Wagner and Anti-Semitism


[continuation and conclusion of debate]

Dear Mark

I remain impressed by your precision, but isn’t it in effect just another example of nit-picking to point out that you didn’t say Wagner was a madman but that he ‘resembled’ one? After all, in my last letter I wrote ‘raving like a madman’. Nonetheless I daresay we both assume he wasn’t certifiable – well I think I assume that. But no matter. You then go on to remark that you are sure that I, too, am ‘repelled’ by Wagner’s (presumably racist) ‘off the cuff references’. Well as you know, ‘Judaism in Music’ and the later essays are not ‘off-the cuff’ and I am sure you are repelled by them. But unfortunately I have to disappoint you. No matter how shameless it sounds, I don’t think I am repelled. All this business whereby apologists go on and on about how shocked they are by Wagner’s racism is often merely a strategy. One makes as big a fuss about it as possible in order to give it a special status. It becomes an aberration so extreme and offensive that it must be treated separately from the rest; certainly it can have nothing to do with the operas. But in real intellectual terms this is a waste of time. And it is also self-indulgent. Who cares who is shocked? I, for instance, am more intrigued by Wagner’s racism. I want to know what it signifies for his creative work, above all its role in the production of allegedly quintessential German art. Why should I feel the need to make it clear that anti-semitism is obnoxious? For crying out loud, don’t all civilised readers know this already!? In any case, we must not ‘strain to find the anti-semitism’, but rather the Germanness. Lord knows, Wagner does in fact explain all these matters to us, and repeatedly and in detail and with a bold (and very arbitrary and dodgy) epistemology. Furthermore he is explicit with respect to both the alien semitic Other and the homely racially-bonded native. Frankly I doubt whether the other creative artists (Dickens et al) you mention in your last letter are similar in this respect. Though if they were, the apologists would have to insist, and at tiresome length, how shocked and repelled they are in these instances also. But that is not the case. And there are good reasons why it isn’t. Wagner is a much more aesthetically and intellectually formidable example and his racism is fundamentally productive, which is why the complete man – thinker and artist – is such a problem for the flat-earthers. They were seduced by the operas long before they discovered that the world is round and, moreover, that Wagner is as well, but in a manner that is unpalatable. Many have never, and will never, come to terms with the discovery. What remains incontestable is that Wagner’s anti-semitism is not a trivial topic or ‘off the cuff’. Anyway, I really don’t want to go on about this, but once again one must say clearly that the significance of the anti-semitism does not lie in the fact of anti-semitism itself. You seem to think I spend my time hunting for anti-Jewish references in the works. I don’t. The anti-semitism is in the Germanness; and Germanness, as Wagner repeatedly makes clear, takes its meaning – at least in part – from its non-semitic and privileged racial quality. And this really is the critical consideration that makes the subsequent paragraphs of your last letter (despite the sincere and interesting concerns you express) rather beside the point for me; which must include the ‘If Wagner’s works are anti-semitic, are they really something we should be staging at all?’ argument. If you agreed with Gutman et al, producing Wagner would be a problem. But, happily, you don’t. It is not, however, a problem for me for the quite different reasons I have just given. But Lord knows, I am bored with apologists going on and on about how shocked they are. What on earth are they frightened of?

Now I should pick up on some of your new specific points.

In my own scribbling on Wagner I have avoided the Gobineau stuff. Frankly I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Mind you, I do think it induces the apologists to further solecisms. Clearly Gobineau’s influence has been overstated partly because, as you say, Parsifal was written and composed before Wagner read him, although it should not be forgotten that they did meet in 1876; that is before the libretto was complete. But what really attracts the attention of the apologists is that we now know, chiefly from Cosima’s Diary, that he and Wagner disagreed on race. This, admittedly, is not uninteresting. It is clear that Wagner had not given up on the idea of redemption (it saturates Parsifal and ‘Art and Religion’), while Gobineau was utterly pessimistic: the human race was already degenerate because of miscegenation and so forth. But this doesn’t in any way exculpate Wagner. In disagreeing with Gobineau he is not rejecting racism, he is simply explaining how his (blood-and-religion-drenched) racism differs from that of an author he calls in ‘Heroism and Christendom’ ‘one of the cleverest men of our day’. Elsewhere he gushes about Gobineau’s racist ‘great work’. And he has approving things to say on Gobineau and ‘blood’ – an essential commodity for (at the very least) late Wagner. In short, to make much of the rows with Gobineau in order to establish that Wagner’s racism is overplayed is to repeat the solecism whereby much is made of his refusal to sign the anti-semitic petition of 1880. He didn’t sign, not because he wasn’t anti-semitic, but because the petition was ‘too servile’ (Letters 6 July 1880).

I wonder if there isn’t secreted in this a more ubiquitous sophistry among Wagnerites. That is, it is not a matter of clutching at straws so much as freely moving the goalposts. It reminds me of commentators who readily and creatively employ interpretation and hermeneutics when it suits them; let us say in revealing how, in Die Meistersinger, Wagner’s Nuremberg is an aesthetic invention that escapes the rigours of historical accuracy. However, they then go on to contend that there can be no semitic overtones with respect to Beckmesser because at that time no Jew could have been a member of the Town Council. That’s an historical fact, don’t you know. And frankly I think you do something similar when you claim that if gold/money is to be seen as a Jewish sign, then not only Mime and Alberich, but Fafner and Fasolt too, have to be Jewish. Prima facie this seems logical and stringent. But it is to ignore the deeper and complex ideological package whereby gold/money is linked to lovelessness and, as in ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, to anti-Christian and non-Germanic values. And let me in this context return to your first letter. There you mention ‘one writer’ who ‘claims that castration is similar (!) to circumcision, and that Klingsor, who is self-castrated, is therefore really a Jew. Quite apart from the offensive nature of the claim, I should have thought a little empirical research – a questionnaire of the circumcised perhaps – would have dispensed with such a preposterous argument once and for all.’ I assume you mean Marc A. Weiner. Like your comment on gold/money, I find your position here too literal. After all, if he says ‘similar’, your exclamation mark starts to look like a dramatic strategy to avoid any act of hermeneutics on your part. It is all presumably too far-fetched. Well, I have to confess that I like theoretically bold arguments and, moreover, believe that there is a context in which castration and circumcision can be seen as related. Let us say under the general umbrella of genital mutilation. And, incidentally, why should this issue in the wider anthropological context (where it clearly belongs) be limited merely to men? Admittedly I can no longer remember the details of Weiner’s book on Wagner and the ‘anti-semitic imagination’, but I do recall that it was completely upfront as to its highly speculative nature. Furthermore I believe Weiner did provide a decent academic framework and apparatus with which to deal with these questions. I recall that I was interested. I don’t know about ‘preposterous’. Perhaps.

But I see from your last letter that if Weiner is preposterous, Gutman is quite beyond the pale. By-the-way, I wonder why he is suddenly the subject of attack. After all his book (Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music) was published in 1968. If those who don’t like it (I found it brilliant and insightful) haven’t got over it yet, they are surely in some difficulty… of whatever sort. However I realise that this is not the case with you. You have seen a film (presumably a recent one) that has clearly upset you. You ‘recoiled’ at ‘seeing Gutman cackling maniacally, rubbing his hands with glee, as he propounded his outlandish assertions.’ Gosh Mark, this reads rather like a cartoonish stereotype. He really has got under your skin. And you are uncomfortable with my use of the term ‘flat-earthers’. Well, I haven’t seen the film so I have nothing to say about it. But even if Gutman is now ‘outlandish’, I fear my admiration for his book will still stand. In fact, although he may have overdone the Gobineau connection (in the book), given that he didn’t have access to a good deal of stuff that is now available I don’t think he is all that culpable. But heavens, we should be so lucky if people are still getting themselves into a tizzy over our books on Wagner in 40 years plus.

Well, I think we both agree that it is time to bring this exchange to an end. The fundamental differences between us are surely now as clear as they are ever going to be. I notice, by the way, that in your last letter you reject my term ‘eclectic’ and say that you are arguing ‘for some sort of hierarchy, or at least priority’. This seems to me just fine. I confess however that I am not entirely sure what that ‘hierarchy’ actually amounts to, though I do realise that it differs from the fundamental position I have attempted to establish. But that hardly matters. What, however, is not to be gainsaid is that I have been intrigued to read all the various and erudite matters you have raised and look forward to reading whatever you write in the future. And now I leave the last word to you.

Cheers and all the very best



Dear Barry

All good things, and a good few less good things, must come to an end. I do not doubt that our exchange has been a very good thing, and confess that when our editor first asked me to participate, I did not envisage something quite so searching, so provocative. It is certainly a fact that I understand much better now your case for the special relationship between Germanness and anti-semitism. Whilst I do not share your enthusiasm for the privileging of this particular relationship, it has clearly been greatly productive for you, which is the point you make.

If, however, you are right that Wagner is a ‘much more aesthetically and intellectually formidable example’ than some of those artists I mention as having unambiguously embodied anti-semitic prejudices in their work, and that ‘his racism is [by contrast] fundamentally productive’, I still find it odd that some writers become so obsessed with the matter. You are intrigued by it; they condemn, rant, and, in some cases, urge prohibition. I wonder why they do not simply find something else to do: no one forces them to read or to listen to Wagner. And whilst you may not spend your time searching for aspects of the dramas that might be interpreted anti-semitically, many others do. Part of the reason I find some of this so troubling is that it actually seems unwittingly to expose the anti-semitic stereotypes with which these obsessive (anti-)anti-semites operate.

Take these words from the introduction to Weiner’s book: ‘No wonder the Volsungs, Walther von Stolzing, and Parsifal … are so exaggeratedly bursting with health, youthful exuberance, and blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty; they are the longed-for image of the Self designed as a counter to that all-too-familiar part of Wagner’s own physical (and psychological) identity he so adamantly refused to recognize as his own – a physical identity that in the nineteenth-century anti-Semitic imagination came dangerously close to that of the Jew.’ Weiner seems not at all to have progressed from Nietzsche’s malice at its most trivial. More disturbingly, is Weiner talking about Wagner or about himself? I mean this not in terms of Weiner’s own physiognomy: I neither know nor care what he looks like, and even if I did, I should think it neither interesting nor appropriate to consider how much he resembled a Jew – or, for that matter, a Volsung. Yet the desire to discover such types not so much anywhere and everywhere, but in one particular place, seems to me – and I realise that I am repeating myself – to say far more about the writer in question than it does about Wagner.

I have just quickly re-read the material about castration and circumcision and found it even more slippery – the politest word I can muster – than I had recalled. It simply rests upon an assertion (p.185) that, ‘in the anti-Semitic imagination that sign [circumcision] evoked castration’. If it did, and assuming that there were such a thing as ‘the anti-semitic imagination’ – is this not in itself telling? – then a single piece of evidence, perhaps even a couple, might have helped. Should the claim be merely speculative, then it would be more honest to say so, rather than appeal to an assertion of unsupported ‘fact’. Again, and I hope I am not becoming too tiresome in this repetition, we seem to learn more about the author than we do about Wagner. Indeed, when you refer to the context of ‘genital mutilation’ as enabling the acts of castration and circumcision to be seen as similar, one might ask: mutilation, in whose eyes? Most of those who have been circumcised would not consider it to be mutilation; nor, I suspect, would a good number of those who have not. I do not recall it being a preoccupation of Wagner’s, which may be relevant, given that he hardly lacked preoccupations.

As for Gobineau, I agree that the disagreements in no sense exonerate Wagner. However, if we are interested in the matter – I find it difficult to summon up that much enthusiasm – we ought probably to mention incidents such as Cosima describing Wagner, over lunch during Gobineau’s 1881 visit, as ‘downright explosive in favour of Christian theories in contrast to racial ones’ (3 June). It is the differences between Wagner and Gobineau that are revealing, perhaps above all the fact that Gobineau, despite his professions of Christian faith, denied any form of universalism, instead essentially founding his morality upon his preposterous racial ontology: Aryan deeds were good simply because performed by Aryans (not so dissimilar from those who find bad characters or acts in Wagner’s dramas and therefore label them Jewish). Wagner, by contrast, offered redemption to all mankind, including the Jews; morality was intended to transform. Moreover, Gobineau was not at all anti-semitic, considering the Jews to be of his favoured ‘white’ race and admiring their efforts to maintain racial purity.

You are, of course, correct to state that the Wagners met Gobineau briefly in Rome in 1876. However, so far as I am aware, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that there was any discussion of the topics we have been considering; when contrasted with the preponderance of references following subsequent encounters, the deafening silence in any source material goes as far as proving a negative as seems possible. At least Gutman had the excuse that Cosima’s Diaries had not yet been published when he wrote his book, though that is hardly an excuse for continuing to make the same claims thereafter. Surely Gutman et al. might, however grudgingly, display a degree of intellectual honesty in admitting that they were wrong about this, even if they were then to proceed to claim, not unreasonably, that it does not matter too much either way.

Enough! This is straying too far from Wagner’s dramas, which is what we are most interested in. It is always a humbling experience to consider these works, which ultimately dwarf whatever our current conceptions of them might be. You understand anti-semitism, as part of Wagner’s Germanness, as a way in; I tend to view it as something more likely to close down discussion. That does not hold in your case, but I think its talismanic hold applies in many others’; it comes to represent a ‘Send Wagner to Gaol Free’ card. There is no monopoly of interpretation, however, thank goodness, and on that, I am sure we both agree.

With best wishes and many thanks for so stimulating a discussion,



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