Friday, December 10, 2010

Wagner & Philosophy: something for everyone?

Going to see ‘Tannhäuser’ at Covent Garden on Saturday.  Now, you might, with justification, call me an opera nut, but I’m not a Wagner nut (this claim might be challenged by the time I’ve finished writing this).  We might more accurately say that I am not yet a Wagner nut, on account of not having seen/heard his operas often, and in fact I am a ‘Ring’ virgin.  Just for the record, and to get things straight, here is a list of the mature works:

The Flying Dutchman 1841 (saw this at The Met in NY last November with Deborah Voight).
Tannhäuser 1845 (have seen this before at Opera Australia).
Lohengrin 1848 (ditto, and at Deutsche Oper in Berlin - this is the 'Wedding March' opera))      
Das Rheingold – completed 1869 – first of the Ring operas.
Die Walküre – completed 1870 – second of the Ring operas.
Tristan and Isolde  1865 (saw this in Berlin at the Staatsoper conducted by Daniel Barenboim).     
Die Meistersinger  1868 (saw this in Sydney a few years ago with OA at The Capitol Theatre).
Siegfried 1870-1874 – third of the Ring operas.
Gotterdamerung ('Twilight of the Gods' – incidentally a Nietzsche title) 1874 – fourth of the Ring operas.
Parsifal 1882 (ENO is presenting this early next year – I’m in the queue).

Richard Wagner
So, relatively uninitiated in Wagner as I am (there are people who travel around the world all year following productions of the Ring – which comprises in total 15 hours of music, usually performed over a week or so) I thought I might read up a little. Moreover, since I am studying Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, those great German philosophers of the 19th century, Wagner’s name has been popping up consistently. Herr Wagner loved Schopenhauer, whom he first read about the time he began composing ‘Tristan and Isolde’. Nietzsche, as a young man, loved Wagner (and possibly Frau Wagner, Cosima, as well); although he turned away from his hero rather bitterly later on.

Then today I spied a book in the excellent Philosophy Department (third floor, back corner) of Waterstone’s Bookshop: Alain Badiou on Wagner. Alain Badiou! The very name of this contemporary French philosopher still brings me out in a cold sweat after the experience of studying him last year. I understood, at best, about 5% of his writings; but nevertheless found him intriguing. He’s into a ‘new metaphysics’ – well on the way to retrieving us all from Nietzsche’s ‘death of god’ thing, as far as I can make out. Which can only be good. Leafing through the book on Wagner, I saw that it was considerably less dense than the previous Badiou texts I had studied, so – casting to one side my assigned curriculum – I snaffled the book and spent a happy hour reading in Starbucks.

I should just add that reading Badiou would probably be considered a subversive activity in the hallowed (though dingy) corridors of the Birkbeck Philosophy department, which is a hot-bed of English Analytical philosophers, generally disposed to cast aspersions on the Continental School. Said School not being averse to casting aspersions right on back, as in Badiou’s own description of “the dull rationalists of analytical philosophy”.

Alain Badiou

I won’t bore you with all the ins and outs of what Badiou has to say, but he does tell us that he “considers it absolutely essential for a philosopher to take on Wagner”. Quite. That’s why I’m going to the opera on Saturday night. *self-righteous glow* Regarding ‘Tannhäuser’  in particular, Badiou uses it as an example of suffering in Wagner, caused by various ‘splits’. The plot centres around the character Tannhäuser who is trapped at the start in a world called Venusberg, full of the delights of sexual excess. He asks to go back to the real world, which in this case is full of medieval knights, where the faithful Elizabeth is in love with him. She’s an odd one, devoted to the Virgin Mary of Christian chastity. So there are splits between carnal love and courtly, quasi-religious love, two worlds (that of the gods and of man), between antiquity and the middle ages, between the pagan and the Christian. Badiou says:

This split occurs within Tannhäuser; he is at bottom nothing other than his split, the consequence of which is his utter inability to remain in one place. (Badiou)

He then has some interesting things to say about wandering characters in Wagner’s operas (think of the Flying Dutchman for example):

This compulsion to wander gave rise to some extremely striking, wrenching scenes in ‘Tannhäuser’. For example, while the hero is ensconced in the Venusberg, with sensuality galore, sexual pleasure all day long, there is a scene in which he begs Venus to let him leave...This scene, in Act I, is incidentally magnificent, utterly passionate and heart-rending...No sooner has he been summoned by the knights to a song contest in which ideal love, love for the Virgin Mary, chastity and so on, is to be celebrated, than he asks what all this nonsense is about. The knights don’t have a clue about love, only he really knows what love is, he boasts, then launches into his big song extolling erotic love. They all want to kill him, and he is saved only because Elizabeth, who loves him profoundly – precisely because he is able to say such a thing, as opposed to the perfect courtly knights, who are all a bit effete – rescues him. And then off he goes wandering again. (Badiou)

There is a lot of other interesting stuff, about the strange visit Tannhäuser makes to the Pope (who unhelpfully condemns him to hell for eternity); and about the very striking innovations in music made by Wagner such as more or less eliminating the ‘breaks’ which used to occur between music and dramatic action: “Wagner...proposed...that the interplay between drama and music should become undecidable.” Undecidable? I’ll have to ponder that.

Philosophers like to try to analyse the elements of Wagner’s music which reflect the Schopenhaurian philosophy of which he was so fond. To summarise this (rather rashly) in only one sentence, Schopenhauer was a famous pessimist who considered that all life was about continuous striving, achieving a goal, and then striving anew, never to reach resolution; unless you could ‘lose yourself’ in magnificent music – either that or become an ascetic yogi on a mountain top (he was fond of eastern philosophy). Schopenhauer was a great music lover, and played the flute. As he put it (he writes quite poetically, as all the best philosophers do):

The inexpressible depth of all music, by virtue of which it floats past us as a paradise quite familiar and yet eternally remote, and is so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain. (Schopenhauer)

Arthur Schopenhauer

Here’s what a contemporary philosophy scholar named Bryan Magee says about ‘Tristan and Isolde’ (which is a divinely beautiful experience, I may say):

The very first chord of Tristan and Isolde, perhaps the most famous in the history of music, contains two dissonances, one of which is resolved and the other not; the same is true of the second chord, and the third and fourth; and throughout the work the perpetual longing of the ear for resolution of discord is at every moment partially satisfied and partially not. This goes on for more than four hours of music, until finally, on the very last chord – when Isolde joins Tristan in death – resolution is at long last achieved, and a full close reached: the striving, indeed everything, stops. The entire work is a sort of musical equivalent of Schopenhauer’s doctrine that existence is an inherently unsatisfiable web of longings, willings and strivings from which the only permanent liberation is the cessation of being. (Magee)

And just to give another view, here’s what my current Nietzsche lecturer, Professor Gemes, has to say about Wagner:

Wagner’s solution...was that through a literal sensory bombardment rational faculties could be bypassed. It was Wagner’s intention that the four operas of the Ring cycle, some of which run over five hours long, are to be experienced over four consecutive nights so that his audience would be totally overwhelmed, thereby the themes of his work could penetrate to a level deep below their conscious rational faculties and there take root. As Wagner himself put it: “the public, that representative of daily life, forgets the confines of the auditorium, and lives and breathes now only in the artwork which seems to it as to Life itself, and on the stage which seems the wide expanse of the whole World.” We might question Wagner’s confidence that this state might persist outside the confines of the auditorium. (Gemes)

Possibly we won’t bump into Professor Gemes on Saturday night. ‘Tannhäuser’ goes for three or four hours.

Quotes from:
Alain Badiou ‘Five lessons on Wagner’, Trans. Susan Spitzer, Verso, NY, 2010
Magee, Bryan, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, Print publication date 1997, Published to Oxford Scholarship Online November 2003.              (Ch. 17)
Schopenhauer ‘The World as Will and Representation’ Vol. I, p. 264
Ken Gemes “Nietzsche, Nihilism and the Paradox of Affirmation” (unpublished paper)

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