Review 'The Wagner Experience' "Ring" Part 7

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

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Review 'The Wagner Experience' "Ring" Part 7

Post by alberich00 » Tue Mar 17, 2015 12:27 pm

Back to the drawing board, folks. Here's my review of DB's Chapter # 13 on "The Rhinegold" from his 2013 book "The Wagner Experience."

P. 146-147: PH: Here DB offers a summation of the importance of Wagner's "Ring" with which I am in full sympathy, which I repeat verbatim: DB: " 'Der Ring des Nibelungen,' to start with its full title, is one of the supreme achievements of the human spirit. In its scope and its reach, in its grandeur of conception and abundance of episode, in its universal relevance and its richness of suggestion, and above all in its music, it has no near rival anywhere in art. Wagner enshrined many ideas in the 'The Ring,' but beyond its explicit intentions, it is a compelling allegory of human existence. It begins virtually with a creation myth, and in common with many other creation myths it narrates not only the beginning of the world but the origins of consciousness

PH: Here, here! One of my own major themes, with a lot of helpful hints from the previous work of Donington, who has also heavily influenced DB.

P. 146-147: DB: The opening of 'Das Rheingold' begins in formless depths and presents a symbol of individuality awakening, an evolution from its first glimmerings to high noon, from formless stillness to animation and energy. From these beginnings, the great arc of 'The Ring' takes shape, embracing all the changing phases of life. (...) This immense sequence gives expression to 'The Ring' 's most positive precept, that whatever twilight and oblivion must fall on all human endeavor, including our own brief span, it is still infinitely worthwhile. Simply to have lived life and experienced its achievements and disappointments, its joys and its sorrows, even its tepid stretches and its dullness - all life's richness and variety - is an experience so vital that it is not negated by the fact it has to end. 'The Ring' as a whole represents a compelling validation of human existence."

PH: This is a very fine opening gambit for DB's most extended assessment of a Wagner music-drama, the "Ring." I am also very happy with the following couple of passages:

P. 148-149: DB: "The next important point about the 'The Ring' is that for all its cornucopia-multiplicity, it has an overwhelming architectonic quality which is all the more remarkable, given the erratic fits and blazes of its creation over twenty-five years and the miscellany of ingredients that went into it. For its plot Wagner went to a wide variety of sources. (...) As always with Wagner, what he made of it was not a compilation but a vision so new that he was attacked for reworking the grand old stories and for taking unpardonable liberties with the originals. This was unjust. Most of the originals were themselves based on sources still older, and Wagner's own poem 'Der Ring des Nibelungen,' as it eventually came to be, gave the myths a unity that they had never possessed before. To be sure, Wagner added new plot material that he devised himself, ... but that was pure gain."

PH: Wagner seems to have thought of himself as a latter-day myth maker of the type who had originally unconsciously, involuntarily dreamed the original myths into existence, and expressed the view that he was in fact tracing his source myths back to their original, now largely obscured, to reconstitute it. He was, I feel, trying to discover the original master-myth, if you will, from which all specific myths are generated, and I believe he achieved this in his "Ring."

P. 148-149: PH: DB informs us, I think correctly, that the 'Ring' is astoundingly dense with meaning, and he suggests that it communicates to us two strata, the first dealing with politics, society, and religion, posing the question whether we can conscientiously create a better society, and the second, what DB calls the "inward" layer, dealing with our psyche and self-development.

P. 149: DB: "Like Wagner's other works, 'The Ring' also explores further dimensions of love, and what is special about 'The Ring' 's particular exploration is that it raises big questions about its opposite ... . 'The Ring' sets out an answer which Jung determined later, 'Logically, the opposite of love is hate; and of Eros, fear. But psychologically it is the will to power'."

P. 149: PH: DB's following remark is, I'm sure, quite accurate: DB: "Wagner could scarcely have created 'The Ring' at all if he had not settled in Paris for two years and drunk deeply of the political and social theories that were circulating during his time there, from 17 September 1839 to 7 April 1842."

PH: My own close analysis of the philosophical content and implications of Wagner's libretto texts suggests strongly that Wagner must have come to know the works by Ludwig Feuerbach which were circulating during his years in Paris, at least by reputation, and through discussion, even if he had not read them. The earliest of his librettos which in my view definitively suggest a Feuerbachian influence (keeping in mind that many similar ideas generated by other thinkers were in the air at that period also) is "Tannhaeuser."

P. 153: PH: DB repeats the received wisdom stemming from G.B. Shaw that Wagner's Nibelungen dwarves represent the industrial era laboring class, and that Alberich "... represents the tyrannical exploitation perpetrated by big industrialists; and the Nibelungen were laborers who lived in economic slavery."

PH: Read my first chapter posted here at on "Rhinegold," and you will see that though I believe Shaw's interpretation represents a part of the truth, Wagner in "The Rhinegold" is saying something more universal about the nature of man, in all times and places, and is also focusing more on human origins and the foundations of society and religion in "The Rhinegold," than upon 19th century social and political and economic conditions, though clearly these influence Wagner in his portrayal of Alberich and his relations with his fellow Nibelungs. On Shaw's view the Valhallan gods are metaphors for the old aristocracy who are being eclipsed by middle class factory owners who exploit the masses. As I've said elsewhere, this is a good place to begin one's confrontation with Wagner's "Ring," but I don't believe it is where one should end up.

P. 155: DB discusses parallels between the revolutionary Wagner and Karl Marx, but suggests that Wagner had more in common with Proudhon and Feuerbach: DB: " 'Art and Revolution' was one of the three great essays [PH: by Wagner] which ... express a consistent worldview as Wagner saw it in 1849 and 1850, and it reflects the influence of Proudhon and Feuerbach more than Marx. (...) Wagner's book characterized the ideology of the rich as immoral activity, exploitation, on the one hand, and vicious inertia on the other, two modes of being and behavior that exactly foreshadow two characters in 'The Ring.' Alberich and Fafner exactly personify these two modes."

PH: I feel I've demonstrated in my chapter posted here at on "Rhinegold" that Alberich and Fafner far transcend this rather limiting delineation of their significance for which we can thank G.B. Shaw, though I would not suggest that there is nothing to Shaw's interpretation. I think it is a component of a truth which has far greater scope.

P. 155-156: DB suggests that the Russian anarchist Bakunin was a model for Siegfried. DB: "... He [Bakunin] always had a passion for the violent, the gigantic and the sublime, matched with a hatred of order, organizations and institutions, and a total opposition to personal property. Marx incidentally was at first on friendly terms with Bakunin, but then came to detest him for the very extravagance and incoherence which fascinated Wagner. (...) Bakunin joined Wagner in spearheading the Dresden uprising, deploying his speeches, his heroic example, and his mesmerizing charisma, together with many other qualities which Wagner wanted to put into Siegfried."

PH: Again, there are many components to a character like Siegfried, and Bakunin's revolutionary zeal and lack of practical application, his destruction of the old world at all costs mentality, may have helped to build up Wagner's ultimate characterization of Siegfried, but there is no one to one correspondence.

P. 156-157: PH: I repeat here verbatim DB's two-paragraph testimonial to Feuerbach's influence on Wagner, with which I am mostly in sympathy, but merely as an advertisement for my own study of Wagner's "Ring" which is posted here at, because I believe I have offered in my online book a more thorough assessment of Feuerbach's influence than any competing study:

DB: "Politics, the politics of Proudhon, and the inspiration of Bakunin came together and fused in the allegory of 'Siegfried's Tod,' as Wagner's new opera was first called when he drafted it in 1848. Wagner also bound into his allegory elements of the religious philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach, whose ideas were creating waves during the 1840's and 1850's. Feuerbach is not an easy read, not even in translation [PH: I have no idea what DB means by this; I regard most of Feuerbach's writings as clear as a bell, even for non-specialists; maybe DB means that Feuerbach's arguments are difficult to stomach (?)]; but essentially he argued that God or the gods have no independent existence. They are rather a product, a mirror-image of humanity ... which has projected its own nature onto an imaginary divinity, and then worshipped it. In the process of this projection, man has alienated himself from himself and his own destiny; he has mistaken the natural and proper love of human beings for themselves for the infinite love of God. Feuerbach urged that human beings should take back what they had ascribed to the supernatural. Only thus could man's desire for happiness find fulfillment; only thus could human beings reach their true goals. Theology, therefore, was to be reconfigured as a mix of anthropology and psychology; politics and sociology were to replace religion; prayer, which was meaningless, would give way to effective work and common endeavor; and our own beautiful world would take the place of a fictitious heaven [PH: This last sentiment I believe Wagner represented metaphorically in the Good Friday Spell in "Parsifal"]. (...) Feuerbach's aim was positive, to raise up and glorify humanity. Religion was a benign force, which taught us important truths about ourselves, and was not to be disparaged [PH: Not quite; most of what makes religious faith distinct from other modes of human thought and endeavor was condemned by Feuerbach, though he did wish to salvage what was worth salvaging]. But now man had come of age; this was the Age of Man. Man himself is divine; he is godlike, and his institutions, such as friendships, family life and marriage, art and intellect and society at large, are themselves hallowed and sacred and should be celebrated in their own right."

PH: It is pretty much received wisdom about Feuerbach's influence on Wagner's "Ring" that in some sense the mortal hero Siegfried, and Wotan's defiant daughter Bruennhilde, who joins with Siegfried in loving union, and who supplant the god Wotan in power, represent this reconstitution of mortal man as his own god, his own source of value, by freeing himself from the bonds of faith in divinity, and divine law, as indeed does happen in the "Ring." But that is pretty much as far as most scholars have carried this argument, and therefore most of them have missed numerous clues to the understanding of the allegorical logic of the "Ring." I believe I have demonstrated a thoroughgoing Feuerbachian influence in each of the 32 scenes of the "Ring," though that is not to say that the "Ring" is Feuerbach translated into music-drama. That would not be correct. Wagner transcends and differs from his mentor in many ways, though Feuerbach does provide Wagner a key and all-pervasive foil.

P. 158: PH: Here is evidence that DB is, at least with respect to "Rhinegold," going to remain on well-trod ground by referencing Shaw as his primary guide to understanding. DB: "The Nibelungen are industry's slaves, created by the industrial revolution. The Giants represent the old rural and agricultural classes who worked the land and created its buildings, but who are now a fading minority as every new conurbation sucks in more country people and imprisons them in factories."

PH: See my chapters on "Rhinegold" for an alternative reading of the Nibelungs' enslavement as Wagner's metaphor for the price of man's Fall, his original acquisition of consciousness, and the Giants Fafner and Fasolt as Wagner's metaphor for the two primary animal instincts which man has inherited from his animal past, namely, the egoistic will to live (in other words, fear of death), and the more socially oriented sexual desire (which produces children and therefore families), respectively.

P. 157-167: DB quotes Wagner's essay "The Nibelungen Myth" for a full ten pages. You'll find most of what I regard as the important passages quoted in my online anthology of Wagner's writings and recorded remarks here at

P. 168: PH: DB assesses the value of the "'Ring" as a prescription for a renewed or revolutionarily liberated society in a negative light: DB: "The old order would go, but what could best take its place, and how would it work? Unlike Proudhon with his mutualist utopia, Wagner offers no suggestions. He recognized this omission and wrote disingenuously, 'It is far from me to specify that new thing which should arise upon the ruins of a deceitful world as a new political order.' He had no idea what should come next, a common problem of revolutionaries. Thus 'Goetterdaemmerung' does not provide a solution to those questions opened up by 'Das Rheingold' which are purely political ... . Wagner to his credit was in the end better than his word and did provide some guidance and suggestions. However, they are not to be found in 'The Ring,' but in 'Die Meistersinger' and 'Parsifal.' "

PH: I mostly concur, though Wagner fairly early on seems to have realized that the "Ring" could not provide a prescription for political and social reform, that it was too frank and starkly truthful for that, but also, as a work of art, was there for contemplation, not necessarily action.

P. 169: PH: Here is where DB offers an assessment of Wagner's changing philosophy toward the "Ring," his changing views of what it should mean, and how Wagner ultimately decided, after having once considered having the gods redeemed from Alberich's curse on the Ring in the end, to have them destroyed, which tallies somewhat with what I have said in my own long-standing interpretation, that among other things the destruction of the gods in the "Ring" represents the end of religious belief: DB: "... his personal world had changed since he wrote the text for 'Siegfrieds Tod.' As a refugee, an exile in Switzerland, his optimism was beginning to change color. No longer did Wagner believe in 'the king as best of the republicans', or in the final reconciliation of gods and heroes in 'Siegfried's Tod,' with the glorification of Wotan. He substituted a new conclusion where the gods perish. The altered politics also had a momentous impact on the religious allegory enfolded in 'The Ring,' because the end of Wotan and the gods represented not only the abolition of monarchy, but the end of religion. Wotan's death represented the demise of the monarchy, and also of any immortal gods along with belief in them; they ceased to have any existence except as past history. This meant enormous changes to the messages of 'The Ring' and what it means ... ."

PH: The end of religious faith has been a central plank of my original interpretation of the "Ring" for many years, and as I say in some very vague sense it has been part of the received wisdom on the "Ring" for some time, without however generating the kind of scholarly inquiry which might have teased out its implications for how to read the various episodes of the "Ring" as a whole. Something which I believe I added to this notion is that with Siegfried's and Bruennhilde's betrayal of their love, which is Wagner's metaphor for that unconsciously inspired secular art which was to have salvaged all that in the old religious faith which was worth salvaging, Wagner also presents to us in the end the last days of that secular art which had fallen heir to religious man's longing for transcendent meaning when religious belief and faith could no longer be sustained in the face of man's increasing knowledge that all which had formerly been attributed to the supernatural was in fact natural. But the gods in the "Ring" burn up at the same time that Bruennhilde and Siegfried do, because in the end the redemptive secular art for which their love was symbol is understood to be merely covert religious faith, so both die simultaneously.

P. 170: PH: DB makes the following intriguing historical observation re the ideology behind European revolutions of the 19th century: DB: "There were two traditions prevalent in Europe about how revolution should be. The first tradition ... was based on the belief shared by Proudhon that it was only the corrupt order inherited from the past that prevented men from living lives which expressed their natural virtue. The other more pessimistic tradition starts from a view that human beings are intrinsically corrupt, and that until and unless they are themselves reformed, any attempt to reform society is bound to fail. After the failure of the Dresden uprising, Wagner made an involuntary transformation from the first to the second tradition, and 'Siegfried's Tod' as the vehicle of his views had to transform in parallel. However, the most drastic change to his Nibelungen idea came about after the coup d'etat on 1 December 1851 of Louis Napoleon. Wagner had previously looked forward to 1852 as another year of revolutions, and he now refused to acknowledge the new year, dating his letters 32 December 1851, and so on."

PH: An interesting detail of Wagner's gradual turn away from belief in the possibility of political reform through external changes, and commensurate looking inward away from the world to his art, is that prior to his first known reading of Schopenhauer in the Fall of 1854, Wagner was already beginning to embrace an outlook in which man as a whole is inherently corrupt (of course, there was nothing new in this, since it was a byword of Christian theology, that man was Fallen from the beginning), and this was entering into his understanding of Wotan. So, upon reading Schopenhauer for the first time, Wagner was already receptive. Apropos of this, DB adds below:

P. 171: DB: "He [Wagner] was particularly fascinated by Wotan ... . The god seized Wagner's imagination far beyond the requirements of any socialist allegory, and Wotan filled out in significance until he became one of Wagner's most magnetic creations."

P. 171: DB: "Another impulse toward extending the cycle backwards was that he wanted to create a vital drama from the earliest sections of 'The Nibelung myth considered as a sketch for a drama' so as to explain industrial society and its ills. This would set a clearer context for Siegfried and explain the need for him and his new order so as to remedy those ills."

PH: My interpretation is quite different. In my reading, Wagner traces historical time back from Siegfried's (the artist-hero's) death back to the very origin of humanity in evolution, in order to show why Siegfried's death was historically inevitable. In other words, Wagner needed to show the origin of religious belief itself, in order to place in historical context unconsciously inspired secular art's involuntary complicity in religious faith's perpetuation of the illusion of transcendent value, the illusion that man in some way participates in or acts under the influence of supernatural motives. The point was that Siegfried's and Bruennhilde's love, and bodies, have to die concurrently with the twilight of the gods, which is indeed the case, as we see in T.3.3.

P. 172: PH: It is widely assumed that the "Ring" isn't conceptually unified, and DB here offers his own contribution to this received wisdom: DB: "The strange order in which 'The Ring' text came into existence, from the end to the beginning, led to some non-sequiturs and features in the plot that never sit easily with each other, as will become clearer as the study of 'The Ring' goes ahead. Although the overall coherence of this vast production is astonishing, the dramas which grew out of 'Siegfried's Tod' eventually outgrew it, and the political philosophy of 'Siegfried's Tod' which looms even larger in 'Das Rheingold' loses its impetus as the cycle goes forward, and the issues of capitalism and social justice have faded before 'The Ring' draws to its close. Then again Wagner's circumstances, his outlook and his philosophy continued to change while he created 'The Ring,' and 'The Ring' changed with them. Accordingly a certain 'disconnect' developed between the various elements of 'The Ring' which left a structured void at the centre, but Wagner filled this out with the events and characters that lie at the heart of the Wagner Experience."

PH: This is a very important point where I must part company with DB. I believe that my online book posted here at, the portion of "The Wound That Will Never Heal" which deals specifically with the "Ring," demonstrates that the "Ring" is coherent conceptually from beginning to end, and that it also coheres conceptually with Wagner's canonic artworks from "The Flying Dutchman" through "Parsifal." As Wagner himself said, the plot of "Twilight of the Gods," in which the hero Siegfried unwittingly betrays his true love Bruennhilde by giving her in marriage to another man who is unworthy of her, corresponds with the plot of "Tristan and Isolde," in which, likewise, the hero Tristan betrays his true love Isolde by giving her away in marriage to another man. As I have stated in my online book, I regard this act of betrayal as Wagner's metaphor for the artist-hero unwittingly and involuntarily revealing in his ultimate artwork (which is the product of his loving union with his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration, his lover) the secret of his unconscious artistic inspiration, to his audience. The unworthy man to whom the artist-hero gives away his muse of inspiration is Wagner's metaphor for the artist-hero's audience. When we consider that this is also, in so many words, the plot of "'Tannhaeuser," in which Tannhaeuser involuntarily reveals, within the very artwork he is performing, the contest song intended to win the hand of his love Elizabeth in marriage, not only the secret of Tannhaeuser's unconscious artistic inspiration in the loving hands of Venus, but likewise betrays his love Elizabeth, we can see the continuity in Wagner's allegorical logic from well before he created the "Ring," until after he'd finished the "Ring" libretto, since "Tristan and Isolde" came later.

P. 175: DB offers the following interesting comparison between Schopenhauer's concept of the Will in Nature and Darwin's theory of evolution: DB: "A massive simplification is inevitable in trying to expound Schopenhauer, but essentially he believed that the universe was godless but that it was driven by 'the will', a blind, tumultuous, metaphysical force which galvanized and energized everything. The will is universal, eternal and unchanging. It keeps the planets and galaxies circling on their way; it energizes chemical reactions, and drives all living things, including human beings. It may help to bear in mind that the idea of life's blind urge to perpetuate itself soon gained a form of endorsement from Charles Darwin. Darwin's theory of evolution fitted Schopenhauer's ideas of the will, even though Darwin's theory was not published until 1859, later than almost all of Schopenhauer's writings. Something like the will is present in the blind instinct which maintains a species in dangerous and destructive circumstances, and sacrifices happiness and the lives of individuals to preserve and evolve the species. The theory of evolution squared with Schopenhauer's pessimistic outlook because the 'survival of the fittest' required that the less fit would struggle and die in their millions, often in agonizing circumstances."

PH: I can concur with this to the extent that Schopenhauer's Will was an impersonal force inherent in nature, like speciation which can lead (but perhaps need not lead) to more complex forms of life, and eventually to reflective consciousness. However, if memory serves, Schopenhauer denied the validity in Hegel's laws of history, and also likewise that there could be any improvement over the past. In any case, these two thought worlds, those of Schopenhauer and Darwin, were very important to Wagner, and in his later writings he speaks of the inexorable development of life forms, and the anguish inherent in this view of life which is the competitive war of all against all, so to speak.

P. 175-176: DB: "The ideas of Feuerbach which envisaged mankind as coming to full and wonderful fruition after religion was toppled now seemed to Wagner shallow and worthless, and Feuerbach appeared to him a self-deluding charlatan."

PH: Unless I am sadly mistaken I can't think of any passage from Wagner's writings or recorded remarks in which he spoke of Feuerbach as a deluded charlatan, but certain it is that he said, after reading Schopenhauer, that he had now transcended the old, Greek optimistic worldview which once had guided him, including Feuerbach. But, as my own research as embodied in has shown, Wagner never truly gave up Feuerbach, who is a huge influence on Wagner' four mature music-dramas, not only the "Ring," but "Tristan," "Mastersingers," and most surprisingly of all, perhaps, "Parsifal." What Wagner ultimately disagreed with in Feuerbach was Feuerbach's assessment that with the death of religious faith secular art and science could live on, freed from prior constraints, and help man achieve a golden age in which his own life on earth was sacred. Wagner saw that just as religious belief and science were naturally at war, so too would art be at war with science, since for both Feuerbach and Wagner secular art inherited those feelings which had once been the hallmark of religion, which lives on, both Feuerbach and Wagner said, in the heart (or music), once the old God of belief had to leave us. Feuerbach didn't include a death of art in his dramatic historical scheme in which religious faith would gradually give way as science explained all those things once explained by religious mythology, as being purely natural in origin, because Feuerbach didn't conceive of secular art as being necessarily at odds with science. However, Feuerbach hinted at this when he remarked that faith in God in a sense lives on in pure feeling divorced from contradictory thought, and thus in music. Wagner added something entirely new to Feuerbach's historical trajectory, that secular art too, as an heir to religious feeling, would eventually fall before the advancement in scientific knowledge, once the religious origin of this expression of feeling in inspired secular art became manifest. The entire second half of the "Ring" is dedicated to telling this tragic story.

P. 176: PH: Here DB concurs with me that Schopenhauer's concept of the Will is not consistent with the concept of cultural evolution: DB: "As the realm dominated by the will is the only realm, there is almost no history and virtually no progress in human affairs, because the blind, mindless, strugglesome urges created in human beings by the universal will are always the same. (...) In Schopenhauer's scheme an existence without ambitions, hopes or expectations offers the best hope of minimizing the pain of life. (It is also a life bereft of joy, but any joys, according to his bleak philosophy, are quite insignificant.)."

PH: Therefore Wagner's "Ring" is more Hegelian than Schopenhauerian, in this respect, that it is an allegory of human history as teleology, as an evolutionary increase in knowledge and consciousness.

P. 177-178: DB: "Progress in human affairs became [in Schopenhauer's philosophy] generally improbable. Schopenhauer explained why there could be no progress or reform, but then this cast a strange and disquieting light on 'The Ring' as a recommendation and an allegory for social progress and political change. ... but what in that case was he [Wagner] to do with his great drama? It enjoined precisely the processes of onward change which Schopenhauer's tenets disallowed, but there it was, already half finished. Schopenhauer came to the rescue, and provided Wagner with an alternative view of 'The Ring,' and re-imagining of it. In virtue of Schopenhauer, Wagner was able to unearth within his great work a second set of values and ideas that reflected the philosophy of Schopenhauer instead of conflicting with it. ... Schopenhauer enabled Wagner to discern in Wotan a mighty egoist who becomes determined to pacify his own will. Indeed Wagner now saw Schopenhauer as present in 'The Ring' and his other works all along. He told August Roeckel that Schopenhauer had enabled him both to understand himself properly and to perceive what his work was really about. (...) In this altered outlook, what anyone could best aim to acquire from his dramas was something personal, an altered state of mind, and this was another form of personal salvation, a theme long dear to Wagner's heart. (...) ... the turmoil that Schopenhauer created did dissipate his [Wagner's] drive to compose 'The Ring' ... . ... as far as 'The Ring' is concerned, Schopenhauer led to the long gap of twelve years between the composing of Act II and Act III of 'Siegfried.' "

PH: Schopenhauer was certainly one influence, but not the only influence, at work in causing Wagner to break off completing the composition of the music of the "Ring," but Wagner's skepticism about the coming golden age of secularism which Feuerbach's new God-free world offered predated Wagner's first reading of Schopenhauer in the Fall of 1854. He was already re-thinking Wotan, and the possibility that the gods and he could be redeemed, before then.

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