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Critique: 'Finding an Ending' Part 1

Posted: Thu Jul 21, 2016 11:34 am
by alberich00

K&S identifies extracts from their book
PH identifies my commentary on it


PH: The main focus of the authors’ introduction is to persuade those who might be skeptical that Richard Wagner’s music-drama “The Ring of the Nibelung” deserves to be taken seriously as a drama and as a work of art which possesses philosophical significance. The authors take the musical significance of the “Ring” for granted, but feel that Wagner’s status as a great, conceptual dramatist requires some special pleading. I concur with their assessment: the “Ring” is easy for many to accept as a work of music, but too often Wagner’s drama and its conceptual component is dismissed as merely a pretext or scaffolding for great music.

PH: I strongly endorse their following remarks:

P. 2-3: K&S: “We begin from the sense that the dedication of audiences to the "Ring" is not simply a matter of the work’s musical richness. We think that there is more to it than meets the ear, even though there is a great deal of that. Even when simply heard without words, its music is extraordinary and often truly glorious. (…) We think it would be impoverishing … to experience the "Ring" without giving any thought to what is being said, done, and shown. (…) Following Wagner’s words while listening to an excellent recording is better than treating the "Ring" as if it were a symphony in which exceptional voices figure as unusual instruments.”

P. 6: PH: Far from seeing the "Ring" as a silly tale of gods, heroes, dragons, dwarfs, and mermaids, they state emphatically that:

K&S: “The Ring, we suggest, is a work of philosophical substance and depth, far surpassing that of Wagner’s own theorizing.”

PH: The authors note that Wagner was heavily influenced by two philosophers in particular, first Ludwig Feuerbach, and later, Arthur Schopenhauer, and experienced a fairly brief friendship with Friedrich Nietzsche. Nonetheless, they note that we can’t grasp the Ring merely as a philosophical tract:

K&S: “… it would be quite wrong … to see any of Wagner’s music dramas as 'applied Schopenhauer' (or 'applied' anybody else), as if he simply picked up preexisting philosophical ideas and gave them concrete expression. Nor do we think that his operas are mere stagings of the “philosophical” ideas he himself attempted to articulate in his own voluminous (and virtually unreadable) writings.”

PH: K&S add that the documentary evidence suggests that Wagner believed his “Ring” embodied philosophical ideas, but only transmuted into art.

PH: I basically concur with K&S. This may seem odd, because my own interpretation of the “Ring” posted at might be considered susceptible to the accusation that I’ve tried to interpret the entirety of the “Ring” as an allegory based squarely on the philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach. However, my allegorical reading takes note of the fact that Wagner drew on many sources besides Feuerbach, and furthermore, Wagner built his own critique of Feuerbach right into the allegorical meaning of the "Ring." It would be more accurate to say, I think, that according to my interpretation Feuerbach is the primary antagonist to Wagner’s fervent desire to offer mankind a means to redemption from the bitter truths of the world, an antagonist, however, whose ideas are actually embodied in the "Ring" on a certain level, to act as a sort of conscience of doubt, doubt about the very redemptive project Wagner has undertaken. Looked at from Dr. Roger Scruton’s standpoint, we might say that my interpretation conveys both Wagner’s ideal, his characters as free subjects (or at least as subjects who aspire to be free and independent), and Wagner’s sense of his characters as objects, bound necessarily by the laws of nature, or fate in its scientific sense.

P. 7: PH: The authors spell out their approach in the following passage, which I think distinguishes their book from the more comprehensive approach I took in my “Ring” book posted at

K&S: “Philosophers coming to the "Ring" can strive for an interpretation of it, endeavoring to capture in discursive prose what Wagner somehow managed to suggest and convey in his music dramas. Or, more modestly, they can try to bring into focus some key concepts and relate them to aspects of the tetralogy. We think of our efforts here in the latter way … . What follows is not a full-blown philosophical interpretation of the "Ring," but rather a philosophical excursion through it - guided by certain questions we believe to be at issue in it and which we find interesting. We have learned that thinking about these questions before and after - and even during - performances, broadcasts and recordings not only does not detract from our experience of the "Ring," but actually enhances that experience and its rewards for us.”

PH: I feel the same way with respect to my own interpretation. But I wish to add that anyone familiar with my interpretation, in which each character is construed both in their own light as subjects, and also as objects of understanding within an over-arching allegorical frame of reference, will know from experience that one doesn’t think consciously of Wotan as representing not only God (which is self-evident from the libretto) but also Feuerbach’s collective, historical man, or Siegfried as the artist-hero, or Bruennhilde as the artist-hero’s muse of unconscious artistic inspiration. This is something I, and I presume others, bring to our awareness of the music-drama while reflecting on our experience of it. During performances all this is subliminal: we are engaged with what we take to be real, living characters, but those characters are bigger than life not only by virtue of their heightened emotions and heroic actions, and not only because of their transfiguration through music, but also because of the enhanced portentousness and meaningfulness granted them by their place within what can only be described as a metaphysical allegory, which we experience as a matter of life and death, and truth vs. illusion. I have discovered from long experience that one can’t make sense of the entire libretto of the "Ring" if one tries to construe it merely as a realistic drama, or if one tries to grasp it as anything less than a whole. Its conundrums and mysteries force us to plunge into metaphysical and historical allegory to encompass our experience of it.

P. 8-9. : PH: The authors’ following description of what they describe as an advantage of their approach might be read as an indictment of the sort of all-encompassing, comprehensive approach which I have undertaken at

K&S: “Our principle reason for approaching it differently [PH: as a philosophical approach to the "Ring"] stems from a conviction that broad-brush treatments illuminate very little of the substance, complexity, and subtlety of some of the most interesting issues dealt with in the course of its 15 or so hours. (…) Instead of staking out a general claim about the overarching meaning of the work, we shall try to focus on some of its most puzzling facets, using these as clues to finding a path through it.”

PH: Readers of my Ring book posted at will, I presume, find, contrary to K&S’s assertion, that it was only by virtue of attempting a comprehensive conceptual analysis of the entirety of the libretto text and music of the "Ring," with no significant omissions and no cherry-picking of only those aspects of the "Ring" to discuss which I could easily assess with respect to a few key questions, that I have been able to delineate the substance, complexity, and subtlety of the "Ring" to the extent I have. However, I claim no more for my interpretation than that I may have displayed for contemplation what I take to be the primary conceptual frame of reference of the "Ring." My interpretation does not exhaust the meaning of the "Ring," but nonetheless I believe that within it we can make more coherent sense of the libretto and music, in detail, than any other interpretation on offer. I encourage those who disagree to debate this question in our discussion forum.

P. 11: PH: Here the authors spell out what will distinguish their approach, a particular line of inquiry which they feel will bear fruit:

K&S: “Our goal … is to make sense of some aspects of the "Ring" as a philosophically rich work, and in doing so to suggest and reflect upon what we take to be some of the things about it to which its devotees may be responding. We shall start by considering the notions of authority and judgment, asking about the kinds of judgment that are made by the protagonists … , about the characters who have authority to make those judgments, and about the sources of that authority.”

P. 12: PH: Their introduction concludes with their rationale for including a chapter on Mozart’s opera "Don Giovanni," in order, they say, to introduce their concepts about authority and judgment in a somewhat more familiar context than the mysterious "Ring." I will reserve judgment until I’ve reviewed that chapter, but their explanation seems a poor pretext for introducing another, much earlier operatic work which, on the face of it, seems to have little or nothing to do with the "Ring," except that Wagner, as any students of his life know, conducted this opera on several occasions, and to that degree it may have influenced him in conceiving the "Ring" in some general way.


P. 13: PH: Here, K&S discuss philosophers who were important in Wagner’s life, such as his two greatest early influences, Ludwig Feuerbach and Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche, who early during his career initially supported Wagner’s cause, but later, as Nietzsche developed as an independent thinker, broke off his relations with Wagner. I was happy to read the following:

K&S: “In the aftermath of his disillusionment with Feuerbach, Wagner became an ardent admirer of Schopenhauer. Yet he retained residues of Feuerbach’s influence to the end, his celebration of Schopenhauer notwithstanding, even after he had become convinced that Feuerbach’s hopes for a future in which humanity would live happily ever after were impossibly naive and unattainable.”

PH: This admission is important because my own independent research on Wagner’s mature music-dramas completed post-"Ring," i.e., long after Wagner had at least repudiated Feuerbach in print, namely, "Tristan," "Mastersingers," and "Parsifal," as well as Wagner’s writings and recorded remarks from this later period, all demonstrate a thoroughgoing Feuerbachian influence.

P. 14-16: PH: K&S discuss several key features of Feuerbach’s thought, including his understanding that human beings during epochs of religious faith projected their own ideal nature as humans onto figments of the imagination called gods (which they note influenced how Wagner portrayed the gods of Valhalla), and also Feuerbach’s emphasis on feeling and love as sources of value. However, here’s the catch:

P. 16-17: K&S: “Wagner … would seem to have embraced Feuerbach’s thesis that no such phenomena are of supernatural origin, any more than is anything else in this world; rather, they are outcomes of the transformation of capacities that are part of our natural endowment as living creatures - and it is in human social and interpersonal relationships that the magic of such transformations occurs. Our highest and most truly human qualities are the results of sublimations of our vital functions, which human community and interaction make possible … . (…) In expressing our vital nature in its most exquisitely sublimated forms, as in the case of music or love, we achieve the highest kinds of self-realization - and a higher sort of human reality than those to whom such things are alien will ever know.”

PH: This, to a degree, is the foundation for certain aspects of my own interpretation of Wagner’s "Ring," which draws heavily on a rather large number of extracts from Feuerbach’s writings, especially on those for which I found clear paraphrases in Wagner’s own writings and recorded remarks, and what seem to be paraphrases of Feuerbach in the very symbolism, plot, and music of the "Ring". I suspect Dr. Roger Scruton would construe K&S’s “… most exquisitely sublimated forms … ,” above, as examples of emergent evolution, in which later stages of evolution seem not only to build upon earlier stages, but even seem to transcend earlier stages in some fundamental way.

P. 18: PH: Here is how K&S sum up Schopenhauer’s notion of the Will:

K&S: “If the struggle for existence is worse than senseless (owing to the suffering it generates), then oblivion is preferable to life, and the extinction of the will in any and all of its forms - and thus of the entire world, as both will and ‘representation’ - would be the best of outcomes.”

PH: It is worth noting that on at least one occasion Wagner described Schopenhauer’s outlook as a philosophy tending to quiet the soul, meditatively, and not to be taken literally as a will to self-destruction.

P. 19: PH: They also note Schopenhauer’s belief that:

K&S: “The alleviation of suffering, wherever it is occurring, is … the highest imperative. The only way to truly alleviate it … is to attack the root of the problem, which is ‘will’ itself. Beyond seeking to mitigate the suffering of others, therefore, Schopenhauer commends a variety of strategies serving to liberate one to a greater or lesser degree from the grip of ‘willing.’ Contemplation and aesthetic experience have their places here … as ways of loosening its grip upon one at least temporarily and partially. Ultimately, however, only a strategy of systematic radical asceticism can enable one to attain true deliverance. Schopenhauer rejects suicide as paradoxically self-assertive and therefore far from truly subverting the will, and he commends instead an ascetic existence that amounts to a radical negation of all aspects and manifestations of will-driven life.”

P. 19-20: PH: Here K&S spell out a key distinction of Wagner’s thinking from Schopenhauer’s philosophy:

K&S: “… like Feuerbach, he [Schopenhauer] too holds that our emotional nature consists of sublimations of our vital nature. This includes our ability to love, which he considers to be very different from our capacity for compassion. Love, for Schopenhauer, is first and foremost sexual love and is fundamentally sexual in all its forms. ‘All love,’ he writes, ‘however ethereally it may bear itself, is rooted in the sexual impulse alone, nay, it absolutely is only a more definitely determined, specialized, and indeed in the strictest sense individualized sexual impulse. (…) … one has to wonder about the depth of Wagner’s adherence to (or understanding of) Schopenhauer’s philosophy, in view of the continuing importance Wagner so clearly attaches to love that is of a fundamentally (if by no means simply) sexual nature. (…) But the sexual impulse, in turn, is itself only an expression of what he calls ‘the will to live,’ manifesting the procreative requirement of life, and this ‘will to live’ … is conceived in turn as expressing the irrational dynamic principle driving the whole of reality that he calls ‘will.’ It is ‘simply the will to live’ in one particular mode of expression, and so is just as noxious and absurd as is that pointless, mindless, heartless ‘will to live’ itself.”

PH: K&S sum up Schopenhauer’s notion of love thus:

“Love is not the answer to the world’s ills, for Schopenhauer; it is a very salient part of what ails it. The only cure (or palliative) for life lies in the attainment of utter oblivion, with complete asceticism, self-denial, and inaction being the next best thing.”

PH: In my interpretation of Wagner’s "Ring" at, I brought a vast array of documentary evidence into play to show that quite often when Wagner is speaking of sexual love in his writings and recorded remarks, he is speaking of sexual love as a metaphor for the unconscious artistic inspiration of the artist-hero, the artist-hero (or music-dramatist, the emphasis here being Wagner’s equation of the male with words, the drama) being represented by the dramatic hero, and the muse of unconscious artistic inspiration being represented by the heroine, the hero’s female lover, whom Wagner equates with music. Their loving union, therefore, gives birth to the music-drama.

PH: This is extremely important, for Wagner in a couple of instances wrote a critique of Schopenhauer’s notion that redemption from the will could only be obtained through the quieting of the will (or ego, if you will) through contemplation. Wagner’s alternative means to redemption was, he said, through the purest expression of sexual love. However, it is clear from the documentary evidence that Wagner was actually speaking of his concept of redemption through art, i.e., the figurative sexual union of the music-dramatist with his muse of inspiration, his unconscious mind and its special language music. Wagner described this special kind of sexual love as actually raising the will to such a high pitch that the participant in this act actually becomes conscious of himself/herself as the will as such, and, becoming conscious of itself, can nullify itself. In my interpretation, Wotan initially resigns himself to his own (and his fellow gods’) oblivion, in the face of the certainty of his eventual defeat by Alberich. But the advent of the loving hero Siegfried and heroine Bruennhilde, whose loving union I interpret as Wagner’s metaphor for the ecstatic unconscious artistic inspiration of the hero by his muse, his unconscious mind, offers Wotan an alternative to resignation, that Wotan’s hopes and dreams will live on, sublimated, in the redemptive art which Siegfried will be inspired to create by his muse Bruennhilde. One can easily see, however, from K&S’s brief description of Schopenhauer’s philosophy how Wagner could construe his own original creation Wotan, after-the-fact, in the light of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of resignation, since Wotan confesses to Bruennhilde his nihilistic desire to end it all.

P. 21: K&S: “But it is very difficult indeed to see the "Ring" as a showcase for Schopenhauer’s philosophy. It is easy, on the other hand, to see traces of Feuerbach in it - even though they have become transformed quite fundamentally.”

PH: My "Ring" interpretation at demonstrates that there are more than mere traces of Feuerbach’s philosophy in it. I have shown that Feuerbach’s thinking informs virtually every scene of it, though, as K&S say, Wagner has so transmuted this influence into his original art that in many cases it is difficult to discern without making a special effort. I made that special effort, and have shown Feuerbach’s influence to be more thoroughgoing than has formerly been suspected.

P. 22-23: PH: K&S offer a few more helpful remarks about the case for Feuerbach’s influence on the "Ring," and also their view that Schopenhauer was not a factor in Wagner’s libretto or (they imply) the musical score of the "Ring" up through "Siegfried" Act Two:

K&S: “Wagner finished the entire "Ring" poem in December of 1852, nearly two years before he discovered Schopenhauer (in the fall of 1854); and he did not change it. It is therefore a product of the Wagner whose dominant philosophical influence was Feuerbach - even if also a product of the Wagner whose revolutionary hopes for a political transformation of Europe that would make Feuerbach’s humanistic dreams come true had been dashed by the defeat of of the revolutionaries of 1848-1849. Wagner may have been ready for Schopenhauer, but he had not yet made the acquaintance. By that time the first "Ring" opera score ["The Rhinegold"] had been completed, as had the composition of much of the music for the second ["The Valkyrie"]. Neither they nor the first two acts of "Siegfried" (finished in July 1857) show any traces of Schopenhauerian influence, either musically or textually.”

P. 23: PH: K&S note that during the 12 year hiatus in Wagner’s composition of the score of the "Ring," from 1857 until 1869, Wagner authored the librettos and composed the music of both "Tristan" and "Mastersingers," prior to completing the composition of the music of the "Ring." They add:

K&S: “ 'Tristan' is sometimes said to be the quintessential Schopenhauerian opera, although to our way of thinking that distinction may more aptly be bestowed upon "Parsifal." But there is nothing Schopenhauerian about "Meistersinger" - or, as it seems to us, about the third Act of "Siegfried" either.”

PH: K&S are correct that "Tristan" is not essentially Schopenhauerian, and right again that "Parsifal" more completely displays his influence. However, Bryan Magee has shown how Wagner emulated Schopenhauer to some extent in Hans Sachs’s Wahn Monologue in the third act of "Meistersinger."

P. 23-24: PH: After making their case that "Twilight of the Gods," the Ring’s finale, doesn’t end on a Schopenhauerian note of resignation, but rather, with an affirmation of life, in spite of its tragic nature, K&S conclude their chapter on Wagner’s philosophers with the following prospectus of their approach:

K&S: “As we proceed with our exploration of the philosophic themes in the "Ring," there will often be resonances with the ideas we have outlined here. Yet we are not going to start from those ideas, seeking places in the opera where we can find traces of Feuerbach or Schopenhauer, or anticipations of Nietzsche. Our strategy, instead, will be to explore the ways in which philosophical questions and ideas arise and are addressed in what we find in the "Ring" itself.”

PH: It is sometimes assumed, incorrectly, that my interpretation of Wagner’s "Ring" was predicated on a conscious quest to prove Wagner’s Feuerbachian credentials. Nothing could be further from the truth. The primary elements of my interpretation of the "Ring," in considerable detail, I had already conceived and committed to print, and copyrighted (in 1981 and 1983), before I had read more than a few references to Feuerbach in books such as Deryck Cooke’s "I Saw the World End" in the mid-70’s. This is equally true of Wagner’s writings and recorded remarks. I scarcely knew them, and only through brief quotation by Wagner scholars such as Donington and Cooke, whose books I read in the 70’s, when I first composed a fairly detailed version of my "Ring" interpretation which closely resembles, in its main features, the much more elaborate version readers find at, which dates from 2009. The plain fact is that I derived my "Ring" interpretation in all its essentials from a close reading of Wagner’s libretto and many repetitions of the experience of listening to its music, libretto in hand.