Monday, 29 August 2016

Wagner's Ring dissected

Sir Roger Scruton's new book on Wagner: 'The Ring of Truth', received a thorough review on the Standpoint website:


'As Scruton writes of the celebrated Funeral March: “freedom, individuality, ambition and law must run their course and nothing will sound of thereafter save the distant lullaby of nature.” Love, in its most noble and sacrificial form, may transfigure us along the way, but cannot in the end rescue us from a godless and purely tragic condition, which we can only meet by willed self-abnegation. Thus the enthusiastic discipleship of Feuerbach gives way to the orientalist pessimism of Schopenhauer.'

A thoroughly pessimistic, suicidal vision of civilization, prefiguring the abysses of 20C modernism.


I sent-in a comment under the review on the Standpoint website:

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.

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