September 5th, 2012Wagner, Wotan, and Christby Joseph Pearce

I'd like to draw attention to an excellent comment by Mark to my post "The Peace that Parsifal Understanding" (August 31st). Mark questions my assertion that Wagner was a Christian and goes on to quote Roger Scruton to buttress the more conventional image of Wagner as a humanist whose adherence to Christianity was tenuous and heretical. Scruton's comments are applicable to the earlier Wagner who wrote the Ring Cycle and Tristan und Isolde whereas my post was specifically about Wagner's last opera, Parsifal, which is indubitably pro-Christian and indeed implicitly pro-Catholic in its positive allusions to the consecration of the Mass. The fact that Nietzsche publicly disowned Wagner and attacked him in the wake of the composition of Parsifal indicates Nietzshe's opposition to Wagner's late embrace of Christianity.

In my humble opinion, Wagner is perhaps the greatest musical genius of the nineteenth century. It is, therefore, gratifying that his God-given gifts were finally put at the service of the Giver of all creativie gifts.

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  • September 6 2012 | by mark

    Thank you for your response. It would be interesting to see this line of thought (Wagner's earnest conversion and its resulting fruit in Parsifal) further fleshed out. Can anyone point me to further analysis of this topic? Perhaps Nietzsche would be the place to start? Or has this subject already been broached in a past (or possibly a future) issue of StAR?

    My interest was piqued not only by the possibility of the re-evaluation of a particular work, but also by the possibility of the re-evaluation of the artist himself. This dual interest is largely due to a comment made by Mauriac in the Summer 1953 (No. 2) issue of the Paris Review (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5197/the-art-of-fiction-no-2-francois-mauriac). Although he was speaking more of the great figures of literature and philosophy, I believe it can also be applied to other artists, especially someone like Wagner whose work, in spite of his attempts to transcend the traditional boundaries of form, will always be subject to the will and designs of those running the latest production. Mauriac said:

    "Almost all the works die while the men remain. ... I have always been and still remain a great admirer of Gide. It already appears, however, that only his journal and Si le grain ne meurt, the story of his childhood, have any chance of lasting. The rarest thing in literature, and the only success, is when the author disappears and his work remains. We don't know who Shakespeare was, or Homer. People have worn themselves out writing about the life of Racine without being able to establish anything. He is lost in the radiance of his creation. That is quite rare."

    And continued with:

    "There are almost no writers who disappear into their work. The opposite almost always comes about. Even the great characters that have survived in novels are found now more in handbooks and histories, as though in a museum. As living creatures they get worn out, and they grow feeble."

    The same can be said of artistic movements. After achieving its pinnacle of seriousness, ambition, and technique with Joyce's, "Ulysses", the movement towards the immanent salvation of man through art (salvation not from damnation, but from the Ennui of modern life) seems to be flaming out. For instance, take Becket's "Godot" and the even more contemporary works of Bolano and Eno. They are exceedingly brilliant and a delight to experience, but at the same time they seem to be enjoining us to - as John Lahr put it in a recent review in "The New Yorker" of Eno's, "Title and Deed" - "enjoy the nothingness while you can".

    This may not necessarily be the movement that Wagner ended his life as a part of, but as you mentioned, the conventional understanding places him at the forefront of it and binds him to its fate. As this movement draws to a close and is replaced by another, where will the men of the future, both those inside the Church and those who no longer seek salvation from either boredom or damnation, find the greatest value in a modern artist like Wagner? Will it continue to be in his work, or will it be in the expression of the overwhelming, transformative power of Grace that you touched on in your original post? I follow the lead of Mauriac in finding more interest in, if it is truly the case, the latter.