Wagner was a very contradictory guy. His personality was always extraordinarily tempestuous, leading inevitably to good and bad character aspects intermixed. Add to that his self-righteous fanaticism, and a dark side was near inevitable.
I would like to quote a long passage from a much longer letter from Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonck that you can read here. Wagner makes the case—very convincingly, I think—that to write his unique music required extreme moods, while defending himself in other contexts:
I am now becoming increasingly aware of a quality which I have acquired in my art, since it also determines me in my life. From the very beginning it has been a part of my nature for my moods to change rapidly and abruptly from one extreme to another.... I recognize now that the characteristic fabric of my music...owes its construction above all to the extreme sensitivity which guides me in the direction of mediating and providing an intimate bond between all the different moments of transition that separate the extremes of mood.
But this art is very much bound up with my own life. Extreme moods in a state of violent conflict will no doubt always remain part of my nature: but it is embarrassing to have to consider their effects upon others. To be understood is so indispensably important. Just as, in art, it is the most extreme and the grandest of life’s moods that must be made intelligible (moods which on the whole remain unknown in ordinary people’s lives, except in rare times of war and revolution), this understanding can be achieved only through the most well-defined and most compelling motivation of these transitions, and my entire work of art consists very much in producing the necessary and willing emotional mood by means of this motivation.
That is how it is with me in art. And in life? Did you not often witness the way in which people found that what I had to say was presumptuous, tiresome and unending whenever I was guided by the very same instinct, and wished only to guide the conversation gradually round, after some agitated or unusual remark, towards some conciliatory and conscious understanding?
Do you still recall that last evening with Semper? I had suddenly lost my temper and insulted my adversary in a strongly worded attack. Scarcely had the words left my lips when my anger immediately abated, and all I could see – and feel – was the need of reconciliation and to restore a proper sense of composure to the conversation. At the same time, however, I was guided by a very clear feeling that this could not be sensibly achieved by suddenly falling silent, but only by a gradual and conscious transition; I recall, even while I was still speaking my mind quite forcefully, that I was already conducting the conversation with a certain artistic consciousness which, had I been allowed to have my way, would most certainly have led to an intellectually and conciliatory conclusion and have ended on a note of understanding and appeasement.…
Do you perhaps think that experiences like these are very painful to me? – In truth, I love my fellow humans, and it is no timid, egotistical instinct which increasingly drives me from their society. It is not injured vanity that makes me sensitive to reproaches that I talk too much, but the sad feeling –– what can I be to people and what can they be to me if, in my dealings with them, I seek not to achieve an understanding but only to maintain my opinion unaltered?
I loved his rationalization for being a blabbermouth! In fact, I thought all his rationalizations were first-rate.
He wasn’t anti-Semitic, though, because he had mood swings; that just made it a more rocky road. What made Wagner an anti-Semite was that he was a fanatic, a true believer in his artistic/religious vision. Like all fanatics, tolerance is not high on the list of virtues; fidelity to the faith is. He expressed his vision rather succinctly (!) in the opening sentence of the essay “Religion and Art”:
One might say that where Religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for Art to save the spirit of religion by recognizing the figurative value of the mythic symbols which the former would have us believe in their literal sense, and revealing their deep and hidden truth through an ideal presentation.
Wagner, obviously, thought he was the guy for the task, “saving” religion through his “ideal presentation.” Wagner particularly felt that the acts of baptism and communion were the symbols in Christianity worth saving because they revealed these “deep and hidden truths.” Parsifal was the epitome of his vision. This is probably one reason I have never liked Parsifal much; I am not much for the “spirit of religion.”
Anyway, Wagner wanted to create a universal, compassionate and empathetic art/religion, and he hated the Jewish culture that he felt stood in his way. Why did he feel Jews stood in the way? Because the Jewish religion was, intentionally, non-universal; Jews rejected the mythic symbols such as baptism and communion that he felt were at the center of his new art; Jews were leaders in the commodification of art; and Jews were on the cutting edge of capitalism. Those four things were all anathema to him.
|Herman Levi, Wagner's good friend|
Weirdly, though, Wagner had many close Jewish friends. In fact, during the latter years of his life two things accelerated: his anti-Semitism hardened and became obsessive where it had been sporadic before; and he gained more close Jewish friends. For his last several years, two Jewish men—a pianist Joseph Rubinstein and the conductor Hermann Levi—lived with him for long periods. As the writer Melton Brener wrote in Richard Wagner and the Jews, “[a]t the time of his death, four of his very closest friends were Jews, and two were among his 12 pallbearers. Never did he refuse the help or friendship of any Jews, or anyone else, for reasons of race or religion.”1
Does this sound like something Hitler would have done? Or Mel Gibson, even? How to explain this?
I read a study many years ago that said those who didn’t know gay people tended to have anti-gay opinions, but as people got to know them, they changed their mind. This was true of everybody but the deeply religious. They might accept individuals, but it didn’t alter their view of gays.
I think it was a bit like this for Wagner. His opinions were deeply held, so he just carved out some exceptions. It could be that, in fact, knowing as many Jews as closely as he did had the opposite effect. Perhaps he found out that his friends’ “Jewishness” remained even under his sway and, therefore, he became more convinced that assimilation wouldn’t happen? He implies this in a letter to King Ludwig, who was not anti-Semitic: “I can explain my exalted friend’s favorable view of the Jews only in terms of the fact that these people never impinge upon his royal circle: for him they are simply a concept, whereas for us they are an empirical fact.”2
While it is true that Wagner only kept friends who were involved in his life-work, it is also true that he was often a warm and sweet guy. For instance, Paul von Joukowky, a Russian painter who became a frequent houseguest said: “No one who has not known Wagner in the intimacy of his home can have any idea of the goodness of his nature, his childlike lovableness”3 This sort of sentiment was oft-repeated. But all his friends also understood that he was tempestuous, and they concurred with Wagner’s contention that it was the source of his art, and therefore his mood swings were easily and readily forgiven.
Hermann Levi’s father, a rabbi, wasn’t thrilled that his son was good friends with an anti-Semite. Levi responded in a letter to him with this:
[Wagner] is the best and noblest of men. Of course our contemporaries misunderstand and slander him.... But posterity will one day recognize that he was just as great a man as an artist, which those close to him know already. Even his fight against what he calls “Jewishness” in music and modern literature springs from the noblest motives. That he harbors no petty anti-Semitism like some country squire or Protestant bigot, is shown by his behavior toward me, toward Joseph Rubinstein, and by his former relationship with Tausig [who had died], whom he loved dearly. The most beautiful thing I have experienced in my life is that I was permitted to be close to such a man, and I thank God for it every day.4
So, how can one be universal and hate a part of the universe? This was a tension that was never really resolved in Wagner’s life, but it was a constant preoccupation. What is clear is that in his private life, his attraction to individuals was greater than his dislike of the whole. In his public life, he never wanted his universalism to be shown to be a lie by excluding a part of the universe. Thus, he had to hold open the doors to all humanity, even if he felt Jews couldn’t or wouldn’t walk through the doors.
Therefore, in this public writings and in his public stances, he continued to support the position he expounded in “Judaism in Music,” which is assimilation, though sometimes with dark undercurrents. For the record, his conclusion in “Judaism in Music”:
But right here Börne also learned that redemption cannot be attained in the state of cosy comfort, but, just as it does for us, it would cost sweat, distress, fear and be full of pain and suffering. Ruthlessly take part in this work of redemption through self-denying rebirth, so that we are united and without difference! Consider, however, that only one thing can be the Redemption from the curse that burdens you: the Redemption of Ahasver, going under.
He uses the writer Börne as his model of a Jew who thoroughly cast off the past, and became part of the struggle for redemption for all humanity, “united and without difference.” Wagner wrote here, and many other places, that it wasn’t just Jews that he thought needed to change themselves, but also Germans. When he refers to “going under,” he means a complete transformation to become, along with changed Germans, humans united in love, community and culture, not in money, property or greed.
As for the darker undercurrent, he wrote in preface of the 1869 re-release of “Judaism in Music”:
Whether the downfall of our Culture can be arrested by a violent ejection of the destructive foreign element [Jews], I am unable to decide, since that would require forces with whose existence I am unacquainted.
He just casually puts that in, on his way to supporting assimilation of this foreign element “in such a way that, in common with us, it shall ripen toward a higher evolution of our nobler human qualities.”
Obviously, he had no problem dropping the idea of Jewish expulsion, even if he moved on to a more highfalutin conclusion. With this exception, though, he rarely publicly let be known his level of antipathy to Jews that he frequently expressed in the private sphere. The vast majority of the world—at the time, later in the Nazi era, and well past World War II— knew his anti-Semitic beliefs only through the one essay. Scholars also knew his letters, but anti-Semitism only sporadically showed up in them and there was little said in them, with a couple of exceptions, that was notable or quotable. Thus, until very recently, Wagner’s anti-Semitism was not something scholar's concentrated on because it was not seen as central to Wagnerians and, for that matter, anti-Wagnerians. Of course, anti-Semitism was much more prevalent in the late 18th century through World War II, so many people sympathized with his anti-Semitism or, at least, understood it was rather normal that people had those views in that time.
While changes that happened due to the Holocaust—particularly the decrease in anti-Semitism and increase in condemnation of it—were a factor in the increased emphasis on Wagner’s anti-Semitism, it was not the primary cause: that was the publication of Cosima’s diaries in 1977. She meticulously recorded their every-day life together for 14 years with the intention that her children have the document. It was not written with the idea of posthumous publication, and was only published by German court-order. Here is a description of the document from Brener:
The diaries cover about 5150 days from January 1, 1869 unit the day before his death, February 12, 1883. Whatever their original purpose, they are a remarkable compendium of Wagner’s everyday activities and utterances, a chronology of what parts or lines he was setting to music on what days, and his moods while doing so.... The diaries reveal also the depth of his rancor and malice towards the Jews. What had been limited, in essence, to one 23 page essay, parts of a number of others, and sporadic comments in correspondence and other writings, now is shown as a vital, if corrosive, part of his being that surfaced all too often.5
It was through data-mining these diaries that his anti-Semitism gained increased attention, focus and, even, obsession. There are problems with relying on the diaries for Wagner’s views. First, everyone agrees that Cosima was deeply and thoughtlessly anti-Semitic in a way and to a degree that Wagner wasn’t. In this lecture the conductor Leon Boltstein put it like this: “If Wagner was McCain, Cosima was Sarah Palin.” Given these differences, we don’t know to the degree that she is misinterpreting things he says through her more rigid, less visionary lens. Even if they were completely in accord on most things, my assumption is that no human being will always understand and interpret another human being correctly.
The next problem with her diaries is that we can’t know the full context: how something was said, if she quoted him correctly, and so forth. They were private conversations, and I assume that much of the negative stuff he said was venting. Notably, the things that seem the most inhumane were infrequent. For instance, this statement is often quoted as proof that he had changed his mind on assimilation and now wanted a more radical, and inhumane, solution to the Jewish question (from October 11, 1879): “R[ichard] is in favor of expelling them entirely.” The problem for those who quote that as definitive is that it wasn’t. When a year later he refused to sign the anti-Semitic petition to Bismarck (which garnered 200,000 signatures), he gave as one reason his frequent lament—as quoted by Cosima—“there was nothing more to be done in this matter.”6 After his public allusion in 1869 to the possibility of expulsion, he never raised it publicly again, though he raised it privately once more, but in a different context (see below).
Jacob Katz, in his study of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, concludes that, “[i]n reality, he lacked a clear idea of what should be done with the Jews.”7 I concur. I think he would have loved to twitch his nose and for Jews to disappear, except of course for the ones he liked. He was all over the map in the diaries—and his letters—about Jews, sometimes there was actual admiration, other times desperation. In “Judaism in Music,” he bemoaned that Jews do not have a state, and he supports the creation of one in Israel (though, at that point, there was no movement towards that). He clearly didn’t hate Jews as a people as much as he hated Jews in Germany.
Most of the diary comments recorded by Cosima are petty bitchings about the Jews. Cosima does write two things that need comment, though, as they are frequently quoted by anti-Wagnerians as proof that he was, essentially, just like Hitler.
In August, 1881, there were pogroms against the Jews in Russia. On August 11, 1881 Cosima wrote: “An article about anti-Jewish demonstrations makes him remark, ‘That is the only way it can be done—by throwing these fellows out and giving them a thrashing.’” This is one of the few times he ever indicated any inclination to violence against Jews, and it clearly was against his general beliefs. He was a pacifist and frequently spoke out against violence against people and animals. However, he was inconsistent on that, as he had no problem when Bismarck defeated his foes, the French. He disliked Prussians for their militarism, but—again Cosima quoting Wagner—“The Prussians are just there to beat the French from time to time, when they get too arrogant.”8 This sort of casually mentioned violence is certainly repellent, but I think one really has to realize it was a thoughtless comment not intended for anyone’s ears but Cosima. It was venting and it was rare—except for the Franco-Prussian War—as there isn’t anything else similar in the diaries with one exception below. He certainly never did any violence against Jews. He recoiled from seeing any suffering of animals or humans. So to me this is the normal lack of empathy one has for the “other.” It’s mindless. Yes, it shows that he had a pretty dark side, but pretty much anybody who has ever felt a group was “the enemy” is in the same boat.
The second example was made after a theater fire in Vienna during a performance of the Lessing play, Nathan the Wise, in which hundreds—mostly Jewish theatergoers the Wagners assumed—lost their lives. On December 10, 1881, Cosima records Wagner as having little empathy for these victims. She records his feelings as this: “[I]f poor workers are buried in a coal mine, that both moves and angers him, but a case like this scarcely affects him at all.” This is in line with his dislike of the both Jews and most theatergoers, who were typically rich. They returned to the subject of the play on December 19th and Cosima writes: “He makes a drastic joke to the effect that all Jews should be burned at a performance of Nathan.” Pretty much everybody agrees that this is the worst thing Wagner was ever recorded as saying in his life, and it certainly does show he has a very dark sense of humor, at best, if Cosima recorded it accurately.
It is, however, important to have some context. Nathan the Wise is set during the time of the Crusades where Jews, Christians and Muslims all claim to be the true religion. It is a plea for religious tolerance. Wagner knew the text very well. A minor, but significant, character is the Patriarch of Jerusalem. He is asked to pass judgment on what happens when a baby girl, born and baptized a Christian, is entrusted to Jews who bring her up in the Jewish faith. Three different times the verdict is affirmed: “The Jew must burn.” I am pretty sure that Wagner’s “drastic joke” was a reference to that character’s line and just that: gallows humor. Wagner’s love of black humor was well-known, so I refuse to take it literally that he wanted all Jews to burn, as many critics do.
That said, in his most harsh moments, he was exceedingly insensitive. But, in my most harsh moments—thankfully, Leslie isn’t recording them—I have said things about as horrible. (I am not telling you what they are!) But, I don’t think it is unusual in the privacy of one’s own home to make such remarks about those whom you see as your adversary. I give him a pass—I give everybody a pass—for what he said in the privacy of his own home. Others clearly don’t agree with me. Fine, then please have someone record everything you say for 14 years. I bet few could pass through that exercise with their reputation intact.
I do not, however, give him a pass for things he said or wrote publicly. His allusion to expulsion, for one. The fact was that Wagner, a leading German intellectual, influenced countless other German (and other) intellectuals into thinking that anti-Semitism was acceptable within a generally humanitarian vision. This leaves a stain on him that cannot be erased by time, any more than it can be for any other such anti-Semite, of whom there were far, far too many.
If Wagner were alive today and told he was known, principally, as a man who hated, he would not recognize himself and would feel wounded and misunderstood. He was trying to make a better world, a world of beauty, love and culture. But he was a zealot, and couldn’t see that his vision had an inhumane essence. This is very much like evangelic Christians who feel wounded to be called a hater for being anti-gay. They feel they have the true path, but they, too, are wrapped in their self-righteousness and cannot see their own inhumanity. In both cases, it doesn’t mean that a large part of their hearts aren’t pure and good. It just means their zealot blinders will keep them on a partially inhumane path.9
3 Brener, 240
4 Ibid, 274
5 Ibid, 146
7 Katz, The Darker Side of Genius, 113; I am not going into it because it would take too long, but there is a a debate about Wagner's later writings. Many, but certainly not all, interpret them as more darkly anti-Semitic and racist than his earlier essay. I do not, but it would take up way too much energy to take on the case. If anyone is interested, I am happy to direct you to both sides of this debate.
8 Gregor-Dellin, 435
9 Yes, I am aware that I might have some zealous blinders on, too!