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


  1. I must say, Robin, that your blog is fascinating, as I have always found you and Leslie. Truly great friends. This post, however, which I am reading for the first time tonight, has brought me right back smack dab in that little KOA campground, in the outskirts of Black Rock City, where I was Joe Dwayne, and I had some very cool friends along for the ride. :)

  2. Ah, Joe Dwayne, that was a time. I do wish I had not been in the midst of depression then. As you can tell from this post, I continue to have mixed feelings about Burning Man - but I did like being on the outskirts, away from the madness. I liked mornings when very few folks were up... I could bike down and get my coffee and see the all the beauty but without the sound and fury of the evening times. Thanks again for being so kind in a bad moment for me.