BADIOU LESSON ON WAGNER #4
I now turn to the longest of Badiou's chapters, where he reopens the case of Wagner to restore what he describes as the cache Wagner lost to the Nietzsche-inspired critics of the 20th century.
Badiou P. 74-75: Badiou launches his chapter with the assertion that the function of art, according to Wagner, was to create a new mythology, and the problem Badiou addresses is that Wagner's critics have accused him of attempting to create a reactionary mythology, nation-based, which looked backward instead of forward.
PH: Of course, Nietzsche accused Wagner of having betrayed his Feuerbachian effort in the "Ring" in favor of a sentimental return to religion's dead formulas (spiced up with sex and violence) in "Parsifal." Nietzsche got it entirely wrong about "Parsifal," which in fact is Wagner's critique of his whole prior religio-artistic agenda, as I will show in the "Parsifal" chapter I intend to include in my prospective paper-back worthy hard-copy version of "The Wound That Will Never Heal." One can find a sample of what I expect to include in this chapter in my essay on Feuerbach's influence on Wagner's libretto for "Parsifal" which can be found both on John Weinstock's website devoted to Wagner's "Ring," and at http://www.wagnersocietyflorida.org. The Boston Wagner Society has been gradually adding bits and pieces of my essay to their website.
As Badiou puts it: "Wagner's overblown sensuality and the whole network of artistic techniques he invented would be deployed to foster in the audience a hypnotic state that would make it possible to subject them to mythological configurations aimed at transcending the divide between the old gods and the new Christian God. This new mythology would thus be a paganism of the death of the gods ... and/or a sublated Christianity." Badiou adds: "This is the question about the real meaning of "Parsifal," which is still being debated today because, quite frankly, it is not all that clear. Lesson 5 will be devoted entirely to this issue."
PH: As readers of my essays will know, I interpret all of Wagner's canonical romantic operas and music-dramas from "Dutchman" up through "Mastersingers" as his quest to negotiate the death of religious faith by creating a secular substitute in an art which affirms man's transcendent value, an effort which ultimately goes down to defeat in the tragic ends of the artist-heroes Siegfried and Tristan, and interpret "Parsifal" as Wagner's attempt to re-evaluate all values by proposing a life in which man would forswear his historical quest to affirm his transcendent value in religion, ethics, and art, and affirm instead his true nature, his limits and mortality, by restoring offended Mother Nature to her rights. In my interpretation Parsifal offers to redeem all former redeemers who sought salvation from the physical world, by renouncing the very concept of redemption itself. Thus Kundry, the reincarnation of all prior muses of unconscious religious and artistic inspiration, is absolved of her sin in death, and Parsifal renounces the unconscious artistic inspiration his muse Kundry had granted him in all their former lives.
Badiou P. 78-79: Badiou seems to be saying that in order to compensate for the comparative formlessness of endless melody, which gives the audience the impression of experience as we live it in continuous time, Wagner had to artificially reimpose form through the musical motifs which allow the dramatic narrative to control the music.
Badiou goes on to suggest that this constraint upon the music created by the motifs destroys the sense of time through superimposed signs.
PH: This sounds a bit like a critique of Wagner's notion of the "Wonder," that his musical motifs, associated as most of them are with numerous moments in the drama, contract the flow of time, music's wave, into a single point of space-time, so to speak, in which time stops. Wagner did indeed say that through the musical motifs he could solve the problem of unity of time and space in drama, making all space, and all time, here and now, because the sounding motif calls to mind, if only subliminally, all those moments in the drama with which it has been associated. There are in fact moments in the musical discourse in which an array of musical motifs sound which can bring to mind, in a sense, the entirety of the drama, in a flash of intuition. I was glad to see Mark Berry reference this fascinating concept in his fairly recent book "Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire." But this is one of Wagner's virtues, not a vice. It is extraordinary the degree to which much alleged Wagner criticism makes vices out of what are actually his virtues. The problem, in most instances, is that prospective critics haven't really jumped into the Wagnerian pool with both feet: they keep on trying to jump in while holding on for security to items of received wisdom which actually stump the quest for understanding.
Badiou P. 79-80: Badiou adds that Wagner's "... notorious Longueurs, the fact that he always seems to go on for too long ... " prove his "... inability to create a new experience of time."
PH: Even if one were to admit there are a few instances in which Wagner went on too long (one which comes to mind is Sachs's debate with Beckmesser over the procedure for Sachs's marking song, but only by a minute or two, in my view), this scarcely provides grounds for a critique, since in my view this charge can be made with respect to only a few moments in Wagner's music-dramas, and is not characteristic of them as a whole. At any rate, throughout great performances of these works I am generally on the edge of my seat with excitement, even during many of those supposed longueurs, and the more I get to know these artworks, the more this is the case. King Marke's monologue of complaint to Tristan in Act II is often held up as a classic example of tedium, but in fact, performed properly, it is gripping throughout (as is the entirety of Wotan's confession in V.2.2.). For proof of this, watch Rene Pape's performance of this 8-10 minute monologue in the otherwise somewhat laughable performance from the MET (with Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen) on a Deutsche Grammophon dvd: It is the musico-dramatic highlight of the entire production: Pape literally stole the show!
Badiou's critique culminates in the extraordinary remark: "... cut a Wagner opera in half and it will still seem just as long."
PH: I can only say in response, I haven't the remotest idea what he is talking about. Most of the admirers of Wagner's art I've met who make such statements and such complaints tend only to enjoy the bleeding chunks of favorite orchestral excerpts, and rarely have much appreciation for the "drama" in music-drama. If one truly loses oneself in these works as music-drama, i.e., if one feels sympathy for these works as drama, as the narrative of a group of characters in conflict and crisis, one rarely feels as if the works are too long, and often only if they are inadequately performed. There are quite a number of instances in which portions of Wagner's music-dramas which once seemed long-winded to me were entirely redeemed by superbly intense performances on the part of the conductor and actor-singers. There are only a few moments, here and there, which for me resist all efforts to avoid thinking that this is "too long," or in which I become too self-conscious because of the brief slacking in dramatic pressure. Another obvious example is Bruennhilde's short-breathed efforts to fill her Valkyrie-sisters in on the Waelsungs' recent history when she meets with them, carrying Sieglinde along with her, in V.3.1. This is inevitably awkward and briefly stops the musico-dramatic development.
Badiou: Badiou offers a benign interpretation of what he calls this "phenomenon," that "... it is precisely because there is such a remarkable temporal creation in Wagner's music that it is extraordinarily resistant to being cut ... ."
PH: Wagner was enraged at producers' tendency to cut his works precisely because he felt his endless melody of transition captured the natural transition from one state of mind to another, and that cuts demolished what for Wagner was music's substitute for causal logic, the "necessity" in the melodic motion which corresponded with psychological motivation. On more than one occasion I have attempted to play segments of from 8-12 minutes from Wagner's greatest works for audiences for my talks, to illustrate his art of transition, and, without exception, a certain proportion of the audience goes all fidgety after 5 minutes or so. Well, in Wagner one needs to see the big picture, to take the long view. I recall an essay on the astonishing ability of the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico to run huge distances without tiring. Somebody in the sports world tried to conscript several of these long-distance runners to run in, I think, a 24 mile marathon, and they lost. When asked why they lost, the Tarahumara said something like: We don't really get our second wind until the 40th mile. In any case, many of Wagner's greatest musico-dramatic effects (and I mean effects in the positive sense here, not as something cheap) can only be experienced by considering very long segments of his music-dramas, and some of the greatest effects (in this sense) in the "Ring" require experience of the entirety of the work to play themselves out.
Badiou P. 82-83: Badiou, comparing Wagner with Hegel, states - according to the history of Wagner critique which he has outlined - "... that what was ... argued in regard to Wagner amounted to the equivalent of the critique of metaphysics in its expressly artistic guise. These arguments can be boiled down to two main theses. High art is impossible and should be subjected to critique or deconstructed because: first, it is the aestheticization of totality ... ; and second, in order to achieve the latter, it is forced to adapt to its aim dialectical techniques ... that are at the same time artificial constraints." Badiou's summation of this critique is: "Wagner stands as the big mausoleum in the graveyard of impossible grandeur." It is the case for this, made by Nietzsche, Adorno, etc., that Badiou resists in his following pages. He states his position thus: "... we are on the cusp of a revival of high art, and it is here that Wagner should be invoked."
Badiou P. 83: But Badiou insists that in order to revive the notion of high art, and therefore Wagner, for the future, high art must be "uncoupled from totality." Badiou seeks to constitute a second Wagner divorced from the first who, according to Wagner's critics, is dead and buried, that is, the older Wagner who has been associated with totalitarianism. He adds: "We need to regard Wagner as someone who said something about high art that can be understood in a different way today from how he himself understood it
PH: this sounds to me a bit like some of Marc Weiner's arguments: Weiner holds that he need not personally impute to Wagner's artworks the anti-Semitism which he believes Wagner himself imputed to them. I hope I'm not misrepresenting Marc here, but this I feel corresponds with a main current of his argument. I do not, however, believe Wagner inscribed anti-Semitism in his operas, at least not in the sense which currently holds sway.
Badiou P. 83-84: Badiou feels he can defend Wagner against the six charges made against him by Nietzsche, Adorno, etc., if he relinquishes the notion of seeing Wagner's aesthetic as one of totality, and instead appreciates Wagner at the level of fragmentation.
PH: But I don't accept the original critique's validity, and therefore I don't feel that Wagner needs to be defended and reassessed through an appreciation of his contribution to an aesthetic of fragmentation, though there would be value for its own sake in assessing Wagner's legacy from that point of view.
Badiou P. 88-89: Badiou provides, as an example of his new approach to Wagner critique, a testimonial to the manner in which Sachs undergoes both a psychological and musical transformation of great plasticity during his Wahn monologue in the early moments of "Mastersingers" Act 3, and that the music produces this fluidity, "... rather than imposing any identity whatsoever."
Badiou elaborates: "Themes [i.e. motifs] ... actually serve as a vehicle for subjective development. What will enable a subject to be different by the end of a monologue like this ... is structured much more crucially by the transformative role played by the themes than by their mere indicative role. Boulez ... always strongly emphasized this point: the essence of the Wagnerian theme lies in its potential to be transformed. It is this transformation that really conveys the subjective metamorphosis, thereby making the decision [PH: Sachs's decision re how to employ Wahn to make things turn out right for Walther, Eva, Sachs himself, Beckmesser, and the Nurembergers] appear immanently, not in terms of 'I was such and such a way before, but now I am different' but rather in terms of a change from one state to the other in the discourse itself."
PH: Yes, this is an authentic appreciation of Wagner's art of musico-psychological transition or transformation, except that it is not a new departure, but part of the received wisdom of Wagner scholarship at its best. I'm reminded of Feuerbach's remark that the majority of people, particularly those under the spell of religious faith, could not grasp the concept of transformation or evolution. Everything for them had to be discrete, all or nothing, no greys, but black and white. Feuerbach felt that to grasp nature we must grasp it as becoming. This applies to human nature too. This applies to the difficulty many people have grasping the essence of the evolution of species, or nature in the long-term.
Badiou: Badiou sums this up nicely: "... if you want to know what the deep connection between music and drama in Wagner ultimately is - ... the most important thing to remember is the fact that, in Wagner, dramatic possibilities are created through the music. The music does not simply reinforce or support a pre-established dramatic situation ... ; it creates dramatic possibility as such. (...) But the way he [Sachs] has changed, this new dramatic possibility that will influence the course of the action thereafter, is actually something created by the music, not by the text or the drama, really, since the text does not have a lot to say about this metamorphosis ... ."
PH: I recall here Cooke's demonstration of the astonishing change Wotan undergoes during his explosion of despair just prior to making confession of his "Goetternoth" to Bruennhilde in V.2.2, and how this alteration is captured primarily by the music (in this case a recitation of the 5 primary motifs in play during it) rather than the words. The main problem with both examples is that in both instances the motival material employed during these psychological transformations has been previously associated with a plethora of dramatic/conceptual situations which lend their weight to the purely musical power of transformation of themes at work during these scenes. The point is that Wagner can always call upon dramatic means, musical means, and musico-dramatic means to convey psychological states and their transformations. However, when has this not been self-evident!
I recall thinking when I first heard the Furtwaengler mono recording of "Tristan" Act I, with Kirsten Flagstad and Ludwig Suthaus in the title roles, which I regard as at once a high point of Western drama, and a high point of Western music, how astonishingly powerful a feeling of Fate and inevitability and necessity was lent to the drama by the sweep and momentum and clashing of thematic material in the orchestra, until one experiences both drama and music as one and inseparable. It is almost as if the music plays a role similar to the organic and electrical, though non-conscious, activities in the brain and body which lie behind conscious action and conscious motivation in these characters (or the inner spirit, if you'd prefer, that which is normally hidden and silent).
Badiou: Badiou introduces a notion which I think is worth quoting, the notion that the potentiality of Wagner's music to move in a variety of different directions at any given moment, corresponds to the dramatic potentiality and unpredictability re the future actions and words of the characters in the drama: "It is not the creation of a necessity which is what is involved; it is really the creation of a possibility. It is first and foremost the unpredictable creation of a dramatic possibility that, in terms of the music, could easily go in a completely different direction."
PH: I differ with Badiou in one respect: Wagner is able to accomplish both ends at once, namely, to grant his entire music-drama an overall feeling of necessity and inevitability, taken as a whole, while at the same time, taken moment by moment, granting his music-drama the feeling of spontaneity. This seems to me not inconsistent: if I understand a key feature of modern physics correctly (and of course I may not), a huge array of micro-events which taken one by one are random and chance, when taken in sum can create definitive forms. Certainly the theory of evolution of species (as I understand it) corresponds with this notion. The notion that it is all chance or based solely on random mutation is nonsense: yes, any single situation with a potentiality to introduce change or difference, a departure from exact replication, taken by itself, may depend on a random mutation, but taken in sum over the entire history of any given lineage, the mere fact of replication and survival with variation demonstrates that there is a unifying continuity in the lineage. Lawfulness of some kind seems to enter when one sums all possibilities.
PH: An aside: Furthermore, there seems to be what I would describe as a principle of incorporation in evolution, which corresponds with Feuerbach's notion of the accumulation by the collectivity of men of knowledge over historical time, in which knowledge builds upon itself and accumulates. Similarly, there is a sort of genetic memory in speciation which under certain privileged conditions can accumulate knowledge of an environment or variety of environments genetically which, at some mysterious point, may grant that lineage's most recent manifestation consciousness: i.e., the very process of evolution becomes conscious of itself, because it has reached some kind of critical mass in genetic knowledge which rises to consciousness, granting that species (I speak of course specifically of humans, the only reflectively conscious species we know of, currently) the cognitive gift of generalization and symbolization, the capacity for gaining knowledge not directly related to satisfaction of immediate physical need. Somehow, this capacity for generalization and symbolization, the ability to imagine things not present and to manipulate these things imaginatively, conferred an advantage to humans that eventually made them infinitely more adaptable (symbolically, of course, not genetically) than any other species.
Badiou P. 90-91: Badiou discusses a critique of Wagner which involves the accusation, the theory, "... that Wagner instrumentalized suffering through a rhetoric of compassion and never restored it as an experience in the present."
PH: I presume Badiou is referencing his prior discussion that Wagner seems to eliminate the value of difference in favor of the coercive force of a tendency toward unity and resolution and redemption.
Badiou: Badiou retorts: "I maintain exactly the opposite. Suffering does indeed exist in the present in Wagner's work ... ." To explain his viewpoint, Badiou introduces the following interesting observations which correspond somewhat with my notion that the "wound that will never heal" underlies all of Wagner's canonical dramas:
"Subjective identity functions differently in Wagner because, rather than taking on his identity from any ... combination of character types, or even really
from the plot, the subject essentially takes on his identity from his own split, from his own inner division. (...) I would say that the suffering subject, for Wagner, is nothing other than a split that cannot be made dialectical [PH: i.e., lending itself to resolution or synthesis], that cannot be healed. It is a split in the subject that really establishes an inner heterogeneity without any hope of genuine resolution.
Just because there are episodes of reconciliation in Wagner's operas does not mean that this split is not expressed as such in the present."
Badiou says this split characteristic of many of Wagner's most interesting characters is conveyed by "... a music of heartbreak."
PH: In my interpretation of the "Ring" and Wagner's other canonical operas and music-dramas, I locate the source of this irrevocable and irredeemable split, this unhealing wound, in the contradiction underlying human nature, that man's mind grants him seemingly godlike transcendence, yet his brain which which makes that mind possible, his body, is mortal and subject, presumably, in all its parts and properties and potentials, to natural laws. Man, in other words, in his state of most heightened consciousness, can't tolerate his own true identity, can't bear self-knowledge. Siegfried on this view is heroic and capable of fearless action solely because, unlike Wotan, Siegfried does not know who he is, because he is protected from this self-knowledge (which paralyzed Wotan into impotence and inaction) by Bruennhilde, his unconscious mind and muse of inspiration, who holds this dangerous self-knowledge for him. Bruennhilde holds this knowledge for him because Wotan repressed his unbearable self-knowledge into Bruennhilde while confessing it to her, and thereby gave birth, figuratively, to Siegfried, who does not know who he is.
Badiou: Badiou goes on to describe how Wagner's music both constitutes his characters and deconstructs them, so to speak, a discussion too complex to paraphrase here but well worth reading.
PH: While reading Badiou's description of how the music of Tannhaeuser's "Rome Narration" accomplishes this, and presents an irredeemable suffering [Badiou: "As regards the treatment of the text itself, the story always comes undone little by little: even though it may be completely narrative at the beginning, it gradually comes undone, as if it were being incrementally subjectivized under the pressure of the music."], I was reminded of Elliott Zuckerman's fascinating reading of Tristan's self-psychoanalysis under the pressure of the constantly reiterated yet evolving "alte Weise" in Act III, during which Tristan becomes too, too conscious of who he is, like Wotan, and takes responsibility for what seemed like a chance act of fate, the potion he drank.
Badiou P. 98: Badiou sums up this portion of his argument with the following impressive retort to the Wagner critics he's been rebutting: "It is completely erroneous to say that we are dealing with no more than a crafty instrument for reconciliation; I really do not believe that that is the impression produced at all. On the contrary, the impression of monumentality is undeniable, and I think it constitutes one of the rare examples in which the affect of suffering is presented in a monumental guise. In fact, I think it is precisely on account of this monumentality that the idea was put forward that it was not suffering that was involved but annihilation or redemption instead. What is really involved, however, is a monument to suffering per se."
Badiou P. 99: Noting an eschatological tendency in post-Hegelian figures like Marx and Darwin, Badiou interestingly remarks that: "Wagner was the contemporary of all this, and to my mind opera was for him a compendium for exploring widely divergent possibilities of an ending. In Wagner there is no single, unifying pole towards which the music is somehow oriented as such, but rather an exploration of diverse possibilities."
PH: I would tend to concur except that in my interpretation the overall trend is from unconsciousness to consciousness, including the futile efforts of various characters to retreat from this trajectory. I concur with Badiou that Wagner's overall dramatic argument in, say, "Mastersingers," was radically different from that of "Twilight of the Gods" and "Tristan," whose dramatic trajectories are almost identical, as Wagner himself stated.
Badiou: Badiou notes that the distinctive color of each Wagner opera and music-drama is a product of the different hypothesis being treated in each: "The fact of the matter is that the hypotheses treated differ from one opera to the next, and the colour scheme, the thematic structure, the overall rhythm, and so forth, in each opera are all in the service of that opera's own particular hypothesis."
PH: I believe that Badiou's observations here are astute. But one must ascertain what if any "hypothesis" each opera and music-drama presents to have any hope of grasping what gives each its different texture and color and tone. I have attempted to achieve this in my study of the "Ring," though my personal deficiencies will have to be compensated by the contributions of others. There is a vast amount of work still left undone re Wagner's various uses of his various musical motifs, his use of keys, etc. Wagner's motifs, for instance, fulfill a wide variety of functions, not just one or two, and some fulfill many functions simultaneously in certain dramatic contexts.
Badiou P. 100: Badiou notes the difficulty of ascertaining that a given hypothesis lies behind any given Wagner opera or music-drama may well stem from Wagner's own ambiguity on this issue, his difficulty in finding an ending (as Kitcher and Schacht put it in their book "Finding an Ending"). I am mostly sympathetic to Badiou's take on the ending Wagner chose for the "Ring": "... I'm inclined to say that this ending consists in the fate of the world being handed over to generic humanity, since no specific nation is mentioned. Neither Germany nor anything else of the sort is involved. Instead, it is really humanity, stripped of all transcendence and left to its own devices (as Wotan said of Siegfried while informing Alberich that Wotan was disavowing any further direct involvement in the world), that will have to take responsibility for its own fate."
Badiou P. 102: I am glad to find Badiou saying the following about the message of the finale of "Mastersingers": "... the essence of Germany is German art; it is not an aestheticization of politics." And I find much merit in the following: "We could say that in "Goetterdaemmerung" the hypothesis about art's role is that art serves to bring about generic humanity, humanity seized by its own fate, while in "Die Meistersinger" the hypothesis is that art can be a specific essence. This is the case with Germany, whose universality ... has no hope of being realized either politically or imperially; it resides and subsists in German art. This is an entirely different hypothesis, and it is put forward in the music ... that is completely different from that of "Goetterdaemmerung."
Badiou P. 103: For Badiou, "Twilight of the Gods" poses the question, what happens after the gods are dead? The answer is secular humanity. The answer to the question, what is Germany's essence?, is high art. "And the third question, in 'Parsifal,' is: Is there something beyond Christianity?"
PH: As Derrick Everett might put it (forgive me, Derrick, for putting words in your mouth), this question would have to involve Buddhism since, according to his research, Buddhism is at least as important as Christianity in considering the meaning of "Parsifal." I recall Wagner's thesis that Buddhist missionaries may have influenced early Christianity. There is a historical record, I believe, that one of India's Buddhist emperors sent a delegation of Buddhist monks to the eastern portion of the Roman Empire, a sort of answer to Alexander's eastward expansion of Greco-Roman culture, as it were.
PH: In my interpretation of "Parsifal," Wagner is already beyond religion per se, and employs both Buddhist and Christian (and even, distantly, Moslem and Jewish) imagery and tradition to offer us a very complex critique of religion's tendency to deny the world. In my interpretation of Wagner's music-dramas, Siegfried, Tristan, and Parsifal are each, in their different ways, responsible as artist-heroes for perpetuating religion's sin against Mother Nature (the sin of world-denial, or pessimism, as Nietzsche put it) in their art which strives for transcendence, and in varying ways become conscious of their sin. Siegfried's and Tristan's mothers (taken symbolically as figures for Mother Nature) die giving them birth, and Parsifal's neglect of his mother leads her to die of a broken heart. While Siegfried and Tristan can't survive the implications of becoming too conscious of this sin, Parsifal similarly becomes conscious of it but breaks the spell of religious nihilism and pessimism by renouncing the muse of religio-artistic inspiration (Kundry, in whom all of Wagner's prior heroine-muses are reincarnated) and restoring the abused Mother Nature to her rights. Thus the artificial flowers (art) die but Mother Nature as becoming and perishing (the fresh spring flowers watered by the tears of former sinners now absolved of their former religious crime of world-renunciation) is restored. Parsifal heals the wound that formerly would never heal, the wound caused by religious man's futile quest to transcend the real world (matricide), from which Amfortas suffers, by renouncing the muse. For this reason Kundry, in whom Bruennhilde's laugh lived on, dies, absolved, while Parsifal lives.
Badiou P. 104: I have long propounded something akin to Badiou's following thesis (you will find this in my online essay "Ludwig Feuerbach's Influence on the Libretto for Wagner's 'Parsifal'," which can be found at http://www.wagnersocietyflorida.org, as well as on John Weinstock's website devoted to Wagner's "Ring"): " 'Redemption to the Redeemer' means: Christianity has ceased being a doctrine of salvation, and it only through the figural or aesthetic reaffirmation of the Christian totality, which in a certain way de-Christianizes and de-idealizes it, that something beyond Christianity can be found. In other words, this is a very strange - Nietzschean, all in all - treatment of Christianity. (...) 'Parsifal' is the eternal return applied to Christianity."
PH: Members of the Boston Wagner Society who attended my lecture some few years ago at the Wellesley Public Library will recall my thesis: I possess several copies of a dvd a local tv station made of my lecture, which I intend to post on http://www.wagnerheim.com at some point.
Badiou P. 105: Badiou's following summation of the finale of the "Ring," in which he debunks the notion that it concludes with a redemption, also corresponds with what I've been arguing for many years in various lectures and papers: "In no way does this finale recount the creation of a new mythology; on the contrary, it relates the destruction of all mythologies since even Wotan's attempts to create a free hero who would rescue mythology are a total failure ... ."
PH: I've long argued that Siegfried is Wagner's self-portrait (as is Wotan; similarly, as is well known, Wagner portrayed himself in both Walther and Sachs), and that in Siegfried's failure Wagner illustrated what he regarded as his own, and ART'S, failure to redeem us from the horrors of the real world.
Badiou P. 109-111: PH: I do not concur with Badiou's position that "Parsifal," as a critique of Christianity, bases that critique on the notion that Christianity is moribund because it has become too concerned with its own survival, and that that leaves it vulnerable to the insistence of the sexual drive.
PH: I read "Parsifal" entirely differently. In my interpretation, Titurel lives on in the grave, constantly restored by the Grail, because Christians, who hold the promise of eternal life dear, can't let go of mortal life even though they ostensibly renounce the life of the flesh for an eternal life of the spirit. Feuerbach devoted a large portion of his critique of Christianity in particular, and religion in general, to this contradiction, that religious man actually renounces the real world solely in order to enjoy the benefit of life he once enjoyed within the real world, minus the negative conditions which are the actual context within which alone the enjoyment of life is possible. The religious imagination strives, in other words, to "smuggle" what is positive in life into the imaginary realm of heaven, minus the context within which alone enjoyment of life is experienced, a context which perforce involves pain and and death. In other words, they can't die, i.e., accept the fact of death. They posit a spiritual existence which is eternal, but the promise of a transcendent realm, being merely a product of the imagination, wounds man with an unbearable guilt that he can never truly transcend his physical self to be worthy of the spiritual life. This is the cause of Amfortas's unbearable and unhealing wound, of Tristan's unhealing wound, of Wotan's "Goetternoth" (god's unbearable stress), of Lohengrin's insistence on keeping the secret of his true identity, etc.
PH: I don't think the sexual drive as such is at stake here, but rather, the sexual union of hero and heroine-muse which in Wagner's prior music-dramas perpetuated the original religious sin of pessimism, or world-denial. This special sexual union is Wagner's metaphor for the relationship of the religio-artist-hero with his own unconscious mind, the source of his artistic inspiration, embodied in the narratives by a heroine-muse who inspires the hero through a figurative act of sexual love. In renouncing Kundry's offer of a special kind of redemption through love, Parsifal is actually renouncing the unconscious artistic inspiration whose true source in the sin of religious world-denial had become so self-conscious in Siegfried and Tristan that they had to die. It is only by virtue of renouncing religion's last refuge, inspired secular art (the Wagnerian music-drama) that Parsifal absolves himself, the former Redeemer in all his religious and artistic incarnations, from this sin, and is able to heal his audience's (mankind's, i.e., Amfortas's) wound. i.e., mankind no longer posits transcendence.
Badiou P. 113: I reproduce at a little length Badiou's reading of Parsifal's confrontation with the seductress Kundry, who recalls to Parsifal's mind his mother: "There is a wonderful scene in Act II in which Parsifal has to put his capacity for self-denial to the test by resisting temptation. (...) Temptation here takes the form of the seductress Kundry, who has already seduced Amfortas, along with everybody else, long ago, and will manipulate Parsifal at the most visceral level by making his mother appear to him in an almost incestuous way. She will tell him his mother is dead and turn in part into the lascivious ghost of the mother. So we get an Oedipal scene. (...) Parsifal will go pretty far, yielding as he does to Kundry's kiss. But then, right in the middle of the kiss, he starts to feel Amfortas's wound. So he pulls away, then he flees and wanders around endlessly again, like all Wagner's heroes, until at last he happens upon the forgotten road leading to the Christian fortress where Amfortas lies dying."
PH: These are in essence the same elements that are brought together in Siegfried and Tristan, and even Walther, properly understood. In my interpretation of Wagner's later operas and his mature music-dramas, the artist-hero's unwitting (note that Siegfried and Parsifal are pure fools, and Tristan is unlike Siegfried no longer a pure fool only because "Tristan and Isolde" depicts the last days of Siegfried, so to speak, when he has become too conscious of who he is to be able to draw unconscious inspiration from his heroine-lover-muse Isolde any longer) perpetuation of the religious sin of world-denial, inherited by secular artists from dying religious faith (the gods), ultimately becomes too conscious to be sustained. The hero then acknowledges his own formerly unwitting but now conscious guilt in having sustained the illusion which has kept opening man's (Amfortas's) unhealing wound. The only way to close that wound is to renounce the very longing for transcendence itself in religion, ethics, and art. Bruennhilde, Isolde, and Kundry, the heroes' muses, all recall the mother who either died giving them birth, or, in Parsifal's case, died through neglect, because secular art is modern man's substitute for religious faith, which originally was man's artificial substitute for Mother Nature. Thus Alberich is correct when he accuses Wotan of the sin of pessimism, figuratively the sin of killing Mother Nature (think here of Orestes's matricide), when he tells Wotan in R.4 that if Wotan takes the Ring (of consciousness) from Alberich (who affirms mother nature's objective but tragic truth), Wotan will be sinning against all that was, is, and will be, i.e., the real world of time and space, the world embodied by Erda, who knows all that was, is, and will be. The artist's muse is his substitute for the mother whom he had to deny in order to posit transcendence in art, the heir to dying religious faith. I believe that in this instance Badiou's analysis of "Parsifal" could benefit greatly from my work on this most difficult of Wagner's artworks.
Badiou P. 115-117: Badiou introduces the old question re whether Wagner "... privileges the narrative and subordinates the musical aims to it.
PH: On this question I scarcely think it matters whether Wagner's music gave birth to the words, or the words gave birth to the music. What matters is that in the final product the two kinds of expression work as one organically to a degree that I believe is unique in musical theater. Badiou says, rightly, that Wagner's music-dramas successfully rival Greek tragedy. Here Badiou construes Wagner's music and the expressive techniques he employed as forms of speech. I appreciate Badiou's point that Wagner's music works best in tandem with the drama in monologue and conversation rather than action: Wagner is more inward and intimate than most critics are ready to concede.
Badiou: Badiou is also right to appreciate, as he does, the unique power and dramatic significance of Wagner's characters' tendency to retell what we already know. This is generally held against Wagner but, as has been pointed out previously by other Wagner scholars of note, these retellings always provide Wagner with a chance to tell us something new, sometimes only through musical subtleties. Siegfried's retelling the story of his life for Hagen, Gunther, and the Gibichungs in T.3.2 is a masterful instance: here the retelling itself (penetrated by music which, though we've heard it before, sounds quite fresh and different when summarized and edit in this unique way, not to mention the fact that Wagner introduces entirely new musical nuances) brings about Siegfried's death, and not only in the sense that Hagen's antidote to the love-and-forgetfulness potion which Gutrune originally gave Siegfried compels Siegfried to seem to perjure himself, granting Hagen the pretext to kill him in revenge. Because it is in this very retelling that Siegfried actually wakes himself (Hagen's potion is merely a symbol for the inevitable progress within Siegfried from unconsciousness to consciousness), and becomes conscious of who he is, just as Tristan took responsibility for brewing the potion which Brangaene gave him and Isolde. In my interpretation Siegfried's narrative recounting the crucial events of his life is Wagner's metaphor for his creation and performance of his own "Ring."
Badiou: Badiou offers a wonderfully expressed statement of his thesis: "This reiteration of the story within the story constitutes the subject's declaratory essence, because the subject is not speaking about himself or his own personal faculties but about the story itself and the part he thinks he is playing in it. He therefore tells it again from that point of view, and in my opinion these are powerful, not weak, passages, which must be understood musically and dramatically as such."
PH: Speaking for myself, I can't experience the Norns' recitation of past events, or Waltraute's recitation of many of those same past events, often enough: I get the shakes listening to these passages every time. I'm deeply, deeply moved by my experience of the original events, and even more moved by the retelling of these events. And in "Parsifal" Gurnemanz's recounting the epic history of the Grail Realm in Act One is overwhelming and compelling for me. Of course there is a ritualistic aspect to these retellings of events that, as Badiou notes, the auditors on the stage often already are familiar with themselves. This corresponds with Roger Scruton's observations about the importance of ritual and sacrifice in Wagner's artworks.
Badiou P. 120-121: Badiou returns to the comparison of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" and Tristan's seemingly interminable wait for Isolde in Act III, and the critique that Tristan's waiting is in some sense existentially inauthentic because it does after all culminate in a resolution, a sort of reunion with Isolde. But, as Badiou points out, she came to heal him (again) but is unable to because Tristan has died. Badiou asserts that Tristan's waiting is waiting experienced as such, for its own sake, and that it does not really end in resolution. "The futility of the waiting is demonstrated by the fact that the exaltation bringing Tristan back to life is each time presented as being utterly in vain.
I recommend Elliott Zuckerman's book on this subject, "The First Hundred Years of Wagner's 'Tristan'."
I recall that Michael Tanner wrote that "Tristan" fails to transcend, though in this futility reaches philosophic and musical heights which are unprecedented (if I may so express what I take to be the essence of his point of view).
Badiou: So I think Badiou gets it right when he says: "I don't think it can be said that any of this business was shaped from within by an underlying redemption; on the contrary, it is the dereliction of the waiting, and the heightened absence, that is presented ... . No other finale is possible, precisely because what is developed within is simply the amplification or the augmentation of the unbearable nature of the waiting."
PH: The whole point of Tristan's insuring that Isolde can't in fact cure or heal him by offering him the inspiration of love, which brings him back to life (recall here the torments caused by the repetition of the Grail ceremony), is that he, like Wotan, is desperate to escape from the futile striving for transcendence, a conscious awareness which culminates in Parsifal's wholesale refusal to seek redemption through the muse Kundry's love. As Wagner himself told Cosima, Kundry is in effect Isolde [and therefore Bruennhilde] reborn, for Wagner said that Kundry has experienced Isolde's transfiguration (as at the end of "Tristan and Isolde") many times, and presumably can only be redeemed from this eternal return or rebirth if the artist-hero finally wakes up to the true source of man's torment and repudiates her love, i.e., repudiates formerly unconscious religio-artistic inspiration. Thus Isolde complains that Tristan didn't wait for her: he didn't want to.
Badiou P. 122-123: Badiou attributes to Wagner the creation in his music of "... not just an original experience of time but three distinct types of time that were signature conceptions of his ... ." Badiou's description of these three types of time is too arcane and involved to be reproduced or paraphrased here easily: it is quite interesting and readers should consult it. I mention it only because in his view they provide support for something I myself have long felt: "I think these three kinds of time, as well as the way they are all interwoven, are exemplary creations of Wagner's that render the criticisms about the length of his work irrelevant." Badiou describes them as: 1. The time of disparate worlds; 2. The time of the period of uncertainty; and 3. The time of the tragic paradox.
PH: What fascinates me about Badiou's remarks is that one does indeed enter a new kind of time when one loses oneself in Wagner. An interesting example is the powerfully suspenseful music Wagner wrote to express Siegmund's, Sieglinde's, and Hunding's wordless interaction in V.1.2 after Hunding has threatened to fight Siegmund after offering him one night of obligatory hospitality, during which Sieglinde makes a resolution and mixes a drug into Hunding's night-drink so Siegmund can escape, and indicates to Siegmund with her eyes the hilt of the sword Nothung sticking out of the tree which is the central pillar of Hunding's hut. This takes perhaps much longer than it would in real life, but because of the high state of tension, and what is at stake, becomes a sort of timeless meditation. Another example of this kind is the suspenseful music we hear as Tristan descends from the upper deck of the ship to confront Isolde in person, in obedience to her demand. The point is that it is no longer a question of time. The kinds of examples Badiou has itemized are in all likelihood quite different, but in general I simply wished to say that time is quite malleable and relative inside a Wagner music-drama.
Badiou P. 122-127: As a classic example of the time of the transition between worlds Badiou offers the famous scene of transition from the forest to the Grail Castle in "Parsifal" Act One. An example of the second form of time, of the period of uncertainty, is the Prelude to "Tannhaeuser" Act III which conveys the time that has passed since Tannhaeuser ran off to Rome to gain absolution from the Pope, and returned to the Wartburg empty-handed. The time of the tragic paradox he describes in the following way: "The tragic is always the conflict between the appearance of things and something far more extensive, which is revealed in a gap in this appearance and which has been secretly influencing its fate for a long time. The disclosure of this vast, hidden temporality holding sway over appearance is the time of the tragic paradox. Badiou notes that Wagner expresses this musically often by a sort of upwelling of subterranean music which breaks the melodic pattern, the main discourse, on the surface. A classic instance of this, he says, is Hagen's Watch, which comes between Siegfried's and Gunther's pushing off into the Rhine in a boat to go abduct Bruennhilde, and Waltraute's desperate visit to Bruennhilde to warn her to throw the Ring back into the Rhine to save gods and world from its curse. Hagen is actually controlling Siegfried's journey.
PH: Hagen's Watch is the least popular and, ironically, the finest of all of Wagner's transitions between scenes, in my view.
Badiou P. 130: I feel Badiou's following remark is worth considering because my book, posted on this website, offers one more among the multiplicity of hypotheses re the "Ring" which I, however, in my pride and arrogance, suspect may offer something more than simply another in the huge array of hypotheses about the meaning of the "Ring." In other words, I have the gall to suggest that I may have discovered a conceptual frame of reference essential to the "Ring" which may help to disclose its allegorical logic as a whole. Whether this bold claim can be sustained will in part lay in the hands of contributors to this discussion forum. In any case, here is what Badiou says:
"... a multiplicity of hypotheses can always be tolerated in the work of art and in Wagner's conception of it (he was not after some ultimate, unifying, final hypotheses or purpose that would take in all the others) and this multiplicity of hypotheses can be tolerated to the point where one hesitates to choose among them. For art to be great, it must venture to the limits of hesitation with regard to the multiplicity of possibilities it accounts for or causes to exist."
PH: I would never claim that my interpretation exhausts the meaning of the "Ring," but I do believe I have disclosed a conceptual frame of reference which is essential not only to the "Ring," but also to Wagner's other canonical romantic operas (from "Dutchman" through "Tannhaeuser" and "Lohengrin") and music-dramas ("Tristan," "Mastersingers," and "Parsifal").
Badiou P. 132-133: Badiou closes this biggest of his chapters by asserting that Wagner was "... the founder of something new and not just someone who brought something to a close." "... what I wanted to discuss was the hypothesis that, all the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, Wagner still represents a music for the future. ... I would say that Wagner's connecting of leitmotif and totality, of leitmotif and 'endless melody' ... , is nevertheless a step in the direction of totality-free greatness. The most important thing for us is precisely that path, namely, the possibility that he was the last to aspire to greatness, to dispensing with totality in what was nevertheless his strongest suit."
Needless to say my commentary hasn't done justice to the depth or detail of Badiou's chapter: I had to remain content to discuss a few of the more interesting points which engaged my imagination.
General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung
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