Ministry of Ostriches
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