Friday, July 26, 2013

Wagner’s Influence On: James Joyce, Part 1

(Guest Blog by Leslie Karst)

This is the first in a series of posts regarding the vast influence Richard Wagner has had on the arts—as well as other aspects of modern culture. Robin asked me to contribute the two about James Joyce, since I’m a great fan of the Irish writer, and am part of a Finnegans Wake reading group that meets twice-monthly at a local Irish pub to sip Guinness and ponder Joyce’s encyclopedic romp through the history of everything.

Reading the Wake, it becomes clear from the very first page (“Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea”) that Joyce draws heavily from Wagner in the work. But what I didn’t realize—until Robin started telling me about it, and then I subsequently did the research for this post—what just how much of an influence Wagner had on so much of Joyce’s writing.

Interior Monologue

It seems to me that the primary debt Joyce—as well as any modern author—owes to Wagner is for the concept of interior monologue, and its immediate descendant, stream-of-consciousness.

In his long essay Opera and Drama, Wagner wrote that the operatic orchestra, “as pure organ of the Feeling...speaks out the very thing which Word-speech in itself can not speak out...that which, looked at from the standpoint of our human intellect, is the Unspeakable.”1

This duality of voice/orchestra was discussed in Robin’s earlier post, “Musical Effects, part 2: Mind-meld,” where she notes that characteristic of Wagner’s music are long stretches of monologues in which the character sings about the dramatic situation at hand, while the orchestra is playing the depth of emotions that the person is feeling. In other words, he uses the singers to voice the conscious thoughts of the character, and the orchestra to voice the unconscious. Moreover, the orchestra can—and usually does—show multiple feelings simultaneously. For instance, a theme associated with friendship, forgiveness, love will be played by the violins, while the bass and horns are playing a theme showing anger.

Here’s an example Robin provided in a letter to a friend:

In Tristan and Isolde, King Marke enters into the opera when he discovers the lovers in flagrante delicto. Isolde was his betrothed; Tristan was like a son to him. This is all we know about Marke when he first comes on stage. He then has a ten-minute soliloquy in which he expresses his shock and confusion about this turn of events. Underneath the singing, the orchestra shows us his feelings as they happen [my emphasis]: sad, reflective, incredulous, shocked, anguished, confused, loving, hurt, angry, unforgiving, conflicted, desolate, heartbroken, compassionate, concerned, kind, and forgiving. We have just met this man, but after this soliloquy we feel we really know him—can really take the measure of him. For me, I learn more about Marke in these ten minutes than I have ever learned about any Puccini character in a full opera.

It’s not surprising that this idea of “infinite” or “continuous melody” (the term coined by Wagner) appealed to writers of fiction, and in 1888, Édouard Dujardin, poet, novelist, and disciple of Symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé, wrote Les Lauriers sont coupés (the laurels were cut down), a novel consisting of one uninterrupted soliloquy. (Go here for a translation of its first paragraph.)


Dujardin, by Félix Vallotton
(web photo: source)

Dujardin, described as “a dandy given to wearing Lohengrin’s swan as an insignia on his vests,” gave full credit to Wagner for the inspiration for his book:

I am going to reveal a secret: Les Lauriers sont coupés was undertaken with the crazy ambition to transpose into the literary domain Wagnerian methods that I defined to myself as follows: the life of the soul represented by the ceaseless urging of musical motifs that express, one after another, indefinitely and successively, “states” of thought, sentiment or sensation; which [ambition] realized itself, in the indefinite succession of short phrases, each rendering one of these states of thought, without logical order, in the manner of surges rising from the depths of self—one would say nowadays from the unconscious or subconscious.”2

Valery Larbaud, borrowing from Paul Bourget’s Cosmopolis (1893), gave the name “monologue intérieur to the method employed by Dujardin in Les Lauriers. (This method soon morphed into what is now known as stream-of-consciousness. For a simple explanation of the difference between the two, see here.)

James Joyce (see, I finally did get back to him) bought a copy of Les Lauriers sont coupés at a Paris railway kiosk in 1903, and was much taken by the style of interior monologue, in which (Joyce explained) “the reader finds himself established, from the first lines, in the thought of the principal personage, and the uninterrupted unrolling of that thought, replacing the usual form of narrative, conveys to us what this personage is doing or what is happening to him.”3

After the publication of Ulysses, Joyce was always careful to credit Dujardin’s book as inspiration for the style in which it was written.4

And of course, as we have seen, Dujardin got the idea from Wagner.


Wagner as Inspiration for Joyce the Artist

Though careful to recognize Dujardin as the source of his use of interior monologue/stream-of-consciousness, Joyce was more loathe to give credit to Wagner as an inspiration for his works. As noted by Timothy Martin in his in-depth study, Joyce and Wagner, “[t]he Joyce of letters and conversation emerges as an artist whose imagination was conditioned by medieval churchfathers like Thomas Aquinas, classical figures like Homer and Aristotle, obscure philosophers like Vico and Bruno, and insufficiently appreciated modernists like Dujardin.”5

But when it came to the most popular artist of his day (Wagnermania, from around 1890 until the start of the First World War, was on the scale of the crazes associated with the young Sinatra and the Beatles), Joyce feigned distaste: He had no stomach for the adulation of Wagner, calling Die Meistersinger  “pretentious stuff6,” telling a friend that “Wagner puzza di sesso7 (he “stinks of sex”—now there’s an example of the pot calling the kettle black), and asserting that the musical effects of his own “Sirens” episode in Ulysses were better than Die Walküre.8

Nevertheless, Martin explains:
[i]t is certain...that Joyce empathized with a man whose career paralleled his so closely. Like Wagner, Joyce set out for Paris in his youth on the slimmest of prospects, in part, at least, to establish himself as an artist; like Wagner, he met indifference and grinding poverty. Both artists would spend much of their lives in exile from their homelands, supported by loyal women whose endurance would be put to the most severe of tests. During his residence in Zurich Joyce must have been aware of the mark Wagner had left on that city during his own exile two generations before.... Joyce must have read passages [from Wagner’s letters] like the following with a good deal of empathy: “With my whole nature, both as man and artist, in absolute opposition to my work and my position, the only hope of deliverance was in a complete severance of my bonds.” The sentiments, if not the diction, of a man beginning thirteen years’ exile from his native Saxony would be worthy of chapter 5 of A Portrait.9
In his later works Joyce fully embraced Wagner’s concept of “Gesamtkunstwerk” (total work of art).  Just one look at the “schema” Joyce provided to his friend Stuart Gilbert to help him understand Ulysses—with its assignation of color, organ, symbol, art, and technic for each scene in the novel—shows the author’s intent for “totality” in the book.


the Gilbert schema

As for Finnegans Wake, well, I can tell you first hand that with its myriad languages, portmanteau words, and references to bodies of water, religions, cultures, history, pop culture, and everything else under the sun, it has got to be the most encyclopedic work ever written. (For an accessible astute description of the Wake, go here.)


Visual representation of Finnegans Wake by László Moholy-Nagy

As opined by Timothy Martin, “[t]ogether Ulysses, a book of the waking hours, and Finnegans Wake, the book of the night, comprise all experience.”10  Hard to get more Gesamtkunstwerk than that.


Joyce’s Use of Wagner’s Musical Style

It’s well-known that James Joyce was a talented musician, who played piano and guitar and possessed a fine tenor voice. At one time, he even considered a career as professional singer.11  For purposes of this blog, it’s interesting to note that in 1909 Joyce performed in a Trieste concert of the famous quintet from Die Meistersinger.


Joyce in Trieste, 1915 (photo by Ottacaro Weiss)
[web photo: source]

So it’s not surprising how many musical references and allusions appear in his works. But Joyce was also attempting to make his writing itself musical. The tonal and rhythmic quality of his text, for instance—the sound of the spoken words—is easily as important as their sense, especially so in Finnegans Wake. And the multiple meanings of his language—e.g., “O, foetal sleep” [the Wake, at 563.10], which is both “O fatal slip” and a reference to pre-natal innocence—endows his works with a “polyphonic” or “chordal” feeling, such that “the ‘hearer’ of Joyce’s prose must ‘listen vertically as well as horizontally.’”12

The “Sirens” episode of Ulysses integrates musical form itself. For example, the first 63 lines—which seem completely random at first reading—are actually phrases which appear later in the chapter, and thus act as a sort of “overture,” letting the reader get to know the coming “tunes” in advance.

But that’s not all: As reported by Joyce:
I finished the Sirens chapter during the last few days. A big job. I wrote this chapter with the technical resources of music. It is a fugue with all musical notations: piano, forte, rallentando, and so on. A quintet occurs in it, to, as in Die Meistersinger, my favorite Wagnerian opera.13
In addition to the quintet idea, Joyce also borrowed heavily from Wagner in his use of leitmotifs in his books. As noted by Timothy Martin, Ulysses contains
[r]ecurring literary and musical allusions (to Hamlet, Don Giovanni, the Odyssey); reappearing characters (Paddy Dignam, the blind piano tuner, the man in the macintosh); phrases that become attached to particular characters (“bronze by gold” the the barmaids, “jingle” to Boylan); and major themes (parallax, the search for the father, metempsychosis): all have been likened to leitmotifs.14
In Finnegans Wake, Joyce expands on the use of the leitmotif, employing many hundreds of them, which he then repeats with multiple variations. This modification of the motifs in the Wake, Timothy Martin observes,
represents an even closer analogy to Wagnerian technique than does his practice in Ulysses, since Wagner’s motifs are themselves generally altered in key or orchestrated differently when they reappear. In the Wake the leitmotif provides structure on the stylistic level that perfectly complements the mythic theme. “Structure” and “motif” come together in the literary leitmotifs of Finnegans Wake.... In the Wake the leitmotif has almost become an end in itself. We might say that whereas Ulysses borrows from music, Finnegans Wake aspires to be music.15
Next week I will address Wagnerian themes and references in Joyce’s works.




1 Wagner, Prose Works (8 vols.), trans. Wm. Ashton Ellis (Broude Bros., NY, 1966), at 2:317.
2 Timothy Martin, Joyce and Wagner, a study of influence, (Cambridge, 1991), at 150.
3 Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Oxford, rev. ed., 1982), at 519-520.]
4 Ellmann, at 126.
5 Martin, at 165.
6 Martin, at 166.
7 Ellmann, at 382.
8 Ellmann, at 460.
9 Martin, at 29.
10 Martin, at 169.
11 Ellmann, at 199.
12 Martin at 162-163.
13 Ellmann, at 459.
14 Martin, at 154.
15 Martin, at 159, 162.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Wagner's Anti-Semitism: The Wrap-up

Before I leave the subject matter of Wagner's anti-Semitism with a sort-of conclusion, I want to give two Jewish fans of Wagner the floor. First up is a brilliant bit from Larry David. It is a 3-minute clip from the episode “Trick or Treat,” combining an initial confrontation with a fellow Jew over Wagner’s music with the denouement, his revenge against the man.1 



The second is Stephen Fry’s one-hour documentary “Wagner and Me,” in which his life-long passion for Wagner’s music is juxtaposed with the fact that he is Jewish. Is there a contradiction there? That’s the topic. Fry is a sweetheart and his joy stemming from his love of Wagner’s music is palpable.

(I could only find this full-length version that has Spanish subtitles, but I actually enjoyed seeing the Spanish translations.)




Okay, now for my summation. I am so delighted that from today forward I will no longer have to expend much energy on the topic of Wagner’s anti-Semitism. From now on, if someone asks, “But wasn’t he a Nazi?” I will say, “No, of course not. He was long dead when the Nazis came to power and he didn’t share their political ideology in any case. But his family was certainly intertwined with Hitler, and that has really screwed up his reputation. Go to this link where I give the full background.” 

Or if someone rails on about what a horrible person he was because of his anti-Semitism, I will say, “But historical perspective is absolutely necessary. First, you need to put his views in the context of the hundreds of years of vicious anti-Semitism for which Christians are responsible. Second, you need to put it in the perspective of 19th century Western Civilization. Come on, we still had slavery in America at the time, and we were actively expelling Indians from their land. Let’s not even talk about how gays were treated! Wagner was a saint compared to the folks who were doing those things. Go to this link for more thoughts on this matter.” 

If someone says, “but I read he wanted to burn Jews,” I will sigh and say, “He made a nasty joke to his wife in private and she wrote it down; I know if Leslie wrote down every black humor joke I made, my reputation would be no better than Wagner’s. This post gives you the full story.”

And, if someone asks why he was anti-Semitic, I will say, “For a large variety of reasons, much of it from sheer paranoia—read this—but much of it having a rationality from his perspective, as I describe in these posts. His perspective was bizarre—he was a visionary fanatic—but given his beliefs, his anti-Semitism was inevitable. Personally, it is not the fact of his anti-Semitism per se that bothers me given his world-view and the historical context; it is the fact that he could be a mean and vengeful guy.” 

Finally, if someone says, “I heard the music itself is anti-Semitic,” I will respond: “Not to my ears, or the vast majority of people who love Wagner. The fact is, there are no Jews portrayed in his works, so any anti-Semitism would have to be in some way coded. It certainly isn’t obvious, if it is there. But if you are interested, you can read about it here, as it is the raging debate in Wagnerian academic circles.”

I guess the last point really needs a little more emphasis, because it is at the heart of the reason that I am able to ignore Wagner's anti-Semitism: it's not in the music. According to some, people who don’t perceive the anti-Semitism in the works have buried their heads in the sand. What can I say? I find his music dramas to be enormously compassionate, and they bring forth in me the deepest empathy for humankind.  Everyone agrees that if there is anti-Semitism in the works, it isn't on the surface. So why search for it??  What good will that possibly do?  I would rather just take the stories at face value, and see the beauty and splendor in the works. Thus, if my head is stuck in the sand, that is exactly where it should be.


End Notes

1. From Season 2, Episode 3.  If you have never seen the episode, it is worth the $2 to rent it here.

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

Friday, July 5, 2013

Wagner's anti-Semitism - Part 7: Public and Private

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

Heinrich Porges, one of Wagner's Jewish pallbearers
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

Carl Tausig
One doesn’t have to buy Levi’s sentiments that his anti-Semitism was noble to get that Levi felt that Wagner was an essentially decent guy with good motives. From reading Wagner’s letters and prose and listening to his music, I basically agree with that convictionthough I acknowledge, and thoroughly dislike, his dark side where his spiteful malice and intolerance comes to the fore, particularly in his later years.

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. Ithis 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 hundredsmostly Jewish theatergoers the Wagners assumedlost 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



End Notes

2 Millington and Spencer, ed., Selected Letters of Richard Wagner489
3 Brener, 240
4 Ibid, 274
5 Ibid, 146
6 Gregor-Dellin and Mack, CosimaWagner Diaries-2, June 16, 1880, page 489 
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!