Friday, July 12, 2013

Wagner's anti-Semitism - Part 8: the Music Dramas

What of the music dramas? Who cares, ultimately, what Wagner thought about Jews—or anything else for that matter—because the works exists and can be separated from his anti-Semitic views, or so many believe. All his works, beyond Die Meistersinger, are placed in a mythical context. There are no Jews. There is no Shylock. There is no Fagin. Without actual Jews, it is hard to inject anti-Semitism, though many make the argument that his works are filled with it nonetheless. I think it is very clear, though, that there is no way you could possibly find anything anti-Semitic in his music or text if you did not have prior knowledge of Wagner’s views.1 His works are universal, by design and intent, and therefore one has to hunt for interpretations beyond the obvious.

This fact makes it incredibly easy for most Wagner lovers. They revert to this formula: “I hate the man and his views; I love the music.” They shrug at the disconnect, and have little problem doing so.  Others, like me, seek to understand how a man like him, with some character traits that were despicable and some views that were intolerant, created his works. Is it an anomaly, a mystery, or is it, as I believe, explainable (even if it takes a year to create my explanation)?

The reason that the disconnect between the man and his art is seen to be so large is that Wagner’s operas have a depth of characterization that is remarkable and, as Brian Magee posits, have “the deepest psychological penetration, inexhaustible in its insight into the human condition.”2 In the Ring, for example, there is not a simple good guys/bad guys equation, as everyone in the entire cycle is deeply flawed, but each also has a understandable reason for their actions. They are all recognizable and knowable, and therefore, available for our sympathy and empathy as well as our antipathy, both the “dark” characters and the “light” characters. The complexity of the characterization, along with the breath-taking intensity and beauty of the music, is why people come back again and again, as each viewing/listening of his works brings different resonances depending on the production and the emotional response to the work that varies with our own life experience and emotional moment in time.

In the last several decades, there have been a number of papers and books written by great experts for the edification of other great experts3 that claim that Wagner saturates his work with anti-Semitism, that—to quote Barry Millington specifically on Meistersinger, but others use this formulation for all his work—“anti-Semitism is woven intro the ideological framework” of the works.4 These experts live in an echo chamber and, according the members of this club, there is now a consensus on this “fact.” Marc Weiner, a member of the club, claims those who don’t believe this “consensus”, such as Michael Tanner and Bryan Magee, are the “bad guys.” Another club member, David Levin, says that “there is a consensus of all but the most delusional,” but then adds, “this is not to say that there aren’t a surprising number of delusional folks out there.”5

Marc Weiner
From what I can tell by talking to living, breathing lovers of Wagner’s music: most don’t buy what that club is selling. Or buy it just in a very narrow way—I belong in that part—but reject the breadth of their argument. We are, apparently, delusional.

Marc Weiner trashes those who disagree with his views calling us “apologists,” asserting that we “make short shrift of [anti-Semitism],” and implying that we might in fact be anti-Semitic ourselves, smugly asking if we “continue to respond to the nineteenth-century ideology associated with [Wagner's works] ...?” This does not warm my heart to this man, I will say.6 He then has the chutzpah to write elsewhere, “there must be a way to make the discussion less contentious and less polarized.”7


"Bay Guy" Bryan Magee




"Bad guy" Michael Tanner
To summarize their claims, most start with what Michael Tanner derisively calls “Jew-spotting.” The strongest cases can be made that Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger and Mime in Siegfried have traits that are to some degree anti-Semitic representations. Barry Millington, who made that case for Beckmesser, strongly denies that he is saying that the character “was intended to be understood as a caricature of a Jew” but, instead, he argues that “the representation of Beckmesser incorporates unmistakable anti-Semitic characteristics,” which presumably leads to the anti-semitism “woven” into the work.8 Yep, that distinction clears everything up, Barry. 


This is Barry Millington with Leslie's mom's finger-puppets of Wotan and Brunnhilde
For those who don’t know Beckmesser, he is the Town Clerk and a pedantic, rule-following sort of fellow without much artistic imagination. He is played by a bass, but Wagner writes high notes for him when he is agitated. A older bachelor, he has low self-confidence, and his pedantic nature is clearly an outgrowth of that. We all know this character. In fact, a well-known representation of this type is Barney Fife from the Andy Griffin show. This character type is frequently played by a guy who could be seen as gay, such as the kind of characters played by Tony Randall. I can think of lots of people in my life who meet this stereotype from a wide variety of backgrounds. It’s a universal type, but yes, some Jews meet the stereotype, too.

Marc Weiner, in his book Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination, finds anti-Semitic representations all over the place: beyond Beckmesser, he adds Mime, Alberich, the Niebelungens, Hagen, the Dutchman, Kundry, and Klingsor as all having Jewish representations via the iconography of bodily images. In a symposium about Wagner’s anti-Semitism, this exchange occurred between Leon Botstein, who partially challenged this view, and Marc Weiner:

Botstein: I disagree a little bit about what Marc Weiner thinks. I don’t read Mime as anti-Semitic because I think there are many sources for the character type that you see on the stage. Same as Beckmesser. There are many pedants that are not Jews. I know a lot of them [laughter here; Botstein is President of Bard College and his wife is also an academician].  I don’t think people are irrational to see Jewish stereotypes. There’s no reason [however] to look at everything in a pre-determined way.

Weiner: I don’t think any of us is making the argument that this figure is primarily a figure who carries the sign of a Jew. Of course these characters had various, diverse long traditions that stand behind them so they are not just one or the other.9


The entertaining Leon Botstein
These guys make very slippery arguments. To paraphrase what they seem to be saying: If you don’t think there are Jewish representations, there is something wrong with you, your scholarship, your perceptive abilities. Oh, but, we don’t mean that they are primarily Jewish representations! Banish the thought.

Weiner claims that most people in Wagner's time understood that he intended these characters as anti-Semitic representations but, as Wagner scholar Tom Grey points out, this is based on an “almost complete absence of concrete examples of contemporary audiences reading anti-Semitic messages in Wagner’s works.”10 And a complete lack of any evidence that Wagner intended such a thing, which is notable because Wagner did write extensively on what he did intend the characters to be and to represent. In fact, Weiner, along with others in his club, have created a conspiracy theory, and it is only slightly more credible than “Paul is Dead” or the Dark Side of the Moon being intentionally linked to the Wizard of Oz.  I admit those analogies are hyperbolic, but his work is definitely a case of pattern recognition run amok, just as I wrote about in this post. 

My claim is not that one couldn’t see Jewish representation in one or more of Wagner’s characters. I fully concur with a reviewer who wrote, “Any fool can find anti-Semitism in a Wagner opera, particularly if one looks for it. But that is the beauty of Wagner. There is such a degree of complexity in this work, so many levels of interpretation, that one can find a myriad of meanings. I believe that Weiner is onto something. But it is not profound, it is overdone, and it misses much more profound and meaningful levels of interpretation.”11

I was an electrician, so allow me this analogy: Current follows all paths, but the majority goes along the path of least resistance. In the case of interpretation, the path of least resistance is the obvious path: that Beckmesser, for example, is simply “a plausible representation of a fussy, sterile, un-musical pendant, German or otherwise,” as Tom Grey puts it.12 In other words, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. However, with Wagner there are multiple other paths that can be followed in analysis, and a credible case can be made for all sorts of representations. So, I will grant that, at least in the case of Beckmesser and Mime, the path contains some current. Another path that would allow current is to see various characters through a lens of homosexual characterizations. I would argue that Beckmesser, Mime, and Klingsor would easily fit into that tradition. (And, beyond that, most characters in Tristan and Isolde would as well.)

It really depends on the perceptions, the eyes and the ears of the viewer. The “we must be obsessed with anti-Semitism” club seems to feel that this particular interpretation should have to be acknowledged by all, even those people who do not see it, feel or, or find it valid. Does a Japanese listener, for instance, have to know anything about Wagner’s views to find meaning in the work? Of course not. In most cases I don’t find the “Jew-spotting” valid in any event. I don’t buy it at all for Alberich, the Niebelungens, Kundry, Klingsor, Hagen or the Dutchman. Moreover, I personally have no interest in listening through the lens of anti-Semitism, as it isn’t illuminating to me even when I can “see” it, as the Patrice Chéreau Ring encouraged the viewer to do through the representation of Mime (watch below).



I prefer to view the characters as representing a more ambiguous and universal “other,” and consider the implications for those who fill that category for me. As I argued here, we all have people who fill this slot; it’s a universal problem. (See aside below.) I reject Wagner’s views on the answer to this problem, but I personally find his works a good way to reflect on these problems nonetheless.

Paul Lawrence Rose goes much farther in his book, Wagner, Race and Revolution. He says that anti-Semitism is “the hidden agenda of virtually all his operas” and rails agains the alleged “cruelty and hatred which permeate Wagner’s work.”13  He wants it banned in Israel, and is working to actively suppress the audience elsewhere. Whether Jew are represented or not, it’s all anti-Semitic trash to him. Yes, even Tristan and Isolde is permeated with anti-Semitism even with no characterizations of Jews. His summary of why: “Redemption there is the annihilation of self and the egotistic will: and of course, the supreme embodiments of egoism are the Jews.”14 This is like saying if I wrote a work celebrating gay marriage without any mention of those in opposition, it is anti-Christian. I mean, it's true in a sense, but very beside the point. Rose marshals evidence in all the ways that a supposed historian should not, such as drawing conclusions not supported in the evidence, selectively highlighting only the bad, and ignoring contrary evidence. It’s a polemic—and a very unfair one—not a historical document.

An aside

In the London Review of Books, there was a fascinating back-and-forth dialogue between a reviewer of his book, the Palestine-born Edward Said, and Rose. See here. The subject turned from Wagner to the Israeli/Palestine conflict. After Said brought up the topic of the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel in 1948 (and other times in lesser numbers) by way of analogy, Rose retorted, “I would have thought it blatantly obvious that there can be no comparison between the ‘transfer’ of a German-Jewish population which was devotedly loyal to the German state and Zionist consideration – often under conditions of war – of the transfer of an Arab population which was in large part the sworn enemy of the Jewish state.” Without spending the time to deconstruct his not so “blatantly obvious” position, Edward Said voices my thought: “It just goes to show the process of “othering” where Jews get to kick folks out because they decide that they are enemies, but Germans who think Jews are the enemy of the state are just hateful.” He goes on to add, “The fact is that the persecution of both groups occurred because they were perceived as threats; one economic and cultural, the other (having no opportunity to influence economic or cultural events) physical. In both cases people were persuaded that the survival of the state was at stake. In neither case was the solution sensible, humane or appropriate.”

Rose and Said are fundamentally in opposition to each other and, and you can see the process of “othering,” even in that conversation. It’s a massive topic: what to do with a hated “other,” both as a group and individually. In every country I know, people are dealing with versions of this. In the US, for example, the hated “others” are immigrants or anti-immigrants; gays and secular humanists or religious fundamentalists. It is easy to assume your side is on the right, and the other side is the problem. What is much more difficult to do is to try to truly understand the other side. In pretty much every case, each side feels something is at jeopardy: their way of life, their most fervent desires and dreams. This was certainly the case for Wagner, striking out at those who he believed were in the way of his dreams. Essentially, critics like Rose and Weiner replicate Wagner. They treat those who don’t agree with them like enemies; blinded by their own viewpoints, they can’t see that they are the same process of “othering” that Wagner did to those with whom he disagreed. Rose, particularly, is supporting all the bad things that Wagner did: trying to suppress those you don’t agree with him, encouraging hate and intolerance.

Back to the conclusion

Weiner and, particularly, Rose are arguing for a circumscribed view of Wagner’s works, to deny them universality by forcing a particular interpretation. They want us, therefore, to see only or primarily the small-mindedness in Wagner. But why would I—anyone—want to do that when the works, along different paths, have much more beautiful and compassionate interpretations?

I am not saying that there aren’t some troubling things in Wagner’s works. I think there are, in fact, but just not in the area of anti-Semitism per se. But, alas, that’s another post, outside the realm of this series.

Next week I will finally end this anti-Semitism series and move on to something more fun.




End Notes

1 I do believe, however, you can find much that is “anti-other,” but that is a different topic.
2 Magee, Tristan Chord, page 74
3 I'm using the wording here from Anna Russell’s great Ring parody
4 Millington, Barry, “Is there anti-semitism in Die Meistersinger?” - Cambridge Opera, Nov. 1991
5 Symposium at the Hammer Museum – quotes come from the talks from Marc Weiner and David Levin.  It's worth watching, particularly Leon Botstein who is very funny and original and always interesting.
6 Hammer, and last quote from Weiner, Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination, page 30
7 Bribitzer-Stull, Lubet, and Wagner eds., Richard Wagner for the New Millennium, Weiner, “Lingering Discourses,” page 150. In this article Weiner renews and strengthens his allegations that those on the other side are anti-Semitic themselves, though in true Wagnerian fashion he obscures it very slightly. He says, “Their discourse suggests that they are true followers of Wagner. And in this sense, they are indeed symptomatic of others in Germany today.” The irony of this sleazy attack on those who do not agree with him is that the article is about sleazy attacks on a person on his “side.” 
8 New York Review of Books, Letters to the Editor, June 10, 1993, see here.   
9 Hammer from the Q&A
10 Grey, Thomas, Cambridge Opera Journal, 8.2 (1996) 195
11 see L. Bryon, but reading through all the reviews is informative.
12 Op. cit. Grey, page 191
13 Rose, Paul Lawrence, Wagner, Race and Revolution, page 170
14 Ibid, 171

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