Monday, 29 March 2010

Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love

Barry Emslie's new study of Wagner's intellectual and creative wellsprings goes to the heart of the matter. Focusing on the centrality of love to the Wagnerian project, he shows how its obverse, hate - and specifically racial hate - is also ineluctably integral to the composer's Weltanschauung. Here, Barry Emslie outlines the central theme of this provocative new title:

Oh no, not another one! For while the world needs many things and no doubt many books, it surely doesn't need another book on Wagner. Well I have no option but to maintain that it does, or, at the very least, that it needs mine. This is an outrageously arrogant position but it is rather forced on the writer. All that work, all that time, if it ends up as a printed and published object pushed – oh so modestly pushed – under the noses of the public, just doesn't wash if the modesty is real. Surely this a discrepancy that Wagner forces on the author. For it is his dubious spirit that keeps the publications glut at just slightly below the tsunami but well above the justifiably sensible level. The ironic result is that the scribbler, no matter how self-effacing, is compelled into a form of special pleading which, in its own way, is no less egotistical than the megalomaniac posturings of the Master himself.

Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love had its origins – as far as one can be specific on the matter – in an article I wrote for the Wagner Journal (Wagner: Race, Nation, Culture Vol. 2 No. 1). This paid as much attention to Wagner's polemical writings as it did to his music dramas, though it had little to say on more general German historical and cultural themes. It led to the book in two ways. Firstly there seemed in retrospect to be a bad fit between content and form. I felt that I had tried to pour a quart bottle into a pint jug. Much that was there needed to be filled-out, developed and placed in a more ambitious and far-reaching context. But the second consideration was yet more important. In reading Wagner's anti-semitic and Germanophile writings I became convinced that the natural and customary horror they evoked was misplaced, or, better said, that it was the product of a mis-recognition of what was really motivating him. For his anti-semitism is not significant simply because – or even chiefly because – it is obnoxious. Of much greater importance is that the idea of the Jews and Jewishness underpins his wider Weltanschauung. Consequently his positive notions of race, nation and culture take meaning from a Jewish antipode, chiefly because that antipode is dependent on a notion of “lovelessness”. I was convinced that this alternative, negative paradigm was essential to the productive development of Wagner's theoretical essays and his operatic practice, and that in its own way it was a key factor in the development of his ideas on redemption, on sexual liberation, and on what it means to belong to the German Volk. Far from muddying the waters it seduced me further into believing that I could interrelate the whole panoply of Wagner's intellectual and artistic strivings. In short it made the proposed book yet more ambitious: it was now going to cover a great deal of messy terrain without getting bogged down or entangled in contradictions. And it was all going to be done unproblematically under the rubric of love. Chance would be a fine thing!

Nonetheless, the element of hubris has remained. For while I would not claim that the book is the riddle of Wagner solved and that it – as used to be said of Marxism – knows itself to be the solution, it is not coy in laying out its far-reaching and comprehensive interpretation. Even so, everyone is aware that all pretension as to final answers in matters of this sort is folly. Worse than folly; it is unproductive. So there must be a contradiction at work here as well, in that one takes a big approach while accepting that no comprehensive interpretation can ever deliver in the manner that one wants. In the end even a grand theory purporting to get a handle on Wagner's music dramas, his polemical essays and to deal with them both in the impossibly broader contexts of German culture and history, can only vindicate itself in as much as it suggests new resolutions and opens up new areas of doubt and debate.

Which rather means that Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love won't be, can't be, and certainly shouldn't be, the last word. Therefore one contributes to the potential tsunami in two ways. Firstly as drop in the ocean, and secondly, as an incitement to others. As Thomas Mann said “Wagner and no end...” At least not yet, anyway.

Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love is published by the Boydell Press and available from your favourite music bookseller.

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