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Richard Wagner

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Author Topic: Richard Wagner  (Read 1983 times)
Thor, God of Thunder
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« Reply #30 on: July 26, 2007, 10:13:04 pm »

The flaw in the argument that Kundry is an anti-Semitic element of the drama is that, as Wagner knew but those who argue for Herodias as an anti-Semitic reference obviously do not know, the biblical Herodias was not Jewish! Later Wagner would have read in Ernest Renan's Life of Jesus (if Cosima, who had read it some years before, had not told him already) that Herodias was notorious for her rejection of the Jewish religion, which she held in open contempt. A less obvious candidate for a "Jewish" character would be hard to imagine.

he idea that Kundry is a representative of Jewry, or of a supposedly Jewish element in the human mind, while being at the same time an embodiment of the eternal feminine, was put forward by Otto Weininger in his strange book Geschlecht und Charakter (known in English as Sex and Character, although it should be noted that the ambiguity of Geschlecht is lost in the translation), Vienna, 1903. Weininger's projection of his misogynistic ideas on to Wagner's Parsifal has been endorsed by Nike Wagner in her recent book Wagner Theatre (translated into English under the title, The Wagners: Dramas of a Musical Dynasty):

Weininger's model of woman, represented as a hopeless existential paradox, resembles Kundry in every respect. Parsifal almost seems to play out the arguments of Sex and Character in operatic form - or does Sex and Character state the theoretical assumptions from which Parsifal proceeds? One could argue that Weininger was more Wagnerian than Wagner: he even 'corrects' Wagner at certain points, as when he argues that Kundry should have died in Act Two, at the moment when Parsifal resisted her attempts to seduce him, rather than undergoing the prolonged religious conversion of the last act.
[The Wagners, Nike Wagner, tr. E. Osers and M. Downes, 2000, pp. 124-5.]
f Nike Wagner proves anything in the chapter from which I have quoted above, it is that one can twist her great- grandfather's dramas to say anything you want, provided that you are permitted to 'correct' Wagner! Those who, like Nike Wagner, choose to see Parsifal through the distorting lens of Sex and Character are entitled to do so, of course; but we should not take too seriously the claim that the interpretation of Wagner's work constructed by the deranged Weininger provides insight. Weininger's reading of Parsifal is just as much a subjective fantasy as the one put forward by Gutman, 65 years later.

hen there is Klingsor. Some (including Marc Weiner, who has a lot of strange ideas about Wagner) have argued that Klingsor is Jewish because he castrated himself and castration is very much like circumcision, which is a Jewish tradition. It might be news to Marc Weiner and others that castration is, in fact, not much like circumcision.

Friends and Lovers
  noted above, Wagner was prejudiced not only against "Jewishness" (which he described as "a purely metaphysical concept") but also against the French and their "civilisation". As Bryan Magee states forcefully in his recent book about Wagner and philosophy, however we might view these prejudices, Wagner himself did not regard them as racial but as cultural. The fact that he was able to have close, even intimate, friends who were of French origin (like Cosima) or of Jewish origin (like Tausig, Porges or Rubinstein) confirms that his prejudices were not racial. In relation to Parsifal there is an extreme case of the apparent contradiction in which Wagner could reject a nation but accept its individual members. During the composition of the music, Judith Gautier played some kind of symbolic role, perhaps allowing Wagner to some extent to recreate (at least within his mind) the relationship with Mathilde Wesendonk that had enabled him to write Tristan. Not only was Judith of Jewish descent but she was French. Wagner's prejudices did not prevent him from having a love affair with Judith, almost entirely by correspondence (which was mostly destroyed by Wagner himself) between Wagner in Bayreuth and Judith in Paris. Something of Judith might be seen in the Kundry of act two, and it is only in this sense that there is anything Jewish -- or French -- about "mademoiselle Cundrie".

The Aryan Christ
he charge that Parsifal is the Aryan Christ, a redeemer who does not have to die, is one of the stranger ideas to have appeared and reappeared in recent decades. The first question that arises is whether Parsifal was intended as a Christ figure. Wagner vehemently denied that this was the case, on several occasions: I did not have the Saviour in mind at all, he said once. The suspicion remains, however, that he might have done.

he words "Erlösung" (redemption or release) and "Heil" (salvation) are to be found in most of Wagner's operas and dramas. Also in Parsifal, where there are no few references to "Heiland" (saviour) and "Erlöser" (redeemer). All of the references to "Heiland" and at least some of those to "Erlöser" appear to refer to Christ, although that title is never mentioned. Some of the references to "Erlöser" are ambiguous, however, such as Kundry's words to Parsifal in the second act:

Bist du Erlöser,
was bannt dich, Böser,
nicht mir auch zum Heil
dich zu einen?

 If you are a redeemer,
what evil stops you,
from uniting with me
for my salvation?

And then:
Die Welt erlöse,
ist dies dein Amt

 Redeem the world,
if that's your mission

hese lines do not prove, however, that Parsifal is a redeemer or that it is his mission to redeem the world. Only that Kundry, the heathen, sees these possibilities. Earlier the pious Gurnemanz too had seen potential in the boy. If Parsifal is not a Christ figure then at least he is seen as one with the potential to redeem, if not the entire world, at least Kundry, Amfortas and the community of Monsalvat.

ehind the claim that Parsifal is the Aryan Christ lies the assumption that the agenda of Parsifal is about race, an assumption that we have already shown to be false. Wagner wrote that he was not concerned about the racial origins of Jesus of Nazareth: The blood of the Saviour which ran from his head and his wounds upon the cross; what sacrilege would it be to ask whether it belonged to the white race, or to any other race? (Herodom and Christendom).


lthough many people still take them for granted, on close examination the respective claims that Wagner was a racist, that he was obsessed with ideas about race and that a racist agenda can be detected in his last drama, turn out not only to be unsupported but also refuted by hard evidence.

agner's posthumous reputation has been seriously damaged by three factors. One of them is the unfortunate fact that Adolf Hitler was a great fan of Wagner's music, which has left an association between Wagner and Nazism, one that was exaggerated by Adorno and developed by Gutman. The second factor, in the English-speaking world, is the lack of readable and accurate translations of Wagner's prose writings. Whilst in the original German Wagner's prose is almost impenetrable, in Wm. Ashton Ellis' mangled rendering the original meaning is obscured or even, in many instances, lost completely. Recent and current writers about Wagner take advantage of this situation by "explaining" Wagner's ideas for those who cannot penetrate either his prose or his poetry. Their "explanations" are, more often than not, distortions that build upon the mistaken ideas of Adorno and Gutman. Last but not least, Wagner's reputation has been damaged by the distorted account of Wagner as man and artist presented in Gutman's book; in which it was argued, with more conviction than logic or evidence, that Wagner was a racist. Some of Gutman's disciples have added the allegation that Wagner's anti-Semitism was racial in character. The best evidence that Gutman could find to support his allegation that Wagner was a racist, was the summary of Gobineau's theories presented by Wagner in Herodom and Christendom. Gutman misrepresented Wagner by claiming that these were his ideas, in other words, making Wagner appear as a racial theorist. This falsehood has been repeated by several other writers, despite the publication, since the appearance of Gutman's book, of Cosima's Diaries (1976) and the Gobineau correspondence (2000) respectively. In their treatment of the relationship between Wagner and Gobineau, Gutman and his disciples have viciously attacked Wagner for opinions that he not only did not hold but which he also rejected in his Herodom article. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that these writers were more concerned with finding sticks with which to beat Wagner than with the truth. Prominent among them is Paul L. Rose, whose anti-Wagner rant Race and Revolution was described by Michael Tanner as a prodigious work of hatred, and who asserts that Wagner the "racial theorist" invented racial anti-Semitism.

utman's fantastic interpretation of Parsifal rests on his idea that Wagner was a racist and a disciple of Gobineau and upon a fundamental misreading of the article Herodom and Christendom which he believed to reveal the ideas central to this drama. This interpretation has found widespread acceptance in particular in the USA. Therefore it is not unusual to encounter, especially in the US media, statements about Parsifal (for example in reviews of performances) which take it for granted that this work is a vegetarian concoction in which the main ingredients are race and anti-Semitism, seasoned with misogyny and homosexuality. Gutman's mistakes can be excused, to some extent, by his limited access to primary sources; they must be primarily attributed, however, to poor scholarship combined with a good measure of stupidity. On the other hand, the attacks on Wagner for his alleged racism (of which both Herodom and Christendom and Parsifal, by circular argument, are claimed to be evidence) by Zelinsky, Rose, Weiner and others can only be attributed to malice and hatred. These attacks show no sign of abating.

utman's most fundamental error, with regard to Parsifal, was to ignore the 1865 Prose Draft, which already contains all of the central ideas of the drama. In fact, as Dr. Wolfgang Golther pointed out nearly a century ago, the ideas which underly Parsifal can be found already in letters that Wagner wrote while developing the scenario during the late 1850's. These ideas, the basis of a detailed Prose Draft which Wagner wrote in August 1865, are not concerned with race, anti-Semitism, misogyny or vegetarianism. The reader can verify for himself or herself that those subjects do not appear in the Prose Draft of 1865 or in the libretto of 1877, nor are they discussed in Wagner's letters to Mathilde Wesendonk. In 1877, before writing the poem/libretto, the prose draft was revised and expanded. Wagner fully developed the element of the spear as a connecting idea and motivation. From the revised draft Wagner wrote a libretto in the spring of that year. Therefore Gutman's claim that the libretto of Parsifal is based on ideas that occupied Wagner's mind in and around 1881 is evidently false and Gutman's fantastic interpretation of Parsifal (like his absurd interpretation of Tristan) is nonsense. His entire book belongs in the dustbin of history.

Footnote 1: Cosima's Diaries show that after meeting Gobineau for the second time, Wagner began reading some of his books, starting with La Renaissance in November 1880. In December he tried to read the poem Amadis, which he disliked, perhaps because of its racist undertones. Early in 1881 he moved on to the Nouvelles asiatiques, which he enjoyed, and then to the Essay on the Inequality of Human Races, which he began in March and finished in May. Before parting from the Wagners, Gobineau presented Richard with a copy of his Dogme et philosophie: Religions et philosophies dans l'Asie centrale, which Wagner read with great interest.

Footnote 2: The term regeneration writings should be, although it has not been, limited to the article Religion and Art (written at Naples in July 1880, published in October of the same year) and its three increasingly cranky supplements (What use is this knowledge?, December 1880; the anti-Semitic rant, Know thyself, February 1881; and Wagner's attempt at reconciliation with Count Gobineau, Heroism and Christianity, translated by William Ashton Ellis under the title Herodom and Christendom, September 1881). Ellis, who translated (with more enthusiasm than accuracy) Wagner's prose writings, thought that the unfinished fragment On the Womanly in the Human should be regarded as the completion of Wagner's circle of his thoughts about regeneration. The attempts by some of the authors mentioned to include all of Wagner's articles written for the Bayreuther Blätter in the regeneration writings are no more than a conspiracy to mislead. As in the main article Religion and Art there are passages in its supplement Herodom which touch upon the ideas underlying Parsifal. This does not mean that these regeneration writings reveal anything about the creative process from which that drama resulted. These passages are more cases of looking back on the ideas that led Wagner to Parsifal from the changed perspective -- with its components of pacifism, mysticism and vegetarianism -- of his last years. Gutman's claim that the libretto of Parsifal emerged from that perspective (which he also failed to understand) was not justified.

Footnote 3: The Gobineau correspondence consists of 79 letters. Of these 49 were written by Gobineau to members of the Wagner family, 28 by Cosima Wagner and 2 by Richard Wagner. The letters have been edited by Eric Eugène and the edition was published in 2000 as Richard et Cosima Wagner - Arthur Gobineau Correspondance, Librairie Nizet ed., Saint-Genouph.

Footnote 4: The following paragraph is taken from notes that Wagner made in his occasional diary, the Brown Book, in October 1881, when he was completing the full orchestral score of Act 2. The section is headed, Thoughts on the regeneration of mankind and of culture, and may have been intended as the outline for another essay in the series of "regeneration writings". In the mingling of races, the blood of the nobler males is ruined by the baser feminine element: the masculine element suffers, character founders, whilst the women gain as much as to take the men's place... The feminine thus remains owing deliverance: here art -- as there in religion; the immaculate Virgin gives birth to the Saviour. Here Wagner is taking an idea from Gobineau and turning it into a different idea.
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