Tuesday, January 4, 2011

"Did Wagner really accomplish the first step towards the kitschy ‘fetishization’ of music that reaches its apogee in classical Hollywood?"

Götterdammerung or the Reign of Human Love
. . .Slavoj Zizek



Max Horkheimer wrote in the 1930s that those who do not want to speak critically about capitalism should also keep silent about fascism.

Did Wagner open up the path that ends up in later neo-Romantic kitsch – a claim repeated over and over by Adorno? There are signs that point in this direction. When Plácido Domingo accepted the post of Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Opera, he immediately announced his intention to bring it closer to the popular Hollywood film industry (using digitalized, cinematic special effects, and so on). It is little wonder that his first project was to stage a “Hollywood Ring:” Wagner’ s tetralogy cut down from its awesome fourteen hours to a collection of big numbers, ornamented with all the technoglitz. Cultural critics in the Adornian vein were quick to note that this was not simply a vulgar profanation of Wagner’s “high art.” The cinematic nature of Wagner’s Ring itself has often been noted. The stage instructions to Act III of Die Walküre (Valkyries riding on clouds, and so on), for example, can be followed only on film even more so, perhaps, in today’s digitally manipulated cinema, in the style of The Lord of the Rings (no wonder that Tolkien’s novel effectively takes its title from Wagner: in Das Rheingold, Alberich is literally designated as “lord of the ring”), another example of how an old art form can develop notions which call for a new art form that arises out of technological inventions. Wagner’s cinematic nature is then used to argue for the kitsch aspect of his music. It is no wonder that a leitmotif-like technique was widely used in classic Hollywood composition. Did Wagner really accomplish the first step towards the kitschy ‘fetishization’ of music that reaches its apogee in classical Hollywood?

But what if the original sin had already been committed by Beethoven? Undoubtedly his music often verges on kitsch – suffice it to mention the over-repetitive exploitation of the “beautiful” main motif in the first movement of his Violin Concerto.

Is Wagner, then, really the kitsch extension of what is worst in Beethoven? No, Wagner’s true achievement was precisely to provide a proper artistic form for what, in Beethoven, functions as kitschy excess. There is nonetheless a feature which (some of) Wagner’s operas share with (some) popular films: the narrative progresses towards the final moment as its big culminating gesture – among films, it suffices to mention Chaplin’s City Lights. It is little wonder, then, that one sign of unresolved antagonisms in Wagner’s work is the failure of his big finales. Here, a special place belongs to the finale of Götterdammerung – the biggest of them all, the mother of all finales. I t is not only, as is well known, that Wagner oscillated between different words in the finale; the final version of the opera in a way even has two finales, Siegfried’s death and the following Trauermarsch, and Brünnhilde’s self-immolation.

Finding an appropriate conclusion for the Ring Cycle caused Wagner immense difficulty. His ideas for the end changed several times as his political and philosophical views evolved. The story of these changes is so well known that only a brief summary is necessary.

The Ring’s trajectory begins with his first written project, “The Nibelung Myth as Sketch for a Drama” (1848), in which Siegfried and Brünnhilde rise above Siegfried’ s funeral pyre to Valhalla to cleanse Wotan of his crime and redeem the gods; there is no suggestion that the gods will or ought to suffer annihilation. In a new version written a year later as “Siegfried’s Death,” Brünnhilde’s final oration also stresses the cleansing effect of Siegfried’s death.

In 1851, Wagner developed the story backwards, by adding a vast “prequel” (consisting of the events staged in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre) and expanding the role of Wotan, who became the central figure. In the new ending, the gods achieve redemption, but only in their death. The next version, written a year later, shows the traces of Wagner’s passionate debates with Bakunin, as well as his study of Ludwig Feuerbach. Here, the Bakuninian notion of the purifying role of radical destruction (which clears the field for a new beginning) is combined with two basic insights from Feuerbach: gods are merely a product of the human imagination, and among all human acts, sexual love is the greatest.

Finally, in 1856, Wagner again rewrote the ending under the influence of his discovery of Schopenhauer and his reading of Buddhist texts. This “Schopenhauerian” ending focuses on resignation vis-a-vis the illusory nature of human existence and on self-overcoming through the negation of the will.

After much deliberation, Wagner nonetheless decided not to set the Schopenhauer-inspired words to music. Why? As a rule, this omission is interpreted not as a sign of Wagner’s abandoning Schopenhauer, but as proof of his artistic sensibility. By the end of his composition of the Ring (in 1874), Wagner realized that the music itself, not the words, should deliver the final message of the cycle. Is this, however, really the case? [1] Does this standard reading not rely on a rather primitive aesthetic rule (that the work’s message should not be stated explicitly, but arise “organically” out of the depicted content)?

Let us recapitulate the problem again. As far as its ideological content is concerned, the ending of Götterdammerung oscillates between three main positions best designated by the names Feuerbach, Bakunin and Schopenhauer: the reign of human love; the revolutionary destruction of the old world; resignation and withdrawal from the world. Because of these oscillations, it is not clear how we are to conceive of the crowd of men and women who, “in deepest emotion,” bear witness to the final destruction in fire and water – who are they? Do they really embody a new, liberated society? The change from early revolutionary to “mature” Schopenhauerian Wagner is usually conceived as a shift from humanistic belief in the possibility of the revolutionary transformation of existing social reality – in other words, from the belief that our reality is miserable due to contingent historical reasons – to the more ‘profound’ insight into how reality as such is miserable, and that the only true redemption resides in withdrawing from it into the abyss of the “night of the world.” It seems easy to denounce this shift as the most elementary ideological operation, that of elevating a contingent historical obstacle into an a priori transcendental limitation. So, again, is the Schopenhauer ending really the ending we get in the opera? What Alain Badiou says about Wagner [2] holds here especially: one should not take his general programmatic proclamations at face value; rather, one should make the effort of testing them against a detailed analysis of what Wagner is actually doing.

It is a well-known fact that, in the last minutes of Götterdammerung, the orchestra performs an excessively intricate cobweb of motifs, basically nothing less than the recapitulation of the motivic wealth of the entire Ring. Is this fact not the ultimate proof that Wagner himself was not sure about what the final apotheosis of the Ring “means”? Not being sure of it, he took a kind of ‘flight forward’ and threw together all of the motifs. This rather vicious hypothesis was proposed by Adorno (in his In Search of Wagner): Wagner did not know how to end the cycle, so he merely spun together a few obvious motifs; Adorno added that the final bars of the Ring (the “redemption through love” motif) were used simply because they were the most beautiful sounding – beautiful in the sense of kitsch, not of authentic artistic beauty.

One is effectively tempted to paraphrase the ending with this beautiful motif as something like the sentimental wisdom: “What does it matter if all of this is a mess – the important thing is that we love each other!” So the culminating motif of “redemption through love” cannot but make us think of Joseph Kerman’s acerbic comment about the last notes of Puccini’s Tosca in which the orchestra bombastically recapitulates the “beautiful” pathetic melodic line of the Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle,” as if, unsure of what to do Puccini simply desperately repeated the most “effective” melody from the previous score, ignoring all narrative or emotional logic. [3] And what if Wagner did exactly the same thing at the end of Götterdammerung? Not sure about the final twist that should stabilize and guarantee the meaning of it all, he resorted to a beautiful melody whose effect is something like “whatever any of this may mean, let us make sure that the concluding impression will be that of something triumphant and uplifting in its redemptive beauty …” In short, what if this final motif enacts an empty gesture?

However, in the very last seconds of Götterdammerung it is not only that out of all the chaos of destruction we still hear the “redemption through love” motif: three additional, subordinate motifs are heard, that of the Rhine Maidens, celebrating the innocent playfulness of the natural world; that of Valhalla, rendering the dignified majesty of the rule of law; and that of Siegfried the free hero. Do these final moments not imply a subjective position that, as Badiou suggests is paradigmatically feminine, as the three motifs are colored – transfigured – by the fourth, by love? Sublime as they are, even the most intense natural beauty, the rule of law and the most heroic acts are finally doomed to fail: “Yet the possibility of a love like that expressed in Brünnhilde’s final act changes everything, in a way that heroism does not, even in the face of death and the ending of the world as we know it.” [4]

Is this ending of the Ring not also unique with regard to Wagner’s other (six great post-Rienzi) operas? They all focus on the deadlock of a sexual relationship, clearly repeating the Kierkegaardian triad of the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. In the refusal to compromise desire (even to the point of embracing death), Tristan represents the first. Meistersinger counters it with the ethical solution: true redemption resides not in following the immortal passion to its self-destructive conclusion; rather, one should learn to overcome it via creative sublimation and to return, in a mood of wise resignation, to the “daily” life of symbolic obligations. In Parsifal, finally, the passion can no longer be overcome via its reintegration into society in which it survives in a gentrified form: one has to deny it thoroughly in the ecstatic assertion of religious jouissance. The triad Tristan-Meistersinger-Parsifal thus follows a precise logic: Meistersinger and Tristan render two opposite versions of the Oedipal matrix, within which Meistersinger inverts Tristan (the son steals the woman from the paternal figure; passion breaks out between the paternal figure and the young woman destined to become the partner of the young man), while Parsifal gives the coordinates themselves an anti-Oedipal twist – the lamenting wounded subject is here the paternal figure (Amfortas), not the young transgressor (Tristan).

One can argue that this triad repeats the triad The Flying Dutchman-Tannhauser-Lohengrin: The Flying Dutchman ends in the deadly apotheosis of the love couple; Tannhauser, like the later Meistersinger, focuses on a singing competition, which, following Marx’s famous paraphrase of Hegel, occurs first as tragedy and then repeats itself as comedy; Lohengrin is the son of Parsifal. Each time we get the same basic answers to the fate of a love relationship: the obscure sexual death drive, marriage, and asexual compassion. The Ring, however, stand s out as the exception, with an additional fourth instantiation of fate, as a solution to the deadlock, in the guise of Brünnhilde’s act.

Brünnhilde’s final act is precisely that: an act, a gesture of supreme freedom and autonomy, not just resigned acquiescence to some higher power. This fact in itself, this form of act, makes it totally foreign to Schopenhauer’s thought: “She acts; and her act is … a many-sided embodiment of her many-sided love … she does not simply see the world end; she ends Ít. She al so vindicates it, illuminating it anew and offering the possibility of renewal.” [5] How does she achieve this? To answer this question, one must locate Brünnhilde’s act in the totality of the Ring, the narrative of which should be read as a series of attempts to find the form of meaningful life. The Ring’s philosophy, embodied in the plot and music, is to be taken seriously, for it reaches far beyond Wagner’s explicitly formulated philosophy. Therein resides Philip Kitcher and Richard Schacht’s thesis: the Ring enacts a series of (failures of) what one might call existential projects.

Notes

[1] Philip Kitcher and Richard Schacht, Finding an Ending. Reflections on Wagner’s Ring. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

[2]. Alain Badiou, Five Lessons on Wagner. New York: Verso, 2010.

[3] Joseph Kerman, Opera as Drama. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

[4] Kitcher and Schacht, Op. cit., p. 201.

[5] Ibid., pp. 182-4.

Art: Jimmy Raskin

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