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Review: "The Wagner Experience" by Paul Dawson-Bowling

Posted: Mon Feb 16, 2015 4:29 pm
by alberich00
This is Part 1 of my review of the 2013 book, "The Wagner Experience," written by Paul Dawson-Bowling, published in 2013 by Old Street Publishing Ltd. My abbreviation for his name throughout my review will be "DB." My name is as always abbreviated as PH.

It's my habit when writing a book review to focus solely on the ideas presented by the author, and to ask whether they are cogent, provocative, new, logically and factually sustainable, etc. For other types of reviews, which include critiques of the more cosmetic aspects of new books, I suggest you look online, as there are many. This book in particular has received quite a number of positive online reviews, with some readers suggesting that it is the best book on Wagner they've read. A few weeks ago I completed my reading of the two volumes (the first volume addressing general questions about Wagner's art, the second volume containing the author's versions of the librettos of Wagner's ten canonical operas and music-dramas, from "The Flying Dutchman" through "Parsifal," chapters which in most cases are mere re-writes of the librettos with a comparatively small amount of commentary about the music and the psychological implications of the plots), and I can only say that this two volume set as a whole introduces little that is new, though it is written by an author with a deep love of this subject. I found comparatively little in this new book which can't be found in prior commentators on the subject such as George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Newman, Robert Donington, Deryck Cooke, Michael Tanner, etc. However, this author here and there has some very positive and useful things to say, and I've been quick to point out my sympathy with his point of view whenever this was appropriate. However, I wish to point out a possible exception to my critique: in chapter 8 about Wagner's music DB offered quite a number of observations which gave me food for thought, and it may well be the most valuable chapter in the book.

A minor point worth mentioning: the 2013 edition I read contains an uncomfortably large number of grammatical errors of the type in which a single word is missing, which can usually be mentally filled in given the context, but not always. This book definitely needs another good edit, as there were virtually dozens of such errors throughout, sometimes several in just a few pages.

My review will proceed in chronological order through the two volumes, and as always I will address only cases where the author is saying something well worth hearing, with which I wish to concur, or is saying something with which I disagree strongly enough to desire to put my two cents into the argument. The book's primary value for me was that it gave me an opportunity to review the full panorama of Wagner's art, seen from another perspective, in preparation for my own return to my old project of writing interpretations of Wagner's ten canonical operas and music-dramas from my original perspective. Though I've already written book-length interpretations of Wagner's ten canonical operas and music-dramas, from "The Flying Dutchman" through "Parsifal," my only fully fleshed-out interpretations worthy of publication online or in hardcopy are the two versions of my 1995 paper "How Elsa Showed Wagner the Way to Siegfried" (the published version can be seen near the beginning of the archive of this discussion forum, and another fuller version, with added evidence from the writings of Ludwig Feuerbach, can be read online at, and of course "The Wound That Will Never Heal" Part One, which is my book on the "Ring" published here at You will also find at a transcript of my paper on Feuerbach's influence on the libretto of "Parsifal," and in my "Introduction to 'The Wound That Will Never Heal' at that website, you will find thumbnail sketches of my interpretations of all the other canonical Wagner operas and music-dramas.

I would like to say at the outset that if this were the first book about Wagner a new admirer of his art read, I can see why they might admire it in several respects. However, it's best to get down to cases, chapter by chapter.

[CHAPTER TWO: TOWARDS A DEFINITION OF WAGNER'S FASCINATION] P. 20: In Chapter Two (Chapter One is merely a brief chronological overview of Wagner's life), Dawson-Bolling sets forth the primary object of his book, which is to attempt to answer the question: "What is the secret of his [Wagner's] hold over the imagination? How does it work, and what is its significance?"

P. 21: DB devotes several pages to the fact that for many their first experience of Wagner they describe as revelatory, life-changing, almost a religious conversion.

PH: This corresponds with my own experience.

P. 21-27: Also, I'm pleased to find DB emphasizing how much value can be found by reading Cosima's Diaries, Wagner's letters, and his
prose works. For instance, DB says: [P. 26-27] "His writings are at their best ... when discussing music and drama, and they contain some of the finest thinking ever documented on these topics. There were many areas of his ideas where his prose works demonstrate a powerful and original mind at work."

P. 33: PH: I'm happy that DB describes the drama in its larger sense (the poetic intent) as the end Wagner had in view when creating his music-dramas, by which DB means that neither music, libretto text, acting, staging alone are the drama, but rather, they [DB:] "... convert that underlying intent into a form that we can apprehend ... ."

P. 35: DB elaborates this notion, that it was Wagner's hope that audiences would so lose themselves following the dramatic action that they would virtually forget listening to the music as music but absorb it unconsciously as a natural expression of the drama.

PH: I wholly concur.

P. 36: DB: "The music acts as a magical intermediary, relating the drama to the audience. (...) The music conjures up the very experience of his characters for the imagination." PH: I am in sympathy with this remark, as well as the following: DB: [P. 37] "The music also enables its hearers to live the drama as a whole, partaking in the entire drama as a parallel reality."

P. 38-39: PH: DB's following assessment can't be repeated too often: DB: "In Wagner the music, however compelling, invariably serves the drama, enhancing it with intimations that neither the words nor the actions of the performers could express."

P. 39: DB: "He [Wagner] came to regard music as unique sinking a deep shaft into an ultimate reality which was otherwise unattainable."

PH: This by way of trying to explain Wagner's unique power of persuasion.

P. 39-40: DB makes the astute observation that though Wagner's original stagings of his music-dramas may seem naive and primitive to us now, we neglect to consider that the music's power of persuasion could lend an authenticity and power to these traditional stagings which are hard to imagine today.

P. 42-43: DB ends Chapter Two with the question, what did Wagner mean when he suggested his music-dramas could offer us redemption?
PH: DB agrees with me in saying that though our experience of Wagner's artworks can make us feel as if we've transcended the world and are redeemed, DB: "... the Wagner experience demands no metaphysical beliefs, nor any faith in a transcendent power ... ."

PH: I very much appreciate DB's following assessment of the value for us of Wagner's art: DB: "Like religion at its best, it can centre us, creating fulfillment and integration, and it can also create an expansion of consciousness and a widening of sympathies. It too can transfigure life. This is why the Wagner Experience is so important, why it is perhaps that 'Everyone needs Wagner'."

[CHAPTER THREE: TOWARDS AN UNDERSTANDING OF WAGNER'S FASCINATION] DB launches this chapter (dedicated to understanding Wagner's fascination) with thoughts on why creations of the imagination, known by us not to be real, are so important to us.

P. 46: DB suggests that there may be an evolutionary advantage to "... the pleasure which comes from fictions, fables, novels, dramas, films and staged representations ...," since these can inspire beneficial behavior. However, his initial example from Wagner's operas is the following: "In a sense, all tragedy is didactic and cautionary, because it presents behaviour that is destructive and implicitly warns against it (as happens in 'Lohengrin')."

PH: The problem with this thesis is that Wagner actually praised Elsa's insistence on asking Lohengrin the question about his name and origins he'd forbidden, as making Elsa's breach of faith the inspiration for the revolution in Wagner's art which gave birth to his mature music dramas. I'll save my rebuttal to this point for my response to DB's chapter on "Lohengrin" in Volume II, but suffice it to say that in that upcoming chapter DB suggests that Wagner's remarks about Elsa in his essay "A Communication to my Friends" are not helpful. Of course, anybody familiar with my online book on the "Ring," and my paper "How Elsa Showed Wagner the Way to Siegfried," know that Wagner's placing a positive spin on Elsa's breach of faith is central, a very key, to my original interpretations of Wagner's mature music-dramas.

P. 50-51: DB explains that one of the reasons for Wagner's fascination is his ability to make the experience of tragic drama euphoric. DB's following paragraph explaining this deserves to be quoted at some length: "The human computer [brain] evolved out of the human animal to serve its purposes, but the end result is a being that yokes together forces which frequently pull in different directions, a rational mind straining against instinctive drives. There are additional disunities between the older, more primitive animal brain and the large, complex brain unique to man. (...) ... the disunities remain serious, a potential source of emotional disturbance, conflict and mental illness. Religions, philosophies, psychologies, as well as great poets and artists have all attempted various ways of resolving the disunities, of reconfiguring and overcoming them, but Wagner stands out as very special indeed, because he addressed them in ways that go far to resolving them."

PH: There is no doubt, in my mind, that Wagner's secular art in some sense serves the same ends as religious belief, faith, and sentiment do, or did, and of course one of the primary hypotheses of my own interpretation of Wagner's "Ring" is that it is, among other things, an allegory about the transition from the epoch of religious faith, to that of secular art and science. In fact, DB says as much in the following [P. 51] "... a distinctive appeal of the Wagner Experience is that by providing a resolution of the disunities, it [Wagner's art] offers a kind of secular redemption ... ."

P. 53-54: Curiously, in a brief critique of one aspect of Bryan Magee's book "Aspects of Wagner," that a minor failing is "... its unquestioning acceptance of Freud's view of the unconscious ... ," DB unwittingly crosses over into territory which will be familiar to anyone who has read my online "Ring" book posted here at DB says that Freud's view of the unconscious was that it was "... like a cesspool of unacceptable impulses and suppressed infantile urges, topped up with more recent experiences that were too unpleasant to remember, too traumatic and criminal, or simply too filthy and degrading to countenance. For Freud the unconscious was a disordered world committed to a war on the humanity of its owner and only to be exorcised by psychoanalysis. Another idea follows close, that the satisfactions of the Wagner Experience came from a process whereby people come to terms with the dark and detestable phantoms of their unconscious, and gain some degree of relief." DB adds: "I have already hinted how Jung regarded this kind of thinking as misguided (as I do), and perhaps it is closer to the truth to see the Wagner experience as positive, as helping to resolve the disunities of being human."

PH: For me, as DB states it above, I feel the distinction he makes is just a matter of semantics. I have described in great detail in my online "Ring" book how in Wagner's characterization of Wotan's relationship to Bruennhilde, and in particular his confession to her in "The Valkyrie" Act 2, Scene 2, Wagner offers us a metaphor for the relationship of the conscious to the unconscious mind, in this case Wotan representing mankind as a whole, throughout history, and Bruennhilde representing man's collective unconscious, and in Wotan's confession a metaphor for an involuntary process in which the mind suppresses consciousness of knowledge too intolerable to bear, and sublimates this horrific knowledge in such a way as to draw beauty from it, to sublimate it, much as tragic drama does. Surely this is a credible example of how Wagner's art attempts to reconcile the higher, spiritual man with his animal roots.

P. 55: DB suggests that Friedrich Nietzsche took his concept of "The Will to Power" from Wagner.

PH: I have no doubt that this is true. A so-far-as-I-know great untapped area for future study is Niezsche's debt to Wagner, and through Wagner to Ludwig Feuerbach, for quite a number of ideas which Nietzsche developed in his maturity.

P. 58: In the following passage DB expresses something very like one of the primary theses of my interpretation of the "Ring," corresponding as it does partly to Feuerbach's thesis (repeated several times by Wagner) that the highest secular art offers something very like the power and awe of religious faith, as a feeling, without the intellectual belief in a transcendent realm of meaning. DB, speaking of the religious beliefs of today, says: "... that they can only work for the well-being of people who believe in them, and Jung was deeply concerned at the compelling evidence that men and women without religion or myths do lose their sense of value. This is where Wagner offers something that is both fascinating and extraordinary. His dramas express myths which we know to be untrue; they are not historical or scientific realities ... but the important, amazing thing is that it does not matter. It is still possible to live by them, possible for them to make sense of our lives [following in italics] without our having to believe that they are true [out of italics]."

[CHAPTER FOUR: THE CHILD IS FATHER TO THE MAN. I. Riddles from the Dark - P. 73-100]

PH: Sad to say, after a very promising beginning in his first two chapters, DB presents here a house of cards in which speculations about the origins of key traits in Wagner's adult character and art are supported by other speculations, nary a single one grounded in anything one can call firm evidence or logic. I'm sad to report that I repeatedly wrote in the margins of this chapter as I proceeded through such things as "What a waste of time!" and "All this has nothing to tell us about Wagner's art." DB often seems to recognize this as he notes, while trying to describe what made Wagner who he was even in early childhood, how much that he ascribes to Wagner's character came from influences and practices common to all children of his class and period and place. For instance, DB references the style of child upbringing common in Wagner's time, or the style of pedagogy common in Wagner's time, as potential clues to understanding what made him uniquely who he is. What possible purpose can be served by such lame speculations?

P. 88: One example of this very loose reasoning will suffice. Having in previous pages described Wagner's comparatively rootless childhood, and speculations about Ludwig Geyer's (Wagner's foster-father) assumed punitive punishments of small infractions, DB says:

"The twin traumas of rootlessness and of vicious nurturing tempered the genius that Wagner became, but they also helped give rise to it. The confusion, the punitive severity, and the insecurities slot into place within the mosaic of his character and help to explain it. They were the source of turbulence which led to an inner agitation and unrest but which also stirred his personality to action and drove him on to achievement. Along with his inborn gifts and the variety of his youthful experiences, they powered his creativity. This is not to imply that a turbulent, damaged childhood automatically leads to great things, like the writing of great music dramas. The numbers of those who can transform inner damage into something positive as Wagner did is not large, and a traumatic childhood is not a sufficient or necessary condition for genius"

PH: DB devotes page after page to this sort of ungrounded analysis, and then confesses after all that it doesn't provide a real clue to Wagner's genius. What is the point? This sort of thing, which goes on for over thirty pages, tells us absolutely nothing about Wagner's art.

P. 90: PH: Here we go again: DB: "Instability and inconsistency were part of Wagner; and they were also principal causes of his creativity, contributing to the strange vibrancy of the man and his output."

P. 92: PH: And again: DB: "Children damaged by their upbringing commonly create fictions that bear out their innate preoccupations of how their lives should have been. Happily, ... Wagner's resort to fiction provided him with something else that was entirely positive: the ingredients for his creative talent and the vital energy that ignited it."

PH: Does anyone reading this suddenly have insight into the profounder recesses of Wagner's art?

P. 94-95: PH: I finally flipped out when I read the following unwittingly hilarious example of splitting hairs when there's no original basis or authentic foundation for even speculation in the first place: DB: "Perhaps it would be truer to say that it was just what Wagner half-did. Wagner's situation was distinctive because he half-repressed and half-admitted unpalatable facts. This division occurred because his circumstances were too unstable for any consistency. Of course we can never be sure what his young days were really like for him, and how far he was allowed his own authentic reactions. What actually happened at Eisleben when he saw the puppies drowned? Did he scream and shout? Were the gigantic adults around who shouted back angrily and grabbed him and hit him for being a nasty, troublesome little tyke? Was he forced to look on? Did Wagner's elders threaten to drown him along with the puppies, to teach him a lesson? We can never know. The details and the flavor of his childhood are shrouded in a darkness that is unlikely to lift ... [PH: and so on]."

PH: That DB builds a 30-some page chapter out of this sort of thing defies description: it is absolutely preposterous, and sadly casts a suspicious light on much that comes later, some of which is of good quality.

P. 96-97: PH: As if this wasn't already tempting fate too far, DB then proceeds to offer up, from Alice Miller's "For Your Own Good," "... three brief biographies of devastating relevance to the psychopathic side of Wagner, trying to make the case that Wagner might have ended up like one of these three terrible case histories had he not had a creative outlet in his art.

P. 98: PH: This unforced error culminates in the following off-the-deep-end remark which is terribly ironic considering that earlier in his book DB complained about the excesses to which Freudian interpretations of works of art are liable: DB: "Wagner's creations were thus a method of grappling with the black abysses and the mystical powers which he encountered in dark nights of the soul, and of integrating them."

PH: What I find personally amusing about this is that one might describe my own interpretation, were one to employ such purple prose, in something very like this way, except that I describe Wagner's dark nights of the soul as the product of many years of conscious and unconscious confrontations with a variety of thematically related existential conundrums in religion, philosophy, psychology, history, aesthetics, art, and science, not as the product of widely shared difficulties and traumas of childhood, though needless to say these certainly played a part in Wagner's ultimate makeup.


PH: Just when I had hoped for relief for this spin off into outer space, this chapter continues in the vein of the last, speculating sentence after sentence about things that Wagner's foster-father Ludwig Geyer might have said to Wagner, or done to Wagner, or might not, or even what might have happened to Geyer during his own childhood, or might not, and then building an entire structure of assumptions upon these unfounded speculations.

P. 102: PH: One extract from early in this chapter will suffice to give you the general idea: DB: "In fact the role of Geyer was ambiguous. We cannot know what strains Geyer brought with him from his own early struggles, what were the stresses of trying to support his adopted family, or when he first sickened with the illness that resulted in his early death. It is never easy to be such wise, all-caring parents as developmental psychologists expect because parents have other worries as well as their children; nevertheless, reading between the lines, it is clear that Geyer could be very caring to Wagner, dubbing him affectionately, 'My little Cossack'."

PH: And on and on and on in the same vein! How this sort of tripe brings us any closer to grasping the secret source of the magic and power of Wagner's art is beyond me.

PH: DB is on surer ground when he tells us what we already knew, that Geyer was a painter and man of the theater, and that thanks to RW's status as his step-son, and to the fact that several of Wagner's older sisters worked in the theater, that Wagner had many opportunities to wash his feet in the magic of theater growing up.

P. 107: PH: Here we are, a solid statement of fact which has a real bearing on Wagner's vocation as a man of the theater: DB: "What is fact is that he was deeply affected by the world-famous musical and theatrical figures visiting his mother's home. Weber called often and Spohr actually stayed there, and even if his mother expressed opposition to the theatre verbally, she actually presided over the successful stage launch of Wagner's sisters and elder brother."

P. 110-111: PH: Here DB offers a useful discussion of the huge impact Wagner's uncle Adolf must have had upon him, introducing him to the contents of his large library, which included many volumes of Greek and subsequent European literature, including, of course, Shakespeare and Goethe.

P. 122: DB here offers us the momentous news that Wagner's experience in his youth of loving sisters helps us understand the way Wagner expressed tender feelings towards the heroines of his operas and music-dramas: DB: "... his sisters' presence hovers over Loge's great paean in praise of women in 'Das Rheingold.' The same sense of wonder wells up in ... Siegmund's address to his lover-sister in 'Die Walkuere ... , and again in Parsifal's mistaken amazement at Kundry, whom he imagines to be his lover-mother. These sentiments of adoring wonder supercharged his music and, thanks to his sisters at Leipzig, women's loving-kindness was a real experience for Wagner."

PH: The main problem with this sort of facile speculation is that it explains exactly nothing. For instance, on a number of occasions in the 1850's Wagner explained the basis for his creative urge as stemming from what he did not find in life, including love, and that it was the lack of this love which gave him the inspiration to create, in effect, what he could not have. But DB is right when he affirms in his book that Wagner's art was not mere wish-fulfillment or fantasy, because Wagner gives us the terrible substrate, or lack, or "Noth," which is the inspiration for the wish-fulfillment.

PH: The rest of the chapter is unremarkable, merely a re-packaging of things we've read before.