Wagner and Subtext
- Wagner, Marx and Schopenhauer -
Siegfried: "Out of my way capitalist swine - you stand in the way of the
foundation of the Socialist Utopia and my realisation of the freedom of
Whether such a hidden dialogue occurs at the level of subtext in
Siegfried's encounter with Wotan is an interesting question that Mats has
rightly raised. There is on the one hand no question that the Ring cannot
be so readily reduced to such exclusively Marxist ideological slogans. On
the other hand there is no doubt that such a subtext does exist. However
I have already written that:
This is not to deny that there is a subtext in Wagner - as with ANY
writer. Rather it is an insistence that such overblown interpretation
of subtext at the expense of the TEXT will no longer be tolerated as
the dominant mode of Wagner interpretation. Let us read the TEXT
first in order to properly understand any subtext. We have not even
begun to do this.
In this instance however there is an interplay between text and subtext
which is infinitely more subtle. That is because any Marxist SUBtext does
not entirely remain so perfectly SUBmerged at the level of pure SUBtext.
The fact that the whole basis of tragedy in the Ring stems from the lust
for gold shows that. Similarly Alberich's tyrannical enslavement of his
fellow Nibelungs described as a formally peace loving race corrupted by
the struggle for the Ring has a distinct Marxist flavour to it.
Let's take a look at what Wagner had to say about the encounter between
Wotan and Siegfried. In the letter to Roeckel 25/6 January 1854 he wrote:
Like this - you must admit - Wodan is most interesting to us;
whereas he would appear unworthy to us were he an underhanded plotter,
if he were to give advice which was apparently against Siegfried,
but in reality for him and thus - and this is the point - for Wodan
himself: that would be a deceit worthy of our political heroes but
not worthy of my joyously self-annihilating god. Look how he faces
Siegfried in the 3rd Act! Here before his downfall, he is at last
so involuntarily human that - despite his highest intentions - the
old pride stirs again, stimulated, mark you, by - jealousy for
Bruennhilde; for she has become his most sensitive point. It is as
though he does not want to be pushed aside, but to fall, to be
overcome. But this too is no sense a calculated trick. In his
quickly inflamed passion he fights to win - a victory which, as he
says, could only make him more wretched.
Once again the Schopenhauerian aspect of the coming to acceptance of death
is strong. When Siegfried defeats Wotan he shatters the spear which is the
symbol of his might: the spear which had once shattered the sword which
Siegfried wields against him. On the one hand Wotan must be the guardian
of the maiden encircled in flames - that was in effect his oath - yet on
the other he craves for Siegfried's victory: he is his last hope. When
Siegfried shatters Wotan's spear he shatters those very last vestiges of
Wotan's Will - something which on the one hand Wotan wills himself but on
the other hand cannot help allow those last stubborn vestiges of his pride
to stir as he fiercely confronts Siegfried.
However the importance is that because the action that takes place occurs
at the abstract level of symbol and myth it is becomes equally valid to
interpret the scene to some degree as the victory of the freedom of man
over predestination by the of the gods as Notung shatters the symbol
of Wotan's power over man. Then this historical process of the human
realisation of its own victory over its own destiny COULD (but not
necessarily as it could be interpreted in a Hegelian fashion) then be
given a Marxist interpretation.
Indeed Nietzsche, who was such a close friend of Wagner for so long, writes
in "The Case of Wagner" (that most delightfully anti-Wagnerian, and thus
necessarily anti-Schopenhauerian essay!) he very perceptively writes:
Half his life Wagner believed in the Revolution as much as ever a
Frenchman believed in it. He searched for it in the runic writing
of myth, he believed that in Siegfried he had found the typical
"Whence comes all the misfortunes of the world?" Wagner asked himself.
From "old contracts," he answered, like all revolutionary ideologists.
In plain: from customs, laws, moralities, institutions, from everything
on which the old world, the old society rest. "How can one rid the
world of misfortune? How can one abolish the old society?" Only by
declaring war against "contracts" (tradition, morality). THAT IS
WHAT SIEGFRIED DOES.
As for the question as to whether the Ring had to take the form that it did
to escape censorship I can only say I am glad that Wagner did not just come
up with a work with a simple uindimensional work with a straightforward
political message. Buechner's Wozzeck on the other hand really does limit
itself to much simpler Marxist socio-political commentary, and thus lacks
the richness of all the multiple dimensions that the Ring has.
In fact it is only the fact that the Ring takes a mythological form that
allowed Wagner to accommodate a Schopenhauerian perspective to enter into
the work. Otherwise it would have been too fixed into a framework of
narrow socio-political commentary. Nietzsche hits the nail on the head
when he writes (with characteristically delightfully wicked sarcasm!):
For a long time, Wagner's ship followed this [optimistic revolutionary]
course gaily. No doubt, this was where Wagner sought his highest
goal. - What happened? A misfortune. The ship struck a reef; Wagner
was struck. The reef was Schopehauer's philosophy; Wagner was stranded
on a contrary world view. What had he transposed into his music?
Optimism. Wagner was ashamed. ...So he translated the Ring into
Schopenhauer's terms. Everything goes wrong, everything perishes,
the new world is as bad as the old: the Nothing, the Indian Circe
Bruennhilde was initially supposed to take her farewell with a song
in honour of free love, putting off the world with the hope for a
socialist utopia in which "all turns out well" - but now gets something
else to do. She has to study Schopenhauer first; she has to transpose
the fourth book of "The World as Will and Representation" into verse.
Wagner was redeemed.
The fact that whatever Wagner's motivations for doing so the fact that the
Ring was given a mythological form is in my mind its great strength. It
is not definitely not just a convenient deceitful disguise hiding an occult
core subtext replete with a fist full of political propaganda. It is the
abstraction of the mythico-symbolic dimension of the work which permits the
'dissolution' of so many otherwise disparate - even wildly contradictory -
philosophical ideologies. Myth becomes a melting pot for the coming
together of so many 'dimensions of Wagner'.
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