Home > Uncategorized > An Ambivalent Commemoration: Wagner at 200 (Part 4 – The Wagner Question)

An Ambivalent Commemoration: Wagner at 200 (Part 4 – The Wagner Question)

Concerning this sorcerer, dark things are said. No one has seen him: he is known only by his power. That power is magic. The castle is his work…
Wagner’s prose draft for Parsifal, regarding the antagonist Klingsor (1865)

I hate you Richard Wagner… But I hate you on my knees.
Leonard Bernstein, from an unfinished documentary on Wagner (1985)

The party’s over. The day is past. Composer Richard Wagner has passed the bicentenary mark, his milestone birthday providing a space in which to reflect on his significance. A man who wrote unforgettable music, which inspires either great devotion or revulsion. A man whose influence on other genres, even other artforms (including literature and cinema), continues to resonate. And, on top of that, a man whose attitudes towards Jews and influence on Adolf Hitler continue to place him at the centre of a longstanding question: Can we separate the value of “great works” from creators who, to varying degrees, fall short of being great people?

This brings up the notion of judging others. If I may employ a bit of bumper sticker theology (provided you’re Christian): “Christians aren’t perfect. They’re just forgiven.” Also, after he moved in with the Griffin family of Quahog, Rhode Island, O.J. Simpson asked an angry mob a similar question.

So who are we to judge others for their imperfections?

On the other hand, some people are less perfect than others, because the things they do (e.g. rape, murder, genocide) go beyond the mundane fuck-ups we all make. While he didn’t directly commit any of the former (as far as we know), Wagner’s own judgments on what constituted “imperfection” went beyond the latter and had long-term implications. So it’s difficult not to judge him. Besides, if we were perfect, we wouldn’t judge others, anyway. To further complicate matters, some argue that his works contain coded anti-Semitism. Not only in the characters who possess stereotypically “Jewish” traits, which Wagner’s contemporaries supposedly would have understood, but also aspects of the music itself.

Nonetheless, while Wagner’s anti-Semitism is undeniable, evidence regarding the extent of his influence on Hitler remains vague. To further complicate matters, some of the most unlikely people become some of his biggest fans and advocates, perhaps even apologists. (For what it’s worth, Theodor Herzl, who was instrumental in the Zionist movement, drew inspiration from Wagner.) As musicians or audience members, some vie for tickets to the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the metaphorical magic castle where only Wagner’s works are performed. Even in Wagner’s lifetime, the composer could honestly claim that some of his best friends were Jewish.

One can find a couple of variations on the Bernstein quotation that headlines this posting. Unfortunately, even on YouTube, not a trace of the unfinished documentary seems to exist for public viewing. Whatever form it takes, the quotation summarizes the attitude that haunts many who fall under the spell of Wagner’s music. In her Wagner bicentennial posting Dear Richard, I need to tell you something…, author and music journalist Jessica Duchen underscores the “it’s complicated” aspect of loving Wagner… or at least his music. After all, if the music is so beautiful, so sensitive, shouldn’t the person be as well? Or is it all part of a game, where Wagner essentially remains the winner? As Duchen pointedly writes:

I go through all this, Richard; I soul-search, I agonise; yet I still love you. You can’t help who you love, you can’t help how you feel. It’s pure chemistry; and both physically and spiritually it’s beyond your will… It’s always impossible, if you try to rationalise it; it’s utterly transgressive; yet it’s impossible to resist.

Loving you breaks all our taboos.

And you’d have wanted it that way, because that’s how it is for your characters and you know, as an artist and craftsman, that the taboos heighten emotion. So we don’t just love you – we become slaves to you, because of the insecurity, the fear, the taboo-busting passion you arouse, and it is manipulative and frightening and terribly, terribly beautiful.

Don’t hate the player…

I’ve trod this ground before, mainly in relation to the bizarre usage of Wagner in an anti-Obama advertisement put out by the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI).

In the aforementioned posting, I provide numerous examples of the complicated relationship between Wagner and Jews who love his music, including musicians like Bernstein and Daniel Barenboim, as well as Stephen Fry and Larry David (or at least the character on Curb Your Enthusiasm).

Susan Buck-Morrs’ article Aesthetics and Anaesthetics (1992) provides further food for thought not only about Wagner, but also “all-encompassing” environments in general. Focusing on the nineteenth century, it discusses parallel developments in industrialization, medicine (especially anaesthetsia), and the notion of “phantasmagoria.” The term may encompass a variety of tools and environments where illusions reign supreme, ranging from magic lanterns to “immersive” environments (including the kinds with which we’re familiar today). While phantasmagorias generally favour one sense, multiple senses can engage with such environments in tandem. Drawing upon musicologist Theodor Adorno’s critique of Wagner, Buck-Morrs postulates how the composer’s interest in the “total artwork” acts as a form of aesthetic anaesthetsia. Based on this argument, one could easily say that the Bayreuth Festspielhaus acted as a sensual refuge from the social conditions created by industrialization… the twist being that industrialization helped bring about their creation. Whether or not one agrees with her assessment, Buck-Morrs makes a claim that’s worthy of contemplation: Wagnerian music drama floods the senses and fuses them… in a [quoting Adorno] ‘permanent invitation to intoxication, as a form of oceanic regression’ (24).

If one extrapolates this idea to other “all-encompassing” forms, are we also in danger of being seduced by the agendas of aesthetic sorcerers in various media, who count on the “anaesthetics” they employ to lure us to their wares? All as we try to “get away” from the struggles of our everyday lives? What horrors, even distorted halls of mirrors, could such anaesthetics give rise to? In more recent times, the U.S. military appropriated the idea of the helicopter attack from Apocalypse Now in raiding houses during the Iraq War.

Of course, this also assumes that such environments make us passive, a claim that Adorno and various of his acolytes have historically liked to make about our engagement with various media. Of course, one can easily discern a kind of judgmental intellectual superiority, based on flimsy evidence. How do they define “passivity,” anyway? And what if our desire for so-called “escape” is actually the best way to confront some of our deepest fears and desires… as some actors do when purportedly portraying “someone else?” Put another way, what if escapism isn’t actually a form of escape? What if listening to Wagner can be a way of not denying extreme contradictions, but rather of confronting them head-on?

This all returns to the central question: How can a man with such attitudes (including not only his anti-Semitisim, but also his less-than-endearing ways of treating people in general) compose such beautiful music? I can’t purport to answer this question, at least not definitively. Each side will have its own claims, and they’ll be more than willing to hurl abuse at each other. So those of us who wrestle with Wagner… and, more broadly, perhaps even our own favourite “problematic,” self-contradictory artists… can only be left to sort things out for ourselves. That said, different sides making an attempt to listen to each other seems a good place to start, at least for some modicum of mutual understanding. Perhaps at the next milestone commemoration of Wagner, whatever form it takes, there will be some movement in that direction. But no matter what, the spectre of Wagner will continue to haunt us, because what it symbolizes remains so compelling.

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  1. May 25, 2013 at 18:14

    Well, here’s something I’d never heard of before. A publicity stunt involving fake tickets to Bayreuth, as a protest against playing down Wagner’s anti-Semitism:
    http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2013/05/just-in-anti-bayreuth-group-prints-50000-fake-tickets.html

    And so it continues…

  1. July 23, 2013 at 10:18

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