Friday, December 27, 2013

The Final Post: Understanding and Forgiveness for All

I began this blog a year ago with the aim of resolving the cognitive dissonance between my love of Wagner’s music with his reputation as a monster. I started the process of thinking this through years ago as I recounted in my introduction here.  I sought as much understanding as possible. I don’t mean just of Wagner and his times, but also of myself and human nature itself.  My conclusion: He reflected both the worst and the best in people – though, granted, in a much more spectacular manner than the average person. He was not a monster, which implies only negative came from him. But he was a colossus, a human being writ large, but with flaws no different in kind than those of most every human being.

This post is the culmination of my year – the 200th anniversary of his birth – of thinking pretty much every single day about Wagner. This whole blog, and this post in particular, is in many ways a values clarification exercise, and expresses my feelings not just about Wagner, but also about being human, particularly the pitfalls of our nature.

The Difficulties of Understanding Wagner

[There is] an inconsistency in my nature which, to my great regret, has existed for as long as I can remember.” – Wagner 

How do we solve a problem like Wagner? (Yes, do sing that to yourself.)

I feel I understand him better than any figure outside of my life and time, but I can’t claim my understanding is correct, as he is truly an enigma. Wagner created a dense and widely—and wildly—diverse body of work, within both his prose and music dramas, as well as his letters and diaries. Add to this the diaries of Cosima Wagner and the testimony of those who knew him well, and the amount of information about the man is formidable. Because of this reality, people can – and have – created a medley of competing and contradictory narratives.  Conversely, it is virtually impossible to create a narrative which definitively describes Wagner; he was much too contradictory and multiplicitous for that. He changed both over time and, frequently, within an evening. 

I will give just one example of the problem of trying to characterize his beliefs.

Was he a Christian, an anti-Christian, a pagan, a Buddhist, an atheist? I have read articles and books that have argued all those positions. Every single one of them has documentary evidence, and a “fair” argument has been made for each case, but only if you exclude contrary evidence. My summation of his beliefs: I think it is fairly clear that he hated the modern Christian church, though loved some of its rituals, but nonetheless believed himself a true Christian, which was a melding, in his mind, of Christian ritual tradition and Buddhist beliefs (but with no belief in a literal God). This is not a common religious viewpoint, and resists any normal categorization.

And so it was with virtually all his beliefs. Even with something as historically commonplace as his anti-Semitism, his version of this ancient prejudice was completely unique, in ways that both exculpate and condemn him.  

The contradictions in his beliefs are very hard to resolve. I have yet to read a good synthesis of them anywhere, and I am not even sure it can be done. In this blog, I have tried to focus on the overarching themes that were consistent throughout his life.

The easier synthesis is, perhaps, the contradictions within Wagner’s personality. This can be partially solved by the realization that human attributes are often two-sided. Here is a list of his positive traits: courage, optimism, passion, motivation, initiative, persistence, vision, resilience, energy, self-knowledge and talent. The flip side of those traits was his arrogance, self-absorption, fanaticism, and stubbornness. They traits do not exist independently of each other, but are melded together.

I do want to point out one particularly unfair characterization of him, which is that he was only interested in his personal fame, wealth and glory. This is clearly untrue. If he primarily wanted fame, wealth and glory, he would have used his prodigious musical talents to compromise his vision and toss off audience-pleasing operas. Yet he did not replicate his big hit, Rienzi, but turned away from it. Until very late in his life, his operas were mostly unproduced and his music unknown except for short orchestral excerpts. His motivation, passion and goals were for art and humanity, not himself. He, of course, did want acknowledgement of his talent and a good living so he could write. But there can be no doubt that personal fame was not his central concern.

His driving passion in life was, instead, to regenerate the German volk and ennoble human beings through his music dramas. He intended to create a path away from our base instincts and illusions, to become “fully human.” I believe his intentions were deeply good; he truly felt he was doing a service for mankind.

The Pitfalls of Progress: Let Us Become Wise

Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.” G.B. Shaw

Hippocrates dictum for physicians was: “First, do no harm.” I have a lot of sympathy for that dictum in a larger societal context. I was an activist when I was younger, and later realized that I did do harm, though unintentionally. My passion to right the wrongs of society led to a kind of blindness and consequential “blowback.”  However, there is a dilemma with the no-harm dictum, in that there is no way to advance society (or medicine) without trying to solve the problems of the present, and unintended harm is always a possibility. One can rationalize passivity by that dictum, but one of the lessons of the Nazi era is that passivity itself can be a form of evil.

Better to be passive?

My point: Wagner tried to make the world a better place, but in so doing, he caused harm. Would it have been truly better if he hadn’t tried? Are those who do little or nothing to try to better life for other humans really in a position to judge?

So how, you may be asking, could it be right that his intentions were good when he had so many prejudices? I think there are a couple of explanations.

The first one has to do with a dark side of empathy. I am referring to having such a great empathy for those suffering that the result is to have a corresponding lack of empathy for those perceived to be the cause.  Just think of the 9/11 terrorists; they had great empathy for their people’s suffering, but none for their “enemies.” This is the sort of process that happened with Wagner. I wrote about that in in my series about his anti-Semitism here, but suffice it to say that the process that led to his vilification of the Jews started with his empathy for the masses and identification with them.

The second reason is simply that Wagner thought his beliefs were absolutely true, backward as they may seem. I will use one example parallel to Wagner’s beliefs about the Jews to make my point. Many Christians believe that homosexuality is wrong, and they would like the people who are gay to stop being so. Therefore, many Christians support conversion therapy, counseling, and family and church pressure to gays in their midst. I believe many – probably most – of those people are trying to be moral, loving and kind people. They do not see that they are doing anything wrong in their anti-gay belief. They are trying to create the society that they consider morally correct and Godly, both for their children and for the future. 

This was the case with Wagner; he truly thought Jews, who were then universally considered a “foreign” element in Germany, were incompatible with Germans finding their way as a people. Wagner expressed the following sentiment more than once late in his life: “If I ever were to write again about the Jews, I should say I have nothing against them, it is just that they descended on us Germans too soon and we were not yet ready enough to absorb them.”1 It was that deep feeling, that Jews were making it impossible for German regeneration, that was always at the heart of his animus.

Whether it be about gays, Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, or pick your group, I have tried to show in this post on stereotyping and this post on tribalism that to “other” a group, and see them in much less empathic ways then your own, is absolutely the norm in the world, and part of our human make-up. We close off emotionally to those we oppose, and are often blind to their humanity. This is just a bad part – I think the worst part – of being human, and certainly the part we need to constantly struggle against within ourselves.

Even amongst friends, these judgements are often made. I remember talking with a Jewish friend about the Holocaust. I pointed out that while Jews were certainly the primary victims, that gays were targeted too. His response was, “yeah, but theres nothing wrong with being Jewish.” Ouch! My friend was in a position analogous to Wagner’s vis-à-vis his Jewish friends: offering friendship but still thinking there was something wrong with them.

Certainly, as a lesbian who lived during the period when that viewpoint – that there was something wrong with loving someone of your own sex – was the norm, I think I know something about universal prejudice, which is what anti-Semitism was in Wagner’s day. It’s been fascinating to experience, in fact, what has happened to my friends and colleagues as this prejudice morphed away within the “blue state” culture. Former bigots develop amnesia! They think they were always progressive about the issue, and the truth is, very few people were. I have a lot of close friends and family who meet this description – any gay person does – and I get that it was just the zeitgeist of the time, and I forgive their former selves easily and gladly. And now many of these amnesiac former homophobes are at the forefront of those who accuse Christians of homophobia.

Given the current reality of immense progress of society on this issue, I believe it is far better to try to understand and have dialogue with those who still feel homosexuality is immoral. I absolutely don’t want to demonize them as Wagner demonized the Jews, and as some Christians demonize gays.  

This sort of amnesia is not just personal, but cultural, too. It’s related to the a-historicity that condemns Wagner. He is denounced based on today’s perspective, not from the context of his times his influences and the cultural milieu that existed then. Moreover, he is scapegoated while virtually everyone else from that era is let off the hook. If we want to condemn Wagner for his prejudices, and assume he was somehow a monster because of them, we must also condemn virtually everyone in history for theirs.

I wrote about the historical context of Wagner’s anti-Semitism and the broader brutality of the 19th century in these posts, so I won’t repeat those arguments. However, I would like to elaborate on one point about history. Competition for land and resources has, since time immemorial, led to absolute brutality and acts that we all believe are immoral.  We now enjoy – particularly in the West – the poisonous fruits resulting from the acts of our ancestors and our countrymen.  And we have to make peace with it. I believe we should forgive our ancestors for their brutality, but not forget the past or repeat their crimes. Instead, we need to find a way better way forward. 

Our ability to do horrific things not only for survival but just for improvement of our lives is a part of our DNA. We also – thanks to evolution – have the capacity for cooperation and empathy. Which part has the upper hand is on-going little war within us all. Should we be selfish, thinking only of what will help ourselves and our close family and friends (or country), or be generous and actually give up things that we want in order to help the greater good and people we don’t even know? Every single day of our lives, we make a decision about that, either consciously or unconsciously. We need to choose wisely.

During the 19th century when all manner of horrific things were happening, Wagner was not picking up a gun or sword, but just trying to make the world a better place through art. He was critiquing the ills of  “civilization” in his time, and arguing for art, love, compassion and community in its stead. He persevered even during stretches of horrible health, mental exhaustion, and poverty. Though he had his flaws and prejudices, I think in the grand scheme of things, it is proper and right to celebrate him for his life and artistic legacy.

This does not mean, however, that this should come without acknowledgement of his harmful flaws and the costs of those.  I will turn to that now.

Utopian Poison

[Wagner] was earnest, and that is, and was, the cause of his greatness – Ferdinand Praeger in his remembrance of Wagner

A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal – Oscar Wilde

Wagner was the most sincere of men, with an absolute conviction that he saw the grand truths of all humankind. The downside to his sincerity was, of course, that he was a “true believer,” with no doubt in the rightness of his beliefs. To me, such a person is a potential danger to the degree they try to impose their “truth” on others or society at large. Obviously, this is particularly so in the sphere of politics. If a “true believer” – whether religious, political or utopian – gains power, history has shown that mass murders are likely to follow.

Wagner, of course, didn’t tried to impose his beliefs through politics after the failed revolution of 1848. Instead he tried to spark the revolution through much more benign means: an artistic movement. While I certainly sympathize with his belief that society was (and is) corrupted by money, his program for a cure – art leading the way to German social regeneration – was in la-la land.  While his views about art were influential, very few thought it was going to create a revolution in all of society, as he did.  What was harmful in his view – a long-acting poison, in fact – was that he had targeted the cultural enemy of his utopia, the Jews.

He lived in a bubble of his own making, where only those who served his vision and needs were allowed in and dissent wasn’t an option. He consciously engendered a cult around him and his works, and it was within this cult that the poison flowed through the generations.

For years, though, the Wagner cult seemed relatively harmless, and much wonderful art emerged from its influence throughout the Western world, and it remained so in most parts of the world. (See these posts of his influence on our culture.) However, at Bayreuth, he had left – without a will or a conscious plan to do so – Cosima in charge, and an anti-Semitic editor at the helm of his journal, the Bayreuther Blätter. I have already written about the disaster of Bayreuth here, so I don’t want to repeat it, but Wagner had absolutely no blood or personal connection with the two people who forged the direct link to Hitler Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Winifred Wagner though Cosima Wagner did. His blame is, rather, that he let loose the poison through engendering his Utopian cult, and his anti-Semitism was then ripe for melding with Hitler’s own horrific version.

Humiliation, Meanness and Revenge

Wagner’s life was one of frequent humiliation. He would throw himself into endeavors with a sincerity and intensity that left him vulnerable to mocking and scorn, which came his way throughout his life. While he developed an ever thicker skin to protect himself from people who doubted and derided him, he also developed a mean streak and a lust for revenge. As I wrote here, it is not his prejudices per se that I think deserve particular condemnation; it is the way he acted on those prejudices that does.

And though I hate those aspects of Wagner’s character, I believe they are built into our genetic make-up. In his book The Ethics of Memory, Avishai Margalit makes the case that we have what he calls “moral emotions,” which motivate human ethical and moral conduct. He cites humiliation as being a model case, saying: “The memory of humiliation is the bleeding scar of reliving it …. Humiliation, I believe, is not just another experience in our life, like, say, an embarrassment. It is a formative experience. It forms the way we view ourselves as humiliated persons.” 

In this review of the book, Jonathan Lear summarizes an essential point about humiliation, using an example of the Islamist terrorist’s feelings of humiliation:

In contrast to guilt [another moral emotion], memories of humiliation make people feel entitled to discharge aggression in destructive acts. On the surface, the terrorist will think it is because of his people’s humiliation that he is justified in this acts; just under the surface, the situation is the reverse: because he enjoys destructive hatred, he has become attached to his sense of humiliation. He is trapped in a peculiar kind of motivated irrationality. Consciously and sincerely, he hates his sense of humiliation; unconsciously, he is holding onto it with all his might.

In this New York Times article, the science writer Benedict Carey points to a number of studies that show that taking revenge is biologically rooted – functioning in the brain in a way similar to appetite – and serves a social function to curb unwanted behavior. He quotes psychologist Michael McCullough: “The best way to understand revenge is not as some disease or moral failing or crime but a a deeply human and functional behavior.”

Basically, then, the argument is that the living memory of humiliation taps a deep need to settle the score, to get revenge. I think this pretty well accords with Wagner’s biography, and what went wrong with him. Every biographer who has studied his life points to the three-year period in Paris, when he was poor and felt continually humiliated, as the turning point of his life. His humiliation was particularly attached to the Jewish composer Meyerbeer, but also to the Jewish lenders and publishers who he felt exploited him in his need. Thus, Judaism in Music was his revenge. Very ugly, but very human. Later, he felt the sting of negative assault on his music and plans, and through his paranoia (see here), always saw Jews behind these continual humiliations, thus his anti-Semitism – and desire for revenge – continued throughout the rest of his life, though in fits and starts.

The Upside of His Downside

As I wrote about here and here, Wagner was a deeply sensitive and emotional man, and he exhibited the full range of human emotions, both good and bad. He could be, and often was, deeply empathic, generous and kind. He could also be vengeful, mean and arrogant. All that was reflected in his life and art. At the same time he was extraordinarily volatile and intense. It was as if all his emotions were amplified from the norm and poured out of him like lava from a volcano — sometimes in great eruptions, other times in bubbling spurts, sometimes in a regular flow.

Wagner was very aware of his negative traits, and apologized frequently for them in his letters –and presumably – in person. But he was also aware that he could use his amplified emotions in a unique way: to write these emotions into his music dramas to express “the fully human,” for better and worse. Bryan Magee, in his book Aspects of Wagner, says of his music: “The most important things in life, namely its psycho-emotional fundamentals as inwardly experienced are articulated here [in his music], as they never can be in words, or on the state, or in any other outward terms.  That is, Wagner gets to the very essence of humanity in his music: the emotions that drive us as human beings.

Wagner was the perfect vessel for writing about humankind; his very flaws make him so. He was both light and dark, and had a deep psychological understanding of human aspirations, and the negative and positive that flow from it. 

Phillip Hensler, in this talk says a similar thing:

One of the things he gained from not being a very nice person was he understood what lay behind people behaving badly... There is no doubt he understands very well why an Alberich would behave like that, why a Meme would behave like that. He has a great deal of sympathy and understanding for the very worst of his characters. They remain very convincing... His nature might have been very bad for his friends, his family, his patrons, but it is very good for posterity.

Most Wagner critics give him full credit for anything they perceive in his music that might be considered negative in some way, such as the alleged bombastic or anti-Semitic qualities of some of his music. But, quite unfairly, they give him no credit for all that is beautiful, loving, uplifting and redemptive in his music – which describes the vast majority of his work. Instead, this music (and the drama that is entwined with the music) is somehow seen as an accidental result of his genius, not because he actually felt, and lived, those feelings of empathy and love that dominate his music. This, of course, is nonsense, and they can’t have it both ways. Clearly, his music reflected his feelings; they came from his heart, both the good and the bad.

The Apologist Accusation

With Wagner – almost singularly among artists and even most political figures – any defense of him is called an apology. Any good things he did, and there were many, are called self-serving. His admirable traits are dismissed or ignored. Given the fact that his critics have created this monster, it is certainly easy to see why they are puzzled at the wonder and beauty of his music. The question is often asked, “How could such a horrible man make such beautiful, sensitive music?” The answer is simply that he wasn’t a horrible man, though he certainly had horrible aspects of his character.

Just to give some needed perspective, think of one of the most famous egoists of our time, Bill Clinton. We all know he has deep flaws, many that he shares with Wagner in fact. Yet, we see him in his complexity because we know he meant well, wanted to do good. His ego got in his way many times, and almost rendered him a completely tragic character. But his force of will, his refusal to back down, ultimately triumphed. We see him in his full humanity. At least, I do. Wagner has been given such a bum rap in this day and age that we no longer can understand him like we do Clinton. I’ve tried to give a more nuanced view of Wagner throughout this blog, and I hope I have succeeded.

As far as I am concerned, those who damn Wagner are replicating him at his worse. He was intolerant, so they must match him, becoming an imitation of him at his worst. They irrationally blame him, as he irrationally blamed Jews, for the ills that they suffered. They write incendiary, illogical and unfair attacks upon him, as he wrote about the Jews. On some level, of course, it is his just desserts. But it doesn’t hurt him at all as he is dead; their revenge instead strikes at people like me, who love his music.  As I reject the meanness of Wagner, I reject it as much in his critics. This is not the way to move forward.

Moving Forward: Forgiveness

The quality of mercy is not strain’d, 
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven 
Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless’d; 

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes –Shakespeare

When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free. – Catherine Ponder

Yes, I believe the way forward is through forgiveness. And I don’t mean that just for Wagner, though I certainly include him. I mean it for humanity. I am a huge believer in forgiveness as a way of life. The act of forgiving and being forgiven is an amazing, liberating feeling.
Often the place to start is with yourself. If you can’t forgive yourself for the things for which you are most ashamed, you will find it very hard to atone for the wrongs you have done, and ask for forgiveness for those transgressions, and move on. Beyond that, you will find it very hard to forgive others.  Conversely, you must forgive others if you expect to be forgiven yourself.
In my life, I have done a number of things that I now regret – politically, socially, morally. I have spent a lot of time thinking about why and how I took those paths, and most importantly, how to move forward and not repeat them. I succeed many times; I don’t others. I continue to try. In this quest to improve as a human being, Wagner has helped me immensely in this process.  His music dramas are – again to quote Bryan Magee – “of the deepest psychological penetration, inexhaustible in [their] insight into the human condition.” The insight comes, though, primarily through emotion, and as I have made clear elsewhere, the insight has led me to ever more compassion for humanity. 

No transgression can ever be resolved without forgiveness. Wagner did real harm. Some of it was intentional, some not. He needs to be forgiven for both. Wagner cannot ask for forgiveness. But fans of his music can, and I do ask for that. I ask not just for him, but also for the good of those who continue to resent him and want revenge upon him. I carry around in my wallet something Carrie Fisher said (attributed to others as well) that I think is wise: “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” The poison of resentment pulls anyone who is trapped by it into a the dark place that has no beauty or light. Removing the venom through forgiveness is the only way out of that trap.

I believe that, above all else, his works redeem him.

There are those, of course, who don’t feel this at all (and perhaps a lot of this is because they don’t even know his works.) This is particularly true in Israel, where Wagner is now more myth than real, and the enmity is particularly strong, but often devoid of either fairness or perspective.

I think one of the key reasons for the continued enmity of many Jews – particularly in Israel – to Wagner is the feeling that the ancestors of Wagner haven’t ever really apologized for the legacy of Wagner via the catastrophe of Bayreuth, in which Hitler and Wagners heirs became completely intertwined. The good news is that the people now in control of Bayreuth, his great-granddaughters Katerina and Eva, are finally making moves to correct this reality and own up to the past. 

My feeling, though, is that to truly make amends, Bayreuth must redress the harm caused by Wagner and Bayreuth. There is no better place to start than with the man who was most victimized by Richard Wagner: Giacomo Meyerbeer, whose works vanished from the opera stage in the wake of Wagner’s mean-spirited attack upon him. (Edited addition: As I said here, French grand opera was dying for other reasons, but I believe that Wagner's attacks – along with his subsequent massive influence on the direction of opera – were the final blow. It was indirect, and not any sort of  campaign against Meyerbeer.  See comment section below.) If Bayreuth truly wants to make amends, this is where to start: revive the work of Meyerbeer. If this happens, the door to forgiveness will be opened.

A Final Note to Lovers of Wagner’s Music

I call on all lovers of Wagner’s music to do so guilt-free and without animus to Wagner. His deeply powerful music is a window not only to his soul, but to humanity itself. If Wagner hadn’t been the man he was, had the life he had, felt the things he did, he wouldn’t have created the music we love.

One of Wagner’s great gifts is that he created characters of complexity and depth. No one is simply evil or simply good. His villains are all abused in one way or another so that we have an understanding why they act the way they do. His heroes are all deeply flawed, containing the same human impulses that do continual harm in our own lives: cruelty, greed, arrogance, and the lust for power, prestige and revenge. It is incumbent upon us to give the same consideration to Wagner himself: to understand him as a complex man, not as a caricature.

Certainly, we should acknowledge his flaws and grave mistakes, as I have done in this post and throughout the blog. But if you enjoy the fruits of his labor, which emerged from his deepest feelings and came at a real cost in his life, and at the same time condemn him for his flawed humanity, I believe that is both hypocritical and unjust.

To repeat, how do you solve a problem like Wagner?  The same exact way we can solve many of our world's most intractable problems – through understanding, compassion and, most importantly, forgiveness.

End Notes

This whole blog is basically a rough draft, which I am planning to edit, rework, and put out in the future, perhaps as as different blog, perhaps as an e-book.  I am not sure.  But it will stay in this form for a while while I enjoy my 2014.  That said, I will be going back in and fixing things in this blog, creating cross-links, etc., over time.

Also, I want to thank my wife Leslie for her continual support and help with my blog.  I doubt if I would have done it without her encouragement and prodding (not during this year, but to start it). She has edited all the posts so, believe me, mistakes were minimized.  She now gets to return her focus totally to her own writing, where I plan to be as helpful to her as she has been to me (if possible).  Read about her plans at her blog here.

Bye, for now.  

Me and my Wagner heads.  It's an accidental collection.  Photo by Leslie Karst

1 As quoted in Brener, Wagner and the Jews, 244

Friday, December 20, 2013

On Wagner and Burning Man, his American Dream, Wagnerians and the Wagner Recipe

My blog is coming to a close next post; I still have a few items left on my agenda beyond the grand wrap-up. They follow below.

Wagner as Patron Saint of Burning Man

Kinder, macht neues! Neues! Und abermals neues!  (Children, make something new! New! And new again!) – Richard Wagner1

Wagner was an art revolutionary.  He believed that art should be at the pinnacle of society, and the thing that society should revolve around. Not church. Not state. Not business. Art. His call for art to continually change and renew was at the heart of his belief system, as his quote above clearly expresses.  His monumental life work, Der Ring des Nibelungen, demonstrated what he saw as “the artwork of the future.” He dreamed of a summer festival, in which his art would bring people together from all over the world to begin to build a new sort of community, one in which the values of art, community and love would supplant those of commercialization, greed, property and money.   

He originally envisioned that the premiere performance of the cycle would be held on the banks of a river, and  there would only be one cycle – “free, of course” (but three performances each day!) – followed by destruction of the theater, presumably by setting it ablaze, after the end of the cycle. And, then, move on to another work.2 

Brünnhilde riding into the fire at the end of the Ring
Any “burner”—the people who consider themselves part of the Burning Man community–will immediately see why I perceive a connection between Wagner and Burning Man from that description above.  Burning Man is the annual “experiment in temporary community” held in the Nevada Black Rock desert—called Black Rock City—on “the playa,” dedicated to art and “radical self-expression and self-reliance.”  

Black Rock City; the Man is that circle in the middle

Clearly, Wagner was the original burner, at least in conception.  (Important note to burners who happen on this page, haven’t read this blog, and only know Wagner by reputation:  Most everything that you have heard about Wagner is twisted, and often false, so just keep an open mind... or read more of my blog. )

I am not the only one who sees the connection.
This guy took Wagner on a Burning Man tour.
I don't know if the hole in the head has significance.

We brought Wagner (and Jack) along to Burning Man, too, but they stayed in the RV

For those who don't know much about Burning Man, here is their website.  Much of the art is ephemeral and is burned at the end of the week. This is the quintessential Burning Man experience: lots of art; lots of fire. The artists then create something new the next year, whether they burn it or not. The pinnacle of the experience is the annual burning of the Man.3   

The Man burning

However, not all art is burned. Some artists painstakingly bring their art installations to the desert, assembled it, then disassembled it, and take it home a week later. Very labor intensive, believe me.  And then they, too, do something new the next year. To get a sense of the art, here are some photos. 

Wagner, who was obsessed with the cleansing and renewing nature of fire, would have been absolutely enchanted with the burner community. These were the droids he was looking for!

The ethos is anti-commerce. The only things you can buy at Burning Man are ice and some beverages.  Everything else you must bring yourself or trade for.  This can lead to lovely things, really. Lots of people bring things to give away to others.  In 2012 Mark Zuckerberg helicoptered in to give away grilled cheese sandwiches. Isn’t that swell? Seriously, even relatively poorer people give a lot a way. There is a whole lot of generosity built in to the Burning Man culture and is certainly my favorite thing about it.

Both festivals were founded on clear ideals, and succeeded wildly in some ways. In both cases, true believers come from all over the world, create a community around art, then go back to their homes renewed. However, ideals are one thing; reality is often far different. 

Wagner first conceived of his festival before he had written any of the music dramas, in 1849.  Over twenty years later, he was still nursing his dream when he began the Bayreuth project.  He had given up the hope of setting the site on a river—I am sure reluctantly—as impractical, however, according to biographer Barry Millington:

Wagner had every hope and intention of adhering faithfully to his original ideal conception of the festival: the theater was to be a provisional construction only…the enterprise was be be strictly non-profit making…with no admission charges and a number of seats to be distributed free of charge to the residents of Bayreuth.4 

All this would be paid for through a world-wide fund-raising program, with Wagner societies throughout the world springing up to help make this a reality, and a lot of free labor.  And, of course, with Wagner’s patron, King Ludwig II, chipping in the lion’s share (though it came in the form of a loan.)

The reality was that the cost of building and putting on the festival left Wagner greatly in debt, forcing him to give up his ideals in the attempt to leave his family with a way to survive financially. (His wife Cosima was only 45 at his death, and had four children to support.)  He didn’t build Bayreuth to be a shrine to himself or his art; that was not his purpose.  Cosima, after his death, created that. But he had to turn it into a money-making enterprise or his family would have had no means of support.

He was, in fact, deeply disappointed in Bayreuth, in a number of ways.  Certainly foremost is that the people he wanted to see it—young people, university students and choral societies—couldn’t afford it.5  Instead, the rich turned out, and he hated the rich.6  He wrote to his supporter Friedrich Schön, “Since we have had no choice in the matter, these performances, as before, will have to be reserved for paying audiences,”7  but he then went on to ask Friedrich to rally his supporters to set up a foundation to “make it possible for people without means of their own to attend the performances.”8  This was done, and it still exists today.  It’s something, but very, very far from his dream.9

As for Burning Man.  I think everyone who was a participant in the early years would agree that it has strayed far from its ideals.  It started as ritual, evolved to be an affordable and unique art festival in the early years, and now has become a money-making business where it is difficult for people who are not fairly well-off to afford to come.10  I have been twice (1999, 2004) and I will never return.  To me, the bad (the horrible outhouses, the constant techno music, the drugged or drunk gawkers and “shirt cockers”,11 the cramped density of the “city”, and the dust or the mud) overwhelms the good (lots of generosity and amazing artistic imagination).  

Here I am — with my wife and sister-in-law – sweeping the dust from our golf course
 at ourAOK” trailer  park. We stayed on the outer rim, which is quieter and much less dense.
However, my wife Leslie—who is awed by the art and imagination there—still kicks around the idea of returning. To me, it is the planning of the “theme camp,” which is at the heart of the Burning Man experience, that is the most fun. The doing is often a schlep. So, I wouldn’t mind helping with the prep and the clean-up for that. But I would rather save my money and go to Bayreuth.


Wagner begin dreaming of coming to America around 1850.  He wrote to his friend Ernest Kietz, “I am now thinking a good deal of America! Not because I might find what I am looking for there, but because the ground there is easier to plant…. I am planning to make a start soon on my great Nibelung trilogy.  But I shall perform it only on the banks of the Mississippi.”12 (!) While at that point it was really just a pipe dream, he became much more serious about immigration later in his life, and was negotiating with various American supporters to raise the money for the relocation.  Cosima opposed the plan, but he persisted in working on it.  She wrote in her diary in 1880: “Again and again he keeps coming back to America, says it is the only place on the whole map which he can gaze upon with any pleasure: ‘What the Greeks were among the peoples of this earth, this continent is among its countries.’”13

Truly there were two purposes for the dream of America. First—once again, and for the last time—fleeing to leave his creditors in the lurch. But secondly, he was disappointed that Bayreuth hadn’t launched the revolution he intended. In 1880, he wrote to his principal American benefactor—a dentist named Newell Jenkins—asking him to raise the funds for immigration, and wrote that he may “regret not having transplanted the seed of my artistic ideas to a more fertile and more helpful soil in years long past.”14

He decided to finish Parsifal in Germany, and his death quickly followed in 1883, so the plan never came to fruition.  But I do think it points out this truth: Wagner’s reputation as a fanatic nationalist is really off he mark.  As William Weber writes in the Wagner Compendium, “[h]e never became a proponent of a politically unified Germany, especially under Prussian auspices.”15 He absolutely opposed the idea of a German empire-building—he hated militarism with vehemence—and became increasingly pacifistic as he aged.16 And, frankly, he really didn’t like Germany.  He thought the people backward, the place frigid, the politics wrong-headed.  In a letter to his last love, the French woman, Judith Gautier, in 1878, he wrote:

I like to see you defending your country so valiantly on every occasion…. I admire you even more for your patriotism, because it is something I lack completely, finding myself the only German amongst this stupid population which is called German.17

His so-called nationalism was entirely a cultural desire: for Germans to create a culture grounded in their language, their land, and their history that could take its place alongside other cultures equally, instead of being the weak cousin to the predominant Franco-Italian opera tradition.  Sure, he thought that Germany’s rich orchestral tradition was special (and indeed it was), and he wanted to build on that.  In that sense, he had particular pride.  But, as he notes, he had no pride in his country or countrymen.

Wagnerians Tripping

Who are these strange people, the Wagnerians?  Well, they span the globe and political spectrum.  The Wagner Society of Northern California – my groupdid a poll of members in their organization, along with other Wagner societies in the nation.  In one question the membership was asked to put themselves on  the political spectrum, with a 0 being moderate, 100 being far to the right, -100 being far to the left.  There were people on both extremes, though the average was significantly to the left. ( Two lefties refused to stay within confines of the scale, and marked themselves as -110 and -130.)18 

What unites us, of course, is being deeply moved by his music, many to the point of rapture. Clearly, if he can attract music lovers of both the far left and the far right and everywhere in between, the music dramas cannot be claimed to belong to any particular political view and are, instead, universal, as Wagner intended.19

Bryan Magee has a chapter in his very fine book, Aspects of Wagner,  called “Wagnerolatry,” that gives a good overview of why Wagner’s music has attracted the degree of fanaticism that it has, as well as the inverse,  an almost bizarre loathing.  Of the latter, Magee notes: “His music can provoke a hostility not merely greater than any other’s but, again, different in kind… His music is denounced, as is no other, in moral terms:  it is ‘immoral’, ‘corrupting’, ‘poisonous’, ‘degenerate.’ 19  His answer to why this is so is well worth a read, full of psychological insights. I recommend it to you.

Many people have noted that for Wagnerians, his music seems to provide a near-religious experience. And in fact, many people in his era did feel that his music dramas were sacred. After all, Wagner advocated replacing the church with art, and many took him completely seriously.  When people trekked to Bayreuth, it was indeed  a religious pilgrimage for those people.

Mark Twain wrote about this pilgrimage in the essay, “At the Shrine of St. Wagner.” He was in awe of—or dumbstruck by—the Wagner audience, who he also referred to in the essay as a “congregation,” noting its collective uniqueness: 

Yesterday the opera was Tristan and Isolde. I have seen all sorts of audiences--at theaters, operas, concerts, lectures, sermons, funerals--but none which was twin to the Wagner audience of Bayreuth for fixed and reverential attention, absolute attention and petrified retention to the end of an act of the attitude assumed at the beginning of it. You detect no movement in the solid mass of heads and shoulders. You seem to sit with the dead in the gloom of a tomb. You know that they are being stirred to their profoundest depths; that there are times when they want to rise and wave handkerchiefs and shout their approbation, and times when tears are running down their faces, and it would be a relief to free their pent emotions in sobs or screams; yet you hear not one utterance till the curtain swings together and the closing strains have slowly faded out and died; then the dead rise with one impulse and shake the building with their applause. Every seat is full in the first act; there is not a vacant one in the last. If a man would be conspicuous, let him come here and retire from the house in the midst of an act. It would make him celebrated.
This audience reminds me of nothing I have ever seen and of nothing I have read about except the city in the Arabian tale where all the inhabitants have been turned to brass and the traveler finds them after centuries mute, motionless, and still retaining the attitudes which they last knew in life. Here the Wagner audience dress as they please, and sit in the dark and worship in silence. At the Metropolitan in New York they sit in a glare, and wear their showiest harness; they hum airs, they squeak fans, they titter, and they gabble all the time. In some of the boxes the conversation and laughter are so loud as to divide the attention of the house with the stage.20

Wagner audiences still remain the quietest in the world when it comes to operas. It’s been passed down by generations of Wagnerians that we must not squirm or make noise or clap at the wrong time lest we suffer the consequence of a stern reprimand.  But here is a funny story:  At the premiere of Parsifal, Wagner was very pleased with the flower-maidens performance, and yelled “bravo!” as they left the stage.  He was hissed.21

Why so quiet?  Well, we don’t want to miss a note, of course.  It no longer has a religious aura, but we still want to be enveloped by the music without distraction. Wagner lovers, of course, still take the pilgrim to Bayreuth.  But the pilgrimage is now secular; we are the Deadheads of the opera world, as I wrote about here

In her piece “Wagner’s Fluids,” Susan Sontag hits the nail on the head about this change, and the reason for it:

The smarmy, redeeming higher values that Wagner thought his work expressed have been definitively discredited (that much we owe the historic connection of Wagnerian ideology with fascism). Few puzzle any more, in the way generations of Wagner lovers and Wagner fearers did, about what Wagner’s operas mean. Now Wagner is just enjoyed – as a drug.22

I wrote about the drug-like quality of Wagner’s music here already.  But I want to take it up again.  After all, this blog is called Wagner Tripping for a reason.

I was watching this video on LSD neuroscience, and the speaker cited the most authoritative reference on pharmacology, Goodman and Gilman, to distinguish psychedelics from other classes of drugs. It explains that, unlike other drug classes, psychedelics have a “capacity reliably to induce or compel states of altered perception, thought and feeling that are not (or cannot be) experienced otherwise except in dreams or times of religious exaltation.”23

I would change that to say “except in dreams or times of religious exaltation or, for some, listening to Wagner.”  I mean that quite seriously.

Wagner is not my god; I don’t have one.  But the fact is that listening to his music does do for me what I presume religion does for believers: it makes me feel one with humanity and  the universe, brings forth feelings of deep love, compassion and empathy, makes me want to be kinder, more giving, more loving, plus it gives me frequent feelings of exaltation. 

Why is this so?  I can’t explain exactly how he does it but this is why many people considered him a magician. This is often called the Wagner experience” by people who have felt it. I do know that the state of mind while listening, for me, is very similar to tripping on psychedelics:  there is a sense of timelessness, my ego-boundaries dissolve, and a feeling of profound empathy with those outside myself emerges.  I described here how I think he achieves the latter. The first two are best described by this talk.  

Wagner wanted his audience to be “knowers through feeling.” There is, in fact, really no other way to understand his works, and I agree with Wagner who said, referring to the Ring—but it is true of all his music dramas—“the works meaning is only clear through the music.”24 Given what I feel when I am in his musical world, the meaning is profoundly good. It’s an extraordinary lovely mental place.

The Wagner recipe

As I said in this series of posts, Wagner’s personality has been lost to history. Throughout, I have been trying to give a more balanced view, which hopefully gives a better sense of the man.  I thought this admittedly ridiculous recipe might help as a shortcut:

Add equal parts:

Robin Williams – which gives the personality (and incredible ability)
Hunter Thompson  – which adds a mean streak, paranoia, and revolutionary zeal, plus his dark charisma and megalomania (and incredible ability)
Bill Clinton  – which adds a lighter charisma and the necessary level of megalomania on the world stage, plus another version of paranoia, and another mean streak (and incredible ability)
James Cameron – which adds grandiose artistic vision along with another mean streak and more megalomania (and incredible ability)

Then add in two dogs: 

a sled dog – which adds the exuberant fanaticism
an untrained one-year old lab – which adds the absolute lack of control along with a whole lot of sweetness

Voilà: Wagner

End Note

1 Millington and Spencer ed., The Selected Letters of Wagner, 269
2 Ibid., 216
3 Of course for more dedicated burners, many actually consider the pinnacle of the festival is the burning of the Temple the night after the Man burns. Most of the unwashed (unburned?) have left at that point, so it is considered a more pure or, perhaps, spiritual experience. 
4 Letters, 599
5 Millington, ed. Wagner Compendium, 168
6 He wasn’t wild about the volk, either, which was the whole point of his enterprise: to bring the stupid—his word—masses out of their slumber. See the “America Dreaming”  section.
7 Letters, 922
8 Ibid.
9 Of course, much later, Bayreuth became an absolute disaster, which it is still trying to recover from.  That story here. And my suggestions for how Bayreuth should redeem itself will appear next week.
10 Here is a good post about the cost to one burner, which was $1568. He notes that if you live in the area and don’t have to buy a plane ticket, it would be cheaper. But, obviously, it is not a cheap camping trip either. As for the transformation to a capitalist enterprise, see here
11 At Burning Man, clothing is optional. Men are much more likely to reveal their genitals then women, by a huge margin. Many women do go shirtless, many men are either nude or are so-called shirt-cockers (they where a shirt but no pants). Thus, the gawkers are the guys who ogle the women, which is creepy, and the shirt-cockers are, to me, just a whole different level of creepy.
12 Letters, 243. I think the Mississippi was a joke, however he was serious about doing it on the Rhine.
13 As quoted here by Alex Ross in “A Walking Tour of Wagner’s New York.” 
14 Letters, 899
15 Compendium, 155
16  I have already talked about the exception, the Franco-Prussian War, here. He did become an enthusiastic backer of the war, and it certainly brought out all his most repellent traits. But it was an exception to a life-long horror at militarism, and even in this one, he went back and forth between a schadenfreudic glee about the victory over their long-term tormentors, the French, with the horrors of the war, and all wars.
17 Letters, 880
18 I forgot to bring with me to Hawaii that issue of the Wagner magazine with the poll, so this a placeholder until I get back to Santa Cruz, and I will add the reference.
19 Of course, he did have a strong agenda, but his principal aim was to bring forth “the purely human” through the realm of myth. In such a way he wanted to show that fellow-feeling—compassion—was at the bedrock of morality (as Schopenhauer, his guru, believed, see here).  I believe his politics, in so far as they were other than compassionate, were ultimately subsumed, even contradicted in some cases, by the feeling that the music gives us. The fact that I feel as one with humanity when I listen to his works shows that, for me, this was his plan and he hit the mark. If you believe as some do that he had malicious intent, then I would argue that it does not emerge in the music. I will be writing more about this in my next post.
19 Magee, Aspects of Wagner, 33
20 Read the full essay here.
21 Carr, The Wagner Clan, 47
22 See here.
23 This is quoted in the video at 2:50
24 Letters, 310