Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813-1883), German composer. Ca. 1875. (Photo by adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images)
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Inscrutable Wagner

Roger Scruton’s appreciation of Richard Wagner will remain an important and inexhaustible part of his legacy

More than a year after Sir Roger Scruton fell victim to a malignant cancer, his absence is still keenly felt in intellectual circles all over the world. Elegiac commentary can only try to capture his many gifts, which included an enviable mastery of a wide breadth of subjects, from wine to architecture to sex. He explored them in more than fifty books over the course of a storied and tempestuous career as an academic and public intellectual.

Last month, the Roger Scruton Legacy Foundation, a non-profit organisation ably led by Roger’s American student Fisher Derderian, invited me to lead a virtual reading group of perhaps his most important book in the field of music, The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. Published in 2015, it is the magnum opus of Roger’s lifetime appreciation of the greatest work of our shared favourite composer, Richard Wagner.

Wagner’s Ring is a sprawling tetralogy of four operas whose subject is nothing less than the creation and destruction of the world: a primordial, mythological universe populated by beings beset by all too human dilemmas which have no easy solutions. Over four Zoom sessions, I presented and discussed the book with a small group of devotees from diverse backgrounds who had come to Scruton, and to Wagner, in a variety of ways. Our goal was to explore Roger’s thoughts about the composer, a subject nearly as capacious as Wagner’s epic “music dramas,” as he preferred to call them, finding the conventional “opera” of his time too superficial and limiting.

Roger was enviably well versed in music and literature, but he was first and foremost a philosopher. It should come as little surprise that he understood Wagner not only in philosophical terms, but in the philosophical tradition that he knew best. Steeped in German idealism, Roger’s approach drew heavily from Kant and Hegel and their understandings of “self” and “subject” in idioms that Wagner would have recognized from his autodidactic study of ideas, which fuelled ferment in his nineteenth-century intellectual milieu.

Scruton’s appreciation of Wagner will remain an important and inexhaustible part of his legacy

This presented certain challenges to Roger’s interpretation, for Wagner, a capricious character on his best days, remained open to a wide variety of ideas that resonated with him in different ways at various times throughout his life. He laboured on the Ring of the Nibelung over a period of 28 years, from the revolutionary year of 1848 until the first complete “cycle” premiered in 1876, five years after Germany’s unification under an authoritarian monarchy. For Wagner, that already turbulent third quarter of the nineteenth century included a painful eleven-year political exile from Germany, catastrophic critical failure balanced by precarious successes, political progression from revolutionary anarcho-socialism to Romantic conservative nationalism, a philosophical slide from optimistic idealism to pessimistic cynicism, a bitter divorce and especially scandalous remarriage, all sorts of other romantic drama, parenthood, a sudden rise from chronic financial instability to relative prosperity, a long hiatus from the Ring during which he composed Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and ageing from 35 to 63 at a time when average male life expectancy was around 50.

Accurately identifying a sole or unified philosophical inspiration for one work composed by such a person in those dramatic decades and overlapping circumstances is like trying to hit a moving target while both unravelling the tightly interwoven threads of a vast tapestry and solving a mystery whose facts largely existed only in the mind of a man long dead. Sorting it to anything resembling completion is probably impossible. A century and a half later, we still have no comprehensive or undisputed explanation, nor, one might suggest, do most Wagnerians need one to enjoy his music.

To Roger’s credit, he was aware of this and resisted claiming that his Kantian/Hegelian interpretation was the only possible or correct one, just as he argued that George Bernard Shaw’s socialist interpretation, published in 1898 under the title The Perfect Wagnerite, and Robert Donington’s Jungian analysis, produced two generations later, contributed valuable insights without being anything close to definitive. Roger refrained from arguing that other interpretations were invalid. Far from it. In the case of Paul Heise, a lifelong Wagnerian who has argued for a comprehensive allegorical interpretation of the Ring with which Roger strongly disagreed, he saw enough value in the opposing viewpoint that he befriended Heise, tried to help him get his work published, and personally funded the interactive website Heise set up to present his case (a book version of Heise’s allegorical analysis, titled The Wound That Will Not Heal, will be published by Academica Press later this year).

For Roger, the Ring of the Nibelung – so named because its central object, the titular “ring,” grants its bearer all-encompassing power – was about becoming. The opening bars of Das Rheingold, the first of the Ring’s four instalments and designated its “preliminary evening” (“Vorabend”), depict primordial innocence penetrated by consciousness and then despoiled by the resentment that arises from a newly evolved consciousness disappointed in its limitations. Both musically and dramatically, the latter is a guiding theme that haunts the rest of the Ring, which identifies envy as a primary motive for human behaviour and freely given love as its antidote. Wrestling with the dilemmas and compromises we must all make when weighing right versus wrong and love versus power, Wagner struck Roger as a masterful philosopher of how humans define themselves in relation to objective reality, which lies beyond their control or even understanding, and, just as importantly, to each other in encounters that demand a loss of control and independence.

Roger’s analysis of the Ring in these terms recalled his earlier approach to Tristan und Isolde, an intensely romantic work that definitively marked a transition in Wagner’s compositional style. In Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (2004), Roger assessed Tristan as fundamentally religious in its focus not on God or Christian dogma, but on the universal transcendence of ideal love, a sacred space that our transactional culture has largely banished. Trapped in the conventions of the mortal world, just as Wagner was caught up in bourgeois conventions that stymied his romance with his patron’s wife Mathilde Wesendonck, the secret and irresistible affair at the heart of Tristan can only find fulfilment in transcendental death.

Like the characters in the Ring, finding that fulfilment is also a subjective exercise for Tristan and Isolde. The lovers find each other in a Kantian “I to I” relational formula evocatively symbolised by a literal “eye to eye” encounter that Isolde recounts in her retelling of the moment when Tristan, wounded and at her mercy, ignored the threat of imminent death at her hands to gaze into her eyes. Fated to mortality, the transcendence of their love defines the highest meaning of their existence and ultimately defies death with an eroticism derived from deep within the unconscious.

It was perhaps fitting that Roger’s posthumous final book, Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption (2020) was about Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, which premiered in 1882, just six months before the composer’s death. A searching meditation on the nature of salvation and redemption refracted through its title character, a “pure fool made wise through compassion,” Parsifal holds a special place in Wagnerian lore and in theatrical history generally. Suffused with religious symbolism, it drew heavily on Wagner’s impressions of Catholic Italy, where he composed most of it, to tell a version of the Holy Grail legend. Like the Ring, it also owes a profound debt to Schopenhauer’s philosophy of renunciation and, through it, to the Eastern philosophies that influenced Schopenhauer in turn.

Roger’s philosophising interpretations of Wagner’s works should be on the reading list of every serious Wagnerian

Having had an ambivalent relationship with Christianity himself, Roger left aside his earlier Kantian interpretations of Wagner to assess just how “Christian” Parsifal is and reflect on why and how its distinctive religiosity is important. While Christian themes and symbols dominate Parsifal’s ethos, he pointed out, the opera does not mention either God or heaven. The sacraments of confession and penance are replaced by compassion and wisdom as the motive force in spiritual healing, while self-awareness and community realised on earth are the only manifestations of salvation from sin available to mortals who must struggle with the meaning of existence. Redemption, the opera tells us, is fundamentally of this world, which Jesus left with relics and memories, but from which He is absent and to which He will not return. The eucharistic blood rite, a simulacrum of which ends the opera’s first act, exists not for communion with divinity or contemplation of an afterlife, but to prolong corporeal existence and nourish a sense of earthly community among the Grail’s guardians.

Roger argued well for his interpretation, which, among other insights, explains Parsifal’s cryptic final line, “Redemption to the redeemer,” in a way that is, at least in my reading of and around Wagner, unparalleled in its sophistication. It confirmed, at any rate, a lasting impression of Wagner’s spiritual sensibilities, which did not rise to belief in God yet had great faith in an abstract sense of “godliness” that could allow art to take the place of religion in articulating truth.

Roger’s philosophising interpretations of six of Wagner’s ten “mature” works should be on the reading list of every serious Wagnerian. I was baffled that New Yorker music critic Alex Ross omitted them from his much hyped but ponderous and disproportional Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music (2020), which did consider the views of Theodor Adorno, Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, and even Susan Sontag, all of whom tried to redefine Wagner’s works in self-referential postmodern terms and, as a direct result, are inconsequential for anyone interested in why Wagner remains important and arguably more popular today than at any other time, including during his life.

One could conclude with the caveat that Roger passed over a number of problems and pathologies, both human and divine, that speak loudly to contemporary audiences from the scores of Wagner’s works. But one should again remember that Roger was the first to admit that his interpretation was personal and uncomprehensive and could coexist with others that at least dealt with Wagner’s œuvre per se. His relation to Wagner’s work also privileged literal representation in traditional productions, which he believed served Wagner’s works best in that they capture a world “out of time” that was not weighted down by the baggage that settled human civilisation has accumulated ever since. One may agree or disagree, but Roger Scruton’s appreciation of Richard Wagner will remain an important and perhaps even inexhaustible part of his legacy.

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