Min­istry of Ostriches

New England Review - - Art -

It's hard to tell if all the tresses are taken from horse, hu­man, sheep, bird, yak

or buf­falo. The part like an even hem, stitched. All dyed an apri­cot shade,

a golden hue, bleached white, stained night-black with an edge of Per­sian blue.

A cake of scented wax was once thought to cool you as it melted over the sur­face

of your hot hat of hair. The risk? A bless­ing could stick to the fibers and leave you

more a sin­ner than when you had shorn your scalp bare in adul­ter­ous af­fairs.

It's not just that van­ity is a cul­tural play: At heart a wig holds in its build the act

of sac­ri­fice—all that hair re­moved at cost to be what some­one else's fin­gers ran through.

There must have been a queen some­where who shaved her ri­val's head and wore the curls in

tri­umph. She quickly learned that wear­ing other peo­ples's bless­ings was a curse.

To wear another's love is to be a wolf dressed as a lamb to slaugh­ter. Surely

ev­ery­one knows a horse or a child will yank off your airs and see you as bare and fuzzy

as an ostrich, mouth open, declar­ing it has got noth­ing to hide in open court.

cul­tur a l history

of the cor­ner nook,” in­tended they should be.

Wag­ner leaves Paris in 1842 a fa­mous man. He be­comes court kapellmeis­ter in Dres­den. But he is soon dis­sat­is­fied. His salary is not ad­e­quate to his lav­ish lifestyle. The debts are mount­ing up again. He sees him­self and his artis­tic ca­reer in the stran­gle­hold of the mon­eyed in­ter­ests. He hatches a re­form plan to en­hance the ef­fec­tive­ness of the stage and place the whole di­rec­tion in his own hands. Opera should do more than serve lux­ury and plea­sure; it should pro­vide pro­gres­sive, demo­cratic in­cen­tives. But he gets nowhere with his sug­ges­tions. He is bored by the rou­tine work re­quired by his po­si­tion. It is the rev­o­lu­tion­ary un­rest of 1848–49 that fi­nally brings change. Look­ing back on those ex­cit­ing months, he writes to Minna on May 14, 1849:

Deeply dis­sat­is­fied with my po­si­tion & find­ing lit­tle plea­sure in my art . . . deeply in debt . . . I was at odds with the world, I ceased to be an artist . . . & be­came—in thought, if not in deed—a rev­o­lu­tion­ary plain & sim­ple, in other words I sought fresh ground for my mind's latest artis­tic cre­ations in a rad­i­cally trans­formed world.

But Wag­ner be­came a rev­o­lu­tion­ary in en­er­getic fact, not just in at­ti­tude. He wrote pam­phlets against the aris­toc­racy and the bour­geois plu­toc­racy. When in April 1849 the Saxon king dis­solved Dres­den's elected gov­ern­ment in a trans­par­ent breach of the con­sti­tu­tion and threat­ened to bring in Prus­sian troops, a move that alarmed the citizen mili­tia, Wag­ner and his new friend Bakunin took part in the prepa­ra­tions for an armed re­volt. He is even sup­posed to have pro­cured a num­ber of hand grenades. His prac­ti­cal or­ga­ni­za­tional tal­ent im­pressed Bakunin, who sug­gested he com­pose a terzetto, in which the tenor would re­peat­edly sing “Be­head him!” the so­prano “Hang him!” and the bass “Fire! Fire!” But Wag­ner's artis­tic ideas were run­ning in another di­rec­tion. He en­ter­tained the idea of a drama about “Je­sus of Nazareth,” which would por­tray him as a so­cial rebel and redeemer from pri­vate prop­erty. In this rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion Wag­ner was over­come by a “great, nay ex­trav­a­gant, con­tent­ment” and was re­minded of Goethe's sen­sa­tions dur­ing the bom­bard­ment of Valmy. It was the start of a new epoch, and Wag­ner could say he was there when the king and his min­is­ters fled the city at the be­gin­ning of May and the re­bel­lious pop­u­la­tion formed a pro­vi­sional gov­ern­ment. He used the ceasefire for an au­da­cious un­der­tak­ing: he dis­trib­uted hand­bills among the sol­diers urg­ing them to make com­mon cause with the mili­tia. He sur­veyed the skir­mishes from the tower of the Kreuzkirche and tried to di­rect the move­ments of the rebels be­tween the bar­ri­cades that had been erected un­der the ex­pert di­rec­tion of the ar­chi­tect Got­tfried Sem­per. On May 6 the Old Opera House went up in flames—it would later be claimed that Wag­ner had set the fire. On May 8, 1849, the upris­ing was crushed. The ring­leaders were ar­rested, but Wag­ner man­aged to es­cape, first to Weimar, where the first re­hearsals of Tannhäuser had be­gun. But when the war­rant for his ar­rest ar­rived on May 16, Franz Liszt helped him es­cape to Zurich.

For mod­ern art, Wag­ner writes, there is no such public. The public has be­come a mar­ket and art fallen sub­ject to the con­straints of com­mer­cial­iza­tion and pri­va­ti­za­tion. Art like all other prod­ucts has to of­fer and sell it­self as a com­mod­ity in the mar­ket­place. The artist too has be­come a pro­ducer, who pro­duces not for the sake of the work, but in or­der to earn money. A scan­dalous oc­cur­rence, since the dig­nity of art as ex­pres­sion of hu­man cre­ativ­ity re­quires that its end be con­tained in it­self. The slav­ery of cap­i­tal­ism de­bases art and re­duces it to a mere means: “en­ter­tain­ment for the masses, lux­u­ri­ous self-in­dul­gence for the rich.” Art si­mul­ta­ne­ously be­comes pri­va­tized as “the com­mu­nal spirit scat­ters in a thou­sand ego­tis­ti­cal di­rec­tions.” Artists are forced to demon­strate a su­per­fi­cial orig­i­nal­ity. Who­ever wants his work to be val­ued has to dif­fer­en­ti­ate him­self from his ri­vals. And like in­di­vid­ual artists, the in­di­vid­ual arts too aban­don “the round-dance in which they had once moved as one, in or­der now to go their own sep­a­rate ways, to con­tinue their in­di­vid­ual de­vel­op­ment in an in­de­pen­dence that is both lonely and ego­tis­tic” ( Mein Denken).

The frag­men­ta­tion of the arts, the frag­men­ta­tion of artists, and the dis­so­lu­tion of the bond that unites all cre­ative as­pi­ra­tions: this is the sig­na­ture of the present age. The only re­main­ing bond is “in­dus­try”—cap­i­tal and the work it dic­tates. Wag­ner's anti-cap­i­tal­ism then be­comes the point of de­par­ture for his no­to­ri­ous anti-semitism, of which we still have to speak.

It is in­dus­try that rules: money, the as­sid­u­ous pur­suit of trade, the ori­en­ta­tion to­ward eco­nomic util­ity. That is the re­li­gion of the present, not a re­li­gion that binds, but one that at­om­izes and sets us in com­pe­ti­tion with each other. What we need is a new uni­fy­ing bond.

But for Wag­ner, who is at this point still a dis­ci­ple of the philoso­pher Lud­wig Feuer­bach, this can no longer be re­li­gion, nei­ther that of the Greeks nor the Chris­tian. With Feuer­bach, he sees in the gods the pro­jec­tions of hu­man cre­ativ­ity, which means that the idea of the free hu­man be­ing must take the place of re­li­gion. He finds an ar­tis­ti­cally suit­able em­bod­i­ment of this ideal of hu­man free­dom in the fig­ure of Siegfried. Siegfried demon­strates what a per­son who eman­ci­pates him­self from the power of the gods has to face. Reach­ing back to an­tiq­uity Wag­ner had sin­gled out the fig­ure of Prometheus as such a type. Siegfried is for him a new Prometheus, just as he is also a new Christ. In re­sponse to the frag­men­ta­tion of the arts, Wag­ner en­vi­sions a to­tal work of art that would re­unite many dif­fer­ent arts, mu­sic, theater, literature, paint­ing, and the plas­tic arts. The to­tal work of art de­mands the to­tal artist. Is a col­lec­tive pro­duc­tion pos­si­ble? Prob­a­bly not; the re­spon­si­bil­ity re­mains with the in­di­vid­ual artist, who should con­ceive of him­self, how­ever, as some­one in whom the cre­ative pow­ers of the folk and its tra­di­tions come to­gether. He looks to an­tiq­uity too for a model of per­for­mance prac­tice. There should be fes­tive dra­mas through which so­ci­ety can grasp and celebrate it­self as a com­mu­nity united by com­mon val­ues.

Dis­ap­pointed by the fail­ure of the re­cent revo­lu­tion, Wag­ner is still con­vinced that “with­out a revo­lu­tion of so­ci­ety . . . art can­not find the way to its true na­ture.” There­fore art con­tin­ues to re­main de­pen­dent on revo­lu­tion.

and what causes them to per­ish? The prose sketch of 1848 ex­presses it clearly: the gods will have re­al­ized their pur­pose when they “have an­ni­hi­lated them­selves” through the cre­ation of man, “that is, when they have been forced to re­lin­quish their own di­rect in­flu­ence over the free­dom of hu­man con­scious­ness.” This is still for­mu­lated very much in the spirit of Feuer­bach: the gods per­ish nowhere else but in hu­man con­scious­ness, once it has dis­cov­ered the mech­a­nism by which its own power has been pro­jected in the im­ages of gods. In the power games of the gods, hu­man be­ings dis­cover their own ob­ses­sions with power. And this en­ables them to see that their gods, like them­selves, have failed to un­der­stand the deeper truth of life, which is the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of power with love. The gods too re­main en­snared among un­rec­on­ciled life forces. Their in­abil­ity to unite power and love means that hu­man be­ings have not yet har­mo­nized the es­sen­tial forces of their be­ing. The des­tinies of the gods il­lus­trate for hu­man be­ings the causes of their own fail­ure. Thus the myth of the fall of the gods is the sym­bolic ac­count of vic­tory over hu­man self-alien­ation. We have to stop be­liev­ing in the gods who ap­pear in this spec­ta­cle in or­der to see the very hu­man pow­ers em­bod­ied by them in such fan­tas­tic form. Now to the myth it­self, as Wag­ner told it and set it to mu­sic. It be­gins with the fa­mous E-flat Ma­jor triad, the acous­ti­cal im­age of the be­gin­ning of all things: the pri­mor­dial el­e­ment of wa­ter in mo­tion. From the dis­so­lu­tion of this first chord ev­ery­thing else un­folds. The mo­ment of cre­ation is au­di­ble when the mo­tif sym­bol­iz­ing the sun is sounded. The fire of the sun gleams in the wa­ter as gold, which be­comes the trea­sure on the river's bot­tom. The Rhine daugh­ters guard it. It has not yet been touched by greed for ex­ploita­tion of its value, not yet drawn into the fate­ful cir­cle of power and pos­ses­sion; it stands for the in­no­cence and unity of the nat­u­ral world. The black elf Al­berich, a prince of dark­ness and the lord of the Ni­belungs, has no sense of the beauty of the golden trea­sure; he wants to pos­sess it in or­der to en­hance his power. Love would leave the trea­sure and its beauty alone, would let Be­ing be. But who­ever re­nounces love will want to steal and make use of the trea­sure. Al­berich suc­ceeds in steal­ing it be­cause his power is not in­hib­ited by love. This open­ing scene al­ready con­tains the whole con­flict of the drama. The re­la­tion of ten­sion be­tween power and love, greed and de­vo­tion, play and com­pul­sion will de­ter­mine the Ring through to its fi­nale.

Al­berich en­slaves the other Ni­belungs, who now have to work for him. From the golden trea­sure they forge a ring which con­fers un­lim­ited power on its wearer. No doubt that Wag­ner sees the de­monic spirit of the in­dus­trial age at work in the Ni­belung king­dom. He told Cosima, his sec­ond wife with whom he founded the Bayreuth Fes­ti­val, of the im­pres­sion the Lon­don har­bor made on him: “This is Al­berich's dream come true—ni­bel­heim, world do­min­ion, ac­tiv­ity, work, ev­ery­where the op­pres­sive feel­ing of steam and fog.”

White elf and high­est god Wotan too has got­ten him­self en­snared in the world of power and pos­ses­sion. He has the giants Fafner and Fa­solt build him the di­vine strong­hold Val­halla, but is thereby bound by con­tract to give them

(money spirit) would grow with Wag­ner into the delu­sion of a Jewish world con­spir­acy. Dur­ing the same pe­riod in which he was work­ing out his ideas of art and revo­lu­tion and the art­work of the fu­ture—the early 1850s—he pub­lished the ar­ti­cle “Jewry in Mu­sic” (“Das Ju­den­tum in der Musik”), where he writes, “In the present state of the world the Jew is al­ready more than eman­ci­pated: he rules, and will rule as long as money re­mains the power that saps all our acts and un­der­tak­ings of their vigor.”

He ex­pressed him­self even more ag­gres­sively in con­ver­sa­tion and letters. Cosima's jour­nal en­try for Oc­to­ber 11, 1879, shows that he ad­vo­cated the ban­ish­ment of Jews from the Ger­man Re­ich. On another oc­ca­sion he de­clares that le­gal as­sim­i­la­tion should be retroac­tively abol­ished, be­cause it is a dan­ger­ous cam­ou­flage for the Jews. When the liv­ing or­gan­ism of a cul­ture dies, he writes in “Jewry in Mu­sic,” “the body's flesh dis­solves into a swarm­ing colony of worms.” He means the Jews. In or­der to save the cul­tural or­gan­ism, the dead flesh with mag­gots has to be cut away. We can al­ready see here that an anti-cap­i­tal­is­tic and cul­tural anti-semitism has be­come bi­o­log­i­cally racist. Against the pro­posal to fur­ther Jewish in­te­gra­tion via mixed mar­riage, he ob­jects in 1873 that “the Ger­mans would then cease to ex­ist, since the fair Ger­man blood is not strong enough to with­stand this ‘lye.'”

In his last years, Wag­ner works him­self up into fan­tasies of a fi­nal ex­ter­mi­na­tion of the Jews. With a “dras­tic joke,” as Cosima puts it, he re­marks in con­ver­sa­tion that “all Jews should be burned at a per­for­mance of [Less­ing's] Nathan.” At the con­clu­sion of the es­say “Know Thy­self” (“Erkenne dich selbst”), writ­ten dur­ing the Par­si­fal pe­riod, he un­mis­tak­ably con­tem­plates the mur­der­ous fi­nal so­lu­tion of the Jewish ques­tion. Once the Ger­man folk comes to know it­self, it says there, there will “be no more Jews. We Ger­mans could . . . ef­fect this great so­lu­tion bet­ter than any other na­tion.” And he goes on in a threat­en­ing tone: “That, if we only press far enough with this and get over any false sense of shame, we need not shy away from the ul­ti­mate recog­ni­tion: this should . . . sug­gest it­self to any­one with an in­tu­itive un­der­stand­ing.” When, af­ter Wag­ner's death the Bayreuther Blät­ter be­came al­to­gether a plat­form for fa­nat­i­cal racism and elim­i­na­tory anti-semitism, it was com­pletely in the spirit of the “master” who had first in­cited such malev­o­lent pas­sions and yet showed enough of an aes­thetic sense to keep his work gen­er­ally free of them.

The world he por­trays on the stage as dom­i­nated by greed and lust for power is not Jewish, but bour­geois-cap­i­tal­ist; and it is not hate, but a new world of love and beauty that brings it to de­struc­tion. Wag­ner wants more than to show this in the man­ner of a nar­ra­tor of märchen. He wants to ef­fect a trans­for­ma­tion of the in­ner per­son in those who watch and lis­ten, a trans­for­ma­tion com­pa­ra­ble to a re­li­gious con­ver­sion. He aimed at noth­ing less than bring­ing re­demp­tion in the here and now through the spirit of art. Wag­ner him­self speaks of want­ing to arouse a “mythic” ex­pe­ri­ence.

How are we to imag­ine this? Can the myth­i­cal story told by the Ring of the Ni­belung be ac­cepted as any­thing but a fic­tion? Has Wag­ner done any­thing

half-con­scious. The world of the Will for Schopenhauer, of the Dionysian for Ni­et­zsche. It is also the noc­tur­nal world of Ro­man­ti­cism. The Ro­man­tic idea that the beam of our aware­ness does not il­lu­mi­nate the en­tirety of our ex­pe­ri­ence, that our con­scious­ness can­not grasp our whole Be­ing, that we have a more in­ti­mate con­nec­tion with the life process than our rea­son would like to be­lieve—this con­vic­tion, which finds such a force­ful ex­pres­sion in Schopenhauer's phi­los­o­phy of Will, lives on in Wag­ner and Ni­et­zsche. In this they are Ro­man­tics, as was Schopenhauer be­fore them.

Schopenhauer had cap­tured the idea of the more or less un­con­scious con­nec­tion of the in­di­vid­ual's life with the whole in an im­age: “Just as a sailor sits in a boat trust­ing to his frail bar­que in a stormy sea, un­bounded in ev­ery di­rec­tion, ris­ing and fall­ing with the howl­ing moun­tain­ous waves; so in the midst of a world of sor­rows the in­di­vid­ual man sits qui­etly, sup­ported by and trust­ing to the prin­cip­ium in­di­vid­u­a­tio­nis.” For Schopenhauer it was a feel­ing of “hor­ror” when the in­di­vid­ual was torn from his bounds and ex­pe­ri­enced the all-con­nect­ed­ness of life. For other Ro­man­tics, like No­valis for in­stance, it was a trans­port to feel one­self sink­ing into the “dark, en­tic­ing womb of na­ture.” For the most part, though, it is a mixed feel­ing of plea­sure and pain, ec­stasy and paral­y­sis, dread of death and cel­e­bra­tion of life that ac­com­pa­nies such a dis­so­lu­tion of bound­aries. Richard Wag­ner brings it to mu­sic. “The or­ches­tra,” he writes, “be­comes . . . the soil of in­fi­nite, uni­ver­sal feel­ing from which the par­tic­u­lar ac­tor's in­di­vid­ual feel­ing grows up to its full height” ( Mein Denken). Else­where he com­pares the sonor­ity of the or­ches­tra to the ocean, and the melody to the boat that drifts upon it.

But the sphere of Schopen­haue­rian Will is thor­oughly eroti­cized by Wag­ner, as with No­valis. Tris­tan und Isolde (1859) il­lus­trates Wag­ner's Ro­man­ti­cism at its peak, his play with oceanic feel­ings. His lovers are called the “night­con­se­crated” ( Nacht­gewei­hte); they die the Liebestod, the Death-in-love, and dis­solve into the dy­namic ur-process of “dy­ing and be­com­ing.”

This is all so ef­fec­tively pre­sented that with this mu­si­cal drama, which be­comes a Euro­pean event, even peo­ple out­side Ger­many be­gin to un­der­stand what Ger­man Ro­man­ti­cism is all about. Wag­ner him­self writes to Mathilde von We­sendonck: “Child! This Tris­tan is turn­ing into some­thing ter­ri­ble! this fi­nal act!!! I fear the opera will be banned—un­less the whole thing is par­o­died in a bad per­for­mance . . . Per­fectly good ones will be bound to drive peo­ple mad.”

In truth Wag­ner did make quite a few peo­ple go out of their heads. Baude­laire in France, for in­stance, who had al­ready ex­pe­ri­enced Tannhäuser as an opium dream:

Lis­ten­ing to this ar­dent, despotic mu­sic, one some­times feels he is re­dis­cov­er­ing, painted at the far end of a shad­owy gloom, the ver­tig­i­nous con­fig­u­ra­tions of an opium dream . . . I had the dis­tinct im­pres­sion of a soul mov­ing through a lu­mi­nous at­mos­phere, in an ec­stasy born of bliss and knowl­edge, float­ing high above and far be­yond the nat­u­ral world.

On the day the corner­stone was laid, the weather was so dread­ful, and the clay soil on the hill so soft, that ev­ery­thing lit­er­ally turned to wa­ter . . . But I was in­ex­orably driven . . . I got out and stepped un­der the wooden scaf­fold­ing— with me one other fe­male crea­ture . . . We both stood be­hind Richard Wag­ner as he made the three cer­e­mo­nial stokes of the ham­mer on the stone . . . When he turned around . . . he was white as a corpse, and tears stood in his eyes. It was an in­de­scrib­ably solemn mo­ment that I'm sure no one who was there has for­got­ten.

—trans­lated from the Ger­man by Robert E. Good­win

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