Critique: 'Finding an Ending' Part 20

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

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Critique: 'Finding an Ending' Part 20

Postby alberich00 » Sat Aug 06, 2016 12:55 pm

PH: On the surface, K&S’s remarks above seem at first to be astute. They are absolutely right that Wagner’s music gained in sophistication and associative capacity, and sheer quantity of distinctive thematic material, the more that Wagner proceeded in the proper chronological order of the "Ring" drama to compose it, and that the libretto of "Twilight of the Gods," being the first of the texts of the four "Ring" music dramas to be written, was more akin in some ways to the simpler, more operatic librettos of Wagner’s earlier operas, than to the last of the libretto texts he wrote for the "Ring," those of its first two parts, "Rhinegold" and "Valkyrie." Thus Wagner was able to compensate, in a sense, for the perhaps less densely conceptual libretto texts of the later parts of the "Ring," with the highly elaborate motival material he could draw on now from all the prior parts of the "Ring." But it is absurd to even consider the possibility that Wagner would have simplified his musical palette in the later parts of the "Ring" for the reasons K&S offer, including their notion that terminally naive Siegfried can’t compare in conceptual or emotional depth with the problematic Wotan and therefore, presumably, didn’t deserve such sophisticated music as Wotan. And here is the reason: Wagner once compared his ability, as the composer of the music for the "Ring" and particularly its complex web of musical motifs, with the Buddha, who, according to the prose draft he wrote for a prospective opera to be called "The Victors," was able to see, in a flash of intuition, all the past lives of the other characters in this drama about reincarnation. Wagner saw himself in the light of this image of Buddha, and noted that through the motifs of reminiscence and foreboding which he composed for the "Ring" drama, he could grant his audience a Buddha-like clairvoyance with respect to the characters and their past lives (or the lives of their ancestors which in a sense live on in them), since all their past, a past even unknown to them, and their future too, could be made present and known to the audience by use of associative motifs, which meant that these musical motifs in a sense know for the protagonists in the drama, what they don’t know (in this resembling Bruennhilde, who knows for Siegfried what he doesn't know).

PH: Wagner himself told King Ludwig II that Wotan lives on in Siegfried, and that Erda in some sense doesn’t know this. But, as I have explained, the fact that Erda doesn’t know this is simply Wagner’s metaphor for the alleged ability of the artistic “Wonder” of his musical motifs to transcend the limits of time and space, Erda’s knowledge of all that was, is, and will be, by making all time and space present, here and now. But Siegfried, Wotan reincarnate, remains unconscious of his true identity and history, because Bruennhilde, Siegfried’s unconscious mind, to whom Wotan confessed his knowledge of his loathsome identity and corrupt history, holds this knowledge for Siegfried. For this reason Siegfried does not know who he is, but Bruennhilde knows this for him. However, through Wagner’s use of musical motifs we become fellow-knowers with him of Siegfried’s true identity and history even when these matters are not being discussed by the protagonists. This, of course, makes Bruennhilde, into whose feelings Wotan’s thoughts were sublimated in the course of his confession to her, the figurative founder of the musical motifs of the "Ring," their mother, in a sense. My essential point is that Wotan is reincarnate in Siegfried, but the plot, as my interpretation has outlined it, is that Siegfried must not be conscious of his true identity as Wotan so that Siegfried can feel as if he acts independently and spontaneously and naively. But Bruennhilde, Siegfried’s unconscious mind, and the mother of those musical motifs through which she imparts to Siegfried subliminally what Wotan thought, grants Siegfried equal dramatic-conceptual weight with Wotan. Wagner uses his musical motifs to inform us of this equivalence in ways which K&S seem never to have dreamed of, but which are the stock-in-trade of my interpretation. They are not wrong, however, to say that Wagner’s “… musical language goes far beyond matching the protagonists’ thoughts and feelings, serving rather to express the background of emotion and idea against which their doings could take on new meaning - and then to transcend them, with an authority higher than any of them have and that only Bruennhilde even approaches.” My interpretation, completed in most of its details, in various papers I copyrighted prior to the publication of their book, at the Library of Congress, and also in a lecture entitled "The ‘Ring’ as a Whole" which I presented to the Wagner Society of Washington, DC in April of 2000 (a transcript of which used to be posted at their website, but which has been removed from it and is now posted in the archive of my discussion forum at, long before K&S published their book in 2004), has long explained why what they say here is so.


P. 197: K&S: “The four parts of Wagner’s "Ring" provide us with five endings. Two of these - the closing moments of "Rheingold" and "Siegfried" - are apparently triumphant. After the Rhimemaidens have sung their beautiful lament, the orchestra seems to ignore them, swelling with great pomp as the gods enter Valhalla. Two operas later, the brief orchestral coda that succeeds the exultant heights to which Bruennhilde and Siegfried leap with their ‘… [laughing death!]’ seems to continue their ecstatic mood … . In both instances, the affirmative mode is easily, and rightly, heard as deceptive: there is empty pomposity in the one case, and the overheated jubilation of unstable emotions in the other. (The lovers seem to protest their delight too much; their love is real, but they do not yet know themselves, or what they are doing, or what to make of what they are feeling, or what its limits and vulnerabilities might be.)”

PH: K&S are right to draw parallels between the endings of "Rhinegold" and "Siegfried," which offer us an apparent triumph which is predestined to failure, and also to highlight the parallel between the climaxes of "Valkyrie" and "Twilight of the Gods," in which the triumph promised in the prior two respective music-dramas fails to last, and ends in a sort of despair (but with something else besides). In fact, the last few minutes of "Valkyrie" and "Twilight of the Gods" sound very much alike in some ways, scored as they are with magic fire music (one of Loge’s motifs). In my interpretation "Rhinegold" offers us an account of the apparent victory of man’s religious consciousness, with hints of disaster waiting, while "Valkyrie" depicts the failure of religious faith and of Wotan’s first bid to salvage religious longing for man’s transcendent value in a morality of loving self-sacrifice which isn’t beholden to religious promises or belief in divinity. "Siegfried" offers us the apparent triumph, in ecstasy, of Wotan’s hope to salvage religious man’s quest to affirm his transcendent value in secular art, with hints of ensuing tragedy, and in "Twilight of the Gods" we experience the fall which such hubris as we experienced in the finale of "Siegfried" must necessarily bring crashing down, with the exposure of Wotan’s hope for redemption through secular art, i.e., for redemption through the Wagnerian music-drama, the "Ring," as illusory, and thus dashed to pieces from within that artwork itself, leaving us with the question, are we to annihilate ourselves rather than live within the limits of an objective world whose truths seem abhorrent to us, and in which we can’t invoke divine grace to help us escape our own egoistic nature, or are we to reconcile ourselves to certain natural limits to still be able to live within the real world. We see the end-of-times nihilism of the first alternative incarnate now in ISIS’s hope for an epic, final battle between believers and infidels, in Syria, as I write this, an abhorrence of modernity and the objective scientific spirit so extreme that it leads those who long to affirm man’s transcendent, divine value to affirm that value through its very antithesis, the annihilation of all doubt and all those human beings who embody that doubt for the believers.

P. 199: K&S: “After she [Bruennhilde] gives the joyous greeting for which the dying Siegfried had yearned, the orchestra conjures the destruction of the world in fire [PH: #35], giving way to the themes of the primordial state [PH: #3] as the Rhine rises and the maidens regain the Ring. Above this scene of destruction, borne by flutes and violins, there soars the theme that Sieglinde had sung [PH: #93] in response to the news of her unborn child. And from this point on, what we hear are radiantly beautiful versions of three major motifs: the pure beauty of the natural world of the Rhinemaidens [PH: #4 - Woglinde’s Lullabye], the splendors of Valhalla [PH: #20] set in genuine grandeur rather than false pomp, and the resolute firmness of the free hero [PH: #92].

K&S: How can this be? What are these motifs, with their resonances and reminders, doing here? Siegfried is dead; the hero and his love have failed. Valhalla has been consumed, and we have long known that it was not the answer. Beautiful though the Rhinemaidens and their primordial world may be, the drama began from a sense of their insufficiencies. Yet these themes are preceded by the soaring melody of Sieglinde’s expression of wonder, and they lead back to it, as in the very last measures of the orchestral score that melody is extended to a new resolution, a final triumph and a final peace. To hear the three themes with a new beauty is to hear them in the context of that great melody, and to hear how, in response to them, the melody unfolds into even greater loveliness.

P. 199-200: K&S: These five endings provide a revealing structure for the whole drama. The first offers a deceptive triumph, a closure that is pregnant with instability and with the reverses to come. The second retrieves from apparently devastating failure and irreplaceable loss, a sweetness in resignation - and a new hope. That hope will sweep to another false victory, a contrived and illusory celebration. Inevitably new defeat follows, defeat that can easily be seen as total. And yet, even here, one might find something to praise in the death of the hero. The Trauermusik is not the bitterest moment. What follows is worse, as we confront the remnants of the world, after it seems that everything has failed. Those elements, however, are transformed by Bruennhilde; and the orchestral ending of "Goetterdaemmerung" sings out her making new of everything that has gone before, as it infuses the themes of nature, gods, and heroes with a different and greater light.”

PH: The sublimest “Wonder” of which Sieglinde sung when contemplating with exaltation Bruennhilde’s self-sacrificial act in saving the Waelsung race in the as-yet-unborn Siegfried, ultimately can be construed as the wonder of Wagner’s musical motifs, which according to Wagner are secular man’s substitute for lost religious faith (the twilight of the gods), because Bruennhilde, Siegfried’s unconscious mind and mother of his music, of the Ring’s motifs (the sublimination of Wotan’s abhorrent vision of the meaninglesness of the world in his confession to Bruennhilde, through which thought was transmuted into musical feeling) is Siegfried’s temporary redeemer from the curse of consciousness, Alberich’s curse on his Ring. Of course this isn’t remotely what K&S have said in the passage above, because nowhere in their book do they even hint at an awareness of Wagner’s theory of the “Wonder,” i.e., of music as a substitute for lost religious faith, by virtue of its ability to transcend time and space (i.e., in our subjective response to it, not in actuality). Bruennhilde is our redeemer also, in the sense that even in the failure of all of our ideals, hopes and dreams, we transform this failure into the sublime, into the highest beauty (in much the manner of Greek Tragedy, through which mortal man could reconcile himself to the worst, by sublimating it into art) in music, its distillation, which transfigures it. Wagner, in his "Ring," had taken aesthetic possession of the terrible world, and only in this sense redeemed it and reconciled us with it. As Wagner himself said, the death of the hero is the life of the work of art, the work of art triumphs where the hero dies, for it was in order to come to grips with the necessity for Siegfried’s death that Wagner conceived and created the "Ring" tetralogy. Wagner stated in his last years that he no longer wanted to create and produce dramas, but only write music which would have no drama in it. I suppose we could construe the restoration of the Ring of human consciousness to the Rhinedaughters as a metaphor for this return to pure music, an artificial substitute for a literal end to human consciousness.

P. 200: K&S: “The judgment of this closing is at once tragic and affirmative. All the Ring’s great figures are tragic, doomed by the very qualities that elevate them above the rest. The order of nature can indeed be disrupted; but its disruption more readily tends toward its corruption than it is amenable to a reordering perfection, even by the greatest powers and lofty intentions to transcend and transfigure it. Even a divinity that makes bold to improve on it suffers hubris, and must fail and fall. And if the wisdom and power of Wotan cannot succeed in imposing and securing a new and more glorious order in the world, it should come as no surprise that neither the heroism of Siegfried nor the love of Bruennhilde fares any better in this respect. (…) But of the two alternatives, Bruennhilde’s receives a final musical endorsement that stands in the most radical of contrasts to Siegfried’s. It is only when touched and transformed by Bruennhilde’s love that Siegfried even begins to become bearable, let alone capable and worthy of such a love, and estimable as a human being.

PH: In my interpretation, the hubris which makes all these characters tragic characters was Wotan’s bid to resolve mankind’s existential dilemma, his bid to affirm mankind’s transcendent value in the face of an inevitable historical advancement in knowledge of nature and self which would in the end contradict man’s bid, by displaying it to man as based on self-deception. Alberich described Wotan’s sin as the sin of religious pessimism, the sin of world-renunciation, which (because in Wagner’s Feuerbachian view the gods are figments of mortal men’s imagination) is really man’s sin in positing a divine realm of being, presumed to be supernaturally autonomous from Mother Nature (Erda) and her laws, including of course her primary law, that all which is, must end. Alberich described Wotan’s sin specifically as Wotan’s sin against all that was, is, and will be (Erda's, Mother Nature's, knowledge of all that was, is, and will be), i.e., his sin against the objective world, and denial of knowledge of the objective world. Both the moral hero Siegmund and the artist-hero Siegfried and his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration Bruennhilde were heirs to, and unwitting perpetuators of, Wotan’s original sin. It was specifically this sin, religious man’s impulse to transcend the limits of his natural world (Mother Nature, Erda, his true source and foundation), including the limit from within, of man’s egoistic nature, that Alberich’s curse on his Ring was intended to punish, since Wotan and his proxies co-opt the objective power of human consciousness, which Alberich professed, in order to create and sustain consoling illusions of transcendent value.

PH: Man’s religious hubris, the quest to transcend (which Kant described as man’s ineradicable need to posit the metaphysical), was according to Feuerbach predestined to failure, since man’s self-awareness would inevitably mature, through mankind’s worldly experience and accumulation of knowledge over millennia, which would eventually display man to himself as a self-deceiver (as both Wotan and Gunther describe themselves in the "Ring"). And this sin of Matricide (a figurative murder of our Mother, Nature) was necessary, an inevitable product of the very nature of man’s gift of thought, through which, though man himself is physically limited in time and space (the web of fate the Norns spin) and by egoistic animal instincts (the giants), man can imagine what is not present in time and space, imagine transcendence, and therefore, since man himself is limited, he conceives a being in his own image who is not limited, and is the reification of the seemingly infinite and free nature of his own mind, and calls him God.

PH: Again, K&S are wrong to distinguish Siegfried from Bruennhilde, since both together, in loving union, are Wagner’s metaphor for the artist-hero’s unconscious artistic inspiration by his muse. Bruennhilde is mankind’s (and therefore Wotan’s) collective unconscious, into which the artist-hero (who, according to Wagner himself, inherits the Folk’s primordial artistic, myth-making spirit) Siegfried taps for inspiration, and when she renders her judgment in the finale of the "Ring" she is speaking the wisdom belonging to both Wotan and Siegfried, which has now become self-conscious. As Wagner himself said (through the voice of Bruennhilde in an early scenario for the "Ring"), when Siegfried dies he gives up the knowledge she’d imparted to him, and it returns to her, and it speaks through her. Wagner equated this knowledge both with Erda’s and the Norns’ “Ur-Law,” and with Alberich’s Ring. In betraying Bruennhilde’s love Siegfried made what formerly had remained unconscious for him, conscious. That is why Gunther, a figure for Siegfried the artist-hero’s audience, suffers in the end an unendurable wound of shame, an unhealing wound, like that which Wotan confessed to Bruennhilde, and which Bruennhilde imparted to Siegfried subliminally.

P. 200-201: K&S: “As we have repeatedly observed, Bruennhilde’s love, even at its radiant best, is no more The Answer to Wotan’s problem of how to achieve and secure an admirable world-order than is Siegfried’s brand of heroism. Both are ill-suited to it, disruptive of order, and all too easily taken advantage of by those with ulterior purposes and superior cunning. But while that is one of the judgments delivered by "Goetterdaemmerung," another - hammered home by the Funeral Music and then soaringly celebrated by the music of the immolation scene - is that only Bruennhilde’s way holds the promise of an answer to the more fundamental problem that originally drove Wotan to the World-Ash: the problem of endowing life (and death) with meaning.

P. 201: K&S: Wotan left the World-Ash, spear in hand, committed to the idea that a solution to this problem involved making the world a better place, which in turn required the imposition upon it of a stable order; and so he embarked on an enterprise that was doomed to fail. Neither the best of strategy nor the greatest of heroism would suffice to make that more specific enterprise succeed. Further, love does not and cannot conquer all, any more than can the best laid plans of gods and men, or the greatest feats of the best of heroes. None of this will bring more than temporary victory at most, as victory is commonly reckoned. Yet the possibility of a love like that expressed in Bruennhilde’s final act changes everything, in a way that heroism does not, even in the face of death and the ending of the world as we know it.

K&S: And though the world ends, the earth remains, still capable of renewal, still charged with this promise that we have come to know. We also know that everything that comes to be in it must end, including all order and the very best of lives and loves. But in their mere presence, however ephemeral, they have the power to illumine the world in a manner that vindicates all.”

PH: In virtually all of their discussions of Wotan’s attempts to create a world-order which would improve the world and make life meaningful, K&S have neglected to assess Wotan as a God, i.e., as a bearer of mankind’s religious impulse, and have focused instead on his efforts to create a government based on rule of law, as if he were merely a mortal. But we see in the United States, and Britain, and a few other thriving democracies, that it was after all possible for human beings to contrive a government and way of life, based on a nation-state in which membership is conferred by citizenship (as Dr. Roger Scruton puts it) rather than by race, religion, sex, class, creed, or other such distinctions, which have (though imperfectly, nonetheless capable of constant self-criticism and therefore of improvement) made it possible for the overwhelming majority of citizens to live in dignity (or to have the potential of living in dignity) under the rule of law. If this were all that Wagner was driving at in his characterization of Wotan, this would be my answer to him. Of course, Wagner was convinced that no matter how subtly nation states attempted to make a prudent balance of self-interests among their citizens, nonetheless petty egoism always, in the end, rules the day. Of course, in the USA we devised a carefully balanced clockwork government of checks and balances through which the egoistic impulses of any given interest group are hopefully counterbalanced by the egoistic impulses of rival interest groups. But no matter, Wagner was aiming at something more exalted even than government under law, which might after all work under certain circumstances. Wagner was questioning the very nature of man, and asking himself why man strives for more than nature presents to him, why man strives to see beyond what is self-evident, why man isn’t content even with a working government and laws. I can’t help noting that in spite of their highly detailed assessment of the "Ring" under comparatively limited (and limiting) premises, nonetheless they have scarcely touched on the nature of Alberich’s Ring power and his curse upon the Ring. They have, in point of fact, ignored and omitted a rather large part of the libretto text and music of the "Ring." As they said themselves, they only wished to cast light on certain aspects of the "Ring" by asking a few questions of interest to themselves. But I don’t think it is possible to get at the "Ring," to get down to cases with it, unless one attempts a fully comprehensive assessment of the type I have posted at, where I have tried to omit nothing, producing for this reason a book of about 1,000 pages. And here, in my book, I have pursued the question of how Wotan tries to salvage something of his original religious bid for transcendent meaning in two proxies, the moral hero Siegmund (with his sister-wife Sieglinde), and the artist-hero Siegfried, who can only be fully grasped in the union of the artist-hero Siegfried with his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration, his own unconscious mind, Bruennhilde. Siegfried and Bruennhilde, in spite of being distinct characters with distinct personalities in the "Ring," can best be described (as indeed, they describe themselves in the last words of their final love-duet in the Prelude to Twilight of the Gods) as one.


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