Simon Williams: Rousseau and the "Ring"

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

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Simon Williams: Rousseau and the "Ring"

Post by alberich00 » Sun Sep 01, 2013 1:05 pm

The latest installment of my mini reviews of papers presented at the Wagner Worldwide 2013 bicentennial symposium sponsored by the Univ. of South Carolina in the winter of 2013.

"Rousseau and the 'Ring' " by Simon Williams (Univ. of California, Santa Barbara)

Williams first referenced Siegfried's forest murmurs as an environnmental trope re modern anxieties about potential ecological disaster, and spoke of Zambello's "Ring." During several orchestral passages, Zambello showed films of pollution. Williams suggests that Zambello's reading of the "Ring" is timely.
However, Williams complains that this sort of editorial input, during performance, was distracting, especially at such moments as the Forest Murmurs scene. Zambello placed this in an industrial wasteland. This, Williams says, distracted from the changes Siegfried undergoes, but does convey a narrative about the decline of nature. [PH: I note that in spite of a decline of nature being one of the obvious themes of the "Ring," as expressed for instance by the withering of the World-Ash Tree, nonetheless directors must at all times be attentive to what is before them, moment by moment, and not lose the narrative force for the sake of some overall interpretive scheme]

Rousseau, Williams stated, was a dystopian, who suggested that an idyllic condition probably never existed. "The Rhinegold" is the satirical segment of the "Ring" tetralogy. No one in "The Rhinegold" is in harmony with nature. The beginnings of inequality are depicted in "Rhinegold."

In "The Valkyrie," Siegmund and Sieglinde are identified with nature. That Hunding's forces destroy this couple shows the fragility of the natural condition.
But Siegfried is closest to Rousseau's natural man. Just how successful is Siegfried?

In Siegfried's forest reverie Siegfried identifies his mother with the forest, and a link to water is suggested. Siegfried seeks his origin. This makes him seem sympathetic. Thus, the state of innocence must be depicted [PH: So much for the wisdom of Zambello's choice to make the forest a wasteland!]

Character can be polluted by the environment. Siegfried like Sieglinde sees himself in a reflection in the water. Siegfried lives solely for the moment, as in naive nature. But Siegfried is not purely a child of nature, as he displays a violent tendency [PH: How is that not natural?], unlike Rousseau's natural man.

Nothung: humans act on the basis of spontaneity. Nothung also celebrates free sexuality in V.1.3, revives life-giving energies. But Nothung is forged industrially in Nibelheim. [PH: It was one of Wagner's conceits to show Wotan picking up a sword left behind from the Rhinegold hoard by Fafner, at the moment when the Sword Motif is first heard during the finale of "The Rhinegold," and this was to be the sword conferred on his son Siegmund by Wotan as the Wanderer, when he left it implanted in Hunding's House-Ash-Pillar].

Siegfried forces nature to satisfy his needs [PH: This is right out of Feuerbach]. Modern productions tend to subvert the necessary depiction of innocence with respect to which alone decline can be measured. The Forest Murmurs scene is the last instance in the "Ring" of a Rousseauan idyll.

Siegfried kills Fafner, and the taste of Fafner's blood grants Siegfried the ability to grasp the meaning of birdsong. Williams suggests that perhaps Wagner broke off completing the "Ring" at this point because of this break in nature.

Wotan visits Erda, Mother Earth, as if in a return back to nature. But Erda now represents the devastated earth.

Siegfried meets with the Rhinedaughters, but Siegfried has lost his link with nature. Siegfried is an empty husk now, without direction. Rousseau didn't believe man could return to nature.

Wagner wipes the slate clean at the end. The Siegfried of the Forest Murmurs will no longer be part of the solution.

PH: I strongly concur with one of Williams's main points, which is that directorial interference with the special imagery Wagner was at such pains to write into his libretto/score subverts and taints the audience's experience of the artwork. It is simply absurd to depict a wasteland where Wagner's music and stage directions insisted on a verdant utopia; the whole point is lost. There is absolutely no point in building ironic commentary on the "Ring" into performances; that should be left for after-the-fact discussions over cocktails.

Q&A: Someone noted Bruennhilde's conversation with the Rhinedaughters offstage. Someone asked whether Hagen's magic potion made Siegfried lose his ability to understand the voices of nature. In the narrative in which he tells the Gibichungs how he once learned to grasp the meaning of birdsong. Hagen prompts Siegfried to tell how he learned to do this. But Siegfried says now that he's listened to women he no longer bothers himself about the birds. Evidently culture has replaced nature.

Williams expressed his wish that Wagner had kept the magic potion out of this drama; love doesn't need it. [PH: Of course, the magic potion is not meant to be taken literally in Wagner; it represents something interior to the hero which yet is subject to influence from historical forces represented by Hagen; in my interpretation it is the gradual demythologization of the Western world by the scientific, objective spirit. As for forgetting Bruennhilde, as with Tannhaeuser, it is quite natural for the unconsciously inspired artist-hero to forget his original loving union with the muse, in his unconscious mind, which gave birth to his inspired work of art. What Hagen adds to this is that he represents an impulse in Siegfried, an impulse in history, to make conscious what heretofore was unconscious. Hence, Tannhaeuser, Siegfried, and Tristan all reveal their true relationship with the formerly unconscious muse of art, revealing her secrets to the conscious light of day, and to their audience, and thus betray their muse].

Another questioner asked how Siegfried's Rhine Journey fits into nature? Williams answered that in his Rhine Journey Siegfried is moving into the world of mighty deeds.

Question: Is there any link between drinking the dragon Fafner's blood, and Siegfried's injesting blood during the oath he swears with Gunther?

[PH:] Somehow or other I failed to record Williams's answer. One problem is that I write very slowly and sometimes can't keep up with the proceedings. Again, it would have been good if the organizers had published transcripts of the lectures so I could respond directly to them in print.

Question: What is the significance of Siegfried's depending for his education on Mime? Williams answered that Wagner distinguished Siegfried from Mime. Siegfried is natural, and self-taught, but uses Mime's music. [PH: In my interpretation Mime represents the rather large body of common men among whom the genius comes of age, and Wagner's depiction of their difficulties getting on reflects his own view of the near-impossibility for the natural genius to enjoy a productive socialization among his/her peers. The genius will always be misunderstood because the average humans around him/her project their own limitations on to the genius, assuming the genius is motivated by the same impulses and ideas. Note that Mime's inability to teach Siegfried dramatizes Wotan's hope - Mime being Wotan's prosaic rather than heroic or poetic self - that his longed-for hero of redemption would owe nothing to him and be entirely independent, yet do what Wotan wished, just as Siegfried does indeed do, in a sense, what Mime wished].
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