On the website of Prospect, the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton has written eloquently and profoundly on Wagner’s four-night opera cycle ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’:
Wagner wanted to be an opera composer, plus cultural philosopher plus political agitator plus founder of a new religion: ‘Kunstreligion’, centered around his own works which – as in Christianity – focus upon redemption. (R. Strauss: ‘I don’t understand where I should have to be redeemed from’.) In most articles and essays about the Ring, Wagner’s antisemitism is always put on the table as proof of one of W’s most serious moral flaws, and the question, whether caricatures of ‘Jews’ can be found in the operas. Scruton leaves that question alone, simply dismisses it, and concentrates on the possibilities of meaning and message.
The question of antisemitism is not easily forgotten though; its influence on nazism is often read back into history in a way, as if the annexation by the nazis of Wagner’s opinions about ‘Judaism’ makes him, at least partly, responsible for the holocaust. If you read some of the bulk of what has been written about W’s antisemitism, then it becomes clear that it is not the straight-forward, stupid, primitive hatred towards ‘other races’, in this case: ‘the Jews’, but a cultural critique against the damages that the industrial revolution was causing in society and the disruption of culture resulting from wild capitalism and increasing materialism. There was much intensity in W’s hatred towards the forces that were wrecking European culture, and thus in his antisemitism, but there always was much intensity in any feeling he happened to be burdened with, as can be heard in the music and read in Cosima Wagner’s diaries.
Since many people in the elites who drove 19C society: science, culture, finance, industry and the media forwards into modern times, were of Jewish descent, W thought (as many other people at the time) that it was their ‘Jewishness’, called ‘Judaism’ in the sense of a paradigm, that was the origin and cause of their supposedly negative influence in the world. It is a conclusion on the level of: ‘I see many communists with red hair, which means that red hair causes communism and if we want to fight against communism, we have to fight against people with red hair.’ Since the opening-up of the ghettos at the beginning of the 19th century, many Jews spread through society, left their orthodox religion behind but carried with them the mental training it had provided, which gave them a great advantage in the social struggle – hence their heightened profile. Ironically, many people who supported Wagner’s works and even ideas, were of Jewish descent, they apparently did not think his antisemitism was meant for them – after all, they were ‘assimilated’. Later-on, the addition of biological elements to antisemitism in general, injected by a misconceived Darwinism, turned antisemitism into a much more poisonous abberation.
Wagner absorbed many different strands of 19C thinking but never synthesized them into a comprehensive whole, hence the many contradictory interpretations of the Ring, because really, the plot and multi-narrative has too many vague elements and different levels of possible meaning, to offer a clear ‘message’. The same is true of Tristan and Parsifal, which have stimulated a comparable range of mutually-exclusive interpretations.
Scruton has many interesting and meaningful things to say about the Ring, and I think on the point of its depiction of moral and spiritual matters in a post-religious world – i.e. our modern world – he hits upon a fundamental truth. In his analyses of details, attempting to connect rather loose patterns which are suggested in the work itself, I think there is more Scruton in them than Wagner, but given the subject that is an enrichment: the Ring stimulates further thought along a couple of its axes.
People often forget or don’t spot the insecurity which is at the root of W’s art. Hence the verbal and musical repetitions, lest there would be one audience member left who would not quite understand what the composer had meant, and thereby blurring any meaning all the more. Wagner never had an academic training and was entirely autodidact in religion, philosophy, and politics….. only in music he had some training by the organist of the Thomas church in Leipzig. Which means that often his intuition in these non-musical fields could be (kind of) apt but the clarification and objectification very clumsy. Real academics with the knife-sharp intelligence of a Scruton can pick-up some threads and spin them further.
Wagner will continue to offer food for thought….. his inconsistencies and insecurities, and what is often called his character flaws, reflect contemporary concerns, and in these fragmented mirrors we can see the predicament of our age – as it was for the 19th and the 20th century.