MAGEE: THE TRISTAN CHORD — Wagner and Philosophy

Wotan’s law and Tristan’s love
Jerry Fodor
17 November 2000
WAGNER AND PHILOSOPHY. By Bryan Magee. 398pp. Penguin. #20. TLS Pounds 18. 0 7139 9480 0
[U.S. Edition: THE TRISTAN CHORD — Wagner and Philosophy. By Bryan Magee. 424 pp (paper). Henry Holt & Co. $17. 0-8050-7189-X]
Wagner, bloody Wagner; will we ever have done with the man? I don’t suppose that we’ll ever have done with his operas. For many of us, they are indispensable art; among the defining achievements of the Western tradition. “There is no music deeper . . . and no drama deeper either. (The Ring) is enough in itself to place Wagner alongside Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Mozart.” If you don’t think Wagner is that good, you won’t like Wagner and Philosophy, Bryan Magee’s new book about him. Whether or not he is that good, there is surely a problem that arises insistently about Wagner but not Michelangelo or Mozart or, least of all, about Shakespeare: that of getting the art clear of the artist. Shakespeare is notorious for disappearing from his plays, but Wagner is everywhere in his operas. You just can’t think about them and not think about him; nor would he conceivably have wished you to.
Civilized people try their best to avoid the genetic fallacy; they think the work is one thing and the worker is another. But does this, after all, apply to Wagner and his operas, given the way that he inhabits them? It seems sufficiently apparent that Wagner was, in some respects, a disreputable man; how, then, could the operas that he wrote not be disreputable works of art? Thus Bernard Williams, in a recent number of the New York Review of Books: “If, at least for some of Wagner’s works, a production which ‘did them justice’ would find them guilty, this will constitute the historical vengeance of the ethical on an artist who uniquely raised the stakes high enough for such a vengeance to be even possible.” And Magee, in the present volume, clearly feels a pressure for exculpatory pleading; it is one of his recurrent themes that Wagner, though quite beastly enough by any reasonable standards, wasn’t all that beastly by the standards then prevailing: ” . . . though Wagner tended to talk like this, it did not sound at all the same in the context of his time as it sounds to us . . . . That was then. This is now.”
Well, there may be a question whether Wagner wrote “guilty” operas; and whether, if he did, it is Wagner that the operas that he wrote are guilty of. And it may be that we must face such questions if we want to get clear in our response to his work. A lot of Wagner criticism has assumed that we must, and is thus extensively concerned with large issues about the relation between Art and Ethics. It is not self-evident that this has proved to be a useful way of getting closer to the operas.
Nor does the need to moralize in Wagner criticism follow directly from what everyone agrees: that the man is uniquely present in his work. What his being there means depends a lot on whether he brings his ideology along with him; in particular, on whether his politics are as ubiquitous in the operas as his presence is. And that depends, in turn, on what the operas are about, a matter in respect of which critical consensus is remarkably lacking. It is, for example, germane to the accusation that the politics of The Ring are intolerably vicious whether, in fact, The Ring is an opera about politics. (If we’re prepared to live with the anti-Semitism of The Merchant of Venice, that’s partly because it so obviously isn’t a play about Jews. Perhaps it is a play about the antithesis of the word and the spirit – as, by the way, is quite a lot of the Ring; see below.) But it belongs to the peculiarity of Wagner’s art that people who know his operas well, and who cherish them, can find it very hard to say what they are about.
Now, there really is a lot wrong with Magee’s book; not least his ungrasp of the niceties of some of the philosophical views that he expounds. (“No epistemological object can, as the same entity, be an independently existing object. That is the greatest single gift that Kant’s philosophy has to offer . . . . ” Piffle. We sometimes think about the very same independently existing things that we sometimes sit upon, viz, chairs. Kant was entirely alert to such truisms.) Also, Magee’s prose often has the academic quality – earnest, unctuous, tutorial and just that bit condescending – that comes with years of telling to people things they don’t particularly wish to know. But it is a great virtue that Magee does have on offer a general account of what the Wagner operas are about. I don’t think he gets all of it, or even most of it, but he does get some of it, and thereby provides a good place to start from.
Magee begins with a sketch, plausible enough I think, of Wagner’s ideological trajectory: “He is a classic example of someone who, when young, is a passionately committed and active left-wing revolutionary, but then becomes disillusioned with politics and turns away from it altogether in middle age.” There is, according to Magee, a corresponding transition in Wagner’s philosophical affiliations: he starts as an anarcho-socialist in the tradition of Feuerbach and ends as a metaphysical pessimist much under the influence of Schopenhauer.
If that is at all accurate, then the clear conclusion ought to be that Wagner’s politics had little or no expression in his operas. For, as Magee rightly observes, the Schopenhauerian themes of renunciation and redemption predominate from the earliest of the mature works (Der Fliegende Hollander, Tannhauser and Lohengrin.) And it is definitely not redemption from economics that the heroes of these operas are seeking; it’s redemption from sin. That is not, one would have thought, a notably Feuerbachian thing for a hero to be trying to find. There is, to be sure, one Wagner opera that can plausibly be said to be “political”; and that is Die Meistersinger, which is deeply involved with the relation of individuals to their society and, in particular, with the relation of artists to social traditions and institutions. But Meistersinger preaches a politics of reconciliation. Its sympathies are all with Sachs, who could hardly be said to typify the artist as revolutionary.
It is not, of course, without precedent for even a deeply personal artist to leave his politics at home when he goes off to work; Philip Larkin is a recent, notorious example. It would thus be open to Magee to read the Wagner operas as simply not about politics. Except, however, for the view he takes of The Ring, and notably of Das Rheingold. “Wagner’s attitudes to politics were of decisive significance here. In the libretto of The Ring they are probably the most important single ingredient as far as ideas are concerned . . . .” But, of course, the conclusion of The Ring is not the reformation of society but the end of the world. (Pace Magee, there is no indication that “(after) Valhalla itself goes up in flames, the world embarks on a new beginning . . . “. Nothing could be less in the valedictory spirit of The Ring’s finale.) So either Magee misreads Wagner’s intentions, or Wagner must have changed his mind, quite radically, somewhere between Rheingold and Gotterdammerung.
Unsurprisingly, Magee presses for the latter option, but it isn’t very plausible. For one thing, the libretto (though not the music) of Gotterdammerung, was written before the libretto of Rheingold; indeed, before anything else in The Ring. And, for another, the whole of The Ring postdates Hollander, Tannhauser and Lohengrin, the spirit of which was, as I remarked, thoroughly Schopenhauerian and apolitical. Magee is aware of this. He attempts to straighten out the anachronisms by distinguishing between what the young Wagner consciously believed (the Feuerbach stuff) and what his unconscious prompted him to put in the operas (the Schopenhauer stuff, except in Rheingold, where, presumably, Wagner’s unconscious was temporarily off duty). “It was (in) The Flying Dutchman that he let his intuitions take over the reins . . . . It represented a kind of abandonment to his own unconscious (although) that amazing instrument his conscious mind still had an enormous amount of work to do . . . .”
Though Wagner too produces gobs of it, I do find that sort of depth-psychobabble most unedifying. Magee’s story about what the operas are about – and, particularly, about what The Ring is about – clearly needs substantial rethinking, if only in light of their chronology. I doubt, in fact, that Rheingold is an opera about politics. And I doubt that The Ring is a muddle (at least, it isn’t the muddle that Magee has in mind). This is a long story, but here is a rough approximation.
The Ring has two main concerns. The first of these closely recalls Aeschylus’ Agamemnon trilogy, The Oresteia: it is the accomplishment of civilization, considered as the replacement of the rule of power by the rule of law. That is Wotan’s great achievement; he governs by the treaties carved on his spear and is thus committed to the sanctity of contracts. (These include, as Fricka acidly reminds him, the marriage contract.) As in the Aeschylus plays, the alternative to contract is coercion; thus the world of “Dark” Alberich, Wotan’s antithesis.
But unlike The Oresteia, The Ring is a deeply pessimistic work. It is, indeed, hard not to see the one as consciously a commentary on the other. The Oresteia starts with the vindictive murder of a hero and ends with a courtroom wrangle; it celebrates the replacement of blood feud by the institutions of legal redress. The Ring goes the other way round; it starts with a wrangle over a contract (Wotan’s with the Giants) and ends with the vindictive murder of a hero (Siegfried’s by Hagen’s catspaw Gunther). In between, we see the decay of the civilization that Wotan has constructed. It is a moral collapse in which Wotan has himself been deeply complicit (“I touched Alberich’s ring / Greedily I held his gold / The curse from which I fled has not left me”), and to which he has himself become resigned (“Now I will only the end”).
That is one of The Ring’s main themes. The other is familiar from Wagner’s early operas and will recur in most of the ones that follow: the motif of redemption through love. This second preoccupation could hardly be less in the spirit of (what Wagner calls) Greek optimism, and it is the dialectic between the two that mainly informs The Ring. Sooner or later, the rule of law subverts itself and becomes arid. Sooner or later, the choice is not between coercion and contract but between the word and the spirit. That Wotan is bound by the contracts he has made is the core of his dilemma; because he is, he must betray first Freia, then Siegmund, and then Brunnhilde. Only a free man can choose the spirit over the word; in The Ring, only Siegfried can. The crucial moment on which the whole Cycle turns is therefore Siegfried’s breaking of Wotan’s spear; which is to say, his breaking of the Tablet of the Law.
The Ring is a remarkably ambitious fusion of Classical Greek with Judeo-Christian preoccupations; on the one hand, the antithesis of civilization and barbarism, on the other the antithesis of love and contract. The general idea is that even contractual obligations – even civilization – must be transcended if the needs of the spirit are finally to be satisfied (and, presumably, if the conditions for a free art are finally to obtain). That’s not anything like a worked-out philosophy, to be sure. Nor is it, by the way, one that I at all approve of. I’m of Wotan’s party; it’s quite all right for the contractors not to love me, if only they’ll get the house built so I can move in. Still, this part of the ideology of The Ring seems adequately coherent as far as it goes; and certainly it is not suggestive of a call to revolution, from the Right or from the Left.
I wouldn’t, however, wish to deny for a moment that The Ring is full of loose ends and unresolved conflicts. For one thing, the more or less Christian stuff about redemption through love doesn’t really sit well with the more or less Schopenhauerian stuff about renunciation and the end of striving. Wagner doesn’t get this worked out until Tristan, where love has become a metaphor for death. What Tristan wants from Iseult in Act Three isn’t love; it is release from anxiety. What he wants is her permission to die.
And, second, Wagner has trouble keeping his eros out of his agape. Siegfried breaks the Tablet of the Law, and thereby achieves Brunnhilde’s love. But the love that he achieves isn’t redemptive. In fact, the squalid world of Gotterdammerung isn’t much different from Dark Alberich’s realm: conspiracy, deceit, betrayal, vendetta, coercion. This structure cannot be sustained; the state of nature returns with Brunnhilde’s suicide, as though the whole experiment of articulate consciousness had failed. The orchestra sings its final lament for Siegfried, which is also its lament for the world. The Cycle therefore ends where Rheingold started; there’s a ring indeed. I wonder if even Wagner fully grasped the ironies. Magee, anyhow, doesn’t seem to.
This review is reprinted with the kind permission of The Times Literary Supplement (TLS). TLS is a weekly publication that provides book reviews and literary analysis. More information on TLS may be obtained at its website at

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