10-4 literary2

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

10.4 (Fall 2010)




courtesy of artrenewal.org


Raising the Fallen World: Richard Wagner and the Scenic Imagination

Thomas F. Bertonneau

            Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) intended his mid-Nineteenth Century innovation of Music Drama to instigate a thorough renewal, not simply of art, but rather of the human situation, as writ large, in society and culture; he foresaw in the late 1840s that his work would require a theoretical basis in metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics.  As it happens, all three parts of this theory entail, although Wagner does not employ the terms, both an anthropology and a theory of representation.  Finally, Wagner’s theory of representation derives a type of primordial signification from an event in which the unavoidable beauty of a token or talisman disarms a threatening violence.


            Wagner worked out this anthropology and the accompanying theory of representation, borrowing his vocabulary and some few notions from G. W. F. Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach, in a series of essays and pamphlets during the 1840s and 50s.  In these documents, Wagner prescribed the “mimetic,” “poetic,” and “tonal” (that is to say, the combined dramatic) characteristics that would body themselves forth in Tannhäuser, The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan and Isolde, The Mastersingers, and Parsifal.  These operas – or rather these Gesamtkunstwerke, as their author called them, using his own coinage – would recreate on the modern stage an “earliest utterance of consciousness” (Wagner 70). Their performance would inaugurate a new “breaking loose from unconscious life,” to quote from their author’s post-Idealist terminology (70); enacting the Gesamtkunstwerk would thus revitalize society by rescuing it from the degradations of fashion and the rabble, two of Wagner’s reliable pejoratives, in which an anthropologically acute reader will discern the theme of cultural breakdown in thoughtless spreading imitation and the unconsciousness of the crowd.

The power of the Gesamtkunstwerk’s dramaturgical-metaphysical logic would lift “Error” out of its deficiency by reconnecting the abject present with the generative potency inherent in “the myths of primal ages” (70).  The locution “Error” covers a good deal of ground: Wagner names by it the original projection of human qualities as divine figures (the Ludwig Feuerbach hypothesis); but he also names by it the modern collapse of aesthetic judgment into commercial crassness, and the collapse of the ethical generally into mere economic pragmatism.

Although burdened by the abstract vocabulary of Kant and Hegel, Wagner locates that “earliest utterance” in a scene, makes of it an event, and then derives from it various differentiated aspects of culture (44).  Often, as Bryan Magee has pointed out, Wagner speculates about the past by transferring it to the future.  Wagner believed that the antique community participated in something “necessary” (his repeated term) that the present lacked but that a sufficiently audacious artist might re-institute in some coming epoch. 

Here is the passage from Wagner’s Art Work of the Future (1849) in which these various locutions appear:

From the moment when Man perceived the difference between himself and Nature, and thus commenced his own development as man, by breaking loose from the unconscious life, – when he thus looked Nature in the face and from the first feelings of his dependence on her, thereby aroused, evolved the faculty of Thought, – from that moment did Error begin, as the earliest utterance of consciousness.  But Error is the mother of Knowledge; and the history of the birth of Knowledge out of Error is the history of the human race, from the myths of primal ages down to the present day. (74)

One remarks, in this eccentric effusion, that the capitalized Man emerges from his prior natural state in a punctual moment, and that the moment has two phases, first the crisis and next the correspondent decision.  For Wagner, consciousness appears under the sign of ambiguity, hewing into articulation a mass of perceptions and inclinations hitherto inarticulate, thus permitting individuation, fostering the cultural and artistic forms, and founding a continuum of reflectivity – all to the good, one might assume.  But consciousness, for Wagner (we come here to the ambiguity), likewise severs the specifically human creature from its instincts, or what he calls Life, and opens the possibility of misperception, misrepresentation, and mendacity (74).  Elsewhere Life seems to refer to the cohesion of the primitive community in its earliest phase (81).  One might draw a line from The Art Work of the Future back through Pierre-Joseph Proudhon to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  In 1850 Wagner was, while living in exile in Zurich, still a political radical and something close to a proto-Marxist, but he was about to encounter the work of Arthur Schopenhauer and, in response to it, suffer a relapse into Idealist lexical abstraction.  The Zurich essays come before the encounter with Schopenhauer, which accounts for their more social orientation in comparison, say, with Art and Religion, from 1880, and their more accessible although hardly ordinary style.

What about the Gesamtkunstwerk?  By providing a new benchmark of form and rightness, music drama in its novelty would also permit radical re-judgment of prevailing cultural trends culminating in a healthy rejection of cheapness and un-seriousness in the arts – that pervasive and debilitating de-culturation of culture, so to speak, that sometimes appears under the grotesque moniker of “Judeo-Utilism” (81).  To invoke de-culturation, however, is to invoke also, at least implicitly, culturation, the beginnings of those things – like speech, consciousness, and a communal scene that confers new status on its constituents – that are now, as Wagner claims, in a state of deliquescence.  As far as this concerns the Gesamtkunstwerk, the present conforms to a beginning; or rather it repeats a first beginning.

In Art and Revolution (1849), Wagner characterizes the prevailing European musical taste, always for him an index of cultural health or disease, as “a chaos of sensuous impressions jostling one another without rhyme or reason, from which each one may choose at will what pleases best his fancy” (44).  Thus for Wagner, as for Hesiod, “Chaos was first of all.”  But what was the original “chaos,” which the tasteless consumerism of the present merely distantly repeats?

Before answering this question, it would be useful to address further the stylistic problem of Wagner’s prose, whose Kant- and Hegel-inspired abstractness tends to put off readers.  Magee, in his study of The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy (2001), only rarely quotes Wagner in the three hundred and fifty or so pages of his own eminently readable text, opining that Wagner wrote opaquely in the worst Germanic way.  He laments that the composer pursued his arguments, insofar as he could be said to make arguments, waywardly, with continuous divagation and parenthesis.  Eric Gans comments on similar linguistic difficulties in the attempt to ferret out an anthropological subtext in the major Idealist writings.  In The Scenic Imagination, Gans apologetically acknowledges Kant’s “dry rigor” and his pronounced tendency to think of everything “ahistorically,” as cognized, not by actual human beings, but rather by the Transcendental Ego.  These qualities drain life from the philosopher’s presentation and pose an obstacle for an anthropological reading (113).

Gans thus only discovers the deeply concealed anthropological insights in The Critique of Judgment by a remarkable labor of close reading that rejoins scattered passages from Kant’s prose in a pattern that they conspicuously lack in their provenance and by rescuing side-comments where Kant, perhaps forgetting himself, actually makes an understandable, more or less human statement.  Kant educes a scene, with much help, despite his profound reluctance to think scenically.  Hegel, thanks to the “Master-Slave Dialectic,” requires slightly less philological agony, but the labor must again contend with the marshland of tangled constructions and snakelike syntax.

Now Wagner, as Magee remarks, at this time wanted to write like Kant and Hegel and probably thought that he shared their metaphysical outlook and profundity.  While Kant and Hegel were philosophers, Wagner was, above all else, a dramaturge, a person who could not help but think scenically and in terms of actual persons who come into conflict and who, in their enmity, require reconciliation.  The labor needed to expose the anthropological or scenic stratum in Wagner’s prose is thus somewhat smaller than that required in the cases of the two philosophers, but it is hardly lessened by Wagner’s delusion that he existed apart from, and in irreconcilable tension with, the market.  (Because the market, as in the case of a forum, is a scene, on which the action of freely negotiated exchange daily occurs.)

To return to the question of the present-day “Chaos” to which the Gesamtkunstwerk will be the healing response – this “Chaos,” as previously noted, is the market, which Wagner conceives in sparagmatic terms as the dismemberment of a primordial communal compactness, or, as he calls it, “The Folk” (74).  But “The Folk” is not, for Wagner, a timeless idea; it is something, in his view, that really existed and that, like other things that really exist, must have come into existence.  Rather in the manner of Johann Gottfried von Herder, Wagner defines “The Folk” as “from of old the inclusive term for all the units which made up the total of a commonality,” which “in the beginning… was the family and the tribe” and much later “the tribes united by like speech into nations” (74).  Before “The Folk” was “The Folk,” its constituent “units” existed in disorganized conflict with one another, the stronger preying on the weaker.  A point came when the conflict grew unendurable.  Its “bad coherence” acquired thematic status as a collective “Need,” in response to which came “progress from the unconscious to the conscious” (81).

Wagner adds that “The ‘Folk’ is the epitome of all those men who feel a common and collective want” and again of “all those who can hope for the stilling of their want in nothing but the stilling of a common want” or who experience a “collective need” (80).  This character of “The Folk” is, in one of the section-titles of the pamphlet, The Force Conditioning the Art Work.

Although the term “Folk,” later much used and abused by the National Socialists, provokes one into visualizing the Germanic tribes of the post-Roman period or their medieval descendants of the free-states and principalities, Wagner finds his model “Folk,” not in the Gothic encampments of the Sixth Century or in the trade-cities of the Thirteenth Century, but rather in the archaic city-states of Greece (75).  The Greeks offer themselves as the model because their literary remains permit the reconstruction in detail of their prehistoric community, which Wagner regards as more exemplary – insofar as he can retrieve it – than their historical community; but the Greeks acquire importance also because, precisely in their formative period, they created, in tragedy, the most compact of all artistic forms or genres, and they accomplished this by transforming religious into aesthetic experience, without abolishing the religious substrate (136).  “In drama,” writes Wagner, “Man is at once his own artistic ‘subject’ and his ‘stuff,’ to his very fullest worth” (136).  And “with the Folk, all is reality and deed; it does, and then rejoices in the thought of its own doing” 136).


            Wagner locates the origin of tragedy at a specific moment of Greek, or Athenian, cultural and political development, that epoch when “the blithe Folk of Athens, enflamed by persecution, hunted out from court and city the melancholy sons of Pisistratus; and then bethought it how, by this deed, it had become a free and independent people” (136).  Already Thespis had transferred to the stage the epic stories from Homer.  The actor’s innovations channeled the collective drama of overthrowing the tyrants, lending it form, “and Tragedy was born,” writes Wagner, to flourish “for just so long as it was inspired by the spirit of the Folk, and as this spirit was a veritably popular, i.e., a communal one” (136).  But the birth of tragedy, as such, seems in Wagner’s account to echo something older, something like the aboriginal to tragedy’s mere original.

Just as tragedy finds its catalyst in the cathartic expulsion of Pisistratids, what Wagner calls, using a religious term, “initial communion” takes shape as the response to a menace (149).  In one passage Wagner sets out the antecedent forms that eventually develop into Tragedy:

Before the God’s-oak at Dodona the Pelasgian bowed himself, in waiting for the oracle; beneath the shady thatch of leaves, and circled by the verdant pillars of the God’s-grove, the Orpheist raised his voice; but under the fair-ceiled roof, and amid the symmetry of marble columns of the God’s-temple, the art-glad Lyrist led the mazes of his dance, to strains of sounding hymns, – and in the Theatre, which reared itself around the God’s-altar – as its central point – on the one hand to the message-giving stage, on the other to the ample rows where sat the message-craving audience, the Tragedian brought to birth the living work of consummated Art. (158)

          Wagner’s invocation of Orpheus, or the “Orpheist,” has this significance: that earlier in The Art Work of the Future, the pamphleteer had recalled the role of violence in the Orpheus Myth.  The legendary effect of the Ur-Poet’s song, Wagner writes, was “to turn the savage beasts to silent, placid adoration” (134).  The Orphic chant “enthralled” those beastly ears, and it “tamed” those “carrion-spying eyes,” as Wagner writes, “in such a way that they should recognize instinctively in this whole man no longer a mere object for their maw… but for their hearing- and their seeing-powers” (134).  The adjective “instinctively” is out of place; but once delete it, and the movement from appetitive convergence, with its threat of violence, to figural contemplation, which the sentence lays out, becomes clear.  Moreover, all the ancient arts appear to Wagner to have been instances of “Mimicry,” while dance, the most “mimetic art” of all, appears to have been actually prior to music and poetry (104).  The last, poetry, brings its precursors to articulation.  The tonal and verbal arts, Wagner writes, only “become first understandable” in dance, which one takes to mean that they arise first as supplements to pure gesture, and gradually become independent, and finally add explicit meaning to the purely indicative movements (100).  It amounts to a theory of language development.

In an anthropological analogy, the sequence Tanz-Ton-und-Tichtung (Wagner spells the German word for poetry with a deliberately archaic T) resembles the Gansian linguistic sequence ostensive-imperative-and-declarative, the second and third items being transformations of the first, always referring back to it.  (Gans argues that the first linguistic gesture, the ostensive, took the form of a type of pointing to an object desired collectively, whose appropriation by the collective the same gesture simultaneously prohibits.  The imperative is a call to action.  The declarative is mature language, with its capacity for actual discourse.  Although Ton is not quite the imperative, Tanz is quite like the ostensive and Tichtung can only be declarative.)

When describing the essay’s eponymous “Art Work of the Future,” Wagner stipulates that this spectacle must take for its subject the “necessary death” of its hero because, “the celebration of such a death is the noblest thing that men can enter on” (199).  This hero’s death, following on his saintly renunciation of all worldly desire, shall impress and redeem the audience to the extent that it “reveals to us in the nature of this one man, laid bare by death, the whole content of universal human nature” (199).

          Many times in The Art Work of the Future, Wagner asserts that when people first succeeded in representing themselves to themselves, in an act of collective awareness, then and only then did they create the possibilities of freedom and love; he often capitalizes and italicizes the latter.  The hero’s martyrdom is related to “love”: it springs from his love of his fellow men despite their flaws, which might run to the severe.  Of the martyrdom, Wagner writes: “We fix this revelation in surest hold of memory by the conscious representation of that Death itself, and, in order to make its purport clear, by the representation of those actions which found their necessary conclusion in that death” (199).  The Wagnerian hero will struggle ascetically against the decadence of his milieu, what Wagner calls, in one of his socialist coinages, “the hell of Luxury” (77).  As Gans reminds us, in his discussion of Nietzsche, “Nineteenth-century opera, with Wagner at its summit, embodied for several generations of European aesthetes the transcendence of the nascent consumer society in which they found themselves” (The Scenic Imagination 139).

The phrase, “the hell of Luxury,” belongs to Wagner’s lexicon in the epoch of a transformation.  It behooves one to remember that Wagner’s thinking during his period of pamphlet- and libretto-writing ultimately permitted him to transcend his youthful political radicalism, to ameliorate his exaggerated anti-market posture, and to bring to fruition his post-Dutchman operas.  Wagner’s development illustrates Gans’s thesis, from Originary Thinking (1993), that, whereas “the romantic… is in principle hostile to the market,” nevertheless, “the romantic lifestyle is in fact a preparation for life and career in market society” (166).  In A Communication to My Friends (1851), Wagner tells how his disappointment with revolutionary politics, and with utopian theory, deepened his interest in legend and myth.  This alteration of interest coincided with Wagner’s discovery of the Tannhäuser legend, in its Middle High German form.  “Here,” writes Wagner, “was the very essence of the Folk’s-poem, that ever seizes on the kernel of the matter, and brings it again to show in simple plastic outlines” (315).

The Tannhäuser saga appeals to Wagner because of “its infinitely simple traits” (315): that is to say, because of its minimal character.  Wagner abandoned his plans for an elaborate Rienzi-like historical opera based on Manfred von Hohenstaufen and turned to the subject matter of the medieval Thuringian Sängerkrieg, or “Song-Contest,” in which Tannhäuser figures centrally.

In The Scenic Imagination, discussing Kant, Gans characterizes aesthetic experience as “the transcendence of desire through the oscillation between sign and imaginary object” involving the sublation of “rivalry” into “a human community constituted by the deferral of violence” (85).  Wagner’s Tannhäuser could serve to illustrate the proposition, which describes its plot and its disposition of symbols almost perfectly.  Tannhäuser, the opera’s protagonist, belongs to the Gebrüderschaft of troubadours, but he has rejected their dedication to chaste love and has committed the blasphemy of entering the “Venusberg” where he lives a perpetual Bacchanalia with the pagan goddess and her nymphs.  Of satiation, too, Tannhäuser grows weary, his ennui deciding him to return to Wartburg, where his colleagues at first welcome him.

Tannhäuser’s reappearance provokes a crisis, however, in both the Gebrüderschaft and the state, when he participates in the Sängerkrieg in Act Two.  Thus, singing competitively before Elisabeth, niece and ward of Count Hermann, Tannhäuser refuses to praise chaste love exclusively and reels off a passionate hymn to carnal union – the opera’s famous melody.  Scandalized, Wolfram von Eschenbach urges Tannhäuser’s unqualified expulsion, even threatening him with sword, but Hermann proposes that the offender seek absolution from the Pope in Rome.

In Act Three, Tannhäuser returns from pilgrimage explaining that the Pope answered his petition by saying, so soon might he be forgiven, as his pilgrim’s staff might sprout green shoots and burst forth in flower, meaning that the minstrel had transgressed beyond any atonement.  When bearers bring a coffin, Tannhäuser recognizes Elisabeth, whom he had loved, and for whose love he made a rival of Wolfram.  Elisabeth has died pining for Tannhäuser, who now dies from sympathetic heartbreak.  (Cognoscenti will recognize the anticipation of Tristan und Isolde.)  At the moment of Tannhäuser’s death, messengers bring in his staff, which has sprouted and flowered, under whose sign the survivors reconcile.  The whole action of the opera, with its many rivalries and crowd-scenes, finds sublation in the flowering pilgrim-stock, with the powerful orchestral climax focusing audience emotion as one of the troubadours raises the now florid item on high.


            Tannhäuser’s staff counts merely as one among many objects in Wagner’s operas and music dramas that boast the character of an originary sign; in fact the similarity of these objects is one of the unifying factors in Wagner’s oeuvre.  The pilgrim-stock resembles Wotan’s spear, a central symbol of The Ring of the Nibelung, on which the chief Aesir has carved all the oaths and contracts that reconcile god to god individually and gods to giants and dwarves, across the tribal lines, as it were.  When Wotan raises the spear, hostile parties nod heads in abnegation of their enmity.  A spear figures in Wagner’s last music drama, Parsifal (1881), where the story pairs it with the Holy Grail.  One of Wagner’s sources for Parsifal was the medieval Thuringian epic of the same name by Wolfram, Tannhäuser’s rival in the Sängerkrieg opera.  Thus the Grail intrudes its presence in that earlier work by a prolepsis of which Wagner was fully aware, he having already conceived of Parsifal while composing Tannhäuser.  The hero of the opera that preceded Tannhäuser, Lohengrin (1848), belongs to the order of Grail Knights, and the aura of the Grail, bespoken in the work’s glowing Prelude to Act One, dominates the story.  In fact, the character of Lohengrin, said to be Parsifal’s son, first appears in the Arthurian literature, in Wolfram’s epic.

Wagner wrote that the character of Amfortas, the Wounded King of Parsifal, is actually Tristan, from Tristan and Isolde, which implies that Tristan and Isolde also has a relation to the Grail.  Another unifying factor in Wagner’s oeuvre is the occurrence in all the separate works of internal scenes, sometimes organized directly by the symbolic objects, but always related to them.

          Consider the Grail, as Wagner found it in his sources, Wolfram’s Parzival and the anonymous French Quest of the Holy Grail, both Thirteenth-Century narratives.  In The Quest, readers learn the origin of the Waste Land, which recovery of the Grail, in addition to curing the Maimed King, will redeem.  Two Christian kings, Varlan and Lambar, whose faith forbade their enmity, fell nevertheless into conflict, with Varlan killing Lambar.  From that murder, all of Logres descended into war and famine.  The Grail, as Perceval learns from an elderly priest, not only has the power of satisfying appetites, which he has witnessed in Camelot, but also of injuring those who draw too close to it, unbidden.  The Grail only satisfies when those who seek its bounty fully respect it and keep their distance.  Although attracted to the Grail, or because attracted to it, one wisely resolves to defer propinquity with that sacred object.

In The Quest, the priest tells Perceval about “King Mordrain,” the Wounded King, “who had always longed, if it were possible, to contemplate the mystery [of the Grail] openly,” and so drew near it from curiosity during Mass; a voice cried, “King, go no closer,” but Mordrain yearned so strongly that he could not hold back: “Then suddenly a cloud came down before him which robbed him of his sight and strength, so that he stood there blinded and scarcely able to move” (Quest 106).

The Quest identifies the Grail as an item from Christ’s ministry that passed with Him through the Crucifixion.  For Wolfram, the Grail figures more simply as a stone or jewel with powers to feed and to heal.  Wolfram’s sacred relic is an eternal object, a “Lapsit Exillis” (bad Latin for the Exiled Stone), in contemplation of which time and mortality cease to exist.

          The objects in Wagner’s operas – the Grail, Wotan’s spear, and Tannhäuser’s pilgrim-stock – resemble one another, but they reflect, at the same time, formative traits and experiences of the characters with whom Wagner associates them.  Tannhäuser desires and renounces, but he is himself also an object of attraction and repulsion.  One could say the same of Parsifal, attracted to knighthood and shamed away from the Grail Knights through his awkwardness and stupidity; and yet ultimately drawn to them again, while they, although at first they banish him, come to long for his redemptive return.  Magee remarks that, when Parsifal encounters Kundry for the first time:, “he experiences with her the onslaught of sexual desire in all its ferocity – and realizes what had happened to Amfortas.  Ravaged by desire at its most terrible and imperious he does not flee from it, despite his terror, but lives it through without evasion, and finally succeeds in overcoming it.”  Through this experience Parsifal “achieves compassionate empathy not only with Amfortas but with suffering mankind in general, eternally stretched out on its rack of unsatisfiable willing” (Magee 239).

Yet not even Magee, Wagner’s best recent English-language commentator, notices that, at the end of Act Three of Parsifal, the Grail Knights have become a growling, inarticulate mob that converges on the title-character, quite as threateningly as the troubadours had converged on Tannhäuser at the Sängerkrieg; they have reverted to a type of pre-humanity.  This is what Wagner, in The Art Work of the Future, calls “bad coherence,” driven entirely by appetite and pack-instinct (Magee 268).  When Parsifal cures Amfortas with the spear, the very spear that had wounded him in the first place, the mob becomes human again – in Wagner’s theoretic formulation, it accomplishes the “progress from the unconscious to the conscious” in a generative moment of “initial communion” – whereupon the Knights individually receive the Pentecostal light focused in their temple by the Grail, which has now manifested itself in glory (Magee 268).

Magee argues that Parsifal is the perfect Schopenhauerian opera, dealing with Wagner’s Schopenhauer-inspired, Buddhist conviction that worldly existence entails unrelieved suffering, the only escape from which is absolute renunciation.  Magee is right.  Who would argue with him on the point?  But this does not mean that Parsifal is not also something else, many other things, at the same.

Wagner’s last opera seems to subsume, not only the life-weary metaphysics of The World as Will and Representation (which it does in spades), but also the anthropological meditations that come between Wagner’s revolutionary period and his fateful encounter with Schopenhauer.  The redemption of the Waste Land in Parsifal requires the re-founding of humanity, through the production of transcendence in the form of an originary sign, to be enacted before the audience.  The opera reveals to the audience members their own investment in a scene of their humanity.

 Works Cited

Gans, Eric, The Scenic Imagination.  Stanford: Stanford U P, 2008.  

—–.  Originary Thinking, Stanford: Stanford U P, 1993. 

Magee, Bryan.  The Tristan Chord.  New York: Metropolitan, 2001.

Quest of the Holy Grail.  Trans. Pauline M. Matarasso.  New York: Penguin, 1969.

Wagner, Richard.  The Art-Work of the Future and Other Works.  Trans. W. Ashton Ellis.  Lincoln, Nebraska: U of Nebraska P, 1993.  

Wolfram von Eschenbach.  Parzival.  Trans. A. T. Hatto.  New York: Penguin, 1980.

 Dr. Thomas Bertonneau teaches English at SUNY-Oswego.  He received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1990.