The curtain rises in silence to reveal a stage composed of parallel white planks. With the first bars of the prelude—an insistent, agitated gesture in the lower strings—the planks dissolve into a single image of storm clouds. The floor of the set rotates vertically into a backdrop, from which a snowstorm emerges in three dimensions. The planks are now the towering trees of the nocturnal German forest.
A fugitive threads his away among them, his faltering steps mimicking Wagner’s ambiguous downbeat, pursued by armed men with lanterns. With another rotation, the trees have become the slanting roof beams of a rude house. The fugitive enters, and sings, “Whosoever hearth this be, here must I rest”; the orchestra falls silent as his unaccompanied voice completes a long-awaited cadence in D minor.
So begins the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, of which the opening alone is worth the price of admission. Those first moments of Robert LePage’s production, sadly, are as good as it got. That is not LePage’s fault, though, but Wagner’s. Wagner produces a few transformative moments, bracketed by long periods of musical stasis. This alternation of ecstasy and ennui is not a question of incapacity—the young Wagner could turn out good style imitations of Mendelssohn—but a matter of compositional choice.
For Wagner, the exaltation of impulse is elevated to a universal principle, as I explained in an earlier essay, “Why We Can’t Hear Wagner’s Music,” published last November. The love interest in Die Walküre involves the incestuous union of fraternal twins. When Siegmund stumbles into the house of Hunding, he learns that his host’s young and unhappy wife is none other than his twin sister Sieglinde, lost in a raid on his boyhood home. Although they do not know it, the twins are Wotan’s children, and their birth is part of the god’s plot to reclaim the stolen treasure of the Nibelungs.
It seems odd that Wagner would make incest the theme of what he intended as a grand philosophical discourse in music. But Sieglinde tells us why. As she explains to her twin brother, she has fallen in love with him at first sight: “I saw my own image in a stream, and now it is given to me again; / Just as it came up out of the water, / You offer my own image to me now!”
Siegmund replies, “You are the image I harbor in me!” As Gail Finney writes, “The obvious allusion to the myth of Narcissus in this context reveals the underlying nature of the incestuous bond: Erotic energy is transferred from the narcissistic individual to the object most like himself, his sibling.”
Wagner scholars explain the composer’s self-conscious narcissism in a number of ways. One recent biographer, Joachim Köhler, attributes it to Wagner’s unresolved attraction to his older sister Rosalie. It is also possible to interpret this blood bond as a metaphor for racial cohesion. The enamored twins, Mark Weiner argues in Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination, “experience and enact the metaphor of the community recognizing itself in the reflection of its bonds, which are based on the physiology of similar appearances.”
Without dismissing either reading, it seems evident that there must be more to Die Walküre than Wagner’s unresolved childhood sexuality or his ideological interest in racial affinity. The opera still engrosses modern audiences who would be repelled by either proposition. National self-worship and incestuous romance have long been unfashionable; personal self-adoration, though, has become the past century’s favorite pastime.
Wagner remains the consummate bard of narcissistic love, of passion for our own alter egos. That is a side of his genius that his detractors miss. “Wagner’s heroines, once they have been divested of their heroic husks, are indistinguishable from Madame Bovary,” Nietzsche sniffed. But Flaubert’s provincial housewife did not elope with her long-lost twin brother. The great novelist kept his protagonist at a critical distance, and there is a touch of black humor in her suicide by poison. Where Emma Bovary pursued a fantasy of romantic love in what ultimately is a cautionary tale, Wagner recreates the sensuous reality of self-love.
Wagner wants to counterpose a love of pure impulse to the covenantal order of traditional society. He despises covenantal order; as Nietzsche wrote, “Whence arises all evil in the world, Wagner asked himself? . . . From customs, laws, morals, institutions, from all those things on which the ancient world and ancient society rests.”
Wagner reminds us why Judeo-Christian society rests on the institution of marriage. It is not merely because marriage produces children and socializes them. A republic is defined, Augustine argued in The City of God, not only by a common interest but by a common love. Western polity depends on the mutual love of God and his people. In the normative love of men and women, it is opposites that attract; that is why, since Hosea, heterosexual love has served as the metaphor par excellence for the love of the absolute Other.
Far better than the political philosophers, Wagner understood that the covenant that underlies Western society is not a Hobbesian calculation but rather a nuptial commitment. The family is the fundamental unit of society because it nurtures in the sphere of intimacy an approximation of the covenantal bond between God and Israel.
To extirpate the covenantal order, Wagner understood, one must tear out its roots and provide an alternative: the ecstatic swoon of self-recognition, the ego’s celebration of itself, what Baudelaire (after first hearing Wagner) named “the oceanic feeling.” He not only advocates narcissism but immerses his listeners in the experience. Wagner writes some of his most compelling music for Siegmund and Sieglinde, and their duet ending the first act of Die Walküre is rightly celebrated as one of opera’s great moments.
It is music that sweeps the listener up and into a sense of timeless exhilaration. In contrast to the classical style of Wagner’s predecessors, Wagner does not so much transform time as suspend it, as I explained in the earlier essay.
Only an impulse so irresistible that it tears apart and breaks through the bonds of convention and covenant would serve Wagner’s purpose, an impulse that knows neither doubt nor hesitation. Mere adultery is inadequate for his purpose. In Tristan und Isolde, he made do with a love potion, a comic-opera device that trivializes the tragedy of his illicit lovers. The incestuous passion of Wotan’s twins introduces something far more powerful than a potion—namely, the all-consuming love of the ego for itself. Wagner’s nod to the Narcissus myth makes clear that he knew just what he was doing. The mutual passion of fraternal twins is the closest Wagner could come to pure narcissism short of introducing homosexuality.
In Die Walküre, the personal is political. The love of the fraternal twins begins the downfall of the gods’ covenantal order. In the second act, we learn that Wotan has covertly guided the wanderings of Siegmund, for he requires a hero to kill his Nibelung enemy. (He cannot do so himself because as chief god he cannot go back on a bargain.)
But Sieglinde’s betrayed husband Hunding appeals to Wotan’s consort Fricka, the goddess of hearth and home, on the grounds of the sanctity of marriage. Fricka, furious at Wotan for his philandering, tells Wotan that he cannot go about flouting laws that he himself made or the rule of the gods will crumble. Caught in a web of his own weaving, Wotan is compelled to kill his son Siegmund. “There’s only one thing I still want,” he confides to his Valkyrie, Brünnhilde. “The end! The end!”
When Brünnhilde tells Siegmund that he must die and follow her to eternal bliss in Valhalla, he prepares to murder his sister rather than leave her behind among the living. Brünnhilde is moved to disobey Wotan’s order and attempts to save Siegmund. Wotan kills his son anyway. Wotan encircles Brünnhilde with magic fire on a mountaintop, where in the next Ring installment she will be awakened by Siegmund and Sieglinde’s son, the hero Siegfried. Impervious to fear and to all constraints, Siegfried will break Wotan’s spear and marry his aunt Brünnhilde, in another act of world-historical incest. In the Ring’s final installment, this leads to the Twilight of the Gods, the end of the old order.
Wagner’s mythological tragedy preceded and in some part inspired the modern domestic tragedies of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Shaw, who presented prosaically what Wagner re-created as sensuous experience. More than the playwrights who hammered at the hypocrisy of bourgeois family life, though, Wagner poisoned the well of covenantal love by conjuring a seductive alternative.
Narcissistic love knows neither the trials of courtship nor the fruitfulness of family life but only the climactic moment. It can point only toward death. In keeping with this idea of love, Wagner’s music stakes everything on the musical climax. In contrast to classical composition, whose teleology and formal coherence conveys a sense of the journey toward redemption, Wagner’s music offers us the overpowering moment of ecstasy.
More effectively than any artist before or since, Wagner reproduces the experience of erotic narcissism. He still packs the theaters by validating this impulse with the potent devices of high musical culture. The incest of Siegmund and Sieglinde is the archetype for the past century’s idea of erotic redemption. That is why his influence still haunts us, and the Metropolitan Opera’s magical production has made it easier to understand why.
David P. Goldman writes the “Spengler” column for Asia Times Online. His book How Civilizations Die (Regnery) will appear in September 2011.