Part 11: Millington Chap 19 on Anti-Semitism

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

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Part 11: Millington Chap 19 on Anti-Semitism

Postby alberich00 » Tue Feb 12, 2013 8:29 am

Dear Discussion Forum members and visitors:

This is Part 11 of my review of Barry Millington's new book "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth"

[BM] Chapter 19 - "Grit in the Oyster: The Role of Anti-Semitism in Wagner's Life and Work"

"... the desire to exculpate Wagner from the inhuman excesses of the Third Reich has in turn too often led to the untenable position that there is no connection between Wagner's anti-Semitism and the fanatical eruption of racial prejudice that ended in Auschwitz. It has also led to the misapprehension that Wagner's anti-Semitism is like a superfluous integument that can be peeled away from his oeuvre without leaving a trace, when in fact it is so intrinsic to his aesthetic that it is no exaggeration to say that without it, Wagner would not have been the composer he was - and his works would certainly not have taken the form that they did." ("The Sorcerer of Bayreuth," Page 183)

[PH] I concur with Millington that the anti-Semitism Wagner espoused (in this the same as the anti-Semitism found throughout Europe, even among the educated elite, where at least one might have thought more worldly knowledge would have acted as a brake on barbaric impulses) did, and does, have a connection with the outbreak which led to the inhuman excesses of the Third Reich. I would like, like so many other admirers of Wagner's art, to think that Wagner would have been horrified by those Nazi atrocities, but in all honesty (and as much as I can also see a very strong humanist and humanitarian impulse in Wagner) neither I nor anyone else can say for certain that he would not have approved. I don't believe he would have, but I can't offer any definitive evidence for this. Wagner's tirades against the Jews are well known. What is less well known is that in his infamous last sentence of "Judaism in Music," in which he asked for the Jews to "go under," so to speak, he was referring to his desire that they would purge - as he hoped all Europeans would purge - what he regarded as the Judaism in their nature (total nonsense, of course, but that evidently was a pretty common viewpoint in the mid-19th Century) so that they could assimilate with the Germans. It is also the case that on more than one occasion he castigated Judaism because he regarded it as a religion based on race rather than upon the purely human, or our common humanity. So his anti-Semitism was rather more complex than most suppose. As for his anti-Semitism being central to his operas and music-dramas, and to our understanding of them, that is another matter which I will deal with momentarily.

[PH] Those who have read deeply in my "The Wound That Will Never Heal," posted here at, will know that I have interpreted Wagner's irrational anti-Semitism as actually a misconceived expression of a universal abhorrence of egoism, an egoism of course found in all human beings, Jewish or Gentile. That Wagner pinned this fault of egoism especially, or even specifically, on the Jews is the blackest mark on his memory. However, I have many reasons to believe that where his operas and music-dramas are concerned (and it's really just in the mature music-dramas that most scholars point to evidence of anti-Semitism inscribed in those works) he kept his hands clean by expressing his abhorrence of instinctive human egoism in its universal sense. Surely Wotan finds this in himself and tries to purge his own egoism by re-inventing himself as the free hero for whom he longs, Siegfried. But Siegfried, as Wagner said himself several times, also turns out to be, in a sense, a Nibelung (the NIbelungs of course oft-considered to be Wagner's stereotypical personification of Jews in the "Ring").

[PH} Millington seems to offer unwitting support for my interpretation of Wotan's wish to be rid of what we might call the Judaism in himself - really, the egoism in himself - in his following remarks:

[BM] "This racialist perspective ... has an intellectual basis, the more so since it reflects the revolutionary ideas of Young Hegelians such as Bruno Bauer and Karl Marx [PH: himself Jewish, of course]. The Jewish consciousness needed to be overthrown, they maintained, if the society of the future was to come into being. The emancipation of the Jews - and indeed, of mankind itself - could only come about, according to this revolutionary view, if and when Jewish identity was nullified. As Marx himself put it: 'The social emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of society from Judaism.' It is within this ideological framework that the essay's notorious final appeal to Jews should be understood:

'Take part recklessly in this work of redemption so that being reborn through the process of self-annihilation we shall be united and indistinguishable! But remember that one thing alone can bring you redemption from the curse which weighs upon you: the redemption of Ahasuerus - downfall!'

The temptation to read such an injunction through the prism of subsequent history as a call for a genocidal annihilation of the Jews must be resisted. For one thing, the act is intended to be a voluntary one undertaken by the Jews themselves; for another, it is clear, taking the full cultural and historical context into account, that it is a symbolic act that is proposed. In some mystic process, never quite defined, the Jew would be 'redeemed', that is become a true human being, at the same time helping to bring about the spiritual renewal of humankind as a whole." ("The Sorcerer of Bayreuth," Pages 184-185)

[PH] I was extremely pleased to read Millington's analysis above, and I concur. Of course it doesn't get Wagner off the hook for expressing racist views, but nonetheless it is a far more humane and reasonable reading of his infamous remark than we often find in discussions of it. There is, strange to say, even a speech that Hitler once gave, I believe before he became Chancellor of Germany, in which he asked the Germans to purge the Judaism in themselves. Of course, with Hitler, this ultimately had a grave, fatal meaning, not merely a psychological therapeutic significance.

[PH] As I explained in depth in my "The Wound That Will Never Heal," we see something like this process of "going under" or "downfall," a figurative purgation of the Judaism (really, egoism) in himself, in Wotan's confession to Bruennhilde of the knowledge Wotan obtained from her mother Erda during a sexual union with her which ultimately brought Bruennhilde into the world (Wotan gave Erda the "seed" of his fear of the end she'd proclaimed, and his longing for redemption from it, and this gave birth, figuratively of course, to Siegfried, who in S.3.3 momentarily confuses Bruennhilde with his mother Sieglinde). Wotan is virtually reborn as Siegfried, minus all (fear, self-interest, the Judaism, Mime) that he loathed in himself, and all of his abhorrent self-knowledge, so that Siegfried seems to be freed from Wotan's fear and self-loathing. Since Mime represents what Wotan loathes in his own nature, and since Siegfried (the artist-hero) is Wotan reincarnate (the collective, historical "Folk" who were the first artists who unconsciously invented the gods and religious myths) Siegfried's loathing for Mime is actually Wotan's self-loathing. By confessing what he loathes about himself to Bruennhilde, and all his fears, Bruennhilde actually redeems Wotan from himself by figuratively becoming the mother of Siegfried, the hero who, unlike Wotan, does not know who he is. Siegfried is Wotan minus consciousness of his true identity.

[PH] But my "The Wound That Will Never Heal" adds another twist to Wagner's revolutionary notion of purging the Judaism (by which he really means egoism) in himself, which he dramatized in Wotan's dilemma. For Wotan as the god of gods represents religious faith, Siegfried represents the secular artist-hero (the music-dramatist), and Siegfried's loving union with Bruennhilde is Wagner's metaphor for the artist-hero's unconscious artistic inspiration (by his muse-lover), inspiration through unconscious confrontation with subliminal knowledge of Wotan's abhorrent self-knowledge and longing to transcend himself, which Wotan confessed to (and thus repressed in) his unconscious mind Bruennhilde during his confession. The point here is that Wagner identified the Christian offer of redemption through casting off the physical body and world to become immortal in paradise, as an expression of the Judaism (in spite of the fact that traditional Judaism did not, so far as I know, offer man a promise of immortality in paradise), the self-interest and fear, in Christianity, which had to be cast off if man's universal longing for transcendent value and spiritual meaning was to be purified of all which bound it to vulgar reality. This identification of religious faith, especially belief in the afterlife, with egoism, Wagner got from Feuerbach. Thus there is a sense in which Wotan as the God-the-Father of the Old Testament (which Wagner regarded as the Jewish testament) is cast aside in favor of the loving saviour Siegfried of the so-called New, Christian testament, except that in this instance Wagner is casting aside the whole of religious faith in favor of redemption by secular art. The secular artist-hero takes the place of Christ as mankind's redeemer, which explains a great, great deal in "Mastersingers" and "Parsifal."

[BM] "This essay [Jewishness in Music'] ... needs to be read in the context of Wagner's other Zurich writings. Central to those theoretical counterparts to the 'Ring" is the notion that only the 'artwork of the future' could bring humanity the redemption it so badly needed. People had become divorced from their true nature by the meretricious values of contemporary society, he argued ... . And it was the grand Wagnerian project - essentially what was to become 'Der Ring des Nibelungen - that was to liberate both Jews and humanity itself from their debased existence." ("The Sorcerer of Bayreuth," Page 186)

[PH] One can easily see how knowledge of my unique interpretation of Wagner's "Ring," as an historical allegory depicting, among other things, the transition from the age of religious faith, to the age of secular art and science, could have enhanced Millington's account of the "Ring" as an artwork which Wagner believed could in some sense redeem the world, had Millington bothered to read any of it, for in Wagner's book (and Feuerbach's) the artist falls heir to dying religious faith (Feuerbach even said, like Wagner, that it lives on in pure feeling, in music, which Wagner called God's last refuge, after Feuerbach).

[BM] "This redemptive aspect of the Wagnerian work of art was to assume an even greater significance in the decades to come, reaching its culmination with 'Parsifal' and the so-called 'regeneration essays' of the late years. In general terms the evolution of Wagner's ideas over these decades can be seen to coincide with the shift in 19th Century Germany from what may be called cultural anti-Semitism ... to a more specific racial idealogy. In Wagner's case this modified form of anti-Semitism took on theological and biological characteristics." ("The Sorcerer of Bayreuth," Page 186)

[PH] Millington's assessment is quite accurate, and indeed we see a deterioration in Wagner's previously (somewhat) more rational approach to cultural questions in his later years to the point that many passages from these regeneration writings sound like the views of a crank. It is all the stranger, then, that I don't detect any deterioration in Wagner's capacity for art. "Parsifal" is as much a pillar among Wagner's mature music-dramas as the "Ring," "Tristan," or "Mastersingers."

[PH] Readers of my paper on "Lohengrin," "How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried," posted here in 3 parts in this discussion forum, and quoted in some detail in my review of Millington's chapter on "Lohengrin," will note that Lohengrin needs redemption from his egoism, his too great consciousness, by seeking redemption in his unconscious mind, Elsa, just as Wotan seeks redemption through his confession to Bruennhilde, Wotan's other half, and Wotan's unconscious mind. We must not forget that Bruennhilde calls herself (as a means of inducement to Wotan to confess what ails him to her) Wotan's Will in V.2.2, and that in
S.3.1, Wotan says to Bruennhilde's mother Erda that her fearful knowledge wanes before his "Will." Wotan is of course alluding to the fact that thanks to his confession to Bruennhilde, his unconscious mind, the fateful knowledge which Erda imparted to him during his love-union with her (a union which gave birth to Bruennhilde) was repressed in Bruennhilde, Wotan's wish-womb. It was this confession of Wotan's seed to Bruennhilde, his wish-womb, which figuratively gave birth to Siegfried, the hero who unlike Wotan doesn't know who he is, and in whom, thanks to Bruennhilde's protection, Erda's knowledge wanes, making Siegfried fearless where Wotan was paralyzed by fear.

[BM] "... it is this polarity of Germanness and Jewishness that has to be grasped if Wagner's anti-Semitism is properly to be understood. For Wagner, Jewishness was a necessary evil, for without it one would be unable to define Germanness. In much the same way, without the loathing of all things Jewish, the elevation of love as the central concept in Wagner's epistemology would never have gained the traction it did. In other words, it can be argued that Wagner's output acquired its distinctive characteristics precisely because of his anti-Semitism. Far from being an unfortunate aberration, as many would like to believe, it should actually be regarded, in Wagner's case, as grist to the mill, or, to vary the metaphor, the grit in the oyster. The protectionists are happy to see Wagner the man vilified as an obnoxious racist, provided the works themselves come up smelling of roses. But the notion of such a firewall between the man and the works is a nonsense: few composers' oeuvres are as ideologically motivated as Wagner's." ("The Sorcerer of Bayreuth," Page 188)

[PH] Here's where I disagree strongly with Millington. In fact, within my interpretation of all of Wagner's operas and music-dramas, from "The Flying Dutchman" through "Parsifal," I can account for their conceptual content in much greater detail than any prior interpretations known to me, without even referencing Wagner's anti-Semitism, and the reason for this, quite simply, is that where Wagner might have said "Judaism" we can read this as his code word for mankind's universal vice of egoism. And here's where I feel I can offer my two-cents to Millington's otherwise very good chapter on Wagner's anti-Semitism. In "The Wound That Will Never Heal," I have proposed that the primary motive (if we can speak of motives in such a case, since racism is inscribed in young souls during their earliest years, before they can reflect on what they are taught) behind Wagner's special brand of anti-Semitism was his fear that if religion is wrong, and there is no supernatural realm of redemption from this world, and if the natural scientists are right, that man is entirely a product of natural laws and processes such as evolution, that what we call man's soul is just a matter of chemistry and electricity, and that man therefore is ultimately motivated by egoism and not compassion (in the sense that, according to this materialist view, compassion will always fail in the face of physical coercion, an overwhelming appeal to man's egoistic instincts), that self-interest is behind even man's religious illusion that he has transcendent value, that this would be intolerable, something that man (given his compelling need to affirm his transcendent value) could not bear. It is his inability to bear this thought which makes Wotan confess it to Bruennhilde, his Will, a secret which will remain, in her protective hands, forever unspoken, or, as Isolde or Elsa would put it, protected by her silence. One could construe my proposition, if one wished, as strong evidence that Wagner inscribed anti-Semitism into the very heart, the key plot elements, of his "Ring," but the truth is that we can make eminent sense of this without referencing anti-Semitism, or racism, at all, though clearly racism is itself a form of projection of one's own incapacities and fears onto others, in order to purge oneself of them. In this sense we might say that Wagner's "Ring" gives us insight into the psychological basis for racism, without it's being construed as racist, just as "Parsifal," in my view, is about religion, without necessarily being religious.

[PH] On pages 188-189 Millington offers detailed evidence that Wagner was referencing anti-Semitic stereotypes when he conceived his Nibelung characters Alberich and Mime in the "Ring," and Beckmesser in "Mastersingers." It may well be true that Wagner conflated his negative image of the Jews with his negative images of negative characters in general, but this doesn't let us off the hook in our attempt to interpret Wagner's artworks. In fact, taking the view that anti-Semitism is the key to the signal conflicts in Wagner's operas is a smokescreen which throws us off of the main affair, a fact dramatically demonstrated in my own extensive analysis of the "Ring" in "The Wound That Will Never Heal." One problem with this view is that Wotan's sins (and Wotan is routinely regarded by proponents of the view that anti-Semitism is inscribed in Wagner's "Ring" as the Aryan God, father to the hero Siegmund, who wished to keep his blood within the family, or race, if one wishes, and to the hero Siegfried, who holds the alleged-Jew Mime in such abhorrence) are greater than Alberich's sin. Wotan's sin was religious man's renunciation of Erda's (Mother Nature's) knowledge of all that was, is, and will be, i.e. a renunciation of the real world, the Mother, the truth, but Alberich's sin consists only in being truthful about things that other men like Wotan regard as too abhorrent to be consciously contemplated. This is what Alberich means when he charges Wotan with sinning against all that was, is, and will be, while stating that he, Alberich, is guilty only of sinning against himself (by which Alberich means, sinning against man's preferred self-image by exposing man to the bitter truth). Wotan ultimately comes to see himself as nothing more than an Alberich (note the derivation of the Valhalla Motif from the Ring Motif, and Wotan's status as "Light-Alberich"), though Wotan, unlike Alberich, longs for an ideal. However, in my interpretation both Wotan and Alberich are construed as two aspects of the human species which tend to segregate but are actually inextricably linked. From a certain standpoint Wotan (Light-Alberich) can even be construed as Alberich's (Dark-Alberich's) longing for idealism, for transcendent value. And Wagner even spoke of Siegfried himself as a Nibelung.

[PH] As for Beckmesser, we can construe him as a pedantic, pretentious Master with a lack of imagination and too great consciousness of the very rules by which he constructs his art, and as a silly excuse for a suitor to Eva, without referencing Judaism at all. He is, quite frankly, one of the masters, all of whom have been guilty of a want of imagination and liberality. He can even be regarded as their type, or archetype. Needless to say the Tabulature by which the Masters stiffly protect their art from change is modeled on Moses' laws in the Old Testament, and to this extent we can construe the masters in general as Jews, if we wish. Sachs evidently differs from the other masters in the sense that he once, himself, was capable of unconscious artistic inspiration, just as Wotan in the "Ring" represents the collective, historical folk who dreamed the gods and religious beliefs into existence by involuntarily and unconsciously inventing the myths which, once created, came to be viewed as timeless truths. For Wagner, this collective Folk (Wagner called Sachs the creative spirit of the Folk, and this could also be applied to Wotan) was the original artist who invented the gods. Note that Valhalla was created by the Giants (representing, in my interpretation, the fundamental animal instincts of self-preservation and sexual desire, represented by Fafner and Fasolt, respectively, which underlie all human motivation) while Wotan and the other Gods slept, and Wotan describes it as the product of his dreaming.

[PH] But Millington redeems the situation in his following paragraph:

[BM] "No one claims that Beckmesser and Mime 'are' Jews per se. Patently, a Jew in 16th-century Nuremberg could never have held the post of town clerk. That would be to introduce an absurd level of literalism, however. What can be argued is that Beckmesser, like Mime, incorporates negative traits which are stereotypically anti-Semitic. Moreover, Wagner's allegorical intentions are not restricted to anti-Semitism. In the figure of Beckmesser, Wagner was also satirizing self-important, pompous critics, reactionary cultural philistines, old lechers, shallow creative Latins, and much more besides. Wagner's characterization may be anti-Semitic, but he is generous with his invective.
Furthermore, allegories, as Wagner was well aware, are all the more powerful for not being spelt out." ("The Sorcerer of Bayreuth," Page 190)

[PH] Well said: I am pleased at Millington's caution on this subject. But I must object to the paragraph with which Millington closes this chapter because he wants to have it both ways:

"It is perhaps understandable that this debate should have been so heated. There is a widely held perception that one could no longer enjoy Wagner's works with a clear conscience if it were admitted that they carried an anti-Semitic subtext. But those who hold this view worry unnecessarily. Wagner was merely expressing sentiments widely held in his time. While he cannot be acquitted entirely of historical responsibility - the ideological continuum linking Wagner with the Nazis is not imaginary - neither is it reasonable to hang the indictment of Nazi atrocities round his neck. Anti-Semitism is an intrinsic element of the Wagnerian world-view that gave us some of the greatest masterpieces of Western civilization - the 'Ring,' "Die Meistersinger,' 'Parsifal.' So rich and multi-layered are these works that it would be foolish to limit their content to an ideological obsession. Rather, we should embrace them for all their infelicities, accepting that it was precisely that ideological obsession that drove Wagner to such inspired heights."

[PH] This goes way too far. Millington hasn't' provided a scrap of evidence that Wagner's anti-Semitism was 'a', or worse, 'the' driving force behind his art. Were that the case Millington's remarks above truly would be the poison pill. As I have noted (and proven in my own studies) many times, we can construe his mature music-dramas (which are the real subject of the accusation that he inscribed anti-Semitism in his work, in spite of the identification of the Dutchman, and sometimes even Tannhaeuser, as Wandering Jews) coherently, in much greater detail and more consistently than in prior exegeses, without once referencing anti-Semitism or racism in general.

[PH] I have presented in "The Wound That Will Never Heal" what I think is a viable solution to this problem. A Wagner obsession that in my view was indeed central to his art production, from at least "The Flying Dutchman" onward, was his fear that natural scientists had gotten it right, and adherents of religious belief and idealist artists had gotten it wrong in attempting to contradict the view, that man was indeed nothing more than a mortal animal, a product of natural evolution, wholly subject to natural law and unable to transcend his inherent egoism. That fear may have been so potent and so intolerable for Wagner to contemplate consciously that he may indeed, like Wotan, have repressed this knowledge and projected it (in Wagner's case at least, not necessarily Wotan's) onto the Jews (saying, in other words, that the Jews are inherently and inescapably egoistic and therefore inherently unable to obtain spiritual redemption), in order to reserve a little mystery, a little supernaturalism and transcendence and idealism for his theoretical Aryan race (a race, by the way, which even Wagner ultimately said didn't exist), as if by suppressing knowledge of this tendency in oneself and projecting it on to another group one could purify oneself. This is in a sense what Wotan tries to do through his confession to Bruennhilde of his longing for a hero freed from all that Wotan loathes in his own nature (embodied by Mime, Alberich's brother), who would nonetheless do what Wotan himself cannot do (is too conscious to do) to redeem himself (from the truth).

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