Paul Krause’s review of my Ring book at VoegelinView on Wagner’s birthday, 5/22/2022
Paul Heise. The Wound That Will Never Heal: An Allegorical Interpretation of Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung. Washington DC: Academica Press, 2021.
Richard Wagner holds a very unique place in the history of culture. A man high art, much of his musical compositions were not well-received in his lifetime—complaints often abounded about the lack of tonality and the breakage of his music with the preceding traditions that the music-going elite was accustomed to. Yet his works have entered the immortal halls, none more lavishly than The Ring of the Nibelung. Steeped in myth, history, and philosophy, Wagner is also a rare artist who straddled many of the intellectual mores of his time which influenced his own creations. No shortage of ink has been spilled in trying to unlock the enigma of Richard Wagner. Paul Heise has joined that endeavor with "The Wound That Will Never Heal: An Allegorical Interpretation of Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung."
If there is one of Wagner’s dramatic operas that defines the maestro, it is The Ring. It remains his universally acclaimed masterpiece. Of all Wagner’s music, The Ring captures the most attention from both the intellectual and public music class and dilettantes—like myself—who have occasionally written on Wagner but who otherwise have a small library of books on Wagner by leading scholars. There’s something about The Ring that has mystic allure. Recently, a number of fine new books on Wagner have appeared. Posthumously published was Sir Roger Scruton’s reflection on Parsifal—Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption which I reviewed upon its release at a couple of places. More recently was Alex Ross’s Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, which I also reviewed here in the pages of this journal. Luminary philosophers past and present have devoted much of their time to Wagner. Scruton even wrote the introduction to Heise’s book, stating, “No composer has ever been more of a philosopher than Richard Wagner, and in none of his works is Wagner more philosophical than in The Ring of the Nibelung.” Music critics and composers like Deryck Cooke also devoted significant time to unpacking Wagner’s Ring but tragically died before completing the study. Some academics make their entire career on analyzing Wagner and his work. From the professional trained to the personally loving, devotion to Wagner is not an uncommon thing. Whether healthy, perhaps the reader will be the judge.
There are many strands of interpretation that saturate Wagner studies. Hegelianism. Freudianism. Marxism. Anti-Semitism. Romanticism. Buddhist-Christian syncretism. Schopenhauerianism. Psychoanalysis. The list goes on and on. Paul Heise argues that all of the above, while having merits, are insufficient. Heise begins his monumental and heroic study of Wagner telling us a story about an encounter with a prominent Wagner scholar at a Wagner luncheon: “I have a counterproposition: what if I suggest that we have only just begun to grasp the depths of meaning hidden in Wagner’s Ring, that our received wisdom on the subject of not only his Ring, but his other canonical operas and music-dramas, is a mere fragment of the meaning comprehended within his life’s work, and that our heritage of scholarship on the subject often as not throws us off the scent of true understanding!”
That’s certainly the way to hook and sell another book among so many books on Wagner. Part of Heise’s interpretative methodology is premised on a careful, if perhaps deliberately intentional and limited and forced, reading of post-composition writings from Wagner’s personal diaries and letters. The argument is simple enough: If Wagner acknowledges—as he does, scattered even if sparingly so, through his voluminous writings—that he himself has learned new things after the fact through encounters with others and reflecting back on The Ring through later compositions, then our conventional, often chronological and linear, interpretations of Wagner cannot grasp the unconscious that was otherwise moving in Wagner when he composed The Ring. In presenting this case at the beginning, Heise allows himself to build a new stage to watch The Ring anew. He calls it an allegorical interpretation. It might better be understood as the latest, if otherwise the deepest, of psychoanalytic interpretations. Heise even acknowledges:
"This study will examine this question in depth to demonstrate that Wagner’s notion that he was uniquely capable of accessing heretofore unconscious (and potentially dangerous) knowledge, knowledge of which he was only subliminally aware and therefore at risk of unwittingly revealing it to his audience (and perhaps even to himself), may provide the key to a coherent, unified understanding of the entire Ring, and even several of Wagner’s other canonical artworks." As someone who has also engaged in some extensive cultural criticism from the purview of analyzing the unconscious and subconscious in relation to the idea that humans are creatures of myth and symbols, I am entirely sympathetic to Heise’s general interpretative spirit.
Those of us who are connoisseurs of Wagner’s drama need no introduction to it. But for those who aren’t, a short synopsis might be in order. The Ring cycle is a monumental epic in the truest sense. A four-part movement, the first act (Das Rheingold) concerns itself with the theft of the gold from the Rhinemaidens by the cruel dwarf Alberich. This destabilizes the harmony of the cosmos and sets up the contrast between love and lust. The act transitions to the gods, where Wotan is building Valhalla but needs to pay the giants Fafner and Fasolt for their work. Another god, Loge, convinces Wotan to seize what Alberich stole from the Rhinemaidens which now includes the ring. In doing so, Wotan becomes an accomplice in Alberich’s crime and curse—the forsaking of love—and gives the stolen treasure along with Freia, to the giants. Fafner and Fasolt fight with each other over the spoils, and in a grand reenactment of fratricide as disturbing and famous as Cain and Abel, Fafner kills Fasolt.
Much of the rest of the story deals with Wotan’s attempt to regain the ring to undo the curse. He sires two heroic humans to help him (in the second act, Die Walküre), Siegmund and Sieglinde, who fall in love (unbeknownst of their kinship) and Sieglinde is impregnated through this remarkable encounter that is nonetheless a crime of the moral law. In this crime, Fricke demands the moral law which punishes incest to be upheld. Wotan withdraws his supernatural aid to Siegmund, who dies in a duel which forces Sieglinde to flee while carrying her child in the womb. Brünnhilde, the favored daughter of Wotan among the Valkyries, is so moved by human love and compassion (lacking among the gods) that she throws in her heart with them to experience the love denied to her by divinity. This causes her to be punished and cast out from among the divines.
Sieglinde dies but not before giving birth to Siegfried who is the expected hero-savior of Wotan and the gods and whose adventures is the subject of the third act that bears his name, Siegfried. He is raised by the outcast dwarfish brother of Alberich, Mime, who conspires to raise Siegfried with his enormous strength to steal the ring and the treasure from Fasolt (now a dragon). Siegfried’s explorations in the forest lead to a rise of consciousness concerning the world: concepts like mother and father, love, family. Siegfried breaks away from the manipulative slavery of Mime, killing him, and slays Fasolt thereby coming into possession of the ring. He ventures up a mountain, defeating Wotan in disguise, where he finds the loving companion he has sought in observing the animals of the world. The loving companion is the imprisoned Brünnhilde, who is restored/resurrected to life by the kiss of Siegfried. They seal their love with Siegfried giving Brünnhilde the ring.
The course of the story is the movement from mythology and the gods (act 1) to the primacy of human choice (by acts 3 and 4). The final act, Götterdämmerung, brings the movement to its conclusion.
Siegfried is now fully immersed in the human world with all its politics and manipulations (a larger scale manifestation of what Mime embodied). The son of Alberich, a conniving advisor to King Gunther named Hagen, is out to seize the ring for himself at the behest of his father. He knows who Siegfried is and about the ring. He drugs Siegfried to betray Brünnhilde and steal back the ring. This act of betrayal leads to Siegfried’s demise at Hagen’s hand, who infamous stabs Siegfried in the back while on a hunt to “avenge perjury” but really to actualize his evil schemes. Brünnhilde, who is at the castle of the Gibichung, comes to realize the truth of the events that have transpired. She forgives Siegfried, takes the ring, returns it to the Rhinemaidens, and in an act of sacrificial love immolates herself to join Siegfried in eternal bliss: Siegfried! Siegfried! Sieh! Selig grüßst dich dein Weib! “Siegfried, Siegfried! Look! Your wife comes to greet you in bliss.” Brünnhilde’s free act of love sets the world free as Valhalla burns and allows it to be renewed (in the conventional readings of the story though this is disputed by some eminent scholars even if Wagner also made mention of this idea) while Hagen leaps to his eventual death in the Rhine as he forsakes the ability to forgive and only seeks the damning power of the ring.
As Heise acknowledges in the opening of this monumental work, there are many interpretations of Wagner. And contrary the professionals, Heise’s contention is that we haven’t exhausted the plume of interpretations—be they political, mythic, religious, psychoanalytic, or now, “allegorical.” At the heart, then, of Heise’s interpretation is a neo-Feuerbachian interpretation that seeks to unlock the unconscious and subconscious spirit that influenced Wagner’s writing, an unconscious anxiety over the emerging empire of materialist science that overthrows the world of myth, gods, and “religion.” Beyond stating this thesis in his introduction, it is clearly manifested at an early point in his interpretation of Das Rheingold:
"We can now grasp why the Giants contracted with the gods to build their heavenly home Valhalla. It’s because the religious illusions of transcendent love (Freia’s aspect which appeals to the amorous Fasolt) and sorrow-less youth eternal, i.e., immortality (which appeals to Fafner as the promise of immortality assuages our fear of death) offer to satisfy our egoistic instincts in a manner with which natural human life can’t compete. Religious faith achieves this by deluding our animal instincts into supposing they can obtain infinite satisfaction, just as the Rhinedaughters told Alberich that through the Ring he would obtain limitless power. Wagner explained this in the following way. We invented the gods, making a contract with them to ensure they’ll grant us a heavenly reward for the world’s ills and imperfections."
While Heise is attune to the rich biblical imagery and allegories included in Wagner’s drama, it is also eminently clear that he cannot accept a Christian(ish) Wagner, even if that is the direction that Wagner moved later in his life and the fact that one can detect these traces scattered throughout the opera. The Ring of the Nibelung is therefore composed, Heise argues, as a grand aesthetic and artistic allegory for a world that has lost faith in the militant advancement of reductionist scientism and that it will be replaced by music-drama and the drama of mortal love (Siegfried and Brünnhilde). But the emphasis on the drama of love, the sanctifying and redemptive power—the life-giving spirit of it—is Christian and not Norse, Mesopotamian, Greek, or any of the “pagan” mytho-religious traditions in love is ultimately unredemptive. (As Eric Voegelin pointed out long ago, the mystic reinterpretations of mythic texts and stories of human ingenuity and heroism were never part of the authorial and textual intentions until the Gnostic revolutions of Late Antiquity, from which Christian humanism also began sanctifying the same stories in the Renaissance and through Baroque artwork.)
The contradictions of Wagner and the inability of the master composer to offer a synthesis to the supposed end of religious faith (Siegfried) is the result of his attempt to weave together Christian love-ethics and love-drama with left-Hegelian ideas of human consciousness and a Buddhist metaphysic of world renunciation. This might make for great artistic drama, and as a lover of Wagner and The Ring I certainly think so, but trying to salvage Wagner as a coherent thinker or someone who can offer substance to modernity apart from temporary relief is a doomed project. Wagner is simply a contradictory thinker and composer, and frankly, that’s what makes his drama so compelling and enduring.
Modernity, especially with the music of Wagner, elevated art to a new place in the human hierarchy of values. Prior to modernity, the aesthetic life—in its Platonic and Augustinian understanding—stood side-by-side with Truth and metaphysical-spiritual consciousness. “Beauty’s seat is there,” Plotinus said, in his Enneads. “How can we love anything but the Beautiful?” Augustine equally mused. Thus the Western-Christian emphasis on aesthetics as a pathway to God, from Augustine to Bonaventure to Balthasar and Hildebrand, now to Robert Barron and others. But with the loss of that faith, art and aesthetics (in the Wagnerian imagination and the disciples of it) turned into God, or more properly, an idol—the highest value of our attention and focus but one that will not heal us apart from the healing spirit of the Supreme Artist. On this point now, the idolization of art in its secular form has led to some worshipping on the altar of art as if music or paintings or the “creativity” of the artist is salvific and worthy of our adoring worship rather than an insight into cosmic life.
The modernist, or Wagnerian, disposition to art, it seems to me, is really about escapism. It is a form of escapism from the problems of modernity rather than a solution to them. It is an escapism from the crushing effects of the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions and the impoverishing metaphysical materialism unleashed by the denizens of the New Science (insofar that Heise articulates the view that Wagner’s drama is composed in reaction to these augmentations in human existence, he is undoubtedly right). Instead of embracing the bitterness and toil of life, the Wagnerian seeks art—or some form of high drama—as the refuge from the wounds of existence.
I must now confess that I agree with this understanding of art as an escapist refuge from the ailments of (modern) existence. To those who have nothing else, art takes on that transcendental quality and characteristic to become the sole path of “salvation” (as escapist refuge from the world). However, I do not live my life in that manner—especially as one who is Platonic and Augustinian in outlook, a Christian in belief and practice. And I do not think it is a particularly wholesome way to live anyway (consider those artists who have and the misery that they have brought to others let alone themselves) and I do not have anxieties over the techno-scientistic spirit. Per Augustine, who I believe had a far superior vision and understanding of art and life than the outright Wagnerians, art embodies and represents “the good and right life.” Art and aesthetics, beauty, becomes inseparable from Truth. The aesthetic life is not a refuge from the wounds of the world and our mortal existence but the very calling spirit of transfiguration. If one allows me to indulge in an allegorical interpretation of Wagner, I think that’s what Wagner did even if he didn’t know it. From my understanding of Wagner, I can call myself a “Wagnerian.”
In the beginning, Heise wrote, “I maintain that Wagner’s Ring is a dramatization of this, that its plot is an allegory whose subject is the quest of revolutionaries with a social conscience (Siegmund) and inspired secular artists (Siegfried) to preserve and perpetuate religious feeling in an age in which religious faith (Wotan and the Valhallan gods) is dying out in the face of the advancement of scientific knowledge.” The rest of the book sets out to do exactly that. And in doing so, Heise tries—but I think heroically fails—to provide a sense of coherency to the work. The Ring, as already stated, is clearly not coherent. That’s what makes it so powerful. In the realm of art, especially art-drama, incoherent works are always the best precisely because the inconsistencies, lack of coherence, and manifold contradictions allow for unrestrained emotional power to be unlocked and endless rapture in the many spirits of the work to grab our attention.
For those who have a penchant to music-drama, and for those who seek a deeper meaning and understanding to Wagner’s music in The Ring—especially his leitmotifs—Heise’s reflections on Wagner’s key musical compositions (we might say it in the same manner as Edward Gibbon’s table talks) give the clearest exposition to our author’s own views and often enrich our engagement and understanding with the world in general. For instance, Hagen as the manifestation of the “scientific world” is a brilliant insight. And one, in reading this work, I largely agree with. Incoherent as these compositions are in Wagner, Heise does grab our attention in his reading of these moments that have long captured the attention of listeners and critics for nearly two centuries.
In the end, I agree with Barry Millington, who served as an initial reviewer and whose assessment of this book Heise includes in his opening acknowledgement. I, too, cannot entirely endorse the full content of this study. I also share agreement with my former teacher, Roger Scruton—whose shadow looms over this work in various places—that Heise’s interpretation has shortcomings but is still far superior to the Shavian and other pathetic Marxist interpretations of The Ring that sadly dominate public discussion of the work and whenever spoken about stunts our understanding of this great work of art. Nevertheless, for those of us who consider ourselves, for better or worse, Wagnerian in some form or fashion, Paul Heise’s The Wound That Will Never Heal needs to be part of your Wagner collection.
There are many moments of brilliant insight, flashes of genius, and reflections of deep enrichment throughout this work—moments that will dazzle and leave us wishing for more and reigniting that passion and awe and wonder toward Wagner’s art. I think Heise would agree, along with so many other Wagner scholars, that however flawed a study of Wagner is, each attempt to return to depth of the maestro enriches us and adds another piece to the puzzle of The Ring. But it’s a puzzle that will never be finished and that’s why it is so enduring and alluring. The Ring is a work that our author rightly states is “the Holy Grail of art criticism.” And this book certainly helps us understand more about the “Holy Grail of art criticism,” even if we remain unconvinced of its overall thesis seeking cogency and coherency to Wagner’s grandest creation. I, for one, will certainly be thinking of Heise’s work the next time I listen to The Ring. And the next time you listen to Wagner’s masterpiece—in all of its glorious inconsistencies and contradictions—you will have hopefully read this book.
General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung
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