Wagner and Anti-Semitism
Nobody denies that Wagner was an anti-semite. But was his anti-semitism expressed in the works themselves? The issue has been much debated over the past two decades, but has resurfaced once again recently, not least with the new production by Richard Jones of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg for Welsh National Opera, performed also at the BBC Proms. The Wagner Journal asked Barry Emslie, author of Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love (Boydell & Brewer, 2010) and Mark Berry, who reviewed Emslie's book in the latest issue of the journal, to debate the subject.
The topic they were invited to discuss was: ‘To what extent does Wagner’s anti-semitism impinge on his music dramas?’ The opening exchanges appear below; click the link at the bottom of the page for the continuation and conclusion of the debate.
In order to kick off this exchange, our inestimable editor has given me the title question: ‘To what extent does Wagner’s anti-semitism impinge on his music dramas?’ Well I think I can dispense with that pretty briskly. Wagner’s anti-semitism doesn’t impinge on the music dramas at all, for it is not external to them. It is not an outside force; it is intrinsic. However it should not be seen as a code which turns each music drama into an anti-semitic tract. Mind you, that is not to say that interpretation can, as the Wagner flat-earthers desire, be outlawed every time the feared question of anti-semitism crops up. Nevertheless ‘intrinsic’ anti-semitism is – on the most profound level – not to be established by wilfully finding hatefully portrayed Jews under every operatic bed. Seeking out exact links between, on the one hand, operatic characters, textual and musical language etc and, on the other, Wagner’s Jew-hating essays, while relevant, is not the most productive route to take. Instead, if we are really to get a handle on Wagner’s anti-semitism and to properly appreciate how it doesn’t impinge on the music dramas but is inherent to their nature, we should – paradoxically and in the first instance – forget anti-semitism itself and concentrate on Wagner’s ennobling and at times nutty notions of German nation, race and culture. In other words, we should concentrate on everything that Wagner opposed to the semitic. For there we find the true measure and expression of how indispensable racism in general and Jew-hating in particular were to him. To understand this it is necessary to trace Wagner’s changing encounter with German culture and nation. You will doubtless find the following sketch excessively arbitrary, but I shall defend it.
Wagner expends great effort to establish what is, to quote Hans Sachs, ‘deutsch und echt’. And his sympathies and explanations shift. All, however, are rooted in what we might call history. But it has to be a very loose, non-academic notion of history. For instance, in his most important early essay on the issue (‘Die Wibelungen’) he makes his contempt for ‘schoolmaster’ history clear. There is a deeper truth and he knows where it is. It lies in the mists of Volk tales, and it is true simply because the Volk believed it. [PW vii.266–7, PW being the English translation, by W. Ashton Ellis, of Wagner’s Prose Works, London, 1892–9, issued in facsimile reprint Nebraska, 1993–5] Moreover this is a notion of Volk culture celebrated by German Romantics in the decades around Wagner’s birth. Fichte, Herder, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn et al belonged to a school of thinkers who wanted to define their nation in terms of ‘Kultur’ as opposed to ‘civilisation’. Perhaps Kultur and civilisation are indeed the two antagonistic souls that Faust says beat in his breast. After all they are still there in Thomas Mann’s 1918 rejection of democracy (Reflections of an Unpolitical Man), while Nazi ideologues seized on native Kultur to excoriate decadent universalism. Nonetheless ‘civilised’ values (universal rights, democracy, law, reason) born of the French Revolution and brought to Germany by Napoleonic force of arms, had their passionate followers, which is why ‘Gallicomanie’ became the target of German Romantics, raging against the degradation of native culture by (French or ‘welsch’) foreigners. This is the message of Hans Sachs’s final peroration, which teaches us that holy German art is the highest and undying manifestation of nation and Volk. And this is the privileged nationalist culture to which Wagner pays homage and which he traces back to a central Asian homeland. There we find the pre-Christian Stem-Clan and the Stem-Father (Wotan). [PW vii.259] Most importantly we learn that these deep cultural traces are still present in the modern German people because, unlike the other migratory tribes, they have not lost the language and culture of their mystic Asiatic origin. Nor, in this context, should we forget that Siegfried is a pagan Sun God, a precursor of Christ, just as the Nibelung Hoard is a precursor of the Grail, into which it might be said to evolve. [PW vii.289, 293–4]
Siegfried is indeed very pertinent here. For when Wagner turns to the boy hero to dramatise this unique and privileged history, he discovers that his poem of the late 1840s drives him back to the world of myth and the Stem-Father and his familial clan. Nonetheless the shift to Siegfried is the shift from the Volk to the hero, and then on to Brünnhilde. This is rather forced on Wagner as his critically important notion of otherworldly redemption is not a collective act, but one performed by the rapturous loving heterosexual pair. Meistersinger, as a civic comedy, is the logical exception to this tendency and it is not surprising to find in it the clearest expression of Herder’s ideas on native culture; chiefly as they relate to music and language.
Perhaps the final step in this history is the late colonisation of religion. Wagner turns hungrily to the immaculate, blood-drenched Christ, and rhapsodises about him just as he rhapsodises about his sinful blood-brother Amfortas (see letter to Mathilde Wesendonck 30 May 1859, and PW vi.232). Is this what the Sun God Siegfried has come down to? Perhaps, but there is a further shift. The obsession with pure German language is replaced by an obsession with pure blood, and the man/God on the cross is paradoxically employed to ‘prove’ that it is the Jewish God who slaughters. [PW vi.233–4]
Now how can Wagner make these noble, inherently Teutonic virtues yet clearer? By turning to the indispensable Jews. Their music (imitative, unecht), their wheedling ways, their exploitative manipulations of German culture (always more significant to Wagner than classic accusations of usury), the very way they walk and talk and sing – these are the qualities that in a wide variety of essays (and in his stage works) he puts before us time and again in order that we may understand what, in contradistinction, is German and genuine. Above all, he becomes obsessive about language and blood, and in the later religion-steered phase that invests Parsifal insists pedantically – even fanatically – on the absolute, non-semitic nature of both as regards Christ.
In your review of my book you infer a circular argument claiming I believe all Wagner’s ‘bad’ characters are Jews by definition. I do not believe this. In fact I see no point in across-the- board Adorno-like generalisation of this type. But you ask why not make exactly such blanket generalisations with respect to Frenchmen or Jesuits. Well, for argument’s sake we might consider it. If we do, however, we will immediately see that Wagner’s hostile remarks about both of your examples are inconsequential when compared to the quantity of his writings on the Jews. More importantly, they are feeble when placed alongside the dark Jewish paradigm which, in such a qualitatively sophisticated way, illuminates the noble German alternative.
There is, furthermore, an ironic twist to this, in that before Wagner had tackled in any deep way his notion of German culture and nation and before the anti-semitic pronouncements proliferated, he had already found a Jewish paradigm (The Wandering Jew) which he could employ in the first music drama as an heroic expression of a rootlessness relevant for Christians. But it is a rootlessness that must, like the Jews themselves, end in ‘downfall’. Yet the Dutchman is not degenerate and he reminds us how wedded to the Jews Wagner was even as his contempt, his fear and his fascination deepened. In the end, as you know, Wagner tells us that ambivalent Kundry, in the last music drama, is another Wandering Jew. Moreover both she and the Dutchman (if the legend of the Wandering Jew as cobbler is to be believed) were on the Via Dolorosa as Christ passed. Thus, while those stage characters who exemplify the degenerate qualities Wagner explicitly attributes to Jews should not be factored out of the discussion, the deepest expression of his anti-semitism is embodied not in Mime, but in Siegfried.
For when you loathe something as deeply as Wagner thought he loathed Jews, and when that negative paradigm becomes essential to your own Weltanschauung, you are trapped in an indissoluble coupling of your own making. You have minted a coin whose profound significance is expressed in the manner in which you keep obsessively turning it over in the palm of your hand. And Wagner appreciated this. He wrote to Nietzsche on 23 October 1872 that, when thinking about what it meant to be (uniquely) German, he had ‘succumbed to a curious scepticism which leaves me thinking of “Germanness” as a purely metaphysical concept [my emphasis], but, as such, it is of immense interest to me, and certainly something that is unique in the history of the world...’. Well not quite, for as he goes on to observe: ‘its only counterpart [is] Judaism’.
And metaphysics does not ‘impinge’. It is quintessential; it elevates.
Many thanks for your typically thought-provoking opening salvo. One might of course take our editor’s question in quite a different way and wearily respond that anti-semitism, some at best tenuously related to Wagner, never ceases to impinge upon the music dramas, since some people seem utterly obsessed with it, to an extent that even Wagner’s greatest foes might struggle to ascribe to him. I think we all know who some of those writers and agitators are; I certainly do not take you to be of their party. However, they have come, at least in certain circles, to wield a disturbing degree of influence. If one were to rely upon references in more popular discourse – news articles, television programmes, and the like – one might well believe that Wagner had died in 1983, not 1883, and that he had been an active member of the NSDAP. Quite why some of these people are so obsessed is probably more a matter for psychiatry, yet sadly, we cannot always merely ignore them, since their tale is lapped up by news organisations ever eager to exploit and to further popular obsession with the Second World War. There are, moreover, those who would go so far as to attempt to prohibit Wagner performances, rather than simply not attend them; this is a serious matter, to which reluctantly we must sometimes respond.
Enough of that – for the moment, at least. I should like to take up a few of the points you raise. I think we agree concerning the basically dialectic nature of Wagner’s thought; that is, he works by process of contradiction. His negations do not go so deep as those of more skilled dialecticians – but then, he is first and foremost a dramatist. The existence and driving force of contradiction are at any rate of great importance. However, we differ in terms of the degree and uniqueness of opposition you posit between German and Jew in Wagner’s world-view. Nationalism tends to operate in terms of an ‘other’, a term I generally detest, but which for once does the trick here. In the German case, at least during this period, it is often though by no means always the French. Given the experience of occupation and the Wars of Liberation, this is hardly surprising. In terms of intellectual and cultural history, this often manifests itself in terms of opposition to the French Revolution and indeed the ‘shallow’ French Enlightenment. (The indigenous German Enlightenment or Aufklärung was long devalued as a pale imitation of Parisian salons, for just this reason.) Wagner’s nationalism, such as it is, takes a variety of foes, amongst whom the French feature more heavily than I think you allow. This should hardly surprise, given his miserable experiences in Paris: near to the debtor’s prison, the wall-to-wall Meyerbeer (despite that composer’s personal kindness to Wagner) at the Opéra, the Jockey Club’s disruption of Tannhäuser, etc. The chequered history of Wagner reception in France is far from unrelated to this, by the way. I could proceed at greater length concerning Wagner and France, but might be straying unduly from the point, though a detour to Eine Kapitulation might be worth the effort.
You could be justified for asking: what exactly is my point? I think it is that the negative counterparts to ‘Germanness’ vary – France, the Jews, Roman Catholicism (a broader concern than the Jesuits), Lohengrin’s ‘hordes from the East’, etc. – and that they are more ancillary to what Wagner is trying to say. Die Meistersinger, for instance, has a degree of interest in ‘what is German?’, though that can be exaggerated; it is not fundamentally what the work is ‘about’, whatever Hitler or Adorno might have claimed. The welsch threat here is, though, as you say, French. Or is this partly to be understood in nineteenth-century terms as relating to Judentum (Jewishness)?
We should, moreover, be wary of ascribing views to Wagner simply because they are voiced by characters. Few of his characters are unambiguously good or evil – to be Nietzschean, good or bad – and this Shakespearean quality helps contribute to Wagner’s greatness as a dramatist. There are worlds of difference, too, I admit: Wagner clearly is attempting to persuade in certain senses, quite unlike his beloved Shakespeare. Speaking of which, a far more obvious case of anti-semitism is surely The Merchant of Venice. Moreover, one can add hosts of other works by various authors and dramatists to this list, yet few people work themselves up so much about them. Beckmesser seems to be far more Malvolio than Shylock – though there are aspects to his character that concern me more than anywhere else in Wagner.
Barry Millington, for instance, makes a powerful case for decoding in his 1991 Cambridge Opera Journal article, ‘Nuremberg Trial: Is there anti-Semitism in Die Meistersinger?’ Whilst I might disagree with some of the conclusions, there is a chasm between that carefully argued case and the wilder shores of the Wagner and anti-semitism industry – often more attractive to the wider world on account of their sensationalism. Take, for example, 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. Indeed, I am somewhat incredulous that it was ever advanced in the first place; it seems to say more about the author’s than Wagner’s attitude towards the Jews. Disturbingly, there are a good few commentators less balanced than this one.
As I said above, I do not consider you to be making the same claims as such writers, but sadly it is sometimes necessary or at least advisable to mention them. I am, however, a little worried about the claim you make concerning ‘noble, inherently Teutonic virtues’, then opposed to ‘the indispensable Jews’. I am not entirely sure what these virtues are, and in what sense are such virtues ‘inherently Teutonic’? Is this your own view or Wagner’s? And when it comes to the figure of the Dutchman, the Wandering Jew, we should not forget that this is a hero, who appears to embody virtues many might take to be ‘Teutonic’. Are we to say that Wagner’s earlier dramas might be philo-semitic? That would sit oddly, to say the least, with some of his contemporary utterances, but seems a logical conclusion, were we to travel down this particular path. And why, moreover, does Wagner, never shy in discussing the meaning(s) of his works, and equally never shy about attacking the Jews, not once make any connection between the two? Is this really to be explained by some conspiracy of silence, successful almost beyond belief?
It was for a similar reason that I mentioned, in my review of your book, a letter from Wagner to Malwida von Meysenbug (15 June 1862), in which Wagner contrasts the Messiah with those Jews who thought He would prove an agent of political liberation: ‘Believe me, all our political freedom fighters strike me as being uncannily like the Jews.’ You call Siegfried ‘a non-Jew if ever there was one,’ but on this evidence, one might well think him really ‘a Jew’. And why is it that Alberich acts as a Jew when turning, as you write in your book, ‘to gold and silver as substitutes for what might have been,’ whereas Fafner and perhaps Fasolt, who do the same, do not act ‘as Jews’? Does this not point to the act being about something else? For, as I responded, ‘if one permits that there might be something else at work, the whole “racist” edifice collapses. Opposition to Jewish culture and religion is amenable to a less “literalist” approach to plot detail; fundamental, as opposed to more incidental, racism is not.’ Issues such as renunciation of love, conversion of gold into capital, power-lust, and so on, issues that are treated both on stage and in Wagner’s own comments upon his work, may actually be his fundamental points rather than the surrogates for racism that many people divine. ‘Jewishness’ for Wagner often seems to be an emblem, though far from the only one, for the horrors of capitalist, instrumentalist modernity: his real target here.
Let me draw to a close, at least for the moment, with the letter to Nietzsche you cite. I have long been surprised that this letter has not elicited greater attention. The reason, I surmised, was that it was inconvenient for those who wished to press a stronger anti-semitic case against Wagner, so I was intrigued to see you use it to just that end. For surely what Wagner is saying here is that ‘Germanness’ and ‘Jewishness’ are ‘metaphysical’ ways of understanding greater concerns, that they do not tally with what most people would understand them to be, that his concern is not racially conceived. This at least tallies with a letter Curt von Westernhagen – and yes, I wish it were someone else – quotes in his chapter in The Wagner Companion, edited by Peter Burbidge and Richard Sutton. I mention Westernhagen since I have not read the original letter myself; I am assuming that it exists, that it is not simply of Westernhagen’s invention. At any rate, Hermann Levi, the first conductor of Parsifal, is quoted as writing on 13 April 1882 to his father, the Chief Rabbi of Giessen, saying that Wagner’s ‘fight against what he calls “Jewishness” in music and in modern literature springs from the noblest of motives, and the fact that he does not harbour any petty risches [anti-semitism] … is clearly demonstrated by his relationship with me and with Joseph Rubinstein, and by his earlier intimate friendship with Tausig whom he loved dearly.’ Levi might protest too much; there was often something quite petty about Wagner’s behaviour towards him. Yet his broader claim stands close to Wagner’s own ‘metaphysical’ understanding. ‘Jewishness’ or ‘Germanness’ are not thereby written out of the script, but they fulfil a different, subordinate role.
I should like to reiterate from my review, if I may, that I say all of this not because I wish to act as an apologist for Wagner. This is a term you often use in your book, and which I note Andrew Clark employing in his Financial Times review. I am not trying to excuse Wagner or to try to explain away uncomfortable truths. It is rather the case that we differ as to the nature of some truths concerning his work.
With best wishes
Thanks. An enjoyable and interesting read.
Let’s forget ‘the basically dialectic nature of [Wagner’s] thought’ for a moment. Instead let’s apply your characterisation to, if only for argument’s sake, us. I, for instance, am incorrigibly dialectical and – given your interest in Hegel etc – you are clearly not immune yourself. Therefore, on the basis of your first letter I shall urge you to be a better dialectician. But before doing so I should acknowledge the danger in all of this, not least because it isolates a solecism of which I intend to take full and shameless advantage. For dialectics is like the Marxist notion of false consciousness (which supposedly explains why what in fact should have happened, didn’t) and the Freudian unconscious, which makes axiomatic the principle that whatever seems to be the case only hides a deeper – and quite possibly opposite – truth. Dialectics also, when used as loosely as I intend to, gives us carte blanche to interpret freely and to happily turn everything into its opposite. It is potentially very decadent and allows you to get away with all sorts of naughty things which a stringent logician might baulk at. So let yourself go. Who knows, you might feel quite liberated the morning after.
My first dialectical challenge is to urge you to stop spending all this time on anti-semitism when you address the Beast of Bayreuth’s anti-semitism. Follow my example and go for the dialectical antithesis and concentrate instead on all the echt German stuff. That is the real site of Wagner’s anti-semitism. This will also obviate your blunder with Siegfried ‘the freedom fighter’, though I admit this is a tiny point with big consequences. The chief problem here is that Wagner changed his position re revolutionary activity. He may have been ripe for the barricades in 1848/9 but he later came to see many of the revolutionaries as diseased by French thinking. A ‘Franco-Judaico’ perversity created a false notion of democracy that betrayed ‘true German culture’ [PW iv.166] And, anyway, Siegfried is certainly not a revolutionary simply because he has a super sword and kills dragons. It is because he represents an authentic Ur-notion of the quintessential German: ‘a fearless human being, one who never ceases to love’ (25/26 Jan 1854), joyous and in full position of the right blood and the right language. And all this Wagner tells us time and again is exactly what the Jews don’t have. This makes them not merely dangerous but, as Wagner realised above all in the Parsifal phase, murderous; which is to say revolutionary in the negative sense.
Furthermore, if we are seduced by ‘their’ Old Testament we will bring devastation into the world. And this is the point he – in an early form – is making in the letter you quote to Malwida von Meysenbug. It is even more clearly expressed towards the end of his life, when hooked on the pacific, blood-drenched image of Christ on the cross, he tells us that the antipode (the Jewish, killing ‘Jehova’) ‘hated all other Gods’. And don’t forget this is consistent with the language used in the Meysenbug letter you misinterpret: Christ says there ‘My kingdom is not of this world! Renounce your desires, that is the only way to be redeemed and freed!’ This is very close to Parsifal. That is, it is some time after Siegfried. Nevertheless it is self-evident that Siegfried cannot be made into a Jewish or French revolutionary simply because he is hyper-active, doesn’t read books and is – of all things – innately loving. For when Wagner went to work on the Ring it was exactly these qualities that made his hero a non-Jew if ever there was one. Listen to what he says about him and don’t forget that in making him the embodiment of the Volk, Wagner is explicitly (in respect of culture, blood and language) making him everything but a Jew. He is nothing less than the blond Ur-German. For with
… the fair young Siegfried-man, I also lit, led by his hand, upon the physically-perfect mode of utterance wherein alone that man could speak his feelings…which the Folk itself once sang, when it was still both Poet and Myth-Maker. [PW i.376]
In general, I suggest that you have a tendency to fetishise particular trees and ignore the wood. The trouble with this is that our differences may end up as a war of quotations. Here I am guiltier than you and will stay so. But surely in your attempt to deprive the Jews of their special ontological status and your suggestion that there is no real difference between Wagner’s use of them and his use of the perfidious French, you fly in the face of so much – so very much – of what he wrote, and ignore the differences between his writing about the Jews and the French. Nonetheless at some point I want to return to your froggie fetish because, despite what I have just written, I think there is something important in it.
But back to dialectics. Of course the dialectic couple (let us say, thesis and antithesis) of the Jew and non-Jew is indissoluble. It would hardly be dialectic if it weren’t. That’s why the search for the horrid, black, evil Jew under the operatic bed is misleading. For Jews are so necessary that they too will be ambivalent. Therefore there is no contradiction in the positive function of the two characters with explicit roots in Jewish culture that bookend Wagner’s music dramas: The Flying Dutchman (one version of the Wandering Jew) and Kundry (another version of the same). This is partly because Wagner is contradictorily in hock to the Jews and what they represent. I think he was probably at least as fascinated as obsessed. Certainly he cannot keep the polarities fixed. He admits to Liszt how ‘this resentment is as necessary to my nature as gall is to the blood’ (18 April 1851); boasts that he ‘has had some very good friends among the Jews’ (27 Dec 1878); and tells Cosima that he just can’t leave the matter alone – it’s too important (28 Nov 1878). As I pointed out in my first letter, Jews are ontologically unique. They had only one comparable (ontologically comparable) Doppelgänger: The Germans. Not the French you understand; certainly not the French. For in not being metaphysical at all, the French are easy to dismiss as merely rank bad; much too trivial in their badness to be of any profound dialectical use. So you are right. Of course there is a philo-semitic element to Wagner’s treatment of the Jews. And not only with respect to the Dutchman, for with the Blutschwester Kundry the dialectical coupling is taken to the most fantastic lengths – something, going by your review of my book, you have not appreciated. Though others have. Nonetheless philo-semitism is not a refutation of the anti-semite argument, least of all a debunking of the whole issue, as you seem to think. It is merely a confirmation of the nature of dialectical thinking. It is only those who take a naive and crude view of Wagner’s attitude to Jews for whom it could possibly function as a coarse contradiction. And Lord knows, neither of us does that.
Now I see that I have no time to kick off the question of the French and your remarks on Wagner’s supposed universalism, which I found the most interesting part of your review. So I will leave that for the next letter and finish this one by tackling some of your specific examples re Jews under the bed, even though in diluting the deeper dialectical argument, with which we are now so familiar, it must inevitably miss the point.
We can put aside the COJ article on Meistersinger/Beckmesser. I think the case ‘against’ Beckmesser is as proven as it is ever going to be. Flat-earthers must simply dig their toes in. Yet I would be more grateful if, instead of flattering our editor Mr Merely Millington, in an attempt to get your hands on even more of his great organ, you had observed that it was I who showed that, in fact, Thomas Mann (very popular with some flat-earthers) made the link between Beckmesser and The Jew in the Thornbush (for not even Adorno does that explicitly), and thereby placed the cherry on the proverbial. But clearly you see little point in flattering me. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see potential flat-earthers (Hans Rudolf Vaget and Charles Rosen for instance) realising the power of the argument and, post-Millington, shifting their positions accordingly.
Turning the coin over to those examples which you don’t think are kosher, you ask on the issue of gold etc why Alberich is seen as a Jew (I would say an ersatz Jew) and Fasolt and Fafner are not. Now surely this is not so difficult. Alberich uses gold to an end, he is self-evidently (as Wagner noted when he saw infernal London) a capitalist. His aim is world domination based on a denial of love. But the lovesick Fasolt is there merely to show that Alberich’s curse works, while Fafner could not be more passive when it comes to what might be done with his hoard. Neither conforms to the Jewish stereotype. That is, the matter is not simply a matter of gold. It is one of power. Above all we shouldn’t forget that Wagner understood that the Jews were soon going to be masters of us all and that ‘we Germans especially will be destroyed by them.’ (22 Nov 1881) This is not something the French are ever going to manage. Furthermore, this capitalist/gold/Jewish/Alberich package was something the Nazis were well aware of. Now I admit that that doesn’t establish the anti-semitic interpretation but it should be mentioned because there are flat-earthers (not you; you are much too dialectical) who claim the Nazis never saw Wagner’s operas in this interpretative light. Well that nice Mr Alfred Rosenberg certainly did. He observed in his dinky little book Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts, that ‘the black dwarf Alberich...cursed love for the sake of world domination’ and ‘this dream drove the Jews around the entire world, a restless, strong dream.’ So we are back to the Wandering Jew but certainly not to a philo-semitic version of it. And furthermore these capitalist (Rosenberg is explicit about this too) Jews duly destroyed Germany in 1918. Perhaps Wagner was right.
Another of your examples is Hermann Levi. But he doesn’t really establish what you wish to establish at all. He was just plain ambivalent, running off and coming back. But wasn’t Wagner’s treatment of him despicable? We know from Cosima’s diary that he wasn’t best pleased when Wagner suggested he should go through a religious ceremony that Wagner would stage in order that he (Levi) be made fit to conduct Parsifal. I mean, Mark, what an insulting patronising shit our great German genius could be. But the interesting thing with Levi, and all the other Jews close to Wagner, is how much – like the rest of us – they were captivated by the operas. As Wagner observed, not of us, but of the Jews: ‘They are like flies – the more one drives them away, the more they come’ (19 Sep 1880). Which, when you think about it, could be seen as a rather dialectical state of affairs.
Thank you for your response. Let me begin, as you did, with dialectics; I shall hope that this will not put off too many potential readers. ‘Method’ might be another, less forbidding way to think about the matter; and thinking about it is, I think, important. I am wary of the ‘freedom’ you posit, largely because it seems to me to replicate an important distinction Wagner himself drew between freedom and licence. (He is hardly original in this, but that is not the point.) You seem alternately to be suggesting that we should say whatever we like about his dramas and then employing quotations, which would surely be redundant were we really to be in a post-modernist, anti- or a-historical free-for-all. I am not sure in any case that the ‘freedom’ you suggest gets us very far, for one could say just about anything on this basis with more or less equal justification. The whole Hegelian point is that one can only be wise after the event: the owl of Minerva, as Hegel himself memorably put it, only spreads its wings at dusk. This means, simplistically, that one cannot predict a negation, let alone a ‘synthesis’, for want of a better word; one can only trace things backwards, historically.
One might pause for thought here and ask what this tells us about Wagner and Wagnerism of various persuasions, whether political, compositional, or anything else. Of course, one can come up with any interpretation one likes of Wagner, or indeed of anyone else, though Wagner seems astonishingly resistant to an extent that many other dramatists are not. But are we not trying to come to some sort of understanding regarding ‘the work’ itself? Far be it from me to preach a gospel of Werktreue; I have spent much of my critical life to date inveighing against it. However, I do not think that the sole alternative is ‘anything goes’. Nor, I think, do you; so should we not be a little more careful? As Stravinsky, in many respects an all-too-good (unknowing?) Kantian remarked, there is nothing so liberating to invention, to true freedom, as restriction. Perhaps I am simply too much an historian to think otherwise.
At any rate, I simply cannot hold with your injunction to look for anti-Semitism in instances of ‘Germanness’ – I am not sure what else to call it, at least in English – rather than in instances of anti-Semitism. I should have thought the objection to this was obvious enough. If we are asked to look at anti-Semitism, then should we not do just that? You can assert all you like that it is the mirror image or dialectical opposite of ‘Germanness’, but it is not clear to me on what basis that becomes more than an assertion. Yes, you can point to the opposition Wagner draws between German and Jewish; likewise, I can appoint to other oppositions drawn. I simply do not think them quite so crucial as you do and certainly see no reason to privilege them as you do. Indeed, it is not clear to me why such privilege is in itself any more anti-Semitic a claim than any for which Wagner is being held responsible. For where does your characterisation of ‘a Jew’come from? It seems to me largely the perpetuation of an anti-Semitic stereotype.
At the risk once again of sounding obsessed by the French, I should respond to one point you make; we may well return to some of the others. You write: ‘Above all we shouldn’t forget that Wagner understood that the Jews were soon going to be masters of us all and that “we Germans especially will be destroyed by them.” (22 Nov 1881) This is not something the French are ever going to manage.’ I should not be too sure. Historically speaking, the ‘threat’ from the French was very real indeed, certainly far graver than any paranoid nonsense concerning ‘the Jews’. The French occupation of Germany cast a long shadow. Moreover, this was certainly not simply a matter of memory. It was by no means certain during the 1860s that a united – in actuality, divided, kleindeutsch – Germany would arise, that the South German states would not favour France over Prussia, still less that Prussia/Germany would be able to defeat the French. There could, moreover, be no gainsaying the determination of the French to regain Elsaß and Lothringen, as we nowadays elect not to call them.
I should now like to move on to Siegfried. I am afraid it is not nearly so straightforward – messy historical dialectics here, I'm sorry to say – a matter as Wagner giving up on the Revolution. Rather, his revolutionary concerns come into conflict with other, more ‘pessimistic’ ones – and it is not always clear which ‘side’ wins. After all, Wagner is first and foremost writing dramas rather than treatises, and dramas tend to explore rather than to resolve. Therefore, I do not think that, even sticking to correspondence, there is a necessary incompatibility between two quotations: one (to Theodor Uhlig, 12 November 1851) describing the Ring as making ‘clear to the men of the Revolution the meaning of that Revolution, in its noblest sense’, and the other (to August Röckel, 23 August 1856) claiming that, in his poem, he portrays ‘the essence of the world itself in all its conceivable phases, and … thereby … [recognising] its nothingness, with the result that … what emerged was something totally different from that which I had originally intended.’ This is the stuff of the drama, far more so than anything concerning Germans or Jews. You speak rightly of metaphysics: look no further. The battle fought, inconclusively perhaps but certainly not unproductively, is between Young Hegelian and Schopenhauer rather than German and anyone else.
I have to admit that I find your characterisation of Siegfried perverse. Yes, one can discern something ‘Teutonic’ in him, but this is not his sole, still less his most interesting, attribute. His dramatic point in the Ring is that he is a rebel without consciousness. This both permits him to accomplish various deeds and also leads to his downfall. He can die ‘in the fullest sense of the word’ (letter to Röckel, 25/26 January 1854), which is crucial since ‘fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness, and this fear is generated only when love itself is already beginning to wane.’ Yet he cannot, for this very reason, as the post-revolutionary Wagner comes to realise, succeed in maintaining any revolutionary gains: he lacks the consciousness that might vanquish Hagen. Siegmund is a different, indeed braver matter, for he rejects Valhalla whilst knowing very well what his rejection entails; he ‘fails’ for other reasons. By the way, though, is it Teutonic for a hero to reject Valhalla?
So far as I can see, then, this really has nothing to do with anti-Semitism; it would only do so, were one determined to make it fit. Likewise the matter you raise with Alberich. Yes, he is a capitalist, but it is you, not Wagner, who is calling him an ersatz Jew. If anything, Wagner, according to your allusion to Cosima’s Diaries, likens him to a Londoner; or rather, he likens Nibelheim to London, which is not quite the same thing. He is neither a Londoner nor a Jew in the drama itself. Engels would have found Alberich or rather his form of production in Manchester or the Rhineland. But that is not the point, for the point is capital, not race. You seek and you find, but I think that says more about you than it does about Wagner. For your ‘dialectical couple’ of ‘Jew’ and ‘non-Jew’ remains a couple of your own choosing. My point is that one could choose various other couples – of varying degrees of importance, doubtless, but nevertheless with considerable justification. And surely you are guilty of a sleight of hand here: should not your principal couple be German and non-German?
This probably brings us to the matter you trailed: that of universalism. In many respects, I consider this to be the crucial ‘opposite’ of the ‘national’: not least, but by no means solely so, because Wagner said it was. To quote his ‘Artwork of the Future’, Greek tragedy had been ‘generically national’, whereas the artwork of the future, that is his artwork of the future, would represent the second of the ‘two principal moments in mankind’s development … the un-national, universal’. In another of his Zurich reform writings, ‘Art and Revolution’, Wagner writes similarly, that the Athenian spectator had been reconciled with ‘the most noble and profound principles of his people’s consciousness’. Wagner’s post-revolutionary audience – for he envisages an audience after the event – would, on the other hand, celebrate through performance of this artwork its membership of ‘free humanity’, a ‘nobler universalism’. I look forward to hearing from you on this.
I do hope our readers feel as I do. For I would happily listen to you on dialectics – or ‘method’ – until every last Walküre steed had spread its wings and returned safely to Valhalla. But now let me try to isolate the key difference between us and then go on to the promised topic of Wagner, universalism and the French, to which, in any case, it will give rise.
You do not see any reason to privilege the dialectical opposition between Germanness and Jewishness in the manner I do. Now, I believe that I have given absolutely convincing reasons why this dialectical opposition is as special as it is. In fact, they are not my reasons but Wagner’s. He defines Germanness as blood, race and language giving rise to a particular culture ‘historically’ rooted in a mythical world. True, none of this need mean that the antipode to it has to be Jewishness. You, for instance, understandably suggest the French. But conceivably it could be meat-eaters and masturbators. After all Wagner had negative things to say about those chaps too.
Nonetheless, when Wagner does come to the Jews – which he does repeatedly and in a manner so upfront that no one could call it ‘zimperlich’ – he explains their non-German qualities in special and primary terms, in that he uses the same categories of blood, language, culture and history employed to explain Germanness. I suggest that the fundamental determining nature of these categories is self-evident. All this is very relevant for your French fetish, because as Wagner makes clear (for instance in ‘German Art and German Policy’), the French weren’t always decadent. [PW iv.38–9] They have gone astray. They are therefore redeemable. They impinge on Wagner’s Weltanschauung because of the ‘recent’ Napoleonic hegemony and its lamentable effect on native German culture. It is also likely that he loathes the French because he was given (or so he thought) such a hard time in Paris. He certainly developed an unbalanced hatred of Meyerbeer, who, we should not forget, was in his eyes both French and Jewish.
But the Jews, on the other hand, are not, like the French, an historically contingent threat. They are intrinsically so; a threat ipso facto. For instance, their blood is special. It is ‘corrosive’ (7 April 1873) and it is to be ‘dreaded’ [PW vi.264]; mix only a small part of it with German blood and a Jew is the inevitable result [PW vi.271]. They become devious mimics in their host societies. And even after 2,000 years they cannot disguise their Jewish way of speaking. [PW iii.85] Moreover Wagner is fanatic in his determination to keep this unbridgeable duality uncompromised in the person of Christ, who must be freed absolutely of any associations with Jewish blood (27 November 1878) and language. [PW vi.233] And remember Siegfried has already been explained to us as an Ur-Christ.
The key point is that in the Wagnerian scheme of things the Jews are always going to be what they always were. They will, for instance, forever imitate and forever exploit German culture. And this is what he means when he talks about ‘us’ being destroyed by them. In your last letter you confused my opinions with his. ‘Destruction’ has nothing to do with territorial questions, or who might win the ‘next’ war and regain Alsace and Lorraine and such like. Paranoid, racist, but consistent, Wagner is talking about the annihilation of Germanness itself, and he knows that the Jews are the only ones who can accomplish this. They are special because they have preserved themselves (with respect to race and language) in a way that only the Germans can match. That is the ‘metaphysical’ (not materialist) coupling mentioned in my first letter; a coupling which is ‘unique’. And there is by definition no place for the French here, for they are now incorrigibly ‘materialist’ [PW iv.37 and passim]. They have no longer a metaphysical or spiritual function.
In this context I must return to Siegfried because you seem to me to wilfully – but entertainingly – ignore his Germanness. You say now that he is a ‘rebel without consciousness’. You couldn’t be more wrong. Wagner tells us (and I shall not repeat the quotes) that he possesses a consciousness of the most profound type. It is the consciousness of the Volk. In other words it is the primal Teutonic consciousness excavated in ‘Die Wibelungen’. There Siegfried is placed near the tap root of the history of the German Volk, he is a sun god and he prefigures Christ. He is at the mythic birth of the German race in their Central Asian homeland and he is in privileged possession of their songs and language. Nothing deeper/higher and more ennobling is conceivable. Nevertheless, I am full of admiration for the way in which you hang on to your alternative image. Perhaps you could get Siegfried an honorary place in the annals of the French Foreign Legion. He wouldn’t be the first blond German who had good reason to join that particular organisation.
However, while the German/Jewish dialectical coupling is explained by Wagner in the most profound and determining conceptual language, that does not mean that the French connection is trivial. It is not. I dealt with this at length in my book, and sketched out in my first letter a dichotomy between Kultur (German) and civilisation (French) that goes back to Fichte (at least), and is certainly relevant for Wagner. The universalist values you mention in your review of my book are also relevant here because they evoke the French revolution.
Firstly let us acknowledge the universalist element. Wagner was a passionate admirer of Beethoven’s Ninth and there we learn that all men will be brothers; he was well aware of the young Hegelians railing against Prussian censorship and praising French liberties (like Marx in the Rheinische Zeitung); he became intrigued by Indian religions; and turned rapturously and repeatedly to classical literature: ‘Hail to thee Goethe, thou who hadst power to wed Helena to our Faust, the Greek ideal to the German spirit.’ [PW iv:43] Nonetheless, what is striking is the degree to which his universalist thinking (while never losing its passion for classical Greece) becomes (and maybe to some extent always was) quintessentially German – in his eyes. That is, there wasn’t some principled libertarian base corresponding to the notion of French ‘civilisation’ on which one might analyse different democratic societies. Rather there was an obsession with German Kultur which took precedence, and coloured both the manner in which Wagner viewed libertarian thought in general, and decadent French democracy in particular. Furthermore the Fichtean terminology I use here (Kultur versus civilisation) runs through Wagner’s writing on this topic; most notably in ‘German Art and German Policy’ . Certainly democracy ceases to be a positive concept because his notion of Germany is not libertarian, but abstract, preferring (like Hans Sachs) cultural belonging to social equality. We will not despise our German Meisters. So while there is a ‘Franco-Judaico-German Democracy’, it undermines the ‘German spirit, German honesty, German freedom, German morals’. It is a foreign threat from a ‘non-German people.’ [PW iv.166] In short, in both suggesting the French as a reasonable antipode to Germanness and raising the question of Wagner’s universalism you unwittingly construct a contradiction which, at the very least, contaminates any positive notion of the latter.
And even in the active revolutionary stage of the late 1840s the matter was dubious. Particularly striking is the Vaterlandsverein Speech of 1848. Here we have him so mixing the ingredients of German culture and libertarian thought that the universalism he contrives is heavily compromised. In fact when we get down to it, it is pure nationalism. For instance his desire to hold onto the King (in a Republic) reminds us of the Stem-Father and the axiom that renewal is realisable only by returning to the roots of Germanness: ‘The farther back we search among Germanic nations for the Kinghood’s meaning, the more intimately will it fit this new-won meaning and prove it ... re-established.’ [PW viii.44]. And we should note just who the Germans are going to redeem: ‘German freedom and German gentleness shall light and warm the French and Cossacks, the Bushman and the Chinese ...’ [PW viii.140 – my emphasis]. This is not the arrogance of the European coloniser who images he is bringing universal civilising values to ‘primitive’ parts of the globe. Rather Wagner’s Germany alone is the true universalist idea. It will liberate everyone everywhere. Even the wretched French. And as I said in my book, near the end of his life nothing had changed: it is still the task of the German people ‘to spread culture by colonisation’. (18 January 1880) So we end up with a universalism that is also, in the best dialectical manner, not universal at all.
Mind you, Mark, there is one group that these wonderful Wagnerian Germans can’t save, isn’t there? They are the Jews. They have no option. Or if they are to be saved it can only be by their own self-willed ‘downfall’. In other words, exactly that destiny trumpeted at the end of ‘Judaism in Music’ and so sublimely realised on the stage by the Wandering Jews: The Dutchman and Kundry.
In passing it should be acknowledged that when it comes to the French, Wagner can enhance his poisonous brew by throwing in the decisive Jewish ingredient. This will of course raise the French threat to an absolute level, but only because the ahistorical Jewish evil has been mixed with historically conditional French degeneracy. I implied this in my last letter when I quoted Wagner to the effect that the so-called radical libertarian/revolutionaries were ‘Franco-Judaico’. The same point is made in ‘German Art and German Policy’ where, as Ellis’ footnote suggests, the corrupt cause of ‘civilisation’ will be taken over by the usual suspects: the Jews. [PW iv.60] As a result we have foreign Jews exploiting a European movement, alongside German Jews corrupting their host culture. Although, as Wagner notes, even echt Germans are all too ready to let themselves be exploited by the Semites. [PW IV.159] However this mixing of the French and Jewish categories should not blind us to the different character of each.
My own position on Wagner’s nationalism versus universalism has changed somewhat and this is not irrelevant in the context of your argument that the French can replace the Jews as the dialectical antithesis of Germanness (of the fallacy of which I hope you are now fully convinced) and your interesting observations on universalism in your review of my book. I certainly don’t think that Wagner gave up revolution for philosophy (see Magee), but I do believe that his idea of revolution became ever more anti-materialist, ever more ‘metaphysical’, and ever more culturally and racially based. Which is to say that it became everything other than universalist. Perhaps even more interesting is the possibility that it was so from the beginning. Therefore let me finish with Nietzsche.
Perhaps we should believe Nietzsche that the Wagner he first met in 1868 was genuinely civilised and cosmopolitan. But I wonder. After all Wagner was profoundly racist from the 1840s onwards. Whatever the case, Nietzsche came to see Meistersinger (which had initially overwhelmed him) as nothing less than a regrettable German attack on French ‘civilisation’ (1875). And then there was his sad visit to the first Bayreuth Festival the following year where he ‘discovered’ that Wagner had been Germanised (‘translated’ into piggish German). Recording this in Ecce Homo, he laments Wagner’s loss of cosmopolitanism and deplores his anti-semitism. But maybe he is opening his eyes to something that had been the case for a long time. Kultur had never given real ground to civilisation and therefore, were it not for the special and deeper epistemological character of Jewishness, your argument that the French can be seen as the natural antipode to Germanness would be even more impressive than it is.
Thank you once again. There is uncomfortable reading, to put it mildly, in much of what Wagner has to say about the Jews, a little of which you quote. One such example comes from Cosima’s Diaries: Jewish blood as ‘corrosive’. What Wagner says is that it is ‘more corrosive than Latin blood’, so that, if we are somehow to exercise critical charity, the difference appears to be of degree rather than entirely of type. (This, incidentally, is how he claims – is he joking, as Cosima appears to suggest? – that the Franks and Normans were turned into Frenchmen.) Wagner’s words are not only distasteful; they resemble the ravings of a madman, and I possess neither ability nor desire to ‘defend’ him here. I can only wish that we heard less about this and something about possible reactions to the paper on the pre-Socratics Cosima proceeds to report Nietzsche reading. However, Wagner seems to contradict himself here – and not necessarily in our favoured, dialectical way! His claim seems utterly at odds with the letter to Nietzsche we earlier discussed, where Wagner describes Jewishness as being akin to Germanness, ‘a purely metaphysical concept’. And the chronology is not that different: 7 April 1873 for the diary entry, 23 October 1872 for the letter. In that case, the question seems to be: to which of Wagner’s claims should we pay greater heed? How might we go about deciding? We could categorise and count up the references, I suppose, and see which category ‘wins’, but I doubt that either of us would be very happy with such an approach. We can consider the roots of what he is saying, how it connects with other issues, which is part of what we have been doing already. But might I suggest that we should also consider the primacy of the dramas themselves in all of this?
For one thing, that is what we were originally asked to do: to consider how anti-Semitism might impinge upon them. We need not necessarily care too much about that, for our discussion can go wherever it leads. But more fundamentally, is this not what we should be doing? It is surely the dramas in which we are most interested, is it not? I am not claiming that anything else is only of interest in terms of the dramas. Many of Wagner’s writings would be worthy of consideration in themselves as writings of nineteenth-century æsthetics, even if they were not the work of a master dramatist, though the problem is that they could not really have been written by anyone else. However, it would be a bizarrely democratic attitude indeed, would it not, to treat every utterance, whether an off the cuff remark at a Wahnfried soirée, or a deeply considered harmonic shift in Tristan und Isolde, as of equal importance? Influence can work both ways; either might illuminate the other. Yet, even in terms of merely establishing what Wagner is saying, let alone of relative importance, there is priority to be given to the works: his ideas reach their fullest fruition here, for it is here that he is relentlessly self-critical. What he might say about the state, for example, in ‘Opera and Drama’ is put to the test in creation of the Ring drama, and often found wanting. Likewise concerning the relationship between writings in the Bayreuther Blätter and Parsifal. This indeed seems to me to be the case in terms of most of what Wagner has to say – and most of how and why we are interested.
I should like to continue along these lines, but first should respond to a number of points you raise. I concede that there is no equality amongst nationalities when it comes to the matter of universalism and nationalism. German often, though not always, comes first, which is hardly surprising. So it does even in Herder, whatever his and others’ protestations to the effect simply of difference, not superiority. Nietzsche, even later on, was far from immune to the conception of Germany as the Aufhebung of Greece. It is therefore especially rich of Ernest Newman, in his spectacularly uncomprehending, indeed downright philistine, diatribe against Nietzsche, to write of the ‘old self-flattering German fantasy of Germans as spiritual heirs of Greece’, somehow managing to forget that both men shared enthusiasm and ambivalence in this respect. I also agree that the relative importance of ‘Germanness’ increased, though I think I should place its high water-mark around the mid-1860s – not entirely coincidentally, the time of Die Meistersinger – after which, not least on account of disillusion with Bismarck’s Reich, other concerns gain importance at its expense.
I should also add that I am not concerned that the French should replace the Jews as the dialectical antithesis of the Germans. My point is more that I do not think Germanness (with whatever opposing dialectical force) is generally the most helpful concept to aid understanding of Wagner’s dramas. At the very least, there are many other options: what about, for instance, atheism and the transcendental, or Hegel’s own master–slave dialectic? We all privilege certain aspects of the dramas at the expense of others, but I think we should at least try to correct our (often productive) biases. In the light of your book, for instance, where you talk a great deal about the importance of ‘heterosexual love’ for Wagner’s dramas, what might the alternative forces be? Homosexual love? Indifference? Hatred, as you suggest? There are alternatives, surely, which might benefit from being given their due. It is not a matter to which I have given any real thought, but there seems at least as strong a case prima facie, to engage in a queer reading of Parsifal as in a racist one: probably weaker in the context of Wagner’s other writings, but probably stronger in terms of the immanent evidence. A reading of indifferentism might, I own, be a tougher proposition, but it is a valid dialectical alternative, if that is the business in which we are engaged. (Incidentally, the second of Poulenc’s Mouvements perpetuels is, if memory serves me correctly, marked ‘Indifférent’, so one might, were one so inclined, set up a French–German dialectic between Les Six and Romanticism there.)
Resuming and extending what I said earlier, concerning the writings vis-à-vis the works, should we not be careful in identifying the mythic Siegfried of Wagner’s theoretical writings – in general, preparatory to his drama, and in any case intended as a consideration of the character’s portrayal to date rather than a blueprint for how Wagner himself will proceed – with the Siegfried of the drama itself? Given the cumulative way in which Wagner’s thought progresses, raising problems and attempting to answer them as they arise, what is of interest is at least as likely to lie in divergence as in similarity. Siegfried then might emerge as a rather more ‘universal’, less Teutonic, character than you suggest.
More fundamentally, I worry that none of our discussion – and I certainly hold myself equally responsible here – has considered Wagner’s music at all. It is rather as if we were dealing with spoken dramas, which we are not. If we are considering, in that celebrated Wagnerian phrase, ‘deeds of music made visible’, or even if we are considering, in terms of earlier Wagnerian æsthetics, something in which words have greater priority, at least in temporal terms, what are we to make of the music? I certainly have no concern to try to safeguard, in Schopenhauerian fashion, pure, absolute music from the pollution of ideas. Nor, can I imagine, do you, though please correct me if necessary. When Christian Thielemann asked, in relation to Pfitzner’s Palestrina, ‘What has C-sharp minor to do with fascism?’ it seems to me that he was being either naïve or disingenuous. One could say precisely the same about words taken merely in themselves. (On the other hand, it might be worth considering that such an attitude does not prevent him from being one of the very few genuinely great Wagner conductors alive.)
Assuming some agreement on that matter, then, would you consider the anti-Semitism, or even philo-Semitism (perhaps we should simply say Semitism, or Jewishness?) you discern in Wagner’s poems to be expressed in the music too, perhaps in sublimated fashion? Or does it provide a (metaphysical or otherwise) form of resistance to it? If we can leave Beckmesser aside, at least for the moment (though I still consider him far more Malvolio than malevolent), I should be very interested to hear what you think of this with respect, say, to Alberich (negatively, I assume), to Kundry (positively), or indeed to the broader dramatic structures of the works. Likewise, I suppose, for the ‘German’ opposing force. I can imagine that one might make a case for the sturdy, Teutonic diatonicism – illusorily so, really, since so much of it is predicated upon its chromatic, Tristan-esque opposite – of Die Meistersinger. What then of Tristan? Is it, by contrast, as décadent as Nietzsche would have us believe, perhaps dangerously un-German, even ‘Jewish’? Surely, after all, it is on account of the music that we are most, though not solely, interested in Wagner. I say this not out of any wish to present a false separation between music and words – the music is the drama in a very real sense, at least as much as the words – but to attempt to restore the importance of something crucial, of which we appear to have lost sight, or rather hearing; for the soloists’ words and even their vocal lines may sometimes only acquire full meaning when complemented, questioned, contradicted, or transformed by Wagner’s Greek Chorus, the orchestra.
Your last letter covers a great many bases and I rather think this reflects the key difference between our respective approaches: namely that while I am keen to synthesise, to attempt (at least in the case of Wagner) something like a unified theory, you are much freer, making a range of eclectic and discrete references. I can well believe that many people will regard my approach as naive, for all grand theories always break down at some point. And in any case a proper passion for poststructuralism (towards which I am sympathetic) would expose such an approach as axiomatically reactionary. I, however, think it fruitful in the case of Wagner, so I will come back to it. I should, however, quickly add that I don’t find in your insightful attention to selective trees (which avoids generalisations as to the wood) any indication of rigorous postmodern thinking. That I assume would not correspond to your general intellectual disposition. Anyway, I ought now to pay due respect to the range of points you make.
You raised in your first letter the notion of the Other: ironically a postmodern idea with which you say you are normally uncomfortable but which you think is appropriate in the case of Wagner. I agree. I talk of dialectics or an antipode and suggest that for Wagner the most fruitful Other to Germanness is Jewishness. You suggest that it could be many things but say that it is ‘often’ the French. That is the basis on which I finally tackled the French question in my last letter. It had the further advantage of leading into Wagner’s faux universalism. I realise, however, that your position is not as simple (or as straightforward) as mine. I claim that Wagner in explaining Germanness to his readers (and his listeners) employed consistently a raft of qualities with explicit moral consequences and, further, that he sees these qualities in their negative or inverted forms in Jewishness. You see a variety of other possibilities, which is fine by me. I can only give the reasons and references why I think as I do and leave it up to readers to decide.
However what must be said – yet again – is that all this talk of anti-semitism is misleading. Paradoxically it misleads us to the function and importance of anti-semitism itself. Everyone is too obsessed with the Jews. For if my antipode (or dialectic opposite) and your Other are to find their true meaning it will be in the manner in which Germanness dominates the essays and, more particularly, the music dramas. And that is why in my opening salvo I brought up the matter of Wagner’s entirely logical pairing of Germanness and Jewishness in the letter to Nietzsche and why I remain astonished at your response to this. I am also uncomfortable with your description of Wagner as occasionally ‘raving’ like a ‘madman’ on the Jewish question. This again is both to overuse and distort the issue. For while Wagner was at times clearly paranoid (he thought he was the victim of a Jewish conspiracy), it is the fruitfulness of the anti-semitism, its productive status as the antithetical spouse to Germanness, that most stamps his Weltanschauung. Even if we are repelled, the madman notion cheapens his intellectual and creative work. But I do appreciate that you are not trying to fuse all this in the way I am. Nevertheless, the determination of others to frantically stuff Wagner’s anti-semitism into a sealed box (while insisting – oh how fervently – that it is impossibly repugnant) in order that it then be marginalised, is hugely counterproductive. It both overplays the anti-semitism in personal terms and fails to understand its creative function. No matter. Readers, if they choose, will pursue his copious written material on what it means to be German (it is hard to avoid the theme even if one reads in a random and cursory manner) and will, unavoidably come across Wagner’s use of the Other as a result. Let them make up their own minds. And as to the operas, to which I will return, I do not see how anyone could busy themselves with them without being struck by Wagner’s notion of Germanness.
Sticking with this topic for a moment, I see you pick me up on ‘corrosive’ blood mentioned in my last letter. You are quite right: Wagner is reported as saying ‘far more corrosive’, which means we are talking about a relative rather than an absolute concept. However this is in real terms nit-picking. The absolute nature of what Wagner wants to establish is to be found in the sentence immediately before. There we note that if there is intermarriage ‘the Germans would then cease to exist’. Therefore the matter is in effect absolute. Just as in the letter to Ludwig, he is talking about the absolute destruction of Germanness.
Now the Beckmesser/Malvolio coupling, which you find striking. And why not. However, rather than address this directly I would like to use the comparison to make a couple of observations on Beckmesser. I suggest the key issue was dealt with (perhaps unintentionally) by Walter Jens when he wrote his article arguing that Beckmesser must be brought back at the end of Meistersinger. This has fascinating consequences which I can only sketch here. Firstly we should note how popular the idea is with both producers and public. For instance the old Covent Garden production and the new Welsh National bring Beckmesser back on and reconcile him with Walter and Sachs. Clearly many people want an all-inclusive happy end. But Wagner doesn’t. Instead, while staying within the comic form, he wants to humiliate Beckmesser. Now in this context I am always struck by two other plays which he admired: Shakespeare’s Merry Wives and Kleist’s The Broken Jug. In both the ridiculous/threatening suitor (Falstaff and Adam) is exposed Beckmesser-like at the climax. However neither is banished from the stage. Falstaff is most explicitly woven back into the community, assuming he ever left it, and though Adam, when exposed, runs away, the deus ex machina figure (Walter – a type of Sachs) orders that he be brought back into the town for his own good. Wagner however defied his models. He is crueller to Beckmesser than Jens et al want. I think this has, at least in part, to do with the subtext whereby Beckmesser is linked with the Jew in the Thorn Bush and all that that implies. But to come back to your comparison. There is perhaps a parallel with Malvolio. True, the Duke will have him brought back at the end. But when he left he was embittered and swore revenge. And, if we put aside our Pollyanna sentimentality, we can easily imagine Beckmesser doing likewise.
Now the music. Of course you are right to raise this. After all, what could be more self-evidently important? I, however, have written a book on Wagner’s ideas and have avoided a technical discussion of the scores. Of course this is not unprecedented, but you might ask nonetheless why I did it. Firstly I am neither a musicologist nor a musician. True, I play an instrument, but only if the word ‘play’ is stretched impossibly thin and covers a lot of noises that no one would find musical. And then there is the intensely subjective nature of response to music. But it is exactly here that I wish to accept your invitation and say something. For it is the music that, ironically, sets so many Wagner fans their most difficult task. We usually come to it first. We are captivated by it. How then are we to reconcile it with the other stuff which is so overtly unpleasant and about which we often find out later? It is this problem that upsets many people and it is a problem from which they wish to be freed. Look at the joyous response of the WNO audience to their new Meistersinger; a production that tells them that Germanness is a matter solely of the great German Denker und Dichter. Nothing to worry about with ‘great’ Thinkers and Poets – thank God! Now this seems to me to be a debasement of Wagner. He is so much greater than this because his compositions are seductive not in spite of all the negative things implied (at the very least) by his theories, but because of them. They drive him to the heights. It seems to me he realises his grand notions of German art and German redemption (again, as he explains it) because he is ‘inspired’ by the antitheses. Moreover he is working within a dramatic and narrative form that makes antagonism necessary. Furthermore he is clearly intent on dramatising dialectical opposites. After all, just how many of Wagner’s great scenes are one-on-one set-to’s shaped by opposed world views?!
As a result so much that is poisonous and so much that is elevating fuse in his creative work, and it is mere Pollyanna sentimentality (again) that reacts to this by saying that either the former is not there, or is purified by the latter. Above all you cannot get the poison out because it is an essential ingredient in the intoxicating potion; it is part of the magic. Like Isolde’s philtre it suffuses love with death; transcendence with unimaginable pain. Let me, in this wider context, quote Milton: ‘Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is ... involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil... It was from out the rind of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into the world.’ And, one might add, the evil can taste good too, especially when the creative artist is seduced by it. That is why the central quality in my book is love – and thus lovelessness – and why I make something, however irresponsibly, of dialectical opposites. And it is also why Wagner’s notion of (loving) Germanness is necessarily and productively opposed by his notion of (loveless) non-Germanness.
Therefore I argue that in the unique case of Wagner (the man who is in unequalled control of all aspects of his creative and intellectual life), the attempt at a grand theory can be fruitfully (at the very least) pursued, no matter that the work is massively ambitious, contradictory and covers a wide and messy terrain. So it is inevitable that I hear – and am seduced by – things in the musical brew that others, frightened (‘appalled and distressed’ even – or so they may say) by the whole man, claim are not there. I realise the dangers of this and feel the attractions of your more eclectic and dispersed approach. But there it is.
It is in this light that I would urge you not merely to give more ‘real thought’ to ‘a queer reading of Parsifal’ (as you suggest in your last letter), but to pursue the matter back beyond the last music drama. Go for the wood. After all, I have argued that Wagner’s last opera is, among other things, the most magnificent swindle in his life-long struggle with the notions of sensuous and spiritual love. And he insists so often on heterosexual love (and refers explicitly to the essential nature of heterosexual congress – e.g. all that stuff on Empfängnis in ‘Opera and Drama’) that it must imply its dialectical opposite. True, in pointing out Wagner’s insistent heterosexual propaganda I seem to have annoyed one or two people. But not you. So I shall certainly read with interest whatever you come up with. Meanwhile in the case of this artist, I don’t want to partition (and pack away in Chinese boxes), no matter how attractive such an approach is. After all, that occasional racist raving madman you mention in your last letter is himself the creator of those sublime raving madmen: Tristan and Amfortas. And as Tristan discovers, and as the cor anglais tells us (at least according Richard Strauss), there is real poison in the Wagnerian brew. But it is there to be enjoyed.
‘Madman’ was perhaps a bit strong, though I likened Wagner’s words to those of a madman, rather than saying that he was. I am sure we agree that Wagner was actually nothing of the kind. Likewise, we are both clearly repelled by many of these off-the-cuff references – and doubtless by many words set down in writing too. I am still not sure why we should be quite so exercised by them, any more so than we are about remarks from a host of others, unless these thoughts impinge – or more – upon the dramatic works. By the same token, I am quite unclear why many people should take a far more strenuous, indeed in many case downright hysterical, line concerning these works than with respect to those with clearly defined anti-semitic characters or ideas. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Mussorgsky, those dreadful Jewish caricatures in Salome, and so on, and so forth… I can only assume that those who have thought about it must believe that the encoded nature of the anti-semitism they claim to have discovered is somehow more deadly than outright expression. It is not self-evident why this might be the case, but one could doubtless make arguments to support it. However, I fear that we may have another case of circularity. One must strain to find the anti-semitism, therefore one tries all the harder, looking where one would probably not in most other cases, and so on. The effort in trying to discover something that may not be there needs some degree of justification, which can only be that there is something uniquely, or at least unusually, wicked about this particular case.
At any rate, you are quite clear that there is anti-semitism in Wagner’s dramas. Indeed, you go so far as to find the anti-semitism fundamentally productive in dramatic terms. I, for the most part, remain unconvinced. Neither of us, I am sure, takes the view he does on account of some a priori desire to convict or to exonerate; we clearly understand certain aspects of these works rather differently. Yet I think there is a question concerning what we should do, how we should respond, if you, still more some others, are right. I am unsure whether you consider Wagner in his dramas actually to be preaching anti-semitism, or whether it is more a matter of it leading onto more fruitful preoccupations.
Let us, for the sake of argument, take or at least consider the hardest line. You have often spoken of ‘flat-earthers’; the names you have given seem to me anything but. And the implication of the phrase is that the most fundamental discovery would be of anti-semitism in the music dramas, which would not say much for the rest of their content. But there certainly are on the opposing wing writers who think of nothing but, who appear to believe that the dramas are anti-semitic through and through, that these works, just as much as the Wilhelmine Reich, represent and perhaps even are, ‘the ante-chamber of the Third Reich’, in Hans Ulrich Wehler’s notorious phrase concerning Bismarck’s creation. One of these writers reared his head again for me quite recently, when I saw Tony Palmer’s film Parsifal: The Search for the Grail. Robert Gutman, though there are worse extremists than he, was treated with great reverence in one of the most appallingly partial and poorly constructed films I have ever had the misfortune to sit through. He was the only ‘Wagner scholar’ permitted to contribute and his views were questioned not once. Parsifal, it was baldly stated, is a racist work, an incitement to genocide. (Palmer seemed to think that the case was argued by playing clips from the Third Reich to excerpts from Parsifal, but I shall try to leave him on one side for the moment.) As I am sure you will have guessed, I could not disagree more with such a view. Indeed, I should have thought anyone with an ounce of sanity, or even a degree of taste, would have recoiled from it at seeing Gutman cackling maniacally, rubbing his hands with glee, as he propounded his outlandish assertions. A bad parody of a Bond villain, I thought at the same time, also wondering who else would so relish the subject of genocide, and why.
But if this is true, indeed if only some of it is true, are these dramas really something we should be staging at all? If Parsifal is an anti-Semitic take upon Gobineau – somehow, despite the fact that Wagner only read Gobineau after completing both poem and orchestral sketch, but that does not seem to trouble Gutman, Weiner, et al. – then we may well wish to think twice about performing it. We may, of course, take the attitude that Parsifal is about all sorts of things, and indeed it is, though the witchfinding tendency seems not to think so. But even so, what should we do? Distil the work until the offending substance is no longer present? Hold our noses at the ingredient we do not care for? I am far from sure that would be an adequate response to something so unutterably wicked as Wagner’s most shrill accusers would claim. Moreover, as I said in my first contribution to the debate, this is a live issue: there are people who would prohibit Wagner performances. I am certainly not arguing that we should not discuss these matters, in order to avoid giving such bigots succour. (I should hardly have spent all this time in debate, if I were…) At the same time, I worry about the consequences the more excessive claims may entail. All this, of course, for a pacifistic work, which many Nazis thus viewed with grave suspicion.
Back to Beckmesser. I agree wholeheartedly with you concerning the matter of reinstatement and undue dignity. He should not be a mere caricature, of course; Wagner was quite clear about that, and rightly so. Yet Wagner, to his credit I think, did not want an all-inclusive Happy End; we agree on that too. Despite the totalising (Hegelian?) tendencies in his work, its ideology, Wagner the dramatist knew better. The world is not like that – and he does not treat it as such. As I said before, it is with Beckmesser that I feel more uneasy. I am yet to be convinced, but there seems to me a better case made here. It is perhaps no coincidence that Die Meistersinger is written at the height of Wagner’s Germanism. If there is anti-semitism thrown into the mix, then I am not sure it matters hugely – any more than it does in other novels, plays, musical works we continue to read or to perform. I assume that we should not think this an incitement to genocide, though doubtless the fringe will howl its disapproval.
Briefly to return to ‘method’ or whatever we are calling it at the moment: I should probably clarify that I am not seeking to be eclectic, in the way you seem to suggest. Rather, I have tried to argue for some sort of hierarchy, or at least priority, in which some aspects of Wagner’s life and work, the latter especially, are ascribed greater importance than others. We can and should connect, but ultimately, I tend to think that Wagner the musical dramatist often knew better than Wagner the theorist, though the latter should never be underestimated. And if I tend to think that, I certainly think that the musical dramatist knew better than the purveyor of table talk.
Once again, with best wishes
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