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  [Review]: Wagnerism: Alex Ross, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020)

24 June 2021 | Kalimac’s CornerDavid Bratman

… This stricture becomes useful … when Ross gets to a brief, hasty, and sloppy consideration of Tolkien (p. 642 – 43). Again he starts by citing parallel or overlapping interests, including Tolkien’s own retellings of the Siegfried stories, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, which at least he’s up to date enough to know about. He then notes that Tolkien fans have sometimes argued that the manifest resemblances to Wagner result from a common use of older sources,” an argument he could have gotten from my own article on Tolkien and music, though I’m not cited; but he then adds, but the claim does not withstand scrutiny.” Only because he doesn’t scrutinize it very much. Ross says that Tolkien’s One Ring has no plausible antecedent” except Wagner’s; but, even leaving aside the glaring fact that it doesn’t have to have an antecedent, the relationships between the Ring and the magic, especially the invisibility factor; the role of the Ring as treasure; the way in which its power is used; the whole history of its ownership; etc., etc., are so totally different in the two stories as to leave nothing in common but a magic ring with a curse on it (the curses, and their nature, are totally different too: Tolkien’s isn’t even actually a curse, it just functions as one). And a cursed treasure is a fairy-tale motif a lot older than Wagner.…

Travel there


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Alex Ross,
Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020)


New Yorker
classical music critic Alex Ross's third epic-length book on the history of music (660 pages, not counting notes and index) purports not to be about Richard Wagner, but about his influence on the other arts, particularly literature, and on politics and the general culture. But it keeps forgetting itself and being about Wagner anyway. When approaching one especially sensitive subject, Ross writes, "What Wagner thought of Jewish people and people of color is an inescapable question, although the answer is not as simple as it seems. Since this is a book about Wagnerism, the even more crucial issue is what Jews and people of color thought of
him
." An appropriate distinction, but it doesn't prevent Ross from going into the first question in considerable detail too.


This book is very long on many writers and thinkers who were obsessed by Wagner, from ones whom I know nothing about, like Baudelaire, to ones I know a little about but didn't know they were Wagner fans, like Willa Cather, to ones I do know something about. Like Hitler. Or let's say like Bernard Shaw or Philip K. Dick. For the late 19th and early 20th century, these relationships are explored in great detail; in the final, post-1945 chapter, they get hastier, and sometimes of somewhat wobbly interpretive accuracy; the chapter includes a run through a series of modern philosophers - Adorno, Ernst Bloch, Lévi-Strauss, Derrida, Sontag, and others - of particularly unintentionally comic brevity.


Also apparently unintentional is the evaluation of Wagner's work presented, which has a lot more negative in it than Ross apparently had in mind. In a personal postscript, he writes that his first encounter with Wagner left him with "a kind of auditory seasickness," and while he later came to love the work, it was more through emotional connection with the characters than with the music, and the ghost of his first reaction haunts the book. I first noticed this in the opening chapter going through Wagner's own life. Ross writes of
Die Walküre
"Settled in Zurich, [Wagner] composed at a manic pace. By September, he had churned his way through the first act." Yes! I thought. Churned? That's exactly what it's like to listen to it! Auditory seasickness indeed. What's more, many of those touted in the book don't like Wagner either. Starting with Schopenhauer, who read the text of Die Walküre and at the end of Act 1, where it says "The curtain falls quickly," he notes, "And it's high time."

I set aside the long discussion of Nietzsche, who apparently went insane, so his violently anti-Wagner period is no more meaningful than his violently pro-Wagner period. But I found a key point in this skepticism when the narrative reached William Morris (p. 124-26). Having already noted Wagner's appeal to English artists of a pre-raphaelite bent because of his "proximity" (delicate way of putting it) to the Matter of Britain, here Ross emphasizes how Morris's and Wagner's interests and topics "overlapped ... to a remarkable degree." But then he is forced to acknowledge, "Yet Morris loathed the very idea of Wagner." Why? He doesn't say, except to hint that their philosophical conclusions differed.

This stricture becomes useful over 500 pages later when Ross gets to a brief, hasty, and sloppy consideration of Tolkien (p. 642-43). Again he starts by citing parallel or overlapping interests, including Tolkien's own retellings of the Siegfried stories, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún , which at least he's up to date enough to know about. He then notes that "Tolkien fans have sometimes argued that the manifest resemblances to Wagner result from a common use of older sources," an argument he could have gotten from my own article on Tolkien and music, though I'm not cited; but he then adds, "but the claim does not withstand scrutiny." Only because he doesn't scrutinize it very much. Ross says that Tolkien's One Ring "has no plausible antecedent" except Wagner's; but, even leaving aside the glaring fact that it doesn't have to have an antecedent, the relationships between the Ring and the magic, especially the invisibility factor; the role of the Ring as treasure; the way in which its power is used; the whole history of its ownership; etc etc, are so totally different in the two stories as to leave nothing in common but a magic ring with a curse on it (the curses, and their nature, are totally different too: Tolkien's isn't even actually a curse, it just functions as one). And a cursed treasure is a fairy-tale motif a lot older than Wagner. As for Ross's claim that Tolkien's "restorative ending" also comes from Wagner's Ring , that's just absurd. Again, they're nothing alike.
(What makes Wagnerians so eager to seize on flimsy evidence for an influence on Tolkien, anyway? They seem desperate to find something, anything, to claim as a resemblance between these artists, which is why it's necessary to point out how entirely disparate they are.)

So that leaves very little likelihood that Tolkien got the idea of the Ring from Wagner, and even if he did, it's reduced to so trivial a borrowing that it's of no significance whatever. The Morris case becomes a useful parallel when Ross spends the next two paragraphs of the Tolkien section itemizing some deep philosophical differences between Tolkien and Wagner. You realize, even if Ross doesn't, that the two really have nothing much to do with each other (also that Ross doesn't understand Tolkien very well, but never mind that). For evidence that Ross can consider an apparent borrowing to be insignificant when he wants to, turn back to the section on the Nazis, where you'll find Ross arguing that Hitler - a known, avowed, and deeply knowledgeable and enthusiastic Wagner fan - was not very influenced by Wagner's philosophy after all (p. 515-16) and didn't even get his anti-semitism from Wagner (p. 532).

Here you'll also find, as I've read elsewhere, that while Hitler loved Wagner, most of the other Nazis didn't, and Hitler had to keep poking them to wake up during performances of Wagner operas that he'd forced them to attend. What was new to me was that Winifred Wagner, the virulently pro-Nazi and Hitler-loving daughter-in-law who was running the family businesses at the time, knew all of this and feared that a post-Hitler Nazi regime might lose interest in the government financial and publicity support which was keeping their Bayreuth festival running. Ross remarks dryly, "This was one problem the Wagners did not have to face."

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