General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

Moderators: Justin Jeffrey, alberich00


Postby alberich00 » Mon Sep 12, 2011 11:01 am


Hello Wagnerians all:

Here we go again, with my ruminations on some interesting issues raised by Alain Badiou in his Lesson #3 on Wagner.

Badiou P. 55: The first point of note is Badiou's remark that "... philosophers take on Wagner, and I am going to end up taking him on too." He alludes to a tradition begun by Nietzsche and continued by Adorno and Heidegger, among others.

PH: To my knowledge, there is no really good book on Nietzsche's intellectual relationship with Wagner (except what Nietzsche himself wrote about it), though Thomas Mann made some notable efforts in that direction. This relationship is worthy of a lifetime of study, and a full appreciation of its implications would shock the living daylights out of most Wagnerians and Nietzscheans, among others, since, in my view, Nietzsche's critique of Wagner is scarcely what Nietzsche himself made it out to be. In my view nearly all of it is a feint, a decoy, an obfuscation of the real issues. But more on that another time.

Badiou P. 57: Badiou states that Nietzsche, Heidegger, Adorno and LB concur in their critique that Wagner "forces musical unity upon a variegated mass, upon differences whose essential otherness disappears or dissolves as a result." I note that this corresponds with Nietzsche's notion that Wagner's Dionysian musical ecstasy undermines the lawfulness and clarity and distinction between parts of Apollonian art, as it were. Wagner gets us all drunk and therefore can impose himself upon us and deceive us.

PH: Either Badiou made a mistake or his translator did, for the translation has Badiou saying: "Nietzsche ... will claim that Wagner is a great ... enchanter and therefore the arch-enemy of Dionysian clarity ... ." I don't think Nietzsche would be caught dead describing anything Dionysian as having clarity: ambiguity and uncertainty perhaps, but not clarity.

Badiou P. 57-59: Badiou also suggests that these philosophers note that Wagner's music and its identitarian unity is written in the service of providing a mythological foundation for the German nation.

PH: If this is so, then Wotan, considered in his nature as "Light-Alberich" (i.e., one with Alberich) the foundation of the entire "Ring," including its Waelsung heroes and Bruennhilde, is a foundation who self-destructs through a self-critique. That is some foundation, surely! In any case, Badiou suggests this is a feature that lent itself to Wagner being co-opted by the Nazis.

PH: I am struck by Badiou's noting that these philosophers seem to concur in describing Wagner's musical unity as being "forced upon" the music. Whatever does that mean? The whole point about the unity of the "Ring" is how natural and fluent it seems, or feels, or is. Does this mean that the employment of continuous, through-composed operatic/musico-dramatic music, and the employment of musical motifs to underline certain philosophic nodes of meaning, is coercive? What artistic endeavor wouldn't be coercive and fascist according to this formula!

Badiou: Badiou then notes the critique that for all of Wagner's musical variety, if it serves in the end only to point the way to a finale in which all the musical loose ends are tied up, then Wagner's appreciation of "difference" is merely illusory.

PH: No, it simply means that as the author of his own artwork Wagner could create an entire world in which everything reflects upon everything else, just as some physicists say that the entire cosmos, in all its parts, is interrelated and presumably obeys the same laws, even if those laws find a seemingly infinite number of manifestations. If difference for the sake of difference, disunity for the sake of disunity is what such critics want, why not abjure art altogether, why not have the courage of their convictions!

Badiou P. 59-60: A 4th critique which Badiou says is common to these philosophical challenges to Wagner is that the unification of his music is subordinated to theatricalization.

PH: Heaven forbid that operatic or musico-dramatic music should be written in the service of the theater, in the service of an illusion known to be an illusion by its audience!

Badiou: "... one could reply that theatricalization is naturally present in a music driven by a powerful theatrical impulse. But what those advancing this argument are really getting at is that the music itself is theatricalized in its very make-up." This means, according to Badiou, that the music is subordinated to "gesture." "Thus, everything within the Wagnerian discourse that seems to be pristine, full of detail, subtle, and in a constant state of flux, is subordinated to crass gestures that are actually secretly in cahoots with German militarization."

PH: Yes, that's exactly what dawns on me each time I lose myself in the inexhaustible musico-dramatic and conceptual riches of "Ring," "Tristan," "Mastersingers," and "Parsifal!" I just can't wait to invade Poland, as WA put it! In other words, according to Nietzsche, Wagner, who once seemed to him the closest to a living embodiment of the Overman, is damned vulgar, not only in his personal limitations and personal politics and prejudices, but in his greatest artistic achievement and legacy as well. Why is it that I can never quite convince myself of this! Why is it that Nietzsche's entire critique of Wagner's art (I don't speak here of Nietzsche's critique of Wagner's personal limitations, a different matter altogether) seems like special pleading, an example of protesting too much!

Badiou: Badiou notes Nietzsche's oft-expressed notion that Wagner's theatricality masks a lack of true depth, true dramatic and philosophical substance.

PH: Well, this is where Nietzsche's famous and all-too-human critique of Wagner's art gets very interesting, because Wagner's allegorical subject was Nietzsche's allegorical subject, i.e., the question whether any meaning, particularly transcendent meaning, inheres in the world, or in human nature, at all. I refer all interested parties to my book posted on this site. Read it, and then re-read Nietzsche's "The Case of Wagner," "Nietzsche Contra Wagner," etc. It would be well to endeavor to ascertain what conceptual depths (if any) lie behind the felt profundity of Wagner's music-dramas, before pontificating on their lack of substance. What fascinates is that Nietzsche must have had a reasonably strong idea of what lay behind Wagner's music-dramas, but gives little or no indication of this in most of his famously yet unjustly influential critique of Wagner.

Badiou P. 61-62: The last issue considered worthy of critique by Badiou's list of philosophers is what he calls the "spectacularization of suffering." That sounds almost like a definition of Greek tragedy to me. By the way, at this point Badiou explains that "... for the moment I'm playing the anti-Wagnerian devil's advocate as eloquently as I can." But Badiou states as his own opinion that: "Actually, a much more profound effect of heartbreak, of separation, of inner tension can be found in Wagner's music than merely the sentimentality of which he is usually accused."

PH: It would be interesting to hear samples of what Wagner's critics regard as unsentimentally expressed passion and despair sound like, if Wagner's music is sentimental. But even Nietzsche admitted that Wagner was the ultimate musician of suffering in its authentic sense.

Badiou: Badiou rightly says the following: "... he created a heartbreaking music, a music that in no way comes across as resolutive but instead reveals this very broken-heartedness in its innermost core." Badiou says that the resolution of this issue relates to the ambiguous relation of Wagner's artworks to religion.

Badiou P. 62-63: Badiou seems to verge on Roger Scruton's viewpoint (as expressed in his "Death Devoted-Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's 'Tristan' ") when he states that "... the crucial point here is that the ambiguous link with religion is introduced through indirect themes," and then references "purity," "redemption and salvation," and on another level the relationship of sexuality to music.

Badiou P. 64: Badiou hints that portions of Nietzsche's critique of Wagner have the appearance of opportunism, that, in other words, Nietzsche will never fail to find something to critique in Wagner, even if he must contradict himself to do so. He notes for instance that Nietzsche criticized Wagner's introduction of a sensualism into his music which Nietzsche normally would have celebrated.

Badiou P. 65: "... the most important question, musically speaking, is whether this new eroticism is inherent in music, and whether ... Wagner introduced into music what had already penetrated painting long before [renaissance nudes], as if, contrary to Nietzsche's opinion, Wagner were the first great pagan of music, the first to impurify music, to strip it of its natural purity [PH: purity here being taken in the sense that music is non-conceptual and autonomous, freed from the sense of sight's dependence on images].

Badiou: These elements historically composed what Badiou states was an ever growing "case" against Wagner.

PH: Suffice it to say that I have never found any merit in these Nietzsche-inspired critiques, and certainly don't believe Wagner needs any defence against straw men, but nonetheless, it is well to assess the causes and motives of such wrong-headed critiques.

Badiou P. 68: I find Badiou's following question wonderful and worthy of reflection. Speaking of "silence" in Wagner's music, i.e., what is not said but is implicit [PH: I recall Wagner said on more than one occasion that he rated poets more on what they did not say, than on what they did say], Badiou says: "Granted, the power of the sounds themselves is obvious, aphrodisiac at times, or militaristic [PH: the best example of this would be some comparatively banal choruses in "Lohengrin"], or saccharine, at others; there is a little of everything. But, for us today, is this really what Wagner's music is about? Isn't there actually an inaudible operation, something far more subtle and subterranean, at work in it?" Badiou goes on to suggest that we ought to start by looking at the nature of Wagner's musical transitions, of musical movement, [PH:] which of course is what Wagner himself said was the secret of his art.

Badiou P. 69-70: Badiou sums up Wagner's musical art of transition in the following way: "... Wagner has generally been interpreted as someone who submerged discontinuity in continuity ... , whereas I think that Wagner displaced discontinuity [i.e., number opera, the discrete musical breaks between choruses, arias, trios, recitative, orchestral interludes, etc.] in such a profound manner that it came to act as a new figure of undecidability between narrative drama and music, and that in doing so he invented a new model of the relationship between continuity and discontinuity."
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