Source of book: I own this
What can I say about Alex Ross? His first book, The Rest is Noise is my go-to book for 20th Century classical music - one of the best books I have read. His second book was an essay collection, Listen to This, and, while not exactly a planned book like the first, quite enjoyable. His writings for a variety of magazines from The New Yorker on down are all outstanding. His brilliant writing, depth and breadth of knowledge, and fascinating insights into the world of classical music make him one of my favorite authors.
And now we have this book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. Even trying to describe the scope of this book is difficult. It is nearly 800 pages long, contains over 100 pages of extensive documentary footnotes, covers more than 150 years of literary and political history across multiple continents, is filled with obscure yet illuminating primary source material that sheds new light on various historical figures. I spent nearly four months reading a little at a time, digesting the information, and allowing the connections that Ross draws between people and ideas to filter through and relate to the other things I have read. I have no idea what else Ross might choose to write in the future, but I think this will be his magnum opus, the work he has, more than any other, poured himself into.
The book isn’t about Wagner himself, per se, or even primarily about Wagner’s music. It isn’t about how Wagner influenced nearly every composer that came afterward. To a degree, Ross assumes familiarity with Wagner’s works. He does not analyze the music - although he could do so brilliantly, I am sure. Instead, he looks at how Wagner’s music and ideas have intersected with the ideas and non-musical arts since Wagner’s death. Thus, the book is about literature - poetry, fiction, drama. It is about politics, from the good to the horrifying. It is about philosophy, from Nietzsche to the present. And everything intersects. To touch Wagner is to place a hand on a thread that runs through the last 150 years of Western culture, politics, and thought.
Ross divides the book into 15 chapters, plus a prelude (about Wagner’s death) and a postlude (about Ross’ own personal history with Wagner’s music.) The chapters are named after Wagnerian themes, such as “Venusberg” - about the Feminists and Gay Rights advocates who saw their causes in Wagner - and “The Wound” - the fate of Wagner’s music in the post-Nazi era. And those are just two. The first chapter is mostly about Nietzsche, his friendship with, and eventual estrangement from Wagner, as well as more than you perhaps ever wanted to know about the intersection of thoughts between those two and the rest of 19th Century German philosophy. There is a whole chapter on Baudelaire and the Symbolists, one on Victorian Britain and America, one on Jewish and Black takes on Wagner (despite Wagner’s personal anti-Semitism, his music spoke positively to many Jews - and they weren’t wrong), one on socialism and communism, and so on. So many fascinating topics, and I can’t possibly do them justice. I feel like the two pages of notes I took barely scratch the surface of this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am glad it is part of my library, because I will likely be referring back to it regularly for connections.
Ross lays out his vision for the book in the prelude.
This is a book about a musician’s influence on non-musicians - resonances and reverberations of one art form into others. Wagner’s effect on music was enormous, but it did not exceed that of Monteverdi, Bach, or Beethoven. His effect on neighboring arts was, however, unprecedented, and it has not been equaled since, even in the popular arena.
The first chapter starts off with a brief discussion of The Ring, and specifically how the cycle defies the sort of facile moral analysis that later would be imposed upon it by people like the Nazis. It isn’t a simple “good versus evil” epic, by any means, and the key to understanding that is that Wagner makes the supposedly noble and pure gods themselves complicit in the wrong that is done. Ross quotes Wagner on this from an early draft of the story that would be developed into the libretto.
“The peace by which they achieved domination is not grounded in reconciliation; it is accomplished through force and cunning. The intent of their higher world order is moral consciousness, but the wrong they are pursuing adheres to themselves.”
Wagner also clearly eschews power as a legitimate goal. This is one major area where Fascists have consistently misunderstood Wagner. (The other is in thinking he was pro-capitalist.) Ross quotes from Rheingold in translation:
Only he who renounces love’s power,
Only he who spurns love’s pleasure,
Only he can attain the magic
To wrest the ring from the gold.
In short, power and love are incompatible. If you have one, you cannot have the other. Alberich is willing to make the trade: “Thus I curse love.”
And, of course, this triggers the course of events that eventually brings down the gods themselves.
Ross also points out something that I have discussed at length before: while the Nazis borrowed some ideas from Nietzsche, their use of his ideas say more about them than about him. And ditto for Wagner. They combined what was worst about each man.
In the end, both men harbored impulses that look ominous from the vantage point of the post-Holocaust era. What Wagner disliked in Nietzsche - the pitilessness, the exaltation of power - and what Nietzsche disliked in Wagner - the Teutonic chauvinism, the antisemitism - added up to an approximation of the fascist mentality. Once the better angels of their natures are set aside, Wagner and Nietzsche darkly complete each other in the Nazi mind.
Ironically, the same people who blame Nietzsche - and thus atheism - for the Nazis, seem to embrace the worst of his ideas themselves. How about this bit Ross pulls together from some of Nietzsche’s later writings?
Modern European civilization, meek and effeminate, has lost touch with the voluptuous cruelty once exhibited by Germanic tribes. The Antichrist continues the theme: “What is good? Everything that heightens in man the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself.” What is bad? Weakness, tolerance, forgiveness, compassion…
This claim that America has become “effeminate” runs all through the rhetoric of the Religious Right - and the American Right in general. We have lost our former strength, and now we apologize to those we conquered and enslaved. Power, and exemplified by the GQP and Trump are what matters now. And thus, the Religious Right reveals itself to have been fascist all along.
The chapter on Wagner in America in the 19th Century was fascinating, from the reactions of presidents to Sousa’s claim that Wagner was “a brass band man.” Speaking of that, I just had to look up Sousa’s arrangement of the Star-Spangled Banner to sound like the overture to Tannhauser, which he did for the Chicago World’s Fair. Um, it’s...interesting.
One of the fascinating questions that Ross explores is the search for a uniquely “American” mythology. The problem being, of course, that the American ruling class then (as now) largely came from Europe, and had no deep connection to the land or its history. To create a sufficiently “white” mythology and nationalist art, things had to be created from scratch. Some succeeded, such as the cowboy myth, while others like The Song of Hiawatha were successful art but haven’t quite stuck in modern times. In truth, it was Dvorak who had it right: the truly American art and myth would come, not from the white conquerors, but from indigenous and African-American sources. Ross has a great line in relation to the American attempts to co-opt Wagner for the cause:
The idea of a national mythology based on the legacies of conquered, murdered, and enslaved peoples was not one for which Wagner provided a precedent.
There is also an extended discussion of The Virginian by Owen Wister. I haven’t really read Wister, although I have run across him regularly in other books. (We also attempted to listen to Riders of the Purple Sage on a trip, and turned it off, because it was so badly racist and sexist.) I was not aware of exactly how racist he was - although obviously the whole “western” genre has an ugly history. Some of the quotes were really horrible - lots about the inherent inequality of man - and Ross distills why.
Embedded in this founding text of the Western genre is an unusually ugly articulation of the racist social-Darwinist philosophy that underlay so much of the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny. Although there is no evidence that Wagner incited such rants, the music supplied a mental soundtrack for Wister as he spun his cowboy fantasies.
As fascinating as the effect of Wagner on the American literature scene is, things take a much more bizarre turn when we get to France. In the section on Peladan, I felt like I had gone down a very weird rabbit hole. The plots have to be the most insane I have ever read about. For example:
In The Androgyne, an angelically feminine thirteen-year-old boy improvises on Beethoven and Wagner, “sounding the bells of the Grail after a phrase from the Pathetique Sonata.” And in The Gynander, another androgyne, Tammuz, makes it his mission to convert “gynanders” - Peladan’s term for lesbians - to heterosexuality. His final triumph comes when he performs the feat of generating replicas of himself, each of whom seduces and marries a wayward lesbian. As an orchestra plays the wedding march from Lohengrin and music from Walkure, the brides fall to worshipping a giant phallus...
And there are more too. The guy was...as Verlaine said, “bizarre but of great distinction.” Also bizarre was the connection between Wagner and the Theosophists. I think I may have mentioned the town of Halcyon, on the coast not too far from where I live, which was originally a Theosophist utopian community back in the day. I also have been by the large complex in Point Loma, San Diego - and that location was originally intended it appears to be a “second Bayreuth.” Who knew?
One of the interesting things in the book is the use of early drafts of the operas to shed light on the possible meanings intended - or perhaps rejected. One example are these lines that were originally in Meistersinger but changed in a not-particularly-good way in the final version to something more nationalistic and militaristic.
Many a habit and custom wither away,
Crumble to dust, go up in smoke,
Let go of the fight,
Neither musket thunder nor gunpowder puffs
Will ever bring back what’s merely a breath.
The final version instead sounds notes of “enemies within and without that would destroy the German spirit” - something the Nazis would tap into later.
The book would, of course, be incomplete without a section on Neuschawanstein, the modern “castle” built by King Ludwig II. The place is filled with Wagner references - Ludwig was obsessed with Wagner, and helped bankroll him for years. I had the chance to visit back in 1999, and it is a breathtaking setting, and is one of the few actually liveable castles - with running water and the like.
It is likewise impossible to discuss Wagner without acknowledging his anti-semitism and its influence on other, more clearly evil people. One figure central to the appropriation of Wagner to sinister ends was Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Surprise! Not a German, but a Brit, who witnessed the premier of Parsifal, and later acclaimed Hitler as Parsifal incarnate. Chamberlain’s books proved to be unfortunately influential on the Nazis, and successfully tied together the greatness of Wagner’s music with ideas of racial superiority. Wagner wasn’t innocent either, of course. His article, “Jewishness in Music” is appallingly anti-Semitic. But it wasn’t the central idea the way it was after Chamberlain revived it from relative obscurity. Ross describes how Chamberlain did this.
A shift takes place in the 1895 book Richard Wagner, Chamberlain’s first major publishing success. Like Glasenapp’s biography, it is an airbrushed portrait suitable for the bourgeois home. At the same time, it gives considerable space to the prose writings, and thus to political themes. Insidiously, Chamberlain normalizes Wagner’s most extreme late-period views, effacing their eccentricities and contradictions. The section on antisemitism makes a show of reasonableness, conceding that “the Jews themselves, with their gift of astuteness, were almost everywhere among the first to divine Wagner’s immense artistic significance.” Chamberlain claims that the composer was free of malice and envy - more touches of the airbrush - and that “Jewishness in Music” was merely a defense of German art against injurious influences. The entire unpleasantness could be resolved if Jews were to find a way to “cease to be Jewish,” in Wagner’s own words.
So much is recognizable about that idea. Here in the US, so many white people think we wouldn’t have a problem if non-whites would just “learn to fit in” - that is, to act more white, to cease to be [black, Hispanic, etc.] Then, as now, some of the “out” group even believed in assimilation.
For some years, [Theodor] Herzl remained convinced that assimilation was the only way forward...He defined the “ghetto” not just as a physical entity but also as a psychological one. Jews had to escape from it by ridding themselves of stereotypically Jewish traits.
Damn. That does sound familiar. Also, never forget that “ghetto” was where the Italians kept the Jews. The word applies today and for the same reasons to other disfavored groups. Just keep them out of sight, deny them full and equal access to resources, then brutalize them for displaying symptoms of oppression.
It is fascinating, however, how many Jews found Wagner’s music to resonate for them - particularly before Hitler stole it, of course.
Any community that was in the throes of could see itself reflected in some aspect of his stories: the self-discovery of the hero; the crusade against massed forces and entrenched beliefs; the unleashing of primordial energies and emotions; the revival of communal theatrical practice; the fusion of art and religion.
A bit of the universal myth in that.
Wagner’s racial views were also more complicated than in popular belief. He called out Carlyle for his “taking sides against the Negroes.” He called the American Civil War “the only war whose aim was humane.” He expressed disapproval of colonialism and the displacement of Native Americans. So things aren’t just a matter of “Wagner was racist.” Most accurately, he was antisemitic, unfortunately common among Europeans for well over a thousand years. Racism may be a fairly universal plague on humanity, but its expression definitely varies by time and places. Ross recounts an interesting incident involving W.E.B. Du Bois, who visited in 1936.
In a travel column for the Pittsburgh Courier, he wrote that German antisemitism “surpasses in vindictive cruelty and public insult anything I have ever seen; and I have seen much.” All the same, he felt less conscious of his race than he did at home. He wrote: “I have not suffered from race prejudice...I can go to any hotel which I can afford; I can dine where I please and have the head-waiter bow me welcome.” That he felt less open hostility in Hitler’s Germany than in Roosevelt’s America is a devastating verdict on American race relations.
I’m sad to have to say it, but Du Bois would have to say much the same thing now. He would be followed around by security in a store, subjected to mistreatment from police, and looked at with suspicion in many neighborhoods.
I was familiar with Du Bois’ love for Wagner from The Souls of Black Folk. I was not as familiar with all of his reasoning, which Ross illuminates through other writings.
The conceit of self-hatred would imply that these black Wagnerians were in some way ashamed of their heritage. Such condescension is just as dubious in the case of civil-rights stalwarts like Du Bois and Graham as it is for Theodor Herzl. Paul Allen Anderson points to a different rationale: Du Bois privileges the Wagner experience precisely because it does not conform to type. Jazz and other popular styles troubled Du Bois because, in Anderson’s paraphrase, they “fetishized black racial difference through a fascination with the most ribald and seamy side of African American life.” Similarly, Du Bois distrusted the cult of sports, because it perpetuated stereotypes of black people as purely physical beings.
I will admit I share some of his concerns generally. I’m a white guy, so I don’t have a right to tell non-whites how to create their art, obviously. But I have hesitated about introducing my kids to more than a little hip hop just because it does often seem to “fetishize” certain stereotypes. I don’t have a great answer for that one. Other than to continue to introduce the kids to many different voices and to anti-racist ideas as much as I can.
Another fascinating chapter was the one on Feminism and Wagner. As with everything else, this is complicated. On the one hand, the storylines involve far too many cases of women sacrificing their lives so the hero can have an epiphany. Not that Wagner exactly originated that idea - it’s old as humanity - as is the social expectation that women should sacrifice themselves for reproduction and male dominance.
On the other hand, Wagner wrote some of the most memorable and strong female characters - roles that were central to the story, and not just about love, powerful women who called for powerful singing. Women who went out on their own terms rather than quietly waste away of pining and consumption. Feminists certainly found a lot to identify with in the operas.
In that chapter, I ran across a quote I have borrowed already. This one is from soprano Lillian Nordica, who was a pretty colorful character. She said that the stage was the “only place where men and women stand on a perfect equality.” In contrast, “our whole social system is founded on conditions that existed in the stone age, when man took what he wanted by force.”
I realize now that I didn’t write down anything about the chapter on Willa Cather. As a Cather fan, it was rather fascinating, and now I really need to read The Song of the Lark. The chapter was full of stuff that I didn’t know, including details of Cather’s personal life which only came out after her death. I probably will re-read that chapter after I read another of her books.
The chapter on Modernist literature (and its connection to Wagner, of course), was thoroughly fascinating. The obvious Wagnerians were discussed - Joyce, Conrad, Proust. But also Virginia Woolf, who Ross considers the most imaginative practitioner of “stream-of-consciousness” writing. I also liked his assessment of the macho flavor of so many books of the era.
Men dominated the modernist canon, and their work can give off a macho reek: outlaw poses, public melees, acrimonious squabbling over who did what first. Wagner was himself a superb example of the violently insecure male ego.
The book also takes a look at rising German nationalism - which really started before World War One. In a fascinating, if predictable, turn of events, during the war, the French turned against Wagner, while Germans adopted him as a national symbol. Bizarrely, it appears that gendarmes would enter apartments to ask the residents to stop playing Wagner. That’s pretty creepy.
Also short-sighted was Guillaume Apollinaire (who coined the word “surrealism”) dismissing Wagner’s music as “shit.”
Much more amusing was the bad pun that became a marketing brand that endures until today. So, Walkurie was twisted to be “La Wachkyrie,” which sounds like “La vache qui rit,” or “The cow who laughs.” The picture of a laughing cow was used for deliveries of meat to the French troops. We know the Laughing Cow now mostly for cheese. So there is the story. I had no idea.
And then there is Hitler, who gets a whole chapter and part of another. Because subsequent events unfortunately tied Hitler and Wagner together. And the questions about who they were - and how Hitler because who he did - are intertwined. Is Wagner to blame for Hitler? Ross explains the question well.
When the war began, Adolf Hitler was a twenty-five-year-old bohemian painter in Munich, steeped in Wagner, solitary in his habits. Within two years of its end, he had become a rabble-rousing far-right fanatic with a flair for hysterical antisemitic rhetoric. The nature of that transformation remains central to the almost limitless Hitler literature. Was Hitler brutalized by the war or radicalized in its aftermath? Or did he see himself as Germany’s dictatorial savior even before the war began? On such questions the latter-day reputation of Richard Wagner also hangs, since the composer is suspected of having nurtured Hitler’s politics of domination and destruction.
Before returning to Hitler, Ross takes a detour through the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Communist response to Wagner. It shouldn’t be controversial that Wagner’s economic views tended far more toward socialism than capitalism. Indeed, as George Bernard Shaw points out in The Perfect Wagnerite, The Ring can easily be viewed as an anti-capitalist parable. Wagner himself, however, was never a political ideologue of any stripe, and I think this is key to understanding why no one ideology has the right to claim him. If the Nazis claimed to see themselves in him, the Socialists had even more cause to do so.
The younger Wagner fascinated the left in large measure because of the emphatic vagueness of his convictions. As he dabbled in various ideologies - socialism, communism, anarchism, democratic liberalism - he created a kind of potpourri of leftist possibilities, which adherents of one camp or another sampled at will. The musicologist James Garratt highlights the composer’s vacillation between collectivism and individualism. One part of Wagner longed to join the great popular throng; another could never surrender the artistic independence that stands outside of group definitions. Ultimately, he gravitated toward utopian anarchism, along the lines of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s vision of a society cleansed of the exploitation of property. But fragments of other ideologies entered his jumble of jargo and concepts - including Marxism.
George Bernard Shaw, an avid Wagner fan as well as socialist, is quoted and discussed quite a bit in this section. Not only The Perfect Wagnerite, but also Man and Superman is cited throughout. Both are well worth reading. I didn’t quote it in my blog post, but one of the most hilarious lines in the “Don Juan in Hell” section of the play is about an encounter between Wagner and Nietzsche in the infernal regions, which leads to a quarrel, and Nietzche decamping for Heaven in a huff, to the relief of everyone.
T. S. Eliot gets an extended discussion as well. “The Waste Land” is filled with references to Tristan and Isolde, which I didn’t realize back when I read it years ago. While I have played excerpts from Tristan, I have never read the libretto in translation, so I had no way to recognize the many line-for-line parallels. I suspect I will need to read them together someday.
In addition to Hitler, the other major figure who appears in multiple chapters is none other than Thomas Mann. I just discovered his writing last year, with the delightful and deep The Magic Mountain. Mann was an anti-fascist married to a Jewish woman, so he was certainly no friend or supporter of Hitler. He would eventually flee Germany and speak out from a distance against the Nazis. However, since many of his major works were written before Hitler’s rise to power, they do not necessarily address fascism directly - although to be sure the totalitarian/authoritarian impulse is definitely a theme. Mann also was fascinated by Wagner - Death In Venice is titled after Wagner’s own death, although the book isn’t exactly about Wagner. Ross does a great job in tying together the Wagnerian threads that run throughout Mann’s works, and I really did find myself wanting to read more Mann for that reason alone.
One incident that really stood out is that Mann left Germany on a lecture tour - lecturing about Wagner - in 1933, that became a permanent exile. While he was gone, he was denounced by both the Nazis - and Nazi-friendly fellow artists (yeah, that smarted.)
More shocking to Mann was the “Protest of Richard Wagner City Munich” that appeared in April 1933, bearing the signatures of such musical eminences as Richard Strauss, Hans Pfizner, and the gifted Wagner conductor Hans Knappertsbusch, who instigated the action. The document described Mann as not only “cosmopolitan-democratic” but also “unreliable and inexpert” - a jarring demotion for a man who had received the Nobel Prize in Literature four years earlier.
I’m happy enough to be called “cosmopolitan-democratic.” That’s high praise. But yes, totalitarians are sure quick to discard their best and brightest as soon as they express doubt about the official orthodoxy.
Mann did his best to rescue Wagner from the Nazis, but he was just one man, and didn’t have the clout of a political movement.
Mann takes up the mission that Bernhard Diebold had set forth five years earlier - rectifying the “political loss of the most popular high art of the past few decades.” This project was, of course, doomed. Wagner would now become the chief cultural ornament of the most destructive political regime in history.
Ross also cites one of my favorite authors - Ron Rosenbaum.
The literature on Hitler and Nazism is prone to what the writer Ron Rosenbaum calls the “single-bullet theory” - simplistic explanations for a complex horror. It has been variously suggested that the key to understanding Hitler is that he had an abusive father; that he was too close to his mother; that he had encephalitis; that he contracted syphilis from a Jewish prostitute; that he blamed a Jewish doctor for his mother’s death; that he was missing a testicle; that he underwent a wayward hypnosis treatment; that he was gay; that he was addled by drugs; and, most insidiously, that he himself had Jewish ancestry. To that dubious list can be added the notion that Hitler received posthumous instruction from Wagner.
In reality, Hitler is to blame for Hitler. Hitler, and the millions of Germans who placed and maintained him in power. But that is neither simple nor easy to deflect. We too could do the same, and all too easily. Hitler certainly seems to have appropriated Wagner’s ideas, but at a shockingly simplistic and shallow level. (Hey, that sounds a lot like Trump…) Hitler made references to Wagner a lot, but he didn’t really quote him, probably because Wagner’s thinking was too nuanced for a dictator.
No less important, Hitler’s relationship with Wagner remained on of musician fandom rather than of ideological fanaticism. His knowledge of the operas was pedantically acute: he impressed artists and fellow music lovers with detailed commentary on tempos, cuts, and matters of interpretation. But he gave no sign of having absorbed Wagner’s grander themes - the critique of power in the Ring, the consecration of compassion in Parsifal.
Indeed, Parsifal turned out to be problematic for other Nazis, the ones who actually grasped its meaning.
Parsifal, with its ethos of compassion, caused the most trouble. Goebbels, Rosenberg, and Himmler all thought that it should be removed from the repertory because its quasi-Christian message was irreconcilable with Nazi ideology….
Parsifal’s overriding message of “knowing through compassion” - “durch Mitleid wissend” - diverged from a Nazi culture that all but outlawed sentimental weakness.
Hitler never noticed the cognitive dissonance. Which, well, seems pretty similar to the way that modern white Evangelicals seem to notice no conflict between their fascist political commitments, their social darwinist economic beliefs, and their supposed faith. The passage is pretty chilling: “We are not to feel compassion for the Jews, but only to feel compassion for our German people.” That sure seems similar to Kevin DeYoung of The Gospel Coalition’s claim that “the least of these” as Christ spoke about them meant only “christians.” Don’t feel or show compassion for “those people” - just for people like yourself…
On a related note, Ross points out that the United States was pretty hypocritical on this as well.
The United States, in particular, congratulated itself on having saved the best of Europe from ruin, even though xenophobic immigration laws prevented hundreds of thousands of German-Jewish refugees from entering the country.
One individual who comes off very well during the Nazi era is conductor Arguro Toscanini, who pulled out of the 1933 Bayreuth Festival, lent his name to anti-Nazi protests, and perfomed in countries surrounding the Nazis - but never in them. He remained anti-fascist his entire life, and put his career where his mouth was.
One more passage on Hitler and the actual body of Wagner’s music is enlightening.
Yet Gotterdammerung is no apocalypse: it envisions a transfer of power, from gods to people. It is also the redress of a wrong, restoring the Ring from the illusory heights to the truthful depths. Wotan, very unlike Hitler, has repented of his megalomania: “I longed in my heart for power...I acted unfairly...I did not return the ring to the Rhine...The curse that I fled will not flee from me now.”
Personally, I find Gotterdammerung to be my favorite of the operas to play, but also the most powerful ending - and in Wagner, that is saying something. The devastation and ashes that consume all at the end: Siegfried’s betrayal and death, Brunnehilde’s immolation, Wotan’s repentance and the crumbling of Valhalla, and the final wash of the waters of the Rhine over all...that’s the real result of the abuse of power, and it strongly affects me whenever I listen to it - or play it.
After the war, Wagner’s legacy lived - and lives - on in film. For years, Wagner was used in a sinister sense, to portray evil. Sometimes, it was, well, unintentional, as in The Birth of a Nation using the flight of the valkyries to assemble the Klan. But more often, it was an intentional use of the association of Hitler with Wagner. However, and surprisingly, the Americans used Wagner more than the Nazis ever did.
Goebbels’s push for a culture of mass distraction - “American bunk,” he called it - left little place for Wagner and his complications. Counterintuitively, the composer figured more often in Hollywood films of the thirties and forties than in Nazi ones.
The final chapter, on more modern connections, was filled with unexpected instances. For example, I had no idea that Pope Francis, back in his days as a priest,, used Klongsor’s magic garden as an analogy for rigidification and self-deception in the Catholic Church. I also had no idea how much Wagner comes into the novels of Philip K. Dick. Parsifal in particular seems to have fascinated him. There aren’t that many references in The Man in the High Castle, but I did notice a few. Other novels and stories appear to have a lot more of them.
There is also an interesting passage on the controversy of Wagner in the newly founded state of Israel. Even now, the music remains forbidden. However, this seems to be much more a political than an artistic decision. As Na’ami Sheffi concluded after studying the controversy, the discussion has largely been driven by people who do not actually attend concerts. Those who do care about Classical music enough to buy tickets and listen are largely in favor of allowing Wagner. It seems all too common for people to get their panties in a wad about stuff that they have never experienced, and about which they have no clue what they are talking about. (I am reminded of the moral panic over Dungeons and Dragons among Evangelicals during my lifetime. Nobody had a clue what it actually was - when I found out, I realized it was just nerds with imaginations having a good - if esoteric - time.) Again, Ross has enlightening stuff to say about it.
Some Jewish intellectuals, even those who subject Wagner to strenuous criticism, consider the Israli ban a problematic mode of cultural politics. The sociologist Moshe Zuckerman has called it an “ideologically performed trivialization of Shoah commemoration.” The historian Michael P. Stenberg wonder whether the Wagner taboo is a “symptom of anxiety about the nation itself: in this case, the national self that wishes to equate the Israeli with the Jewish as authentic and equal marks of citizenship.” No matter where it is made, “the claim of cultural purity...remains the gravest political danger of all.”
That last line: “the claim of cultural purity...remains the gravest political danger of all.” Badass. And so true. The claim - and goal - of cultural purity is evil no matter where it is found. Culture by definition is lived in community, and no community is “pure.” Attempts to purify it end up in persecution and genocide. Here is another outstanding paragraph:
In the minds of many, Wagner still poses a palpable threat. Could the composer somehow stoke new horrors or rouse some future Hitler? In an age when classical music has a marginal role in mainstream culture, the possibility seems remote. Politicians play pop music at their rallies, and, occasional deployments of the “Ride” aside, military operations are fueled by hard-hitting rock and rap. At times, the demonization of Wagner feels like an alibi - an evasion of questions about pop culture’s own relationship with misogynist violence, patriotic mythology, and the domination of the many by the few.
Even in white supremacist circles, though, Wagner is pretty marginal. Nietzsche is a bit more popular, but so are black-metal bands and...surprizingly, Taylor Swift. (She is, it appears, the ideal “Aryan Goddess” because of her blond beauty. Swift is not down with that, of course. And haters gonna hate. Oh, and don’t worry about Trump adopting Wagner. Tina Brown recalls him saying “never again” after hearing a bit of the Ring back in the 1980s. I have a hard time imagining Trump having enough attention span for a single cadence, let alone the wandering and rarely resolving tonality of Wagner.
A few final notes. There is a passage on Tolkein’s use of the same source material as the Ring, which will be of interest to Tolkein aficionados. In many ways, Tolkein’s version is a rebuttal to the Nazi vision - he fought in in the first world war, and finished the saga during the second.
The afterword is also fun. Ross talks about his own experience with Wagner, including his early love life.
Embarrassingly, I associate early experiences of the Ring with the ups and downs of various crushes and love affairs. More that once I sat next to another young man at a Wagner performance, likening myself to Tristan, Islolde, or, on bad days, Alberich. One of these unsuspecting visitors to the unpublishable Mann or Cather story of my life ended our tentative relationship following a performance of Walkure at the San Francisco Opera - just after Wotan bade farewell to Brunnhilde and banished her to the ring of fire. This seems comical in retrospect, but it felt like high tragedy at the time.
And there is more - so much more - in this book. It is a richness of information, insight, humor, and tragedy. A big thanks to my wife for getting this for me. I highly recommend it, not just for those who love Classical music as I do, but for those interested in literature, history, and the life of the mind. It all connects. Because we humans connect. We don’t come up with our beliefs or thoughts in a vacuum, but in the culture we exist in. Wagner, more than any other composer, influenced the culture of 150 years in ways that even a book like this can only start to describe. Pull up a chair, grab the beverage of your choice, and enjoy Alex Ross’ wonderful writing, careful research, and general good humor - and come along for the ride.
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