The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung
by roger scruton
allen lane, 368 pages, $19.99
Of all the personalities that produced enduring art, Richard Wagner’s was perhaps the most repulsive. A blackmailer, philanderer, deadbeat, paranoid, and anti-Semite, Wagner invites his admirers to sequester his music from his philosophical views. He also polarizes the musical public like no other composer of importance. Performances of his music dramas at major opera houses usually are full. Tickets offered online for the 2013 Wagner Festival at Bayreuth sold out in seconds. Yet many concertgoers think Wagner boring. One man’s timelessness is another’s ennui.
The composers of the classical canon formed a fraternity across generations. Mozart studied with Haydn and Beethoven with both; Mozart and Beethoven championed the music of Bach; Schubert idolized Beethoven; Schumann presented the first performances of Schubert’s posthumous works. Schumann’s first published review hailed Chopin as a genius, and his last introduced Brahms. With Wagner, the pattern broke down. Brahms and twenty other musicians signed an 1860 manifesto denouncing Wagner’s “New German School” as “contrary to the innermost spirit of music, strongly to be deplored and condemned.” Evidently something quite different is at work in Wagner’s music.
Roger Scruton sheds some light on the Wagner phenomenon, but less as critic of his music than as an example of the way Wagner bewitches his listeners. He sets out to demonstrate how Wagner’s philosophical views shaped his music. In the usual reading, Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, the tetralogy of music dramas composed between 1848 and 1874, foretold the razing of the social and political order of the West and the elimination of constraint on irrational impulse. Led by Wotan, the gods (the aristocracy) rule by covenant, but to establish their power they had to employ the Giants (industry), with calamitous results. To buy off the Giants, Wotan steals a magic gold ring from the Nibelung dwarves (whom Wagner identified as the Jews). One Nibelung stole the gold from the Rhine River in pursuit of world domination. Wotan fathers a race of heroes who destroy the old order of covenants and bring about a new world founded on love, albeit love of a peculiar, self-referential kind.
Scruton wants to show that Wagner’s Ring cycle teaches fundamental truths, consistent with the High Tory conservatism that Scruton has espoused in several books and numerous essays. In Scruton’s account, the German composer dispenses avuncular advice about the dangers of political authority and the redemptive power of love. He weaves citations from Fichte, Feuerbach, Hegel, and Schopenhauer into his reading, making Wagner seem a donnish grazer of nineteenth-century German philosophy. In passing, Scruton pronounces Wagner a Christian of sorts, declaring that there are “few works of Christian theology that match Wagner’s exploration of the Eucharist in ‘Parsifal.’” Scruton does not explain how Parsifal squares with Wagner’s alarming views on the sacrament. In his essay “Heroism and Christianity,” Wagner wrote that the Eucharist purged Aryan blood of miscegenation with lower races, even detoxifying the Jewish blood in the mixed-race Jesus.
Scruton’s portrait of Wagner as an eclectic kind of conservative Christian obscures the obvious: The mature Wagner found a soul mate in Schopenhauer, whom he read in 1854. Schopenhauer offered a vision of time and mortality that challenged the traditional teleological notion of time taught by Christianity and embodied in Western music.
The motivation of the creators of Western contrapuntal music was teleological. They sought to express the soul’s journey to redemption. What modern music theory calls goal-oriented motion began with a specific goal, namely, the Christian one. From the Flemish counterpoint of the fifteenth century to the Viennese Classic, Western composers created different levels of time. In a Josquin motet or a Bach fugue, each melodic line has its inherent rhythm, but their superposition at different time intervals creates a higher-order rhythm.
In contrast, nonbiblical time is indeterminate. It is “once upon a time,” the amorphous time of myth and the cyclical time of the gods and the fates. Time first emerges as an organic, reticulated concept with succession and direction in eschatological religion. As Franz Rosenzweig writes, “Revelation is the first thing to set its mark firmly into the middle of time; only after Revelation do we have an immovable Before and Afterward.”
For Schopenhauer, time progresses without any anticipation of a goal, and so there is no standard by which moments can be ordered. Each exists for its own sake and is equally pointless. The moment can only be given substance by an act of will. This rejection of teleological time was dramatized by Goethe in Faust, whose hero risks his soul on the wager that Mephistopheles cannot seduce him with a moment so compelling that he will say to it, “Remain! You are so beautiful!” Faust is saved because the blandishments of the moment fail to stop him from striving towards his goal. Schopenhauer took the devil’s side in this bet, as did his musical alter ego. This is why Wagner’s music appeals to us so fiercely, or at least to a certain side of us. We all feel the impulse to dissolve ourselves into the moment and ditch the long journey to redemption. That has been the erotic attraction of paganism since Pinchas killed Zimri.
Wagnerians relish his climactic moments. In between them are long patches where very little happens musically (hence Rossini’s quip that Wagner has great moments and terrible quarter-hours). This bores the music-lover who is accustomed to the teleological discipline of the classical composers, but it does not bother the Wagnerians, who already are bored in Schopenhauer’s sense, that is, who perceive existence itself as boredom. To the Wagnerians, the harmonic twists and turns of the development section of a Schubert sonata may rival or exceed Wagner in complexity, but they find it tedious to accompany Schubert on the journey toward tonal resolution. They have arrived at this goal too many times before and are too jaded to enjoy it. They are existentially bored and await Wagner’s climactic moments as a temporary relief.
Schopenhauer’s famous pessimism is not just ill-humored; it is metaphysical. The exertion of the will to infuse moments in time with substance simply takes us closer to death, and the highest good is to renounce the will altogether. Without the anticipation of redemption, the progression of moments in time leads only to boredom. In 1852 he had written to Theodor Uhlig: “Time is absolute Nothing. Only that which makes time forgotten, that destroys it, is Something.”
agner plays tricks with time in order to forget it. The famous “Tristan chord” is not a chord at all, but (as John Rothgeb and William Rothstein have shown) conventional passing motion from the tonic of A minor to its dominant of E-sharp major, except that the passing tones are frozen in time. Brünnhilde’s awakening by Siegfried feints at an E minor which is retrospectively reinterpreted as passing motion to C major. (I examined some of Wagner’s musical wizardry in a 2010 essay for this journal: “Why We Can’t Hear Wagner’s Music.”)
Some prefer Wagner’s stirring moments, for example the Immolation Scene that concludes his Ring cycle with Brünnhilde’s suicide on Siegfried’s funeral pyre, the return of the cursed Ring to the Rhine, and the burning of the gods’ fortress of Valhalla. But I find him most charming in the lighter fairy tale scenes. The Ring cycle opens in the depths of the Rhine River to several minutes of an E-flat major triad. Scruton notes: “The tonal triad, the three note chord that is the root of traditional harmony, here represents the natural order from which all that is and will be must emerge. The triad of E flat sounds throughout the three minutes of the prelude . . . nature is at rest, but also endlessly changing and endlessly expecting.” Even more convincing to my ears is the Prelude to Act 1 of Siegfried with its bassoons and tubas evoking the spookiness of the primeval forest as we come upon the lair of the dwarf Mime.
Too often, though, inspiration failed Wagner at crucial moments. Siegfried’s famous “Forging Song” relies on a musical cliché, the repetitive four-note descending bass line we hear in Monteverdi’s “Lamento della Ninfa” and also in Ray Charles’s “Hit the Road, Jack.” By reducing his father’s sword to shards, Siegfried pulverizes the old order in a pure assertion of will. Wotan has told Mime that only a man without fear will forge Nothung anew. By “fear,” Wagner means something like Heidegger’s Angst, or “dread.” As Schopenhauer wrote, man is a being “full of need, worriment, pain, and dread—and once again full of boredom.” Siegfried is the Superman who by sheer force of will transcends common human destiny. The whole of the Ring cycle, with Wotan’s tragic quest for power and the Nibelung’s disruption of the natural order, has prepared the awakening of Wagner’s hero, and yet here we find Wagner at his least persuasive.
Wagner does better with eroticism than with heroism. He was forever falling in love; it was an antidote to boredom that was as temporary as it was addictive, and he pursued illicit affairs to the end of his life. Scruton revels in Wagner’s eroticism, including his disdain for marriage:
Once the moral law is in place, therefore, love is supposedly confined within the bounds of marriage, maintained by Fricka’s vigilant eye. But real love cannot be so confined. For erotic love, at its highest, is neither sensual delight nor domestic harmony, even if both are in some way implied in it. At its heart lies sympathy, and the sense of the absolute value of the individual, to whose being the lover is attached and whose sufferings he suffers in turn. Such is love between mortals, the love between Siegmund and Sieglinde, and it is a higher and nobler thing than the love enjoyed by the gods or the conventional tyranny of the hearth, since it involves a gift of the self, and a readiness to sacrifice self for other. Moreover the capacity for this kind of love is the greatest gift of personality, and without it our journey into freedom will be incomplete.
It is odd to hear this from a writer celebrated as a traditionalist. Wotan’s mortal children are twin brother and sister separated at birth. Sieglinde is married to the brute Hunding, and meets Siegmund for the first time when he arrives at her cottage as a fugitive after a battle with Hunding’s family. She tells him that she fell 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!” And brother replies to sister, “You are the image I harbor in me!” Their son Siegfried will later mate with his aunt Brünnhilde. Gail Finney observed, “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.”
Scruton allows that Wagner “goes as far as any artist has ever gone in celebrating incest.” Wagner’s biographer Joachim Köhler thinks this comes from Wagner’s attraction to his older sister. Be that as it may, Wagner needs a hero immune to care and dread, that is, unconcerned about the future of the beloved. Sexual love in the Judeo-Christian sense is intertwined with care, for it subordinates the erotic moment to the future of the union and the children it will produce. Eroticism without fear is nihilism, for only a love with no future is fearless. Siegmund and Sieglinde, like Siegfried and Brünnhilde, do not “sacrifice the self for the other”; on the contrary, they consume the self in a paroxysm of self-adoration. Wagner’s genius is to make the moment of erotic self-annihilation appear so compelling that we want to say to it, “Remain! You are so beautiful.” That was the Faustian wager, and Wagner took the devil’s side. Given Europe’s sad history during the ensuing century, who can say that the devil didn’t win?
David P. Goldman is a columnist for Asia Times and PJ Media, and former senior editor of First Things.