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.

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.

[*] 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.