People make mistakes, and often the full cost of these mistakes is paid only long after their deaths. One of the most tragic instances in the history of music is that of Richard Wagner, whose essay on “Jewishness in Music” might have been set aside, or at any rate not held so vehemently against him, had it not been for Hitler, and the admiration that Hitler felt toward an artist who, in Hitler’s crazy vision of things, had laid the foundations for the Nazi plan for national redemption. In retrospect, despite his record as a revolutionary and a fugitive, Wagner’s anti-Semitism is now widely assumed to provide the clue not only to his personality but also to his art. It is true that Wagner’s ideal hero could not possibly be taken as a model by socialists, liberals, urban intellectuals, or anybody attached to the idea of human equality. But that is only the beginning of Wagner’s problems. For the dramatic context makes it all too easy to suppose that the composer’s anti-Semitism is of a piece with his hero-worship, and that both are founded in an ideology of racial supremacy.
In his recent biography Joachim Köhler has filled in the picture, with the kind of no-holds-barred insolence that only the defenseless dead encounter. In Köhler’s version, Wagner was an emotional parasite who demanded complete loyalty without returning it, who sponged ruthlessly off both friend and foe, who shamelessly exploited those who most generously loved him — from his cuddly servant girls to his half-crazed patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria — and who was pinned down at last by the straightlaced and “bigoted” Cosima, in a warm bath of luxury from which he nevertheless wished to slip out by the plug-hole. He quickly saved himself from his early social and political ideals, when in the aftermath of the failed Dresden uprising of 1849 he saw the cost of retaining them, and thereafter gave himself up to one all-consuming political passion, which was anti-Semitism. This was directed first toward Meyerbeer, to whom Wagner had every reason to be grateful and to whom, for that very reason, he wasn’t, and then, with the notorious pamphlet, to the entire Hebrew race. Cosima encouraged this passion, since it was also hers, and in time anti-Semitism became a comprehensive Weltanschauung, which blended nicely with Cosima’s naïve bigotries. Many people loved him, but all were rewarded in the end with some gesture of repudiation, when it was discovered that they too belonged to the ever-growing conspiracy by which he thought himself surrounded. The roll call of victims extends from Mendelssohn, whose music taught Wagner so much, to Nietzsche, the philosopher who first penetrated to the moral center of the composer’s art.
As a convinced Wagnerian, who honestly believes The Ring of the Nibelung to be not only the greatest work of art conceived in modern times, but also the one that contains, as no other work contains, the truth of what we are now living through, I want to defend the composer against the tide of detraction that flows across his memory. I want to protest with a resounding “so what?” So what is so bad about these vampires who suck our blood in order to remind us (what we are always in danger of forgetting) that our veins really do contain some? So what if Otto Wesendonck’s wife was loved by someone who immortalized not only her, but the name of Wesendonck, in music whose beauty will never until the end of time be surpassed? How lucky for Minna that, her second-rate promiscuous character notwithstanding, she has gone down in history as the abandoned wife of someone worth being abandoned by; how lucky for the mad King Ludwig that he ruined the public purse of Bavaria on behalf of someone who turned mortal money into immortal music. How unlucky for Germany that more of its petty monarchs did not follow suit, but instead chose to invest in the worst of all possible causes, namely the war on France which was to lead in due course to the temporary destruction of Europe and the permanent psychosis of Germany.
BUT I KNOW THAT the excuses don’t quite carry conviction, either their conviction or mine. Wagner’s justification lies in his art and nowhere else, and the best excuse that can be made for him is that his creative labors required not only the enormous sacrifice that he made on their behalf, but also the sacrifices that he demanded from everyone else. But how to persuade the skeptics, who have such a powerful advocate in Nietzsche, the only great artist who has taken another artist as a target, and set out to destroy him? Nietzsche invites us to see Wagner’s characters as one-dimensional people, sick remnants of the bourgeois order, dressed up in heroic costumes and enjoying a spurious sovereignty over their fate in a fairy-tale world. The whole thing, in Nietzsche’s view, is a fake, a blown-up bubble of nothingness.
In response to Nietzsche I would say that Wagner’s dramas are not fairy tales. Nothing is more impressive in them than the grim realism with which wholly intelligible motives are carried through to their crisis. At the same time, these motives are placed in a pre-historical, mythical or medieval setting. Wagner’s purpose was not to fill the stage with fantasies, but to create the kind of distance between audience and drama that would endow the drama with a universal significance. Hence his preoccupation with myths and legends — i.e., stories that depart from realism only in order to convey universal truths about the human condition.
When Wagner applied himself to the study of the surviving literature of the early Germanic tribes, and to the poetry of medieval Germany, it was not to identify exemplary people and historical events but to acquaint himself with a culture in which the real had been through and through penetrated by the ideal: a culture in which people did not merely do things, but also lived up to things. He discovered myth not as a collection of fables and beliefs, nor as a primitive religion, but as a distinct category of human thought, as open to us, Wagner thought, in a world of scientific skepticism as it was open to the inhabitants of ancient Greece or Iceland. Myth dawned on Wagner as a form of social hope. It was a way of thinking that could restore to modern man the lost sense of the ideal, without which human life is worthless.
A myth, for Wagner, is therefore not a fable or a religious doctrine but a vehicle for human knowledge. The myth acquaints us with ourselves and our condition, using symbols and characters that give objective form to our inner compulsions. Myths are set in the hazy past, in a vanished world of dark forces and magniloquent deeds. But this obligatory “pastness” places the myth and its characters before recorded time, and therefore in an era that is purged of history. It lifts the story out of the stream of human life, and endows it with a meaning that is timeless.
Wagner’s original impulse, therefore, which was to discover in the ancient legends of the Germanic people the living record of the time of heroes, led him back to his starting point in the modern world. The time of heroes was a mythical time-and mythical time is now. Myths do not speak of what was but of what is eternally. They are magical-realist summaries of the actual world, in which the moral possibilities are personified and made flesh. Hence the Ring, Wagner’s synthesis of the Germanic and Icelandic myths as they were reflected in the dark mirror of early Germanic literature, became the most determinedly modern of his works, the one which more than any other provides a commentary on modern life and on the hopes and fears that thrive in it. Yet, planted within the bitter and often cynical drama, like a seed that survives in the desert and which suddenly flowers at the first drop of rain, is the heroic ideal — the ideal that Wagner had searched for as a past reality, but which he discovered to be a myth, and therefore all the more real for us, being written not in the past tense but in the eternal present.
Everybody with ears knows that the Ring is full of meaning, that plot, character, music, and motives are to be understood as multi-dimensional symbols, and that there unfolds on the stage, in the words, and through the music a complex argument about the nature of human life, about the hopes and fears of our species, and about the cosmos itself. Yet what exactly does it mean? I have wrestled with this question for many years, have been helped by this or that critical discussion or this or that striking performance. But much became clear to me when I discovered what is probably the only complete commentary on the Ring, which goes step by step through the text and the music, and explores some of its many allegorical meanings with relentless devotion and ardor. This is the commentary composed over many years by Paul Heise, which he has now made available to the public on his remarkable website, wagnerheim.com. The site contains a forum for discussion, and will surely be the place where the many interpretations can contend with each other, and so do what I, in this short article, have no hope of doing, which is to establish the claim of the Ring to be the truth of our condition.
THE RING BEGINS with an evocation of nature — a nature from which we humans have departed in our collective search for order, freedom, and power. This lost and longed-for natural world remains in the background, a haunting and lamenting presence in the music. The forests and rivers, the fires and storms, the dragons and mermaids, the voices of the woods and the birds — all these are re-created in the Ring, with a freshness and poetry that owe everything to music, but with a directness that recalls the rich tradition of German children’s literature. And against this background Wagner presents a tale whose every crisis has the quality of a pagan ritual: Brünnhilde’s announcement to Siegmund of his impending death; Sieglinde’s blessing of Brünnhilde; Wotan’s farewell; Siegfried’s first encounter with Brünnhilde — and so on. Virtually all the turning points of the drama are conceived in sacramental terms; they are occasions of awe, piety, and transition, in which a victim is offered and a promise of redemption received. The world of the Ring is a world in which human beings are awakening to a consciousness of their predicament, and seeing that predicament in religious terms.
But a peculiar Wagnerian twist is given to each of the dramatic turning points. While the sacred has in the past been interpreted as man’s avenue to God, for Wagner it is God’s avenue to man. It is the gods, not mankind, that need redemption, and redemption comes through love. But love, for Wagner, is possible only between mortals — it is a relation between dying things, who embrace their own death as they yield to it. This Brünnhilde recognizes during her great dialogue with Siegmund, resolving in her heart, but as yet not fully conscious that this is what she is doing, to relinquish her immortality for the sake of a human attachment.
But what, on this view, are the gods? Mere figments, as Wagner’s philosophical mentor, Ludwig Feuerbach, had argued? Or something more deeply implanted in the scheme of things, something that precedes and survives us? Wagner’s answer is not easily explained in words, although it is transparently obvious in music, and Heise’s commentary does the best that mere words can do to make it plain. And it is an answer that makes Wagner supremely relevant to us. For, despite our attempts to live without formal religion, we are no more free than people ever have been or ever will be from the religious need. Wagner accepted Feuerbach’s view of the gods as human creations. But human creations include some very real and lasting things, like St. Paul’s Cathedral. Gods come and go; but they last as long as we make room for them, and we make room for them through sacrifice. The gods come about because we idealize our passions, and we do this not by sentimentalizing them but, on the contrary, by sacrificing ourselves to the vision on which they depend. And it is by accepting the need for sacrifice that we begin to live under divine jurisdiction, surrounded by sacred things, and finding meaning through love. Seeing things that way we recognize that we are not condemned to mortality but consecrated to it.
That is an abstract and philosophical way of putting Wagner’s point. And whatever else we say about the Ring cycle, it is not an abstract argument, but a vivid drama, containing unforgettable characters in astonishing situations, presented through music of immediate emotional power. It is precisely this that establishes the cycle’s claim to greatness: it does not moralize about our modern predicament, but immerses us in it, and brings us face-to-face with what we are.