Dear Forum participants and observers:
Here is Part 4 of my review of Barry Millington's chapter on "Lohengrin" from his book "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth," and his essay on "Lohengrin" entitled "Asking the Right Question," published online in 2005 by the Seattle Opera (and now, in this revised version of this review, taking account also of Millington's paper published by the Houston Grand Opera for its October and November, 1992 production of "Lohengrin."
“What, then, does the forbidden question represent in this particular story? The injunction that Elsa may not inquire after Lohengrin’s name or origin suggests at best insecurity, at worst that he has something to hide. This, of course, is precisely the tack taken by Ortrud, who persuades Elsa that her savior’s powers are malevolent.” [from Millington’s “Asking the Right Question,” Seattle Opera 2005]
“What, then, does the Forbidden Question represent in ‘Lohengrin’? The fact that Elsa is proscribed from enquiring after Lohengrin’s name or origins suggests at best insecurity, at worst that he has something to hide – which of course is precisely the tack taken by the villainess Ortrud, who persuades Elsa that her saviour’s powers are malevolent.” [from Chapter 7 – “Swansong to Traditional Opera: ‘Lohengrin’,” in Millington’s “The Sorcerer of Bayreuth,” page 64]
“Lohengrin’s injunction against revealing his name and origin is odd if he comes from God, since the folk who welcome him assume that he is ‘God-sent’ (Act I, Scene 3; GS II, 73). This taboo may be a metaphor for the fact that heaven is a spiritual realm knowable only by faith, but inaccessible to reasoning. But what if there is a prohibition because Lohengrin has something to hide, something which can be known but which should not be? (…)
Frederick and his loveless wife Ortrud also discredit Lohengrin’s innocence. They conspire with Elsa to expose what Ortrud later describes as his hidden guilt because Elsa alone can make him reveal it … .” [from Heise’s “How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried,” pages 63-64]
“The morning after Ortrud gains admittance to Elsa’s mind, she confronts Elsa at the minster:
‘Can you name him? Can you tell us if his lineage and nobility are proved? (…) Ha, no! It would mean great distress (‘Noth’) for him, so the clever hero forbade the question! […] This innocence of your hero, how quickly it would be tarnished were he forced to show the source of magic through which he wields such power here! If you don’t dare to ask him this, we’ll justly believe that even you hesitate through fear, lest his innocence be disproved!’ (Act ii, Scene 4; GS II, 93-94)“ [from Heise’s “How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried,” page 72]
“Ortrud has come to Elsa as the Serpent came to Eve, tempting her to seek knowledge that the divine-seeming Lohengrin has forbidden her. (...) However, if, as Ortrud says, Lohengrin is a fraud posing as God-sent, it is possible that this knowledge, not the act of seeking it, will make a breach in faith itself. If so, Elsa can repay Lohengrin … by helping him conceal his fatal knowledge." [from Heise’s “How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried,” page 65]
“If we concern ourselves, as objective, scientific thought does, with no ‘other world’ outside this one, we might say that our longing for redemption from our only world … is an unwitting quest for redemption from consciousness of it, as no other means of escape is imaginable, there being no other world to escape to. One such means of escape from consciousness of truth involves the substitution of an illusion, held to be true, for true knowledge of something too intolerable for the conscious mind to safely handle. Ortrud accuses Lohengrin of such a sham, and with Frederick’s help plans to expose it." [from Heise’s “How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried,” page 68]
[PH] In the preceding extracts from my paper I have not only shown that I long ago proposed that, as Millington says, Lohengrin may be hiding something, as Ortrud suspects, but the burden of my paper was to examine precisely what he was hiding. It was, as readers of my complete paper can see, that he represents man's religious impulse to posit a transcendent, allegedly spiritual realm as an antidote to the anguish of mortal life here on earth, but that his spiritual realm is an illusion (as Feuerbach said), an illusion, moreover, inspired by painful reality, and made possible only by what Ortrud calls his magic, which is Wagner's code here for the magic of the artistic imagination. The notion that Lohengrin might really have something to hide which could in fact taint him in the eyes of the adoring public and adoring Elsa, something bad about him which Ortrud might expose, was missing from his 1992 paper.
“The idea that one partner should suppress all rational queries when confronted with the individuality of the other only really begins to make sense in the context of how Wagner himself saw these characters. In his roughly contemporaneous essay ‘A Communication to My Friends,’ he describes Elsa as ‘the Unconscious, the involuntary, in which Lohengrin’s conscious, voluntary being yearns to be redeemed.’ Elsa’s state, in communion with nature, untainted by the world of industry and ‘civilization’ all around, was clearly the more desirable to Wagner.” [from Millington’s “Asking the Right Question,” Seattle Opera 2005]
" ‘In Elsa I saw from the outset the antithesis to Lohengrin that I was looking for – not, of course, an opposite in the absolute sense but rather the other half of his own being – or that opposition already inherent in his own nature and only that complement to it that he necessarily yearns for. Elsa is the unconscious, the instinct in which the conscious, purposive element in Lohengrin’s character seeks to redeem itself … . Through the power of this “unconscious consciousness”, such as I myself felt along with Lohengrin, the nature of woman came to me … with an increasingly inward understanding. Through this power I succeeded so utterly in identifying myself with this female principle that I came to feel total sympathy with its expression in my loving Elsa. I grew to find her so justified at the final outbreak of her jealousy that it was from this outbreak that I first fully comprehended the purely human nature of love’ (‘A Communication to my Friends: GS IV, 301; PW I, 346)" [from Heise's "How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried," pages 87-88]
“In reality, … the paradise that we thought we had lost through sin was not a spiritual realm freed from nature, but rather the general unconsciousness or instinctiveness, the life of ‘feeling’ that we once shared with all animals. But we could not afford to admit this. We proposed instead the existence of a realm outside nature freed from the pain of life in it.” [from Heise’s “How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried,” page 71]
[PH] “… if Elsa is a metaphor for Eve, Wagner might also have taken Eve’s guilt as a metaphor, albeit an originally unwitting one, for nature’s evolutionary creation of the conscious animal, man, since nature is the truth behind the anthropomorphic symbol Eve. If so, Elsa as Eve may have a special relationship with Mother Nature which could account for Ortrud’s mysterious influence over her.” [from Heise’s “How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried,” pages 69-70]
“Elsa seems to think that Lohengrin has a noble origin, but she also implicitly seems to doubt it since she collaborates with those who doubt it, namely, Ortrud and Frederick. Suppose, then, that he is not noble, that the redemption he offers is predicated on an illusion, as Frederick and Ortrud suggest. If this is so, then Elsa’s offer to keep his secret by sharing it might actually be an offer to redeem him by keeping his sin secret. True, it appears that Elsa could keep his secret simply by not asking him to divulge it. If, however, Lohengrin is unaware that he is an imposter, but consciously believes that he serves the divine, Elsa would have to keep this sin a secret even from him, and for this reason would need to know it herself. How Lohengrin can teach Elsa something he himself does not grasp is a paradox we will resolve later.” [from Heise’s “How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried,” page 78]
[PH] Millington cites Wagner's remark in "A Communication to my Friends" that Elsa is the unconscious, the involuntary in which Lohengrin's conscious mind seeks redemption. As one can see from the various extracts from my 5/95 paper above cited above, I not only cited this same passage but cited it at greater length, and employed this insight to bring out various far-reaching implications of Elsa's insistence on asking Lohengrin the forbidden question, insights which are too complex and involved to be discussed in detail here (please consult my original paper posted in 3 parts here in the discussion forum). However, I made clear that Elsa is, in fact, Lohengrin's own unconscious mind (as Wagner does), the other half of his being, just as Bruennhilde is the other half, the unconscious half, of Wotan's mind. This particular insight was missing from Millington's 1992 paper on "Lohengrin."
[PH] Millington also suggests above Elsa is in touch with nature in a way that Lohengrin is not, and though Millington gives quite a different spin to this than I do (since he doesn't even hint at Ortrud's status as a representative of nature's "Noth," or anguish, or the reasons for Elsa's special relationship with Ortrud; this will all be outlined in subsequent portions of this critique of Millington's book), nonetheless it will be clear from the extracts from my paper cited above that I identify Elsa in a very special way with that "Nature" which is renounced by those religious folk who renounce the real world in favor of an illusory realm of the spirit, which is represented by Lohengrin as a Knight of the Holy Grail. Millington suggests that Elsa represents the natural in the sense of naivete and feeling, as opposed to the artificiality of civilization, which is accurate to a point, but Elsa and Ortrud, I've pointed out in my paper, are the two aspects of nature, its bliss and its anguish, respectively. I point out that it is precisely nature's bliss which the religious folk who unconsciously invented gods and heaven and redemption wish to smuggle into heaven (smuggle, as Feuerbach put it, because they have allegedly renounced nature's laws, and the physical body with its impulses and feelings, in favor of an allegedly transcendent realm of disembodied bliss - whatever that could mean!), while disavowing nature's anguish (Ortrud), though the two are inseparable (another point Feuerbach made). Thus Lohengrin can only find on earth, with the mortal Elsa, what is missing from his sterile, abstract heaven (Grail Realm) of the imagination. As Wagner said elsewhere, those who seek redemption in heaven, in the end, are bound to return to the earth they'd renounced, to make their existence meaningful. That Elsa is in some sense linked with nature is also missing from Millington's 1992 paper on "Lohengrin."
“He came to feel, after the work was written, ever more drawn to the character of Elsa, whose uncompromising, total love was to come into such tragic conflict with the social world, the world of ‘manhood’s egoism,’ as he called it.” [from Millington’s “Asking the Right Question,” Seattle Opera 2005]
[PH] Of course this notion that Wagner identified with Elsa and her heroic breach of Lohengrin's fear-ridden insistence on forbidding her (and all others) knowledge of his origin and identity, and gave up Lohengrin as lost, is central to my 5/95 paper. It is also found in Millington's 1992 paper on "Lohengrin" and in my 11/1991 proposal to Spencer.
“It is often assumed that the struggle at the center of “Lohengrin” is that between enlightened Christianity (represented by Lohengrin) and benighted paganism (represented by the sorceress Ortrud). This is not the case, however.” [from Millington’s “Asking the Right Question,” Seattle Opera 2005]
“Since Wagner believed that Lohengrin was a pagan figure co-opted by Christianity, but tended to identify pagan belief with nature worship and to associate Christianity with world-renunciation, it is noteworthy that on this subject of redemption from our only world in other worlds, he said:
‘The really perplexing problem […] is always how, in this terrible world of ours, beyond which there is only nothingness, it might be possible to infer the existence of a God who would make life’s immense sufferings merely something apparent, while the redemption we long for is seen as something entirely real that may be consciously enjoyed. This may not be a problem for Philistines – especially for the English variety: the reason they get on so well with their God is because they enter into a contract with Him, according to whose terms they have to fulfil a certain number of contractual points, so that, finally, as a reward for various shortcomings in this world, they may enjoy eternal bliss in the world to come.’ (Letter to Franz Liszt of 7 June 1855: SB VII, 205)
Wagner here describes world-renunciation, our redemption in paradise, as a mere product of man’s desire to escape pain, and rejects this as hypocritical.” [from Heise’s “How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried,” pages 68-69]
[PH] I disagree with Millington's remark above that the contrast between paganism and Christianity in "Lohengrin" is not central to our understanding of this artwork, for the reason I give above, that Wagner identified pagan belief with nature worship, and Christian belief with world-renunciation, the belief in a transcendent realm of the spirit wholly autonomous from the real, physical world. Note that Ortrud calls upon Freia and Wodan, pagan gods who will reappear in his "Ring" as actual Feuerbachian symbols for mortal man's projection of his own fears, needs, and desires onto imaginary beings, and of course the gods in the "Ring" are gods in name only, because they are subject to fear and fate and ultimate destruction, concepts wholly incommensurable with the very definition of godhead. Readers will also note in an extract above Wagner's condemnation of the Christian notion of redemption from this real world of pain in an allegedly spiritual world of bliss, as hypocritical. A close reading suggests that Ortrud is hinting at just such an understanding of Lohengrin's fraud.
General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung
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