like that of the Curies, who thought they knew the elemental constituents of a well-known conglomerate, but whose radioactivity clearly indicated some source of power that could not be accounted for from the constituent elements which they thought composed this conglomerate. As the whole world knows, through many years they strove to isolate whatever it was that was creating more radioactivity than seemed to be warranted from the known elements in this conglomerate, and they finally, after years and years of refinement, isolated a very tiny amount of the new element radium, which packed the most powerful radioactive punch of any element known up to that time. Similarly, DNA and natural selection are at the bottom not only of the various forms of life, but of the evolution of life forms, but we only became aware of this in the past 150 years or so. Well, this sort of close observation and study and inquiry, which led to these scientific discoveries, is precisely what I did in my unremitting 38 year study of the "Ring," whose product was not only an allegorical interpretation which, so far as I know, is the first fully comprehensive, conceptually and dramatically unified and coherent interpretation of the "Ring" ever proposed, but which also discloses the secret of the Ring’s conceptual, allegorical links with all of Wagner’s other canonical operas and music-dramas, from "The Flying Dutchman" through "Parsifal."

PH: What I am saying is that not only are the allegorical meanings which I believe I’ve discovered in the "Ring" subliminal, and therefore only rarely, if at all, part of the conscious experience of audiences (though undoubtedly an important hidden cause of their emotional response) when they behold and hear the Ring in performance (similar in this respect to the music and the motifs in particular, which have a subliminal effect), but I can make a very, very strong case that there is much that occurs in the "Ring," musically, dramatically, and even in the wording of the libretto, that can only be explained through my interpretation. I might add that there is no such thing as a standard audience experience of the drama of the "Ring." Ask any two people what is going on during various scenes of the "Ring," and what the motives of the characters are, and you will often obtain wildly varying answers. There is much in the "Ring" that most audience members don’t grasp but never attempt to grasp, since the music creates a dreamlike mental condition in which critical, waking thought is not at the forefront. I would argue, like Deryck Cooke, that at least in some members of the audience such as myself, in spite of the Ring’s dreamlike or mythic/musical atmosphere which casts a spell that arrests normal thought processes, there is a residue which remains behind after each performance which leads to reflection, because in such people the Ring’s enchantment, though being unsurpassed, nonetheless does not entirely quiet the reflective consciousness, and leads audience members such as myself to ask “Why?” as Wagner put it. My online book "The Wound That Will Never Heal" posted here at http://www.wagnerheim.com is my attempt to answer the question “Why?”

RS: “A character can mean something other than himself only when the meaning enhances his presence in the drama and gives a richer content to his motivation. And the enhancement should be mutual. The drama should illustrate the allegorical meaning, which in turn should amplify the drama.”

PH: I would argue that the allegorical meanings I attribute to the events and characters of Wagner’s "Ring" represent the universal, cosmic import, if you will, of the specific characters and incidents of the "Ring," and that Wagner’s music continually provides a bridge from one realm to the other, just as Wagner’s musical motifs link the gods with the mortal heroes, and link Alberich and his quest for earthly power with the allegedly transcendent and etherial gods. I might add that there is not really a disconnect between the Ring’s characters as they appear to us and sing to us on the stage, and the allegorical meanings I find in them, since my allegorical readings merely provide the wider, often hidden context within which the characters act, a context which often motivates them mysteriously from both afar and from within their hidden depths, much like Wagner’s musical motifs with their wide-ranging associations.

PH: Wagner once stated that what for the common man (who is primarily occupied with satisfying immediate desires or needs) is mundane, something which either serves or doesn’t serve to satisfy the immediate cravings of his will, displays to the higher man its universal, tragic significance. It is because Wotan, as both an image of Godhead, and an image of the collective, historical humanity which created Godhead out of their imagination, is compelled by his nature to grasp the universal tragic significance of what for other common folks simply constitutes the mundane facts of life, that Wotan is paralysed like the too-conscious Hamlet into inaction. Wagner stated that if, by some chance but uncommon event, the common man is compelled to share in this universal tragic knowledge, the consequence might be madness or suicide. This explains a great deal about Wotan’s character, and why he can’t bear this godlike knowledge and instinctively represses it through his confession of it to his daughter Bruennhilde, a confession of thoughts so unbearable that, as Wotan tells her, he dare not speak it aloud (read, consciously) lest he lose the grip sustaining his will. Wotan is therefore relieved when he can tell Bruennhilde, his Will, that in speaking to her he is only speaking to himself (i.e., his unconscious mind), and that whatever he says to her will remain forever unspoken (i.e., it will be sublimated into feeling, or music). This also explains why the otherwise fearless Siegfried suddenly feels fear just as he prepares to wake Bruennhilde in S.3.3, because in winning her love he is about to fall heir to Wotan’s dangerous hoard of fearful, fateful knowledge, the knowledge of the gods’ and all their proxies’ predestined doom which Erda taught Wotan, and which Wotan imparted to Bruennhilde in his confession.

RS: “In an allegory two stories are told, one the explicit story, involving character, action, place and time, the other the implicit or esoteric story, concerning abstract ideas, cosmic forces and moral doctrines. Sometimes there is a one-to-one correspondence between elements in the two stories, as in Spenser’s "Faerie Queene." Sometimes the allegory is not hidden but explicitly stated, as in "Pilgrim’s Progress" … . The "Ring," I suggest, is not an allegory in either of those senses, but a work of symbolism.”

PH: Dr. Scruton states that he doesn’t regard the "Ring" as an allegory in the sense that he describes allegory, but he asks us to take this on faith, since he doesn’t tell us in any detail why he thinks that the "Ring" can’t be described as an allegory in which “… two stories are told, one the explicit story, involving character, action, place and time, the other the implicit or esoteric story, concerning abstract ideas, cosmic forces and moral doctrines.” It seems to me that my online book about Wagner’s "Ring," "The Wound That Will Never Heal," posted here at m http://www.wagnerheim.com, proves beyond a shadow of doubt that, whatever else the "Ring" is, it is also an allegory. In any case, I don’t understand how a work of symbolism, as he describes it, is materially distinct from an allegory, or why the "Ring" could not be both at once. If Dr. Scruton is specifically referencing Wagner’s musical motifs when he speaks of Wagner’s Ring as a “… work of symbolism", my interpretation of the "Ring" has carried that ball (i.e., the explanation of Wagner’s employment of his musical motifs to add meaning to, or to draw attention to the meaning of, Wagner’s "Ring") farther than any other study known to me. And this motival evidence supports my allegorical reading over and over and over again.

RS: “Symbolism is distinguished from allegory in that the symbol both expresses a meaning and also adds to it, so that meaning and symbol are to a measure inseparable. Although the money economy is one plausible interpretation of the meaning of Alberich’s Ring, the Ring is also the meaning of the money economy: its story tells us something about the money economy that we might not otherwise have understood or known. A symbol, if it is effective, is a condensation of many ways of thinking … . Thus the Ring is also a symbol of the human disposition to see all things as means and nothing as an end in itself; it is a symbol of power and the lust for it, of exploitation, of the desire to possess, of consciousness, the original sin that separated humankind from the work of nature and conferred on us a shared Lebenswelt in which we contend for recognition and status. The Ring means all of those things and they in turn mean the Ring, which is the thing that shows us what they really are. By condensing many meanings into a single symbol, art enables each meaning to cast light on all the others, so that the symbol shows us the moral reality that unites them.”

PH: Reading the paragraph above closely, I cannot see how Dr. Scruton sees my allegorical interpretation as falling outside the pale of his description of artistic symbolism. My allegorical interpretation doesn’t exhaust the meaning of the "Ring," but I believe I have disclosed what I would describe as the primary dramatic/philosophic thread of meaning which is the mainframe upon which Wagner built his multivalent artwork, to which many other more specific meanings can be assimilated without contradiction. For instance, there isn’t a single meaning of the Ring among the list he itemizes above which is not discussed in my interpretation. His list is similar to the list of meanings which constitute what I described previously as a musical motif’s dramatic profile, i.e., all those things with which a given musical motif is associated in the course of the drama. However, each motif is distinguished from others not only musically, but also with respect to the center of gravity of meaning which generated the motif in the first place. In this respect some distinct motifs’ penumbras of meaning can overlap, but nonetheless they are distinguished not only musically but also in terms of their dramatic/conceptual centers of gravity, which in a sense collect or attract things which (on some deep level) are analogous to them.

RS: “From the artistic point of view allegory presents a twofold danger: on the one hand the allegorical meaning risks breaking away entirely from the dramatic vehicle, so as to become irrelevant to the aesthetic experience, a mere intellectual commentary which has no status in our emotional response. On the other hand, if the allegory is too obviously necessary to the response, the drama takes on a didactic character, like a religious parable or a cautionary tale for children. That observation warns us, I think, against giving a straight-forwardly allegorical interpretation of the "Ring" cycle. Nevertheless several such interpretations have been ably defended, including one in Marxist terms by George Bernard Shaw, besides the Feuerbachian one by Paul Heise.”

PH: Dr. Scruton regards my allegorical interpretation as falling under the first of the categories he describes above, in which “… the allegorical meaning risks breaking away entirely from the dramatic vehicle, so as to become irrelevant to the aesthetic experience, a mere intellectual commentary which has no status in our emotional response.” His critique raises an interesting question. Is it possible that the allegorical meaning I attribute to Wagner’s "Ring" was at least part of the inspiration - subliminal perhaps even for Wagner - for the "Ring" as we experience it now in the theater, including giving Wagner considerable impetus towards the ultimate organization of the music and the conceptual structure, but at a level of meaning of which Wagner’s audience rarely if ever becomes conscious? I ask this question because there are numerous instances in which my interpretation explains far-reaching aspects of the conceptual, dramatic structure/plot of the "Ring" in a way that no other interpretation known to me can.

PH: For instance, Wagner once stated that while he owed to Feuerbach his notion that the religious concept of immortality is an illusion, nonetheless Feuerbach taught him also that among mortal humans there are two things which are immortal (figuratively), and these are: (1) actions of the highest moral consciousness (such as Siegmund’s sacrifices for the sake of love), and (2) great works of art (represented in my interpretation by the love which Siegfried and Bruennhilde share, Siegfried being construed as the artist-hero and Bruennhilde as his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration). This Feuerbachian scheme provides us with the distinct essences of three of the four parts of the "Ring," i.e., "Rhinegold" which is devoted to Wotan and the gods, "Valkyrie" which is devoted to Siegmund and Sieglinde, and "Siegfried" which is devoted to Siegfried and Bruennhilde.

PH: Another example is Wotan’s two questions which he addresses, or says he wishes to address, to Erda, in "The Rhinegold" Scene 4, during which he at first says he wants to learn from Erda everything there is to know (about her prophecy of the inevitable twilight of the gods), and then, after seeing Fafner kill Fasolt for the sake of Alberich’s Ring (the first fruits of Alberich’s curse on it), changes his mind and says that he wishes to learn from Erda how to end the care and fear her prophecy instilled in him. This distinction has far-reaching consequences in my interpretation, for Wotan in his role as the Wanderer more or less repeats the same two questions to Erda during his last visit with her in S.3.1. The conceptual structure is the following: Wotan wishes to know everything about why the gods are predestined to destruction, presumably so that he can find a remedy. He witnesses the first effect of Alberich’s curse on his Ring. He then amends his original desire for knowledge of the bitter truth, now saying that he wishes only that Erda can teach him how to end his care and fear (no matter whether or not she can show him how to escape his fate). So Wotan wishes both to learn from Erda the whole truth about the cause of the care and fear her prophecy instilled in him, and to learn from her how he can end this care and fear (but not necessarily escape the fate she foresaw). If Wotan can’t escape his fated doom, then there are only three ways in which he could respond to this fact. (1) He could either nihilistically embrace his doom (which in fact he only really does when he hints to Waltraute that Bruennhilde ought to restore the Ring to the Rhinedaughters to take the weight of the Ring curse from gods and world, since the dissolution of the Ring also implies the dissolution of Valhalla, to which the Ring Motif gave birth), (2) he could forget his prospective doom by ceasing to be conscious of it, (3) or he could consciously reconcile himself to his status as a mortal being who is an object in nature, a path which would seem to follow Alberich's outlook. Wotan's despairing desire to end it all because he can't live with the truth is the first option. The repression of knowledge of truth and its sublimation into art is the second option. And the third option, as I explain in my study of "Parsifal," is to consciously reconcile himself with his true status. Those who believe Wotan embraces his doom during his final confrontation with Erda in S.3.1 are wrong: Wotan only tells Erda he no longer fears the doom for the gods she prophesied, because he now wills it, since he lives on figuratively in his heirs Siegfried and Bruennhilde, i.e., in the artist-hero and his muse.

PH: This is crucial in my interpretation, because the artist-hero who will be Wotan’s heir, Siegfried, must confront the fearful hoard of knowledge about the gods’ predestined end which Wotan learned from Erda, and which Wotan imparted to Bruennhilde, at least subliminally, in order to obtain from Wotan’s hidden hoard of knowledge the inspiration to create that work of art in which he and his audience can forget the fear this prophecy engenders. This conceptual structure is repeated in Siegfried’s loving union with Bruennhilde as dramatized in S.3.3, in which Wagner offers us a metaphor for Siegfried’s unconscious artistic inspiration by Siegfried’s muse Bruennhilde. Siegfried learns fear from Bruennhilde (she is the repository of Wotan’s unspoken secret, his confession of Erda’s fearful prophecy of the gods’ doom), but only by consummating loving union with her, his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration, can Siegfried sublimate Wotan's fear into an ecstatic work of art in which that fear can be forgotten. Thus Siegfried tells Bruennhilde near the end of their love duet that the fear that she scarcely taught him, he has now forgotten, as we hear, incidentally, the Woodbird’s tune #129. The Woodbird’s tunes are Wagner’s metaphor for the special, redemptive music and motifs of his music-drama, the "Ring." Just as Siegfried both learns fear from Bruennhilde, and forgets this fear through loving union with her, so Siegfried learned from the Woodbird the use he could make of Alberich's hoard, Tarnhelm, and Ring, but forgot those uses as soon as he emerged from Fafner's lair with the Tarnhelm and Ring.

PH: This Woodbird music is, allegorically, the link between the artist’s and audience’s conscious feeling and unconscious, repressed thought, between the redemptive artwork the inspired artist would present to the public, and the secret source of the artist’s unconscious artistic inspiration by his muse, which must remain concealed from the audience, and even from the artist himself. Wagner described this artwork which the artist shares with his audience, the outward product of unconscious inspiration or allegedly divine revelation (speaking of religious myths), as the allegorical parallel to the actual, but inaccessible, dream of inspiration, which the artist has forgotten (as Tannhaeuser has forgotten his original dream of inspiration by Venus upon waking to the Shepherd’s tune in the meadow at the Wartburg). It is when Siegfried (at Hagen’s behest) sings of how he learned the meaning of the Woodbird’s song in T.3.2 that he, as if under a spell oblivious to his situation (much like Tannhaeuser when he, as if under a spell, reveals his true source of unconscious artistic inspiration in Venus and her Venusberg to the audience for his contest-song in the Wartburg Castle), unwittingly reveals the secret of his formerly unconscious artistic inspiration by his muse Bruennhilde, since Wagner’s musical motifs are, as he said himself, the means through which he shares his own profoundest secret with his audience, a secret which, as Wagner said, may remain unconscious even for the artist himself. It is no wonder that Hagen suggests to Siegfried "If only he [Gunther] understood Bruennhilde as you do the singing of birds." This concept links the Woodbird’s tunes with Tristan’s alte Weise, Tristan’s old tune which is the portal between his unconscious (Isolde) and conscious minds, and which is associated both with the fact that his mother died giving him birth (as Siegfried’s mother died giving him birth, and Parsifal’s neglect caused his mother’s death), and with the fact that through Isolde’s love his unhealing wound was temporarily healed. Tristan, like Siegfried, involuntarily betrays the secret of his formerly unconscious artistic inspiration by his true love and muse, by giving her away to another man (figuratively, Gunther and King Marke represent Wagner’s own audience). And of course Tristan’s unhealing wound links him with Amfortas. I draw attention to these conceptual links between Wagner’s mature music-dramas only to demonstrate how Wagner’s use of musical motifs in one particular situation has far-reaching allegorical significance not only for the "Ring" but for Wagner’s art in general.

RS: (…)

RS: [Referencing Shaw’s interpretation of "The Ring," "The Perfect Wagnerite," Scruton says:] “Even from the outset, it is a vast diminution of Wagner’s drama to pin such a thin Marxist allegory to its extraordinary and believable characters. To see Wotan as ‘Godhead and Kingship’ - i.e. as the leisured monarch, in league with the priesthood in maintaining the church (Valhalla) on which both depend - is to ignore all the ideas about man’s religious need and dependence on legal order embodied in this stupendous creation. To reduce Alberich to the factory-owning capitalist is to misrepresent entirely his ‘sin against himself’, a sin that we all commit, and which leads us to sympathize with Alberich even in his extremes of helpless resentment. Alberich, as Cooke points out, is no hypocrite, no fake-Christian shareholder, no frequenter of city streets. And the Tarnhelm stands for something deeper than the money illusions of the capitalist economy, being a symbol of the Verwandlung - the mysterious way in which one thing becomes another, in which what is most trusted betrays us, in which the real and the unreal may coincide in a single personality and a single state of mind. This kind of transformation, which does not happen in nature, is the crucial flaw in the Lebenswelt, the hole in the scheme of things, through which the moral being can fall.

RS: Heise’s Feuerbachian allegory is more plausible. It is surely true that, at one level, the tetralogy concerns the eruption of consciousness into the world and the departure from the natural order that ensued from this. It concerns the birth of the gods out of fear and aggression, and dramatizes the illusions of religion on which we depend for the rule of law and political order. It concerns the erosion of those illusions by thought, and our need for some other source of hope in the face of the bleak vision offered by scientific knowledge. And in some way Siegfried was to embody that hope as well as inviting all the things that conspire to defeat it. All those ideas are developed in Heise’s narrative, which repays detailed study.”

PH: I am certainly flattered that Dr. Scruton finds my allegorical interpretation more plausible than that of George Bernard Shaw, whose interpretation is surely the most influential of all those which have been proposed since the "Ring" had its premier at Bayreuth in 1876.

RS: “On the other hand, illuminating though Heise’s account is, the allegorical method frequently leads to the eclipse of the characters by the ideas that Heise pins to them. Here, for example, is a passage describing aspects of Siegfried’s encounter with the dragon:

‘Bruennhilde, representing the unconscious mind and its special language, music (in which the music-dramatist Siegfried - i.e. Wagner - will instinctively attempt to repress dangerous knowledge which is rising to consciousness within us, and particularly within him), will be the secular artist’s substitute for lost religious faith. As such, it will be the artist’s substitute for the fear of knowledge, the basis of faith, which protected the faithful from examining the religious mysteries which, as Feuerbach expressed so well, they had involuntarily and unconsciously invented in the first place. Since the music-dramatist Siegfried is going to unwittingly deliver the death blow to religious faith (Fafner), in taking responsibility for guarding the Ring, Tarnhelm, and Hoard which Siegfried will soon inherit, he must also take responsibility for keeping Wotan’s unspoken secret.’

RS: There is truth in that account, which decodes some of the hidden messages that have been buried in the drama. But it prompts the response that Siegfried is not a music dramatist, but an orphaned hero, that Fafner is something more, and also something less, than a symbol of religious faith, being a relict of an ancient deal that went wrong, a resume of all the accumulated obstacles that lie in any hero’s path and a symbol of the inertia that lies at the heart of human affairs. It reminds us too that Bruennhilde, even if she was, for Wagner, an epitome of the spirit of music, is also a Valkyrie, one who has surrendered her godhead out of pity for a mortal, and who has arranged her own future with breathtaking intelligence before sleeping on the plan. To put the point in a somewhat Leavisite way, Heise’s reading of the cycle, full of insights though it is, puts cabbalistic decipherment in place of a critical response.”

PH: Let us suppose, for purposes of argument, that Wagner’s "Ring" can be authentically, accurately described as an allegory, the evidence for which, as presented in my extensive study at http://www.wagnerheim.com, is in my view overwhelming, based as it is on the most thorough assessment of the libretto, the music, and Wagner’s relevant writings and recorded remarks, that has ever been achieved in Wagner scholarship, and also upon a unprecedentedly thorough survey of all of Feuerbach’s writings which Wagner has virtually paraphrased in all of his music-dramas from at least "Tannhaeuser" onward, and in his writings and recorded remarks since that time. The question is, how could anyone write a thorough interpretation of the "Ring," invoking all the crucial evidence from these sources, which would not seem to put “cabbalistic decipherment in place of a critical response”? I’m not sure what such an interpretation would read like. I might add that my allegorical interpretation invites the multiple perspectives on Wagner’s characters which Dr. Scruton celebrates above, rather than repelling them. My allegory is not an either/or proposition. One of the primary sources of our admiration for Wagner which I’ve tried to draw attention to in my allegorical reading is how naturally, fluently, and subliminally Wagner managed to clothe his highly realistic, moving characters and their lives with this allegorical meaning which both grows out of them and gives birth to them. There is nothing clunky about this as we experience Wagner in performance because his music per se, and his musical motifs in particular, draw our attention subliminally, without strain, to the wider dimensions of Wagner’s characters and their activities.

PH: There are also two other points worth making. First, Dr. Scruton has selected a passage (one among many) which is indeed thick with the allegorical meaning I impute to, and claim to have discovered in, the "Ring," but there are dozens of other passages in which I treat the characters of the "Ring" very much as the living, breathing personalities that all of us thrill to when we experience it in the opera house, such as my discussions of Siegmund’s moral dilemmas in the face of a society which rejects him as too independent a spirit, or of the blinding sublimity of Bruennhilde’s appeals to her father, the god Wotan, for compassion and understanding of her support for the humane impulse buried in his heart as embodied in Siegmund, whom Wotan has been compelled to renounce for the sake of preserving faith in the gods’ laws. Second, in the course of my study I only very gradually build up the allegorical meaning of the characters, so that I can discuss both their status as personalities which seem more real than real life, and their status as symbols for something inhering in their personalities and motives which links them with various facets of mankind’s experience in its universal meaning, simultaneously.

RS: “Feuerbach’s philosophy is at the centre, too, of Mark Berry’s allegorical vision of the cycle. On Berry’s reading, the Ring contains a denunciation of property, of political order, and of civil law equal to the fiercest diatribes of the Young Hegelians.
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Re: Part 5: Scruton's critique of my book, & my response:

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Re: Part 5: Scruton's critique of my book, & my response:

Postby alberich00 » Sat Jan 28, 2017 11:56 am

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