Epilogue Part 6: Critique of Scruton's 'The Ring of Truth'

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

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Epilogue Part 6: Critique of Scruton's 'The Ring of Truth'

Post by alberich00 » Fri Aug 06, 2021 11:29 am

But Scruton undermines his tentative attempt to rehabilitate Siegfried in two distinct ways. First, he concedes that since Siegfried hasn’t undergone Everyman’s traditional socially sanctified rites of passage, but has had to be the author of his own rites of passage, “He is marked out from the beginning as the outsider, the scapegoat, the one who can be sacrificed for the benefit of the tribe”:

“… Wagner had perceived that human life is built around a series of transitions, and that these transitions have a meaning that is, in the broad sense, religious. (…) Siegfried has entered the world without such a rite of passage … . He is marked out from the beginning as the outsider, the scapegoat, the one who can be sacrificed for the benefit of the tribe. He himself, therefore, is the author of the rites that mark his passage to maturity - the forging of the sword, the slaying of the dragon, the defiance of the father-figure, and the awakening of the bride.” [P. 284-285]

But an “outsider” can’t also be an “Everyman.” The whole point Wagner is at such pains to make in conceiving his character Siegfried is that he, like his father Siegmund, is heroic precisely because he isn’t Everyman (who's represented archetypally in the Ring instead on the prosaic level by the Nibelung Mime, poetically by the lord of the gods Wotan, and in a dilute form both by Hunding and by Gunther), but totally unique and original, the forger of his own unprecedented personality, so to speak, living outside conventional society, as a rebel, a liminal, even a pre-Fallen man. Note the artist-hero Wagner’s own self-assessment, as recorded and seconded by Cosima:

"... I maintain to R. that there are many things of which he understands nothing, since genius has no part in original sin. He: 'I live like a sort of animal.' I: 'Yes, in innocence.' " [977W - {9/21/79} CD Vol. II, p. 367]

Siegfried’s unique status is precisely Wagner’s conception of the unconsciously inspired artist-hero who alone is worthy of the muse Brünnhilde, and who exists outside of a social setting by living in his own head, his own singular creativity, except insofar as he carries forward the heroic creativity of prior culture heroes (a “long since hewn causeway”) as symbolized in his re-forging of his father Siegmund’s sword Nothung, and with the exception that he must traffic with society to bring his redemptive art to an audience. This is precisely what’s dramatized in Twilight of the Gods in Siegfried’s relationship with the Gibichungs, before whom he performs his final heroic act, singing the narrative of his heroic life, and how he came to understand the voice of the Woodbird (i.e., how Wagner in his Ring disclosed the heretofore unconscious source, the hidden historical roots, of inspiration for redemptive music). Siegfried’s final creative-heroic act is his performance, in metaphoric miniature, of Wagner’s Ring, which is both the product of his formerly unconscious artistic inspiration by his muse Brünnhilde, and of his betrayal of Brünnhilde and her secrets to the light of day.

In sum, after his strained effort to restore to Siegfried a musico-dramatic significance he’d striven mightily to deprive him of, Scruton, evidently unconvinced by his own tepid attempt to rehabilitate Siegfried, falls back on a lukewarm reading of him as a common failure, a loser:

“In the end we just have to accept that Siegfried is what he appears to be: not the new man or the artist-hero; not the forger of a freer world or the fitting deposer of a superannuated god; but someone who never quite grows up, an adopted child who is unable to form secure attachments, and who exists fully as a person only by moments, when the armour of belligerence falls away. (…) Conceived as a symbol of the individual’s search for self-knowledge and self-identity in a godless world, Siegfried takes on another character, and it is this other character that interests Wagner.” [P. 278]

This seems incoherent to me. The only explanation I can conceive for what appears to be a failure of nerve in the end is that Scruton doesn’t know what to make of Siegfried. One thing is certain: Wagner was never inspired to create the most profound and greatest work of musical theater in history to dramatize the trivial trials and tribulations of an adopted child who can’t make secure attachments and who never quite grows up, nor to merely memorialize Everyman’s “… search for self-knowledge and self-identity in a godless world … .” What makes Siegfried wholly unique and exalted and solely worthy to wake, woo and win Brünnhilde, is evidently lost on Scruton. He complained that G.B. Shaw’s attempt at an allegorical interpretation of the Ring as an account of a coming political revolution was simply too fragile and limiting a conceit to build a Ring interpretation on, but if that’s the case how much more so is Scruton’s inability to make anything more of Siegfried than a universal symbol of any given man’s passage through life’s predictable transitions, which is more or less what Robert Donington concluded.

Scruton’s following two observations attempting to justify his primary thesis that my allegorical reading is too far removed from what Wagner’s audience experiences in the theater to become part of their aesthetic response to it are the last ones worthy of remark:

“Feuerbach’s philosophy is at the centre, too, of Mark Berry’s allegorical vision of the cycle.” [P. 192]

“He [Mark Berry] … seems to recognize that, by the end of Götterdämmerung, the Young Hegelian who had begun work on the cycle a quarter of a century before no longer exists. But what has come to replace him? Berry’s allegory, like Shaw’s and Heise’s, peters out at this point, offering only an enigmatic stare into the void.” [P. 193]

Scruton seems to have forgotten what he’d written just a few pages before about the finale of Götterdämmerung:

“… the drama unfolds towards its enigmatic ending.” [P. 116-117]

How could it be otherwise for Scruton, since Siegfried, the Ring’s raison d’être, the springboard which (along with his heroine Elsa from Lohengrin) launched Wagner into his final revolutionary period which gave birth to his mature music-dramas, remains a mystery for him.

But there's one other distinction between Scruton’s reading and mine about which he didn’t remark but which is implicit in his Ring interpretation. Apart from Scruton’s incorrect assumption that my allegorical reading is only applicable to Siegfried and the Ring as a whole as Wagner originally imagined them, but not to the Ring in its ultimate meaning, and aside also from his, I think, false proposition that my allegorical reading, even if it captures a part of the truth, isn’t part of the audience’s aesthetic experience, there’s also what I believe may be the authentic key to our differences. This is Scruton’s privileging what I'd describe as Wagner’s most idealistic vision of what he wanted his Ring to mean, as opposed to Wagner’s doubts about his idealistic vision, which in my interpretation continually subvert Wagner’s idealistic longing, and consume in fact a large proportion of the Ring’s musico-dramatic substance, including how we should understand its climactic moments and Wagner’s concept of redemption. In the following passages Scruton places great emphasis on what he believes is Wagner’s signal and most authentic vision which he imparts to audiences in a performance of the Ring, a vision most fully realized in Scruton’s view by the loving, self-sacrificing relationship of Siegmund with Sieglinde, and in Brünnhilde’s decisive, all-enveloping compassionate act of self-sacrifice which brings the Ring to a close. But Scruton also, channeling my interpretation, places this idealistic vision in the context of doubt, emphasizing the hidden (repressed), materialistic prehistory which was the necessary precondition for the attainment of altruistic morality in one animal, man, which, as I’ve described, is a centerpiece of my allegorical understanding:

“… the life of the free and accountable person remains, for us, the focus of meaning … .” [P. 303]

”Loving means giving, and giving is a relation between persons, who act from the conscious pursuit of another’s interest, and by the willing renunciation of interest of their own. To reach the condition in which this kind of giving is possible, human beings had to pass through a long prehistory.

Wagner divined the truth about that evolutionary prehistory and presented a matchless summary of its psychic legacy, in the demi-gods and goblins of The Ring. (…) … he dramatized the discontinuity between the world of the moral person and the dark Eden that preceded it.” [P. 305]

“This highly personal idea of the sacred is Wagner’s great contribution to the understanding of the human condition.” [P. 270-271]

And in his following remarks Scruton offers a particularly vivid evocation of one of the primary theses on which my allegorical reading of the Ring’s plot rests, concerning the manner in which we humans (i.e., Wotan, as Wagner’s metaphor for collective, historical man during the mytho-poetic or religious phase of human history) have repressed consciousness of our animal origins and egoistic nature in order to reinvent ourselves as essentially non-contingent, sacred, transcendental beings, suggesting a dependence on self-deception and repression of troubling truths which threatens to become conscious:

“… the veneer of personality and selfhood is constantly broken from below by the thrust of animal life, and it is sometimes difficult to resist the view that all our reasons are really rationalizations, ways of representing actions that were wrung from us by the inexorable needs of the animal as though they were products of free deliberation, aimed at the good and issuing from the will. … we have only the vaguest idea how this came about, and by what trick it was that the moral being superseded the animal, and tamed its instincts to a higher law. It is as though, by an enormous collusive effort, people are able to draw a collective veil over their animal natures, and address each other entirely as if appealing to concentrated centres of purely rational choice.” [P. 257-258]

“This vision of the essentially compromised nature of freedom is embodied by Wagner in the person of Wotan.” [P. 258]

I place emphasis on this particular source of discord between my allegorical reading, which Scruton maintains is both too abstract and too dependent on an allegory that Wagner allegedly outgrew as he composed his Ring music, and Scruton’s proposition that his symbolical reading captures the Ring’s ultimate meaning where mine doesn’t, precisely because not only the authentic meaning of the Ring is at stake, but the meaning of life itself (of which Wagner’s Ring is an artistic distillation). I believe Scruton was initially uniquely sympathetic to my allegorical reading because my notion that the Ring’s plot dramatizes the historical transformation of at least Western civilization from the practice of near universal religious faith, into a scientific and secular, and therefore increasingly post-religious society, in which inspired works of art offer a feeling of the sacred and of redemption which religious belief no longer can, corresponds with his conception of Wagner’s Ring as a prime example of such a work of redemptive art in a post-religious context. But a breach in our outlook was inevitable on the single point of greatest moment to Scruton, that in his view the Ring dramatizes Wagner’s discovery of the sacred in man, in the transcendent “I” in its relation to other transcendent human beings, and that my materialist Feuerbachian assumptions subvert this positing of the transcendent “I,” reducing it to a spiritless object among many other equally insignificant objects in Nature. Never mind that Wagner’s Ring and Tristan and Isolde and his final music-drama Parsifal can be understood as dramatizations of this overarching Wagnerian plot, in which formerly religious man is forced by his own acquisition of world-and-self-knowledge to concede that he, even in his religious longing for transcendent value, is ultimately a product of, or object in, Nature, Scruton holds the line in positing the sacred “I” as irreducible to natural law in some sense. And I confess not only that Wagner, like Scruton, shared a desire to hold this line, but I do also. Scruton is absolutely correct in his assumption that I believe lies behind his book and his other writings and talks on Wagner’s art, that Wagner created virtually all of his canonical operas and music-dramas out of an impulse to hold the line in preserving the dignity of human life against the reductive tendencies of modern science, and he’s astute in devoting his remarkable book to demonstrating how this impulse is central to our understanding of Wagner’s Ring.

However, after a lifetime of deep, persistent meditation on Wagner’s art, in my understanding Wagner’s raison d’être as an artist was deeper and considerably more involved and troubled than this. I say this because of pervasive evidence of his suspicion, perhaps largely subliminal, that man’s inherent metaphysical impulse, man’s universal longing that his life and death have transcendent meaning and value, was founded on self-delusion, a hubris predestined to be punished, and that his contrary desire to somehow overcome his suspicion was only a part, but not the only part, of his artistic being. I’ve found a vast body of documentary evidence, especially in the words and music of the Ring, but corroborated thoroughly also by secondary evidence from Wagner’s writings and recorded remarks, and Feuerbach’s writings, that in spite of the fact that for Wagner this faith in the transcendent dignity and uniqueness of the human spirit was the primary value for which he was fighting in creating his artistic masterworks, nonetheless in his deepest, most inward, secret self he doubted this line could be held, and dramatized this fact in all of his canonical operas and music-dramas, in an ever more explicit and tragic manner.
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