It feels as though every summer I get into Wagner. It could be because news of the Bayreuth Festival is always there to remind me. It could be because I rarely get a chance to hear Wagner’s music during the official seasons of the symphony and opera so my offseason ear tends to want to pick him up.
During each of these summer sessions I’ve learned something new about Wagner and his music. This is to be expected with any subject we return too. The context of our personal life is different and therefore our experience of the given topic is different.
As an aside, this is the foundation of postmodernist thought, which asserts that there is an infinite number of ways to interpret any subject because of the constantly changing quality of personal and societal context. Postmodernism falls apart, for me, because it asserts that all interpretations are of equal merit.
Clearly my interpretations are far superior. How can they not be? Superior to my previous interpretations that is.
What new shiny insight have I received on the Wagner front this summer? The big one has to do with Wagner’s anti-semitism.
I have often struggled with this aspect of Wagner, because I find it to be so at odds with the content of his art. I have often got caught up in confirmation bias by looking for anti-Semitic themes in Wagner’s work.
Wagner's Ring Cycle
Since the postmodernism edict of an infinite number of ways to interpret any subject is quite valid, then finding anti-Semitism in Wagner’s art is a true event. However, is it of equal value to the interpretation which finds Wagner’s art to be based upon redemption through nature, love, and music?
The postmodernist would say both are equal. I say that’s horseshit.
Yes, Wagner wrote a scathing and, I would say, hyperbolic essay about “the Jews.” Wagner once said, “I wish I could score everything for horns” and “I write music with an exclamation point!” When it came to writing anything, hyperbole was Wagner’s default idiom.
Yet how can I sit here and justify anti-semitism and hate speech? Because hate speech wasn’t even a thing and anti-Semitism was and still is a far larger problem than anything Wagner wrote.
Anti-Semitism was a pervasive sentiment in European culture for thousands of years. Even a mind as flexible as Wagner’s was susceptible to indoctrination. He failed to break free of that aspect of his society and was unfair to the Jewish community. For that we fault him and even completely discredit him. However, what did he succeed at?
At the beginning of The Ring Cycle, both Alberich, the bad guy, and Wotan, the good guy, trade love and nature for power. Alberich cursed love and stole the rheingold from nature to fashion a ring of power. Wotan traded Freia, the goddess of love who grew the golden apples which kept the gods young, as payment for his Trump Tower-esque Valhalla.
Wagner recognized that both sides were guilty of the same transgression. The entire 17-hour drama is based on redeeming that transgression by way of nature, love, and honor.
How many of us are guilty of trading love, honor, and nature for power and money — and not a lot of money at that? How many of us trade any time in nature for just a little more money? How many of us have repeatedly put our careers in front of our loved ones?
We want to lord it over Wagner for missing an opportunity to fight anti-Semitism while we all commit the transgression which fuels his greatest artistic accomplishment. But, but, but aren’t the Nibelungen based on the Jews?
Alberich uses his ring — stolen from natural resources — as a means of enslaving the Nibelungen to toil for his benefit. In case you're wondering, Alberich is very much Sauron. How Tolkien gets all the credit for using the ring versus nature theme 70 years after Wagner is beyond me.
How about this quote from Wagner? “I hate this fast growing tendency to chain to men machines in big factories and deprive them of all joy in their efforts. The plan will lead to cheap men and cheap products.” I would say the Nibelungen are the Jews and the rest of us as well.
It’s quite clear that Wagner is demonstrating the perversion of nature and the abandonment of love in order to passively enslave an entire population and the good guys are doing the same thing. This brings us firmly into our own day and age.
Whichever side of the political argument we consider to be the good guys is guilty of the same behavior as the other side. That’s what makes each election cycle so frustrating. One hundred thirty years after Wagner died, a growing number of us are recognizing that both sides are betraying love and nature for power.
Yes, Wagner said mean and hateful things about Jewish people but I doubt he woke up every morning, cracked his knuckles, and got down to the serious business of hating the Jews. Let’s turn to his own words one last time.
“I have only a mind to live, to enjoy — i.e. to work as an artist and produce my works; but not for the muddy brains of the common herd.”