Page 1 of 1

Part 1: Scruton's critique of my book, & my response

PostPosted: Fri Jul 29, 2016 8:50 am
by alberich00
Dear members of, and visitors to, the discussion forum at m

Dr. Roger Scruton has offered three critical responses to my interpretation of Wagner’s "Ring" since spring of 2011: (1) The first was his introduction to my website,, which was posted online in spring of 2011. (2) The second was his 5/27/2011 article "The Ring of Truth," which appeared in The American Spectator. (3) The third is a portion of his new, and very important, book on Wagner’s "Ring," "The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s ‘Ring of the Nibelung’," published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, in June of 2016.

In view of the fact that in his new book, in spite of having given my interpretation of Wagner’s "Ring" posted here at considerable credibility, placing it on an even playing field for debate with other Wagner scholars, he has cast doubt on the validity of the allegorical approach I have taken, I thought it would be useful to review his three distinct critical responses to my work, as a sort of introduction to what I intend will be a multi-part critical review of his entire book, and as a general defense of my position.

In the following I will respond to each of Dr. Scruton’s critical discussions of my interpretation of Wagner’s "Ring," in chronological succession, since this will illustrate Dr. Scruton’s evolving and changing perspective on my own work. My personal commentary on passages from his critical reviews will be distinguished by identifying them with my initials, PH, in capitals, prior to my responses, and placing Dr. Roger Scruton’s initials, RS, prior to passages he authored:

Dr. Roger Scruton’s introduction to Paul Heise’s interpretation of Wagner’s Ring at

Paul Heise’s Interpretation of Wagner’s "Ring" Cycle.
Roger Scruton.

RS: “No composer has ever been more of a philosopher than Richard Wagner, and in none of his works is Wagner more philosophical than in the "The Ring of the Nibelung." In this work – surely the greatest drama composed in modern times – Wagner attempts to convey a picture of the human condition that will identify the origins of good and evil, the place of man in the cosmos, and the secret source of human freedom. When he wrote the poem Wagner was under the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach, the philosopher whose materialist reworking of Hegel’s social and political philosophy inspired the early thoughts of Karl Marx. And many commentators (not least George Bernard Shaw) have seen strong parallels between the vision of the "Ring" and the Marxist critique of capitalism. Heise shows that the influence of Feuerbach is indeed all-pervasive in Wagner’s music drama. But he also shows that the "Ring" is concerned with far deeper and more lasting questions than those raised by the discussion of property and revolution. The drama touches on aspects of the human psyche that are hardly acknowledged in the writings of 19th-century socialists. Briefly put, "The Ring," on Heise’s interpretation, is an exploration of man’s religious sense, of the human need for the transcendental, and of the hope for redemption that endures even in our time of cynicism and materialist frivolity, and which can be satisfied, now, only through the truthful enchantment conveyed to us by art.

RS: In developing that theme Heise has made, it seems to me, one of the most important contributions to Wagnerian scholarship that we have seen. As yet his work takes the form of a scene-by-scene analysis of the whole drama, in which the symbolism of the motives and the allegorical meaning of the action is minutely dissected. In making it available in this form, Heise has opened his ideas to public discussion, and made it possible for fellow Wagnerians to question them, to amplify them and to contribute to the kind of debate that is surely needed, if this great work is to take its proper place at the centre of modern philosophy and at the centre, too, of modern life.

RS: The text of "The Ring" is derived, with imaginative flair and brilliant strokes of synthesis, from old German myths that were once the theological heritage of the German people. The seamless plot of the tetralogy can be read as a retelling of the myths of a dead religion. And yet this is also the meaning of the drama, on Heise’s reading: "The Ring" is about the death of religion – not the old Germanic religion only, which, in the Icelandic sagas, foresaw its own demise, but all religion. The religious need is the original need – the Urnoth – of humanity itself, which arises with our conscious separation from the cosmic order. Consciousness is the human lot, and the root of freedom; but it is also the cause of our fall – and Wagner’s telling of the ‘Fall’ is surely a poetic achievement to match those that we know from the "Book of Genesis", and from "Paradise Lost."

RS: On Wagner’s understanding, consciousness is the origin, not only of the distinction between good and evil, but of the ‘hoard’ of scientific knowledge, which alienates us from our roots in species life. We long to regain the innocent oneness with the world that is the lot of animals and which was the lot of our pre-conscious ancestors. And we project that longing into the heavens, imagining there a blessed resting place where the wound of consciousness will be healed and we will regain the serenity that we lost in our first attempts at self-understanding.

RS: That is the theme of Wagner’s drama as Heise interprets it. And in his subtle exposition he shows, one by one, how each scene of the work spells out some necessary feature of the allegory. Wagner’s work is a meditation on our condition, as spiritually needful beings, whose sparse allocation of happiness has created a lasting need for the transcendental. We seek for the transcendental in love, in power, in the accumulation of knowledge. But always it eludes us. What then is the redemption? Alberich renounces love, for the sake of the Ring, which is (on Heise’s interpretation) the spell-making and spell-deciphering power of science. And Alberich’s sin is both a sin against religion and the sin required by religion. For without science, in its elemental aspect, the illusory kingdom of the gods cannot be built or maintained. The intricate thought here, which is so difficult to grasp in plain prose, is wonderfully presented by the music and the drama of "Das Rheingold," and lucidly explained by Heise in his commentary.

RS: If we cannot redeem ourselves by renouncing love, then whence does redemption come? Two ideas animate the subsequent dramas. The first is that we are redeemed not by renouncing love, but by renouncing life for the sake of love. The second is that we are redeemed through art, and through the artist-hero (Siegfried) who takes on the task that religion failed to accomplish. The artist-hero presents a new kind of redemption, which is the redemption of ‘wonder’. Instead of looking for our vindication in the transcendental world, art shows that we are vindicated here and now, by our own capacity to recognise the beauty of the world, and to weave love and allusion into the warp of the sensory order. Which of these two forms of wisdom does Wagner recommend? Heise suggests that the two philosophies coincide: redemption through loving renunciation, and redemption through art involve the same sacrificial stance. Consciousness needed the gods, as a mirror in which to smile. Science smashed the mirror. And art replaced the mirror with a refracting window on the world, in which all the colours of our joy and suffering are harmonised. In the place of the certainties of religion and the doubts of science, art gives us wonder. Through wonder we accept the world, and this wonder is exemplified by the Ring itself. Wagner’s music shines a light of allusion and suggestion that reaches to the ends of the universe, and by showing what art can achieve, Wagner also justifies his view that art is the way in which we can live with the unhealing wound of consciousness.

RS: Heise’s book is not an easy book. But it is a deep book. All Wagnerians know that "The Ring" is full of enigmas. But the enigmas are resolved by Heise in a most pleasing, intense and persuasive way. The Wanderer, Wotan’s missing eye, the Norns and their rope, the head of Mime, the many drinks brewed and refused or stored and consumed, the Ring, the Tarnhelm, the sword Nothung, the spear, the wood-bird – so many obscure seeming symbols, which become bright and transparent in Heise’s reading. I don’t agree with all that he says. But he awakens interest, argument, dissent and wonder at every point, linking the text minutely to the musical realisation, and bringing this great work to life in a way that I hope you will appreciate as much as I have.”

PH: Dr. Scruton’s introduction to my website, and to my book on Wagner’s "Ring" which is its primary content, speaks for itself. Clearly, Dr. Scruton (at least at the time he wrote this introduction, in the spring of 2011) felt that my primary allegorical thesis, that the "Ring" dramatizes the birth of human consciousness, and the birth of man’s first form of conscious expression in religious belief, that it places before us the historical process whereby man’s acquisition of objective knowledge led to the decay of religious belief, and that inspired secular art (such as Wagner’s art) falls heir to religious feeling when religion can no longer be sustained as a belief system thanks to science, which falls heir to religion’s former role of explaining ourselves and our world, is a plausible reading of at least one main thread of the Ring’s meaning, and also has deep resonance with some of his own preoccupations. He also states that my allegorical interpretation solves many of the Ring’s enigmas. But I have posted Dr. Scruton’s introduction to my website here, complete, in order to contrast it with what seems to be Dr. Scruton’s somewhat revised perspective on my interpretation and on its value, as expressed in his newly published book "The Ring of Truth - The Wisdom of Wagner’s ‘Ring of the Nibelung’." Though Dr. Scruton clearly states at several points in his introduction above that my allegorical reading makes considerable sense of many aspects of Wagner’s "Ring," he takes issue with this viewpoint in his new book.

PH: Similarly, Dr. Scruton’s article "The Ring of Truth" (The American Spectator, 5/27/2011), in which he states that much became clear to him about Wagner’s "Ring" after reading my interpretation of it, seems to be somewhat at variance with Dr. Scruton’s current viewpoint as expressed in his new book, in which he calls into question the validity of my allegorical approach to grasping the Ring’s meaning. Here are some relevant extracts from his article:

The Ring of Truth - Roger Scruton - The American Spectator
May 27, 2011, 10:07 am

RS: “In response to Nietzsche I would say that Wagner’s dramas are not fairy tales. Nothing is more impressive in them than the grim realism with which wholly intelligible motives are carried through to their crisis. At the same time, these motives are placed in a pre-historical, mythical or medieval setting. Wagner’s purpose was not to fill the stage with fantasies, but to create the kind of distance between audience and drama that would endow the drama with a universal significance. Hence his preoccupation with myths and legends — i.e., stories that depart from realism only in order to convey universal truths about the human condition.”

PH: Note that Dr. Scruton says here that Wagner employed a mythical setting “… to create a kind of distance between audience and drama that would endow the drama with a universal significance. Hence his preoccupation with myths and legends - i.e. stories that depart from realism only in order to convey universal truths about the human condition.” This distinction which Dr. Scruton makes between a purely realistic drama, and the mythic or legendary music-dramas which Wagner created in his maturity, will have a bearing later on Dr. Scruton’s subsequent critique of my allegorical approach.

RS: (…)

RS: “He discovered myth not as a collection of fables and beliefs, nor as a primitive religion, but as a distinct category of human thought, as open to us, Wagner thought, in a world of scientific skepticism as it was open to the inhabitants of ancient Greece or Iceland. Myth dawned on Wagner as a form of social hope. It was a way of thinking that could restore to modern man the lost sense of the ideal, without which human life is worthless.”

PH: My allegorical reading of Wagner’s "Ring" is my effort to make available to admirers and students of Wagner’s art the "Ring" myth as Wagner conceived it, as a distinct category of human thought. I have attempted to reveal what otherwise might have remained unconscious or subliminal for Wagner’s audience, the allegorical conceptual structure of Wagner’s "Ring," not only in order to better grasp what is at stake in the "Ring," not only in order to make sense of many seeming conundrums in Wagner’s use of specific musical motifs in certain dramatic settings, but also in order to demonstrate how the "Ring" conceptually and allegorically coheres with Wagner’s other canonic artworks from "The Flying Dutchman" through "Parsifal." Wagner in the "Ring" created a sort of master-myth, a myth of myths, in which all other myths find their conceptual framework. Wagner’s allegorical reasoning is a special language, and one must grasp that language in order to fully grasp the content and meaning of Wagner’s "Ring." Wagner, over and over again, employs his musical motifs of foreboding and remembrance in order to draw attention to this subliminal, but extraordinarily potent and powerful, aspect of the "Ring." This is why my interpretation has gone very far indeed in tracing the most far-reaching links between motival references and the allegory.

RS: “A myth, for Wagner, is therefore not a fable or a religious doctrine but a vehicle for human knowledge. The myth acquaints us with ourselves and our condition, using symbols and characters that give objective form to our inner compulsions. Myths are set in the hazy past, in a vanished world of dark forces and magniloquent deeds. But this obligatory “pastness” places the myth and its characters before recorded time, and therefore in an era that is purged of history. It lifts the story out of the stream of human life, and endows it with a meaning that is timeless.”

PH: In my interpretation Wagner dramatized how the artist-hero Siegfried is lifted out of the limits of time and space, at least figuratively, and transformed from a historic into a mythic or archetypal artist, by virtue of Wotan’s confessing his true, loathsome identity and corrupt history to his daughter Bruennhilde. This action in Wagner’s allegory is a metaphor for Wotan's repression of unbearable self-knowledge into his unconscious mind, where it can be forgotten. Wotan, following Feuerbach’s lead, is Wagner’s symbol not only for transcendent, supernatural Godhead, but also for collective, historical man, who according to Ludwig Feuerbach not only involuntarily invented God through his dreamlike imagination, but who collectively is identical with the God his unconsciously operating imagination invented for him. On this view Wotan’s daughter Bruennhilde, self-described as Wotan’s “Will,” represents mankind’s collective unconscious, into which (or into whom) any unconsciously inspired artist like Siegfried can tap for inspiration.

PH: As Wagner suggested himself, we can construe Siegfried as Wagner’s metaphor for the poet-dramatist, and construe Bruennhilde not only as Siegfried’s unconscious mind (the role Wagner stated Elsa performed for Lohengrin in his essay of 1851 "A Communication To My Friends"), but as the language of the unconscious mind, music, so that we can understand Siegfried’s loving union with Bruennhilde as Wagner’s metaphor for the artist-hero’s unconscious artistic inspiration by his muse, inspiration which gives birth to the redemptive music-drama, in which man’s dying religious faith (i.e., the gods of Valhalla) can live on as feeling, when religion as thought, as a belief system, is in decay. Wagner portrayed Siegfried in his role of music-dramatist in the narrative he sings (at Hagen's request) about his life, and how he learned the meaning of the Woodbird’s song, for the Gibichungs, Gunther, and Hagen, in T.3.2. This was Wagner’s play-within-the-play, a metaphor for Wagner’s own production of his "Ring" for an audience.

PH: Siegfried becomes a mythic, timeless, musical being by virtue of the fact that Wotan repressed his unbearable knowledge of his loathsome personality (as he describes it himself in saying to Bruennhilde during his confession to her “With loathing I find myself always in all that I undertake”) and corrupt history into the womb of his wishes Bruennhilde, through his confession to her in V.2.2, thus repressing this self-knowledge into his unconscious mind, so that Wotan could be reborn as a new self, the free hero he longed for, purified of his old guilt and minus the consciousness of his old identity and history. Thus, Siegfried does not know who he is, as he tells Fafner. But Bruennhilde will tell Siegfried in S.3.3 that what Siegfried doesn’t know (i.e., his identity and history), she knows for him, as we hear the Fate Motif #87, which represents Wotan’s repressed knowledge of the fate of the Gods which Erda foresaw and imparted to Wotan, and which paralysed Wotan with fear. This is why Siegfried is naive, does not know who he is, acts spontaneously and instinctively rather than reflectively, and feels no fear. It is because Bruennhilde holds his knowledge for him, and protects him from the wounds of consciousness, the existential, unhealing wound Wotan suffered from his tragic foresight of the inevitable consequences of Alberich's curse on his Ring. It is noteworthy that Bruennhilde tells Hagen and Gunther in T.2.5 that her magic protects Siegfried only at the front, as if from Wotan's fearful foresight of the gods' inevitable doom. As Wagner put it himself, Siegfried is the finest gift of the will (recall that Bruennhilde called herself Wotan’s “Will”), who lives entirely in the present. We find this concept echoed in Wotan’s proclamation to Erda in S.3.1 that Erda’s wisdom wanes before his “will.” Since Bruennhilde described herself as Wotan’s will, Wotan is really saying that Erda’s knowledge waned before Bruennhilde when Wotan confessed the fearful fore-knowledge of the gods’ fated doom to her, which Erda had imparted to him while giving birth to Bruennhilde.

PH: Similarly (and keeping in mind that Bruennhilde is Wagner’s metaphor not only for the unconscious mind but for its language, music), Wagner stated that his musical motifs of remembrance and foreboding allow us, the audience for his art, to grasp in a flash of intuition, here, and now, things that within the course of the drama are distant in time and space. We feel, but don't think, these distant (Fernen) things. This is how Wagner described the “Wonder” of his music-dramas, the gift of his musical motifs, through which his inspired secular art offers man a feeling of transcendent value which doesn’t depend on religious faith in immortality or supernatural redemption from the real world in an alternative world of the spirit, but which offers us the feeling of paradise regained, from within the real, concrete world. In this way Siegfried the secular, mortal artist-hero falls heir to Wotan’s Valhalla (religion) in its new form as art (inspired by Siegfried's muse and lover Bruennhilde). The continuity of the divine Valhalla with this second artistic Valhalla, what Feuerbach and Wagner called the "new religion," is conveyed by Motif #23, which is introduced in R.2 when the goddess Fricka describes the newly minted Valhalla as a home of domestic tranquility which should keep her husband Wotan from straying, and heard again in S.3.3 after Siegfried has passed through Loge’s protective ring of fire and meditates on the mountaintop home of the sleeping Bruennhilde, in a state of ecstatic aesthetic arrest.

RS: (…)

RS: “The time of heroes was a mythical time - and mythical time is now. Myths do not speak of what was but of what is eternally. They are magical-realist summaries of the actual world, in which the moral possibilities are personified and made flesh. Hence the "Ring," Wagner’s synthesis of the Germanic and Icelandic myths as they were reflected in the dark mirror of early Germanic literature, became the most determinedly modern of his works, the one which more than any other provides a commentary on modern life and on the hopes and fears that thrive in it. (…)”

Re: Part 1: Scruton's critique of my book, & my response

PostPosted: Fri Oct 28, 2016 12:11 pm
by alberich00

Re: Part 1: Scruton's critique of my book, & my response

PostPosted: Sat Jan 28, 2017 11:59 am
by alberich00

Re: Part 1: Scruton's critique of my book, & my response

PostPosted: Mon Jun 18, 2018 11:45 am
by alberich00