Wag­ner Over­throws the Gods

New England Review - - Cultural History - Rüdi­ger Safran­ski

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

Rüdi­ger Safran­ski

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).

Rüdi­ger Safran­ski

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,

Rüdi­ger Safran­ski

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

Rüdi­ger Safran­ski

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

Rüdi­ger Safran­ski

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:

Rüdi­ger Safran­ski

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