REVIEW OF JOHN DEATHRIDGE'S 'WAGNER BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL'
CHAPTER FOURTEEN: MENDELSSOHN AND THE STRANGE CASE OF THE (LOST) SYMPHONY IN C
I hope you agree with me that Badiou's, Zizek's, and Deathridge's contributions to the debate about the meaning of Wagner's legacy have provided lots of food for thought, and they have certainly offered me the opportunity to compare and contrast my own thinking on this topic with their views in a way that I find stimulating. In that spirit I offer my response to JD's final four chapters (I've posted the final chapter, 17, separately, due to space limitations):
JD P. 183: JD addresses Wagner's well known equation of Jewish artists with apes who, according to Wagner, merely mime [PH: note Mime is a mime] rather than creatively interpret nature in their uninspired art: "Wagner, who equated Jews and the French with the lower primates at best, put them all into the category of musical apes. Indeed, he liked to suggest that to mistake an ape for a human was akin to mistaking a Jew for a German. A Jewish artist, to paraphrase Wagner's ghastly punning metaphor, who can only 'ape' nature - that is, imitate or mimic it realistically - is the antithesis of the German artist, who can discern the ideal meaning behind natural phenomena and imbue it with profound feeling.
But was Wagner afraid, or did he simply know that he belonged to the zoo himself?"
PH: In several essays Wagner likened Jewish artists (he was referencing Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, etc.), as a class, to mimes who could only copy from life rather than creatively interpret life to create the ideal. Wagner's employment of the name "Mime" for Siegfried's foster-father, the Nibelung dwarf, brother to Alberich, is self-evidently linked in some way to these essays. But Wagner also said that great artists must first go through a phase in which they imitate what they love before they can blossom as original, creative artists, and Wagner applied this to himself. The implication was that Jewish artists can never rise to this second level of creative originality, never produce an inspired, ideal art. Bryan Magee devoted one of the (five?) chapters of his "Aspects of Wagner" to this subject. Yet Wagner, as pointed out by Derrick Everett, praised the Jewish opera composer Halevy as just such an ideal artist, so, as Everett said, Wagner was being hypocritical in his later writings on this subject, and it seems evident he couldn't have believed what he was saying. And of course Wagner's extravagant praise of certain aspects of Mendelssohn's genius is well known. It is also well known that Wagner was deeply upset that several of his friends told him that earlier works like "Dutchman" reminded them of Meyerbeer. Wagner wrote once that Meyerbeer (whom Wagner accused of creating effects for effects' sake, and of playing to the crowd's lowest common denominator for the sake of popularity and therefore money, an accusation made by Nietzsche against Wagner himself, but with, I feel, no credibility) represented all that Wagner abhorred, and that Wagner was ashamed of that period in his life during which he had appealed for help from Meyerbeer to establish himself in the opera world. Wagner said that in order to wean himself from his one-time dependence on Meyerbeer, and from accusations of imitating him, Wagner could only attain his own true identity if he emancipated himself, and by so doing would help other artists to do so. Well, one can't help seeing a parallel between this situation and Siegfried's relationship to Mime. Of course, by the time any element of Wagner's personal biography enters into his art it is so totally transfigured and transformed (as Wagner himself said) that it bears but little resemblance to the original source of inspiration. So I think we would be wholly incorrect to read Mime as a figure for Meyerbeer: there may be an influence here, but Mime represents so much more in the "Ring." Mime comes to represent what Wagner described elsewhere as the philistine rabble in general, a rabble found in any race, among any ethnic group, the common man whose imagination is more or less limited to the here and now, the satisfaction of basic needs.
PH: Note that Mime is unable to re-forge Siegmund's broken sword, but only Siegfried (in my interpretation an unconsciously inspired hero) can. Mime, unlike the artist-hero Siegfried, is incapable of obtaining inspiration through loving union with a muse, for Mime can only reproduce what he was taught. Even his brother Alberich denigrates Mime in this respect, telling him that though Alberich needed Mime to make the Tarnhelm (Mime being the best of smiths), it was Alberich alone who thought it up. Of course, this proves that being a Nibelung per se does not disqualify one for creative, original thought, since Alberich possesses this capacity, though Alberich is in no respect an artist, much less an original one. For in Wagner's world the authentically inspired artist must be able to die in order to be reborn, in something like the sense that Siegfried says, upon preparing to kiss his muse of inspiration Bruennhilde awake, that he must wake the woman, even if he should die doing so. Tristan undergoes this artistic death and rebirth continually, constantly confronting the forbidden knowledge of his true self held for him by his muse Isolde, which is a sort of death, and then leaving his womb of night to return to the world of day, reborn, where he would, under normal circumstances (Walther von Stolzing's circumstances), produce a work of art for his audience. It is precisely that continuing cycle of figurative death and rebirth that Tristan finally decides to escape by committing suicide before Isolde can heal him again for the Nth time. I point this out because Beckmesser, along with Mime sometimes invoked as an example of a Jewish stereotype (even though, as Borchmeyer and others have said, Beckmesser is a full member of his Nuremberg community, sharing all of its rights and a considerable degree of respect), sings a very curious thing when singing his Act II serenade to Eva. He sings, among other things, that he doesn't think of dying, but only of wooing. It is of course central to Christian theology that by consigning their souls to Christ Christians die to this world to be reborn in the spirit. This theology has entered into Wagner's conception of the authentically inspired secular artist-hero, who is not only the heir to Christ in the sense that Wagner viewed his inspired artworks as offering redemption to modern man who was losing his religious faith, but who also, because he is an inspired artist who can't help but create art, an artist who produces of necessity, is also, automatically, freed from inauthentic artists' egoistic motives in creating art, and freed also from their inability to truly create the new. So Beckmesser's inability to die in order to be reborn, i.e., inability to confront the secret of man's forbidden self-knowledge unconsciously in order to obtain the inspiration to wake from this unremembered dream to produce the waking allegorical version of that dream, a redemptive work of art, automatically disqualifies his bid to woo and win Eva, the archetypal muse for Wagnerian art. Of course, Wagner dramatized the anguish of this artistic death and rebirth both in Tristan's travails in Act III, and in Kundry's split personality.
PH: This reminds me of a very interesting parallel between Wotan and Sachs. Wotan, like Sachs, falsely informs his antagonist (Alberich; Beckmesser) that he does not intend to compete with the antagonist, that he is wholly uninvolved, so that the antagonist is free to pursue his goal without interference, but only as a ruse which aids Wotan and Sachs to insure that the artist-hero who is to be their heir will win the muse of artistic inspiration (Bruennhilde; Eva). And of course, I've pointed out on many occasions that Sachs's 2nd Act confession to Eva during his cobbling song is based on Wotan's confession to Bruennhilde.
JD P. 186: "It is certainly clear enough from Wagner's writings that one of his aims was to reduce to racial categories the idea that a work of art can metaphorically dramatize the tension between the material of representation and another realm it strives for, but is incapable of actually reaching [PH: "Tristan" is a perfect example]. The notion that in the name of transcendence a work of art can reflect on the limitations of its own materiality is bundled together with an ideological program in which the ability or inability to create 'higher' art is turned into a question of race. In Wagner's opinion, the sovereign German artist is capable of devotion to the ideal, while non-Germans, because of their innate limitations, have to make do with realism, with the material of the sign, and with merely surface meaning."
PH: In one or two of Wagner's essays he defines German as that which is done for its own sake, as in 'art for art's sake' (which Sachs invokes in "Mastersingers"), while art that is produced for ulterior motives which come from outside the realm of art-production itself are, by Wagner's definition, Jewish, even though Wagner knew perfectly well a whole array of ethnically German, French, Italian, and other composers whom he regarded as philistines, whereas he attributed true artistic genius to a Jewish composer like Halevy, and I'm sure also to Mendelssohn, in spite of his remarks to the contrary. This of course introduces ethics to art-production. The essential notion here is that the authentically inspired artist must, of necessity, from his/her inner need, create art, whereas inauthentic artists produce art for any and every reason except inner necessity. Marc Weiner has dealt with this issue in some detail.
JD P. 186-187: "Wagner had to appropriate the Mendelssohn tradition as he saw it, however, in order to present all the more powerfully the tension between music as mimesis of a material, technical world on the one hand and the idealistic ambitions of the music drama on the other. Here I merely want to make a point about the confrontation between Mime and Siegfried in the third scene of the second act of "Siegfried" that is not made in the penetrating analysis of this scene by Weiner. In my view, this scene in particular can be interpreted as a replica of the myth created by Wagner about his relationship to Mendelssohn. Mime's creative talent and miraculous technical ability (Siegfried calls him a 'Master' in the early drafts of the "Ring") is, like Mendelssohn's, supposedly vitiated by his racial origin." JD describes this scene in which Mime intends to poison Siegfried after Siegfried has killed the dragon Fafner and Mime can secure the Nibelung's Ring, but Siegfried has been informed by the Woodbird that Siegfried will be able to hear Mime's real intentions behind the facade of Mime's hypocritical pretence of friendliness toward Siegfried, through which Mime hopes to persuade Siegfried to drink refreshment (the fatal potion). "Using the musical codes of lullabies and familial love - lilting, unctuous, and sycophantic, as Wagner perceived the smooth, sophisticated, and fundamentally dishonest surface of Mendelssohn's music to be - Wagner creates music for Mime that acts as an approximation of a verbal text that is never heard. At his most insincere, Mime sings, quite literally, a Song without Words."
PH: JD's example brings up a fascinating point. Though I have claimed for my "Ring" book that it provides what I believe is the over-arching philosophic framework which in my view unifies the entire "Ring" conceptually and musically, nonetheless Wagner could access a seemingly infinite number of means of expression to bring his allegory off in detail, and I would be the last to deny that he may on occasion have been influenced by specific personal experiences in choosing specific means of expression in employing his music for dramatization and characterization. It would be impossible to trace the thousands of examples in the "Ring," and in any case Wagner himself may only occasionally have been conscious of the ultimate source of various nuances of expression in his works. JD's speculation above is certainly plausible. Nattiez has provided similar examples in his book "Wagner Androgyne," in which Wagner may during certain scenes in the "Ring" have been musically referencing specific snatches of music from various French operas, possibly even with an allegorical intent. Of course, anyone familiar with the length and breadth of the repertoire of Western classical music can hear all kinds of borrowings of specific melodies in Wagner's scores, though on the whole the obvious ones are few and far between. Of course Wagner's borrowing of some thematic material from Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony in "Parsifal" is well known. And I recall the Nibelung Forging Motif #41 may well originate in one of Schubert's quartets (whether 13 or 15 I can't remember). And of course there are a number of borrowings from Liszt, not least liszt's "Faust" motif from the first, "Faust" movement of Liszt's "Faust" symphony, which is heard while Sieglinde is having her nightmare in V.2.5.
CHAPTER FIFTEEN: UNFINISHED SYMPHONIES
JD P. 189: "Cosima Wagner once recorded the following statement by her husband: 'I shall have to write something one day about the manner in which the life of the intellect goes its own way and has nothing to do with actual experiences -- indeed, it is rather the things one does not find in life that provide the images.' Wagner was objecting to Ludwig Nohl's recent and pathbreaking biography of Beethoven, and in particular to his dovetailing of "Fidelio" ... with an episode in Beethoven's love life. By implication he was also referring disparagingly to those who saw his famous amours as the moving force behind works like 'Lohengrin' and 'Tristan and Isolde.'
The statement seems provocative, given that it was uttered by the man who inspired more literature of the life-in-the-works variety than just about any other composer."
PH: I have read some absolutely absurd books of the kind described by JD above, which tend to construe even Wagner's mature music-dramas as dramatizations of every imaginable incident from Wagner's childhood and love-life. Koehler's recent book on Wagner caused me grievous suffering in this respect, though there were also some thoughtful passages in that huge book. But Wagner's thesis that it is a lack, or "Noth," which inspires the artist to create, is accurate and is founded at least partly on Feuerbach's ruminations on this subject. Feuerbach defined religion as in a sense a work of art which, however, its audience holds to be the truth, not a fiction. But religions, as Feuerbach pointed out, offer man precisely what man doesn't find, satisfies man where life doesn't satisfy him, by imagining a world in which man's pains will be assuaged, his desires will be in some sense infinitely fulfilled (though allegedly in a spiritual rather than physical manner), his quest for knowledge will be wholly satisfied, etc. As Donington pointed out, Wagner attributed his own artistic drive to his lack of ability to find real love in this world: this is something which curiously aligns Wagner with Alberich, whose thwarted bid for love brings the entire "Ring of the Nibelung" into being.
JD P. 203-204: I am very glad that JD has somewhat set the record straight on at least one aspect of Nietzsche's critique of Wagner in the following: "Wagner's relationship with Nietzsche ... begins to appear in a different light when Cosima's diaries are closely read. In private, Wagner expressed views about himself and his life's work that would not have been out of place in Nietzsche's later polemic against him in 'The Case of Wagner' (1888). Several remarks show that Wagner was just as disconcerted by the reality of Bayreuth -- including the beer-swilling philistines haunting the restaurants during the intervals -- as Nietzsche was. Furthermore, he seems to have been prepared on occasion to jettison the ideology of the 'drama' and the idea of redemption for the sake of writing music that was going to be 'healthy,' 'cheerful,' 'simple,' and 'high-spirited.' This is precisely what Nietzsche later accused him of never wanting to do. Indeed, the impression is inescapable that Nietzsche's shrewd observations on Wagner's music are simply negative versions of Wagner's own, private thoughts." JD goes on to describe how in his last years Wagner continually fantasized about (and sometimes tried to compose bits and pieces of) symphonies or tone poems in which Wagner would express himself in a new way, leaving dramatic conflict entirely out of account. JD suggests there is evidence that Nietzsche was aware of some of Wagner's jottings of melodic fragments from these prospective tone poems.
PH: Several Wagner commentators have suggested that Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll" provides the closest parallel in Wagner's surviving completed works to what we might have expected from him had he lived on past the 1882 production of "Parsifal" (he died in February of 1883), and had been able to pursue his symphonic ambition. I recall he told Liszt that in these symphonies he would like to spin out melodic ideas until he had exhausted their possibilities, while eschewing drama. This sounds like a vague description of the Raga in Indian classical music, which, so far as I know, doesn't generally even modulate outside of its mode or key.
CHAPTER SIXTEEN: CONFIGURATIONS OF THE NEW
JD P. 211: "Wagner, whose output from the 1840's stands in the shadow of the Young Hegelians and the beginnings of aesthetic modernity, has played a role in the history of the modern and the postmodern that has still to be properly assessed. (...) I want to touch on just two aspects of it: first, his 'strong' belief in the Young Hegelian [PH: including, of course, Feuerbach's] version of the power of history, which was the driving force behind his Zurich writings and the initial conception of the "Ring"; and, second, the idea that, especially after his discovery of Schopenhauer, this belief went hand in hand with a 'weak' modification of the notion of the new as a perpetual critical overcoming of tradition, which brought him closer to the subversive strategies of post-modern thought than he is usually thought to be."
PH: Nietzsche strove mightily in his various diatribes against Wagner to paint him as the sunset of a world predicated on the illusion of transcendence, which has passed, but I have always said, and JD here says, that Wagner is radically modern in many ways which offer continual surprises. It is amazing, for instance, how many of the implications of Wagner's music-dramas, and some of his writings and recorded remarks, parallel various aspects of Nietzsche's mature thought. The missing link here is Feuerbach, to whom, it seems to me, Nietzsche owes a great deal, but of whom Nietzsche wrote shockingly little (in fact, I can only think of two passages about Feuerbach in all of Nietzsche's books and essays, both of them comparatively short and negligible). How Nietzsche could have missed Feuerbach's continuing influence on Wagner's writings and librettos, even in the years after Wagner first acknowledged his admiration of Schopenhauer (1854), is beyond me. I strongly believe human psychology is at stake here: Nietzsche seems to have been in massive denial. Why?
JD P. 212: "... nearly everyone ... agrees by now that the shift in sensibility we loosely describe as post-modern began with Nietzsche, the first philosopher seriously to question the increasingly frantic search for stable foundational thought in the late nineteenth century, and the only top-ranking figure of his day to seek escape routes from the dilemma of modernity that did not simply lead back to the process of critical overcoming."
PH: My proposition that I can show, in "The Wound That Will Never Heal," the conceptual logic underlying Wagner's "Ring" allegory, consistently throughout this work, suffers automatically from two disadvantages. One is the very natural feeling among scholars that the greater the work of art, the more complex, ramified, multi-layered, and ambiguous it becomes, and therefore great works of art by their very nature are not reducible to formulae or coherent unified interpretations which can account for all that they contain. Of course I'm not claiming that my study exhausts the meaning of the "Ring," but rather that I've discovered what I believe to be its unifying conceptual frame of reference, but even that, of course, may fall under this ban. The other disadvantage is the allergic response of post-modern culture-pontificators to any attempt either to posit a unified field theory of anything, or to create anything which isn't fragmentary and incomplete the way our world itself is imputed to be. Of course Wagner himself decried efforts to systematically account for the world or for phenomena in it, himself. In a sense, the "Ring" is an indictment of this very effort, because Alberich's "Ring" represents, among other things, the human mind's tendency to close circles at all costs. But the sad truth is that the post-modern school of art criticism is behind every effort to deny Wagner one of his greatest strengths, his extraordinary capacity to create music-dramas of astonishing conceptual and musical unity. One must always ask: what are they afraid of? In any case, it's obvious that Nietzsche got his revenge on Wagner after all: in this sense he killed his father.
JD P. 215: "It is almost as if Wagner violently rejected the 'modern' because he felt entrapped by his own role in helping to create it. Certainly the more one reads beneath the murky polemics of his late writings, not to mention the statements frequently recorded in Cosima's diaries about the symphonies he wanted to write after "Parsifal" ... , the more one senses the true scale of his intellectual tussle with his own past philosophizing. It was, after all, a much younger Wagner, enraptured in his late thirties by Young Hegelian ideas, who had been one of the most vociferous advocates of the radically new, not only in establishing the influential (but already, by the late 1870's, eccentric-looking) idea that with the Ninth Symphony Beethoven had written the 'last' symphony, but also in proclaiming very publicly that opera was dead, and with it the old world it represented."
PH: End of times, end of history, etc.! One of the primary reasons, according to his own account, that Nietzsche turned against his surrogate father Wagner, was Wagner's turn away from Feuerbach's world-affirmation and ego-affirmation toward what Nietzsche regarded as a decadent return to mystical obscurantism and sentimentality during Wagner's Schopenhauerian phase. There is truth in this: Wagner, I think, became horrified of the ultimate implications of his originally Feuerbachian world-view, even as he was writing the libretto of the "Ring" in the early 50's, and before Wagner acknowledged Schopenhauer as his new mentor. I believe that what troubled Wagner about Feuerbach's enthusiastic endorsement of a secular/scientific world-view which would openly acknowledge egoism as the ground of all human motives, was that, followed to its ultimate conclusion, there would be (contrary to Feuerbach's own perspective) no basis whatsoever for humane values or love. The ultimate implication was that the world would belong to Alberich and Hagen, a graceless world with no ideals worth fighting for, no heroism, no self-sacrificial love. The problem for Wagner was that he suspected that Feuerbach had gotten it right, even though Feuerbach never truly followed (at least not in his key books written between 1830 and 1848, which so heavily influenced Wagner) the implications of his own thinking to their logical conclusion. This is precisely the problem Wotan cannot face consciously when he tells Bruennhilde in V.2.2 of his divine "Noth" (anguish). Mother Nature (Erda) has told Wotan that Alberich's victory over the gods, i.e., objective truth's victory over the consolations of man's religious illusions, is inevitable. Wotan has become too conscious of the truth to retreat back into consoling illusions, but finds the truth so abhorrent that he can't embrace it, even for honor's sake (since, as Feuerbach said in so many words, there is something immoral in preserving morality on the basis of an illusion about human nature). This inability to move either forward or backward leads Wotan to Hamlet-like paralysis: Wotan has come to know himself and finds himself unbearably loathsome. This was Nietzsche's definition of Nihilism. Wotan's escape hatch was to let the artist-hero Siegfried fall heir to Wotan's religious legacy, minus religious belief's false claim to the power of truth (the Ring).
PH: However, Wagner in "Parsifal" finally acknowledged the inevitable and said his final word with a virtually Nietzschean affirmation of the real world, saying goodbye to transcendence, even in art, religion's (God's/Wotan's) last refuge. This will come as a shock to many. I've embarked on the second half of my life and hope before it closes to have laid before all interested parties my argument for this reading of "Parsifal."
JD P. 216: "Wagner states in his autobiography that in 1849 he was drawn to Ludwig Feuerbach, a leading Young Hegelian, mainly because he had heard him described as the sole adequate philosopher of the modern age. The most attractive aspect of Feuerbach's ideas, Wagner writes, was his 'conclusion, which had led him to abandon his original master, Hegel: namely, that the best philosophy is no philosophy at all.' This does not mean that Wagner (or Feuerbach) rejected Hegel's world-historical view of the 'modern.' "
PH: Feuerbach described his mentor Hegel's philosophy as covert religion, and Schopenhauer's ostensibly atheist, science-informed philosophy was likewise covert religion in Feuerbach's sense. Feuerbach himself, even in his ruthless affirmation of most of the logical consequences of Atheism, and his specific conclusion that world-history was irrevocably and inevitably moving further and further away from the gods (human invention) toward an objective affirmation of nature and natural law as the explanation of man and his world, nonetheless smuggled back into what should have been a bleak scientific world-view humane values like love. But Wagner saw through this. It was only Nietzsche who had the courage of his atheist convictions and openly proclaimed the death of even those humane values which had found in religious belief their foundation. But of course, who could live in Nietzsche's world? Nietzsche could not.
PH: Wagner surely discovered Feuerbach prior to 1849. The librettos of "Tannhaeuser" and "Lohengrin" are infused with Feuerbachian tropes, or at least tropes akin to those which Feuerbach had been propounding since the 1830's which may well have been going the rounds of discussions among Wagner's circles, especially in Paris.
JD P. 217: Based on his knowledge of Wagner's Zurich writings, JD speculatively puts the following words in Wagner's mouth: "... Greek antiquity represents the long-lost ideal of a close relationship between art and the state that has been rent asunder by the power interests of industry, state, and church. The deep divisions in our Alexandrine culture have made me, Wagner, aware of the need for an antidote that can restore this lost sense of unity. My new agenda is this: not one art alone, but only all the arts in a truly humanistic relation to one another, can help mankind reject history and lead it back to the heart of nature. The goal of humanity is thus that pristine, unalienated state it once knew at some distant point in its past. The future of man is therefore a return to his fundamental origin."
PH: In Wotan's (i.e., collective, historical man's - i.e., God's, according to Feuerbach) confession to Bruennhilde, he represses the loathsome knowledge of his own true, egoistic and fearful identity, and his knowledge of world-history and its corruption, into his unconscious mind, where it can be transformed and sublimated into music, so that what Wotan thought, Bruennhilde feels, and imparts to the artist-hero Siegfried during his unconscious artistic inspiration by her, his muse. Siegfried seems to be a naive human in a pristine, unalienated state, because he is in fact Wotan reincarnate, minus consciousness of who he is, minus consciousness of his true identity. Thus God the Father Wotan plants the seed which will come to birth as the saviour Siegfried, in the womb of his wishes, the chaste muse Bruennhilde, who is figuratively the surrogate mother for Sieglinde and also a surrogate for Bruennhilde's true mother Erda, i.e., Mother Nature. Note that unlike Sieglinde, Bruennhilde knows that Sieglinde is carrying Siegfried in her womb, and note also that Bruennhilde gives him his name. What Wotan thought (world-history), Bruennhilde felt (redeeming history in music, which created the timeless mythic being Siegfried), and imparted to Siegfried, as she says to Siegfried in S.3.3.
JD P. 218: "... after Wagner completed the first two acts, the composition of "Siegfried" ground to a halt for twelve years, during which time "Tristan and Isolde" and "Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg" came into being instead. Exactly why Wagner stopped Siegfried in his tracks on his way to the 'new age' is still not entirely clear. His transformation of Schopenhauer's misanthropic quietism into a far from inactive triumph of the will clearly made a difference. Yet, as Rainer Franke has pointed out, it hardly amounted to a rejection of Feuerbach."
PH: There are a variety of reasons for Wagner's sudden interruption of "Siegfried" for 12 years, while he authored/composed "Tristan" and "Mastersingers," many of which have been discussed by other writers previously. But it may help to describe briefly how these three works, and "Twilight of the Gods" also, fit into Wagner's overall conceptual scheme in his mature music-dramas. In "Mastersingers" Wagner shows us a golden age of art in which Siegfried the artist-hero (in his incarnation as Walther) could still produce unconsciously inspired secular art, in his role as heir to dying religious faith, before the artist-hero became too conscious of who he is. "Tristan and Isolde," as Wagner said himself in his "Epilogue to the 'Nibelung's Ring'," draws out in detail the personal implications for the artist-hero of his unwitting betrayal, over time, of the formerly unconscious secrets of religious revelation and artistic inspiration, in our modern scientific age, which is depicted in "Twilight of the Gods." "The Valkyrie" and "Siegfried" correspond conceptually with the libretto of "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg." That, in completing "Tristan" and "Masteringers," Wagner reversed what would appear the natural order outlined in my trajectory above, is irrelevant: evidently Wagner felt the need (aside from the practical and emotional reasons he gave for interrupting Siegfried on his way to wake Bruennhilde) to deal in detail with matters which were implicit in the "Ring" but in which, in spite of its huge size and division into four parts, there was no room to include this detail. In the "Ring" Wagner only depicted an archetypal example of Siegfried's unconscious artistic inspiration in Siegfried's love duet with his muse Bruennhilde in S.3.3, and then, in "Twilight of the Gods," jumped straight into Siegfried's Tristan-like betrayal of the secret of unconscious artistic inspiration after Siegfried's Rhine Journey which, in a sense, can be construed as a musical metaphor for the period of history during which artist heroes like Siegfried were able to create and publicly display their art before, according to Wagner's historical scheme, scientific consciousness made appeals to man's transcendent value untenable. It therefore begins with hope and a jaunty atmosphere, and in a matter of minutes gradually transforms into a music of unutterable tragedy. Having experienced the ecstasy of Wagner's own unconscious artistic inspiration, Wagner's private paradise, in S.3.3, the audience is plunged almost immediately into the nadir of human experience in "Twilight of the Gods." In any case, Wagner had to prepare himself in every way for the apocalyptic events which follow upon Siegfried's waking of Bruennhilde, which for Wagner was a metaphor for the passing of the torch from religion to secular art in modern times. Furthermore, Wagner had already depicted this passing of the torch from religion to art in the finale of "Lohengrin," and in "Tannhaeuser" had already placed before us his dramatization of the artist-hero's world-historical betrayal of the secret of religious revelation and unconscious artistic inspiration in Tannhaeuser's
be-spelled revelation of the true source of his presumably divine revelation in his muse Venus, and the Venusberg.
PH: Apropos of JD's remarks about Wagner's doubts about the quest in the arts to be "new" at all costs, Wagner laid that problem to rest in "Mastersingers" in which Walther's art combines idiosyncratic inspiration with a foundation in his artistic heritage, just as Siegfried, in re-forging Nothung after having reduced it to splinters and melted them down, creates the new out of the old (think here of Sachs's comment about Walther's audition song: it sounded so old and yet so new, like birdsong in May).
JD P. 219: "Only a year after finishing the music [of "Tristan"], he wrote to Mathilde Wesendonck, 'in a certain, very deep sense that only the World Spirit ... can understand, all that I can do now is to repeat myself with new works; I am unable to reveal any more essential truths."
PH: Wagner had to all intents and purposes conceived the conceptual essentials of his four music-dramas by 1854, though in most respects there was much that was new in all that he did afterward, including, of course, "Parsifal," which is a huge departure in a lot of ways from all that he'd done previously. "Parsifal" is both the capstone of the "Ring" and the culmination, the logical consequence, of all of Wagner's prior work.
JD P. 219-220: "In the third act of "Tristan," as in "Siegfried," the hero is poised provocatively between the old and the new. The difference is that whereas Siegfried is himself a kind of tabula rasa, a new beginning, Tristan is compelled to confront his own history before he can arrive at a point that he senses is a new departure. (...)" JD speaks of "... Tristan's impulsive will to forget -- 'ew'ges Urvergessen (eternal oblivion), he sings longingly at one point -- or rather ... the paradox that as Tristan tries to forget the old, he is at the same time compelled to remember it, to delve into his fundamental origins as well as his recent and traumatic history. In other words, the more Tristan tries to obliterate the past, the more it entwines him, until, forced into reinventing it, he turns it against himself. His despairing self-accusation at the climax of the scene -- that it was he who brewed the love-potion - is, to put it prosaically, quite simply a rewriting of history in the name of a recovery from it, a desperate attempt at recovery that appears to be only momentary, and ends in death."
PH: In a sense, Siegfried's last living moment, during which he remembers who he really is (in a more comprehensive sense than the obvious, that he recalls his former relationship with Bruennhilde: remember that Bruennhilde is the repository of Wotan's secret confession, and in giving her up to the light of day by giving her away to his audience, Siegfried wakes the hoard of forbidden knowledge which Wotan repressed, both for himself and for his audience), is Tristan Act III compressed into a flash of intuition, so to speak. Tristan takes responsibility for the potion because the potion (I seem to recall that Dieter Borchmeyer said something like this somewhere, though in a somewhat different sense) is Wagnerian wonder, the capacity of Wagner's musical motifs to compress all experience in time and space into felt thought, an aesthetic intuition of a thought. Thus it is that Wagner's two corresponding symbols for Wagnerian wonder, the alte Weise (old tune) and Siegfried's Woodbird song, play a role in reminding the hero who he really is, because music, for Wagner, is the key to the unconscious, linking what Bruennhilde feels and imparts to Siegfried as music, with its origin in Wotan's confession. Similarly, the Shepherd's tune and song (about Holda, i.e., Freia, and May) wakes Tannhaeuser from his sojourn in that realm of night, the Venusberg, which is another of Wagner's metaphors for the inspired artist's unconscious mind. Tristan in Act III is, in effect, becoming conscious that he is Wotan, i.e., that he, religious man, including his most recent incarnation in the artist-hero, is responsible for having brewed the wound that will never heal, man's ineradicable desire to posit the illusion that he has transcendent value by murdering mother-nature and substituting his surrogate mother, the muse of artistic inspiration (Isolde) for her. It is noteworthy, in this regard, that the motifs of Hagen's Potion and the Tarnhelm (which Siegfried employs in the abduction of his own true love Bruennhilde for Gunther, just as Wotan and Loge originally employed it to dispossess Alberich of his Ring, Tarnhelm, and Hoard) and one of Loge's key motifs are closely related in terms of motival genealogy. Hagen and Melot both represent the tendency of the modern science-infused world toward reduction of the old mysteries to the mundane, and this tendency exists even within the artist-hero who acts upon it unwittingly, in his very effort to help himself and mankind forget their true origin, identity, and history. But Tristan is not in Act III reinventing his history: he is remembering his true identity and history; he is remembering how he composed the bitter brew, the distillation of his artistic "Wonder," from the elements of his life, in much the same way that Walther created the Wonder of his audition song (Act 1 "Mastersingers") from the elements of his life, with the difference that Walther does not know his own true identity, and Tristan is becoming fatefully conscious of his own true identity.
JD P. 220-221: "It is hard to imagine that Nietzsche, who accurately described "Tristan" as an 'opus metaphysicum,' did not have the delirium scene ["Tristan" Act III] in mind when he wrote, in 'On the Uses and Disadvantages of History':
'For since we are the outcome of earlier generations, we are also the outcome of their aberrations, passions, and errors, and indeed of their crimes; it is not possible wholly to free oneself of this chain. If we condemn these aberrations and regard ourselves as free of them, this does not alter the fact that we originate in them. The best we can do is to confront our inherited and hereditary nature with our knowledge of it, and through a new, stern discipline combat our inborn heritage and implant in ourselves a new habit, a new instinct, a second nature, so that our first nature withers away. It is an attempt to give oneself, as it were a posteriori, a past in which one would like to originate: -- always a dangerous attempt because it is so hard to know the limit to denial of the past and because second natures are usually weaker than the first.'
A number of problems touched on in this remarkable passage also occupied Wagner."
PH: Before I conclude my extensive quotation of JD's pages 220-222, which intersects the arena in which I've been working in Wagner studies for 40 years, I wanted to mention that Nietzsche's description above could be applied to what Feuerbach believes occurred when early humans unconsciously and unwittingly invented a divine origin for themselves and their world. Of course, they could not at so early a stage in the advancement of knowledge have even suspected the natural evolutionary origin which Feuerbach believed was the true origin of man (though he a admitted that during the period in which he wrote those of his thoughts on this subject which we know influenced Wagner, from 1830-1848, man had not yet accumulated sufficient knowledge of his natural origin to attempt anything more than educated speculation), but either way, by unwittingly inventing an origin they were unknowingly displacing the true, perhaps distasteful, one and replacing it with a consoling fantasy. Schopenhauer offered a similar explanation of madness, that it comes into play when a human cannot tolerate consciousness of something which catastrophically downgrades their self-image, so they unconsciously repress this knowledge, an unwitting yet self-imposed amnesia, and substitute a fantasy to fill the gap. This is precisely what Wotan has done, but since in the course of the "Ring" he is becoming too conscious of the truth, he represses it, the terrible implications of human history, into his unconscious mind Bruennhilde, thereby giving birth to the history-less artist-hero Siegfried, the "self" Wotan wishes for but can't consciously create, as he tried to consciously create the moral hero Siegmund. In other words, Nietzsche may well have been referencing the "Ring" as well.
JD: "A number of problems touched on in this remarkable passage also preoccupied Wagner, including one that may not be immediately obvious: the search for boundaries in rejecting the past. Kerman is right when he says of "Tristan" that the shepherd's 'new' melody in C is of 'miserable quality.' In a sense its musical weakness is deliberate: Wagner allows Tristan to overcome the quasi-natural inflections of die alte Weise by forcing him to invent a past in which he would like to originate (as opposed to the one in which he actually did originate) and by superimposing over his 'first nature,' represented by the old melody, the tortured, chromatic sounds that for Adorno were on the threshold of the Second Viennese School and the New Music. According to Adorno, this is where, in the phrases following Tristan's words 'der furchtbare Trank' (the potion so dread), Wagner's music at last unmasks its own illusions and becomes truly modern in the sense that it directly confronts the historical necessity of resisting and overcoming the crisis of humanism. But the outcome of Tristan's ruthless blindness about the past (a blindness already suggested metaphorically by the plot of "Siegfried") is not the near atonality after 'der furchtbare Trank,' but the thinly triumphant melody in C presaging the arrival of Isolde. At this point in the drama, Tristan's wish to extricate himself from the errors of the past has led, in Nietzsche's words, to the 'dangerous attempt' of combating his real heritage and planting in himself 'a new instinct, a second nature,' which turns out to be more frail than the one it replaces.
PH: I find some of this passage a bit obscure (not the commentary on the introduction of a nascent atonality, but the portions about Tristan seeking to forget who he is and create a second nature), but I will try to parse this passage in terms of my own study of "Tristan," which I think can make sense of it.
As Wagner himself implied in "Epilogue to the 'Nibelung's Ring'," "Tristan" expands into a whole music-drama Siegfried's tragic rediscovery of his true self in Act III of "Twilight of the Gods." Tristan, throughout all three acts, is becoming too conscious of who he himself truly is to be able to obtain real healing any more from his old repository of the secret of his true identity, his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration, Isolde, who knows for him (as Bruennhilde does for Siegfried, as Eva does for Walther, as Kundry does for Parsifal, and as Elsa wishes to do for Lohengrin, but ends up doing for Godfrey) what he does not know and can't afford to know, his true identity. What this means is that in Act III as Tristan is psychoanalyzing himself (as Elliott Zuckerman put it) thanks to the recurring alte Weise (just as Siegfried does when he responds to Hagen's insistence that he sing the narrative of how he came to grasp the meaning, i.e., the secret, of birdsong, or music itself), he is so terribly tormented by his rising consciousness of his true identity, that in desperation he seeks again the temporary healing that Isolde's artistic inspiration has given him in the past. But the muse's salves for the unhealing wound are no longer effective and therefore exacerbate and reopen the wound, in precisely the same way that the muse Kundry's efforts to scout the world for salves to lighten the burden of Amfortas's unhealing wound are no longer effective and like the Grail itself (man's insistence on positing his transcendent value, first in religion, and later in secular art) exacerbate the wound to the point that Amfortas wishes to learn how to die in the fullest sense of the word, i.e., to renounce the belief in transcendence and fully accept the fact of his mortality. Titurel's refusal to die because he can always suck on the Grail is Wagner's extremest metaphor for what ails man, his ever more futile quest to posit his spiritual, transcendent value, his refusal to accept his true identity as an animal and mortal who does not in fact have an immortal soul (the collective human mind, as Feuerbach put it, having fooled man into thinking he originated in and could partake in transcendence).
PH: So Tristan, faced with unbearable self-consciousness of his true identity, seeks forgetting in unconscious artistic inspiration, but now, in Wagner's "Ring," the very secret it was formerly the purpose of art to keep, man's true identity, has itself become the subject of the art-allegory, so there is no escaping the truth in amnesia. Bruennhilde, the muse of unconscious artistic inspiration, has woken forever. Kundry inherits Bruennhilde's laugh. Kundry, having lost her function as healer, and the formerly secret hoard of knowledge having been unveiled, no longer has a raison d'etre and ceases to be.
JD: "Paul de Man has already pointed out the parricidal imagery in Nietzsche's text, as the weaker son condemns and kills the stronger father. The same imagery is at the core of act 3 of "Siegfried." The sharp blade of the fated hero's sword brutally cuts through the Wanderer's spear and clear's the hero's path to Bruennhilde and a triumphant concluding duet. The third act of "Tristan" is almost certainly intended as a more complex version of the same process, presented this time as a slow and painful convalescence that can only lead to the new in a 'weak' sense as something enfeebled and transient. [JD's footnote 45 here] This is not to deny that the introduction of the female voice at the end of the work creates a powerful sense of closure. Isolde's so-called 'Liebestod' is often regarded as a sexual image of orgasmic ecstasy that overcomes, in a 'strong' sense, the metaphysical crisis at the center of the work. But it is actually a different kind of resolution, one that moves away from an emphatic triumph over the 'errors' of the past toward a resignation to, and at the same time a recovery from, them. The sense is not so much one of permanent renewal after the critical overcoming of the 'end,' the main purpose of Wagner's philosophical agenda in 'Opera and Drama,' but one of an acceptance of crisis and of an attempt to heal the wounds it has opened."
JD's Footnote 45 on P. 279: "Wagner himself emphasized that "Tristan," in terms of its deeper mythic significance, was in effect another version of "Siegfried," though he was more reticent about the precise affinities between the two works (SSD 6: 267-68). In a letter of 9 July 1859 to Mathilde Wesendonck, he remarked on the link between the Shepherd's 'new' melody in C major in the third act of "Tristan" and the much bolder, jubilant C-major melody dominating the end of "Siegfried" (from the words Sie ist mir ewig), both of which seem to have occurred to him at the same time (SB 11: 157). Another idea common to both works relevant to the present context is the use of quasi-improvisational melody with flexible meter to represent each hero's relationship to Nature. The difference in emphasis is significant: while the cheerful, metrically free song of the Woodbird in "Siegfried" reflects, in a bright E major, the hero's oneness with Nature and provides him with a clear pointer to the future, the melancholy, equally metrically free F-minor strains of die alte Weise in "Tristan" convey the sense that the hero's relation to his 'natural' origins, and hence also his vision of the future, have been damaged almost beyond repair."
PH: Again, I find the argument in the first of JD's paragraphs above a bit obscure: at any rate these are not the terms in which I would construe "Tristan" Act III and its relationship to "Siegfried," though I feel JD is groping towards what becomes more self-evident in his footnote #45, that there is some deep underlying relationship between Siegfried's happy amnesia and Tristan's melancholy self-flagellation. There is, of course, and in the "Ring" it can be found in the relationship of Siegfried's blissful ignorance to Wotan's despairing confession of his inability to speak aloud (i.e., consciously, to himself) the secret source of his divine "Noth," which he can only safely contain if he represses it into his unconscious mind, Bruennhilde, during his confession to her. It is precisely Wotan's hoard of unbearable self-knowledge which Bruennhilde imparts subliminally to Siegfried as feeling (music) [Nattiez got the part about Bruennhilde imparting herself to Siegfried through music correct, but missed the implication of her remark to Siegfried that what Wotan thought, she felt, and that what Wotan thought was just her love for Siegfried], while holding for Siegfried the fatal conceptual knowledge which Wotan imparted to her, thereby protecting Siegfried from full, unbearable consciousness of that knowledge which paralyzed Wotan into inaction.
PH: Actually, it is the portion of "Tristan" Act II devoted to the love-duet, prior to the lovers' exposure to the light of day, which parallels the "Siegfried" Act III love-duet: both are Wagner's metaphor for his own unconscious artistic inspiration. It is Siegfried's remembrance of who he is, after Hagen has provided the antidote to his prior potion which Gutrune gave to Siegfried [keeping in mind here that both the original potion and its antidote are really one and the same potion, i.e., the inevitability that Siegfried would eventually become conscious of who he is in the modern world, combined with the artistic Wonder through which he and other inspired artists strove through the years to put off the inevitable], which corresponds with Tristan's Act III self-psychoanalysis, meditating on the love-death potion and its musical analogue, the alte Weise. Siegfried is fatally killed, stabbed in the back, with the memory of who he is: he was formerly Wotan, minus consciousness of his true identity, but now he has become fully self-conscious just before the end. "Tristan" Act III shows us in detail what Siegfried would have experienced if his self-meditation had lasted the length of an act, so to speak. Both have committed figurative suicide by giving away their muse and her secrets to their audience.
PH: I am very pleased that JD discusses in his footnote #45 the kinship between the joyous shepherd's tune (I have a hard time following JD's argument above because I don't regard the joyous Shepherd's tune announcing the coming of Isolde as weak: in its dramatic context it is overpowering, even though the innermost circle of Wagnerians probably know in their heart of hearts that it represents Tristan's last ditch effort to have one more glimpse of happiness in the face of the fact that it is predicated on an illusion, an illusion Tristan has now seen through.) and the final ecstatic motif which brings "Siegfried" to its blinding conclusion (Dunning's Motif #145). Some have argued that this staccato step-wise motif is a variant of the primary love motif of the "Ring," whose key variants are #25, #39, #40, and #64. But I can't help noting its strong resemblance to the motif first heard in S.1.1 which expresses Siegfried's loathing and contempt for Mime, namely, #104 (I seem to recall having read this somewhere in my distant past, but can't recall the reference), and this becomes especially important when we recall that Siegfried's contempt for Mime is actually Wotan's self-contempt, the contempt of his desired ideal self, for his prosaic, real self, represented in the "Ring" by Mime. I say this because, by virtue of having successfully concluded unconscious artistic inspiration through loving union with his muse Bruennhilde, who taught Siegfried (subliminally) the meaning of Wotan's fear, Siegfried has now temporarily forgotten his fear, and purged, as Wotan wished for his free hero to, all consciousness of his true identity, origin, and history, which is represented by Mime, the Mime in Siegfried. I suspect therefore that this motif of triumph represents Siegfried's triumph over all that which Wotan loathed in himself, and feared. Note also that Bruennhilde inherited Fafner's (and especially Alberich's) Serpent Motif #48, the motif representing all that Wotan fears.
PH: Recall that Wotan first told Erda, Mother Nature (in R.4) that he wished to learn everything from her (about what he fears), and then added (after witnessing the first fruits of the Ring curse, Fafner's murder of his brother Fasolt to obtain the Ring) that he wished to learn from her how to overcome his fear. Similarly, Siegfried must first learn from his muse Bruennhilde the meaning of Wotan's fear (but safely, unconsciously), in order to obtain from her the inspiration to produce that great work of art which will redeem him and his audience from all that Wotan feared. It is Bruennhilde who both imparts this knowledge (thereby re-opening the wound that will never heal), and heals this wound temporarily by inspiring that work of Wahn in which the wound can be temporarily assuaged and forgotten. Similarly, Eve had to banish man from the paradise of religious faith in order to be able to offer man, in compensation, art. This is a key theme in both "Mastersingers" and "Parsifal." And Isolde keeps on reopening Tristan's wound so she can heal it. And of course this trope originates in Elsa's offer to help Lohengrin keep the secret of his true origin and identity by breaching the faith he required of her: only in this way can the Wagnerian music-drama become heir to dying religious faith, and replace that faith with Wagnerian "Wonder," symbolized by both the fatal potions in "Twilight of the Gods" and "Tristan," and by the metaphors for Wagner's music in both works, the Woodbird song and the alte Weise, which are the link between the conscious daylight world and the unconscious realm of night.
JD P. 222: "Another outcome of "Tristan," and its third act in particular, was Wagner's last work, "Parsifal." The open, unhealable wound of Amfortas - a wound resulting from a past transgression -- is miraculously closed by the pure fool Parsifal, who gains access to divine knowledge precisely because he learns to understand, and to accept, Amfortas's condition. At issue is not the 'right' classification of "Tristan" or "Parsifal" ... as modern or post-modern, but Wagner's growing critical attitude to the new in terms of its ambition to overcome and 'correct' the crisis of European humanism. Doubts about the survival of the new as a utopian ideal are readily attributable to Nietzsche, whose willingness to scrutinize modernity and the conditions of its possibility have made him such a familiar (though far from always reliable) witness to the debate about the postmodern. But rarely, if at all, has an even remotely comparable consciousness been accredited to Wagner."
PH: I leave it to the readers of my "Ring" book contained on this website, the product of 40 years' of meditation on the Wagner phenomenon, and of my other treatises on Wagner's canonical operas and music-dramas, to say whether I've added my own two-cents to this debate about Wagner's place in the history of ideas, but JD is certainly right that Wagner has almost never been given the credit that is his due for astonishing prescience with respect to a whole variety of problematical strands in modern thought and art. Nietzsche's latter day obsessive quest to assassinate Wagner's artistic character speaks volumes in view of just how much Nietzsche's mature thought owed to his life-long debate with Wagner. And I don't mean this in the Nietzschean sense that Nietzsche's antipode taught him much he needed to learn: what I'm describing here is an underlying kinship Nietzsche wished to obfuscate with a colossal smoke-screen of invective which covered up most of the real issues. Why, for instance, does Nietzsche write so terribly little, and rarely insightfully, about Wagner's mature music-drama librettos? Look at all the "Ring" libretto contains (a quick perusal of my analyses of many of the scenes from the "Ring" should lay to rest the notion long current that Wagner's libretto is a mish-mash or grab-bag of half-developed ideas with no underlying coherence, a fairy-tale fantasy that can mean anything), and ask yourself if Nietzsche ever even got down to cases at all.
I've posted JD's final chapter, Chapter 17, as a separate topic
General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung
1 post • Page 1 of 1