What Wotan Wants

Jerry Fodor

  • Finding an Ending: Reflections on Wagner’s ‘Ring’ by Philip Kitcher and Richard Schacht
    Oxford, 241 pp, £14.99, April 2004, ISBN 0 19 517359 7

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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