Our Idea of Wagner Tells Us More About Ourselves Than About Him
Olivia Giovetti on Alex Ross's New Book About the Composer
In the first act of Die Walküre, a man and a woman fall in love in a duet that pulses with erotic urgency, heightened by the fact that Sieglinde’s abusive husband is asleep in the other room. The pair elope, a flight that offends the goddess of marriage (Fricka) and wife to the ruler of all gods (Wotan). Fricka demands that Wotan halt the adulterous relationship. (That the new lovers are also long lost twins, and very much aware of this family tie, doesn’t help their case.)
Die Walküre is the second installment of Richard Wagner’s epic tetralogy known as the Ring Cycle, a cumulative 15-hour drama revolving around the failure of divine omnipotence. Before they die, the twins have a son, the heroic, dragon-slaying Siegfried whose own relationships lay the groundwork for not only his own murder (stabbed in his one weak spot between his shoulder blades by a friend), but the end of the world to boot.
No one can control the relationships of the Ring as they develop, not even those who are able to see where those relationships will lead. Since Wagner’s own era, countless relationships to the composer and his work have continued to define and redefine his legacy. All are equally uncontrollable.
Alex Ross brings many of these relationships together in his latest book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. Largely setting aside the musical lineage of Wagner, Ross instead focuses on other epochs of art and politics in order to make sense of the composer’s influence, which was and remains unprecedented in terms of scope and complexity. In Wagner’s lifetime, he won the hearts and minds of Nietzsche, Van Gogh, Baudelaire, George Eliot, and Queen Victoria. In the nearly 140 years since his death, those circles of influence have expanded across time and space, leaving Wagner’s fingerprints on everything from spaghetti westerns to the Bolshevik Revolution.
Much of Wagner’s legacy is now overshadowed by the effect he had on Adolf Hitler, who took the composer’s anti-Semitism and nationalism to a cataclysmic level. After Wagner created the ur-instance of being stabbed in the back with the Ring Cycle, the metaphor became an idiom among Germans who felt that their loss in World War I came not from opposing forces, but from within their own government. The Dolchstoßlegende (“stab-in-the-back legend”) became one of Hitler’s early platforms. “Out of [Wagner’s] Parsifal I am building my religion,” Hitler once told a Nazi Party official. Wagner’s son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, in turn dubbed Hitler “Parsifal incarnate.”
After the devastation of World War II, Wagner came to be viewed by many as having put a knife in the back of humanity. Valid though the sentiment may be, its dogmatic nature ignores the far more tangled relationships that exist across genres between art, audience, and artists. Instead of uniformly absolving or canceling Wagner, Ross instead asks across 800 pages if we can hold the two impulses at the same time.
Even while alive, Wagner was a mercurial figure. Whereas conservatives today hail the composer for his nationalism, French conservatives of the late 19th century denounced him as a “terrorist of music.” At home in Germany, Wagner’s music was a symbol of nationalism, beloved especially by Bavarian King Ludwig II (whose Neuschwanstein Castle, with rooms dedicated to each of Wagner’s operas, is fandom turned up to 11). That nationalism was ignored in France, where fans like Baudelaire and Verlaine instead saw the music as “an international revolt against the artistic status quo.”
Here we see how quickly the composer’s legacy becomes, as Ross points out, “a story of failed analogies.” While work on Wagnerism began over a decade ago (the delay between the beginning of the project and its publication can be attributed in part to a 71-page bibliography), its release this month comes at a time where failed analogy seems all the more vital, as many of us consider the past to understand our present.
It quickly becomes clear that any single analogy undermines the full matryoshka effect of Wagner’s influence. His inarguably Christian operas drew the admiration of Satanists. His archetype of the wandering, nameless knight in Lohengrin is in the DNA of Clint Eastwood’s western roles. Despite the composer’s racist tendencies, Wagner was a favorite of writer and NAACP cofounder W.E.B. Du Bois. When Du Bois visited the composer’s Bayreuth Festival in 1936, he was well aware of Wagner’s racism (which was all the more obvious with the ascent of the Third Reich). Nevertheless, he wrote of the composer’s operas that “no human being, white or black, can afford to not know them, if he would know life.”
Langston Hughes counted Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde among such other life essentials as “goat’s milk, short novels, lyric poems, heat, simple folk, boats, and bullfights.” Martin Luther King likened his operas to an approximation of being in divine presence. Trace the lines of Afro-Wagnerism past Ross’s chapter, and you can see how Sun Ra’s Afrofuturism takes cues from Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (literally a “total-art-work” that attempts to synthesize as many artforms as possible to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts). Even more Wagnerian was when Sun Ra’s Arkestra joined Solange Knowles on tour a few years ago for “Orion’s Rise,” another Gesamtkunstwerk that also, like Wagner, created a new mythos out of ancient figures.
Even skepticism towards Wagner represents a form of his influence. Unconvinced by her then-husband’s devotion to the composer, Colette set the last of her Claudine novels, Claudine and Annie, in Bayreuth. Annie’s spiritual and sexual awakening comes not with The Flying Dutchman, but in a chance intimate encounter with Claudine. Likewise, Virginia Woolf vacillated between admiration and ambivalence towards Wagner, at times presaging Rebecca Solnit when she suggested that her admiration of his works was a phase that, as Ross describes it, “men had foisted on her.” (I prefer to describe this phase as “Men Explain Parsifal to Me.”) Ultimately, Wagner’s radical style of music (what French art critic Jules Champfleury described as “only one vast melody, similar to the spectacle of the sea”) shaped Woolf’s own style as a writer. This was most notable with her stream-of-consciousness novel The Waves, which she described as “writing to a rhythm and not to a plot.”
Perhaps the reason I’m drawn to this section of Wagnerism the most is also due to my own personal and complex relationship to the composer and his works. Having lost my father to suicide by drowning, I was first drawn to Woolf when I learned of her own fate. I was similarly drawn to Wagner thanks to his early opera of sea and sacrifice, The Flying Dutchman. We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.
The ambiguities even within Wagner’s works, where the borders between good and evil are porous and fluid, sustain the length of his dramas, mixing the worlds of black and white into an endless spectrum of greys. Calling Wagner his own Gesamtkunstwerk is at once overblown and precious, but reading Champfleury’s description of his music as indivisible like the sea does call to mind the oft-asked question: Can we separate the art from the artist? Is Wagner himself indivisible?
Indeed, Wagner’s public views were so mercurial (he developed a genuine interest in Jewish mysticism that can be felt in Parsifal) that it’s hard to discern what he did for publicity versus what he did out of a genuine belief. One area that Ross doesn’t fully explore in Wagnerism is the composer’s own mental health (which John Louis DiGaetani describes as undiagnosed bipolar disorder in his 2003 book, Wagner and Suicide).
Inverting the question of what to do with the great art by monstrous men, Ross would rather ask: What agency do spectators have when faced with the work of a “sacred monster”? Certainly we cannot watch his works today with the same mindset as audiences in the late 19th century. But to cancel Wagner entirely is, as Ross argues, “an inadequate response to historical complexity: it lets the rest of civilization off the hook.” In the background of Wagnerism is Roland Barthes’s concept that the birth of the reader must come at the expense of the death of the author—a comparison encouraged by Ross opening the book with Wagner’s funeral.
In one section of Wagnerism, this object lesson in Barthes comes full circle: In 1878, German author and philosopher Friedrich Theodor Vischer satirized Wagner in Auch Einer (“Yet Another”). The novel features an unmistakable parody of the Ring, featuring a “megalomaniacal druid” and a “cacophony of bagpipes and steerhorns.” Ross then gives us the punchline that Vischer was in part responsible for the Ring’s existence when, 34 years earlier, he wrote an essay that “called for a multipart national opera based on the Nibelung story.”
On the same page as this chestnut is the image of Siegfried slaying a dragon that, in this specific illustration, more closely resembles an ouroboros.
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