Monday, 27 July 2020
Wagner and Young Germany
Saturday, 25 July 2020
Wagner and Bakunin
|Photograph by Nadar|
Thursday, 23 July 2020
Wagner and Constantin Frantz
Friday, 17 July 2020
Wagner and Revolution
|Jacques-Louis David, The Tennis Court Oath|
|David, The Death of Marat|
|Delacroix, Liberty Guiding the People|
|Barricades in Dresden, 1849|
Wednesday, 15 July 2020
Wagner and Feuerbach
|Engraving from 1872, Die Gartenlaube|
Sunday, 12 July 2020
Wagner and Hegel
|Jakob Schlesinger: Portrait of G.W.F. Hegel, 1831|
Saturday, 11 July 2020
Wagner: Über Staat und Religion
(Article, ‘Über Staat und Religion,’ first published in The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013))
|Ludwig II, 1864|
The strategy resembles that of the contemporary Mein Leben. Not least on account of the works’ common – royal – addressee, Wagner presents himself as a revolutionary primarily for the sake of (his) art. Such an attitude would eventually also characterize the Bayreuth Circle; some may even have believed that. Nevertheless, the strong relationship between politics and aesthetics endures. Wagner claims political interest to be a reflection and product of artistic concerns; ensuing discussion of his aesthetics immediately renders the relationship dialectical, just as when he had tilted the scales towards politics earlier. Moreover, Wagner does not disavow but revisits and sometimes reiterates certain key socialist themes from Dresden and Zurich, for instance abolition of the state and overcoming the constrictions of modern labor. He distances himself from a form of “newer socialist” distribution to which he had never subscribed in the first place (SSD 8:5). The word is killed that the spirit might live.
Schopenhauer is the principal agent of intellectual as opposed to circumstantial transformation, though the distinction is not always clear. The blind striving of Schopenhauer’s Will paints humanity less optimistically: egoistic individualism requires societal stability (Stabilität), which individuals have for their own protection invested in the state. Schopenhauer’s Wahn (illusion) bids individual hopes express themselves in patriotism, embodied in the monarch. (This need not entail a nation-state; Bavarian particularism would be just as well served here.) Monarchical independence furthers a number of related purposes, including restraint of the base commercial imperatives of the press – Wagner would soon be in need of that – and inspiration to redeem life by rising above it. Monarchy appears a political and metaphysical necessity. No revolution – Wagner cannot quite bring himself to use the word – has ever failed to result in restoration of that ideal representation of the state.
In a new twist upon his idea of republican monarchy as adumbrated in the 1849 speech to the Dresden Vaterlandsverein, the king, as self-sacrificing “saint” – in the vein of Schopenhauerian renunciation – dispenses “grace” (Gnade), rising above any particular interest, his own or others’. State power is mitigated and ultimately negated by two higher, ascending forms of Wahn: religion (avowedly not theology: Feuerbach’s distinction still holds) and art. Art’s superiority over religion as announced in the opening of Religion und Kunst – no one believes art must be “true” – is foreshadowed. Reading between the lines, artistic patronage would seem a good practical example of how Wahn might be harnessed, Hans Sachs-like, to public good as well as princely salvation. Ludwig’s response seems to have been of that ilk.
Friday, 10 July 2020
Wagner and Politics
(Article, ‘Politics,’ first published in The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013))
Aristotle’s contention that man is by nature a political animal (ζῷον πολιτικόν) might have been formulated with Wagner in mind (Aristotle I.1253a2). Whatever he claimed on occasion, for instance when seeking amnesty for his revolutionary deeds, or writing Mein Leben for Ludwig II, Wagner’s life and oeuvre were intimately and often explicitly concerned with political questions. “Questions” is the moot word, for, whilst Wagner rarely hesitated to proffer answers, he ultimately found them wanting. Political involvement arose from artistic need and vice versa, art and politics being inextricably related in Wagner’s conception. Inspired by Attic tragedy, Wagnerian musical drama was necessary political: communal celebration and perhaps incitement. Wagner also treated with political ideas in essays, correspondence, and the dramas themselves.
1. Karl Marx, German idealism, and French socialism
2. The Ring
3. The Ring: Political order
4. The Ring: Heroic challenges
5. After Wagner
1. Karl Marx, German idealism, and French socialism
Wagner was a contemporary of Marx (b. 1818) in more than a chronological sense. They shared influences, not least the philosophy of Friedrich Schiller, G.F.W. Hegel, and Young Hegelians such as Ludwig Feuerbach; they shared friends and acquaintances, such as Mikhail Bakunin and Georg Herwegh; they denounced many of the same social ills, not least nineteenth-century bourgeois capitalism. Both, moreover, were master dramatists; even Capital is as much psychopathological history as work of economic analysis. The differences between Marx and Wagner are, however, equally telling. That Marx would have dismissed Wagner’s work largely as “ideology” does not mean that we should do so, yet there lies therein much of that “true socialism” Marx and Engels excoriated in favor of their “scientific” variety. Wagner’s politics concern themselves with some issues of lesser importance to Marx, for instance despoliation of the natural world (“green politics,” one might say) and a pre-Nietzschean conception of the will to power (Liebesgelüste, see letter from Wagner to Uhlig, 11/12 Nov. 1851).
For Wagner, standing firmly in the tradition of German idealism, the Athenian polis had embodied harmony between individual and society, private and public. Tragic enactment represented the supreme manifestation of harmony – in every sense. The problem of modern political life, both for Wagner and idealism, was how to reconcile the apparently idyllic communal integration of Hellenic life with post-Classical, Christian subjectivity (individual souls: the Lutheran priesthood of all believers). Art, as life in general, fragmented following the political decline of Athens. A higher unity – Wagner aimed not at a restoration of tragedy but at its renewal – entailed wholesale transformation of the public realm: individuality would flourish, but not empty, mercenary individualism as abetted by modern civilization. Socialization of art and aestheticization of society would be one and the same. As for Schiller and the German Romantics, art was the paradigm of free, productive activity – or would be when liberated from forcible division of labor. For the divorce of “opera” from “drama” was as much a dehumanized and dehumanizing consequence as factory wage-slavery: revolution would overcome both.
French socialism – “utopian” according to the typology inherited from Marx and Engels – played an important role here too, not least via August Röckel, though Wagner also read much for himself, returning to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon after the Dresden uprising. In Mein Leben, Wagner recalls having questioned Röckel in Dresden about his “new moral order of things,” founded upon “the annihilation of the power of capital by direct productive labor.” Where, asked Wagner, would the “free spirits, let alone artists,” be found, “if everyone were to be swallowed up into the one working class”? Röckel replied, “that if everybody participated in the work at hand according to his powers and capacities, work would cease to be a burden, and would become an occupation which would eventually assume an entirely artistic character, just as it had already been proven that a field worked laboriously by a single peasant with the plough was infinitely less productive than when cultivated by several persons according to a horticultural system.” This utopian socialism stood closer to Marx than one might think, for division of labor is to be transformed into something voluntarist rather than merely abandoned in Romantic reaction. Wagner thus “took pleasure in developing conceptions of a possible form of human society which would correspond wholly, and indeed solely, to my highest artistic ideals” (My Life, English translation, 373-4). The “Zurich reform writings” – Die Kunst und die Revolution, Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, and Oper und Drama – do just that.
2. The Ring
One might say that Wagner’s politics are expressed most clearly, or rather most probingly, in Der Ring des Nibelungen. This is true and misleading: there is no single doctrine to be expressed, but a continual, questioning process of development. Dramatic form, radicalizing rather than resolving – there are harmonic implications here too – arguably proved better suited than essay-writing to such development, at least for Wagner, though we should never reduce the dramas to tracts.
There nevertheless remains much political truth in Wagner’s encouragement to Liszt, “Mark well my new poem – it contains the beginning of the world and its destruction!” (Wagner to Liszt, 11 Feb. 1853). At the heart of the Ring’s action lie the foundation of modern state and society, and their dissolution, the latter seeming increasingly uncertain following the apparent failure of revolution in 1848-9, yet never abandoned. Even in the 1880s, Wagner would record, recalling his earlier, highly political Jesus von Nazareth: “Jesus could foresee nothing but the end; we no less. Materially and empirically composed, we await the destructive forces which, even, for the Roman world, did not fail to appear” (Brown Book, English translation, 201). Annihilation remains political as well as metaphysical, the Christian dialectic between cyclical (Greek) and linear (Jewish), at least as understood by Wagner, Schopenhauer, and many other German idealists, re-imagined, just as in Parsifal.
3. The Ring: Political order
In Wotan’s winning the Ring’s
“world,” the necessity of its end (Götterdämmerung) is already clear.
The Norns recall him fashioning his spear, political instrument of domination,
from the World-ash tree: Nature raped in founding the artificial state. In
1849, Wagner noted, under the heading, “On the Principle of Communism,” that,
historically, such arbitrary (willkürlich) deeds of possession, on the part of a
people or an individual, were invariably justified by religious, mythical, or
otherwise spruced-up contracts (SSD 12:254). When we hear of Wotan’s subsequent
actions, we understand them as inevitable consequences of that original
political sin against Nature (and humanity). His spear shattered in combat by
Siegfried’s sword of (would-be) revolution, Wotan has commanded his tamed
heroes to fell the withered boughs of the World-ash. “The ash fell; the spring
ran dry eternal!” (Götterdämmerung,
Prelude). Domination achieved, disaster has ensued, not least for Wotan
himself, now surrounded by the ash-tree logs, awaiting their final
all-consuming blaze: further wanton natural despoliation. The state, as Bakunin
insisted, “is not a direct product of Nature; it does not, like society,
precede the awakening of thought in man.” Instead, it “dominates society and
tends to absorb it altogether” (Bakunin, Selected Writings, 137-8).
Wotan, however, is no mere gangster. We sense the religious aura and majesty of Valhalla: the ideological defenses of the gods’ stronghold should not be underestimated, especially as it emerges in Wotan’s musical dream. Wotan’s vision is not, moreover, of “might is right.” He restrains Donner from resolving the problem of the giants as in the Prose Edda: “Stop, you savage! Nothing through force! My spear protects contracts: spare your hammer’s power” (Rheingold, Scene 2). Such is a remnant of the originally creative urge that led him to inscribe contracts upon his spear; the problem with laws is that as soon as they are rendered unalterable, human creativity is stifled. They are transformed into their opposite; they entrap, as Wotan laments in his Walküre monologue. Conflict between love and the Law is a constant refrain in Wagner’s plans for Jesus von Nazareth. Indeed, Wagner portrays Jesus, who proclaims that his death will also bring about that of the Law, as an heir to Proudhon and Bakunin (Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen 11:290). Law has, in a classical case of Feuerbachian inversion, acquired divine power over the men whose original creation it was, as Valhalla (or Heaven) has in religious terms. The temporary and imaginary have become feared and obeyed as eternal and super-real. And yet, as we read in the 1848 prose sketch (“Die Nibelungen-Mythus. Als Entwurf zu einen Drama”), though the purpose of the gods’ “higher world order is moral consciousness … they are tainted by the very injustice they hunt down.” From the oppressed “depths of Nibelheim consciousness of their guilt echoes threateningly” (SSD 2:157). Wagner originally intended that the oppressed Nibelungs be liberated by revolution; experience taught him the struggle would be harder.
|Arthur Rackham: Alberich |
and the subjugated Nibelungs
In Nibelheim lies a more modern – at least to Wagner – instantiation of domination, and a threat to the gods’ relatively enlightened variety. For, as Marx observed, though Wagner might readily have done, “the relationship of industry and, in particular, the world of wealth to the political world is a principal problem of modern times” (Marx, “Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie”). Both extended Feuerbach’s critique of religious alienation, this time into the realm of capital. Alberich’s parallel rape of Nature – there are two creation myths in the Ring cosmos – is theft of the Rhine gold. Value-free in its natural state, Alberich transforms it into capital in the Nibelung hoard, and would-be totalitarian power in the ring, with which he enslaves his kinsmen and would vanquish ancien régime Valhalla. He may not accomplish that himself, yet his bourgeois challenge, born of his lowly place endured in its feudal order, hastens its destruction.
4. The Ring: Heroic challenges
Subsequent challenges issue from Siegmund and Siegfried, both standing in Wagner’s line of charismatic revolutionary heroes from Rienzi (indeed from the hero of the Faust Overture) to Parsifal. Enthusiasm for the figure of Siegfried was widespread amongst Vormärz radicals, including the young Engels, for whom nineteenth-century “heroic deeds” (Heldentaten) might be endeavored by “sons of Siegfried” (see his essay, “Siegfrieds Heimat”). Brünnhilde, we might note, sends Siegfried out into the world: “to new deeds, dear hero” (Götterdämmerung, Prelude)
If our opening quotation might have been made for Wagner, so, in the Volsung context, might Aristotle’s subsequent words: “And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the ‘Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one,’ whom Homer [Iliad, Book IX] denounces – the natural outcast is forthwith a lover of war; he may be compared to an isolated piece at draughts” (Aristotle I.1253a2-6). Siegmund and Siegfried both appear out of nowhere, or rather out of the Teutonic forest, suggesting a world in which Franco-Roman rules (laws) do not apply – that is, a stateless place of anarchy. Wagner does not consider them “bad men”; foes such as Hunding and Fricka do. In Wagner’s attempt, confounded by state power, to have them transcend or at least transform existing society, they echo Aristotle’s “above humanity” – and prefigure Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Both heroes stand opposed to “tribe” and “law,” and are, in the face of society and its institutions, “lovers of war.” Such was Wotan’s intention, having turned against his own laws and attempted to free himself from the merciless dialectic of power-politics. “Hearthless” the Volsung heroes are too, whereas Hunding – his second line, “Holy is my hearth” – prides himself upon his outwardly respectable, internally repressive (bourgeois-equivalent) household (Walküre, Act I).
Siegmund’s rescue of Sieglinde from Hunding’s domination therefore represents dramatic progress; it is blessed with heroic progeny. By contrast, Brünnhilde’s wish that Siegfried settle down attempts (again) to render permanent what should be temporary. Marriage, symbolized with cruelest irony by possession of Alberich’s ring of power, would pervert and destroy their love through intervention of law and property. Her need to constrain Siegfried thus helps initiate, in alliance with Gibichung state corruption, the tragedy of Götterdämmerung, the undoing of all concerned. Nothing could be further from the truth than George Bernard Shaw’s claim that in Götterdämmerung, Wagner relinquished his political vision; his politics, however, stood far from Shaw’s Fabian variety.
Instead, there persisted a vision of free love inspired by Young German and Young Hegelian “sensualism,” and by French socialists such as Charles Fourier and the Saint-Simonians – despite Wagner’s Schopenhauerian recognition of love itself as a form of power. Fourier lamented: “Our legislators want to subordinate the social system to … the Family,” which he contrasted with “groups” of honor, friendship, and love, and “which God has almost entirely excluded from influence in Social Harmony, because it is a group of forced or material bonds, not a free, passionate gathering, dissoluble at will…. Since all constraint engenders falsehood … both civilized and patriarchal society, where this group is the dominant one, are the most duplicitous” (Fourier, The Theory of the Four Movements). It is no coincidence that conventional marriages in Wagner are duplicitous – and barren. Siegfried, if unconsciously, destroys the bonds of law and state as much through his betrayal of Brünnhilde as his defiance of Wotan.
5. After Wagner
Wagner was not the first to treat with political ideas in his musical dramas, yet those coming after tended to take their leave from him. That might lie in rejection, for example, Igor Stravinsky and even Richard Strauss, in his marriage of Wagnerian musico-dramatic construction to decidedly Nietzschean aestheticism, or in continuation. Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and Lulu dealt explicitly with socio-political concerns, likewise Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, an exemplar regarding difficulties and opportunities provided by the Wagnerian-modernist tradition. Schoenberg contrasts Moses, at loss for words, and therefore lacking power, with Aron, whose dangerous political power lies in bel canto ease of communication and its catastrophic consequences. If Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill reckoned themselves resolutely anti-Wagnerian, they could hardly have done so without him; there remained, in any case, more than a little residue. Post-war “engaged” composers such as Hans Werner Henze and Luigi Nono were compelled to confront Wagner’s legacy: in Henze’s case almost equally through inescapable homage and angry confrontation.
Wagner’s dramas have also stood at the forefront of political Regietheater. There are specific historical reasons for this, not least a post-war Adornian desire to “salvage” them from their fraught relationship to German history, but content and political purpose have proved equally important. If Wieland Wagner’s “New Bayreuth” understandably downplayed the taint of politics – itself a political act – then directors such as Joachim Herz, Ruth Berghaus, Patrice Chéreau, and Stefan Herheim have continued, in Wagnerian tradition, to question the dramas, to venture out to “new deeds.” Man remains a ζῷον πολιτικόν.
Aristotle, The Politics, tr. Jonathan Barnes, ed. Stephen Everson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988).
Mikhail Bakunin, “State and Society,” Selected writings, tr. Steven Cox (London: Jonathan Cape, 1973).
Udo Bermbach, Der Wahn des Gesamtkunstwerks: Richard Wagners politisch-ästhetisch Utopie (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2004).
Mark Berry, “Is it here that Time becomes Space? Hegel, Schopenhauer, History, and Grace in Parsifal,” The Wagner Journal 3.3 (2009): 29-59.
Mark Berry, Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire (Aldershot and Rochester, NY: Ashgate, 2006).
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, including Theses on Feuerbach and Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1998).