John Deathridge: Wagner and Adorno

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

Moderators: alberich00, Justin Jeffrey

Post Reply
Site Admin
Posts: 427
Joined: Tue Apr 19, 2011 11:03 am

John Deathridge: Wagner and Adorno

Post by alberich00 » Wed Sep 11, 2013 4:19 pm

Paul Heise's attempt (with my apologies to Deathridge for any inaccuracies) at a review of "Wagner and Adorno," a lecture recorded by John Deathridge (King's College) for BBC Radio 3 Essays re Wagner 200, the Richard Wagner bicentennial, on 5/25/13:

Deathridge opened with an anecdote from a British journalist who stated, in response to a book by Adorno, as a representative of the Frankfurt School, that Anglophiles would never be able to accept this as genuine speech. Hans Werner Henze remarked, after seeing Adorno at a performance in Vienna of "Twilight of the Gods," and holding its score, that he couldn't abide Adorno. Joachim Kaiser saw many weaknesses in Adorno, who exhibited a notorious vanity which Kaiser described as a protective device. He stated that Adorno wanted to be loved, even by his enemies. Adorno was described as given to masochistic narcissism.

Others with whom Adorno was associated in the Frankfurt school included Benjamin, Horkheimer, and Marcuse. Their worldview, tracing its origins to Hegel, Marx, and Freud, was that the modern world is a dark place, with only a faint sliver of hope or redemption. The world is radically evil. Adorno was in effect a demonic theologian in this school of thought. According to his view there could no longer be any affirmative art, because art, to be genuine, must express this terrible truth about the nature of the world. There can be no happy endings.

For this reason Adorno was not popular, but nonetheless his critique of the culture-industry still resonates, for through its blandishments the world is inaccurately construed as a positive place, which is an untruth. The discussion of music in modern culture was central to Adorno's cultural critique. A good half of his books were about music.

For Adorno, Wagner was the beginning of the end, in this descent of high culture into post-modernism. Adorno brought this analysis to bear in his primary book dealing with Wagner, "In Search of Wagner," which was written in the 1930's. Even as late as the 1960's Adorno described this book as his attempt to save Wagner from his ideological trappings, his association with the worst excesses of fascism. Though Adorno's book did discuss Wagner's anti-Semitism this was not it's primary agenda, yet it fanned the flames re Wagner's anti-Semitism. But Adorno wasn't interested in polemics, and was definitely not in search of Wagner, but felt he had found Wagner, warts and all, and that his purpose was to save Wagner [PH: from himself, presumably].

Deathridge noted that readers of Adorno's book must grasp the sociological premise behind it. It examines the modern era's contradictory use of reason which, on the one hand, has been employed in a positive way to grant man control over nature for his benefit, but on the other hand has been employed by fascism to gain control over men. In other words, regressive human interests have dampened man's progressive tendencies. Modern man has been compartmentalized, alienated, and thus become subject to manipulation. Adorno states emphatically that we must have a keen critical awareness of this. [PH: As described in my online book "The Wound That Will Never Heal," Wagner's "Ring" is among other things an allegorical examination of how, through the progress of scientific inquiry man acquired the knowledge not only that all of his former claims to having transcendent value were probably expressions of self-delusion, but also discovered the scientific means to reduce allegedly be-souled man, spiritual man, to a mere animal subject to natural law and egoistic animal impulse, with no spiritual residue left over, part of Wagner's Feuerbachian heritage.]

Wagner was a damaged Bourgeois, a decadent. Adorno states that even in his attempt at rebellion Wagner capitulates to the power structure. However, Adorno in his critique is not interested in Hitler or his link with Bayreuth, but rather, in a deep analysis of Wagner's music as symptomatic of Bourgeois decline. He was also not interested in evidence for proto-fascism in Wagner.

The heart of Adorno's book is a discussion of the concept of "Phantasmagoria," a concept whose invention Adorno shared with Benjamin. Phantasmagoria is described as an approach to art-creation in which an attempt is made to hide its division of labor, the labor that went into it, to make it seem a spontaneous product of nature. Adorno identifies such art with commodification. [PH: I recall reading with dismay Adorno's description of Wagner's musical motifs as commodities, because Adorno didn't, in my view, accurately describe in what sense this might be true. This discussion struck me as hogwash then, and it still does. Though Wagner's "Ring" does indeed introduce and analyze the notion that religious faith and art, and particularly the sublimation of religion and art in music, feeling, musical motifs, are unconscious attempts to hide their true origins in man's base physical impulses, his desires and fears, I don't believe that Wagner's "Ring" is an exemplar of Adorno's notion of the commodity which hides its labor. If anything, Wagner's self-analysis is up-front. It's the whole point of the "Ring." The confusion may arise from the fact that I also believe that for Wagner much of this remained unconscious, so to that degree Adorno may be right. In other words, I'm not sure to what extent Wagner ever became consciously aware of to what extent his art was a critique of the very mainsprings of civilization and religion and art up until his time, though this is the truth expressed in his allegories from at least "Tannhaeuser" onward. But it is true to say that Wotan's dangerous hoard of self-knowledge is allegorically shown to be sublimated into music, Bruennhilde's feeling, which becomes incarnate in the musical motifs of the "Ring"]

Through a very sophisticated technique (this is the portion of Deathridge's subtle and sophisticated presentation which I was least able to record while hearing it, because he was speaking at such a fast clip) Wagner's music gives the mirage of a mythical eternity, but this is a mere distraction from the very social problems and alienation Wagner's music-dramas purport to address. Wagner, according to Adorno, pretends to be aware of social criticism, but his parodies of alienation (as for instance RW's characterization of Mime) remain just part of the delusion. Wagner's total work of art merely increases the evil he purports to fight against.

The Total Work of Art is according to Adorno the ultimate Phantasmagoria, with its unprecedented division of labor and requirement of huge technical and human resources to perform, and its illusion of seamlessness and naturalness and naivete. It is a modern piece of technical wizardry, which Wagner creates in order to give us the illusion that in it we are freed from Capitalism. It's not truly collective, but remains an expression of alienation. Adorno regarded Wagner's attempt at a total work of art as a failure, since it rules out a true division of labor. An intoxication and delusion is the result, rather than a true coming to grips with society's' evils.

Yet, in spite of this harsh critique, Deathridge states that for Adorno Wagner's art ultimately breaks through its limitations. It ultimately unmasks the deceptive vision of phantasmagoria. Wagner's music can still renew the age-old promise of art, the promise of a life without fear.

According to Deathridge Adorno's book cleared the Wagnerian air during the Post WWII period. Wagner's art remains implicated in the greatest horror of the 20th Century, but we must still approach Wagner in a rational way.

Deathridge noted that Adorno's book has had a positive influence on Wieland Wagner, Carl Dahlhaus, Hans Jurgen Syberburg, etc.

But a sinister element in Wagner's art will never vanish. He remains implicated in our historical horror more than any artist.

PH: I think it would be safe to say that the realm of Wagner punditry remains mostly innocent of my own contributions to this discussion, and that this body of contemporary scholars still has not come to grips with what in my view is the actual depth and scope of Wagner's cultural critique. For it seems to me that Wagner's critique of the human experience and ideals and beliefs runs far deeper than any mere question of terrible historic episodes, of which our world has had many since the first talking animals came to fruition in the world.

PH: I've also said it before and I'll say it again now. It's not as if the Nazi's horrific explosion into the modern world told us something terrible about human nature and the human condition we didn't already know. My point is that if art could offer man healing in the past for these atrocities of our own nature, it still can. Adorno's insistence that art must only express the hopelessness and angst of the modern world, as if this viewpoint were uniquely ours, in this time, could just as well be retroactively applied to all art and religion of the past. Either that, or art is just as valid now as it ever was as a means of human expression.
Post Reply