A path open to us all

Daniel Johnson reviews Wagner’s Parsifal, by Roger Scruton

Books Roger Scruton

When Roger Scruton was decorated by Victor Orbán at the Hungarian Embassy last December, most of those present knew that this might be the last time we would see him in this world. Scruton himself knew that he was losing his battle with cancer. Yet he was still hopeful that he would enjoy some remission.

He gave a gracious acceptance speech, and afterwards had cheerful words of comfort for the close friends gathered there to honour him. The pictures taken at that last public appearance, however, tell their own story. Roger (pictured above) already has the look of a man who knows he is dying. It isn’t always easy to be philosophical about death, even for a philosopher.

A month later he was dead. His funeral at Malmesbury Abbey was a great gathering of generations of family, friends, disciples and admirers. It was an Anglican service, of course, with all the liturgical splendour of the Book of Common Prayer in an ancient church consecrated soon after Christianity took root in Saxon England. But was Roger himself in any sense a Christian?

Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption By Roger Scruton
Allen Lane, £20

What significance could these obsequies — with their solemn invocation of Jesus Christ and his death-defying promise of salvation: “I am the Resurrection and the Life . . . ” — have had for the departed sage? And what did he mean by the heartfelt words he wrote just before the end? “Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.” For what exactly was he grateful? And to whom?

We shall have to wait until the inevitable biography for definitive answers to these and many more questions. But Scruton had already subjected himself to a different kind of scrutiny. He knew as well as Montaigne that to philosophise is to learn to die; and because he philosophised incessantly, writing an average of a book every year for 50 of his 75 years, he also learned how to die better than most.

Throughout Scruton’s vast corpus — as deserving of a complete, historical-critical edition as any university press could hope for — it is plain that he was fascinated by yet unafraid of death. Like Socrates (whose last words were: “I owe a cock to Asclepius”), on his deathbed he did not forget his debts. By far the greatest of these was not to a philosopher, still less a priest, but to a musician: Richard Wagner.

By dint of extraordinary exertions, Scruton succeeded in finishing his last book, Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption. With this climactic coda to his career, Scruton completed the great trilogy he devoted to Wagner, whom he regarded not merely as a great composer but as a guide to the perplexities for which philosophy offered no solutions. By immersing himself in the music dramas — above all Tristan, the Ring and Parsifal — he came as close as possible to a quasi-religious experience, face to face with the sacred mysteries that eluded him in church.

It is no coincidence that he concluded his most concentrated reflection on these mysteries, his 2010 Gifford Lectures (published as The Face of God), with a meditation on passages from Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung. While refusing to idolise him, Scruton owed Wagner a debt that was more than musical. “I do not believe in God,” the composer said, “but I believe in godliness [Göttlichkeit].” Scruton, too, lived in the hope that “through godliness we both rescue each other from degradation and also re-consecrate our lives”.

The final sentences of Wagner’s Parsifal, among the last Scruton ever wrote, reinforce this message: “We have been called not to explore the world, but to rescue it. In doing so we emerge from our trials and conflicts in full possession of our social nature. Like the Redeemer, we make a gift of our suffering, through an act of consecration that brings peace to us all. Whether or not there is a God, there is this hallowed path towards a kind of salvation, the path that Wagner described as ‘godliness’. That is the path taken by Parsifal, and it is a path that is open to us all.”

This is not to say that Scruton’s appreciation of Wagner amounted to an obsession of the kind so mercilessly mocked by another philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, or assumed the pathological forms depicted by the novelist Thomas Mann — both writers whose work Scruton knew very well and of whose criticisms of Wagner he took full account. In his other works on aesthetics and musicology, Wagner has his place but it is by no means a dominant one.

In The Aesthetics of Music, a magnum opus unparalleled by any other philosopher of music, Scruton cites Wagner frequently, but no more so than Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and even Schoenberg. In Understanding Music, Scruton took on his most influential predecessor, Theodor Adorno, including the latter’s deconstruction of Wagner. He limited his polemics to a single concise chapter, “The trial of Richard Wagner”. It concludes with an illuminating coda, explaining why Wagner is “supremely relevant to us”.

His argument is that human beings are religious, whether we believe in God or, like Wagner (following Feuerbach), see gods as human creations. “But human creations include some very real and lasting things, such as St Paul’s Cathedral.” For Scruton, “the gods come about because we idealise our passions, and we do that not by sentimentalising them but, on the contrary, by sacrificing ourselves to the vision on which they depend. And it is by accepting the need for sacrifice that we begin to live under divine jurisdiction, surrounded by sacred things, and finding meaning through love. Seeing things that way, we recognise that we are not condemned to mortality but consecrated to it.”

There is a sting in the tail, however. For Scruton, this vision of sacrifice is the only correct interpretation of Wagner. “Properly produced”, his works embody this vision, “which is why they are no longer properly produced”. He had nothing but contempt for Regietheater, in which the directorial ego comes between the audience and the composer’s intention. He connects this form of decadence with the secularism of modernity: “The sacred prompts the desire for desecration, and — in those who have turned away from religion — this desire is irresistible.”

We learn two things from this passage: that Scruton saw Wagner’s music dramas as sacred, and the antics of operatic impresarios as sacrilegious, but also that by “turning away from religion” he did not mean ceasing to believe in God. For him, it was perfectly possible, perhaps even normal, for one to cultivate a religious sensibility in the absence of faith.

What he meant by “turning away” was a deliberate, conscious hostility not only towards organised religion, but towards the very idea of the sacred. By this he did not mean the anthropological or psychological phenomena of sacred ritual, but the moral imperative to strive for redemption that arises from compassion and sacrifice. In his study of The Ring of Truth, he attributes to Wagner “the sacred conceived as an aura attaching to great decisions and existential choices” — in other words, the ethics of the heroic.

For Scruton, as he explains in his study of Parsifal, “the redemptive quality of sacrifice does not consist in conveying us to another world where we live in bliss for ever, but in transforming our vision of this world.” By turning away from religious sacrifice — the act that renders something sacred — we turn our backs on the redemption of the here and now, of the world in which we live. Scruton saw a direct link between the desecration of religion and art, the body and nature. His desire to consecrate embraced everything: from the conservation of animals and landscapes to the cultivation of the vine, from reinventing the nation state to reviving a more humane architecture, from history to sexuality and from metaphysics to music. Especially music.

The scintillation of his prose sometimes led Scruton to go too far

The Wagner trilogy stands as a monument to a passion that surpassed aesthetic or sensual pleasure. Scruton had an animal appetite for the sonorous sublime. The primary purpose of his Wagner trilogy was to offer an unapologetic apologia.

But Scruton could be generous towards the composer’s critics. Even his great antagonist, Adorno, receives grudging respect in The Ring of Truth: “Adorno’s no-holds-barred assault on Wagner is written in prose infested with Marxist jargon and by overblown claims to expertise. Often barely intelligible in its layer upon layer of abstractions, it is nevertheless the product of a musically sensitive intellect, capable of making profound criticisms of musical grammar.”

He does not, however, spend much time or energy on the voluminous scholarship devoted to Wagner’s antisemitism. Here, Scruton’s attitude is simple, if not simplistic. The critique of Parsifal as “an explicitly anti-Semitic work, a defence of Aryan purity against the pollution introduced by the Jews” has “become a kind of orthodoxy among critics today”. But he takes refuge in “the ideal of artistic objectivity”. For Scruton, no less than Wagner, the work “stands above life in a posture of impartial judgement. The artist is the servant of such a work, duty-bound to express its inner truth in intelligible symbols . . . The artist’s own life is as likely to be an impediment as a stimulus to the creative endeavour, and in any case must be insulated from the creative process.”

This, indeed, is what Scruton does with Wagner’s music dramas: he insulates them from their biographical and historical background, except where that context enables us better to discern the intentions of the composer. What interests Scruton, what justifies his infinite pains, the years of hard labour he dedicates to the exegesis of these works, is that “inner truth”. By definition, that truth can have nothing to do with antisemitism.

Scruton was not alone in this view. The list of Jewish composers and musicians who revered, performed and drew inspiration from Wagner is a long one, beginning with the first conductor of Parsifal, Hermann Levi, and continuing right up to the present. Gustav Mahler wrote to his wife Alma in 1904: “There are only [Beethoven] and Richard [Wagner] — and after them, nobody. Mark that!” Though Mahler composed no operas, that homage is borne out throughout his symphonic output. Schoenberg, who claimed to have seen all Wagner’s music dramas 20 or 30 times by the age of 25, almost out-Wagnered Wagner in the chromaticism of his Gurrelieder and the filigree harmonies of Verklärte Nacht. And so on.

On the other hand, there is Hitler’s worship of Wagner and his embrace of the cult at Bayreuth. “I have built up my religion out of Parsifal,” the Führer declared. “For myself, I have the most intimate familiarity with Wagner’s mental processes. At every stage of my life I come back to him.” Scruton regarded such connections as at best irrelevant, at worst malicious.

Yet he was himself a staunch defender of Israel, a friend of the Jewish people and a fierce opponent of antisemitism. He did not recognise the cognitive dissonance that many feel who share both his philosemitism and his Wagnerian allegiance. In the never-ending battle over Wagner’s legacy, Scruton came down decisively on the side of those, such as his fellow philosophers Michael Tanner and Bryan Magee, who denied that the music was tainted by the man.

Scruton also distinguished between Wagner’s cultural antisemitism and the genocidal ideology of the Nazis. It is precisely this distinction that scholars on the other side of the argument, such as Robert Gutman, Marc Weiner and Paul Lawrence Rose, dispute. Rose, for example, suggests that Hitler and Wagner connected emotionally, in “the raw brutality of Wagner’s music, the violence and coarseness (which admittedly generate a majestic power) of the Siegfried forging music and the Götterdämmerung funeral music, are certainly heroic, but they also retain an uneasy capacity to disturb which is lacking, say, in Verdi’s anvil scene or the funeral march in Beethoven’s Eroica”.

Scruton utterly repudiated such claims. In The Ring of Truth, he cited Wagner’s Jewish disciple Heinrich Porges, who described the Master’s directions at the original Bayreuth performances, as “one of many Jewish friends who regarded Wagner’s anti-Semitism as a regrettable weakness rather than the heart of what he was as an artist and a man.”

He added: “Porges brings home to us the universal significance of a work in which the central motive is not German nationalism, racial supremacy, heroic triumph or any other of the bombastic themes foisted on Wagner by his false friends and real enemies, but a boundless sympathy for innocent suffering, whoever the victim might be.” This passage, like so many in the Scruton oeuvre, illustrates at once both one of his many virtues and perhaps his only vice: his love of turning the tables and his tendency to go over the top. He deliberately pushes the limits of what can be said for Wagner, or rather for Der Ring des Nibelungen, by confronting the reader with its “boundless sympathy for innocent suffering” — the diametrical opposite of Professor Rose’s denunciation of the music’s “raw brutality”.

Roger Scruton died as he had lived: as the knight errant of Western civilisation

Such arresting reversals of received wisdom are a key aspect of Scruton’s peculiar genius, his beguiling eloquence and moral suasion, which kept his name in the public eye and won him a loyal following all over the world. No British philosopher since Bertrand Russell has enjoyed a comparable influence in the public sphere. Scruton was popular, not because he patronised the populace, but because he refused to do so. On the contrary, he elucidated the most recondite concepts with exemplary clarity, illuminated by sudden lightning flashes of wit.

The scintillation of his prose, however, not infrequently led Scruton to go too far. Here, he implies that Wagner’s “false friends” (the Nazis) and “real enemies” (his mostly Jewish critics) are somehow on the same moral level, which is as false as it is monstrous. Moreover, he also implies that The Ring extends its “boundless sympathy for innocent suffering, whoever the victim might be.” But what if the victim were Jewish? Did the man who, while composing his sublime music, was also writing one viciously antisemitic tract after another, regard Jewish suffering as innocent? Was his sympathy for them, too, boundless? Or were they, in his eyes, beyond the pale?

Scruton is surely right that all Wagner’s works from The Flying Dutchman onwards embody timeless, universal truths. Yet we hear them now, no longer sub specie aeternitatis, but in the shadow of a crime against humanity, committed in a particular time and place.

The Holocaust is the elephant in the room whenever Wagner is discussed. This is, perhaps, anachronistic; the composer died some 60 years before the Shoah took place.

Yet there is a rough justice here, too: just as those Germans and Austrians who enjoyed “the grace of late birth” (in Helmut Kohl’s somewhat dubious phrase) are not thereby excused from the obligations of remembrance, so those who unwittingly paved the way for the Third Reich cannot escape being arraigned before the court of conscience. Once the last survivor of the camps is no longer with us, it may be that Wagner will be played in Israel without members of the audience walking out, as last occurred in 2001 when Daniel Barenboim conducted the Berlin Staatskapelle in the prelude from Tristan und Isolde in Jerusalem.

But Wagner’s reputation will always be contested. His friends and foes are too polarised, their preoccupations too incommensurable, for any hope of reconciliation. For as long as the Holocaust marks the nadir of human depravity, its legacy, which is still unfolding, will divide opinion about the Jekyll-and-Hyde character of Germany’s greatest operatic composer.

Roger Scruton died as he had lived: as the knight errant of Western civilisation. One did not have to agree with him on everything (or anything) to discern the nobility of his character and his cause. Even when he found himself on the wrong side of an argument, as he not infrequently did, he was always up for a fight. Schoenberg’s judgment about composers applies equally to philosophers: “They are in the first instance fighters for their own musical ideas. The ideas of other composers are their enemies. You cannot restrict a fighter. His blows are correct when they hit hard, and only then is he fair . . . Wagner, Wolf, Mahler and Strauss fought for life or death of their ideas.” Scruton fought for his ideas too — and he had ideas about almost everything. He could be magnanimous, but only in victory.

And so it is no surprise that he devoted his final months to a spirited defence of Wagner’s last work. The first word that he uses in this musicological philippic about the creator of Parsifal leaps off the page. It is “belligerent”. Roger himself was nothing if not belligerent, yet his crusader’s combative heart was forever yearning for the peace that passeth all understanding.

He found something like it in this earthy yet unearthly music and its intimations of transcendence. Having consecrated his life to the pursuit of truth, he did not need faith in order to come ever closer to the godhead. Like Brünnhilde, as she bids farewell to her father Wotan in the finale of Götterdämmerung, we who mourn our friend and mentor may now send our ravens to greet him in Valhalla with her valediction: “Ruhe! Ruhe, du Gott!” (“Rest! Rest, you god!”) His restless spirit has found eternal rest, but the gratitude he felt for his life is now all ours.

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