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 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.


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.

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.

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