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The Importance of Being Unfaithful to WagnerEdward Said
Vol. 15 No. 3 · 11 February 1993

The Importance of Being Unfaithful to Wagner

Edward Said

3704 words
Wagner in Performance 
edited by Barry Millington and Stewart Spencer.
Yale, 214 pp., £19.95, July 1992, 0 300 05718 0
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Wagner: Race and Revolution 
by Paul Lawrence Rose.
Faber, 304 pp., £20, June 1992, 9780571164653
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Wagner Handbook 
edited by Ulrich Müller and Peter Wapnewski, translated by John Deathridge.
Harvard, 711 pp., £27.50, October 1992, 0 674 94530 1
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Richard Wagner’s Visit to Rossini and An Evening at Rossini’s in Beau-Séjour 
by Edmond Michotte, translated by Herbert Weinstock.
Quartet, 144 pp., £12.95, November 1992, 9780704370319
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‘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.

That Wagner managed to do any work at all (apart from quelling insubordination) is a miracle. His obsession with water dominates all his operas – Tristan, the Ring, the Dutchman and Parsifal especially – and has to be considered as much a part of his work as his appalling anti-semitic tirades, or his attacks on conventional, particularly Italian and French opera (Rossini’s excepted, as the charming Michotte work makes clear), or his absurdly grandiose revolutionary proclamations. The question therefore isn’t so much finding the one thing about Wagner that commands all the others, but of learning somehow to discriminate, make judgments, and criticise him intelligently and, above all, imaginatively and unreductively. The various surveys of singing, conducting, and set design provided by both the Deathridge and Millington/Spencer books give one the material on which composite interpretations of Wagner’s work could be built, ranging from the vibrato and rubato employed respectively by singers and conductors to the stodgy naturalistic productions put on by companies like New York’s Metropolitan or the revisionist stagings originally mounted by Wieland Wagner, the composer’s grandson, during the post-war years at Bayreuth and followed variously there and elsewhere by Patrice Chéreau, Götz Friedrich, Ruth Berghaus, Harry Kupfer, and Robert Wilson.

As Adorno argued in an autumnal and even conciliatory reflection on Wagner published several years after his savage book on the composer, ‘Wagner is the first case of uncompromising musical nominalism ... the first in which the primacy of the individual work of art, and within the work the primacy of figure, in its concrete elaborated reality, is established fundamentally over any kind of scheme or externally imposed form.’ This by no means lets Wagner off the hook; he is still hopelessly involved in dreadful ideologies, in a morass of uncertainty and irresolution that produces his greatest failures as well as his finest achievements. Adorno then adds:

If it is true about Wagner that no matter what one does, it is wrong, the thing that is still most likely to help is to force what is false, flawed, antinomical out into the open, rather than glossing over it and generating a kind of harmony to which the most profound element in Wagner is antithetical For that reason, only experimental solutions [Adorno means productions, but he could be read as proposing also the need for experimental, i.e. self-conscious and ironic and non-literal, interpretations] are justified today; only what injures the Wagner orthodoxy is true. The defenders of the grail shouldn’t get so worked up about it; Wagner’s precise instructions exist and will continue to be handed down for historians. But the rage that is unleashed by such interventions proves that they strike a nerve, precisely that layer where the question of Wagner’s relevance for today is decided. One should also intervene without question in conspicuously nationalistic passages like Hans Sachs’s final speech. In the same way, one should liberate the musical dramas from the stigma of the disgraceful Jewish caricatures Mime and Beckmesser – at least through the accents set by the production. If Wagner’s work is truly ambivalent and fractured, then it can be done justice only by a performance practice that takes this into account and realises the fractures, instead of closing them cosmetically.*

Few people who are professionally involved with Wagner are capable of this kind of altitude, and even fewer can realise it in their interpretative work, intellectual or theatrical For what Adorno describes is deeply ironical and almost Brechtian: accentuating the discrepancies in Wagner, and doing it both by deliberate anachronism (not being true to his explicit stage-directions, for instance) and with a sense of freedom about what must remain unresolved, antinomian, bewildering in his work. This in the end leaves the music pretty much as it is, since for all his endless posturing about being a revolutionary in all things, the musical style of his operas (even Tristan and Parsifal) grows naturally out of the music of his favourite antecedents, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven especially. To liberate Wagner from his anti-semitism may seem impossible to critics like Paul Rose, but it is in fact relatively easy, since Beckmesser and Mime are not explicitly Jewish characters at all: both parts can be played without the offensively caricatural traits so often heaped on them. A few nights ago I saw Hermann Prey do Beckmesser in an otherwise dreary Meistersinger at the Met. Rather than the neurotic, black-suited Shylock figure regularly trundled out, someone who barks more often than he sings, Prey’s Beckmesser was a pouty, vaguely adolescent, and extremely vulnerable middle-aged man, his insecure learning as a shield for his sexual uncertainties. But the revelation was Prey’s singing, which was singing first of all, and in addition expressive, rhetorically very precise and (to be a bit tautological) authentically Wagnerian in style, rather than an imitation that style’s clichés.

Although there has been a spate of writing on Wagner, only one musicologist to my knowledge has attempted a full-scale interpretation based not only on the ‘fractured and ambivalent work’ but also on the idea that interpretation itself is subject to the dynamics of history. I refer to Jean-Jacques Nattiez, a French musicologist now teaching in Montreal, and the author of a remarkable pan of books, Tétralogies: Essai sur l’infidélité (1983) and Wagner Androgyne (1991). Tétralogies was written in conjunction with the famous Boulez-Chéreau Bayreuth Ring of 1976; strangely, the book hasn’t been translated into English, although an elaborated précis of the argument is included in the Millington/Spencer volume. An English translation of Wagner Androgyne is, I gather, about to appear. There is a curious, though compelling reductionism in the later work, which argues that Wagner’s music is about the history of music, and that his imagination was in the grip of a long-standing obsession with uniting man and woman prophetically in a single audiogynous figure (rather like Plato’s fable in the Symposium).

It is, however. Nattiez’s brilliant analysis of the notion of ‘fidelity’ to Wagner’s operas that is particularly relevant here. Using Boulez and Chéreau as his reference points, Nattiez argues that Wagner’s music is not about return and repetition, but about transition. ‘In order to be faithful to Wagner,’ he says, ‘one has to de-Wagnerise him.’ Wagner’s ‘exuberant anarchy’ encourages this sort of volatility and flair in his interpreters. Not everything that Wagner thought found its way into the scores of his works; what a director like Chéreau attempts to do therefore is to accentuate those aspects of Wagner that encourage re-interpretation, new constructions, re-animation of the work in contemporary terms. Similarly, Boulez argues that ‘anyone who claims to be safeguarding a work within its initial tradition soon finds himself standing guard over a tomb.’ What Nattiez suggests is that to be unfaithful to Wagner is to be faithful to him: ‘Every producer, every conductor proposes a possible Wagner.’ All this is not unlike Harold Bloom’s theory of misreading.

In the end, however, Wagner survives not only because interpreters are imaginative or inreverent, but because the sheer beauty and force of his music give coherence to the experience of seeing the music dramas staged. This is clearly what moved and impressed exceptional Wagnerians like Proust, Thomas Mann and Mallarmé. It is precisely Wagner’s extremely varied legacy – a legacy which includes Toscanini, Boulez, Schoenberg, and critical critics like Death ridge, Nattiez and Adorno – that Paul Rose’s book attempts to refute. Not that his book wants either for telling points or for historical evidence. That Wagner was an anti-semite in the tradition of Fichte, Kant, Bakunin, Marx, the young Hegelians and Gobineau. Rose more than adequately proves. That Wagner’s ‘revolutionary ideals’ rather than mere atavism were the source of the Ring is also amply researched and confirmed. That Wagner was obsessed with the figure of the Wandering Jew (who is embodied in the Flying Dutchman and Kundry) is certainly the case, as Rose shows. Finally Rose suggests that ‘the crucial characteristic of Wagner’s, and indeed the prevailing German concept of “Jews”, is that it is a plastic, fluid notion that can often change its meaning seamlessly without the consciousness or intention of a writer or thinker. In German revolutionary thought, the revolution and the Jews are thus nebulous, almost mystical symbols. They are not the precise, practical conceptions of Western liberalism.’

At this point we might demur – but only until we remember that Wagner’s ideas about water were equally nebulous, obsessive, overstated, impractical and imprecise. Yet what Rose is saying over and over again is much less frivolous. In his view, Wagner, as one of the chief authors of anti-Semitic ideology, should be accorded a kind of attention not ordinarily given to those other musicians or artists who have inflicted their overweening egos and monstrous passions on the world (like de Sade, for example, an author not mentioned by Rose). The crux of the claim against Wagner is advanced, I think injudiciously, in an appendix originally written for the New York Forward in January 1992. Here Rose proposes the novel thesis that Wagner’s music contains

a distillate of Wagner’s own personality, above all, his violent hatreds. His personal viciousness happened to be directed against Jews, but any target would do – the French, personal friends who somehow offended, supporters who did not grasp the purity of his ideas, unobliging husbands ... Listen, for example, to the ferocity of Siegfried’s funeral music – breath-taking in its violence as well as its grandeur. One might claim that it’s worth paying the price of emotional shame to hear such music. But then compare it with its model, Beethoven’s Eroica funeral march. Here one has the same magnificence, but without the shameful cruelty and hatred which permeate Wagner’s work.

Therefore, Rose concludes, Wagner should not be played in Israel since in listening to his music there is a danger of forgetting the Holocaust: ‘the Israeli ban on Wagner is a preeminent rite for warding off the dissolution of one of the core experiences of Jewish history and memory.’ There is of course a serious contradiction here. For if it is true that Wagner’s music is a distillate of his hatreds, playing it, far from dissolving memory, should actively remind listeners of what those hatreds were. Besides, if ‘any target would do’ how can we be sure that only Jews were intended; surely a case could be made for not performing his work in France, or warning husbands not to listen, and so on. Yet Rose’s comparison of Beethoven and Wagner shouldn’t go unnoticed: four ounces of ennoblement in Beethoven as against two in Wagner. It’s like a drunk-driving test. And how, listening to Wagner, does one pay that price in ‘emotional shame’? Is it like going to a peep show? And what if in fact no such specific content – hatred, violence, cruelty – is ascertainable in the music? The fact is that Rose’s claims about music are ludicrous. How can he on the one hand insist on the indiscriminate nebulousness of Wagner’s ideas, and on the other confidently assert that they are distillable into specific ideas of hatred in the music?

Wagner has not lacked for critics of his vile ideas: Robert Gutman’s Richard Wagner: The Man, his Mind and his Music (1968), while perhaps not as thoroughgoing as Rose in connecting Wagner’s anti-semitism with revolutionary ideas, is unsparing in its excoriations of the man’s despicable pronouncements and behaviour. But Gutman stops well short of banning Wagner’s music altogether. Rose’s simplistic approach has it that art is, in effect, only a repetition – perhaps cunningly disguised – of the artist’s political and moral beliefs, as if style, form, idiom, irony, play no role whatever. Unwittingly perhaps, with his suggestion that every measure of the music contains specific political directives, he accords Wagner an even greater power than Wagner himself might have hoped for. To experience Wagner is only (or mainly), he says, to experience anti-semitism. As for the various Jewish musicians who have conducted, sung, played, directed or designed the operas, from Hermann Levi to Barenboim, Levine and Solti, they are by implication either dupes or complicit scoundrels. ‘The questions of Wagner’s anti-semitism and Hitler’s exploitation of it are fundamental,’ Rose writes, ‘but what is ultimately at stake in banning Wagner is the sustaining of the memory of the Holocaust itself. There was a Holocaust, and Wagner’s self-righteous ravings, sublimated in his music, were one of the most potent elements in creating the mentality that made such an enormity thinkable – and performable.’ Here we have Wagner as Hitler’s enabler – the final straw.

The crucial word is ‘fundamental’. Rose – currently Hecht Professor at Haifa University – is a fundamentalist, a Khomeini of the arts, who might, like the frequently, and justly, criticised Iranian mullahs, ask for books to be banned or burnt as an instrument of state authority. Rose can scarcely bear to allow for the possibility that people can listen to Wagner’s music or see his music-dramas without forgetting either the man’s deplorable ideas or their horrific extension into the public policy of the Third Reich. He makes no provision for counter-interpretations of Wagner’s music (such as those recommended by Boulez and Nattiez), not does lie consider it a possibility that Wagner’s work might (as Adorno suggests) contradict itself or that there are other ways of reading Wagner beside Rose’s own literalist canons.

This is distressingly sad as well as impoverishing. Rose by implication endorses both the Iranian (and other Muslim) authorities who wish to ban The Satanic Verses, and those many historical victims of Western culture who advocate expunging Dead White Males and their views from academic curricula. Relationships between art and evil ideas (and practices too) should of course be elucidated, but ought we to ban Edmund Spenser for his genocidal views of the Irish, or Carlyle for his theses on the ‘nigger question’, or Renan for his ideas about the ‘Semitic mind’? Some years ago Chinua Achebe attacked Conrad’s racism in Heart of Darkness, and found direct links between that work and the dehumanisation and exploitation of Africa. What he was trying to do was not to prevent Africans from reading Conrad, but rather to show them that it wasn’t necessary to see Conrad as a ‘classic’ or great writer. That is a view one can argue with, however much one may agree or disagree with Achebe’s critique of Conrad’s reactionary and racist politics. But to equate Wagner proleptically with the Holocaust is to go much further than Achebe, and further even than Walter Benjamin, for whom every document of civilisation was also a document of barbarism. It is to amputate unseemly and horrible experiences altogether from the realm of the human, and as such a view incapable of development, argument or reconciliation.

I realise that Rose writes as an Israeli whose tragic legacy as a survivor of the Holocaust may include the impossibility of ever coming to terms with the German tradition that produced not only Wagner but also Heidegger and others who were complicit with Nazism. Yet, as a Palestinian, I would venture to suggest that an additional yet routinely overlooked consequence of European anti-semitism was what happened to the native Palestinian people. A recent book by the Israeli-Palestinian scholar Nur Massalha documents the concept of ‘transfer’ in Zionist thinking from Herzl, Weizmann, Ben Gurion to their heirs, Shamir and Rabin. Going over mountains of Hebrew-language documents Massalha shows that every Zionist leader of the Left, Right or Centre, with no significant exceptions, was in favour of ridding Palestine of Palestinians, by all means necessary, force and bribery included. The expulsion took place, as we know, in 1948, A month ago 415 more Palestinians were thrown out by the Rabin Government.

There are troubling continuities and analogies here, most of them too obvious to point out. The epistemology of Rose’s arguments about Wagner is seriously flawed, since it all too easily collapses art, history, genocide into each other, and seems by extension to validate excision, book-banning and avoidance as tools not only of analytic research but also of state policy. In 1948 Israel was established as a state for the Jewish people, but – with the kind of viewpoint that Rose excoriates in Wagner – it projected a state that was Arab-free. In my opinion there are better ways to deal with others – even hated and feared others – than to wish they were not there, and expend a great deal of intellectual, political and military effort to get rid of them. The Palestinian people have recognised Israel since 1988: there has been no comparable recognition of Palestinian nationalism by any responsible figure in the Israeli Government, despite the fact that it is the Palestinians who originally lost their land and society and who have lived under military occupation since 1967. Rose’s book on Wagner is as unyielding in its intellectual politics as Israeli governments have been, with results that are hardly more satisfactory than the anti-semitism against which these polities are defending. Wagner’s music deserves to be treated with less defensiveness and retrospective bitterness.

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Vol. 15 No. 4 · 25 February 1993

Edward Said’s article (LRB, 11 February) allegedly reviewing various books on Wagner, but actually written with a very different subject in mind, is so amorphous that it is hard to deal with it any more coherently than it is written.

A few factual points. Said refers to Wagner’s ‘15 operas’, while I’d have thought that it was a minimum qualification for writing on him that one knew he composed 13. Said writes of ‘ “Young Siegfried", the germ from which The Ring of the Nibelung gradually emerged’. But whatever the germ was, it certainly preceded ‘Young Siegfried’, which Wagner only wrote after ‘Siegfried’s Death’, when he had realised that there was too much in that work that needed explaining, and which itself was preceded by several plans. Said writes that Wagner’s ‘obsession with water dominates all his operas – Tristan, the Ring, the Dutchman and Parsifal especially’. I can’t readily call to mind an obsession with water in Die Walküre or Siegfried, let alone Tannhäuser or Die Meistersinger. Admittedly, the first act of Tristan takes place on board a boat; by Said’s standards that may well qualify as obsessional.

Said thinks that Wieland Wagner’s revisionist stagings’ at Bayreuth were ‘followed variously there and elsewhere by Patrice Chéreau, Götz Friedrich, Ruth Berghaus’. But he fails to note that while Wieland was intent on realising his grandfather’s concept of the ‘purely human’ which die dramas expressed, Chéreau and the rest have all been dedicated to deconstructing them, locating them in the time they were written, or in the future, but emphatically not to being more faithful to Wagner than he was to himself. It is a fundamental difference. But Said hardly seems to be au fait with Wagnerian productions. He apparently thinks that the iconoclasts are a brave little bunch of rebels, whereas in fact they represent the increasingly dreary orthodoxy, and ‘faithful’ productions are very much the exception. And his praise for Hermann Prey’s Beckmesser in the current Met production of Meistersinger is, bewilderingly in the context, praise for something closer to Wagner’s idea than ‘the neurotic, black-suited Shylock figure regularly trundled out’. Black-suited, yes, since that is appropriate to a town clerk; but I have never seen a production in which Beckmesser was a Shylock figure. When and where were or are they to be found?

While expressing agreement with Nattiez’s advocacy of ‘infidelity’ to Wagner, both in production and in conducting, Said claims that ‘the sheer beauty and force of the music give coherence to the experience of seeing the music dramas staged. This is clearly what moved and impressed exceptional Wagnerians like Proust, Thomas Mann and Mallarmé.’ But how many experimental interpretations did they see and hear? Non sequiturs of this kind sprout at such a rate in Said’s article that one is left in a kind of fog.

Light, of a kind, at last penetrates when Said gets on to Paul Lawrence Rose’s Wagner: Race and Revolution. This absurd book has been sufficiently dealt with elsewhere. But Said’s individual contribution to its critique is to attack it as a Palestinian, and his article ends – it is clearly Said’s telos – with an attack on Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, including those who are at present barely surviving in no man’s land. However sympathetic one may be to them, and to Said’s grievances against Israel in general, surely a review of books on Wagner is not the place to expound his views. ‘Nebulous, obsessive, overstated, impractical and imprecise’ is how Said characterises Wagner’s ideas about water. It is also how one might fairly characterise Said’s views about Wagner, and the whole of his thinking in this shoddy piece, until he arrives at the one subject that concerns him, by which time Wagner has – to continue the aqueous metaphor – evaporated.

Michael Tanner
Corpus Christi College,

Vol. 15 No. 5 · 11 March 1993

I am writing in response to Professor Edward Said’s review of my father’s book, Wagner: Race and Revolution (LRB, 11 February). Professor Said has made a number of factual mistakes, as well as some rather excited accusations. First, Paul Lawrence Rose is not at Haifa University – he is currently based at Pennsylvania State University, following his move from the University of Toronto. Said finds it difficult to keep his emotional outbursts in check. He accuses Rose of endorsing ‘both the Iranian (and other Muslim) authorities who wish to ban The Satanic Verses, and those many historical victims of Western culture who advocate expunging Dead White Males and their views from academic curricula’. This amateurish attempt at portraying Professor Rose as a narrow-minded, censorious, politically-correct academic only illustrates more clearly Said’s worrying propensity to resort to name-calling and other childish games.

Said expresses concern for my father’s ‘tragic legacy as a survivor of the Holocaust’, and describes him as being an Israeli. In fact, and unfortunately for Said’s argument, Rose was born in Britain. Said just cannot keep himself from indulging in tub-thumping exercises on behalf of the Palestinians, even in a review ostensibly about Wagner. By asserting that Rose is an Israeli with an obsessive hatred of Germany, Edward Said is trying to equate Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with Nazi genocidal policies. As he says, ‘every Zionist leader of the Left, Right or Centre … was in favour of ridding Palestine of Palestinians, by all means necessary, force and bribery included.’ Said thus implies that Israel plans the systematic extermination or expulsion of its minorities by a method similar to that of the Nazis. Said criticises Wagner: Race and Revolution as ‘all too easily [collapsing] art, history, genocide into each other’. Perhaps Edward Said could heed his own advice.

Alexander Rose
Magdalene College, Cambridge

Vol. 15 No. 6 · 25 March 1993

Had he confined himself to correcting an uninteresting typing error in my review of several books on Wagner, Michael Tanner would have done something marginally useful (Letters, 25 February). Instead he goes on to produce a bully-boy letter which is about the silliest and most bad-tempered piece of pedantic turf-guarding by an aggrieved and mean-spirited so-called professional expert that I’ve read in a long time. Mostly he just blathers on about how I shouldn’t be allowed to write about Wagner, no doubt thereby telling us he’s the one who ought to have done it. Enraged by these unedifying thoughts, he totally misses the point of what I did say: that given Wagner’s vast output and its even vaster criticism, trying to decide what is ‘essential’ about him is a difficult, if not impossible goal to realise. Hence my remarks about the need for imagination and taste (infidelity) in thinking about and producing Wagner. The water fixation that I mentioned, Tanner brushes aside rather recklessly; yet the merest acquaintance with the operas – 14, if one includes Die Hochzeit, not 13 as he alleges – shows a considerable attention to water. I didn’t say ‘all’, I said ‘most’ of the operas: besides, when the irascible Tanner says, again recklessly, that he can’t recall any water in Walküre, he typically passes over the opening moment of the opera, Siegmund’s ‘Ein Quell! Ein Quell!’, after which Sieglinde offers him not bread, not wine, not love, but, yes, water: ‘Labung biet ich dem lechzenden Gaumen: Wasser wie du gewollt!’ Walküre opens with a thunderstorm and ends with a magic fire, precisely the pattern that not I, but the ingenious Matthais Theodor Vogt, discerns in Wagner’s work. Yes, and Siegfried has water too, as when Siegfried in Act I looks in the stream (‘zum Klaren Bach’) to discover that he isn’t related to Mime, and in Act III Brünnhilde makes much of that very same stream. As for Tristan, the foolishly mocking Tanner may wish to consult Susan Sontag’s superb essay on the opera. ‘Wagner’s Fluids’, published some years ago in this very paper.

Since he can’t get any of the small points right, Tanner botches the slightly bigger ones a lot more. I said that Wieland Wagner started a trend in Bayreuth away from late 19th-century naturalism; this was followed (as in ‘coming after’, not ‘copied’) by many other directors, using many different methods, but all in directions away from 19th-century naturalism. Tanner can’t deal with this at all (one supposes him still to be counting the operas and checking for references to water, stymied by the question of how many references make up an obsession) and he is just as incapable of figuring out what to do with Nattiez, Mallarmé, Proust and Mann, whom he can’t quite seem to place. To Mallarmé and Proust, Wagner was avant-garde.

But his main complaint seems to be my ‘telos’ (note the fancy word), which was my account of Paul Lawrence Rose’s book. In the first place he is quite wrong to argue that it has been ‘sufficiently dealt with elsewhere’. What an odd thing to say, since I was reviewing the book in the LRB and not ‘elsewhere’. Imagine what would happen to authors if a review ‘elsewhere’ were thereafter to disqualify the book for comment ‘here’. Here is where I was discussing Rose, not elsewhere and this, our by-now hopelessly confused Wagner tyro cannot rationally accept. Actually I thought that bad as he was. Rose was worth discussing since he brings up the question of Wagner’s politics, something about which Tanner literally ventures nothing. If a book suggests that Wagner is totally anti-semitic, should not be thought of as writing anything but anti-Semitic hateful music, and therefore should not be performed in Israel, surely a reviewer is entitled actually to report the argument and then go on to connect the argument with similar practices, those identical political practices of denial and exclusion, that exist in Israel? Ever so anxious to guard against infringements of his little piece of territory, Tanner continues to bluster, arrogating entirely to himself the right to decide what is or is not appropriate to reviews of books on Wagner. Never mind that Wagner speaks about these political, metaphysical, aesthetic matters at enormous length; never mind that many (but not enough) critics have talked about them too. What Tanner wants is only his laundered (note the water fixation) and specialised Wagner, with canons and orthodoxies imposed by critics like Tanner. Who appointed him anyway?

The fact is that Tanner is precisely the regressive and literal-minded purist decreed by Cosima to be a guardian at the Wagner shrine, a mentality which my whole review was directed against. Banish everything except what was declared orthodox at Bayreuth, implies Tanner. This puts him in the general fundamentalist category occupied by Paul Lawrence Rose, except that Rose, while wrong-headed about the music, is able to lake seriously the proposition that Wagner is a cultural and aesthetic phenomenon, with much to say to contemporary audiences. No, says Tanner, we want just the things we’re told to want by the official Wagner dogma, and damned be the rest.

With reference to Alexander Rose’s letter, only two points need to be made. One, everything I ascribed to Rose is in his book and was given in my review as a direct quotation. Two, the jacket of the copy I was sent for review identifies Paul Lawrence Rose as Hecht Professor of History at the University of Haifa in Israel. I cannot be responsible for the way Rose chose to identify himself in Wagner: Race and Revolution. Appendix B, called ‘Wagner in Israel’, is identified as being written for a Jewish and Israeli audience.

Edward Said
Columbia University, New York

It’s not every day that the author of a reasonably scholarly book on Wagner can find himself described in the LRB (LRB, 11 February) as a ‘Khomeini of the arts’ who endorses the Islamic ban on The Satanic Verses. Edward Said seems to be so unhinged by an appendix in my book, Wagner: Race and Revolution, which supports the banning of public performances of Wagner in Israel that he jumps in his usual illogical way to the assumption that I would favour a universal ban on Wagner. Such a ban would be not only unenforceable, but ridiculous. I took pains at a meeting of the New York Wagner Society on 25 February to emphasise that I was in favour of performing Wagner outside Israel and that I did not subscribe to the opinion that anyone who liked listening to Wagner was a covert anti-semite. Nor did I claim there – or in my book – that there is only ‘one’ message in Wagner, as Professor Said alleges, but rather that an awareness of the hidden anti-semitic agenda in the operas is essential to a full understanding of their creative meaning and power.

Such a ludicrous invocation of Khomeini may inspire objective readers to wonder about the soundness of Professor Said’s often expressed opinions on Orientalism and the Palestinian issue. In his review he bangs on quite irrelevantly about the evil Israeli victimisation of the innocent Palestinians. He seems to be under the illusion that Zionist references to the possible ‘transfer’ of the Arab population of Palestine are comparable to the expulsion of the Jews from Germany canvassed by Wagner in 1869, as well as by the mainstream of German anti-semites in the 19th century. I would have thought it blatantly obvious that there can be no comparison between the ‘transfer’ of a German-Jewish population which was devotedly loyal to the German state and Zionist consideration – often under conditions of war – of the transfer of an Arab population which was in large part the sworn enemy of the Jewish state. Moreover, transfers or exchanges of hostile or irredentist populations have been a valid solution of international conflicts in this century and have frequently been approved both by the League of Nations and by the United Nations.

Edward Said’s real aim, I think, is to convince Western opinion that the Arabs’ misfortunes are as grievous as those of the Jews in this century. He cannot bear to allow the Jews the singular suffering of their ‘transfer’ and ‘deportations’ during the Holocaust. Hence, the four hundred Arab Hamas deportees are transformed by Professor Said from terrorist enemies of Israel (and indeed of all Jews) into latterday unoffending ‘Jews’ deported by the ‘Judeo-Nazis’ of Israel. In this magical process, Professor Said conveniently forgets those inconvenient Arab proposals to ‘transfer’ Jews not only out of Arab lands and out of Israel, but also out of Europe. These proposals were made long before any Arabs left Palestine as refugees from Zionist settlement: it was Professor Said’s Palestinian brethren who launched the riots to drive out the Jews in 1920, and who carried out the massacres of Jews at Hebron and elsewhere in 1929. And it was the Mufti of Jerusalem who met with Himmler and Hitler to urge them on to the murder of European and Middle-Eastern Jewry alike. There is indeed continuity between Wagner’s idea of expulsion and the policy of ‘transfer’ in the Middle East, but the continuity is to be found in Palestinian Arab mentality rather than in Israeli policy.

Paul Lawrence Rose
Centre for Research in Anti-Semitism,

Vol. 15 No. 8 · 22 April 1993

Paul Lawrence Rose (Letters, 25 March) tries to make himself clearer by saying that he wants to confine Wagner’s banning ‘only to Israel’. Then he goes on: ‘I took pains at a meeting of the New York Wagner Society … to emphasise that I was in favour of performing Wagner outside Israel.’ What a pain. Had this not been a symptom of a much vaster political phenomenon, I wouldn’t have bothered commenting on it; but it is yet another example of how our real life here is being kept, mainly by American Jews, as a Museum for Jewish Suffering, or Archive of Jewish History. To put it more bluntly: we are their instrument to fulfil their national fantasy.

One can find very similar reactions in different discourses. One can hear American Jews justify all sorts of ‘historical necessities’ that we ‘have to pay’, as if we had been sent here on some kind of mission on someone’s behalf. Sometimes they go so far as to claim that Israelis can’t determine the future of the colonial conflict in the occupied territories, because the territories are the property of ‘the Historical Jewish People’ (whatever that may mean).

Professor Rose might (or might not) go to any American opera house to see a Wagner performance, while living his American life, and refrain from doing so during his ‘idealistic life’ in Haifa, ‘realising the Zionist dream’. But what about ‘us’? Haven’t we the right to live in a real Israel, to judge for ourselves the rights and wrongs of watching Wagner (or buying pork, or using public buses on Saturdays, or choosing the kind of matrimonial ceremony we want and the religion and nationality of our spouse)? Is it because we are living tombstones of ‘Jewish History’, or ‘victims of Professor Said’s Palestinian brethren’, as Rose, vulgarly, put it in his letter, using again that old worn-out narrative to capitalise on the Israeli-Palestinian colonial conflict in the sixth year of the Intifada, when there isn’t too much doubt about who are the Davids and who the Goliaths, not any more.

Since the cruel, unlawful, stupid deportation of the ‘Hamas members’ (and who proved their membership, Professor Rose?) there has been an extreme escalation of violence here: dozens have died, including many innocent Palestinian children, including innocent Jews. Who needs enemies, with the friends we have?

Yitzhak Laor

Paul Lawrence Rose says there can be no comparison between the transfer of Palestinians from Israel and the transfer of a German Jewish population that was ‘devotedly loyal to the German state’. The relative loyalties of the German Jews and Israeli Palestinians can help explain their own responses to events but not why the events happened. The fact is that the persecution of both groups occurred because they were perceived as threats; one economic and cultural, the other (having no opportunity to influence economic or cultural events) physical. In both cases people were persuaded that the survival of the state was at stake. In neither case was the solution sensible, humane or appropriate.

Peter Best

Edward Said (LRB, 11 February): Wagner’s ‘obsession with water dominates all his operas’. Said (Letters, 25 March): ‘I didn’t say “all", I said “most" of the operas.’ Tanner (Letters, 25 February): ‘I can’t readily call to mind an obsession with water in Die Walküre.’ Said (Letters, 25 March): ‘the irascible Tanner says, again recklessly, that he can’t recall any mention of water in Walküre.’ Since those are fair samples of Said’s ability to read me and himself, I don’t think any farther reply is necessary to his letter.

Michael Tanner
Corpus Christi College,

Edward Said writes: How convenient for Michael Tanner to retreat into undergraduate nitpicking, having lost his case on all the essential points about Wagner. There aren’t 13 operas, water is everywhere (this is Vogt’s point anyway), Wieland Wagner’s influence, the importance of Wagner’s politics to his aesthetics, the need for ‘infidelity’, Proust and Mallarmé as avant-garde Wagnerians etc, etc. Aside from that Tanner is a very attentive reader of his own prose.

Paul Lawrence Rose’s letter is both self-incriminating and a retrospective attempt to make his appalling views about Wagner seem reasonable. Rose openly advocates ‘transfer’ of the Palestinian Arabs from their homeland, exactly as the Zionist movement has always advocated that particular policy of ethnic cleansing, and as such zealots as the late Meir Kahane, Rafael Eytan, and other extreme right-wing Israelis more recently have. His moral blindness keeps him from seeing that Jewish settlers from Lithuania, Poland and New York who seek forcibly to dispossess or supplant native Palestinians in their lands are not the exact ethical equivalent of those same Palestinians resisting the invasion; nor can he point to any comparable ‘Arab proposals’ (there were none) to ‘transfer’ Jews.

Besides, I nowhere equate Palestinian suffering with Jewish suffering (that, too, is Rose going over the top), but I do see the tragic consequence of the latter in the former. Of course I can ‘bear’ and feel compassion for the ‘singular suffering’ of Jews during their Holocaust: but why should I, or any other Palestinian, be required passively to accept that Zionists (whose discriminatory ideology commenced before the Holocaust and was infected, like Herzl, with the same ideas about non-Europeans quite Openly proclaimed by white colonialists in Africa and Asia) should walk into our land, and try to throw us out just because they said that God and Balfour gave them the right. How preposterous! And how sleazy of Zionists like Rose to pretend to be outraged! As if the pillaging settlers who still maraud, burn and kill on the West Bank and Gaza are the aggrieved ones! Why when Rose speaks of the Mufti does he not mention that Shamir’s own political group made appeals to the Third Reich also? And note too how there isn’t trace of understanding of Palestinian travails in what Rose says; for him Palestinians who resist Israeli occupation are all terrorists.

Not surprisingly, therefore. Rose’s book on Wagner contains not a shred of musical understanding, but a great deal of blustering about Wagner’s music being infused, drenched in, oozing with anti-semitism. Beethoven’s music is full of nobility, he actually says; Wagner’s is full of violence and hatred. Wagner’s ideas are characterised by Rose as nebulous and vague, on the one hand; directly anti-semitic and virulently racist, on the other. Parsifal, he says, is a parable of how European civilisation is ‘poisoned by alien, inhuman Jewish values’, despite no reference to European or Jewish values in the work. He goes on and on in this vein, making no distinction between prose tract, drama, music: this allows him to state that Wagner was little more than a crazy proto-Nazi who just hap period to write music, and that too is as hateful as his ideas. Rose wants Wagner banned in Israel, and generously allows that it’s OK to perform him elsewhere (that bit of largesse isn’t in the book at all, by the way, so if one wasn’t in attendance at his lecture to the Wagner Society on 25 February it couldn’t be guessed from his book). Of course he implies that listening to or performing Wagner is equivalent to covert anti-semitism: for 250 pages in his book he says that Wagner’s music and art are mainly, principally, centrally about nothing else but hatred of Jews. What does liking or interpreting Wagner mean but that you support anti-semitism?

I had thought that, like Khomeini, Professor Rose at least had the courage of his, to say the least, fundamentalist convictions. Now it appears that he’s just another trimmer who wraps himself in sanctimony and insulting cant. His letter also reveals him to be someone willing to go in for getting rid of Palestinians. Professor Rose and his Wagner are perfectly made for each other.

Vol. 15 No. 17 · 9 September 1993

Regarding the transfer of Palestinian Arabs, by what possible logic does Edward Said conclude (Letters, 22 April) that I am an advocate, ‘open’ or otherwise, of the transfer of Arabs from Israel? My letter simply pointed out – without approving them – that Israeli transfer proposals relate to hostile Arab populations, whereas Wagner’s proposal of expulsion referred to a Jewish community that was loyal to the German state.

Professor Said challenges me to supply evidence of Arab intentions (‘there were none,’ he asserts) to expel the Jews of Palestine. The historical record shows, however, a continuity of Arab national demands to remove the Jews from Palestine throughout this century. In March 1920, the Palestinian Arab leadership demanded of the Mandatory Government: ‘Either us or the Zionists. There is no room for both elements struggling in the same area.’ In April that year, Taher Aboul Seoud and other influential Arabs requested the British Military Governor to order ‘the immediate expulsion of all Jewish soldiers from the country … Considering the fact that the Zionists are foreigners in this land … [your] ruling be made effective and thus expelling [sic] the Zionists.’ In the same month Mohammed Derweesh, Director of the Arab Club, wrote to Allenby: ‘We declare that we cannot accept the Jews in our country … We declare that we do not accept the Jews neither [sic] as guests nor as neighbours in Palestine.’ In June 1921, the Arab Executive Committee rejected Herbert Samuel’s placatory speech about Arab-Jewish coexistence: ‘Peace and tranquillity would be the rule in Palestine only so long as it was inhabited by one people, possessing one language, one nationality and one interest.’ From its inception, the Palestinian national movement has been mired in this basically rejectionist – or rather, transferrist – mentality, which, alas, hasn’t changed much in the last seventy years, whether one looks at the Palestinian National Covenant or recalls the Arab students’ chants of ‘Transfer the Jews’ at the University of Haifa in 1989. Moreover, as Professor Said well knows, Israel’s Arab neighbours either hold their Jewish populations hostage or, like Jordan, are wholly judenrein states in which Jews cannot by law be citizens or even residents.

Paul Lawrence Rose
Penn State University, Philadelphia

Edward Said writes: Paul Lawrence Rose’s false claims and spurious logic require one last response. All the Palestinians he cites – and neither Taher Aboul Seoud nor Mohammed Derweesh was, or is, well-known – speak as natives watching a wave of European colonists arriving from abroad who were fully intent on settling land that was never theirs. This is very different from those same Jews wishing to transfer the natives out of Palestine. Beginning with Theodor Herzl, who spoke about ‘spiriting the natives away’, the concept of transfer has been a mainstay of Zionist thought and even theory; this is at the opposite extreme from cries of alarm voiced by Palestinians as Jewish colonists brought in by the British appeared more and more to be threatening Palestinians’ existence. Of course the Palestinians were right. Regrettably, Professor Rose, like most Zionists, simply refuses to see these facts and the moral differences in the Palestinian and Zionist positions: it is this that permits him to make the most literally preposterous allegations whereby the victims of Zionist exclusion and oppression are suddenly transformed into terrorists and anti-semites. To make matters worse, Professor Rose speaks of Arab students in Haifa in 1989, where they constitute an embattled and disadvantaged minority in the Jewish state, as if their protests were equal in power and authority to the plans and actions of Israeli transfer-advocates like Rafael Eytan and Meir Kahane, or Rabin and Netanyahu for that matter. General Rabin, one needs to recall, was personally responsible in 1948 for the forced expulsion of over fifty thousand Palestinians from the Lydda and Ramlé area.

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