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Richard Wagner: He saw art as expressing and completing our religious emotions

There used to be a Guinness advertisement in which the gag was along the lines: “I’ve never tried Guinness, because I don’t like the taste.” Something similar happens from time to time when you talk to otherwise curious people about the music dramas of Wagner, and The Ring of the Nibelung in particular. Ask one of these types which parts of Wagner’s work they particularly dislike, and you will be met with a glowering and scandalised “All of it!”, a response designed to forestall potentially embarrassing further inquiry.

Roger Scruton, however, starts from the barely disputable premise that The Ring is one of the most important works of art produced in the last 200 years. Those whose minds are definitively closed to what it has to say, how it says it, and to the vastness of Wagner’s significance in the modernist movement (a topic explored, for example, in Bryan Magee’s claim that the Wagnerian orchestra is the origin of the stream-of-consciousness literature of Woolf and Joyce) — these are beyond even Scruton’s reach. But for those determined at last to become acquainted with this masterpiece, as well as for those who already know it, The Ring of Truth is both a notable contribution and a piece of writing whose eloquence is worthy of its great theme. 

There is of course already a vast literature on the subject. And Scruton is conscious of the inevitable question: “Why another book on The Ring?” He answers it decisively, by writing a book on this inexhaustible work unlike any other. The greatest musical scholar who has ever written about The Ring was Deryck Cooke. But he did not seek to penetrate as deeply into the philosophical ramifications of the work as into the musical and textual aspects, and in any event his book was never anywhere near completed. (And he would have been glad to have some of Scruton’s original musical insights to his own name.) Those of a more philosophic cast of mind often tend to be hampered by single-issue viewpoints: George Bernard Shaw notoriously saw The Ring as an allegory for Fabian socio-economic truths; Robert Donington imposed a tediously Procrustean post-Jungian psychology onto the work; Paul Heise (at huge length, and only online) constructs a complex and eventually over-literal allegorical reading (e.g. Siegfried equals poetry; Brünnhilde equals music) which depends heavily on the admittedly profound influence on the younger Wagner of the philosophy of Feuerbach. The best modern philosophical treatment of Wagner is Magee’s Wagner and Philosophy, but this exceptionally readable book makes no claim to profound musical analysis.

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January 10th, 2017
1:01 AM
All Siegfried's problems evaporate just as Hamlet's do, if they are both brilliant but surly teenagers. (PACE Melchior and Burbage...)

December 14th, 2016
8:12 PM
For anyone interested in the question of Wagner's anti-Semitism, Nathan Schields' 2015 essay "Wagner and the Jews" in Mosaic is highly recommended. It uncovers new and unexpected aspects of the topic.

August 29th, 2016
10:08 PM
"They are not unique in this: Aeschylus and Shakespeare (to both of whom Wagner was greatly indebted) also present dramas that are shaped as religious epiphanies." Oh really. After some sixty years of experiencing Shakespeare's work, I am still astonished -- given the time and place he wrote in -- how there is a *dearth* of God and particularly of the Christian God in any of his work. The odd admonition to "Pray thee" is the vernacular of the time and it doesn't count. Shaped as a "religious epiphanies"? Wow, only in those absolutely predisposition to impose that scheme on Will's work. Were we having a beer I would demand that you name one of his works that fits the religious epiphany scenario, and then I would dismantle your assertion line-by-line.

John Borstlap
August 29th, 2016
12:08 PM
No doubt, Scruton is one of the most profound thinkers of our time, not only for philosophy but (I would say, especially) for music (his Aesthetics of Music is a superlative standard work). But he also appears to be a pessimist, and if Scruton's analyses of the Ring are true, they reveal the contradiction of non-spirituality in a work suffused with the spirituality of music. I greatly admire much of Wagner's music, but what Scruton seems to show in his book, has been achieved as well, and sometimes better, in other works of the 19th century, but purely in terms of music, and in a much more concise form: Beethoven, Brahms. And in the works of these two composers, there is no denial of the possibility of a spiritual realm (and thus of the existence of a 'god'), while the contradictions of the human condition are treated and exposed as painfully true as in Wagner, but without the load of mythical material which hinders Wagner's 'message' in the Ring. Sometimes I have the suspicion that Wagner merely demonstrated his philosophical ideas in his stage works to create fascinating drama for its own sake - like theatre plays are supposed to be enlivened by strongly emotional effects like murder, betrayal, tragic love etc. etc. to offer an attractive evening at the theatre. There is a contradiction between the requirements of the theatre and those of philosophy, something Nietzsche had already noticed, a contradiction which does not exist in the form of absolute music because such music is non-conceptual, but 'about' meaning nonetheless. It seems to me that works like Beethoven's symphonies and quartets, Brahms' two piano concertos and violin concerto, and his four symphonies and lots of chamber music, 'say' the same things that Wagner tried to put in his elephantine creations, but in a much more clear way. That Scruton hardly treats Wagner's antisemitism, is right. W's obsession about Jewry was a cultural critique, clothed in racist terms. Racism was a 'normal' part of 19C discourse (think of colonialism); seeing the calamities brought-about by early industrialism and wild capitalism, and observing that on those fronts it were often people from Jewish descent who held the reigns, he connected the one with the other. It is like thinking that if you see a lot of communists with red hair, that it is their hair colour that makes them communists. A bad banker from Jewish descent is a bad banker 'an sich', not because of his descent. Thus, because of 20C history, W's antisemitism has been blown-up out of proportion. And the hatred in his writing about the subject is not more intense than the emotional intensity he put in everything else he did.

Paul Heise
August 28th, 2016
6:08 PM
Dear Jonathan Gaisman: Thank you for your astute review of Dr. Roger Scruton's new book on Wagner's "Ring," "The Ring of Truth." In it you wrote: "Paul Heise (at huge length, and only online) constructs a complex and eventually over-literal allegorical reading (e.g. Siegfried equals poetry; Brünnhilde equals music) which depends heavily on the admittedly profound influence on the younger Wagner of the philosophy of Feuerbach." Would I be mistaken in assuming you haven't read my online book posted at which you reference here? I ask, because Dr. Jean-Jacques Nattiez's book "Wagner Androgyne" was the first published book (besides Wagner's own theoretical writings and Cosima's Diaries) to make the case that Siegfried is Wagner's metaphor for drama, and Bruennhilde his metaphor for music. My unique contribution (arrived at by me independently during the same period, the early 80's, when Dr. Nattiez was first lecturing on this subject) was that Siegfried is Wagner's metaphor for the archetypal artist, specifically the music-dramatist, who falls heir to religious feeling when religion (the Valhallan gods) is dying as a faith, who is inspired by his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration, Bruennhilde, who is also Wotan's unconscious mind. I'm not sure what you mean when you say my allegorical reading is over-literal. My 900-plus page online book is indeed lengthy, but I suggest you read it (at least read the 16 page intro and enough of the book itself to gain an understanding of what I've undertaken) in order to grasp precisely how and why my study is original. It is by far the most comprehensive study of the "Ring" libretto and music, and the other documentary evidence in Wagner's writings and recorded remarks, and in Feuerbach's writings which influenced Wagner, in the literature, and in my view by far the most conceptually coherent. I have advanced the ball on literally dozens of fronts in Wagner scholarship. I hope you will take a closer look. Your friend from, Paul Brian Heise

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