Richard Wagner as utopian socialist?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Nov 3 07:34:42 MST 2000

"Wagner and Philosophy" by Bryan Magee

Reviewed by Kenan Malik in
1 November 2000

Wagner set in his own time

A study of the great composer which explains Wagner in terms of
19th-century thought

RICHARD WAGNER occupies a unique position in the Western cultural pantheon.
His operas could arguably be said to be the highpoint of Western classical
tradition, yet his music draws as much hostility as adulation.

In part this arises from the way Wagner reworked the traditional operatic
form and stretched tonality to its limits. But the hostility also arises
from Wagner's venomous anti-Semitism, which for many taints his music.

In Wagner and Philosophy Bryan Magee tries to make sense of both the man
and his music by placing Wagner in the context of 19th-century thought.
Magee possesses both a deep sympathy for Wagner's music and an independence
of mind that allows him to rethink much of the hostility to Wagner.

"The repellent nature of Wagner's anti-Semitism", Magee observes, "is not a
licence to misrepresent it." Much of the discussion of Wagner's politics is
"anachronistic" because it reads back into Wagner's life interpretations
that may hold in our time but did not hold in his. Living as we do in the
shadow of the Holocaust, most of us find racism repugnant. In Wagner's
time, however, it was unexceptional. Many leading pre-Second World War
artists, from Dostoevsky to T. S. Eliot, were deeply anti-Semitic.
Certainly, Wagner's anti-Semitism was more virulent than most but, as Magee
shows, there is no reason to consider him a proto-fascist.

Nor should we allow Wagner's politics to cloud our judgment of his music. A
work of art cannot be entirely removed from the social circumstances that
produced it, but nor can it be judged by the same criteria as we might
bring to bear upon a work of philosophy or of politics. As the great Jewish
conductor Sir Georg Solti has said of Wagner, "Anyone who can produce such
beauty, whether he be Jewish, anti-Semite, revolutionary, liberal or
royalist, is first and foremost a musical genius and will remain so as long
as our civilisation lasts."

Far from being a reactionary, Magee argues, the young Wagner was a utopian
socialist. He was deeply influenced by the young Hegelians - the group of
radical thinkers out of whose number Karl Marx emerged - and in particular
by Ludwig Feuerbach. Many of the themes central to Wagner's operas - the
hostility to Christianity, the view of religion as a myth that nevertheless
tells important truths about ourselves, and the exaltation of love as a
means of redemption - were distilled from Feuerbach's thought.

In 1849, Wagner was forced into exile after taking part in an abortive
revolution. In the decade that followed his whole approach to politics, art
and life changed. Magee argues persuasively that it was not that Wagner
became a right-wing reactionary, as many claim, but that he became
disillusioned with politics altogether.

Concluding that the world could not be changed politically, Wagner looked
to art as the means of both personal and national salvation.

Wagner's transformation was sealed by his discovery of Arthur
Schopenhauer's work. There have been few philosophers more misanthropic
than Schopenhauer. He viewed existence as a miserable business upon which
one should turn one's back and refused to be involved. Sexual love and the
arts, above all the art of music, Schopenhauer claimed, were the most
valuable of human activities.

Wagner had already written the libretto for the Ring cycle by the early
1850s. Discovering Schopenhauer, however, made him reinterpret his own
texts. As Wagner himself put it, only after reading Schopenhauer did he
truly understand the characters he had created in the Ring. Magee explores
the impact of Schopenhauer on both Wagner's politics and his music,
particularly through detailed analyses of Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal.

There remains, however, something incomplete about Magee's account. Wagner,
he writes, became, like most people, "testier, crustier, as he got older".
His "mid-life crisis" led him to renounce socialism and to rethink the role
of art in human life. Yet there is surely more to Wagner's disengagement
from politics than simply the crotchetiness of middle age? Europe itself
was changing. The revolutions of 1848 and 1849 helped create a social
climate that was both more illiberal and more pessimistic.

Racial ideas became embedded in European culture, and nationalism and
anti-Semitism became much more virulent. These tendencies were particularly
strong in Germany.

Because German nationhood came so late in the 19th century, German
nationalists tended to exaggerate both the importance of German history and
culture and the differences between the German volk and others. The
consequence of all this was to ingrain a deeply Romantic form of
nationalism. Wagner's search for "authenticity" in music, his use of myth
and saga, his vision of culture as the embodiment of a people's essence,
all derived from the intellectual and social ferment of the time.

Wagner's greatest works are universal in the way they rework myth, through
a fusion of music and drama, to explore the human condition. But they also
emerged from, and spoke to, the specific circumstances of late-19th century
Europe and, in particular, of Germany.

(Kenan Malik's 'Man Beast and Zombie' has just been published by Weidenfeld
& Nicolson.)

Louis Proyect
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