Wagner Overthrows the Gods
WFrom Romanticism: A German Affair
hen Richard Wagner sets to work on RIENZI in 1838—his great opera about a failed revolution in the Rome of 1347—the Young German ideas of freedom, national unity, and progress are prominent in his mind. He is kapellmeister in Riga, thrice-humiliated by the miserable condition of the local theater, by creditors who are constantly dunning him for payment, and by his wife Minna who has run off with her lover. Wagner leaves the city in haste, bound for French soil, which he reaches after an adventurous voyage—fearful storms that force the ship to anchor off the Norwegian coast— with the unfinished score of Rienzi in his luggage. He remains in Paris until 1842, years of coldness inside and out, years of lostness and misery. He becomes friends with Heinrich Heine, who helps him financially and provides him with Romantic material for later works, the stories of Tannhäuser and the Flying Dutchman. With the sparkling success of Meyerbeer before his eyes he comes more and more to hate the city that refuses to accord him the recognition he feels is his due. He writes later, in a letter to Theodor Uhlig, “that I no longer believe in any other revolution save that which begins with the burning down of Paris” (October 22, 1850).
The Paris of 1840 becomes the Rome of 1347, where the innkeeper's son Cola di Rienzi, relying on a popular uprising against the ruling aristocracy, seeks to establish a republic after the ancient Roman model, but is then forced to suffer abandonment by the populace. In Wagner's opera, Rienzi stands on the balcony of the capitol and tries one last time to win over the crowd that has been turned against him by a papal legate, but he receives only a hail of stones for his efforts. The building is set on fire and collapses, burying Rienzi along with his utopian vision of freedom and the people's happiness.
Rienzi and the degraded city of Rome—a constellation in which Richard Wagner, musical tribune of the people, perfectly well recognizes his own destined role. And there is another who recognizes himself in Rienzi. After attending a performance of the Romantic opera in Linz in 1906, a young man of seventeen years is led by this “blessed music” to the most consequential conviction “that I too must someday succeed in uniting the German Empire and making it great once more.” So Adolf Hitler later told Albert Speer.
Richard Wagner's opera about a failed revolutionary becomes a European success. Theatrical pomp, throng-filled scenes, and magical sets were a challenge for large stages, which is what Wagner, who wanted finally to escape the “misery
During the months of revolution he had completed a first draft of his Nibelung drama that was still completely concentrated on the figure of Siegfried, who, like Christ, would bring about through self-sacrifice the liberation of a world gone wrong.
Wagner wanted to create a revolutionary “mythos.” He came to Zurich with this intention and he pursued it for over twenty years, until the Ring of the Nibelung was finished in 1874. With this, the Early Romantic dreams of a new mythology were finally realized.
There were two motives at work in the quest for a new mythology at that time. The first was that art was supposed to become the successor of an official religion that had lost its vigor. It was to found a new myth from “the profoundest depth of the spirit” (Friedrich Schlegel), something entirely invented, therefore, rather than revealed. For this reason it was spoken of as a “mythology of reason.” The second motive lay in the experience of social upheaval at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The times lacked an all-embracing idea of social life— mindless egotism and economic utilitarianism had usurped its place. Thus the chief effect of the new mythology would be “to unite people in a communal vision.” The Romantics had learned from tradition that people cannot get along without myths, and the spirit of modernity, the spirit of doing, encouraged them to create such myths themselves if that was what was needed.
Richard Wagner began to realize the vision of a new mythology a half century later. He reached back to the editions of the Nibelung saga that had appeared in the Romantic period, but made something very much his own out of them. He above all drew on Romantic ideas of the myth-shaping and socially unifying function of art in antiquity.
In his article “Art and Revolution” (“Die Kunst und die Revolution”) of 1849, Wagner contrasts the idealized culture of the ancient Greek polis with the cultural conditions of modern bourgeois society seen from the perspective of an early socialist anti-capitalism. Wagner knew the terrain well, perhaps because he had read some of Marx or knew his ideas from hearsay. In the Greek polis, he writes, in Mein Denken, society and individual, public and private interests, were reconciled to each other; thus art was a truly public affair, an event whereby a people could see enacted the meaning and principles of its communal life in the framework of a sacred festival.
This people streamed in together from the governing assemblies, from the marketplace, from the countryside, from ships and military encampments, from the furthest reaches of its territory, and filled the amphitheater thirty thousand strong to view the profoundest of all tragedies, the Prometheus, to gather together before this mightiest of artworks, to comprehend itself, to grasp its own activity, to fuse into the most intimate unity with its own essence, its camaraderie, its god, and so to be again in the noblest and deepest tranquility what it had likewise been a few hours previous in restless agitation and in the most pronounced individuality ( Mein Denken).
But this does not mean that it should assume the lowly status of a handmaid to politics, for art and revolution are mutually related: revolution needs art, as art needs revolution. Both have a common goal: “This goal is the strong and beautiful human being: let revolution provide the strength, art the beauty!” Art, therefore, serves its own unfolding when it serves revolution. It is precisely after political defeat that we need to hold fast to the revolutionary function of art and fashion works that assign “a beautiful, lofty goal to the stream of passionate social movements . . . the goal of a noble humanity.”
The artwork Wagner has in mind for this task is the Nibelung drama, which during the following years grew into a tetralogy.
But as a revolutionary pictured on wanted posters, Wagner knows that, though he is safe in Zurich, finding a way for the work to be properly performed in Germany is temporarily out of the question. He writes to Uhlig, November 12, 1851:
With this new conception of mine I am moving completely out of touch with our present-day theatre and its audiences . . . A performance is something I can conceive of only after the Revolution . . . I shall then run up a theatre on the Rhine and send out invitations to a great dramatic festival: after a year's preparations I shall then perform my entire work within the space of four days: with it I shall then make clear to the men of the Revolution the meaning of that Revolution, in its noblest sense. This audience will understand me: present-day audiences cannot.
And Wagner was even considering that he would not only have the theater torn down again after one unique performance but even burn the score.
When the Ring was performed in subsequent years without an antecedent revolution, Wagner was forced to redefine the effect of the drama. At first he intended it to make people feel the need for a future revolution. But then in the last decade of his life—politically resigned, though at the zenith of his fame as an artist—he believed his art capable of compensating for the lack of radical social upheaval or even taking its place. The art experience becomes—expressly so in Parsifal— a sacral moment of redemption, even the herald and promise of the grand redemption at the end of time. Art becomes religion. And for the enraged and disappointed Nietzsche, it was the occasion for cutting his ties with Wagner.
But it has not yet come to that. Wagner at this point is still interested in creating a myth in which the gods die once a free human being appears. This is religion only in the sense that humanity becomes divine. Wagner, like Heine in Winter’s Tale, leaves heaven to the sparrows.
Wagner works for a quarter of a century on the Ring of the Nibelung, from the 1848 prose sketch called “The Nibelung Myth” to the work's conclusion in November 1874. “I say no more,” he wrote on the last page of the tetralogy's score. In 1876 the whole Ring was performed for the first time over a four-day period at the opening of the Festival Hall in Bayreuth.
What it enacts is the great story of the fall of the gods. What are these gods,
Freia, the goddess of eternal youth. To ransom her—since without her the gods will grow old and gray—he steals Alberich's treasure instead of returning it to the Rhine Maidens. Bound by contracts with the giants, he can no longer restore the old innocence of Being. Thus Erda, the primordial chthonic mother, refuses to acknowledge him: “You are not / what you declare!” ( Siegfried 3.1). Greed for power and possession is victorious over the natural justice of being: “Since by my treaties I rule, / by those treaties I am enslaved” ( Valkyrie 2.2, 109).
The mythical world, then, has three levels: underneath, the original Being of beauty and love represented by the Rhine Maidens and the earth mother Erda; over it, the world of the Nibelungs, that turns on power, possession, and slavery; and ominously ensnared in the same is the third world, the world of the gods, now alienated from its chthonic origin. At the end of Das Rheingold the Rhine Maidens lament: “Goodness and truth / dwell but in the waters: / false and base / all those who dwell up above” ( Rheingold 4).
The gods take part in the general corruption of the world. They are flesh born of flesh. From them will come no salvation. That can only be brought by the free man who breaks out of the fateful circle of power, possession, and treacherous contracts, who, apart from any divine command or desire to possess, kills the dragon, secures the treasure, and returns it to the Rhine Maidens. The new beginning must come about without the gods. The gods, wearied by their failed creation, can die once the man of love and beauty awakes. He enters the stage as Siegfried. He kills the dragon, guilelessly takes the treasure, and gives the ring to Brunnhilde as a love-gift. Yet he lacks cleverness and knowledge. Thus he falls victim to a cabal motivated by envy and desire for power and possession. Hagen, Alberich's son, kills him. Siegfried's breakthrough does not succeed, but Brunnhilde completes his work by giving the ring back to the Rhine. Valhalla goes up in flames, and the gods perish in the conflagration. Brunnhilde's parting song: “Nor goods nor gold / nor godly display . . . / nor traitorous treaties, / trammels and bonds, / nor cruel decrees / of custom and cant;— / Happy in weal or woe / let—love just be.”
The gleaming center stage of the Ring of the Nibelung is reserved for the man who frees himself even from the pressing burden of a divine heaven and learns to temper his will to power with the power of love. The counter-image, the estranged world of power and possession, is located in Alberich's realm among the Nibelungs, where gold and money rule. But the drama mobilizes no genuine hatred even for this world. The spirit of love and the benevolence of art would not allow it.
Wagner, however, did harbor much hatred, which did not enter directly into the work, but found other paths to expression. For Wagner, as we have already hinted, the denizens of Alberich's dark kingdom wear a certain face: they are Jews, who personify the spirit of money and trade, not only in the business world, but in the operations of culture as well.
Meyerbeer, for example, his rival during the Paris years, became for him a symbol of this tasteless cultural capitalism. The idea of a Jewish Geld-geist
more than rework mythological material garnered from the Nibelungenlied, the Edda, and the German Mythology of Jakob Grimm? Wasn't the work designed for aesthetic reception, which would therefore virtually neutralize any mythical effect? Wagner was fully aware of the problems. This is shown by his numerous essays, which however also announce his intention to explode the limits of the merely aesthetic experience and bring about a consciousness which he calls “mythic.” Obviously he does not mean to rekindle faith in the fallen gods, since after all the fall of these gods is the very theme of the Ring.
Again, what is a mythic experience? It is an enhanced experience in which an unsuspected fullness of meaning opens up. Wagner sets it apart from scientific and everyday perception, where an objective attitude is essential. The distance vanishes, however, when we are suddenly called upon to act as “participatory beings”; then something opens up in us, and we open up in something—in situations, people, impressions of nature, language, music. Vital powers in which the individual consciousness takes part by stepping beyond its borders. Wagner calls such moments the “condensed form of real life.”
In musical drama he wants to make this form seen and heard. He calls mythic that attitude in which the otherwise natural separation of subject and object is temporarily superseded, a condition that can have an entrancing, enlivening, but also overpowering effect. But however it affects us, it is a matter of a different experience of Being, transcending ordinary life. Richard Wagner very expressly professes to open up another “arena of Being” ( Schauplatz des Seins) with his musical drama—not, therefore, as a mere construct to be intellectually rehearsed, but in experience, that is, in actual presence. However, we can only come to such a presence, Wagner says, through the cooperation of all our powers of realization. There is music to find language for the unutterable; words to combine with music and jointly form a new sphere of meaning; rhythm of plot and movement; the placement of characters on the stage, atmospheric effects, stage sets and painted backdrops, mimes and gestures, the disposition of light and shadow. There is no element in this ensemble of audiovisual effects that is not drawn into the overall play of meaning. And then there is the ritual of the performance, the days of festival, the amphitheater of the Festival Hall that allows the audience no escape.
The mythic experience is extraordinary, since ordinarily we experience things otherwise, more fleetingly and superficially. Not only does the experiencing subject undergo a change, but the object too gains depth and significance. We change, and the world changes: it gleams. In a figurative sense, the gods do return. They do not sit enthroned over the world, but penetrate life and things as an intensifying force; they inhabit them, as this was called in antiquity. Nietzsche will formulate it thus: Wagner presents us with moments of “right feeling” ( richtige Empfindung).
The “right feelings” belong to a sphere that Schopenhauer, who represented the decisive educational experience for Wagner as he did for Nietzsche, brought to language: the dark, instinctual-dynamic sphere of the unconscious and the
It was not only in France where Wagner became the idol of the artistic Cosmics ( Kosmiker) and liberated Symbolists. For the Revue Wagnérienne— an avant-garde journal and not, like the Bayreuther Blätter, an anti-semitic provocation sheet—wagner was a “leader and inspirer in all areas imaginable.” The decadence and fin de siècle, whether in Paris, Vienna, or Munich, rediscovered their cosmos in Wagner: a world tipped on its head, where sickness triumphed over health, death over life, artificiality over nature, uselessness over utility, and devoted surrender over rational self-assertion. Here it was possible to see the world wrapped in mystery again; the demonic and Dionysian emerged into view; and one heard the languorous lament over the sobriety of the bourgeois age. Huysmans, D'annunzio, the young Thomas Mann, Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Mallarmé—they were all fascinated by the themes of Liebestod and Götterdämmerung, by the darkly sonorous kingdom of Destiny, Eros, and Thanatos. Its orchestral storms and endless melody allowed one to sink into the dark promise of the subterranean depths of the psyche. It felt like the eye of the hurricane, the inner stillness of violent forms.
Even when the emotions are tender and nuanced, Wagner pulls out all the stops of his power to create effects, in order to escape the sanctuary of the fine arts and to make possible a mythic experience or an intoxicating transport. His art becomes, as contemporary critics had already observed, an “all-out attack on all the senses.” That lends his work, which attacks the modern capitalistic age, its peculiar modernity. For the primacy of effect, and of the intent to achieve effect, is characteristic of this modernity, in which the public is organized as a market. Here artists must compete for attention. They often have to use loud and vulgar means to stump for the delicate empiricism of their works. Charles Baudelaire unashamedly recommends that artists learn from the advertising spirit: “Arouse just as much interest with new means . . . double, triple, quadruple the dose.” The market has brought the public to power, and it wants to be cajoled, seduced, or even overwhelmed. It demands its heroes in politics and in the arts. Richard Wagner was such a hero; he could be considered the Napoleon of European musical theater. As one who attuned his audience to the mythic experience, he well understood how to establish his own personality as a public myth. There is probably a context here: the production of myth in the modern age requires the self-mythologizing of the producer. Wagner began his campaign to conquer the public in Paris not through the performance of his works, but through the renting of a luxurious apartment, which he could not at all afford, but which aroused interest in his personality. With Wagner begins the cult of personality in the grand style.
The twilight of the gods had made room for the divinized artist. Adelheid von Schorn, a female friend of Franz Liszt and a Wagnerian of the first degree, reported on the laying of the cornerstone on Festival Hill in Bayreuth on May 22, 1872: