"The 'Ring' as a Whole" 4/27/00 lecture Wag Soc Wash, DC

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"The 'Ring' as a Whole" 4/27/00 lecture Wag Soc Wash, DC

Postby alberich00 » Wed Oct 05, 2011 10:22 am

THE 'RING' AS A WHOLE lecture presented by Paul Heise to the Wagner Society of Washington, DC, on 4/27/00, at Funger Hall, George Washington Univ.

Dear Wagnerheim members and guests:

In 1999-2000, Jim Holman, Chairman of the Wagner Society of Washington, DC, invited me to present a talk about my "Ring" research project to WSWDC.
I presented the lecture at Funger Hall, George Washington Univ., in Washington, DC, on 4/27/00. This lecture represented my best attempt at the time to present in the briefest time possible, and most succinctly, the main lines of argument in my life-long effort to demonstrate the conceptual unity of Wagner's "Ring." Immediately after the lecture, on 5/20/00, the Wagner Society webmeister posted my transcript of the lecture on their website at http://www.wagner-dc.org. Several years ago the Society withdrew the archive, in which my lecture and a number of other lectures which had been presented to the Society were posted, presumably for reconstruction. However, for reasons unknown, the archive has never been restored to the website. For that reason I felt sure readers of http://www.wagnerheim.com would find it interesting to peruse what at that time was my best effort to summarize my "Ring" interpretation, which had been in gestation since 1971.

The Whole Ring [PH: somehow they got my title wrong!]
by Paul Heise
Presented to the Wagner Society on April 27th, 2000

Mr. Heise has worked independently on his theory for nearly 27 years, inspired by a few recordings and a prodigious research of all of Wagner's documents. It is hoped that his work can make a contribution to our understanding of the "Ring" and lead to a renewed period of insight and discussion of Wagner's works.


"The 'Ring' as a Whole"

I'm going to say a few words tonight about Wagner's "Ring" as a whole. And that's my question to you: can we understand it as a whole, as one single unified argument? Most seem to think not.

Take George Bernard Shaw, who tells us that the last third of it is completely at odds with the revolutionary content and style of the first two thirds. And Warren Darcy, in his more recent book on "Das Rheingold," says that the "Ring"'s second half seems dramatically superfluous, since Siegfried makes the same mistakes Wotan did. As Michael Tanner puts it, thanks to its overwhelmingly persuasive music the "Ring" makes us feel as if it has a dramatic unity which simply isn't there. The generally accepted view is that, having taken so long to conceive and write the "Ring," Wagner produced a work which reflects his varying and often contradictory views on a wide array of matters, so it can't be understood as a single, unified argument.

I think this assumption is at the bottom of a lot that's wrong with the way Wagner's works are produced in our theaters. Can you imagine what might happen, though, if someone could convincingly show how Wagner's "Ring" is not an arbitrary assortment of bits and pieces of Wagner's experience, which lends itself to arbitrary interpretation, but rather, a conceptually unified whole whose every detail plays a role in making one single argument? If we can suspend our tendency to view it as merely a topical critique of 19th Century social conditions, to grasp its general and universal meaning, its inner logic may come to light.

After near 30 years' effort, I've concluded we can understand the "Ring" as a whole if we see it as an allegory whose subject is the conflict, within us, between objective, practical, scientific thought, whose object is the actual world we live in, and religious, artistic thought, which denies our present world in favor of an imaginative alternative. Its plot is the story of how this conflict shook religious belief to its foundations, leaving modern secular art, particularly Wagner's art, its heir. I'm going to show you tonight how the entire "Ring depicts not only the history of this conflict from first human origins up to the time of Wagner, but that it ends with Wagner's depiction of his production of the "Ring," in Siegfried's song narrating the story of his life.

I think Robert Donington was right to suggest that Alberich's renunciation of Love for Power is Wagner's metaphor for the birth of our uniquely human Mind, which had to rise above animal instinct to attain its true power. It's amazing how much everything in the "Ring" makes sense once we acknowledge this and follow it to its logical conclusions. What is Alberich's ring? Why, it's the very essence of human consciousness, the impulse to complete what we experience in actual life as incomplete, to round the circle. What I mean is, we humans, alone among animals, seek knowledge of the world beyond our immediate needs. This abstraction of thought produces what we now call science and technology. But we also, alone among animals, reject the real world when it thwarts our desires, and invent or imagine a substitute for Mother Nature more to our liking. This second type of thought produces religion and art.

So how, you might ask, does Alberich's forging of the Ring of Consciousness produce scientific thought? As Wagner put it, at the beginning of our history, when we first became conscious of ourselves as human and could no longer satisfy our needs through instinct alone, we learned how to force Mother Nature to satisfy our new needs. In this way we became conscious of our "Noth" and our "Power." In other words, we became conscious of the power of our conscious mind, which can discover things in nature that aren't self-evident, such as nature's laws, and improve on nature. I'm reminded of Alberich's frustration with the Rhinedaughters. They don't satisfy his need, so he seeks power instead. Thanks to Donington's clue, we can read the Rhinedaughters' love, which Alberich renounces, as animal instinct, which human consciousness superseded. We can also see Alberich's mining the earth to produce a hoard of treasure in Nibelheim, in a new light. The 'ring' of conscious thought empowers Alberich to penetrate below the surface of Mother-Nature to waken her still sleeping knowledge, to obtain ever more power. His hoarding of Mother Earth's treasure is Wagner's metaphor for humankind's accumulation of knowledge of the real world.

Okay, so much for science! How does Alberich's ring power produce religious and artistic thought? There are some desires we can't satisfy no matter how much we transform the real world to our liking. In the same quotation I paraphrased moments ago, Wagner also said that our consciousness of a lack, or 'Noth', in nature, inspires us to create art. In Wagner's view this lack of contentment with the real world is also the root of the religious longing to free ourselves from it. As Wagner put it, the Christian belief in a blissful afterlife is an egoistic and hypocritical desire, inspired by fear of death, to renounce the very source of all bliss, Mother Nature. He added that if our present world is the only world, if there is no other, the only way to satisfy this religious impulse is through self-deceit, or Wahn. Wagner embodies this distinction between harsh reality, or 'Noth', and the illusion or Wahn we create to escape it, in Alberich's conflict with Wotan, Nibelheim vs. Valhalla.

Loge is Wagner's metaphor for our artistic gift of self-deceit. Loge conceives and sustains the gods' impossible dream, incarnate in the goddess Freia, that they can live forever in painless bliss, by promising to free the gods from what they fear most, the truth. It's no wonder that Loge, who created this sham, is ashamed to collaborate with those self-deluded mortals whose happiness depends on it! The truth, of course, lies in the giants' rightful claim to Freia, and in Alberich's threat to end the gods' blissful ignorance. Alberich's hoard of knowledge of the real world threatens to rise, waking, from the unconscious night of Nibelheim into daylight, to overthrow the gods' delusive happiness. By co-opting Alberich's ring power in order to redeem Freia from the giants' claim, Loge kills two birds with one stone. "Das Rheingold" is the story of how Loge used Alberich's power of thought, the cunning "Tarnhelm" of artistic imagination, to delude us into believing we can free ourselves from nature's law that all which exists will end, and offer us salvation from the guilt in our animal nature, the guilt of being subject to what Schopenhauer called the egoistic Will, represented here by the giants.

I think the notion that Alberich's curse represents only greed for money and property has done more damage to attempts to grasp the "Ring" as a whole than any other. To see what I mean, listen closely to Alberich! He tells Wotan: If I sinned, I sinned only against myself, but if you take my ring you'll sin against all that was, is, and will be. Alberich is accusing Wotan of committing the sin of religious belief, which renounces the real world because it is subject to time and change. Moments later Erda, Mother-Nature herself, echoes Alberich's accusation against Wotan when she says she knows all that was, is, or will be. Alberich has made the same distinction between science and religion which I've already outlined: science affirms the real world and objectively accepts human nature no matter how abhorrent to our self-image. This is what Alberich meant when he said he sins only against himself. But the gods' religious impulse seeks infinite satisfaction which nature's laws can't give, and sets a higher ideal than the egoism of man's nature will allow. Since Alberich accuses Wotan of the crime of pessimism, or world-renunciation, he's, figuratively speaking, accusing Wotan of matricide, of killing his mother, Nature.

Cursing the ring, Alberich states that those who've deprived him of it will seek its power, but find only fear, not joy. And all those besides Alberich who obtain it will be destroyed. In other words, those self-deluded religious mortals who've invented divinity, immortality, heaven, redemption, free will, and higher love, as an antidote to the fatal truth, will be inexorably drawn, over time, to accumulate that very hoard of knowledge which will overthrow their delusive happiness. Though they abhor the actual truth, their conviction that their false beliefs are the truth will stake a claim to it which can only be sustained temporarily. They'll be left with a gnawing feeling of doubt. This is Alberich's curse on the religious impulse to escape reality, which can never be satisfied. Alberich will not suffer this curse since he contents himself with what is possible.

This places Wotan in a dilemma. He must insure that Alberich never controls the hoard of knowledge which humankind accumulates. But if Wotan uses its full power himself, he'll destroy all the values and beliefs which make his life worth living. Wotan's fear that Alberich's hoard of knowledge might one day rise up to contradict and destroy the gods' self-image and beliefs, is embodied in Fafner. Fafner, Wotan's fear of self-knowledge, will insure no one uses the ring's power. Transformed like Alberich into a dragon, he is the symbol for religious faith's taboo on intellectual inquiry.

Wagner originally intended that Erda warn that the gods will be destroyed unless he yields the ring to the giants, but he altered this passage to indicate Wotan can only flee Alberich's curse temporarily. She proclaims a day of darkness dawns for the gods, and all that exists will end, as facts, in recognition of the inevitability of Alberich's victory. In response to his crisis of faith, Wotan says he needs to learn from her the full truth about why he must live in fear. This corresponds with Alberich's objective, scientific way of experiencing Mother Nature. But seeing Fafner kill Fasolt, Wotan has a revelation of what he most fears, that self-interest is stronger than love. So he changes his mind, and now says only that he wants Erda to teach him how to end his fear. Since Wotan can neither alter nor accept the truth, the only way out is to cease to be conscious of it. Wotan's intent to win Erda's love in order to forget his fear, is Wagner's representation of our earliest forms of thought, the waking dreams of religion and art. In them we know the world aesthetically, through the prism of artistically inspired myth, rather than objectively, until the time when modern science is born of our accumulation of a hoard of knowledge grown too powerful to ignore. Wotan's subsequent world wandering in quest of knowledge of both the truth and the means to flee it, is Wagner's image of humanity's dual relationship to Mother Nature throughout history. Bruennhilde, the collective unconscious, will be born of this relationship.

Why did Wagner say Wotan's confession to Bruennhilde is the most important scene for the development of the drama? Wotan tells Bruennhilde that her mother, Nature, declared Alberich's victory over the gods inevitable. If the gods openly compete with Alberich for supremacy they will lose. With self-loathing, Wotan reflects that his hero Siegmund failed to redeem the gods because Wotan became too conscious that Siegmund's heroism and love were merely expressions of Wotan's fear-inspired self-deception. But Wotan's purpose isn't just to find a sympathetic ear. Just prior to his confession he tells Bruennhilde he fears he'll lose the grip sustaining his 'Will'. That is, he fears he'll lose his mind. When Bruennhilde answers that she herself is Wotan's 'Will', he realizes he's speaking only to himself in speaking to her, and says that what he tells her will remain forever unspoken.

Schopenhauer described madness as what happens when we're unable to bear consciousness of some traumatic insult to our self-image, so our mind involuntarily represses this abhorrent self-knowledge and replaces it with a fantasy. The madness which Wotan suffers is Wahn, the collective madness of religious belief which substitutes illusion for truth, and stores truth out of sight and out of mind. In Wotan's confession to Bruennhilde he represses into his unconscious mind a hoard of knowledge of his loathsome identity, and of his certainty Alberich will expose his self-deception, knowledge which is so destructive to his self-image and beliefs that he can't bear to be conscious of it.

This scene is the key to the "Ring", because Wotan asks what use his 'Will' can be to him, since he can't create a free hero. Wotan needs a hero free from all that Wotan abhors in his own nature, who will redeem humanity from Alberich's threat unaware that Wotan's fear inspires him. Since Bruennhilde is Wotan's Will, his unconscious mind, and since Wotan has stored the abhorrent knowledge of his true identity, and all that he fears, in her, he can now become Siegfried, the hero who is fearless only because he doesn't know who he is. Siegfried is Wotan, minus consciousness of his true identity. Bruennhilde holds knowledge of Siegfried's true self for him.

Siegfried is Wagner's self-image as the artist-hero who has fallen heir to the religious impulse to flee the curse of consciousness, freed now from the burden of religious belief and its vulnerability to contradiction by scientific knowledge. As Wagner said, art's advantage over religion is that it need not fear the truth because it stakes no claim to the power of truth. It admits it's a fiction, and in its purest form, music, has no concern about truth or falsehood. Music is free to play with the world. I think this explains why Wagner described the authentic, inspired artist, as someone ignorant of the meaning of his artwork. Alberich's hoard of knowledge, and Wotan's futile longing for redemption from it, inspires him unconsciously.

If Siegfried is a metaphor for the secular artist who falls heir to religious feeling when religious thought, Valhalla's glory, must be sacrificed to science, Hagen represents modern science, which inherits the godless world.

When Bruennhilde asks Wotan if he'll take from her all he gave, and he says the hero who wakes her will take it, he alludes to his repressed hoard of knowledge, the contents of his confession. This knowledge will sleep for everyone except the artist-hero who alone can safely draw inspiration from it to create those artworks which redeem the religious spirit from science's threat. Wotan proclaims art's freedom from fear of truth when he tells Alberich that he no longer competes with him for the ring because he has given up trying to change the world, but will now only observe it, shall we say, as an artist's audience does. However, when Siegfried reflects that he was born through his mother's death, he unwittingly declares himself heir to Wotan's sin of mother-killing, i.e., religious world-renunciation.

Mime is everything that Wotan loathed about himself, and Mime's exploitation of Siegfried reflects Wotan's motives. Siegfried's contempt for Mime, and his insistence Mime has no influence over him, are really Wotan's self-contempt, and his desire for a hero who by defying Wotan will unwittingly serve him. Siegfried, unconscious of Wotan's fear and self-loathing thanks to Bruennhilde, naturally overcomes Wotan's fear, represented by Fafner, and eliminates Wotan's self-knowledge, Mime. Wotan has sacrificed his head to his heart by leaving the lovers Siegfried and Bruennhilde heirs to Valhalla's legacy.

Siegfried's use of Nothung to cut loose the baggage of Wotan's conscious mind follows from the same reasoning. Deryck Cooke noted that the sword motif is very nearly the same nature arpeggio with which the "Ring" began, a symbol for the time before the birth of human consciousness. With Nothung Siegfried artificially restores the preconscious, prefallen condition of nature, which according to Wagner is art's function. It's no wonder Mime can't reforge it. He is, as he says, too wise, i.e., to conscious, to do so.

Siegfried doesn't fear the hoard of knowledge he's fallen heir to because, unlike Wotan, he only feels it, but doesn't think it. Siegfried knows it through music, the woodbird's song. But Wotan's unconscious thoughts inspired this music. As Wagner said, music is the last refuge of dying religious belief, which retreats to the inner heart of the individual artist in the face of the modern world's lovelessness and scientific skepticism, in which divinity can no longer find a home. Music is the link through which Siegfried can retrace the road back to the hoard of fearful knowledge which originally inspired it. So the woodbirdsong leads Siegfried into his unconscious, Bruennhilde, in whom Siegfried's dangerous self-knowledge sleeps. The secret of Wagner's leitmotifs, which link feeling with thought, is that they hold the key to his unconscious.

In Wotan's second confrontation with Erda, he expresses the same two concerns he did in "Das Rheingold" scene 4, except that now, he expresses them rhetorically. When Erda suggests Wotan ask her daughters the Norns for the knowledge he seeks from her, he complains that they weave their web according to the world, while he longs to stop a rolling wheel. In other words, Wotan is complaining that he can't handle the truth, can't accept his fate, but his complaint is rhetorical. He'd just finished telling Alberich he now only desires to observe rather than change things, since the nature of things can't be altered. Erda suggests Wotan seek knowledge from Bruennhilde instead. Why? Because if Wotan can't accept the truth, Bruennhilde can offer him redemption from it. When Wotan asks Erda what use Bruennhilde can be to him, he answers his question with another: how can I overcome fear?

Confident that Valhalla's religious idealism will be reborn in Siegfried's love for Bruennhilde, the redemption through art, Wotan proclaims Erda's waking knowledge of his tragic end wanes before his 'Will'; that is, it wanes before his unconscious mind Bruennhilde. Her protection frees Siegfried from suffering Alberich's curse. Wagner's remark that art's bliss offers an alternative to religious nihilism he dramatized in Wotan's passing the torch to Siegfried through his own annihilation.

When Wotan tells Erda, accompanied by the so-called world-inheritance motif, that Bruennhilde, upon waking for Siegfried, will perform a world-redeeming act, Wotan isn't speaking of Bruennhilde's ultimate decision to restore the ring to the Rhine. Wagner noted Wotan doesn't seek to return the ring to the Rhine until he realizes that Siegfried will fail. The redeeming act is Bruennhilde's loving union with Siegfried, the unconscious inspiration of Siegfried's art, which will temporarily redeem Valhalla from destruction.

It should be obvious why Siegfried feels fear when he faces the prospect of sexual union with Bruennhilde. Siegfried told Fafner: I don't know who I am, but Bruennhilde tells Siegfried that what he doesn't know, she knows for him. He feels fear because she holds the knowledge, which Wotan feared, of his true identity and fate. Bruennhilde also tells Siegfried that what Wotan thought, she felt, and Siegfried confirms that he doesn't conceptually grasp what she says, but only feels passion for her. Wagner is telling us his leit-motifs, Bruennhilde's singing, hold the key to the "Ring" itself, the hidden program which inspired Wagner to create it.

Like Siegfried, Bruennhilde also fears sexual union because his unconscious mind has a premonition he'll betray the secret of artistic inspiration, and reveal the truth it conceals, in the heroic deed of art she inspires. If Wotan's repressed thoughts are unveiled, Hagen might use this knowledge to destroy Wotan's redemption through art. But Bruennhilde agrees to inspire Siegfried's art through love because he is the 'hoard of the world', the artist-magician who'll redeem the terrible world to us by transforming its horror into an ornament of aesthetic delight and love. It's plain they can only forget their fear if Bruennhilde inspires Siegfried's art.

"Goetterdaemmerung" opens with the music to which Siegfried woke Bruennhilde, because this final drama recounts the tragic consequences of Siegfried's betrayal of the unconscious to consciousness. Siegfried unwittingly predicts he'll betray the muse Bruennhilde. Here's how. Bruennhilde asks what use is her love unless it can inspire Siegfried to undertake new adventures. These adventures are heroic deeds of art. When Siegfried tells Bruennhilde to forgive him if her teaching left him untaught, he describes her as his unconscious mind, through which he can possess knowledge yet remain unaware of it. When Siegfried says she gave him more than he knows how to keep, or guard, he unwittingly anticipates that he might reveal what she has concealed even from him, the runes Wotan taught her in his confession. Leaving her now for adventure, he attributes all his courage to her because his unconsciousness of the truth makes him fearless. The ring holds the virtue of all his deeds because this hoard of unconscious knowledge inspires his deeds of art.

We now learn how Hagen, the scientific, cynical, skeptical spirit of the modern world, compels Siegfried to give the secret of his artistic inspiration away to his audience, the Gibichungs. Hagen's two potions, taken together, represent the wonder of Wagner's own "Ring," which condensed the legacy of all human experience, our collective hoard of knowledge, into one unified artwork. Loge is the symbol for our gift of artistic self-deception, and Cooke noted that the tarnhelm, potion, and Loge motifs are all closely related. Both Alberich and Loge had predicted Loge would betray the gods, and both Alberich and Wotan believed Alberich would someday turn Wotan's heroes against him. Hagen now plots this betrayal.

Siegfried loyally serves Gunther's and Gutrune's appetite for self-deceit. But by transforming himself into Gunther in order to betray Bruennhilde into Gunther's hands, the artist Siegfried makes his Gibichung audience indistinguishable from himself, unwittingly allowing them to share the secret of his art. By placing in his audience's hands his unconscious mind, Bruennhilde, and its forbidden contents, the ring, instead of a redemptive work of art, Siegfried reveals what his art should have concealed, its unconscious source of inspiration. He's given his audience Alberich's "Noth" instead of the gods' blissful Wahn. No wonder Hagen shouts incessantly, and the Gibichungs respond, that "Noth is here" as he announces Gunther's arrival with Bruennhilde.

Bruennhilde collaborates with Hagen to destroy Siegfried because Siegfried has unwittingly betrayed the contents of his unconscious mind to the scientific world for analysis. Bruennhilde confirms this when she complains to Hagen and Gunther that she gave all her runes to Siegfried, only to have him glibly give her away to Gunther. In other words, Siegfried revealed the very knowledge, Wotan's runes, which she had concealed even from him, by forcing the ring out of her protective hands, and so deprived himself of her protection. As she tells Hagen, unbeknownst to Siegfried, she had protected him from receiving wounds at the front, but not his back. That is to say, by protecting him from foreknowledge she'd made him fearless. By betraying her, he has betrayed the secret of his vulnerability to Hagen, who can now stab him from behind with the fatal remembrance of who he is.

When Siegfried, in his pride, refuses to give the ring to the Rhinedaughters to end Alberich's curse, he's in effect refusing to seek refuge in music, the language of the unconscious mind, to redeem himself from the truth any longer. For the first time he's become conceptually conscious of Wotan's original religious conviction as his own, that life wouldn't be worth living if Siegfried had to acknowledge that fear, i.e., Fafner, is a motive stronger than love. Accordingly, upon finding Siegfried, Hagen announces that he's found where Siegfried, that is, Wotan's religious thought, had fled, namely, the Rhine. The longing to return the ring of consciousness to the preconscious Rhine is how Wagner sees mankind's futile quest to restore lost innocence, which was satisfied only artificially by religion and art. It's no accident that it is Loge, the god of self-deceit, who was most insistent it be returned.

How then can Hagen expose Siegfried to destruction, since in him religious belief retreated from thought to music, from head to heart, from power to love? The answer is obvious. At Hagen's behest Siegfried will use music as a key to unlock his unconscious and expose its hoard of knowledge to daylight. Instigated by Hagen, Siegfried, like Wagner, will make music think. When Siegfried spills the wine which Gunther had called Siegfried's blood, onto the ground, saying it will refresh Mother Earth, Siegfried acknowledges he will fall to Hagen as a sacrifice to Erda, Mother-Nature, for perpetuating Wotan's religious sin of world-denial in art. Alberich cursed his ring expressly to punish this sin, and Siegfried will be martyred by it.

That Hagen, the scientific spirit within Siegfried, incites him to interpret the woodbird music conceptually for his audience, the Gibichungs, and that Siegfried does so by singing the story of his life, is Wagner's depiction of his presentation of his "Ring" for us, his audience. He regarded this as an act of music made visible. The fatal potion which Siegfried could refuse when it was offered by Wotan's head, Mime, because he was still protected by the woodbird of music, and by his unconscious mind Bruennhilde, he accepts from Hagen at precisely the moment in his narrative where he recounts Mime's failure. Now that Wagner/Siegfried has betrayed his unconscious to consciousness, his retelling how he created the "Ring" has wakened his memory of who he is. Wagner seems to be telling us that if the motifs of his "Ring," which hold the key to the profound secret of its inspiration, are interpreted correctly, this will put an end to inspired art, because Bruennhilde will wake forever.

The "Ring" ends with Bruennhilde's judgment against humanity for using the artist-hero's innocence in unwitting service to their fear and hypocrisy, only to sacrifice him to modern science in the end. Her judgment on Wotan is that by implicating the artist-hero in his crime of self-deceit, he destined the hero to certain destruction at the hands of truth. Gunther and Gutrune are horrified that they allowed scientific, secular thought to lure them, for the sake of power, into destroying the one hero who had given their life meaning. The tragedy, as Bruennhilde puts it, is that Siegfried had to betray love, betray music, so his unconscious mind, a woman, could grow wise by becoming conscious. This is Wagner's judgment of his art. In his final opera, "Parsifal," Wagner will openly renounce art, the redemption through love. The only consolation is that the love of Siegfried and Bruennhilde lives on in Wagner's "Ring" at each performance.


Originally posted to the website of the Wagner Society of Washington, DC, http://www.wagner-dc.org, at http://www.wagner-dc.org/heise.html, and removed several years ago for reasons unknown
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