Thursday 14 April 2022

Richard Wagner and the Nationalisation of Feeling, exhibition at Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

The space in which Berlin’s Deutsches Historiches Museum’s temporary exhibitions take place has an interesting floor plan right now: on the second floor, portraits of Angela Merkel (to open later this month); on the first, ‘Karl Marx and Capitalism’; nothing currently on ground level, though something is in preparation; and down in hell, sorry the basement, ‘Richard Wagner and the Nationalisation of Feeling’, or in German (not the same thing) ‘Richard Wagner and das deutsche Gefühl’. Doubtless coincidental, but in the wake of wildly differing portrayals of Marx and Wagner, one begins to wonder. I am told the original idea had been for a large exhibition examining nineteenth-century German ideas of capitalism; that understandably having proved unduly ambitious, two parallel exhibitions, allegedly looking at ‘left’ and ‘right’ critiques of capitalism remained. That may or may not be the case; alas, the bizarre placing of Wagner, a committed revolutionary socialist until his dying day, on the political ‘Right’ seems to have endured. Indeed, the Wagner presented is little more than a racist—as if any nineteenth-century European were not, by our standards.

According to introductory words for the Marx exhibition, attributed to the DHM’s President, Raphael Gross, ‘it is striking that Marx and Wagner understood completely different things under capitalism.’ It would be, if it were the case. I apologise if I sound unusually, or even usually, intemperate about the matter, but as someone who has written not a little on the subject, over a not inconsiderable period of time, I can honestly say that any claim that these near-contemporaries, both heavily influenced by (Young) Hegelian philosophy and French socialism, and holding much else in common, held ‘completely different’ conceptions of capitalism is straightforwardly untrue. Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer, Moses Hess, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and many others put in small, valued appearances in the Marx exhibition, intelligently and imaginatively curated by Sabine Kritter. 

They are, so far as I can recall, entirely absent from its Wagner counterpart. The latter has a host of fascinating exhibits, and is very much worth visiting for their sake. Its curation, by Michael P. Steinberg, is however little short of a disgrace, peddling distortion, disingenuousness, disinformation, and plain untruths as if it were another ‘lovechild’ of Boris Johnson. Chez Steinberg, an idea—well, sort of—has been formulated; and that is it. Truth and accuracy, let alone balance, can go hang—and do.

Entering, we see the bewildering claim, ‘The economic, social, and cultural upheavals that affected people’s lives from the 1840s on goaded European society increasingly into action.’ It read slightly better in German, if I remember correctly—I had neither time nor energy to make notes in both languages—but said the same thing. This, however, was our introduction to the Vormärz. How unlike any other period of history. Homing in on Wagner, we move from meaningless nonsense to blatant untruth: ‘His aim was not to change the individual, but society as a whole.’ A false opposition at best, it becomes truly absurd after Wagner’s reading of Schopenhauer—another figure I cannot recall encountering, though perhaps I forget. What, then, is renunciation of the Will? And what of Wotan’s, let alone Wagner’s Schopenhauerian realisation, as outlined in Wagner’s celebrated letter to August Röckel of 25/26 January 1856? 

Next comes a ‘Prologue’. It offers an arresting array of images: portraits, cartoons (including one new to me, ‘Don Richard Juan Lohentrist’ from the Sinnige Bilderbogen für grosse Kinder (Leipzig, c. 1869)), busts, death mask, etc. Matching this, or not, we learn in the text that Wagner ‘developed artistic and entrepreneurial strategies in which emotions played a central role’. Again, how novel. It sounds like the sort of meaningless guff an unprepared student might splurge onto the page, in order to submit something rather than nothing for an essay. Alas, apart from the constant text/subtext, ‘Wagner was an almost uniquely reprehensible racist’, that seems to be the thesis of the exhibition. Elsewhere, Steinberg has voiced decidedly peculiar opinions about the lack of subjective ‘feeling’ in German culture prior to the nineteenth century. This, as it were, would appear to be an extension of that. Oh, and did you hear that Wagner was an almost uniquely reprehensible racist? Forget the Nazis; Wagner is the one.

There follow four thematic sections, entitled ‘Entfremdung’ (Alienation), ‘Eros’, ‘Zugehörigkeit’ (Belonging), and ‘Ekel’ (Loathing), followed by an ‘Epilogue’. I could not help but feel that many of the categories of the Marx exhibition, for instance ‘From Critique of Religion to Social Criticism’, ‘Nature and Ecology’ (Wagner is unquestionably ‘greener’ than Marx), ‘Revolution and Violence’, and ‘New Technologies’ would have made more sense, but who knows? To be fair Entfremdung and Eros are perfectly reasonable categories. How they are treated is the problem. ‘Alienation’, we read, ‘is considered [by whom?] a basic feeling [Grundgefühl] of the 1830s and 1840s, which were marked by upheavals and revolutions.’ Again, sub-undergraduate stuff, at best, but unobjectionable compared with what comes: Wagner ‘increasingly wanted himself and his work to be understood as “German”. This “Germanness became the fundamental principle and benchmark of his œuvre.’


It really did not, I am afraid. Take a look at The Artwork of the Future. (It could have been various other of Wagner’s writings.) Whereas Greek tragedy had been ‘generically national’, the artwork of the future would represent the second of the ‘two principal moments in mankind’s development … the un-national, universal’. Whereas the Athenian spectator had been reconciled with ‘the most noble and profound principles of his people’s consciousness’; Wagner’s post-revolutionary audience would celebrate its membership of ‘free humanity’, a ‘nobler universalism’. Such remarks should be understood, it is true, in the context of a belief, widespread amongst many contemporary German, particularly Hegelian, thinkers, in the ‘universal’ nature of Germany’s historical mission (a belief which may be traced back at least as far as Herder). Moses Hess (him again), certainly no ‘nationalist’ in any Romantic or völkisch sense, had written a few years earlier, under many of the same influences as Wagner and Marx: ‘We Germans are the most universal, the most European people in Europe.’ Germany—we see this even in early essays by Wagner—was deemed to possess the peculiar ability, indeed imperative, to synthesise developments from elsewhere, and to bring them to their conclusion. But the aim was universal, and equally crucial, to be understood as part of early socialism’s attempt at least as much to found a new religion as to respond to the Industrial and French Revolutions.


Wagner was a revolutionary in this and many other ways; the exhibition, however, tells us that he ‘was personally acquainted with many of the [Dresden] revolutionaries’. Yes, because he was one. He probably ordered hand-grenades and certainly stood watch from the Kreuzkirche tower, not that you would know from here. Enjoy, then, the exhibits, including an 1841 edition of Georg Herwegh’s Gedichte eines Lebendigen, as well as an 1849 picture of Herwegh’s flight. You will probably wonder what they are doing there, though, since Herwegh’s relation to both Wagner and Marx, let alone his role in introducing Wagner to Schopenhauer, go unmentioned. Look at the 1849 manuscript of Die Not, signed simply ‘W.’ and wonder what its context might be. The material on contemporary theatres—plans, interiors, as well as a lovely paper theatre and figures for Tannhäuser—is significantly better.


‘Eros as a feeling means the coveting of people or things.’ I am afraid it does not. Wikipedia does a lot better; I have checked. Worse still, Wagner ‘resembled a Gründerzeit entrepreneur. Coveting, ownership, and possessions were central conceptions for him.’ In some ways, yes, but in the sense of wanting to rid the world of them. Read Jesus of Nazareth or, better, get to know the Ring. Perhaps you should have done that before, but it is never too late. A request for credit from a wine merchant is used to imply a sybaritic existence, quite ignoring the ‘worth’ repaid to the world goodness knows how many times by Wagner’s works and performances. A top hat from Paris further displays Wagner’s wickedness. Yes, he lived in nineteenth-century society and engaged with it. My iPhone also does not mean I do not wish to overthrow capitalism. A slipper from 1850, made of silk and leather: well, you get the idea… Where is Fafner’s Proudhonian rentier, ‘Ich lieg’ und besitz’’? The text either states or implies—its wording is unclear—that Wagner revised his works principally in order to make more money out of them. So he did not ‘owe the world a Tannhäuser, but vice versa. Extraordinary! As for the strange closing sentence, ‘By mixing public and private areas, emotion merged with business,’ answers on a postcard, please.


And so it continues. ‘Zugehörigkeit’ misunderstands Wagner’s at-best equivocal nationalism at every turn. There is no recognition that texts might acquire different meanings, let alone that Wagner’s meaning(s) may not have been those of a curator clearly suffering from first degree ressentiment. ‘The question of who should belong and who should not became increasingly important—in his [Wagner’s] œuvre and in society’. Not really; evidence is flimsy at best. But if we are going to make the claim, we should probably hear about Wagner’s Francophobia, his problems with Jesuits, Junkers, journalists, German princes,  and the rest. You will be unsurprised to hear we do not.


For this ‘antimodernist’ (to be fair, the German ‘Antimoderne’ says something different) composer of Tristan und Isolde (?!) saw Judaism, we learn in Ekel, ‘as the root of all that was wrong in Modernity and the cause of the dissipation of society’. Citation needed. The writer would struggle, since this is very much the wrong way round. Wagner’s antisemitism—regrettably, the exhibition favours ‘anti-Semitism’, implying the existence of something called ‘Semitism’—tends to reflect other, more deeply rooted dissatisfaction with aspects of capitalism. That is not remotely to excuse it, but rather to try to explain. It is certainly not the ‘root’ of anything. Nor were ‘Wagner’s portrayals of Mime and Alberich … often seen as anti-Semitic’. Quite the contrary; this was exceedingly rare, but has become, rightly or wrongly, more common recently. We have scenes from Barrie Kosky’s (to my mind) misguided production of Die Meistersinger presented quite uncritically, along with an intriguing sound-installation of Kosky’s, ‘Schwarzalbenreich’, in which he makes the case you would expect, yet far more interestingly—and with evident commitment—than the rest of this section.


The ‘Epilogue’ again has some excellent exhibits: a Lohengrin chocolate bar, a 1933 Bayreuth playbill for Die Meistersinger and an August 1939 poster for a Berliner Sommer-Festspiele Rienzi. It also, incredibly, claims that when Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow ‘coined the term Nibelungentreue (Nibelung loyalty) in 1909, he was using something that went back all the way to the Ring. Apparently, Bülow and the person who wrote this were both unaware of a certain mediaeval epic. Wagner, you see, was responsible for the First as well as the Second World War. A 1952 edition of Adorno’s Versuch über Wagner is, bafflingly for Adorno at his least fragmentary, translated as ‘Fragments on Wagner’. And Tolkien, it is claimed, took inspiration for ‘the basic idea and the title’ for The Lord of the Rings from Wagner. It may be a little more complicated than that—but then, that could be an epitaph for the exhibition as a whole. What a wasted opportunity.