Since Scruton, unlike Dr. Kitcher, did undertake a serious reading of my online Ring study, I reproduce below key excerpts both from Scruton’s Introduction to my website www.wagnerheim.com (2011) and from his concurrent article 'The Ring of Truth' (published in The American Spectator in 5/2011) without commentary, as they provide necessary context for excerpts I’ve also reproduced below from Scruton’s subsequent critique of my allegorical interpretation of Wagner’s Ring in his book The Ring of Truth - The Wisdom of Wagner’s ‘Ring of the Nibelung’ (2016), in which, to a considerable extent, and somewhat surprisingly, he faults as vices what he describes in the two comparatively positive reviews of my online Ring book as its virtues:
Excerpts from Scruton ’s Introduction to my website www.wagnerheim.com, posted there in the spring of 2011:
“(…) Heise shows that the influence of Feuerbach is indeed all-pervasive in Wagner’s music drama. But he also shows that the Ring is concerned with far deeper and more lasting questions than those raised by the discussion of property and revolution. The drama touches on aspects of the human psyche that are hardly acknowledged in the writings of 19th-century socialists. Briefly put, The Ring, on Heise’s interpretation, is an exploration of man’s religious sense, of the human need for the transcendental, and of the hope for redemption that endures even in our time of cynicism and materialist frivolity, and which can be satisfied, now, only through the truthful enchantment conveyed to us by art.
In developing that theme Heise has made, it seems to me, one of the most important contributions to Wagnerian scholarship that we have seen. As yet his work takes the form of a scene-by-scene analysis of the whole drama, in which the symbolism of the motives and the allegorical meaning of the action is minutely dissected. In making it available in this form, Heise has opened his ideas to public discussion, and made it possible for fellow Wagnerians to question them, to amplify them and to contribute to the kind of debate that is surely needed, if this great work is to take its proper place at the centre of modern philosophy and at the centre, too, of modern life.
(…) … on Heise’s reading: The Ring is about the death of religion – not the old Germanic religion only, which, in the Icelandic sagas, foresaw its own demise, but all religion. (…)
On Wagner’s understanding, consciousness is the origin, not only of the distinction between good and evil, but of the ‘hoard’ of scientific knowledge, which alienates us from our roots in species life. We long to regain the innocent oneness with the world that is the lot of animals and which was the lot of our pre-conscious ancestors. And we project that longing into the heavens, imagining there a blessed resting place where the wound of consciousness will be healed and we will regain the serenity that we lost in our first attempts at self-understanding.
That is the theme of Wagner’s drama as Heise interprets it. And in his subtle exposition he shows, one by one, how each scene of the work spells out some necessary feature of the allegory. (…)
(...) Two ideas animate the subsequent dramas [Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung]. The first is that we are redeemed not by renouncing love, but by renouncing life for the sake of love [the relationship of Siegmund with Sieglinde]. The second is that we are redeemed through art, and through the artist-hero (Siegfried) who takes on the task that religion failed to accomplish. The artist-hero presents a new kind of redemption, which is the redemption of ‘wonder’. Instead of looking for our vindication in the transcendental world, art shows that we are vindicated here and now, by our own capacity to recognise the beauty of the world, and to weave love and allusion into the warp of the sensory order. (…) In the place of the certainties of religion and the doubts of science, art gives us wonder. (…)
Heise’s book is not an easy book. But it is a deep book. All Wagnerians know that The Ring is full of enigmas. But the enigmas are resolved by Heise in a most pleasing, intense and persuasive way. The Wanderer, Wotan’s missing eye, the Norns and their rope, the head of Mime, the many drinks brewed and refused or stored and consumed, the Ring, the Tarnhelm, the sword Nothung, the spear, the wood-bird – so many obscure seeming symbols, which become bright and transparent in Heise’s reading. I don’t agree with all that he says. But he awakens interest, argument, dissent and wonder at every point, linking the text minutely to the musical realisation, and bringing this great work to life in a way that I hope you will appreciate as much as I have.”
Excerpts from Scruton ’s article The Ring of Truth, published in the May, 2011 issue of The American Spectator:
“Everybody with ears knows that the Ring is full of meaning, that plot, character, music, and motives are to be understood as multi-dimensional symbols, and that there unfolds on the stage, in the words, and through the music a complex argument about the nature of human life, about the hopes and fears of our species, and about the cosmos itself. Yet what exactly does it mean? I have wrestled with this question for many years, have been helped by this or that critical discussion or this or that striking performance. But much became clear to me when I discovered what is probably the only complete commentary on the Ring, which goes step by step through the text and the music, and explores some of its many allegorical meanings with relentless devotion and ardor. This is the commentary composed over many years by Paul Heise, which he has now made available to the public on his remarkable website, wagnerheim.com. The site contains a forum for discussion, and will surely be the place where the many interpretations can contend with each other, and so do what I, in this short article, have no hope of doing, which is to establish the claim of the Ring to be the truth of our condition.
But what … are the gods? Mere figments, as Wagner’s philosophical mentor, Ludwig Feuerbach, had argued? Or something more deeply implanted in the scheme of things, something that precedes and survives us? Wagner’s answer is not easily explained in words, although it is transparently obvious in music, and Heise’s commentary does the best that mere words can do to make it plain. And it is an answer that makes Wagner supremely relevant to us.”
So what may we conclude from Scruton’s two reviews of my online Ring book’s allegorical interpretation, from 2011, reproduced above? (1) He describes my allegorical reading of Wagner’s Ring as an exploration of man’s religious longing for transcendence and redemption, which in our modern, scientific, skeptical, post-religious age can only be supplied by the “wonder” of secular art. (2) He acknowledges that it is one of the most important contributions to Wagner scholarship. (3) He suggests that my step-by-step, comprehensive allegorical reading is a contribution to the kind of debate that is needed if Wagner’s Ring is to take its place at the center of modern philosophy and modern life. (4) He argues that my subtle exposition shows how each scene of the Ring illustrates some necessary feature of the allegory. (5) He affirms that many of the Ring’s enigmas are resolved by my allegorical reading in a persuasive way. (6) He observes that many of the Ring’s obscure symbols become bright and transparent in my interpretation. (7) He asserts that much that had puzzled him about the Ring became clear to him only after reading my allegorical interpretation, which he describes as probably the only complete commentary on the Ring. (8) He makes the case that my interpretation will inspire a debate about the Ring’s meaning which can establish the claim of the Ring to be the truth of our condition. (9) He declares that my commentary does the best that mere words can do to explicate Wagner’s quest in his Ring to manifest what is sacred - sans belief in gods - in human life, and that Wagner’s answer to this question is supremely relevant to us.
But as you will see in the excerpts I’ve reproduced below from Scruton’s recently published book, The Ring of Truth (2016), he has since 2011 grown skeptical in some respects that my allegorical reading of Wagner’s Ring can do full justice to it. He now insists not only that Wagner’s Ring can’t be understood as an allegory (without, however, demonstrating in any substantial way that my allegorical reading in particular is an inaccurate reading of it), but also that, even if he must concede that aspects of my allegorical interpretation seem justified (which he does), nonetheless the allegorical meanings I’ve discovered in the Ring are too abstract and far removed from Wagner’s drama (and therefore its music) to become part of what audiences experience aesthetically of the Ring in the theater. His argument is a serious challenge and well worth addressing. What follows is my response.
Excerpts highlighted in boldface from Roger Scruton’s book The Ring of Truth - The Wisdom of Wagner’s ‘Ring of the Nibelung,’ published in June, 2016, by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books:
Let me begin by noting that Scruton’s new book on Wagner’s Ring, The Ring of Truth, doesn’t remotely attempt the kind of comprehensive survey of the musico-dramatic content of all the scenes in Wagner’s Ring that I did, but instead, like Kitcher and Schacht in Finding an Ending, interrogates the Ring piecemeal with specific questions of interest to him, while ignoring a huge proportion of its words and music. Scruton omits from consideration hundreds of passages from the Ring’s libretto and motival cross-references, including many of those libretto passages and motival cross-references on which I built my interpretation carefully over a period exceeding fifty years. But a comprehensive approach like mine is in fact the only way to say anything definitive about the Ring, unless we assume, as some do, that the Ring isn’t unified or conceptually coherent. On the one hand, one can construe Wagner’s Ring to mean anything one pleases if one merely cherry picks passages from the libretto and/or music which best illustrate a given theme or point of view, while ignoring huge swaths of the music-drama which can’t be assimilated to such a small-bore approach. On the other hand, taking on the burden of proposing an interpretation only if it can make sense of Wagner’s Ring as a whole, in detail, as I did, is a much harder yet wholly necessary task, and can only be accomplished if Wagner’s Ring is indeed conceptually and musico-dramatically coherent, from beginning to end. By insisting on assessing it as a whole, omitting nothing of importance, I was able to demonstrate its conceptual and musico-dramatic coherence and unity, an achievement which brought to light dozens of insights which would otherwise have remained hidden, and solved many old Ring conundrums. It was also only through this comprehensive approach to Ring exegesis that I was able to unearth and present for consideration its numerous conceptual links with Wagner’s other canonical operas and music-dramas, many of which had previously escaped notice. In sum, Scruton’s interpretation, though full of insight and profoundly attentive to some of the Ring’s most characteristic virtues, and containing wonderful illustrations of Wagner’s employment of his musical motifs in particular and musical expression in general to enhance the drama as Scruton interprets it, can only be construed as a definitive assessment of the Ring’s ultimate meaning if we don’t place Scruton under obligation to assimilate numerous passages from its libretto and music (particularly motival cross-referencing with the drama) which he neglected, but on which any serious attempt to interpret the Ring as a whole must turn. I suspect that if Scruton had tried to assimilate them to his more narrowly defined interpretation, they would in all likelihood have presented severe stumbling blocks.
Aside from Scruton’s having omitted from discussion a huge proportion of the Ring’s libretto and motival cross-references, a problematic flaw in Scruton’s otherwise - in many respects - superb study, a disadvantage which he shares with Kitcher and Schacht, is his incorrect assumption that Wagner outgrew his original raison d’être of the Ring, his hero Siegfried, in the course of writing and composing it, and demoted him to a dramatically and philosophically less significant status than that of Wotan and Brünnhilde (a thesis Scruton also shares with Kitcher and Schacht). In the following pages I’ll show how Scruton made this crippling mistake because (like Kitcher and Schacht) he failed to grasp Wagner’s allegorical logic, though, as you’ll see, unlike Kitcher and Schacht, Scruton is more alert to this possibility. Neither Kitcher and Schacht nor Scruton have a clue what Siegfried represents, or who he is, and are unable to incorporate him meaningfully into their attempts at interpretation, though Scruton goes the extra mile beyond Kitcher and Schacht in his attempt to posit a partial rehabilitation of Siegfried.
This misunderstanding arises in large part, I suspect, from their having incorrectly assigned Siegfried status as either a generic hero (Kitcher and Schacht), or, in Scruton’s case, as Wagner’s Feuerbachian social revolutionary (a role Wagner assigned instead to Siegfried’s sympathetic, compassionate, socially conscientious and heroic father Siegmund). As they suggest, Wagner did indeed outgrow his original intent to construct an epic music-drama out of the fate of a hero who was destined to right the wrongs of this world, but, as I’ve demonstrated, Wagner dramatized his repudiation of this futile dream that a social revolutionary could redeem man from corruption in Wotan’s repudiation of his son Siegmund. Siegmund’s son Siegfried, allegorically, is another matter altogether. He's Wagner’s metaphor for himself, the mortal, secular artist-hero who falls heir to the profound sentiment (man’s universal longing for transcendent value) underlying dying religious faith (the legacy of Wotan and the gods of Valhalla) when that faith can no longer be sustained in the modern world. It's at least partly for this reason, I think, that Scruton denies that the Ring (at least in its ultimate meaning) can be understood as an allegory, and therefore denigrates my allegorical approach:
“Wagner’s treatment of this story [the Ring] is … replete with musical symbolism … . … symbolism is not the same as allegory, even if allegory is a form of it. In allegory a story is told in which each character, each object and each action stands for something else - usually a universal concept - so that a narrative of concrete episodes forges a connection between abstract ideas. … in an early and highly influential commentary Bernard Shaw gave an allegorical reading of the Ring cycle. More recently, in one of the most thorough accounts of The Ring to date, Paul Heise has defended a comparable allegorical interpretation, aligning the characters and actions of the drama with forces at work in forging civilization from the raw material of nature. Heise derives his allegory from a close reading of the philosophy of Wagner’s early mentor Ludwig Feuerbach, as well as from the text and music of The Ring and Wagner’s own voluminous writings. The allegory is spelled out carefully … .
Heise’s allegory does, I believe, contain a core of truth: but it is a truth about The Ring as Wagner originally conceived it. The Ring as it finally emerged tells a rather different story, and tells it not through allegory but through a kind of concentrated symbolism that admits of no simple stepwise decipherment.” [Scruton, P. 10]
Scruton has introduced here his thesis (though without yet having noted specifically that it’s based on Wagner’s supposed outgrowing of his original intent to make Siegfried the dramatic centerpiece of his entire Ring), which he shares with Kitcher and Schacht, that Siegfried, the original raison d’être for his Ring, was an initial inspiration from Wagner’s earliest days in conceiving an epic music-drama (the late 1840’s and early 1850’s) which would later evolve into the four-part Ring of the Nibelung, in which Wagner left his original conception far behind. Scruton suggests that any allegory I’ve discovered at work in the Ring concerns, at best, that early Feuerbachian conception which Wagner allegedly outgrew as his musico-dramatic and philosophical insight gradually cast Siegfried into a subsidiary role, and brought Wotan and his daughter (and Siegfried’s lover) Brünnhilde to the fore as the Ring’s dramatic pillars. Scruton here also introduces his notion that my allegorical reading is somehow distinct from and antithetical to “… a kind of concentrated [musical] symbolism that admits of no simple stepwise decipherment,” which alone can make sense of “the Ring as it finally emerged … ,” which “… tells a rather different story … .” The problem with this critique is that there’s no reason to assume that my allegorical reading excludes the kind of concentrated musical symbolism which Scruton feels alone can explicate Wagner’s ultimate meaning, or that my allegorical reading is the product in any sense of a “… simple stepwise decipherment.”
Here Scruton expands on his thesis that the Ring in its ultimate meaning transcends Wagner’s allegedly outdated Feuerbachian allegory:
“It can fairly be said that when Wagner composed the poem of Siegfrieds Tod, his initial libretto for what was eventually to become the Ring cycle, he was a Feuerbachian, who saw the task of the artist as complementing that of the political revolutionary.” [P. 46]
“… the Ring cycle, as originally conceived, was to tell the story of man’s release from religion and from thraldom to his own illusions. Siegfried, in destroying the rule of the gods, realizes himself as a free individual. And from this gesture the society of the future is born.” [P. 56]
Scruton, referencing my allegorical interpretation here, seems to be confused, or at least isn’t sufficiently clear, concerning the manner in which I distinguish Siegmund, as Wagner’s archetypal social revolutionary, from his son Siegfried as Wagner’s archetypal inspired secular artist. Though he notes that early in Wagner’s process of creating his Ring he was a “… Feuerbachian, who saw the task of the artist as complementing that of the political revolutionary,” it’s not clear to which Ring protagonist(s) Scruton is assigning these roles. He further confuses the issue in stating that Siegfried’s realization of himself as a free individual who has released man from religion and thraldom to his own illusions is a gesture from which “… the society of the future is born.” In my allegorical reading Siegfried’s redemptive art isn’t expected to produce a society of the future: that political role Wagner assigned to the failed Feuerbachian social revolutionary Siegmund. But Wagner wrote his own loss of faith that social revolution could bring to birth a new society of justice and freedom and love into Wotan’s being forced to resign himself to his beloved son Siegmund’s incapacity to achieve it, and in Wotan’s despairing consignment of Siegmund to destruction.
In the following extract Scruton paves the way for his own Ring interpretation, which should leave my presumably defunct allegory far behind:
“Already, in writing the poem, however, Wagner’s feelings were moving in another direction. (…) … Wagner could not fail to perceive that the socialist dreams were every bit as illusory as the religion they had set out to replace. In telling the story of the gods and their doom, therefore, Wagner found himself telling the deeper story of humanity … . And this deeper story is filled with meaning not so much by the words as by the music … .” [P. 56-57]
When Scruton suggests that not allegory but a special kind of “… concentrated symbolism that admits of no simple stepwise decipherment” alone tells the deeper story of humanity that Wagner wanted to tell, which is “… filled with meaning not so much by the words as by the music,” he’s specifically referencing his own expert musicological analysis of the subtle ways in which Wagner manipulates his musical motifs, key relationships, and orchestration to communicate subliminally to his audience deep veins of emotion which Wagner’s characters can’t express in words. Scruton provides some wonderfully provocative and poignant illustrations of Wagner’s gift in adding this other, deeper dimension to his drama. I’ve not attempted such a close musical analysis of specific passages because I can’t read musical scores, but I’ve no doubt my study will be greatly enhanced someday through the good offices of an independent musical scholar (perhaps in collaboration with me) with the requisite musicological credentials and a profound familiarity with Wagner’s Ring, who'll undertake such a difficult task. What I’ve done, however, unlike virtually any other commentator, is trace the most far-reaching implications of Wagner’s employment of his 193 (more or less) musical motifs to cross-reference both themselves and his libretto text, to, if you will, create another level of meaning parallel to the drama, which, with sufficiently close analysis, can disclose its deepest secrets.
In the following passages Scruton attempts to describe my allegorical interpretation, in which Siegfried is construed as an artist-hero who falls heir to Wotan’s (dying religious faith’s) legacy when Wotan is forced to withdraw from the world, but suggests, again, that it’s only applicable to an early Feuerbachian conception of Siegfried which Wagner outgrew as the deeper implications of his music-drama compelled him to alter his original conception, though he credits me with having shown that “… it is possible to develop a far-reaching interpretation of the cycle in its finished form from Feuerbachian premises.”:
“… consciousness works always against the religious doctrines, sowing the seeds of doubt and undermining the divine authority. In these circumstances it is given to art to rescue the deep truths about our condition, to present them in symbolic form, and so to bring about a new order in the human soul, free from illusion but true to the distinctiveness and sacredness of the human condition.” [P. 185-186]
“There is strong evidence that Wagner originally conceived the story of Siegfried in this way and, as Paul Heise shows, it is possible to develop a far-reaching interpretation of the cycle in its finished form from Feuerbachian premises. (…)
This hero … must also be an artist. He is the spirit of poetry itself … . (…) Just as poetry stands in need of music to create the art-work of the future, so does the hero stand in need of the loving bride, who has come down from the world of religious illusion into the sphere of mortals, there to unite with him in the action that will liberate the world.” [P. 186]
“However, that story is moving in a direction that Feuerbach would not have countenanced. Feuerbach saw the liberation of mankind as a political event, a total transformation of the social and economic order, in which we would win through to freedom as the scales of religious illusion fall from our eyes. Wagner was already seeing that liberation occurs, if at all, only in the individual soul, and that it is not achieved alone but through loving union with another.” [P. 186-187]
Scruton is mistaken in his assumption that my interpretation is a priori constrained by “Feuerbachian premises” in which the seat of all significant action is a political transformation of society predicated on scientific debunking of religious faith, when in fact I stated in a multitude of instances in the online version of my Ring study that my allegorical interpretation embraced Wagner’s rebellion (as dramatized in Wotan’s, Brünnhilde’s, Siegfried’s, Siegmund’s, and Sieglinde’s resistance to the moral implications of Feuerbachian materialism) against his own Feuerbachian premises, and that Wagner wrote this rebellion into his Ring libretto well before he’d read Schopenhauer and publicly turned away from Feuerbach. The problem for interpretation is that Wagner’s original materialist Feuerbachian premises continued to haunt him and persuade him to write his perhaps subliminal doubts into the librettos and music not only of his Ring, conceived originally during his so-called Feuerbachian period, but also of his subsequent music-dramas Tristan, Mastersingers, and Parsifal, created long after Wagner had ostensibly repudiated Feuerbach’s optimism in favor of Schopenhauer’s pessimism. Obviously, this problem is more complex than is suggested by a superficial division of Wagner’s creative life into Feuerbachian and post-Feuerbachian (Schopenhauerian) periods.
In some of Feuerbach’s writings which influenced Wagner, the secular artist and the objective scientist are described as collaborating in building a new materialist world of freedom from illusion, a paradise on earth, from the ashes of dying religious faith (the death of God), when religious faith can no longer be sustained conceptually as the foundation of a set of beliefs in the face of scientific, secular thought. However, in his Ring, as I pointed out in numerous passages, Wagner drew on another concept which was only implicit in a few passages from Feuerbach’s writings which, when pursued to their ultimate conclusions, contradict Feuerbach’s primary thesis of a collaboration between secular art and objective science. What’s implicit in these few observations by Feuerbach is that the authentically inspired composer of music is conceived as falling heir to man’s age-old religious longing for transcendent value (a longing predicated like religious belief on self-delusion) in the face of dying religious faith, and is therefore, like religious man (Wotan), at least theoretically at war with the scientific world-view, represented in the Ring by Alberich and his son Hagen. In Wagner’s allegory Siegfried instinctively inherits Wotan’s antagonism towards Alberich’s and his brother Mime’s loveless worldview, and becomes an unwitting and involuntary agent in Wotan’s quest to redeem the gods from Alberich’s Ring Curse. Siegfried is predestined to play this role since his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration Brünnhilde, to whom Wotan leaves Siegfried heir, is the repository of Wotan’s confession to her of his need for such a fearless and free redeemer from Alberich’s Ring Curse, a confession which influences Siegfried subliminally, i.e. musically, via his muse Brünnhilde, who also speaks to Siegfried through the Woodbird (Wagner’s symbol for his musical motifs and their “Wonder”).
Wagner’s specific inspiration for his contrarian twist on Feuerbach’s original historical thesis is a few passages in Feuerbach’s writings, in one of which he states that when God could no longer sustain himself in the face of the rise of scientific secular thought, he took safe refuge in feeling, which in another passage Feuerbach identifies with music. Wagner’s paraphrase of Feuerbach’s remarks was his statement that when God had to leave us he left us, in memory of him, music. It’s noteworthy that the god Wotan takes refuge in his daughter Brünnhilde, his “Will,” by confessing to her both his forced acknowledgment that the gods (the object of religious faith) are predestined by Alberich’s Ring Curse to destruction, and his seemingly futile longing for a free hero who could redeem the gods from their fate. Having changed his mind from the suicidal and nihilistic despair which prompted Wotan initially to leave Alberich’s son Hagen heir to the world so he can destroy Wotan’s idealistic legacy, by deciding instead, with renewed hope of redemption, to make Siegfried his heir, Wotan also necessarily made Siegfried heir to his daughter Brünnhilde (his music) and to the unspoken secret she keeps for Wotan, the contents of his confession, by leaving Brünnhilde asleep on a mountaintop surrounded by a protective ring of fire only Siegfried can penetrate. Music, which is felt, not thought, obviously doesn’t - like religious belief - stake a false claim on truth which can be contradicted by facts, nor does it propose any truth, since music is non-conceptual. This is what Brünnhilde meant when she told Siegfried in Siegfried Act Three Scene Three that what Wotan thought (i.e., as expressed in his confession), she felt, and what she felt was her love for Siegfried. What Wotan confessed to Brünnhilde would remain forever unspoken in words, through her is only spoken aloud as music. But music’s persuasive power, if associated with a false yet flattering proposition or a consoling fiction, can make falsehood and fiction feel as if they’re true.
Feuerbach also proposed that since religious belief (once it’s understood to be only man’s self-deception) can ultimately be taken merely as poetry or fiction, it can free itself of its burden of staking a false claim to truthfulness, which makes it vulnerable to correction by science, by accepting its status as secular art, a fiction (or, as Wagner also put it, a game, or play). In this scenario religion, a belief system formerly predicated unconsciously on self-deception, can live on in the age of science as secular art if the artist doesn’t consciously insist on the truthfulness of his art but accepts its status as a fiction or a game. Significantly, Wagner described his special kind of music as “playing” with the world. So Wagner took what was merely implicit in a few remarks by Feuerbach, which seemed to contradict Feuerbach’s primary thesis that in the new post-religious world objective science and subjective art would inherit the world and join together to create an earthly secular utopia, and ran with it as the basis for his characterization of Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Wagner, in other words, exploited an apparent contradiction in Feuerbach’s materialist philosophy and dramatized in his Ring this conflict between man’s religio-moral-artistic-musical impulse (love), what man feels ought to be true, and his will-to-power expressed through objective scientific knowledge and power politics, i.e., what is true. All of the Ring’s sympathetic protagonists are clearly advocates of the religio-moral-artistic-musical impulse (even if only unconsciously), or love.
Wagner dramatized his disillusionment in his original Feuerbachian hope that social revolutionary action in behalf of justice and truth and sympathy, embodied in his Ring by Siegmund’s compassionate heroism, could redeem the world, in Wotan’s renunciation of his beloved Siegmund and reluctant participation in Siegmund’s death. And Wagner dramatized his renunciation of outward political action and also of religious faith (the gods) as means to redemption in favor of turning inwards towards the subjectivism of his own art as a substitute for lost faith in the promises of religion and politics, in Wotan’s confession to his daughter Brünnhilde, who identifies herself as Wotan’s Will, in The Valkyrie Act Two Scene Two. The mortal, secular artist-hero Siegfried, who ostensibly owes nothing to the gods (religious faith), falls heir to Wotan’s legacy of religious feeling of the sacred, the longing for transcendent value in a secular age (embodied by inspired music, represented by Wotan’s daughter Brünnhilde), when Wotan, archetypal exponent of man’s religious impulse, has had to renounce involvement in the world, leaving his daughter Brünnhilde to be woken by Siegfried. Scruton didn’t grasp that it’s Siegmund, not Siegfried, who’s Wagner’s metaphor for the Feuerbachian political or social revolutionary who fails, while Siegfried, in his relationship to his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration Brünnhilde (Wotan’s soul, his inwardness), is Wagner’s last refuge of rebuttal to what Scruton describes as Feuerbach’s shallow optimism. My allegorical reading of Siegmund as the social revolutionary Wagner outgrew, and Siegfried (with his muse Brünnhilde) as the artist-hero to whom Wagner (and Wotan) turned instead for an inward, subjective redemption, rescues Siegfried from the demotion to which Scruton, Kitcher, and Schacht would reduce him.
A cryptic basis for the plots of the first three of the four parts of the Ring can be found in a couple of pages from Wagner’s autobiography Mein Leben [PP. 430-431] in which he discusses the influence of several of Feuerbach’s books on him. An initial spark for Wagner’s allegory in The Rhinegold about the origin of the gods in our human psychology, our capacity for self-deception, can be seen in his remark that in his The Essence of Christianity Feuerbach undertook “… the interpretation of religion from a purely psychological standpoint.” The plots of The Valkyrie, in which the moral hero and social revolutionary Siegmund offers one form of post-religious redemption by taking action in the political and social world to right its wrongs, and Siegfried, in which the secular artist-hero Siegfried and his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration Brünnhilde fall heir to the legacy of dying religious faith represented by Wotan, are outlined in essence, respectively, in Wagner’s statement that “I found it elevating and consoling to be assured [by Feuerbach] that the sole authentic immortality adheres only to sublime deeds and inspired works of art.” Of the two kinds of post-religious immortality, or sacredness, which replace religious faith’s debunked bid for transcendence Wagner alludes to here, Siegmund’s, Sieglinde’s, and Brünnhilde’s heroic actions in The Valkyrie are “sublime deeds,” and Siegfried’s inspiration by his muse Brünnhilde in Siegfried is supposed to produce “inspired works of art.” Wagner was even more explicit in his explanation that the heritage of dying religious faith (Wotan) is carried on by inspired secular art, and his own ‘artwork of the future’ in particular, once we recognize that what in religious times we’d called the immortal gods was merely a product of our natural aesthetic impulse, in his observation that “The fact that he [Feuerbach] proclaimed what we call ‘spirit’ to lie in our aesthetic perceptions of the tangible world, together with his verdict as to the futility of philosophy, was what afforded me such useful support in my conception of a work of art which would be all-embracing while remaining comprehensible to the simplest, purely-human power of discernment, … in ‘the artwork of the future’ … .” Wagner alludes here specifically to the “Wonder” of his musical motifs of foreboding and reminiscence, through which a complex drama can attain a unity of time, space, and naivety otherwise unavailable to conventional drama.
But what can’t be found explicitly laid out in Feuerbach’s writings, and can only be guessed at (as Wagner evidently did) through imaginative speculation on the most far-reaching conclusions which follow from Feuerbach’s materialist premises and some contradictions imbedded in them, is that eventually inspired secular art itself, in which dying religious faith (Wotan’s thought) had retreated to the safety of feeling (Wotan’s music, Brünnhilde, man’s aesthetic sense), might someday have its unspoken secret, its covert championing of religious man’s futile longing for transcendent value and meaning in the face of science, exposed to the light of day and destroyed, just as religious faith had been beforehand. Siegfried, in other words, succumbs, as Brünnhilde said, to the same Ring Curse (of consciousness) that doomed Wotan and the gods. This is the whole substance of the last part of Wagner’s Ring, Twilight of the Gods. It is, I think, extremely significant that Twilight of the Gods in its original iteration as Siegfried's Death was the first of the four Ring dramas which Wagner wrote, in view of the astonishing fact that it's precisely here, in the Ring's climax, that Wagner drew his most original conclusions from hints in a few passages from Feuerbach's writings, conclusions Feuerbach never drew (at least in his four books which influenced Wagner in creating his Ring).
Presumably a primary cause for Scruton’s discomfort with key aspects of my allegorical reading is my assumption that (as they say of themselves) Siegfried and Brünnhilde are one person, not distinct characters. This is also a stumbling block for Kitcher and Schacht, and I confess my allegorical reading is counter-intuitive. What this means is that Siegfried and Brünnhilde can’t be understood purely on a common-sense basis as typical protagonists in a play or opera, but have a deeper symbolic significance when understood as one persona, even though Wagner presents them as wholly distinct, believable personalities. Siegfried represents the artist-hero, or if you will the poetic-dramatist, and Brünnhilde is his unconscious mind, his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration, which Wagner identifies with music, their loving union giving birth to the revolutionary, redemptive music-drama, the artwork of the future. As his unconscious mind Brünnhilde knows for Siegfried what he doesn’t know, his true but hidden prehistory and identity and fate, which was imparted to Brünnhilde by Wotan in his confession to her. This explains why Siegfried presents himself as the hero who doesn’t know who he is, who's terminally naive, unconscious, and fearless (where Wotan, by contrast, is paralyzed by fear of the end), and acts on what seems to be pure instinct, when in fact Siegfried is inspired subliminally, or musically, by Wotan’s desperate need for redemption from Alberich’s Ring Curse which he imparted to Brünnhilde. Brünnhilde is the womb of Wotan’s wish (for a free hero who can redeem the gods from Alberich’s Ring Curse) and Siegfried’s metaphysical (as opposed to literal) mother. Brünnhilde, knowing for Siegfried what he doesn’t consciously know, compensates for his deficit of self-consciousness. Not grasping this, and not grasping that it was Siegmund whom Wagner identified as a potential political or social revolutionary, not Siegfried, Scruton, like Kitcher and Schacht, incorrectly distinguishes the “self-affirmation of the sword-wielding Siegfried” from the “self-sacrifice of his suffering wife” Brünnhilde, as if their fates and identities are distinct:
“Gradually, as the message of his own music sank in, Wagner recognized that liberation is not a political but a spiritual process, and that what is being asked from us is not the self-affirmation of the sword-wielding Siegfried, but the self-sacrifice of his suffering wife. (…) You might say that, in composing The Ring, Wagner put the optimistic philosophy of the Young Hegelians [Feuerbach, etc.] to the test of drama, and the drama refuted it.” [P. 187]
General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung
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