Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Nature Boy

Barry Emslie’s Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love has attracted lavish praise, already described as ‘the essential Wagner book of the year’ in Classical Music magazine. It is a bold book which argues that Wagner's music dramas cannot be understood if treated separately from his thought, his life and the intellectual and artistic climate of his day. To give a flavour of Emslie’s style, here is an extended excerpt from his examination of the character of Siegfried:

Siegfried has a mother complex; indeed he has the mother of all mother complexes. Not least among the attractions of this is that Wagner, when it comes to maternal longing, is extremely sensitive. And although this is highly subjective territory, I suggest that many of the most tender and beautiful passages in the score of Siegfried are expressive of those moments when the hero muses on his mother. I would also make a similar claim for the exquisite passage at the end of Walküre when Wotan kisses his daughter/bride Brünnhilde to sleep.

Siegfried is the ideal oedipal candidate because he is not only obsessed with The Mother; he has never had any contact with a woman. He lives in state of absolute lack, but it is a knowing lack. That is, the empty site of the absent mother is something of which he is heart-breakingly aware. It pains him. But he has come to this knowledge in a purely pantheist fashion. He has observed all-wise nature working out her various miracles among the creatures of the forest and has thereby inferred the truth about pairing and reproduction. He is, in fact, a vulgar materialist, a true child of nature. Offended yet again by Mime’s lies, he retorts: “My ears do not believe you. I’ll credit only the evidence of my own eyes.” Having then dismissed Mime’s claims to be mother and father in one, he is confronted with trying to make sense of the great gap where the secret of his identity lies. Solving this mystery, gaining this knowledge both theoretically and – when he meets Brünnhilde – corporeally is the real agenda of the work. Indeed within the parameters of Wagnerian ideology this can only be accomplished courtesy of the deepest (i.e. sexual) experience of life. With this will come not only entry into manhood but, potentially, into human society as well. Firstly, however, he must get a name and the name of his parents. Mime must be forced to give up this information. After this has been achieved the dwarf feels compelled to produce the broken shards of Nothung. But here his motives are ambivalent as he needs both the sword and Siegfried to kill Fafner. However, while these events put Siegfried on the narrative road of the great adventure, the profound emotional lack, expressed as maternal longing, remains his sole motivation. Psychologically he is in effect setting out on a search for his mother, although he does not know this. In fact he is ostensibly aware that such a search is impossible in commonsense terms, Mime having explained that Sieglinde died in giving birth. On hearing this Siegfried’s response was brief but exceptionally poignant. Superficially regarded, he knows – and we know – that he has no hope of finding the all-privileged, all desired woman. Yet Wagner’s subtlety is such that we come to understand that that is, nevertheless, the hero’s unconscious agenda. Furthermore, we will come to feel – at the very least – that such an agenda is realisable once we enter into the deeper metaphysical world of The Ring.

The first stage in this oedipal narrative is the passage already referred to as “Forest Murmurs”. Left alone by Mime in front of Fafner’s cave we experience Siegfried for the first time as a true child of, and in, nature. Naturally he muses on his mother. There is no better place for him to do so irrespective of whether we are inclined to look for specific maternal (womb based) symbols in the setting or not. Nature herself is surely enough. His frustrated mother love is expressed in several telling passages. He is struck that he cannot imagine what she looked like (but speculates that her eyes must have been lustrous like the deer’s) and asks himself the naïve question “Do all men’s mothers die of their sons?” In this instance the mother’s status as the paradoxically absent but omniscient signifier, could not be more explicit. And yet there is a slight, and poignant, contradiction. Siegfried’s empiricism seems not to do the business when it comes to his own kind. He knows full well that in the forest the female is not condemned to sacrifice her life in childbirth. However, not having experienced any human society (the dwarf Mime in the Wagnerian scheme of things hardly qualifies) he cannot make the obvious inference with any certainty. Women may be different. In Wagner they are certainly special.

It is not too fanciful to suggest that Wagner is knowingly drawing our attention here to the wholly apposite dichotomy between the individual absent mother for whom Siegfried longs, and maternal nature which not only surrounds him but moreover creates the womb-like benevolent and comforting environment in which he is most completely at home and where, consequently, he has no need to learn fear. A Schopenhauerian might see this as a (temporary) triumph over the debilitating awareness of individuation which otherwise alienates the subject from the universal will and thereby makes impossible a deeper understanding of its phenomenon: the world. Siegfried gives us some sense here of the will-in-itself in that he is, momentarily, pantheism embodied. However there is no way that Wagner can pursue this agenda, given that he is set on celebrating the amoral hero who is true to greater and undiluted egocentric values and must, therefore, exuberantly and hopefully leave the forest and burst into the world as a wilful “doer”. Whether Wagner likes it or not, the hero he sketched more than two decades before he finished musically setting the text, has much in common with the world enhancing individual celebrated for his amoral greatness in the pages of the philosopher Schopenhauer most despised: Hegel.

There then follows the business by which Siegfried enters the cave and thus goes more deeply into nature. Subsequently Fafner’s blood and the decoding of the Forest Bird’s song accord him an identity which is unique in The Ring. In this, at least, Wagner realises his agenda. He has found dramatic means equal to the deeper story and its symbols. The disaster for the composer comes about, as we have seen, when he can find no acceptable terms of reference for Siegfried (and Brünnhilde) once he has taken one of them out of the forest and brought the other down from the mountain top.

However, it is only when Siegfried encounters Brünnhilde that the true subtlety of the oedipal trauma becomes clear. Having dismissed his father’s murderer (as he not unfairly regards Wotan) and faced down the fire (no problem as he is still without fear) he frees the sleeping Brünnhilde from her armour and discovers that she is “not a man”. At this point he immediately learns fear and calls frantically on his mother to think of him. Soon after – before he has kissed Brünnhilde awake – he again calls on his mother, asking her to see what has become of her valiant child. Thus the all-important signifier of the absent mother becomes step by step associated with the present woman for whom, as Siegfried repeatedly declares, his heart pounds and his blood rushes. And subsequently when the awoken Brünnhilde explains to him that she protected him before he was born, that she “fed [his] tender being,” the two notions become momentarily fused. Siegfried imagines that he has encountered his actual mother and mate in one, whereupon Brünnhilde is compelled to bring him back to what we might call commonsense reality.

This is an adept set of shifts and, although the relevant passages are short and the matter speedily dealt with, it should be seen as a clear and important advance in respect of what Wagner can do with sexual mores, love, knowledge and identity. In Parsifal, however, exactly that same nexus will surface in a superficially similar manner. But this time the synthesis will be, in real terms, much deeper and more far-reaching. In fact, in the swindle stakes Parsifal will out trump everything that precedes it. Meanwhile in Siegfried, once Brünnhilde has cleared up the misunderstanding, the oedipal complex is simply and relatively brusquely put to one side and everything is then exclusively focused on the coming union. But even while we may not see that union as literally oedipal in that it does not directly express Siegfried’s mother complex, it certainly implies it. Furthermore it is still, literally, an incestuous pairing. Siegfried is, after all, about to copulate with his twin parents’ half sister. He can, at least in his present state of ignorance, hardly know this, but she, and we, most certainly do.

What follows has more to do with Brünnhilde and at this point we should backtrack briefly to the moment of her awakening. It is striking that her first words are not to Siegfried, about whom she is already better informed than he, but to the natural world; her own shining natural world. She greets nature. She hails the sun, the light, the day. And the score is duly flooded with radiance. Nevertheless, she will no more be able to remain immaculately in that milieu than Siegfried has been able to remain in the forest. In fact it is worthwhile noting that Siegfried was always well aware that the forest was not the “be all and the end all”. When told in act one of Fafner’s lair and where it was to be found, he observed that it is “not far from the world”. But of course this is meagre stuff in comparison to what Brünnhilde knows and has experienced. As a result her encounter with Siegfried is much more complicated than his with her. She knows too much and is therefore forced into the role of his teacher.

In some ways – though not sexually, she is a virgin – she is the classic older woman. Furthermore she finds herself in momentary difficulties because of the radical shift in her identity which has seen her lose her Godhead only to be compensated by the miserable status of a mere woman. This appals her and she initially asks to be left alone. However, as we know, the seemingly miserable status of “woman” is, in the Wagnerian scheme of things, redolent with higher philosophical significance. This is particularly so when the privileged woman mates (whether “idealistically” or, as here, clearly physically) with the needy male. There is no more ethereal role for the eternal feminine, at least until that ultimate moment is reached when she will sacrifice her own life to bring the beneficent parable to an even greater, and decisive, climax. So Brünnhilde succumbs passionately to Siegfried’s ardent demands and they duly couple in a torrent of (barely singable) exaltation. When they climax (at least musically) they do so by welding “radiant love” to “laughing death.” Love (implying procreation) and death might be seen as nature’s most fundamental categories. Wagner sees them as such. And it is with the signifier “death” that the work joyously concludes. It is the last word we hear from both of them, blazing out at the very end in the full self-confidence of Brünnhilde’s top C. Of course Wagner had known that death was a necessary ingredient in the recipe of the music drama from the moment he first tackled the redemption theme in The Flying Dutchman. However before setting the last act of Siegfried he had not only read Schopenhauer but written and composed Tristan und Isolde. As a result he had a deeper understanding of death and a greater ability to take full advantage of it as the necessary corollary of love; which is to say as the noblest manifestation of nature and the royal road to renunciation.

Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love is available from all good booksellers.

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