This blog has got much bigger than I intended. I’ve effectively summarized this this book having just finished reading it for a second time. It was published in 2015 and I can’t remember how I became aware of it. I took notes this time around as I wanted to remember it better and wanted to record my highlighted bits. There turned out to be more than I expected. And having now completed it, there’s a bit of repetition. But I love all of this stuff. Scruton explains why The ring Cycle has has such a big impact on me. All the big themes are there! I recommend the book in full if you are a Ring Cycle devotee, as I am.
And as Roger Scruton was. As a right wing public intellectual in Britain he was a controversial figure, embroiled in numerous controversies that I haven’t followed closely. However that may be, he’s a terrific writer, with a very able very accessible and engaging writing style. He’s also written books about Wagner’s other operas – notably Tristan und Isolde and one on Parsifal that has just been posthumously published after his death in January this year. I’ve already purchased the latter and may well get the other – one could spend a lifetime reading about Wagner operas!
In the Preface Scruton describes this book as a work of criticism and also of philosophy; saying that he wants to explain the tetralogy but also to use the work as a vehicle for philosophical reflection.
I like this approach, as in nearly everything written about Wagner there is reference to the different philosophers that he was interested in, how they influenced his work and how his philosophical approach changed over time. Most notably resulting in a major change to the ending of The Ring. If you’re interested in this aspect of Wagner, this is the book for you.
It also includes an overview of each of the four operas in the tetralogy which give added depth to the stories told and is worth the price for that alone.
Chapter 1: Introduction: The Work and the Man
According to Scruton, Wagner’s aim in all the mature works was to give credibility to the thought that we are rescued by our ideals, despite their purely human origin, and also because of it. The gods, demi-gods and goblins portrayed in The Ring are personifications of our unconscious needs and strivings
In addition to the deep personal connection, looking inward to our very psyches we are given an overview of the whole of human development. The tetralogy presents a space on the very edge of history, fading here and there into hunter-gatherer darkness, emerging elsewhere into the crepuscular light of civilization in which land has been claimed as property, and loyalty shaped by feudal ties.
The Ring aims to provide a vision of the ideal, achieved with no help form the gods, a vision in which art takes the place of religion in expressing and fulfilling our deepest spiritual longings.
Chapter 2: History and Culture
As most writers on the cycle contend, Scruton believes to really appreciate The Ring it is helpful to know the context in which it was written. Especially the philosophical developments in Germany at the time Wagner was composing his works. Wagner was living at the end of cultural movements that have had a lasting impact on the way we see ourselves. He commenced writing the poem of The Ring in 1848, the year of revolutions across Europe.
In addition to political turmoil, and the commencement of the process that replaces the German city states with a unified State it was a period of intense philosophical debate in Germany.Scruton explains the connections between those philosophers who influenced Wagner. These are well known figures in the whole history of philosophy and Scruton puts it like this; Kant begat Fichte, who begat Hegel who begat Feuerbach; and Feuerbach begat both Wagner and Marx; the two most influential minds of their time.
Kant recognised that individual see themselves as free but also as objects among others. The categorical imperative commands me to recognize and respect the dignity of all who are governed, as I am, by the laws of practical reason. I must therefore live by the rule of justice; any other course is incompatible with a fully free and responsible life. This is what is involved in being a person – that I respect other persons as ends in themselves.
Fichte emphasised the importance of the spiritual: The premise of our knowledge is the self, the transcendent subject whose freedom is the anchor of all that he thinks and does … we live in a spiritual and not a material universe. Scruton summarises Fichte as follows: I act freely in the world, however, only when I recognize the presence of other free subjects who call on me to limit my freedom. This is the origin of political life, namely that we live in mutual dependence, each freely limiting his own freedom in order that the other can exist freely too. Hence political order is a realm of ‘right’, ‘law’ and ‘contract’, all of which are presupposed in the self-conscious existence of the human subject.
He sees this formulation as a way of continuing the critical philosophy of Kant, which had knocked theology from its throne in German universities, and put the study of freedom, subjectivity and the moral law in its place.The post-Kantian vision was; our world is a world of appearances, organized by our mental faculties; we have no knowledge of things in themselves, and the one certain reality is the self and its freedom.
Which brings us to Hegel. According to Scruton, Hegelians saw the contest over religion as the decisive episode in the emergence of the modern world. Wagner, profoundly influenced by Hegel, understood the human condition in terms of two great processes in the life of the individual – the process of Selbstbestimmung, whereby the free individual emerges from the condition of nature; and erotic love, in which the self encounters that which is wholly Other.
For Hegel the ultimate substance of the world is spirit or Geist... Science, religion, politics and art are ways that spirit realizes itself in objective form…. Nothing human is permanent, and all must perish in the spirit’s on-going search for self-knowledge.
This was also the period of the Napoleonic wars and many Germans, including Hegel (and Wagner)admired Napoleon as an heroic figure. Hegel described Napoleon’s victorious entry into the German city of Jena as “the World Spirit on horseback” and said in his Philosophy of History, “this is the role of heroes in the history of mankind: it is through them that a new world comes into being”.
Scruton’s explanation of Hegel’s theory of the Master/Slave relationship, which we looked at in passing in our philosophy course on Simone de Beauvoir, is clear and concise: One party to the original struggle overcomes and enslaves the other, so as to use the other as a means to his ends … As producer, the slave is able to acquire consciousness of himself as agent and a sense of the world as containing not only means but also ends; as consumer, the master loses that consciousness, and with it the sense of the ends of his existence. The ‘inner freedom’ of the slave grows with the ‘inner bondage’ of the master until the slave rises up and binds his oppressor. This toing and froing between command and obedience only resolves when each party sees the other as end and not as means, recognizing freedom as their shared condition, and thereby accepting the governance of a universal moral law.
According to Hegel; freedom and self-knowledge are achieved only through the resolution of conflict, when the other acknowledges my right to them, and when I acknowledge the other’s right in turn. It is only in the moment of recognition that I become a full-fledged individual, with a will, a destiny and a self of my own. And recognition must be mutual. I can be truly free only if I recognize the freedom of others.
Applying this to The Ring Scruton refers to the story of Siegfried’s quest for freedom and individuality (which he achieves) through contests with a dwarf, a dragon, a god and the woman who teaches him fear. It tells the story of his self-betrayal when he enslaves the one he loves … dramatizes the corruption of Siegfried, when conventional bonds of honour displace the spontaneous self-giving in love. And it shows that, in a world of manipulation and distrust, the freedom of the individual can be as easily lost as won.
Hegel’s account of law and its indispensable presence in the life of the free being is embodied in the character of Wotan. In Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel tries to show that the process whereby human beings realize their freedom also builds the institutions of law, property, family, civil society and the state. These are not things that we freely choose from a position of detachment, but things through which we actualize our freedom, and without which we could not exist as fully self-conscious agents. Hence they are the goal and the bequest of political life, permanent features of a free society. The Young Hegelians were more interested in the argument about individual freedom than in the defence of institutions.
And so we come to Feuerbach, who; agreed that our world is one of conflict, in which we strive to assert our power, to achieve knowledge of our capacities and to win recognition and respect from others. And he agreed that history is an on-going process, which moves constantly towards greater freedom, greater self-knowledge, greater emancipation from the superstition and fear that first enslaved us. But his view was that reality is material, not spiritual. This is because; Consciousness arises from life. And life is a material, not a spiritual, fact.
According to Feuerbach; A religion that regards God as irremediably transcendent, the locus of all virtue and holiness, and the world as eternally separated from God: the religion that tells the story of man’s ‘fall’ reflects a ‘self-alienated spirit’. If we attribute virtue, freedom and happiness to a spiritual realm in religion we make our virtue into an object, and then worship it as our master. Hence we are ‘alienated’ from ourselves and separated from our fulfilment.
Wagner created the supernatural beings of The Ring on Feuerbach’s model. They are personifications of human characteristics – both good and bad …(but) Wagner’s gods are far lower in the scheme of things that the humans over whom they exert their dwindling authority.
When Brünnhilde announces to Siegmund his forthcoming death, (one of my favourite parts of The Ring), she comes to the realization that the human world exhibits the virtue that the gods lack and without which life is deprived of its meaning – the willingness to sacrifice everything, even life itself, for the other’s sake. Therefore: In attempting to rescue Siegmund, she risks her immortality. But when the crisis comes she embraces death, knowing that death is the price of love, and that love is her salvation, and the world’s salvation too.
In addition to the political turmoil, and intense philosophical debates at this period, Scruton notes that; voyages of discovery, the romantic interest in indigenous myths and fairy tales, and a new scientific approach to the gods of Greece and Rome led to the first attempts to explore religion as a natural phenomenon, a pre-scientific residue in the human psyche, to be understood for what it says about us, rather then for the truth or otherwise of its doctrines.
The Nibelungenlied is an early thirteenth-century epic set on the Rhine in the Christian middle-ages. … Wagner rightly perceived that it is a reworked version of more interesting originals .. (and) turned to the study of .. the Poetic Edda (or Elder Edda) of Iceland.
Wagner reimagined the Volsung saga as an account of the birth and death of our world. … it is a remarkable attempt to give coherence and meaning to the pagan narratives … Wagner set out to create a vast and living symbol of the price we humans pay for civilization, by allowing a world in which that price has yet to be paid. At almost every turning point in The Ring, and in every place where a light of meaning is suddenly sparked in the narrative, Wagner has discovered a dramatic use for some fragment of the original literature.
Scruton emphasizes the sort of close reading required to discover, in the blood-thirsty poems that make up the Eddas , moments that Wagner could use in The Ring. This resonates with me as I’ve tried to read some of that source material and it alternates between extreme savagery and boring repetition. Scruton quotes the brief passage outlining the story of the goddess who disobeys and is put to sleep, where, he says, the phrase there was no-one willing to shield him gave Wagner the impetus for Brünnhilde’s whole story-line. He then considers why Wagner relied on the old myths rather than starting from scratch with his story – something I’ve sometimes wondered.
The reason given by Scruton goes back to the context in which Wagner was writing. Writers and philosophers of the Enlightenment were largely agreed that myths .. are not merely fictions. They represent another way of conceiving the world, and one that is directly connected with the religious way of life. Myths are not literally true; but they are not false either. They symbolize human passions and states of character, elevated to a sphere beyond the reach of chance events. By seeing their own mature symbolized and purified in mythic form, ordinary people were able the better to understand their fate.
Reading Grimms’s Deutsche Mythologie in 1843 Wagner wrote; the most fragmentary legends spoke to me in a profoundly familiar tongue, and soon my entire sensibility was possessed by images suggesting ever more clearly the recapture of a long lost yet eagerly sought consciousness. There rose up in my soul a whole world of figures, … that when I saw them clearly before me and could hear their speech I could grasp the source of the virtually tangible familiarity and certitude of their demeanour.
As a result, says Scruton; Wagner was able, with astonishing insight and serendipity, to assemble a story that makes sense on every level of interpretation: literal, metaphorical, symbolic and mythical. Myth acquaints us with ourselves and our condition, using symbols and characters that give objective form to our inner compulsions. … Myths do not speak of what was but of what is eternally. They are magical-realist summaries of the actual world, in which the moral possibilities are personified and made flesh. For Wagner, as for the Greeks, a myth is not a decorative fairy tale, but the elaboration of a secret, a way of both hiding and revealing mysteries that can be understood only in symbolic terms. This is what makes The Ring a masterpiece. Wagner’s works are therefore more than mere dramas: they are revelations, attempts to penetrate the mysterious core of human existence.
Both the music and the libretto take on a different form according to Scruton. The orchestra does not merely accompany Wagner’s singers, nor are they merely singers. The orchestra fills in the space beneath the revealed emotions with all the ancestral fears and longings of our species, irresistibly transforming these individual passions into symbols of a common destiny that can be sensed but not told. Wagner acquaints us with our lot, and makes available to an age without religious belief the core religious experience – and experience that we need, but which we also flee from, since it demands from us more than it gives.
Wagner understood that, even in the most stark and individualized religion, there are gods before gods. No god represents more than one stage in the journey of consciousness towards the final knowledge that we are here on earth without an explanation and that if there is meaning, we ourselves must supply it.
Wagner was also influenced by the Greek classics. He was one of the first writers to understand Greek tragedy as a religious institution. He wrote: Tragedy was the religious rite become a work of art, by side of which the traditional observance of genuine religious temple-rite was necessarily docked of so much of its inwardness and truth that it became indeed a mere conventional and soulless ceremony, whereas its kernel lived on in the art-work. This reveals his deep concern throughout his creative life with the nature of religion, the core religious phenomenon (being) not the idea of God, but the sense of the sacred. Both the Greeks and Wagner were replacing a defunct religious practice with its rebirth as art – art whose ultimate meaning was to be sacramental.
Scruton identifies how Wagner moves on from his earlier reading of philosophers. Although Wagner accepted Feuerbach’s view of the gods, as illusions born of our social needs, he believed in the sacred as an independent force in human affairs. Wagner believed religion contains deep truths about the human psyche; but these truths become conscious only in art, which captures them in symbols.
In all of Wagners music dramas sacred moments are therefore framed and displayed in their full human significance … And a vindication of the human is somehow figured in these moments. In the unity of love and death, in the willing acceptance of death for love’s sake, and in the renunciation of self for other we glimpse the meaning of human life. We understand that life lived in a spirit of sacrifice is worthwhile despite the enormous cost of it.
This is a long way from Feuerbach, since it takes the sacred, the spiritual and the sacrificial as fundamental aspects of the human condition, and necessary to our fulfilment. Like Hegel, who had seen religion as a stage on the way to self-knowledge rather than the final goal of it, Wagner sees his art as expressing and completing our religious emotions.
Then comes the big influence – the one that changed whole tenor of the final moments of The Ring. As is well known, Wagner read Schopenhauer in 1859 while writing Tristan und Isolde. According to Schopenhauer; Appearances are representations which are subjective states ordered by the concepts of space, time and causality. This system of representations stands like a veil between the subject and noumenal reality .. we have only to look inwards to encounter the reality behind the veil of appearances.
We ourselves are the thing-in-itself. Consequently, a way from within stands open to us to that real inner nature of things to which we cannot penetrate from without. … Hence we discover that the thing-in-itself is will, the endlessly restless, yearning, unsatisfied and disruptive tumult within, which we know without concepts, and which has no place in the empirical world. Existence is a mistake, a way in which the will is trapped in the spatio-temporal framework, longing to escape, endlessly wrestling with its prison of flesh. The only solution to the torment of existence is renunciation – the setting aside of the will. Neither suicide nor religion are solutions; rather it is a stepping away from the tumult of life, as we step away through art, to become ‘pure subjects of knowing’.
According to Schopenhauer, and this is a direct quote; Only in space and time can a principle of individuation be defined; hence it is only as object, and never as subject, that I have an identity. … that identity is fleeting, without permanent foundation, destined to be reabsorbed into the oceanic will that comprehends us all. How then, can I be the free individual that I am in the moment when I renounce my empirical existence, as Isolde and Brünnhilde renounce it, for the sake of love? This metaphysical conundrum underlies the drama of Tristan und Isolde and is also central to a full understanding of The Ring.
In music, Schopenhauer wrote; the inner essence of the world which is will, is made directly present to the mind. He believed music was a test case for his philosophy and his theories confirmed Wagner’s conception of a drama that would unfold entirely through the inner feelings of the characters. These feelings, hinted at in words, would acquire their full reality and elaboration in music. Developing under its own intrinsic momentum, the music would guide the listener through subjective regions that were otherwise inaccessible to the outside observer, creating a drama of inner emotion framed by only the the sparsest gestures on the stage – gestures which, for this very reason, would become so saturated with meaning as to reach the limits of their expressive power.
Scruton, again, quotes Schopenhauer directly; Music exhibits the will directly. And this explains its power: for it also acts on the will directly, raising and altering the passions without the intermediary of conceptual thought. Through consonance and dissonance music shows, in objective form, the will as satisfied and obstructed; melodies offer the ‘copy of the origination of new desires, and then of their satisfaction’ suspension is ‘an analogue of the satisfaction of the will which is enhanced through delay’.
Scruton then goes on to say, the poem of The Ring, brilliant though it is as a piece of storytelling, is conceived in another way from traditional opera libretti. The words are not set to music: they are the foam on the musical surface, the bursting into light of the dark movements beneath them. The drama takes place in the music, which means that it exists in two distinct spheres, outer and inner, cosmic and psychic. Such, in the end, is the true meaning of The Ring. All that is most important in our lives occurs both outwardly in the realm of politics and law, and inwardly in the realm of love, need and resignation. And the two processes unfold in parallel, since they are ultimately one and the same.
The total work of art that brought all these influences together, The Ring, was not completed until twenty-six years after its first conception. It started as Siegfried’s Tod in 1848, the poem was published in 1853 with the music commenced and laid aside after Act 2 of Siegfried in 1857, and recommenced, after Tristan und Isolde and DIe Meistersinger von Nürnberg, in 1869.
Chapter 3 The Story
Scruton, in just under one hundred pages explains the stories of each of the four separate operas. Written in lucid and luscious prose that goes into depth about the psychology of each of the characters and their motivations in acting the way they do, this is one of the best overviews of the story of The Ring anywhere.
He repeats his view of the overall story; Wagner’s gods are personified features of human psychology, and symbols of our spiritual need. In responding to them, we are, according to Wagner’s conception, responding to what is deep in ourselves… Wagner found himself telling the deeper story of humanity – a story that is revealed in the evolution of the human race, in the history of human society, and in the destiny of the individual soul.
Scruton says this opening opera gives us a complete picture of the cosmos, and of the price that has been paid for Valhalla …introduced a large cast of believable and gripping characters in whom are crystallized and immortalized the hopes and fears that govern us…shown that, in the world of the immortals, love is not necessarily the supreme value, and can sometimes be bartered for the good of government … shown that the serene world of the gods depends on an original sin of usurpation… and that the gods or ‘light-elves’ (Lichtalben) owe their blessed existence to the dark-elves, the Schwarzalben, and to Alberich’s great ‘crime against himself’ in renouncing, and then cursing love.
He describes a second narrative, that of the ruthlessness of the males, as they strive always to augment their power, and the plight of the females, objects of barter, enslavement and lust… Yet women, properly understood, harbour the wisdom that Wotan needs… ‘love and woman’s worth’. This feminine wisdom is personified in the primeval mother, who speaks from the depths of unconscious nature … the feminine has as yet a marginal existence in that world, and will be returned to us only if we can find our way back to it across the debris left by masculine ambition.
I’ll just include some of what he says about this opera that resonates particularly for me. The opening shows us the emergence of the moral order. The Rhinemaidens are in a world of enchantment and irresponsible joy … a place of primal safety. The beauty of the Rhine music that repeats through the whole work, tells of the amoral haven from which we set out, like Alberich, to forge a will and a world of our own.
As we move to the world of the gods, in the hymn-like theme of Valhalla we perceive the extent and majesty of Wotan’s power and in the spear motif, the immovable authority of Wotan’s will and his belief in the rule of treaties although we immediately see him conflicted by his desire for sovereignty and the need for home.
We see Loge only in this opera, Scruton calls him one of Wagner’s most original and compelling creations (whose) melodic line runs smoothly from accent to accent like that of a lawyer’s brief, bathing the situation in a stream of loquacious sarcasm… his sinuous music is so brilliantly tied to his artful personality that we are constantly aware hereafter of his presence in the drama.
Of the scene in the Nibelung’s cave, Wagner makes us feel as a certainty, how joy in the gold has become anger and malice in the person who stole it, and also fear and annihilation in the realm that he now controls.
In considering why possession of the Ring doesn’t save Alberich from Wotan’s theft of it, Scruton quotes Donington; transformation of character is still the fundamental issue. It is not merely that the ring is changing hands; the ring is itself at work in bringing this change about, as we may infer from the very fact that it does not avail Alberich to prevent the theft.
Alberich’s curse is a mighty utterance: All henceforth will crave for it, all will covet what it promises, and to all will it bring neither joy nor true reward but only misery, servitude and death!
The Giants, Scruton notes, deal in quantities, not qualities… the hoard is an inert and accumulated treasure.
Erda when she appears to warn Wotan not to take the Ring expresses; words that contain the great truth that Wotan has yet to learn, and which he can learn only by renouncing his immortal ambitions. All that is must end. A dark day closes on the gods. I charge you, shun the Ring!
Scruton says of this; it is a plausible suggestion that Erda is counselling Wotan not to avoid the end but to avoid the wrong form of it…Erda has woken, not in order to take control of things, but to clarify the new disposition of forces in the world that Wotan seeks to govern.
And finally, the gods march in empty triumph to their doom.
This opera has effected a transition from the world of gods to the world of men. It also saw the start of women turning against their abusers; Sieglinde defying Hunding, Fricka prevailing over Wotan and Brünnhilde extracting from Wotan the action that she needs to discover the love that will heal the cosmic wound.
Wotan has now decided, thanks to the wisdom of Erda that the only way he can get the Ring is to get a mortal to do so for him. Only a mortal being, enjoying both a god-like freedom and the ability to forge his own life, without the burden of cosmic government, could accomplish what Wotan lacks the power to do, which is to claim the Ring as his own, and to return it, consciously renouncing its power to the Rhine.
And so we come to the twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde who are to live in defiance of the laws and treaties that bind the gods, acting freely on their own account. But how can he be free when he is pursuing a goal set by Wotan? This is the paradox that governs the action of Die Walküre. And …is a paradox that goes to the heart of what it is to be human.
The music weaves a web of love and distress around them; the audience, observing this, is entirely on their side. So necessary and right has Wagner made this love that the subsequent revelation that they are brother and sister will matter not a jot. If there is such a thing as an aesthetic refutation of a moral belief, this is it.
The scene in the hut when Hunding returns Scruton describes as Ibsen-like, something that I’ve often felt.
Afterwards, when the two lovers finally express their love, acknowledge their relationship and flee together we have seen, in this first Act; the trajectory of erotic love, from the first encounter to the consummation, in a pair of uniquely sorrowful but un-self pitying humans …through music that has captured the two lives and wound them together in a web of tenderness.
We then move to Wotan charging Brünnhilde to save Siegmund in his forthcoming fight with Hunding. And then to Fricka demanding of Wotan that he uphold the moral law for which he is responsible. And she points out that Siegmund is not really free; Wotan is defending him. It’s taken me ages to understand this debate but now having seen numerous Ring Cycles I finally get it! Properly done it is a wonderful scene.
Next comes what Scruton tells us is what Wagner believed is the most important scene in the whole tetralogy; and what Scruton says is the metaphysical heart of the story and surely the greatest piece of recitative in all opera. Wotan opens his heart to Brünhilde and tells her his innermost thoughts and desires; for power, for love, for freedom, to build an army of fallen heroes to protect Valhalla from Alberich. And over-riding all, his desire for the Ring which he cannot recover but will only be seized by; a hero whom I have never helped, stranger to the god and free from his favours, one who, from his own need and with his own weapons, will do what I avoid… The free man for whom I long must create himself, whereas I can only create subjects to myself.
The Todesverkündigung (the announcement of death) is one of the most majestic scenes in The Ring. Scruton calls it a stichomythic dialogue … recalling the mystery of the Eddas, and also the Greek tragic stage, in which Brünnhilde announces death to Siegmund. When he refuses to go, valuing Sieglinde over everlasting bliss, she is stunned, and finally discards her Valkyrei identity and promises him victory.
Scruton declares that the following battle scene, if properly produced cannot be witnessed without the most profound desolation and should be followed by total silence: Wotan has been instrumental in producing the death of his son at the hands of a moral slave. Siegmund’s life of sorrow and his final cruel destruction have been to no avail, and Wotan’s own part in this has been both unavoidable and, in his own growing awareness, criminal.
Wotan is recognising that the end of his rule is inevitable, but at the same time is sensing there may be a way out of his dilemma if a free being could renounce power for love. Someone unlike Wotan who has precariously clung to both love and power, having avoided paying the price for either. But that is for later.
Scruton says; All these paradoxes and conundrums have their reality in political life, and also in the life of each of us as moral being.
After the battle, and the celebrated ride of the Valkyries, we come to what I think is the most moving part of the cycle. Wotan’s Farewell to Brünnhilde; accompanied by beautiful verse set to yet more beautiful music; he kisses her godhead away. I’ve sometimes cried during this!
It has taken me a long while to appreciate this opera which many feel the most difficult in the Cycle. Scruton calls it a series of awakenings: Siegfried is awakened to the knowledge of his origins by Mime, who is awakened to his dire situation by the Wanderer, who then goes on to awaken Alberich to the new divine plan, and the dragon to his fate.
Wotan also awakens Erda to tell he that he is ready to will as an action what she has predicted; that is the death of the gods. Siegfried has awoken and slain the dragon and in turn been awoken by the wood-bird to the reality of Mime and existence of Brünnhilde. Wotan is awoken to his condition; bequething his inheritance to his uncouth grandson. Finally Siegfried is awoken by Brünnhilde, and she is awoken to her new condition.
We see Siegfried recognising Mime’s malevolence, yearning for information about himself and his parents, not knowing what fear is and finally forging the sword. We encounter Wotan, now the Wanderer, resigned to being an observer rather than controlling events.
The first time is when he enters the contest with Mime. Scruton says this is Wagner’s version of the Icelandic ‘wisdom contest’. Answering one of Mime’s questions Wotan refers to himself as Licht-Alberich – an indication that he is feeling his way towards a new self-knowledge, recognising that he and Alberich form two sides of a single bid for domination.
As Wotan says to Mime at the end of the contest; You asked about idle and distant things, but not about what was closest to you and what you needed to know. Whereas Wotan’s questions had a more metaphysical function, which is to ensure that Siegfried obtains a sword without Wotan doing anything directly about it.
I’ve also not really understood the significance of the Wotan / Alberich meeting outside Fafner’s cave. Scruton tells us that Alberich initially condemns Wotan for not abiding by a treaty inscribed on his spear; With my treasure you paid your debt to the Giants. But what you once promised them remains inscribed on your spear, so that you dare not snatch back from the Giants what you paid them as quittance. If you did your spear would shatter and your reign would be at an end.
To which Wotan replies that he’s never had a treaty with Alberich, who instead was subjected by the power of the spear, not the runes inscribed on its shaft. Scruton says this is significant. It shows the rule of law through which contracts are upheld is not itself bestowed by another contract but only by an act of usurpation buried in the mists of time; the stripping of the branch of the World Ash Tree in exchange for an eye. This reminds me a bit about the constitutional law argument that a law setting out the constitutional framework, i.e. the Victorian Constitution, can’t be altered by an ordinary act of Parliament. A principle we ignored in changing the arrangements for the Upper House.
Wotan then indicates that he is no longer an active agent in the fight for world domination; he avails himself only of heroes, who act for themselves and are their own masters. He who seizes the Ring will therefore win it.
After, at the urging of Alberich who can’t believe this state of affairs, waking the dragon and warning him of his impending death by Siegfried, Wotan departs, leaving Fafner to be killed followed by Mime. And Siegfried to follow the wood-bird to his bride.
We have two more encounters with Wotan – my favourite character in the Cycle. First when he summons Erda. In their conversation he finally indicates that he is now prepared to will his own end. What once in fury and loathing he flung to the Nibelung’s resentment, he now bequeaths freely to the valiant Volsung. He sings; Whatever now befalls, to the eternally young the god joyfully yields.
He is not so joyful when he encounters Siegfried on his way to Brünnhilde’s rock, barring his way with his spear. Scruton says; He is in a state of conflict …His only choice is to will his won end, or else to be overtaken by it. But to will the end is to will the end of his will, so how can he really will it? Only if his spear – the instrument of his will – is broken by someone other than himself who is yet the god’s own will, can the god will his own demise. And surely it is thus with all wilful people, that their acts of renunciation are also affirmations, and that they can give things up at last only by provoking others to seize them. He notes that Wagner was such a person!
Now Siegfried is ostensibly master of the world. But he has no knowledge of the Ring’s power and in any case no desire to exert it. The first part of this claim by Scruton is actually at odds with the story, as the wood-bird told Siegfried that the Ring would give him mastery over the world. But it fits with Siegfried’s general innocence of the desire for power.
At the end of this opera we have seen a god-haunted human world, where the contest that began among the immortals has been bequeathed to an ignorant hero and his sleeping bride.
Scruton describes this opera as a series of betrayals…The rope of destiny snaps … betraying the order of the world, Siegfried and Brünnhilde having sworn eternal love betray each other, Gunther betrays his blood-oath of brotherhood with Siegfried, Hagen betrays the bonds of feudal allegiance misusing the call to war, Gunther betrays his sister and his honour.
Here we are brought fully into the human world, the world bequeathed to Siegfried by Wotan, which Siegfried must explore and discover for himself … a world thoroughly penetrated by the forces that have erupted and grown in the previous dramas.
It’s so eventful it seems as though the whole cosmos is crammed like the burnished souvenirs in a Pharaoh’s tomb. All of the motifs from the earlier dramas mingle and overlap in surprising and disconcerting ways. And all are absorbed into a symphonic narrative that is immediately intelligible to the ear, even if hard to transcribe in words – and harder still as the drama unfolds towards its enigmatic ending.
Musicians have told me that from the final Act in Siegfried and throughout all of Götterdämmerung the conductor has to battle to contain the orchestra from overwhelming the singers.
Many argue that the scene with the Norns is repetitious and unnecessary and it is sometimes cut, as it was in one of the Met opera productions we have seen recently. But Scruton says Wagner was wise to include it; Like the Greeks he recognized that the greatest tragic emotions focus on what is necessary, and known to be necessary, even if the human will wrestles with the necessity and is overcome by it … the fate motif and the announcement of death haunts this scene … the sense that freedom and necessity come together in a single event, and that what is willed from one perspective is suffered from the other. We cannot, in the end, resolve this contradiction, because it is a contradiction that we live.
He goes on, the Norns show us the larger cosmic order is threatened precisely by our existential choices, by our fatal need as free beings, to become what we are – the need that has led to Alberich’s forging of the Ring, to Brünnhilde’s defiance of her father, to Siegfried’s forging of hte sword and to the shattering of Wotan’s spear.
The world of the Gibichungs is a threatened world, in which the resentment of the Nibelung is no longer countered by the law of the gods, but flows through all things.
We know from the start that Siegfried is doomed, having descended into this poisoned world without the wisdom needed to understand its machinations. The wisdom given to him by Brünnhilde is the wisdom of the ideal, not the real. .. He is entering a world in which friendship and treachery are inextricably entwined, in which marriage is not so much a vow as a deal, in which loyalties can be dissolved in forgetfulness, and which the lust for power and the power of lust can both triumph over love and honour.
This is a world we all know and in which, nevertheless, we seek for meaning. But how does meaning come? this is the question that Wagner puts before us … the question has seldom been so comprehensively presented.
Scruton describes the drink of forgetting as a symbol; in which a long process is presented as though it takes place in a moment. The inevitable corruption of Siegfried by a world in which resentment and the lust for power have love negotiable is here represented by a symbol.
Hagen’s Watch is another of the most powerful scenes in the cycle (its full of them!) Scruton says of the music that accompanies it; The state of mind invoked is one of total destructiveness: envy that abolishes ist object, and lust without hope of joy. One way or another we have all known this state of mind, have all turned away from it in revulsion, and are all now faced with the truth, that it is not just a feeling but a motive to action, and one planted in the depths of who we are.
Of the dialogue between father and son he says; Hagen’s brooding responses make this episode into a dramatic triumph equal to Wotan’s confession to his daughter in Act 2 of Die Walküre.
Scruton considers Siegfried’s encounter with the Rhinemaidens while he is out hunting, where they warn him of his impending death, and don’t actively pursue the return of the Ring; another piece of action that I’ve not understood. The behaviour of the Rhine-daughters in this scene implies that they want something more than the return of the gold to the Rhine. They want the Ring to be returned by someone fully conscious of its power and history, so that the gesture will be the equivalent of the act of renunciation by which the gold was originally stolen. The return of the gold must be a reversal of its theft.
Of the death of Siegfried, he writes of the music that it shows; a Siegfried reborn in death, his innocence restored, and all the criminal schemes in which he has been embroiled washed away by his blood. In some way the music both rescues Siegfried’s character in our eyes, and also casts a new light on the entire story.
The funeral march that follows; grieves with almost unbearable intensity, not over Siegfried only, but over the entire human condition, reminding us of the supreme price we pay for our snatched moments of enchantment. The death of each of us, the music says, is the death of a world. Freedom, individuality, ambition and law must run their course and nothing will sound thereafter save the distant lullaby of nature.
Finally we have Brünnhilde in charge, after lauding Siegfried; She looks upwards and addresses Wotan as guardian of oaths. ‘Through his bravest deed that you rightly desired, you sacrificed him to the curse that had fallen on you. This innocent had to betray me, so that I should become a woman of wisdom. All is clear to me: I send your ravens home now, with the tidings you dread and desire. Rest, rest now, o god!’ It makes me cry just typing this!
Scruton goes on; we are in no doubt that this really is the end, that the perturbation and conflict, in both Brünnhilde and Wotan, have now been resolved, that father and daughter are once again united in an act of renunciation that will give meaning to their suffering, and that the business of consciousness, freedom and law has been accomplished in the only thing that has really mattered – the love and compassion that emerged ‘by an invisible hand’, so to speak, from Wotan’s pursuit of a law-governed order.
Chapter 4 How The Music Works.
I’m moved by the music, but am not musically literate enough to understand how its done. Even though I have studied Deryk Cooke and his explanations of the motifs ever since seeing my first Ring in Adelaide in 2000 – still my best live experience. So, while I read this chapter, I’m not totally engaged with it.
I understand Wagner sought, as Scruton reminds us, to make music into the vehicle of the drama .. the roles of words and music reversed, with the first explained by the second. I get the principle but even after listening to the music multiple times I still can’t readily identify the motifs as they emerge.
I came enamoured of The Ring Cycle through the story and while I love the music I don’t really understand it. I don’t hear the musical accents as though they were verbal accents as Scruton claims audiences do.
I recognise the major leitmotifs when they stand alone but I can’t follow how they transform form one to the other through descending instead of ascending and by incorporating bits and pieces from each other.
I have no idea what an arpeggiated triad is or a diminished fifth. Nor do I understand what Scruton means when he talks about the diatonic language of Western music which apparently Wagner not only used but reflected upon.
The point is you don’t need to. I just love everything about this music; its majesty, tenderness, and power; conjuring up the realms of nature, politics, romance, adventure and overall the gamut of human emotions.
Chapter 5 Understanding The Story
Scruton says that while The Ring is about Wotan and the other characters , it is also about the human world, the Lebenswelt, the world as we humans experience and construct it that we understand in more than scientific explanations of cause and effect. We understand it through our own experience, and by exploring the concepts and categories that arise from experience …These concepts and categories may have no place in science – not even in the science of what we are.
Our ancestors elaborated myths and tales expressive of the deep intuitions that informed their daily conduct … stories of gods and heroes, of sublime actions, and of the forces that opposed them. They distinguished, in their experience, between, between good and evil, free and unfree, duty and right, sacred and profane, permitted and forbidden… they painted the world in the colours of their emotions, not in order to hide the truth but in order to make the truth – the truth about themselves – perceivable.
In The Ring Wagner is doing something similar. He is expressing the deep truths that inform the myths and tales of human communities, showing in personified form, the many aspects of the human psyche that compose the Lebenswelt, and which are represented in the religious and moral legacies of mankind. Wagner is recuperating what religion means, in a world without religion.
The primal things – nature, earth and its fruits, water and air and above all fire that transformed metal that gave mastery over other species and other tribes still haunt our imaginings. We find them personified as demi-gods …where they represent the enduring presence of the Urwelt, the world before the free individual, before personhood, will and law. Freedom and personage belong to a new world that has emerged from the Urwelt of species-being into the light of consciousness.
Initially law is a need for gods not humans who have to imagine a power bigger than themselves to enforce laws that may run counter to their interests. But gods can attract our obedience only if they exist in another way from the mortals who worship them. They must be immortal, endowed with the happiness and peace for which we yearn… and able to confer those gifts on their followers. From the need for gods, therefore, is born the belief in immortality, and in the heavenly realm.
The natural needs of human beings must be turned in a new direction to create culture, dignity and grace. Our most generous and self-sacrificing feelings must be channelled into maintaining the great edifice of the law. Men must submit to customs and institutions that offer ‘love and woman’s worth’ only at the end of their endeavours….It is only thus, by making sexual love into the gift of the gods, to be bestowed on mortals from the sphere of immortality … as a sacrament – that we can persuade people to build a temple to their own idealized emotions and not to enjoy sexual love as the birds and beasts do, for the moment alone.
Once the moral law is in place love is supposedly confined within the bounds of marriage .. but real love cannot be so confined. For erotic love at its highest is neither sensual delight nor domestic harmony … At its heart lies sympathy, and the sense of the absolute value of the individual to whose being the lover is attached and whose sufferings he suffers in turn. This is the highest form of love since it involves a gift of self, and a readiness to sacrifice self for other…. the capacity for this kind of love is the greatest gift of personality, and without it our journey into freedom will be incomplete.
Not everyone can enjoy this love. Out of resentment such people may then replace the longing for love with the pursuit of power, treating others as objects to be used, rather than as subjects to be cherished. And it is on this resentment, buried in the heart of things, that the world of our postponed desires now rest. For this bruised sense of absolute rejection contains a new and disruptive motive – namely the urge to compete, to use others as instruments, and to see everything, love and personhood included, as a means to domination.
All sorts of tricks are used to maintain the religious world, especially the rewards it offers to heroes which are the subject of endless prayers to the gods. At a certain point, however, it becomes clear that the gods are no longer able to govern, and that the ideal of which they were guardians has become dependent on the human will to renew it.
The human world moves on from the rigidly structured system of laws, office and powers, and gives way to a post-religious order, in which it is for us humans to maintain our values, with no obvious help from the gods. At the same time the resentment on which this all depends – the resentment of those who pay the price of civilization without receiving its reward – remains.
This is the precarious situation portrayed in Siegfried.By forging his identity, Siegfried awakens the world. He too is awakened, and the gods are awakened to their doom. Wotan then wills his own end, and bequeaths the world to Siegfried, who is now free to discover the ideal in its human form – the form of ‘love and woman’s worth.
Siegfried has acted freely, as a self-created being. He has defied the laws and conventions that stood in his way, and acted from a pure longing for the ideal woman the the voice of nature had aroused in him. In taking full possession of this sacred thing, Siegfried inherits Wotan’s bequest. But he also destroys Wotan’s authority and the rule of law – the law in the soul – that was sustained by it.
When he enters the world thanks to his won defiance of the god, all vows and oaths have become negotiable, and even what is most dear to him can be forgotten, overridden or traded for something better. This didn’t happen to the gods who existed outside time and change. We mortals, however, are subject to the rules of time; what we are is inconstant and temporary, and even the most absolute of our values risks being discarded if it stands in the way of our momentary urges.
Siegfried falls, his integrity undermined by the machinations of those whose goal is not love but status.
There is one thing that can rectify this spiritual disorder, which is the feminine ability to recover love from beneath its abuse and degradation. In an act of supreme understanding Brünnhilde, having connected with the Rhine-daughters and seen into the primeval heart of things, comes to believe that Siegfried’s true nature was revealed when he gave himself to her. All the rest has been imposed on him by the corrupt world of power and substitution …In the sacrifice of Brünnhilde – immolated once in sleep and then in death – lies the meaning not only of her life but also of the human world, as it emerged into consciousness from the order of nature and created its great castle in the air.
The music tells us that her gesture of renunciation and forgiveness is directed as much to her father among the gods as to her mortal husband.
Wagner leaves us with a mystery: why does this blessing save the world?
And here we go back to the philosophical debates that surrounded Wagner while he was composing this work. He originally conceived The Ring consistent with the views of Feuerbach. Scruton describes this colloquially as humans can take the world from the gods, and make a better show of running it – not ruling but sharing.
The birth of consciousness was the original sin, the departure from the natural order, which must be paid for. With consciousness came freedom, personhood and the lust for power… The original equilibrium gives way to a competitive world in which people strive for possessions… Only through law can men now live in harmony, and law demands sovereignty. Through sovereignty, humans can guarantee their agreements; but they also create a dominating power. This power must inculcate the belief inits legitimacy, and is aided in this by religion through which we accept illusory rewards in return for earthly obedience… However, consciousness works always against the religious doctrines, sowing the seeds of doubt and undermining the divine authority. In these circumstances it is given to art to rescue the deep truths about our condition, to present them in symbolic form, and so to bring about a new order in the human soul, free from illusion but true to the distinctiveness and sacredness of the human condition. Only the free hero, who forges his own future, can cast off the chains that bind humanity – the chains of religious illusion, of property and the money economy.
This hero, who begins from nothing, must also be an artist. He is the spirit of poetry itself, producing consciousness in which freedom prevails over law and truth over illusion. This artist-hero cannot create a new world by his own efforts…Only through the free union between man and woman, between hero and heroine, in a love in which self-giving is the ruling principle, can the new world be born.
This is contrary to Feuerbach’s view of the liberation of mankind as a political event, a total transformation of the social and economic order. Wagner was already seeing that liberation occurs, if at all, only in the individual soul, and that it is not achieved alone but through loving union with another.
As he developed his music he recognised that liberation is not a political but a spiritual process, and that what is being asked from us is not self-affirmation of the sword-wielding Siegfried, but the self-sacrifice of his suffering wife.
Scruton takes aim at various attempts to understand the work as an allegory. According to him The Ring is not an allegory, rather it is a work of symbolism. Symbolism is distinguished from an allegory in that the symbol both expresses a meaning and adds to it, so that meaning and symbol are to a measure inseparable…A symbol, if it is to be effective, is a condensation of many ways of thinking, and this is what the etymology of the word implies, Greek symballein meaning to throw together.
Thus the Ring is also a symbol of the human disposition to see all things as means and nothing as an end in itself; it is a symbol of power and the lust for it, of exploitation, of the desire to possess, of consciousness, the original sin that separated humankind from the work of nature and conferred on us a shared Lebenswelt in which we contend for recognition and status.
By condensing many meanings into a single symbol, art enables each meaning to cast light on all the others, so that the symbol shows us the moral reality that unites them.
Scruton believes Bernard Shaw’s straightforwardly allegorical interpretation of The Ring in Marxist terms is clever and benefits from the exuberant style of its author but becomes increasingly strained as the cycle proceeds leading to Shaw dismissing Götterdammerung as a lapse into ‘grand opera’.
Notwithstanding, his is a celebrated account of the Tarnhelm; as the top hat of the capitalist class, which represents the many guises of capital, its ability to disappear into stocks and shares and interest rates, to hide from every call for liability and to work in secret for those who deny all knowledge of its whereabouts.
According to Scruton it is a vast diminution of Wagner’s drama to pin such a thin Marxist allegory to its extraordinary and believable characters… And the Tarnhelm stands for something deeper than the money illusions of the capitalist economy, being a symbol of Verwandlung – the mysterious way in which one thing becomes another, in which what is most trusted betrays us, in which the real and the unreal may coincide in a single personality and a single state of mind.
Any interpretation that respects the dramatic pressure of the narrative must acknowledge the sympathy which the music conjures for Wotan, and the very real attempt to present the rule of law – established though it is by an ‘original usurpation’ – as the necessary background to enduring love…the god who upholds these contracts and laws is a projection of our human need for him; no matter that he is imbued with all our human imperfections; no matter that he, like us, must die. The point is that, in destroying the gods, we destroy a large part of ourselves.
The Ring cycle therefore warns us of a deep and ineradicable fault in the scheme of things, a fault that lies concealed in freedom itself, and which we must confront not in the realm of power politics but in our own hearts, where love battles with selfishness, and renunciation with biological need. The Ring is not simply about power or money or even love; it is also about original sin, what Schopenhauer called ‘the crime of existence itself’.
Donington, in a Jungian interpretation, rewrites the story of The Ring as that of the universal ego (Siegfried) in search of the anima (Brünnhilde) that completes it, battling the demons of the unconscious along the way and under the dominion of the libido (the Ring), whose power comes not from the forswearing of love, but from the renunciation of ‘escapist, childish fantasies’ which is apparently what is achieved in the opening scene of Das Rheingold.
Scruton quotes approvingly Deryck Cooke, who says of this; The fatal defect of Jungian interpretation is that it simply imposes its own categories on the work interpreted… a ‘Jungian interpretation of The Ring…does not explain what The Ring is actually about.
Scruton sees the drama as centrally focussed on the emergence of the free individual from the natural order, and on the puzzle planted in the heart of things by the accountability of persons. Such is the framework on which Wagner mounts a vision of what is at stake in human life – a vision that, for its philosophical depth and poetic richness, is surely supreme in the world of opera.
Chapter 6 Character and Symbol
Wotan is a synthesis of the god idea and he has a dual nature; at home in Valhalla but also a wanderer on the face of the earth. He is both law-giver and law-enforcer, through him we see how justice and law are woven into the practice of government, and also bent to its hidden purpose.
Such is the paradox of justice: that it depends upon the arts that it forbids. And this paradox is built into the personality of Wotan at every level, as it is built into all forms of historical legitimacy… Trickery is an essential part of Wotan’s capabilities, although he relies on Loge to initiate them.
When Fricka persuades Wotan to sacrifice Siegmund she brings him face to face with the true cost of his sovereignty, and the fact that he has inflicted this cost on his children, who have no one to depend upon but him.
And his anger at Brünnhilde for defying him is anger at himself, and the frustration of a scheme that could never have worked in any case. And when, glimpsing in her the new vehicle for his own and world’s rescue, he allows his love to be reborn, his anger is overcome in a flow of tenderness as moving as anything in the cycle.
At one level the ring is the story of Wotan’s search for self-knowledge. Which is also our anxiety, and peace can be bestowed on the gods only when we find peace through accepting our mortality, renouncing the will to power and devoting ourselves to those whose love we have consciously or unconsciously counted on.
Wotan’s story is of a wilful and dominant personality whose acts are constrained by justice. Gradually Wotan is overcome by the weariness of living within this constraint, with the knowledge that the price of his original sin has not been paid, and with the recognition that the joys of immortality are more illusory than the tender love of mortals.
When he kisses Brünnhilde’s godhead away, the existential change that occurs in Wotan, confronted by his daughter’s purity of spirit, and by her decision to act for another’s good is reflected in the music.
From then on, as Wanderer, he has put behind him the pursuit of power and in doing so discovered true freedom – which is the ability to look on the world in a spirit of acceptance. This ‘renunciation of the will’, which Schopenhauer advocated as the highest morality, is also an affirmation of the will – a conscious tracing of the boundaries within which lesser beings are trapped.
Finally he must attempt to obstruct Siegfried’s will otherwise he would bequeath guilt and deprive Siegfried of freedom. Only by obstructing him can liberate Siegfried from the original sin that has poisoned his inheritance. We see clearly the conflict in Wotan’s soul between love and anger at being parted from his power.
Wotan has sought to improve the world by establishing justice and the rule of law. But this has required constant trickery in order to maintain the power without which laws and deals would not be enforceable. Little by little he realizes his rule must end and then he searches for an end that will vindicate what he has done. He eventually passes that search on to Brünnhilde.
His lost eye symbolizes the spontaneous freedom that is later to stare at Wotan from the eye of Siegfried, and which he exchanged for law, piety and the home.
In the marriage of Wotan and Fricka, therefore, we see the mutual dependence of morality and law.
Wotan’s predicament is our predicament, writ large, and the same is true of Alberich. Alberich curses love and curses the thing for which he curses love, his being is suspended from these two curses as from the gallows.
In The Ring we have a contest between two forms of domination – a contest between the free being whose power is conferred by agreements, and the self-imprisoned being whose power is elicited by violence, beginning with the violence against himself that expels love from his psyche.
Alberich’s resentment is not just an emotion – not even an emotion. It is what he is... There is desire born of resentment, which has not relation to love, since it aims to dominate, to humiliate adn to enslave.
Alberich warns Wotan against taking the Ring because in doing so he is taking the thing for which nobody can pay the price except the one who originally paid it, and who gave up himself – his Eigen – for the sake of it. Wotan is therefore sinning against what is most sacred, trampling on a deal for which someone gave his freedom, his hopes and his self.
Resentment of the existential kind – the kind that inhabits the soul of Alberich – is incapable of forgiveness since it is unable to understand either self or other as truly needing it.
And Alberich in denying freedom in the other he denies it in himself: that is the source of his resentment.
Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde portrays the process that Fichte and Hegel had in mind when, in their dark ways, they argued that we achieve freedom only through confrontation with the other, and only when the other is finally recognized as an equal, with an autonomy and will of his own.
But Wagner adds the deep thought that the other will is what I will in the search for freedom, so it is in a sense my own will that confronts me, when love of the other is born.
Wotan comes to see, at last, that his goal of perpetual sovereignty cannot be realized, that all relations must be continually renegotiated, and the the respect for freedom means the loss of control.
Brünnhilde is not an idealized woman, but an ideal woman. She is the incarnation of a femininity prepared in the realm of pure ideals. She recognises the paradox that Siegmund has been willed by Wotan to be free but is therefore is not free. She finds a way to be both identical with Wotan’s will, and also free from it… by renouncing her godhead and entering the world of mortals, where it is not will, but fate that determines what occurs.
In her debate with Wotan she points out that the conflict between what she did and what Wotan commanded was a conflict within Wotan himself, between the law-giving aspect of the godhead and the love-involving need that stems from it.
Brünnhilde here brings sympathy and compassion into the world of the gods. Awakened by Siegfried she is awakened to erotic love as self-discovery.
Wagner viewed sexual difference as fundamental, and idealization of woman as a necessary prelude to any advances that would be worthy of a man. Marriage, children and respectability didn’t matter, rather the important things was the encounter between man and woman, in which both come to experience the fatal dawning of an existential need: the need on one sex for the other, which has become my need of you.
What raises humans above animals is the role of ‘I’ in desire … lovers are I to I, seeing each other not simply as physical bodies but as windows thrown open, so that soul meets soul.
It takes some time for Brünnhilde to give herself to Siegfried; she is not an intellectualization of erotic love, but the symbol of a real and god-like form of it. As the music slowly brings her down from the cold heights where her divinity was nurtured to the warm place of mortal desire we come to understand that erotic love is not the thing for which Alberich rached with hungry hands, only to be rejected. rather it is the most complete expression of our human freedom – a condition in which two people unite in total self-giving.
Erotic love does not belong in the world of contracts and deals, it is existential dependence, a unity of being as Hegel puts it.
When Brünnhilde is brought, enslaved, into the hall of the Gibichungs she assumes her real significance. She represents the fate of woman in a calculating world, the ideal cast down and trampled, the sacred object desecrated… Her desolation, like the joy that it replaces is an existential condition: it is what she now is.
Through her will and personality, Brünnhilde is able to display all that women have to suffer at the hands of men, and, as her defences are cut away, she undergoes in her humiliation, the spiritual equivalent of the death suffered by Siegmund. Betrayed in her very being she experiences the sense of pollution and worthlessness that haunts the victims of rape, which explains why rage is not just a kind of theft but an act of annihilation.
Having been complicit in Siegfried’s murder, Brünnhilde in some way recuperates her love for the hero who awakened her, though exactly what she learned from the Rhine-daughters as she wandered the banks of the river is left unsaid in the drama.
When she rides onto Siegfried’s funeral pyre the music persuasively presents her moment of suttee as of such cosmic significance that the gods themselves must perish as a result of it.
Only a figure as rich in character as Brünnhilde could achieve this. Her unique combination of will, sympathy and suffering… her single-minded focus on the other, whether in compassion, love or vengeance, all qualify her for the magnificent and god-like gesture with which she ends her life, reassuming her Valkyrie role without the incapacitating innocence with which she formerly exercised it.
I discovered in this book that Alain Badiou has written about Wagner, in Five Lessons on Wagner, translated by Susan Spitzer and with an afterword by Slavoj Žižek. He’s quoted here supporting the need for the different characters to retell the story so as to make it their own story. Each character’s ‘subjective position can only be clarified by his running through the telling of the story, and each of these accounts is a unique one that illuminates the story from a subjective point of view.
Scruton gives an interesting take on why Mime can’t forge Notung anew. He is the smith who has sought to make a free being (Siegfried) into his own tool, and therefore lost his only virtue, which is the ability to make tools of his own… This fatal flaw in Mime’s character was already displayed in his original enslavement: he could forge the Tarnhelm, but could not use it an expression of his freedom, so that Alberich had no difficulty in taking it from him.
Knowledge and its use plays a role in The Ring. Mime’s hiding in the forest with his store of enviable skills is a symbol of the fate of useful knowledge, in a world governed by resentment.
Possessions and power are brought into being by knowledge and skill: but knowledge and skill prompt envy in those who do not possess them. The Giants have strength .. But they do not have the knowledge the Nibelungs possess – the knowledge with which to extract the elements from beneath the earth and to forge them into tools. In other words, the Giants have strength without technology, and that is why they fear the Nibelungs and wish to possess the hoard, thinking that this way they will get level with Alberich… But skills are not acquired by seizing their product.
Resentment freezes the knowledge and the skill that it needs for its own cure. Fafner’s transformation into a dragon is the sign of this: the hoard on which he sits represents others’ knowledge, others’ labour and others’ plans. He now guards it to prevent its use.
Looking at the Ring, sword, spear, Tarnhelm we understand; they comprehend all the ways in which we bend nature to our purpose and impose conscious planning on the mute ways of fate… Magic objects are the signs of the ways in which our deepest needs and longings are imprinted on the world, hence, like us, they have a soul.
Turning to Siegmund and Sieglinde, Scruton says these two are not tricks of the theological imagination but real beings, whose symbolic significance is that they have no symbolic significance. They are what they are, and what they are is what we should be… Self-idealization and self-pity are both remote from them… It is precisely these two pure beings, sacrificed for the law, whom the law should be protecting. Yet their being on the wrong side of the law is, paradoxically, the source of their m oral grandeur.
Chapter 7 Love and Power
Scruton is often humorous in his analysis as when he remarks; no-one will ever know quite why the father of the Rihine-daughters entrusted the gold to their keeping instead of looking after it himself.
He goes on to point out that the various loose threads in The Ring, of which this is one, don’t matter, as they don’t matter in other creation myths like Genesis, stories of Zeus and the Vedas.
The philosophical concepts in the drama include: individuality and freedom; law and legitimacy; power and resentment; redemption and the sacred; love and economic value. These are presented not as parts of an intellectual argument , but as a vision of life and what matters.
The gold of the Rhine has two kinds of value; the value of treasure – of things that are rare, beautiful and enthralling, and which mimic the glory of the sun and the stars. But forged into a ring the gold turns the order of nature towards production, accumulation and exchange, towards the world of the hoard, which is the symbol .. of material wealth and the psychological enslavement of those who covet it.
Both Hegel’s concept of property as objectification of the will, a realization of freedom in the world of objects, and Marx’s view of property as an alienation of the will, an eclipse of the subject by the object are subliminally present in Das Rheingold.
Alberich has put himself into the Ring and by cursing it he endows it with his malignant will… it therefore becomes the distillation of the power that he forged and the resentment caused by its loss.
Alberich’s forging of the Ring is the expression of alienated labour since it springs from the desire for power over others… Siegfried’s forging of the sword is the realization of freedom, since it springs from the desire to empower the self, rather than to enslave others.
The forging of the Ring harnesses the latent power of nature, and turns it towards a world imbued by will – a world of rights and claims. This risks the loss of the non-economic value that gives meaning to our lives. This non-economic value is what Alberich renounces, when, to the motif of existential choice, he utters his curse against love.
The central concern of The Ring is the contest between love and power. But there are many kinds of love and many kinds of power.
At one level, the nature of love is the dominant theme of The Ring. Wagner believed love to be rooted in sexual feeling, and in the longing that creatures like us, who are both free subjects and embodied objects, feel for each other when troubled by desire.
Sexual love in The Ring is emphatically a relation between man and woman; not just between one individual and another but between two individuals each of whom embodies and represents the other sex. (I wonder why Scruton is so adamant about this – has someone suggested that it’s not?)
He quotes Wagner directly: Love in its most perfect reality is only possible between the sexes: it is only as man and woman that human beings can truly love. Every other manifestation of love can be traced back to that one absorbing real feeling.
In a very important sense, the cycle is about women, their destiny and their healing powers.
Wagner shows us that love is not a simple thing, and that, in both its forms, sexual love is not the solution but the problem. Desire sets the whole cycle in motion, and love brings it to an end. Both destroy what they find.
Scruton asks how can we promise to love forever when we change in ways that lay waste our intentions, that ruin our responsibilities, that cause those who swear eternal love before long to face each other as strangers.
He says, This mystery is central to the understanding of the Tarnhelm, which symbolizes the misfit between the world in which we live and the metaphysics of our thinking.
Wagner is drawing on Schopenhauer here; identity belongs to the world of representation, whereas what I am in myself is will, the vast and oceanic source of all the desires and needs that trouble me, which is not an individual at all. Thinking I am going to remain one thing forever and can vow eternal loyalty is simply an expression of the illusion under which we are condemned to live.
This is the deepest paradox of the erotic: we give ourselves as individuals, only to enter a condition in which individuality disintegrates and disappears.
Magic drinks in Wagner are especially important, since although they overwhelm us from a point outside our personality, they work from a point within. They remind us that the ‘within’ of the human person is also inside the body. They dramatize the condition of the human person, in which the fee subject is constantly overwhelmed by forces it cannot understand, and which obliterate whole sections of its freedom. Understanding this, made it easier for me to accept the role of potions in Wagner’s operas. Especially Götterdämmerung and Tristan und Isolde.
Scruton goes on; our forgettings are also disguises, that our very existence as free subjects requires of us a continuity and commitment from which we are condemned by our mortality to hide. And through this hiding we become strange to each other and to ourselves.
Our veneer of personality and selfhood is constantly broken from below by the thrust of animal life, and it is sometimes difficult to resist the view that all our reasons are really rationalizations, ways of representing actions that were rung from us by the inexorable needs of the animal as though they were products of free deliberation, aimed at the good and issuing from the will.
Just as love in The Ring, is many things, so too is power. Wagner is trying to distinguish legitimate power which is Wotan’s aim … from the loveless and de-personalized tyranny of Alberich.
Contract and love both involve a loss of freedom, even though both must be freely engaged in if they are to be genuine, and both are relations between free beings.
Freedom is more irrevocably lost in love than in contract, …(this is) the paradox of love in its fullest form that, while it can be experienced only by beings who think of themselves as transcendentally free … all freedom is at once extinguished in a bond that ties the actions, emotions and destiny of one person to another. This is the love between Siegmund and Sieglinde, and between Siegfried and Brünnhilde. As Scruton notes; and in each case it speedily brings about the annihilation of the parties.
With respect to power, Scruton says: Wotan’s spear succinctly summarizes Hegel’s view of the state. The spear owes its power not to the fact that people have contracted to obey the god who wields it, but rather to the fact that it guarantees agreements, while itself not being a part of them.
In Valhalla law and agreement have replaced coercion and war but the theft that confers on the gods their much needed purchasing power depends on Alberich’s crime against himself… thereafter across the peaceful realm of legal order, there blows the chill wind of anguish from the depths.
The theme of political order: it’s nature and its price runs through the cycle with the contrast between consensual and coercive order being explored.
Wotan confronts the problem of perished legitimacy … his search for the other, who will be free from the contracts that bind the sovereign power, is self-contradictory.
The cycle shows the rule of law to be deeply dependent on the machinery of production and exchange and love whose vows are no more durable in the end than the mortal mouths that utter them. These two great facts, which embody the incurable tragedy of the human condition, are symbolized in the Ring.
Wagner’s great contribution to our understanding of the human condition relates to his concept of the sacred: The experience of the sacred is an apprehension of our own significance, as being capable of sacrifice. Redemption does not consist in a release from death, but in the acceptance of death on behalf of a mortal love.
The moment of free commitment, the moment when I am fully myself in an act of self-giving – this has no place in the temporal order as science conceives it. And yet it is the moment that justifies my life, the moment that shows the absolute value of my being the thing that I am.
Chapter 8 Siegfried and Other Problems
Here Scruton looks at issues that have puzzled audiences since its inception and in his words that have impeded a full understanding of The Ring.
This include’s Siegfried’s character. At the start of Gotterdämmerung he is someone who has matured through love, and not through trickery. This is the most important aspect of him, since it is the foundation for Brünnhilde’s trust. He has encountered the Other but still has an innocent heart but one which does not know itself and never will.
He is the free individual, who launches himself into the world without the benefit of the gods, who casts the gods aside and destroys their magic. Doing so voids the world of those durable centres of will. He is on his own, committed to being true to his vows, responsible to self and other through every choice, an enduring centre of emotion and will. But mortal beings cannot live up to the standards set by the gods. Even the purest heart can waver in its attachments, and even the most solemn oath can undo itself in time. Such, indeed, is Siegfried’s case. And that is what is represented in the transformation brought about by the drink.
We are moved at his death because as his memory is unlocked he reflects and looks within himself as he had as a boy when his life lay still before him. We see his dawning awareness as more of his experience is allowed, he possesses himself more fully. Finally he repossesses Brünnhilde too. He has grown again to his full stature, a man as great as the woman he awoke or the god he pushed aside and this self possession will lead to his death.
Thomas Mann describes it thus: The overpowering accents of the music that accompanies Siegfried’s funeral cortège no longer tell of the woodland boy who set out to learn the meaning of fear; they speak to our emotions of what is really passing away behind the lowering veils of mist: it is the sun-hero himself who lies upon the bier, slain by the pallid forces of darkness.
And Scruton concludes; By regaining his purity at the moment of death, Siegfried shows the triumph of love over machination, of the ideal over the real, and therefore our values over the calculations that constantly erode and replace them. His life then ceases to be his private possession, and becomes an offering on the altar of all our loves and fears… He is marked out from the beginning as the outsider, the scapegoat, the one who can be sacrificed for the benefit of the tribe. He himself, therefore, is the author of the rites that mark his passage to maturity – the forging of the sword, the slaying of the dragon, the defiance of the father-figure, and the awakening of the bride. His eagerness to be accepted in the community causes him to deviate from this self-created course; nevertheless, he ends as he began, an outsider whose identity is entirely his own doing, the paradigm sacrificial victim. .
Scruton addresses a question most of us have asked; how could Brünnhilde possibly be complicit in Siegfried’s murder. He posits that Brünnhilde’s wisdom as the daughter of Erda is fatally disrupted as she enters the fallen world of mortals, since she is carried into it by force, suddenly aware of what she has lost in losing her Valkyrie powers. She has sent Siegfried into the world oblivious to the corruptions that prevail there.
He goes on; She literally cannot comprehend what has happened. All she knows is that her life as a mortal is now a negation, and not a fulfilment, of her previous life as a goddess. For the first time she experiences the feeling of pollution, a feeling for which life on the mountain top has not prepared her. She condemns Siegfried to death, because his survival seems to her, at that moment, a death-sentence cast on herself… She too has been robbed. And her presence in the Gibichung hall is that of a vengeful spectre, a being deprived of all that made her what she was.
He also considers the symbolism of Siegfried’s dead hand to prevent Hagen getting the Ring. Another mystery most of us have pondered. He calls this a miracle and notes that as it occurs the sword motif sounds in the orchestra – a reference to Siegfried’s will, which he put into the Ring, first in winning it, then in giving it as a love-pledge to Brünnhilde with an ‘eternal’ promise, a promise that reaches beyond death. This is why Brünnhilde is already intimate with the miracle and might even be its author….When the dead hand rises it is to execute the inextinguishable meaning of the vow, and to summon Brünnhilde to death beside her husband. This is the purified remnant of Siegfried’s will, from which the dross of mutation has been purged.
Chapter 9 Retrospect
Here Scruton considers the long line of other critics, beginning with Nietzsche, who have dismissed Wagnerian magic as a kind of manipulation. As falsifying the truth about our condition and deception by injecting unjustified emotion into situations that, judged in themselves, are too thin and schematic to merit our concern.
Nietzsche even argued that the Wagner’s whole idea of redemption is a denial of life and an invocation to decadence.
Scruton suspects that Nietzsche regarded the Wagnerian ‘redemption’ as a kind of cliché, an idea worn thin by too much use, brought into the later dramas only because the characters, lacking the will and integrity that make true tragedy possible, have to be content with ‘redemption’ as second best. And that his question to Wagner could be put simply thus: in engaging with this drama am I surrendering something of myself that I should be withholding? Or am I, as Wagner wants me to believe, entering a sacred place, in which music shows the true meaning of witnessed events, and thereby elicits order and reconciliation in the feelings of the observer? Can I through this music achieve the peace and quiescence that the Greeks sought through tragedy, and which we moderns must seek through a new form of art – the ‘art-work of the future’ that will replace religion not by refuting it, but by doing its work, and doing it better?
Of the other well-known critic, Adorno, Scruton says; He saw Wagner’s music in many ways as an anticipation of the worst kind of blockbuster film score – a way of inflating empty dramas with bombastic sequences that have no intrinsic musical logic, no ability to survive outside the peculiar context of the accompanying scenario. Like Nietzsche, he saw the Wagnerian hero as a fabrication, and the idea of heroic love as a fantasy through which we try to compensate for life in a world of debased and commercialized abstractions.
This has led to commentators, following Shaw, in seeing the drama as a political allegory, advocating a politics of innocence, a new order of purity.
Scruton prefers a view put forward by Bernard Williams that The Ring rejects such an idea. If one wants transportable philosophical conclusions from The Ring – and Wagner himself insisted that one should not want such a thing – one of them will be that there is no politics of innocence because nothing worth achieving can be achieved in innocence.
Scruton says; The Ring does not argue for a thesis: it shows us what we are, and so helps us to understand, through sympathy, what is at stake in our moral choices and to have audiences ask whether it affirms or denies the life that we have, which is all that we have.
He goes on; The audience is raised by the dreadful events to another level of being, in which the fear of death has been transcended and human life reaffirmed in the knowledge of its fleetingness… Wagner was the first thinker fully to grasp that the tragic experience is akin to, and derived from the ritual heart of religion.
Scruton says, Nietzsche’s complaint shows a disregard for what art can do… Tragedy does not deny the ordinary and the sordid. But it takes the turning points of human life and frames them as religious sacrifices – it is a ‘making sacred’ of those moments when we must pay the full cost of being what we are. And it is not absurd to summarize that as redemption as Wagner does.
Modern people, he (Wagner) believed, are living beyond the death of their gods: such is precisely the background assumption of The Ring. And this means that we live with an enhanced awareness of our contingency – of the fact of being thrown down in the world without an explanation.
In other words the life of the free and accountable person remains, for us, the focus of meaning, and its many aspects are symbolized by Wagner in the leading characters of The Ring.
No god will come down, now, to rescue us. If we are to be lifted from our cynicism, so as to believe in the freedom and dignity of the human being, it is we ourselves who must come to the rescue. This for Wagner is the task of art – the task bequeathed by the death of our gods. Art must show us freedom in its immediate, contingent, human form reminding us of what it means to us.
The great turning point of the cycle occurs when Brünnhilde is stirred to sympathy by the encounter with Siegmund’s love, and it is the sacrifice brought about through her act of compassion that is the heart of The Ring.
There is no hint of the erotic when Brünnhilde is put to sleep on her rock. The Valkyrie has been moved to sympathy, she has been blessed in a transcendent burst of gratitude by a human woman, and she is being dedicated to the future by a father, full of paternal love for her.
And in her moment of great sacrifice at the end of the opera and we understand that these cosmic events are really moments in the life of all of us, it is the recollection of Sieglinde’s blessing that brings quietus. In other words, it is sympathy that heals the cosmic wound.
By purely artistic means, and with no reference to the transcendental, it (The Ring) consecrates the short life that is ours.
Scruton quotes Wagner directly; We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word; fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness.
And so, in The Ring, Wagner has shown us that freedom, sovereignty and accountability are won by each individual through conflict, self-knowledge and love.
And this resonates with us. The awe that we feel at the great moments of sacrifice and resolution in the ring cycle is proof enough that we are by nature turned towards the sacred. And it is our openness to these moments that enables us to come away from the Cycle with a sense of profound spiritual comfort, knowing that life in this world is worthwhile.
Having exhausted myself writing this (and you reading it, if you’ve got this far) I now see that Scruton’s interpretation of The Ring accords completely with what I have intuited about it from my very first experience of it. Which was completely shattering; I was absolutely absorbed into this world.
From the very start, I loved Wotan in all his guises. His noble majesty, his tenderness, his wrath. I followed his ever deepening conundrum of how to resolve his two desires – to rule in accordance with law, and to have what he wanted – anxiously, wanting him to succeed, knowing he would not. As Scruton says this is all about government, the compromises and self-deceptions that make it work. Something I’ve been involved in for a lot of my working life. I like Scruton’s take that when he comes to accept the end of his rule he is focussed on working on his legacy so that it would be remembered as worthwhile. Something all politicians seek to do, successfully or not.
The second reason I was immediately taken with the Ring is its existentialism which Scruton brings out clearly, perhaps more clearly than other writers I’ve read. Just as I loved studying Sartre, so I loved the focus here on the human condition; why are we ? how can we be free? how can we make our lives worthwhile?
I also loved the one human love story in the whole work. After Wotan, Siegmund was my favourite character; the woeful man. It probably helped that Die Walküre is the most accessible opera. It’s also the first I saw, albeit in a concert performance. At the Melbourne Town Hall a very long time ago. It was thrilling. I wanted Siegmund and Sieglinde to live happily ever after knowing that they couldn’t possibly do so. And I’ve always loved Erda, though in lots of productions she is depicted disgracefully.
It took me longer to love Brünnhilde but now I do; completely! Scruton suggests she is a difficult figure to understand for modern audiences. But having ‘got’ her, I now see her place in the cosmos; as redeemer of the world, no less.
As I’ve read more, and seen more productions I understand the themes and symbols throughout the four operas; the significance of the Rhine-maidens who Scruton refers to as Rhine-daughters which I like much better, of Loge’s key role as Wotan’s fixer, of the nature of the Giants (I always liked Fasolt), why the Ring didn’t protect Alberich, the whole light-Alberich / dark Alberich thing, the character of Siegfried, why Brünnhilde would agree to Siegfried’s murder, the significance of Siegfried’s dead hand rising and many more. All of this is elucidated by Scruton and those I’ve read before him, especially Brian Magee and Michael Tanner.
Thinking back over the versions of The Ring that I’ve seen I think Scruton would endorse my visceral response to the Melbourne Ring as shallow and deeply contrary to the themes and symbols in the work: the Rhine as Bondi Beach full of bathers! Spare me! My first viewing on television was completely on the mark, as were the two Adelaide Rings I think, though my memory is getting hazy about them.
This is all so stimulating – reading about this mighty work, watching old productions, thinking about it all. My old librarian friend, Mr Tersch, was right when he told me all those years ago that the greatest operatic achievement was Wagner’s Ring Cycle.