Part 7: Millington on "Lohengrin"

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Part 7: Millington on "Lohengrin"

Post by alberich00 » Sat Feb 09, 2013 2:11 pm

Dear members and visitors:

This is part 7 of my review/critique of Barry Millington's chapter on "Lohengrin" from his "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth," and of his essay about "Lohengrin," "Asking the Right Question," posted online in 2005 by the Seattle Opera (incorporating also, in my current revision of this review, a consideration of Millington's essay "Elsa, Lohengrin and the Tell-Tale Halo," published by the Houston Grand Opera for its production of "Lohengrin" in October and November of 1992).

(15) [BM]
“The idea that one partner should suppress all rational categories when confronted with the individuality of the other only really begins to make sense in the context of how Wagner himself saw these characters. The essay ‘A Communication to my Friends’ … has to be treated with a degree of caution here, given that it was written in 1851, a good three years after ‘Lohengrin’ was completed. By this time Wagner had indeed not just become ‘a complete revolutionary’, but had had to flee into exile. It could be argued, therefore, that he was inclined to read his revolutionary fervour into such works as ‘Lohengrin’ completed before the barricades went up.

This seems a willfully distorted way of understanding the creative imagination. Utopian revolutionism did not arrive in Dresden one day in 1848 or 1849;: radical ideas had long been circulating. More importantly, it is perfectly possible for visionary conceptions to take shape in a work of art before they are articulated in the political arena. This would explain Wagner’s designation of Elsa as ‘the Unconscious, the involuntary, in which Lohengrin’s conscious, voluntary being yearns to be redeemed.’ What distinguishes Elsa, for Wagner, is that she is in communion with nature, untainted by the world of industry and ‘civilization’ all around.” [from Chapter 7 – “Swansong to Traditional Opera: ‘Lohengrin’,” in Millington’s “The Sorcerer of Bayreuth,” page 64-65]

[PH] I fully concur with Millington's observation that works of art can portend things which only become fully conscious (not only for the general public, but for the artist himself) later. But Millington adds that "This would explain Wagner's designation of Elsa as 'the Unconscious, the involuntary, in which Lohengrin's conscious, voluntary being yearns to be redeemed.' " Though Millington is tantalizingly unspecific, I suppose it is implicit that he regards Elsa as somehow linked with art's capacity to subliminally, unconsciously portend things which only later become conceptually conscious. In any case, I was in my 5/95 paper quite explicit in describing Elsa's breach of Lohengrin's demand for faith as Wagner's metaphor for the inevitable decline of religious faith and secular man's substitution of secular art for it, in which mere "feeling" supplants faith because it, unlike faith, doesn't have the disadvantage of staking a claim to truth which might be refuted. I have noted Wagner's evident equation of Elsa with Eve, who couldn't refrain from seeking forbidden knowledge. But what is missing from Millington's understanding is that Wagner virtually saw Eve as his symbol for the muse of unconsciously inspired art. For Feuerbach described Eve as the great liberator from religious faith, a sort of patron saint of Atheism, since it was through her heroic act that man, according to Feuerbach, liberated himself from faith and dependence on the illusion of godhead, and learned instead to fend for himself as a mortal in the real world, in his exile from the paradise of faith. The point here is that Feuerbach's Eve becomes Wagner's symbol for his own unconscious as muse for his own art, since he regarded his inspired art as the heir to dying religious faith. And of course Wagner was quite explicit about this connection in calling the heroine of "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" Eva, or Eve. Eva is the muse for Walther's dream which ultimately gives birth to his mastersong, and Sachs (in this like Wotan), makes a confession to Eva in Act II during his cobbling song that she, as the muse of art Eve, has the responsibility to wed the artist-hero in a legitimate marriage so that their loving union can redeem the folk of Nuremberg through art (their baptized child), when faith will no longer suffice. This explains Wagner's constant playing around with correspondences between Walther and Christ the savior, between Eva and Eve, between Sachs himself and John the Baptist, etc. Walther's love for Eva, which gives birth to an inspired work of art, is the substitute which Eve, who banished us from the paradise of unquestioning faith, can offer to compensate us. This conceptual structure is true of all of Wagner's mature music-dramas.

[PH] I have already discussed in some detail the sense in which I read Elsa's identification with nature, and how it both differs and corresponds with Millington's approach, which is too vague here to engender much commentary.

(16) [BM]
“Elsa, for her part, is driven by her unalloyed, unconditional love to ask the question that cannot be avoided. She ‘awakes from the thrill of worship into the full reality of love,’ says Wagner, and loves Lohengrin with the unquestioning commitment that he believed was as necessary from men as from women. As a result, Wagner tells us, Elsa ‘made a complete revolutionary of me’.” [from Chapter 7 “Swansong to Traditional Opera: ‘Lohengrin’,” in Millington’s “The Sorcerer of Bayreuth,” page 64]

(16) [BM]
Elsa, ‘this glorious woman,’ made Wagner ‘a revolutionary at one stroke,’ he claimed. Her asking of the question, the necessary question, is not therefore a whim to be scorned, but a heroic act.” [from Millington’s “Asking the Right Question,” Seattle Opera 2005]

[PH] These were two key points of my 5/95 paper "How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried," namely, that Elsa's act in breaching faith was heroic and praised by Wagner, and that this made him a revolutionary, which I went on to say in considerable detail meant that Wagner was saying that Elsa's breach of Lohengrin's demand for faith was the key to his transition from a composer of traditional, romantic operas, to the creator of the revolutionary music-drama (see my commentary from my paper below). That this concept was central to my perspective on the conceptual relationship of "Lohengrin" to the "Ring" in my research and self-published and disseminated material prior to Millington's 1992 paper on "Lohengrin" is proved by my letter of introduction to Stewart Spencer of 11/91, which I've quoted elsewhere in this review. I also possess a paper on "Lohengrin" (as well as "The Flying Dutchman" and "Tannhaeuser") which I copyrighted in 1991).

“We come now to Lohengrin’s night of love with Elsa, who brings to their intimate union Ortrud’s gift of doubt:

‘Is this but love? What can I call it – this word, so ineffably delightful as, alas! your name, which I must never know, by which I can never call my greatest treasure! […] If only in the seclusion of love’s peace you’d permit me to pronounce it! […] Alone, when no one is awake, never will the world hear it!’ (Act III, Scene 2; GS II, 102)

Elsa has, in effect, asked Lohengrin to let her help him maintain his taboo on knowledge by sharing that knowledge with her in sexual union … . An odd concept, perhaps, but sexual love as a metaphor for an exchange of knowledge is also the very essence of Wotan’s bond with Erda, since Wotan couples with her both to learn his fate and to seek means to escape it.” [from Heise’s “How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried,” page 75]

“ ‘In our times, R. continues, religion should seek to influence ethics, and allow faith to be represented by art, which can transform illusion into truth‘ (CT, 14 November 1879).

Curiously, in this last quotation Wagner hints that art can do what religion, bound by a fearful taboo on knowledge, cannot do, namely, affirm the unity of holiness and nature. Perhaps art can redeem religion as Elsa’s earthly love can redeem Lohengrin’s sterile holiness. Since Elsa offers to redeem Lohengrin only if he will entrust her with knowledge of his secret identity, we must ask how this might be applied to the relationship of art to religion.” [from Heise’s “How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried,” page 83]

“If Lohengrin is too self conscious, he needs a hero freed from this liability, who will not know who he is. If sin for Lohengrin means being conscious of the truth, then the hero who commits sin unconsciously is, in this sense, innocent. Only in this way can Lohengrin manage not to find his now discredited self in his hero. He needs a hero who can do what he cannot do: unwittingly, instinctively break his own law without suffering from consciousness of guilt and hypocrisy. His hero must be so unconscious of committing this sin that he will not feel fear of exposure … . (…) Now free from divine protection, his hero can without the disadvantage of conscious religious belief – which stakes a refutable claim on truth, i.e., seeks ‘power’ – affirm our desire for transcendence, even in the face of truth, without fear of contradiction. Offering art to King Ludwig as an alternative to religious world-renunciation, Wagner described our hero’s remarkable redemptive act:

‘The illusionary image [Wahngebilde] as presented must never afford the pretext to arouse … a possible dispute about ultimate meaning in its actuality and basis in proof as religious drama [PH: dogma?] does: rather it must exploit its most inherent power precisely by achieving the substitution of conscious illusion for reality. This is what art accomplishes; and I therefore designate it […] as a source of benign redemption that … does not lead us truly … beyond life, but instead raises us above life from within it, so that, even if … it appears dark and frightening, it is none the less presented to us as really only that illusionary image that consoles us and elevates us above the miserable truth (‘Noth’) about things.’
(‘On State and Religion’: GS VIII, 29-29; PW IV, 33)” [from Heise’s “How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried,” page 88]

[Speaking of Godfrey, who is restored to the kingdom safe after Lohengrin’s departure, and now freed from the Grail’s protection (he had been transformed into the Swan which originally pulled Lohengrin’s boat to Brabant, after Ortrud placed a spell on him), I stated:] “This hero is the mortal who alone can offer a substitute for the loss of heaven’s (religion’s) consolation which left with Lohengrin’s passing. He is Godfrey, in whom Lohengrin is reborn; or, to be more accurate, he is Siegfried:

[Lohengrin:] ‘O Elsa! For one year only I longed to be beside you as witness of your happiness! Then, blessed by the Grail’s protection, your brother, whom you believed dead, would have returned. When he comes home and I am far from him in this life, this horn, this sword and this ring you shall give to him! This horn will help him when he is in danger, in wild battle this sword gives victory; but by the ring he will remember me, who once freed you from shame and distress (‘Noth’)! Farewell! Farewell! Farewell, my sweet wife! (Act III, Scene 3; GS II, 112-113)

[PH – Note: The Wagner pundit who was the first I know of to suggest a parallel between Lohengrin’s horn, sword, and ring, and those belonging to Siegfried, was John Deathridge. However, I don’t believe he exploited this insight to develop an interpretation of the “Ring,” or “Lohengrin,” or to suggest any far-reaching conceptual links between those two artworks.]

Thus, Wagner found his inspiration for the great scene in which Wotan turns away from his daughter Bruennhilde in the hope that her love for Siegfried will do what he no longer can: redeem the gods and the world. (…)

The ring that Lohengrin tells Elsa to give to Godfrey in remembrance of him will soon develop into the Nibelung’s (Alberich’s) ring.” [from Heise’s “How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried,” pages 89-90]

“In the end, Lohengrin was so conscious that he could not accept Elsa’s offer to be his ‘unconscious mind.’ By offering to share the secret of his identity Elsa had potentially offered to let him store, or repress, his abhorrent self-knowledge (‘Noth’) in her, a potential attainable only if Elsa protects him from this knowledge, so that he can be freed from fear of the truth. Lohengrin was too self-conscious to redeem himself through her love and thus could no longer offer the folk the Grail’s redemption. Wagner says:

‘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)

Wagner says that Lohengrin was too conscious, yet Lohengrin rejected Elsa’s offer to redeem him from self-consciousness. He defines redemption-by-love as a restoration of the innocence of paradise attained by submerging our conscious, egoistic self-knowledge into our unconscious mind. He identifies conscious mind with manhood and equates redemption from knowledge, through unconsciousness of it, with womanhood. Sexual union thus becomes Wagner’s metaphor for repression of self-knowledge into the unconscious mind. This repressed knowledge of ‘Noth’ [PH: existential anguish], which Elsa offered to share with Lohengrin, is, as Ortrud implied, the true source of inspiration for Lohengrin’s redemptive ‘Wahn.’ It follows that this secret ‘Noth’ could inspire Lohengrin’s ‘magic’ only if it remained unconscious. Since Wagner in ‘A Communication to my Friends’ actually praises Elsa’s breach of faith as the inspiration for his new concept of woman and his new art, Elsa’s offer to share Lohengrin’s dangerous self-knowledge in loving union, in conjunction with the above quotation, represents Wagner’s new understanding of redemption by love.” [from Heise’s “How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried,” pages 87-88]

“Lohengrin would not acknowledge that he needs redemption, but Wotan will, for, unlike Lohengrin, he will accept Bruennhilde’s offer, made prior to his great confession, to hold knowledge of his secret ‘Noth’ for him in silence so that his conscious, ideal mind, Siegfried, freed now from fear of the real, need not suffer from it. Elsa, as Eve, called upon her knight to help her atone for giving us fatal knowledge. She wished to inspire a deed, the redemption of the world from knowledge through love. This, as a metaphor for the redemption of religious longing from science by art, is the model for Bruennhilde’s relationship with Siegfried, for Elsa had shown Wagner that Wotan – ‘religion’ – must vanish in order to make way for the artist, Siegfried:

‘This woman […], who goes from worship to love precisely by the outbreak of her jealousy and reveals this nature to a hitherto uncomprehending man by her downfall; this glorious woman from whom Lohengrin must vanish because of his inability to understand her from his own specific nature – I had ‘now’ discovered her: and that random arrow that I had shot at the target that I had sensed but not known was there was in fact my Lohengrin, whom I had to give up as lost if I was to find the certain path to the ‘truly feminine’ that would one day bring redemption to me and everybody else, after the masculine egotism, even in its most exalted form, had broken in self-immolation in the face of it. Elsa, the woman […] made me a revolutionary in one stroke.’ (‘A Communication to my Friends’: GS IV, 302-302; PW I, 347-348)

And thus it was that Wagner concluded:

‘I remain convinced that my Lohengrin […] symbolizes the most profoundly tragic situation of the present day, namely, man’s desire to descend from the most intellectual heights to the depths of love, the longing to be understood instinctively, a longing which modern reality cannot yet satisfy. […] This is where my are must come to the rescue: and the work of art that I had no choice but to conceive in this sense is none other than my ‘Nibelung poem.’
(Letter to August Roeckel of 25/6 January 1854: SB VI, 66-67)

In a later paper I shall show how Wagner’s ‘Ring’ develops this allegory of the war between truth (power) and value (love), implicit in ‘Lohengrin,’ into a cosmic epic depicting the conflict between our quest for knowledge of the world embodied by science and our desire to escape from the world as found in religion and art.” [from Heise’s “How Elsa showed Wagner the way to Siegfried,” page 90]

[PH] This "later paper" I alluded to above, in my 5/95 paper, became over time the 900 page or so "The Wound That Will Never Heal" which is posted here for all to share at But readers can plainly see that virtually all the key points of Millington's personal interpretation of "Lohengrin" proffered by him in his 1992 essay "Elsa, Lohengrin and the Tell-Tale Halo," his essay for the Seattle Opera (published by them in 2005), and then in his chapter on "Lohengrin" in his recent (2012) "The Sorcerer of Bayreuth," were examined by me in a much richer conceptual context in my paper of 5/95, since I laid out in detail the implications of my new reading of "Lohengrin" for Wagner's other music-dramas (to find this material you must read my entire paper, which is posted here in 3 parts in the discussion forum), and the "Ring" in particular.

Needless to say, either Millington, or I, or some third party (or parties) unknown to me, can prove priority with respect to the first known copyright for any of the insights in our respective papers which correspond, and I will gladly give credit to others in this respect, where credit is due. Having discovered Millington's 1992 paper among my voluminous Wagner papers yesterday, but being saved from any imputation of having borrowed without due credit any of his four or five insights (taken from a close reading of "A Communication of my Friends") for my 5/95 paper, by virtue of my letter proposing potential papers to Stewart Spencer of 11/91, it is nonetheless incumbent on me to review my prior copyrighted papers to determine when I first proposed any insights whose priority might be in dispute. I do know that in his book "Wagner," first published in 1984, and then in revised versions in both 1992 and 1998, the only hint of these insights in his chapter on "Lohengrin" was Millington's cryptic remark on pages 181-182 (of the 1998 edition): "As 'A Communication to my Friends' makes clear, there are ... overtones [in "Lohengrin"] of the philosophies of Feuerbach and Young Germany. The 'necessity of love', the essence of this love as the 'longing for complete material reality', satisfaction of all the senses, pride in human rather than divine achievement: it is the language as much as the ideas that acknowledges the debt." As I am not in possession of the 1984 or 1992 edition (I've lost a number of precious books from my Wagner collection over the years, in the course of many moves from one home to another, by virtue of lending books which were never returned, and as the victim of house-sharers who should have known better throwing out some of my possessions as if they were junk, without permission), I don't know whether or not this brief remark appeared in the first edition or only later, but in any case Millington may well have elaborated on this point elsewhere during or before that period, so I reserve judgment. However, I note that I first proposed, and argued in some detail to demonstrate, the conceptual unity of Wagner's mature music-dramas in my "The Doctrine of the Ring," copyrighted at the Library of Congress in 11/83, and it was here that I first presented in detail my over-arching thesis that Wagner's mature music-dramas are conceptually coherent and unified, and can in fact, in a sense, be construed as one single artwork.

I might add that Millington's earlier book "Wagner" was distinguished with highly informative analyses of Wagner's evolving procedures for matching music with word and drama, such that I, who have never learned to read musical scores, could nonetheless grasp in considerable detail Wagner's evolving conception of musical drama. Millington has rendered a signal service to all of us in this regard.

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