Wagner’s operas in general, and the Ring cycle in particular, have been goading the criticising classes into print for a century and a half, with still no end in sight, but the sacrifice of all those trees has produced very little in the way of a critical consensus; not even on such basic matters as what the Ring is about. Many of the enthusiasts I know hold that there really isn’t anything that the Ring is about. It is, they say, a bald tale, lacking verisimilitude, and populated by an unlikely gaggle of dwarves, giants, dragons, talking birds, flying horses, love potions, magic helmets and shopworn Norse deities. Neophytes are advised to close their eyes and listen to the music (remarkable by any standards) but not to read the supertitles.
That may be the best advice when all is said and done, but it wouldn’t have pleased Wagner. His commitment to opera as drama was vehement and frequently announced. (In his essays, Wagner was the kind of writer who never says anything once.) And, for better or worse, the temptation to try to make sense of the Ring’s libretto persists. This is itself interesting since there aren’t many other operas of which it’s true. Nobody spends much time trying to figure out what, as it might be, Simon Boccanegra or The Girl of the Golden West is about. It’s clear at a glance that their librettos won’t reward much in the way of hermeneutics. But there’s something about the Ring that draws; rightly or wrongly, it suggests depths to plumb. What depths? What could possibly be down there?
Two new fish have risen to this bait. Philip Kitcher and Richard Schacht’s Finding an Ending proceeds from their conviction that ‘Wagner’s libretto, ponderous and mannered though it may sometimes seem (and be), is charged with life and significance.’ They therefore propose ‘to probe its philosophical and psychological themes with some precision and to relate them in some detail to the action of the four-part cycle’. Both the authors admit to being philosophers by profession, so it’s natural for them to try doing to the Ring ‘the things philosophers become used to doing – drawing distinctions, identifying alternatives and elaborating on various interpretative possibilities to see what they might look like when fully developed’. There are, I imagine, those to whom that will sound ominous, and not entirely without reason. Kitcher and Schacht write and think the way analytical philosophers do. There is, very probably, much to be said for that kind of writing and thinking, but it doesn’t commend itself to the present project. The Ring isn’t, after all, an enthymeme, a paradox or a dilemma. It isn’t any kind of argument at all; ditto other operas, of course. Not keeping that in mind sometimes makes Finding an Ending seem a little heavy-handed: there’s the occasional whiff of dynamited butterfly. Here is a passage of theirs (with their italics) about Don Giovanni:
More strictly, the Don has a certain type of authority . . . that Leporello lacks . . . namely, the ability to make things happen . . . We shall call this power-based kind of authority ‘directive authority’ . . . There is another type of authority, however, that the Don’s detractors claim and at least seem to have, and that he himself lacks . . . They purport to speak with the authority of those who know what the moral order allows and what it forbids . . . Donna Anna and her supporters seem to be making the right judgments (or so one might propose). In other words, they may lack directive authority, but they suppose themselves to have a form of epistemic or cognitive authority.
And so on at length. That’s all to say: Donna Anna and her friends know what the Don ought to do, and he doesn’t, but the Don is well positioned to push people around (he is, as Leporello says, ‘the Boss’) and they’re not. It’s a nervous tic of analytic philosophy to be forever wishing to clarify distinctions that nobody is actually confused about. (By the way, I think what Kitcher and Schacht say about Giovanni is wrong. The Don knows perfectly well what he ought to do and he delights in not doing it. It’s no fun breaking rules that nobody has told you about: ask any American in England.)
That said, there’s a lot to admire about Finding an Ending. It effects a kind of synthesis of two traditional ways of thinking about the Ring, and it brings out the best of each. I don’t think Kitcher and Schacht have got it right (I’ll say why presently). But they thoroughly succeed in one of the things they say they want to do: they make one of the interpretative options clear. Warts and all.
It’s very tempting, and it’s a way of understanding the Ring, to hear it as a sort of Bildungsroman: a charting of the emotional, spiritual and moral development of its protagonist. Finding an Ending belongs, more or less, to that tradition; though with, as we’ll see, some novel and illuminating variations. So, unsurprisingly, Kitcher and Schacht have to face a hard question that this way of reading the Ring inevitably raises: ‘just whose Bildungsroman is it?’ If it’s a puzzle what the Ring is about, it’s equally a puzzle who it’s about. There are three possibilities. There’s Wotan, who is the foremost of the gods; tracing the arc of his decline is certainly one of the Ring’s pervasive concerns. There’s Brünnhilde, chief of the Walküre and Wotan’s favourite daughter; her experience of human passion and its consequences is a main theme of the last two operas in the sequence. And there’s Siegfried, who was to be the subject of the earliest version of the Ring, a free-standing opera to be called Siegfried’s Death. Each of these three has a claim to being the pivot that the Ring turns on. But there’s a prima facie objection to each.
Start with Siegfried. Kitcher and Schacht are clear about why the Ring can’t be his story: he is a great booby with whom it is impossible to sympathise. Siegfried is a hero and he is without fear, and Wagner spends the first two operas on getting him conceived. So one might expect that Siegfried will carry the cycle’s moral weight. But, in the event, Siegfried is fearless because he is stupid and entirely without imagination. If the Ring is about him, it’s a miracle that it works as drama. What seems to have happened is that, having started to write an opera about Siegfried, even Wagner got bored with him. In fact, when he got to the middle of the eponymous opera, Wagner set the whole Ring project aside for more than a decade. When he returned to it, much had changed, both in the style of his music and, arguably, in what he thought of heroes.
Then there is Wotan, who is far more promising. At the start of the cycle, though he is far from being omnipotent, Wotan rules the world. There’s nothing special about ruling the world; Zeus and Jehovah did, too, in their time. What’s interesting about Wotan is that (unlike Zeus but rather like Jehovah) he doesn’t rule by force but by contracts, the terms of which are engraved on the shaft of his spear. As Fasolt (who is a giant, not that it matters) says to Wotan in a crucial passage early in Rheingold: ‘What you are, you are only by contracts; limited and well defined is your power . . . I will curse all your wisdom and flee from your peace if openly, honourably and freely you do not know to keep faith in your bond.’ Correspondingly, what I take to be the Ring’s climacteric comes when Siegfried breaks Wotan’s spear, thereby symbolically ending his reign. (There’s plenty of Freudian symbolism there, too, of course, but I think it’s a red herring.) One of the things that the Ring is certainly about is the idea of rule by law, which Wotan personifies much as Siegfried personifies the hero. Wotan is neither boring nor a great booby. So why not take him to be the Ring’s protagonist? Many do.
The objection, however, is right on the surface: having dominated the action of the first two Ring operas, Wotan has only a peripheral role in the third and has disappeared entirely by the opening of the fourth (Götterdämmerung). It’s the fourth opera that’s supposed to resolve the pending dramatic issues; that’s clear in the music, which weaves together all the main motifs in the cycle. It isn’t credible that Wagner would have left its protagonist out of the cycle’s culmination. Götterdämmerung is a long opera; Götterdämmerung is a very long opera. I don’t believe that Wagner couldn’t have found room to give Wotan something to do in it. Or that he meant to but it somehow slipped his mind. Anyhow, it wouldn’t have worked. The Ring would feel much more fragmented than it does. (There’s a Dvorák opera in which the soprano has laryngitis through almost the whole second act. The music is fine but it doesn’t succeed as drama.)
If Siegfried and Wotan are out, Brünnhilde is all that’s left. That’s no bad thing. She is one of the most attractive figures in the whole operatic literature; and she gets some wonderful music to sing. Indeed, insofar as there is a received reading of the Ring, it goes something like this. Wotan tried, but failed, to achieve a society ruled by law. His failure was partly his own fault (vaulting ambition and all that, to say nothing of greed). But mostly the rule of law died of internal contradictions, in proper Hegelian fashion. A world of contracts is inhuman and loveless and runs on calculation. (It’s the world of Rheingold; come to think of it, it’s the world that Social Darwinists believe we actually live in.) Wotan forgot what is, after all, truistic: it’s people who make and break contracts, and more goes on in people than the calculation of costs and benefits. There are no people in Rheingold; and, when some turn up in Walküre, they don’t, to put it mildly, act to maximise their expected utilities. By contrast, Brünnhilde points the way to a world that coheres not by contract but by love; that’s what the Ring is about.
Or so the familiar story goes. It is much to the credit of Kitcher and Schacht that they don’t tell the story that way. Brünnhilde’s kind of love is eros, not agape. It unites the lovers not with the world but against it (see Tristan). Eros is wonderful for setting to music (see Lohengrin), but try it as a way of life and all hell breaks loose. That is, in fact, what happens in Götterdämmerung. Brünnhilde is a charmer when she’s asleep; but when she’s up and doing, she’s an impending catastrophe. She won’t give up the ring even to preserve the world order (‘More than the heaven of Valhalla, more than the glory of the gods is this ring to me’). And, at the crucial moment, she acts out of jealous rage. It’s her conniving at, indeed abetting, the murder of her husband, that brings the world down. She has her reasons, to be sure; and her fans are more than willing to forgive her transgressions. But, in the end, she carries on like the heroine of a Donizetti revenge opera. If that’s the alternative to a morality of contracts, bring in the certified public accountants.
So, who is the Ring about, if not Wotan, Siegfried or Brünnhilde? Kitcher and Schacht’s reading turns on the fact that Wotan and Brünnhilde between them are present in every opera of the cycle, and a great deal of the action springs from their relations. So perhaps (though Kitcher and Schacht don’t put it quite this way) they form a sort of composite character who is the cycle’s true protagonist. Brünnhilde herself says something of the sort to Wotan: ‘You are speaking to your will when you tell me your will; who am I if not your will?’ He replies: ‘I only talk to myself when I talk to you.’ When, later, Brünnhilde disobeys him, Wotan is half mad with fury. No wonder; it seems to him that his will has turned against him.
It’s plausible enough that the Ring is the story of Wotan-Brünnhilde. According to Finding an Ending, their story goes like this. The failure of the world order that Wotan tried to make leaves him completely in despair: ‘Let it fall to pieces, all that I built. I give up my work. Only one thing I want now, the end.’ But – and this is the twist that’s original in Kitcher and Schacht – it has to be the right sort of end.
The increasingly explicit focus of Wotan’s judgment is . . . how to end the system without simply negating it . . . the ending he seeks is one that still allows for the possibility of deathless significance . . . in a manner that transcends his own existence . . . his task is not to struggle ever more ingeniously to impose an order based on law, but to find a way for that order to pass – and for the gods to pass along with it.
I’ve quoted this part of Finding an Ending at some length because, though it’s the main theme of the book (as, indeed, the title proclaims), I’m not at all sure that I understand it. This may be largely a matter of temperament: I’m not much into significance that transcends one’s own existence. What’s the good of being immortal if you’re dead? Perhaps, however, it isn’t fair to complain to Kitcher and Schacht about this. Wagner wasn’t, as they rightly point out, much of a philosopher; it’s arguable that they’ve squeezed out all of the clarity that’s in him. They don’t know quite what Wotan wants, but, very plausibly, neither does he.
According to Kitcher and Schacht, Brünnhilde’s achievement is actually to bring about the ending Wotan seeks (‘Rest, rest now, O god’). She is Wotan’s will to the very end. ‘We suggest that the ultimate task of Götterdämmerung . . . is to reveal how a solution to Wotan’s apparently insuperable problem is achieved in Brünnhilde’s resolution of her own dilemma within this larger context that enables its meaning and significance to be grasped.’ And later: She ‘comes to fulfil Wotan’s longing for a conclusion, and, at the same time, to vindicate his quest for meaning. The forms of valour and love that he has encouraged are conjoined and transfigured into the new nobility she attains and of which she becomes the apotheosis.’
That sounds pretty good until you think what Brünnhilde actually does bring about. At the end of Götterdämmerung, practically everybody is dead. Siegfried is dead, Gunther is dead, and Mime, Fafner and Fasolt have been dead for some time. So, too, have Siegmund, Sieglinde and Hunding: the depopulation is pretty general. Brünnhilde sets Siegfried’s funeral pyre alight and throws herself into the flames (along with her blameless and long-suffering horse, Grane). So she’s dead, too. The fire spreads and reaches Valhalla. Valhalla burns, so does Wotan, and so do the rest of the gods and heroes assembled there. The Rhine then overflows its banks, flooding the world. Hagen (presumably) drowns. We’re not told what happens to Gutrune, but it can’t be anything good. (In one version of the epic sources, she ends up married to, of all people, Genghis Khan.) The final stage direction: ‘As the gods become completely hidden from view by the flames, the curtain falls.’ Now it may be that this scene of universal devastation satisfies Wotan’s need for significance and meaning, but I don’t see how. It’s not a gift I would want from a daughter. Finding an Ending says that Brünnhilde ‘does not simply see the world end; she ends it. She also vindicates it, illuminating it anew and offering the possibility of renewal.’ The trouble with that isn’t just that it’s a bit woolly; it also doesn’t fit what happens on the stage. So, anyhow, it seems to me. In the immolation scene, Brünnhilde has a lot to say on a number of topics; but none of them is renewal.
It’s no news, of course, that there are likely to be many illuminating ways to read a work of art; or that the better the work is the more such ways there are likely to be. Maybe the Ring is about what Kitcher and Schacht say it is, and other things as well: there’s no need to dogmatise. Still, I’m reluctant to leave it at that. I suspect that the Ring isn’t at all the kind of drama that Finding an Ending (and much other Wagner criticism) supposes it to be. It’s a mistake, I think, to take it to aim at being a Shakespearean kind of tragedy, the kind of tragedy in which inwardness is all. (Kitcher and Schacht repeatedly stress what they see as analogies between the Ring and King Lear. They say, for example, that ‘Lear and the Ring are both studies in the power and expression of love.’ I wouldn’t have thought so in either case.) Now I suppose what matters in Shakespeare’s kind of tragedy is the characters’ psychology: the motives and intentions out of which they act, and how their motives and intentions change as the fruits of their actions ripen. Speculations about motives and intentions are routinely the stuff of conversations in the lobby: ‘Why on earth did Iago do it?’ ‘What do you suppose Hamlet was waiting for?’ When a production goes right, the relation of the audience to the characters is empathic. What the protagonist does and feels is credible because we see that we might feel and do it, too. It’s the drama itself that convinces us we might; that’s a lot of what we mean when we say that it seems true to life.
Contrast Greek theatre, in which the focus is more often on the dramatic situation itself than on the psychology of the protagonist’s response to it. Frequently, in fact, the protagonist has no psychology to speak of: he inflexibly personifies a single motive or trait out of which he acts from start to finish. What do we know about Oedipus’ psychology, except that he is rash? What do we know about Elektra’s, except that she is angry and hell-bent on revenge? Often the progress of such a drama is, as Kitcher and Schacht might put it, less psychological than epistemological; and its relation to the audience is less empathic than didactic. In the course of the action, the protagonist comes to see his situation clearly and, perhaps, to accept it; the audience does, too. That is also very much what happens to Wotan in the Ring, and to us when we see the Ring performed.
I think Wagner’s model for the Ring was, quite self-consciously, not Lear or anything else Shakespearean, but Aeschylus’ Oresteia sequence, of which the Ring offers a sort of dialectical critique (the suggestion has been made before – see, for example, Michael Ewans’s Wagner and Aeschylus: The ‘Ring’ and the ‘Oresteia’, 1982). One might take each cycle as a reverse image of the other; the structural symmetries are striking. The Oresteia begins with the murder of a hero, Agamemnon, and ends with a legal squabble between Orestes and the Furies (who, like the Giants in Rheingold, insist that they are demanding only what they are entitled to by the terms of their employment). The Ring begins with a legal squabble over a contract between Wotan and the giants, and ends with the murder of a hero, Siegfried. (Wotan and Orestes each rely on a sophistical lawyer to make his case: Loge for Wotan, Athena for Orestes.) In both the Oresteia and the Ring, the spring of the action is a daughter’s relation to her father (Elektra’s to Agamemnon, Brünnhilde’s to Wotan). Above all, what Kitcher and Schacht rightly say is the central problem of the Ring is also that of the Oresteia: somehow to bring about a ‘durable, admirable order’.
What’s different between the Ring’s world view and the Oresteia’s is their estimates of law and contract as the solution to a problem of order. The Oresteia celebrates the rule of law. The cycle of murder and revenge in the House of Atreus began before the action in Agamemnon and had seemed to be interminable: ‘revenge begets revenge . . . But this law of Zeus/Is a kind of disease/Inherited through the blood’ (Ted Hughes’s version). But human law puts a stop to that. It placates the Furies. It really does contrive to find an ending; the Oresteia is a profoundly optimistic work. The Ring, by contrast, deconstructs this kind of optimism as it traces the course of Wotan’s disillusionment. It is largely devoted to exploring a paradox to which it thinks that the rule of law succumbs: laws and contracts are obeyed when the cost of breaking them isn’t reckoned to be worth the benefits. So, the legal contests in both the Ring and the Oresteia are resolved by buying off the plaintiff. In place of Freia, the Giants settle for the Rheingold; in place of Orestes, the Furies settle for comfortable accommodation on the Acropolis, with hot and cold running libations. But negotiations at law don’t work to create order when the costs of action aren’t being reckoned; when passion would, as we say, ‘give anything’ to have its way. ‘So little do you value everlasting bliss? Is she everything to you, this poor woman?’ ‘Wherever Sieglinde lives, in pleasure or sorrow, Siegmund will always stay.’ And when Brünnhilde says that she values Siegfried’s ring ‘more than the heaven of Valhalla, more than the glory of the gods’, she speaks the literal truth; as, indeed, her subsequent actions make painfully clear. It’s when passions are at their most intense that the rule of law is needed to constrain them; but it’s then that the rule of law can’t be relied on to do so. If there’s any one thing that the Ring is about, I think it’s that. Capping the Oresteia is a daunting project, but it’s just the sort that one imagines Wagner undertaking. The anecdotal evidence suggests that hubris didn’t worry him much.
So if it’s not law and it’s not love, what then, according to the Ring, is the solution of the problem of order? The Ring doesn’t offer one. It doesn’t think there is one. In this respect, it is a profoundly pessimistic critique of the Oresteia. It turns away from Wotan’s (and Aeschylus’) problem towards a quietism that negates life and order both. Accordingly, the moral of the Ring isn’t that ‘only Brünnhilde’s way holds the promise of an answer to the . . . problem of endowing life (and death) with meaning.’ Still less is it that ‘the earth remains, still capable of renewal, still charged with this promise that we have come to know.’ (Pace Kitcher and Schacht, if the Ring isn’t Lear, it isn’t the Lied von der Erde either.) In the Ring, as in Tristan, the conflict of order with passion is unresolvable. For Brünnhilde, as for Tristan, the solution of life is death. The world’s order passes and not even the gods are eternal; and the famously moving theme that ends Götterdämmerung isn’t a prelude: it’s a requiem.