maandag 8 maart 2010

When Roger Scruton speaks his mind

Van de Britse conservatieve filosoof Roger Scruton verscheen onlangs Understanding Music, een boekje met muziekessays waarin ook Wagner niet kon ontbreken. In "The Trial of Richard Wagner" herneemt hij het discours dat hij vroeger reeds in het kader van de Nexus-conferentie "Het proces Richard Wagner" had aangevat en vult dit nu aan met niet mis te verstane beschuldigingen ten aanzien van zogenaamd "progressief" Links.

In the second half of the twentieth century, `racism' became the first among political crimes, and one so broadly defined that even the most innocent remark may be taken as proof of it-for example, the remark that I have just made in this sentence. Racism has also been associated (at least by those on the Left) with the political and social beliefs of the `Right', and especially with the defence of traditional order, social hierarchy and the inheritance of Western culture. Furthermore, crimes committed by the political Right are not forgiven by modern intellectuals, whereas those committed by the political Left, if noticed at all, are usually dismissed as errors, or justified in terms of their long-term effects.

Wagner was for much of his life a revolutionary, and one who distinguished himself in the liberal-socialist cause. But it cannot be denied that the philosophy that is most easily gleaned from his later works is in sharp conflict with the egalitarian project. Moreover, his celebration of the German idea, and of the folk-culture in which it is embedded, has made him far more useful to nationalists, traditionalists and reactionaries than he could ever be to socialists or liberals. Nor has Wagner's reputation been helped by Hans Sachs's appeal to the German nation in Die Meistersinger, or by the extraordinary restatement of Christian mysticism in Parsifal. Subsequent history has only confirmed the suspicions of left-wing critics, and as a result the crimes of Hitler are read back into the operas of Wagner, as though they originated in that source.

In his striking recent biography of the composer, Joachim Köhler associates Wagner with the German nationalist movement, in which the building of Bayreuth and the works performed there played an undeniable role. He believes it to be no accident that Hitler's love of Wagnerian symbols fuelled the Nazi frenzy or that the anti-semitism so vehemently expressed in the composer's prose writings should later have re-emerged in Germany as a call to genocide. And Kohler's antagonistic reading of Wagner's personality percolates into his reading of the works. The Dutchman is Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew; Alberich is the insidious money-grubbing Jew who pollutes the moral order from a place beneath it; Beckmesser is the Jewish interloper who undermines the honour and public spirit of the city. Parsifal is an affirmation of the divine light of Jesus-the light bestowed by mortal sacrifice-against the dark tyranny of the God of Israel. Die Meistersinger is not the innocent comedy proclaimed by its author, but a sinister avatar of German racism, so that Hans Sachs's interruption of the rejoicing at the opera's end to warn against the enemies of German art betrays, for Köhler, the real underlying tendency of the drama. And so on.

My response to this reading (which has been a commonplace of Wagner criticism since Adorno) is to ask: what if Wagner had never written his notorious pamphlet on Jewishness in music? What if he had never uttered an anti-semitic remark but merely greeted all reference to the Jewish race with an enigmatic smile? Would we then be inclined to read anti-semitism into the works that allegedly contain it? My response is: surely not. To someone who says `Just look at Mime, the falsely humble, snivelling, wheedling, power-hungry schemer - isn't this the very caricature of the Jew?' I would reply simply: `Who is the anti-semite?' Moreover, if the Dutchman is really the Wandering Jew, what a vindication of the Jewish race that Wagner should project on to it his own longing for redemption! If Veit Beckmesser is a Jew, what a great advertisement is Die Meistersinger for racial integration, that this vain little man should be so fully absorbed into the life of the city as to occupy the public office of Marker, that he should be accepted by everyone as a legitimate contender for the hand of Eva, and that he should be judged at last only by his musical and poetical performance and not by his race!

But of course Beckmesser is not a Jew, Wagner's spite against the half-Jewish Hanslick notwithstanding. Nor is the warning that Hans Sachs pronounces at the end of the work an invocation of nationalist sentiments. Wagner hesitated on artistic grounds to include this passage, succumbing perhaps to Cosima's pressure but also aware of the artistic need, at this juncture, to hold up the flow of jubilation and to remind the real interloper, Walther von Stolzing, that he cannot simply back away from the community whose old order he has challenged. Sachs's intention is to enfold Walther within a common loyalty and common moral and artistic inheritance. He therefore reminds the company of what has really been at stake throughout the opera, namely the equal need in both art and life for `tradition and the individual talent', to quote from another great artist who has been tarred with the anti-semitic brush.

Anybody who thinks of Die Meistersinger as a celebration of German nationalism as we know it has surely lost the plot. The drama is an invocation of the self-governing city. It presents us not with the new Germany of the nation state but with the old and lovable Germany of the Burg, the Germany celebrated by Hegel as 'burgerliche Gesellschaft', in which autonomous corporations maintain order and meaning without depending on the state, in which local ties are sustained by religion, family and the 'little platoons' of civil society, and whose peace is symbolized in the serene F major melody of the Nightwatchman, as he obstinately disregards the dissonant G flat of his own policeman's horn.

True, this society needs to be renewed from time to time, and that is what the drama is all about - as are all comedies if we are to follow Christopher Booker in his brilliant summary of story-telling, The Seven Basic Plots. But it is not the state, still less the unified national state created by Bismarck, that Wagner summons to the aid of this community whose corporate feelings have staled. It is erotic love, shaped by the project of marriage, flowing through the channels of custom, and renewing family and civil society, along with the musical tradition that has the endorsement of these things as its true moral goal.

Wagner was in the business of creating legends, not dramas only. He therefore draws extensively on the archetypes of folk tales. As in so many 'rags to riches' children's stories, his heroes tend to be orphans, or else to arrive, like Walther, from an inexplicable 'elsewhere'. They are on the surface antagonistic to the existing social order: but their antagonism is gradually overcome, often by some wise father-figure like Sachs or Gurnemanz, who is able to understand and forgive. Köhler is a modern German in this, that he prefers the revolutionary philosophy of Wagner's Dresden years to the later endorsement of the bourgeois order and the ethic of Christian renunciation. But that endorsement, made explicit in Die Meistersinger and Parsifal, is the true tendency of all the mature dramas, and is evinced in a final reconciliation between youthful adventure and aged restraint. The outward form of this reconciliation is presented in the last act of Die Meistersinger, and its inner price is the theme of Parsifal.

None of that will serve to rescue Wagner from his left-wing critics. Guilt by association is the fate of any artist who can be seen as a fellow traveller of the political Right; recent victims include Joseph Conrad, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, Ernst Junger, Hans Pfitzner and Igor Stravinsky. Such treatment rarely awaits the intellectual of the Left, and even those who have justified and encouraged crime on the highest scale - Sartre, for example, Aragon, Brecht, Hanns Eisler - are often forgiven by their intellectual judges, who assume the right in such matters to speak for all mankind.

Having pondered this asymmetry of blame for many years, I have drawn the following tentative conclusions. Crime, on however large a scale, arouses little or no revulsion among left-wing intellectuals, provided that the goal is social equality - the pulling down of those on top, or the raising up of those below. Sometimes those below are the victims: this is usually seen as an 'error'. If the victims are those on top, however, the measures tend to be perceived as expedient and justified. At the same time, crime committed in the cause of inequality - in order to maintain social hierarchy, ancestral privileges, or control over discontented elements - always arouses great revulsion, however economical it may be in victims.
Thus the 'Peterloo' Massacre, in which eleven people were killed in a cause generally endorsed by left-wing intellectuals, stands far higher in the list of recognized crimes than Katyn, where tens of thousands died, and certainly higher than the mass murders of priests by the Spanish Republicans, of 'right-wing' partisans by the Soviet 'liberators' or of just about everybody by the French Revolutionaries. Anybody who has noticed these remarkable facts will ponder, too, the comparison between the collective crime of the Nazis and that of the Soviet communists, and recognize the ease with which the first has been exalted into the greatest crime in history, and the equal ease with which the second has been dismissed as irrelevant to any rational assessment of Marxist philosophy.

Here, I believe, lies the root of the hostility to Wagner. His art is dedicated to human distinction. He did not believe that human beings are equal in any of the repects which make life worthwile. His ideal hero could not possibly be taken as a model by socialists, liberals, urban intellectuals or anybody attached to the idea of human equality. Moreover, the dramatic context makes it all too easy to suppose that the composers’s anti-semitism is of a piece with his hero-worship, and that both are founded in an ideology of racial supremacy. It is true that Shaw saw Siegfried as a portrait of the revolutionary anarchist Bakunin, with whom Wagner had been friendly in his revolutionary years. But the identification is wildly implausible, and proof, at best, that Bakunin would not have lasted long in his own utopia.

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