The Importance of Being Unfaithful to Wagner

Edward Said

‘The bewildering variety of interests and standards in Wagner scholarship (or what passes for it) is congenitally resistant to study.’ Thus John Deathridge, the leading Wagner scholar of the English-speaking world, at the beginning of his chapter on Wagner research in the Wagner Handbook. It so learned and au courant a scholar as Deathridge is daunted by trying to make sense of Wagner research and interpretation, what about the rest of us? For not only was Wagner both contemptuous of history in general and a constant re-maker of his own history, but the enormous range of materials that have survived him (including, of course, his 15 Operas) has made almost any relatively straightforward approach to him impossible. Deathridge deepens the problem by saying that even a Gesamtforscher (‘a versatile scholar who can do everything’) would probably fail to adjudicate or negotiate the discrepancies: between the fantastic quantity of sources and Wagner’s shifting ideologies, for example, or between Wagner and Wagnerism, or between the music and the texts. The difficulties are dizzying and appear limitless. ‘A viable view of Wagner research,’ Deathridge concludes, ‘has more to do with the dynamics of history than with an absolute vision of how it should be.’

Hence the appearance of the Wagner Handbook and Wagner in Performance, handsome, amply-stocked volumes by many hands, surveying the Wagner phenomenon from numerous, not altogether co-ordinated contemporary perspectives. Most of the contributions on set design or musical styles (those of singers as well as conductors) are fascinating as a compendium of scholarly uncertainties allied with confident, sometimes overbearing brashness. Crucial to all this is Bayreuth itself, where Wagner believed he could control his work: in the case of Parsifal he was able to prevent its performance elsewhere, Bayreuth, however, was as much a centre of social authority and power as it was a trend-setter in aesthetics, with its hidden orchestra and conductor, its innovations in singing style, and its unusually uncomfortable seats. Deathridge correctly refers to Wahnfried (Wagner’s specially built house in Bayreuth) as often as he refers to the Festspielhaus, because it was here that Wagner and later Cosima were able to keep the Wagner production engine on track; at Wahnfried after Wagner’s death Cosima and then her daughter-in-law Winifred all too effectively held court alone, as Syberberg’s chilling cinematic portrait of her attests. Hitler and Richard Strauss, Toscanini and Houston Stewart Chamberlain came there, as well as a whole host of lesser figures, sycophants, geniuses, philosophers, charlatans, and professional Wagnerians of every stripe and calibre.

One says all this about the bewildering richness of Wagner’s legacy with an eye on Paul Lawrence Rose’s Wagner: Race and Revolution, a book whose single-minded – albeit forceful and historically well-informed – account of the Wagner phenomenon renders the man and his operas pretty much as violent, revolutionary anti-semitism. Reading Rose, on the one hand, and, on the other, one of the chapters of the Wagner Handbook or Wagner in Performance, you would not realise that they are talking about the same thing, so different in tone and intent is Rose from the other two. Take as an instance Matthias Theodor Vogt’s brilliantly original essay ‘Taking the Waters at Bayreuth’ in the Millington/Spencer collection. Vogt’s ingenious point is that Wagner was obsessed with hydropathy, and that for him hydrotherapy, or a water cure, was as necessary for human beings as fire therapy was for gods: think of how Götterdämmerung ends, with its fiery destruction of Valhalla and the rising flood waters of the Rhine reclaiming the earth as well as the Ring itself. That this was not an airy theoretical vision but something profoundly fell as well as a matter of necessary quotidian practice is shown by Vogt in passages like the following, written by Wagner in 1851, while at work on ‘Young Siegfried’, the germ from which The Ring of the Nibelung gradually emerged:

My daily routine is now as follows, 1st, halt-past-five in the morning wet pack until 7 o’clock; then a cold bath and a walk. 8 o’clock breakfast: dry bread and milk or water. 2nd, immediately afterwards a first and then a second clyster; another short walk; then a cold compress on my abdomen. 3rd, around 12 o’clock: wet rub-down; short walk; fresh compress. Then lunch in my room with Karl [Ritter], to prevent insubordination. Then an hour spent in idleness: brisk two-hour walk – alone. 4th, around 4 o’clock: another wet rub-down and a short walk. 5th, hip-bath for a quarter of an hour around 6 o’clock, followed by a walk to warm me up. Fresh compress, Around 7 o’clock dinner: dry bread and water, 6th, immediately followed by a first and then a second clyster; then a game of whist until after 9 o’clock, after which another compress, and then around 10 o’clock we all retire to bed. – I am now bearing up quite well under this regimen: I may even intensify it.

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[*] From ‘Wagners Aktualität’ (1965), which will appear as ‘Wagner’s Relevance for Today’ in Grand Street, 44.

[†] Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of ‘Transfer’ in Zionist political Thought 1882-1948, Institute for Palestine Studies, Washington DC, 1902.