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Deathridge "W Beyond Good and Evil" Chap. 1-4

Posted: Tue Sep 20, 2011 12:46 pm
by alberich00

Dear Wagnerheim Folks:

Having completed my reviews of Badiou and Zizek, it's time to take a look at John Deathridge's "Wagner Beyond Good and Evil." I'll call John Deathridge JD throughout to distinguish my quotes and paraphrases of his passages from my commentary, as always identified with PH.


JD P. X: JD finds both "Tannhaeuser" and "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" problematical: he hasn't included them in his book because: "... they are in my view equally problematic, though for opposite reasons: "Tannhaeuser" because it verges on musical and dramatic incoherence [PH: On this point I'm somewhat in agreement with him: "Tann" is conceptually seminal for virtually all of Wagner's subsequent artistic production, including as it does cells which grew into "Lohengrin," "Twilight of the Gods," "Tristan," "Mastersingers," and "Parsifal." It's incoherence stems, I think, from the fact that it is an as yet undeveloped springboard for everything that was to come.], as Wagner himself confessed, and "Die Meistersinger" because it is overly stylized and all too cohesive without a trace of vulnerability on its golden surface, unlike nearly all of Wagner's other works." JD also asserts they haven't stood the test of time.

PH: I would take issue with his denigration of "Mastersingers," which I regard as an irreplaceable component of Wagner's greatest legacy, his four music-dramas and the world-view subsumed within their systematic interrelations. Each of Wagner's four mature music-dramas play a unique role in presenting what I take to be Wagner's essential allegorical narrative of the place of man in the cosmos, so to speak. But I will have to demonstrate what I mean in the chapter I intend to write about "Mastersingers." As with Wagner's other non-RING music dramas, I have already written a book-length study of "Mastersingers," but it is in the form of relatively unedited notes and not fit for publication in its present form. Furthermore, I need to update it in a manner somewhat similar to that I employed to complete my "Ring" study, which is the only one of the four which approaches what I regard as reasonably definitive and complete.

PH: Furthermore, I am as deeply moved and involved when experiencing "Mastersingers" as I am with any of the other three music-dramas: they all, in my view, are equally developed, though the methods involved in each are unique in many respects.

PH: In terms of the systematic conceptual relations among the four music-dramas, "Mastersingers" corresponds with "The Valkyrie" and "Siegfried" ("The Rhinegold" is a stand-alone prelude not only to the remaining "Ring" dramas but to Wagner's three other mature music-dramas), "Tristan" with "Twilight of the Gods," and "Parsifal" offers Wagner's alternative to the finale of the "Ring," so commentators are right to say that it is, in a sense, the fifth opera of the "Ring."


JD P. 16-17: JD comments on the extremely subjective nature of Wagner's autobiography "Mein Leben" (the 1983 centennial translation into English for Cambridge Univ. Press written by my fellow Washingtonian and former friend Andrew Gray [passed away a short time after my one and only trip to Bayreuth in 8/01, a trip he sponsored]), which he suggests Wagner wrote as, in effect, an extension of his self-expression in his artworks, reinventing his history to fit his conception of himself as a world-historical artist.

PH: I think JD has got this right. I believe it may have been JD who first broached the evidence that Wagner fibbed when narrating the story of his famous vision in Spezia, Italy, when, according to his own report, after having been unable to find the right music for the "Ring" text, he claims to have woken up from a nightmare of drowning hearing the E Flat Major chord with which the "Ring" begins in the depths of the Rhine, and asserted that he then returned north to write the "Ring" music. I believe JD noted that Wagner never mentioned this vision in contemporary letters he wrote to friends. In other words, Wagner was continually reinventing his life as a work of art.

JD: "... Wagner ... practically from the start set out to construct himself as an evolving subjective presence at odds with the 'fact' of real chronological time, fully cognizant of the philosophical implications of such a move."

PH: Wagner once wrote that true geniuses are in a sense a-historical, that though they exist in a given time and the details of their creative productions reflect their time, they are essentially outside of time, and often at odds with their time. Look at Siegmund's self-description in V.1.2.

JD: "The naive separation of the 'so-called genius' from reality, and also from a direct warts-and-all subjectivism well beyond romanticism, was one he [Wagner] rejected. It is exactly this insight ... together with his his skeptical view of the role of autobiography in the nineteenth century that places Wagner's narratives about himself among the most remarkable and underappreciated of modern autobiographical testimonies."

PH: Beautifully expressed!


JD P. 31-32: JD describes as strange "... the medieval dualisms and theological mysteries of faith and redemption that nourish the plot of 'Lohengrin.' Today they seem like distant relics, at least at first sight, but they probably looked just as odd to some observers in the context of the German idealism of the 1840s, when the opera was composed. Wagner probably sensed this himself, which may be one of the reasons for his occasional metamorphosis - albeit in private - into one of the opera's earliest critics." JD then quotes one of Wagner's letters to Adolf Stahr to the effect that "Lohengrin" represents for Wagner a stage in his development that has passed, and that attention should focus on his newer works [the "Ring," etc.]. JD describes how Wagner during and after the composition of "Lohengrin" studied works of the young Hegelians such as Feuerbach and involved himself in both political and artistic revolution, "... and began to develop a huge work that eventually became the "Ring," in which myth and music were to combine in a utopian Artwork of the Future expressing profound insights into the world in ways no existing art form had ever done before."

PH: Readers will find in my Article "How Elsa Showed Wagner the Way to Siegfried" [published in the 5/95 issue of WAGNER, the scholarly journal of The Wagner Society (London, UK), and now posted in this discussion forum] and its subsequent, more developed versions [one of which can be found online at, by clicking "Resources" and "Texts on Wagner"] a detailed analysis of how Wagner composed his "Ring" as, in effect, his answer to problems presented in "Lohengrin." Wagner himself suggested that "Lohengrin" was an incipiently revolutionary work, since he argued in "A Communication To My Friends" that Elsa's asking of the forbidden question gave birth to his revolutionary music-dramas by giving birth to Siegfried. Of course, Wagner was already technically laying the groundwork for his music-dramas in the musical setting for the libretto of "Lohengrin," which we can describe as a transitional work. I have shown that "Lohengrin" is through and through a Feuerbachian work, and the same is true of "Tannhaeuser." Though Wagner, to my knowledge, did not record being familiar with Feuerbach's writings until after he'd completed "Lohengrin," nonetheless I suspect he was involved in discussions about Feuerbach's ideas (or the similar philosophical implications of the ideas of other contemporary writers) in his years in Paris. Surely some of his friends in Paris were familiar with, and talked about, his "Thoughts on Death and Immortality," which I believe was published in 1830.

JD P. 33-34: JD notes that in "A Communication ... " Wagner argued that we shouldn't read "Lohengrin" as a Christian myth, that in fact its roots are deeper and link it with the entire world of pagan myth. JD quotes Levi-Strauss to the effect that Wagner's seeking the common conceptual roots of disparate myths "... amply confirm Wagner's reputation, in Levi-Strauss's words, as the 'undeniable originator of the structural analysis of myth.' If this is accepted,
Levi-Strauss continues, 'it is a profoundly significant fact that the analysis was made, in the first instance, in music."

PH: Readers of my Intro to will find my tribute to LS's influence on my own study. The first of my original (semi-literate) studies of Wagner which I copyrighted at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, in 1981, was "In Dedication to Claude Levi-Strauss: the significance of Richard Wagner, which considered the implications of some of Levi-Strauss's ideas for my research into the meaning of Wagner's legacy. Its identifying tag there is TX0000831157, 1981.

JD: JD notes that Otto Rank found various anxieties and taboos hidden behind "... the seemingly innocuous fairy-tale surface of 'Lohengrin,' which even in a post-Freudian era that has grown rather weary of the unconscious it is hard to ignore."

PH: In my study of "Lohengrin" I explored the notion that as a Grail Knight sworn to celibacy Lohengrin couldn't appropriately marry (as Wagner himself said), and that this conflict in Lohengrin's impulses may have been at least a portion of the explanation behind the taboo he placed on revealing his true identity and origin. But in my interpretation the foundation of this taboo is the fear that the earthly origin of all of man's religious fantasies of redeeming oneself from the physical world and entering a spiritual existence might be exposed to the light of day. It is the fear, as Feuebach and Dostoevsky put it, that what we call God might after all be only ourselves, and Nature.

JD: According to JD Rank suggested that the forbidden question served to hide an incestuous relationship.

PH: In my own study of Wagner's artworks I have found Freudian Oedipal readings worse than useless: I'm sure there is something else going on, but not that. There is, of course, a hint of incest in the relationship of Adam to Eve, since they are generally taken, in some sense, as brother and sister, and the entire human race is supposed in Genesis to descend from them. And of course when brother sun and sister moon come into junction with Mother Earth in an eclipse, as Levi-Strauss noted, this incestuous honeymoon draws from awed mankind a frightful charivari, or shivaree, i.e., noise instead of music, which of course is precisely what Wagner depicted (minus the eclipse of the sun or moon) in the Act II riot in "Mastersingers," which is the folk's instinctive response to the contents of Sach's confession about the true origin Walther von Stolzing's, i.e., Adam's, unconscious inspiration by his muse Eva (Eve). This of course also lends additional spice to the concept of original sin.

JD P. 36: "... with the departure of Lohengrin and the death of Elsa, the ending is so equivocal and unusual for Wagner that it is legitimate to ask whether a sequel was planned that would provide the missing redemptive conclusion, and indeed whether that sequel turned out to be - unlikely as it sounds at first - "Der Ring des Nibelungen." "Lohengrin" and the "Ring" bring several deep-seated traumas to the surface without covering them up, including incest in conflict with the moral imperatives of a crumbling social hierarchy, murderous struggles for power, ... " etc. One major difference, however, is the spectacular redemptive conclusion of "Goetterdaemmerung" that "Lohengrin" conspicuously lacks."

PH: The entirety of my article "How Elsa Showed Wagner the Way to Siegfried," aforementioned (and posted now in this discussion forum), is devoted to my analysis of Wagner's "Ring" as Wagner's answer to the key questions raised by "Lohengrin."

JD P. 38-39: JD notes that Wagner himself described various progressive tendencies in the music of "Lohengrin," even though Wagner had described it as no longer representing where he intended to go with his art. However, JD suggests that the web of motifs Wagner employed in the "Ring" was something entirely new and that Wagner's efforts to read back this progressive tendency into "Lohengrin" where, according to JD, motifs are employed in an entirely different manner, was another example of Wagner attempting to continually reinterpret his entire past life as if it were an inevitable progress towards what he later became.

JD P. 44: "Lohengrin" was his most popular work and the least understood. But his refusal to change hardly a note of it is surely a sign that it is closer to his later music dramas than is generally realized, and in a more profound sense than a superficial comparison of its motifs with the leitmotifs of the "Ring" can ever possibly demonstrate. (...)" JD therefore suggests that "... it is in 'Lohengrin' where the Music of the Future really begins."

PH: I suppose one of the most obvious examples of motival material from "Lohengrin" re-fitted for employment in the "Ring" is the second part of that strong motif in Act I which represents the authority of King Henry's judgment of the law, when Elsa is being questioned about Frederick's charge against her of fratricide. This is clearly a basis for the motif of Wotan's Spear which represents his law and authority.

PH: But an example which I haven't heard discussed is the employment of what, in the "Ring," would become Alberich's two-note "Wehe Motif," Dunning's #5, as Lohengrin is saying his farewells in the finale of Act III and preparing to leave. In the "Ring," that motif represents, at least initially, Alberich's anguish in discovering that, in effect, he will not be able to find any love for himself in the world: his ritual repudiation, once each by three Rhinedaughters who represent the time before our fall through acquisition of consciousness, has existential finality, at least for him. And Lohengrin being forced to leave the world which no longer has faith in the transcendence that he and the Grail represent is a sort of second Fall. Man's answer to the first, original fall was the invention of religion as consolation, and his answer to the second fall, the loss of religious faith, is, according to Wagner, inspired secular art, particularly the art of music.


JD P. 48-49: "Feuerbach's insistence that life must show God its back and return to humanity is essentially the idea behind Alberich's curse on love at the beginning of the "Ring" and Bruennhilde's monologue at its end, which returns love to the orbit of human aspiration and feeling."

PH: In my "Ring" interpretation posted here at, I do indeed link Alberich's curse on love [as well as his wholly distinct curse on the Ring, but in a different way] with the creation of godhead (Wotan = Light-Alberich), i.e., what Feuerbach and I suppose Marx would describe as man's unwitting alienation of his ideal self from himself in a product of his imagination, but not I think quite in the way that JD implies here. Also, given the fact that both Siegfried and Bruennhilde betray Wotan's original hope that their love would somehow compensate for the loss of the gods, somehow salvage some of the residual value left after the conceptual loss of faith, I'm not at all sure that Bruennhilde's 'knowing' remarks at the end herald a new beginning for humanity sans belief in transcendence, or the restoration of love to humanity. In fact, I believe that Wagner's "Parsifal" is Wagner's answer to the failure of all attempts at redemption in the "Ring." Granted, the "Ring" and "Parsifal" were conceived more or less simultaneously over a long period of time, but nonetheless "Parsifal" as we know it now resolves many of the unresolved philosophical problems of the "Ring." I suspect this is why Wagner saved it for last.

JD: "... it is not going too far to suggest, as the historian Mark Berry has said, that he [Wagner] would have wholeheartedly agreed with Marx's description of capital as the 'visible god-head, the transformation of all human qualities into their opposites.' Indeed, the first scene of "Das Rheingold," in which the Nibelung dwarf Alberich, after renouncing love, ... snatches the gold and goes on to build his vast industrial empire in Nibelheim, is undoubtedly a vivid dramatization of this very idea."

PH: In my interpretation Alberich gives birth to godhead, to Wotan (Light-Alberich), and ultimately to capital, not quite in the sense that JD or Berry describe here, but in the sense that Alberich is construed as Wagner's figure for primal man's original Fall, his natural evolutionary acquisition of the power of conscious thought, which is reified by man's imagination into the concept of godhead, and ultimately grants man the ability, thanks to mind's capacity for symbolic abstraction and its importance in the acquisition of knowledge, to exploit nature's latent wealth and symbolically represent that wealth in money, but these are long-term consequences which follow from man's emergence in evolution as the first species on earth to acquire reflective thought. I have, by the way, written a 73 page review of Berry's fairly recent (2006) book "Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire," which is interesting because, aside from my own work, Berry's study has explored more thoroughly the implications of Feuerbach's ideas for Wagner's "Ring" than other studies known to me. Anyone possessing and/or familiar with Berry's study can instantly compare our two perspectives by reading over my 8 page lecture (delivered to the Wagner Society of Washington, DC, on 4/27/00) entitled "The 'Ring' as a Whole," which is now posted in this discussion forum.

JD P. 49: JD repeats the following traditional trope about Loge: "The cold fire of calculating reason represented by Loge ... ."

PH: I forget who first thought this one up (perhaps JB Shaw?), but I've attempted to demonstrate in my own "Ring" interpretation that Loge can best be understood as man's (i.e. Wotan's, Wotan representing Feuerbach's association of collective, historical man, with godhead) gift for self-deceit as found in religious belief and art. I show how Loge is actually the model or archetype for the artist-hero Siegfried in numerous respects. Yes, Loge is a teller of unwanted truths, but he is also the provider of antidotes to these truths in self-deceit: his primary function in the "Ring" is to inspire, aid and abet Wotan's dependence on self-deceit to make his life meaningful in an indifferent cosmos.

JD P. 52: Is this an editor's mistake?: "Wotan's descent from the society of the gods into the bowels of the earth in Nibelheim in "Das Rheingold" is nearly the exact opposite of Siegfried's journey up the Rhine in "Goetterdaemmerung," from the fairy-tale romance on Bruennhilde's rock to the hall of the gods' enemies, the Gibichungs [???]."

PH: The Gibichungs are the gods' enemies? Hagen, as Alberich's son dedicated like him to the gods' desctruction, certainly is, but neither Gunther nor Gutrune would see themselves that way, and much less would the Gibichungs as a whole, who have shrines dedicated to the Valhallan gods where sacrifices are made to them.