Collage by Matt Wisniewski
Show Hide image

The ultimate seduction: revisiting the case of Wagner

Wagner aimed to overthrow 19th-century silliness and replace it with a new "music drama".

Still revered and reviled, misunderstood and misappropriated, Richard Wagner was born 200 years ago, on 22 May 1813. Most people agree that Wagner is not like other composers. His music seems to reach parts that other music doesn’t reach, something “outside the province of reason”, as his biographer Curt von Westernhagen put it. Wagner’s music exerts an irrational hold over people of wildly diverging tastes and philosophies, including many who aren’t otherwise particularly interested in music at all.

Thanks to Wagner, my own musical education (still very incomplete) has been back to front. It started with Wagner, from where I’ve had to travel through musical history in reverse. Having immersed myself in the life and work of a great revolutionary, only later did I explore the classical tradition that Wagner vigorously challenged and permanently altered.

A chance conversation with a friend at university led me to sign up for a course called “Wagner and German History”. My logic was simple and ignoble. Given the choice between a year of saturation-level research on the Black Death or spending my afternoons “studying” by lying down listening to opera, Wagner won hands down. The first Wagner lecture proved I’d been even luckier than I thought. Our professor, Tim Blanning, closed the blinds and played us a recording of the Prelude of Lohengrin. I was hooked. Most proper addictions have to be worked at. Wagner got into my bloodstream instantly.

Wagner is an unusually interesting composer; he has always been a “case” rather than just an artist. First, sadly but inevitably, there is the unavoidable if wildly overstated issue of his influence on Hitler and his misappropriation by the Nazis.

Secondly, Wagner did much to reposition and advance the status of the artist in the 19th century. It is hard to imagine a more complete triumph for a composer than the building of an entirely new type of theatre, the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, to make certain that his masterwork (The Ring) was staged in an appropriate environment. Wagner was an inverse outsourcer: he craved, and ultimately achieved, complete control. (He might have admired the sentence that ended Prince’s album sleeves from the 1980s: “All songs produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince”.)

The scale of Wagner’s struggle and ingenuity is remarkable by any standards. In his twenties, he had failed to establish himself in Paris, the centre of the operatic world. He then endured decades of poverty, debt and exile, constantly struggling to secure performances of his work. Wagner’s ultimate triumph was all the more complete because it was on his own terms. He didn’t just break the rules, he invented a whole new game – the apotheosis of Romantic self-belief.

Thirdly, Wagner talked and wrote incessantly. He left a vast resource of books, articles, letters and diaries. The collected edition of his writing, excluding letters, runs to 16 volumes. It is often said that more books have been written about Wagner than anyone except Jesus Christ and Napoleon. That is untrue, but Wagner certainly made impressive efforts to get the ball rolling himself.

His second wife, Cosima, wrote a diary of extraordinary detail, earnestness and, sometimes, vile prejudice. At university, my fellow students developed a satirical, mock-Wagnerian short-hand, echoing Cosima’s obsession with her husband’s health, habits and opinions. “R has a slight cold,” we would parody, “western civilisation depends on his instant recovery.”

Yet taken together, the vast collected record of Wagner’s theories and opinions adds a further dimension to his career: the relationship between his own creative output and his artistic theorising. Wagner’s manifesto was epic in ambition as well as volume. He argued that the status of art, having reached a pinnacle in ancient Greece, had collapsed to new depths with the bourgeois vulgarity and silliness of much 19th-century opera. It needed to be overthrown. In its place, the artist of the future (ie Wagner) would bring together the techniques of Beethoven and Shakespeare into a single form called “music drama”.

For theory and practice to run in parallel within a single career is, unsurprisingly, more common among writers than composers. Tom Wolfe, for instance, has written didactically about what modern novels ought to be like, the themes they should address, even the process by which they should be written. “It is necessary to have a theory in life,” he has said, “to write well in fiction or non-fiction.” Such certainty suggests that Wolfe is driven by the desire to prove himself right, for the novelist to vindicate the critic.

But isn’t it beneath an artist constantly to be explaining what he is doing – or what he thinks he is doing – or, more cynically, what he wants to be thought to be doing as he goes along? Can we trust an artist who is also a critic? “An artist is usually a damned liar,” D H Lawrence once declared, “but his art, if it be art, will tell you the truth.”

Wagner’s theoretical musings provided Friedrich Nietzsche with the stick he used to beat Wagner in his sparkling attack, The Case of Wagner. Nietzsche had once been an ardent Wagnerian and a friend of the composer.

The Case of Wagner will reward readers who love Wagner as well as those who dislike his music, even those who are entirely indifferent. One of its pleasures, undoubtedly, is its cruel wit and ad hominem attacks. But Nietzsche’s arguments will bring a halfsmile of recognition even to the most dedicated Wagnerian. Even if they disagree with the verdict, it is hard not to enjoy the brilliance with which Nietzsche sets out the anti-Wagnerian case (especially if you have ploughed through volumes of Wagner’s turgid prose).

Here is Nietzsche’s acid summary of Wagner’s voluminous theorising:

Everything Wagner can not do is reprehensible.

There is much else Wagner could do: but he doesn’t want to . . .

Everything Wagner can do, nobody will be able to do after him, nobody has done before him, nobody shall do after him. –
Wagner is divine.

Not every music so far has required a literature: one ought to look for a sufficient reason here. Is it that that Wagner’s music is too difficult to understand? Or is he afraid of the opposite, that it might be understood too easily – that one will not
find it difficult enough to understand? 

Wagner required literature to persuade the world to take his music seriously, to take it as profound.

In reply to Wagner’s virulent critique of conventional operatic style, with its pretty arias and ensembles, Nietzsche made the devastating rejoinder: “A bold habit accompanied Wagner through his whole life: he posits a principle where he lacks a capacity.”

But Wagner’s theories have their intellectual advocates, too. The view that we ought to take Wagner’s artistic and philosophical ideas seriously – the case against The Case of Wagner, if you like – has been superbly taken up by the philosopher and memoirist Bryan Magee in two books, Aspects of Wagner and Wagner and Philosophy. Both are enjoyable and insightful. I can’t, however, completely go along with Magee’s attempt to resuscitate Wagner as a thinker. Instead, I wonder whether Wagner’s incessant theorising was mostly a device for cajoling his own musical and dramatic creativity.

I found myself thinking of Wagner when I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s recent book Antifragile. Taleb is best known for his work on finance but he writes just as astutely about the creative temperament. Taleb is brutally bossy: writers should not write too much journalism, they should not hold academic posts, they ought to pursue total independence and gentlemanly autonomy, they must resist any suggestion of professional dutifulness.

With the exception of his solvency, which Wagner would scarcely have recognised, Taleb is thoroughly Wagnerian. But Taleb is not only writing for the reader, I suspect he is setting out a manifesto for his own purposes. His attacks on others are actually a means of reinforcing his commitment to his position, like an adventurer who deliberately blocks off his escape routes. Theory becomes a means of artistic self-bullying. Taleb’s fights with the wider world are partly driven by the desire to make life more difficult for himself, and so, he hopes, more artistically rewarding.

The same reasoning, I think, applies to Wagner’s theories. They are another expression of his heroic personality, an example of Wagner setting an impossibly high bar for himself. He was a pessimist by conviction, in the opera critic Michael Tanner’s brilliant phrase, but an optimist by temperament.

Alongside the question of theory and practice, there is a second dimension to Nietzsche’s case against Wagner. In essence, it is that he was a trickster (his contemporaries often referred to him as a “wizard” or “sorcerer”) a conjurer of false emotions:

Was Wagner a musician at all? . . . There was something else he was more: namely, an incomparable histrio [actor] . . . He became a musician, he became a poet because the tyrant within him, his actor’s genius, compelled him. Wagner was not a musician by instinct

Thomas Mann picked up a similar theme in his essay “Pro and Contra Wagner”. Mann used the term “double focus” (borrowed from Nietzsche) to describe Wagner’s gift for satisfying sophisticated needs while simultaneously gratifying more commonplace ones. The audience is merely subtly charmed, flattered, manipulated. To Mann, it was dishonest artistry.

Even those of us who love Wagner recognise a feeling of resistance, as though we might be, at least partially, being duped or seduced. We don’t entirely trust feelings even as we experience them. Murray Bail, the Australian novelist, captured this disquieting dimension, the way Wagner’s music rolls “across the audience in waves of such open seduction”. Bail added: “I had felt it necessary to put up some sort of resistance – but was pulled in anyway.”

Only occasionally has that voice of doubt been entirely absent from my own experience. Around a dozen years ago, I heard James Levine conduct Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The final act is dominated by an impassioned argument between the god Wotan and his disobedient daughter, Brünnhilde.

For fear of lapsing into euphoric cliches, I will try to explain the opposite of what I felt at the end of the performance. We have all sat through Hollywood films where we know exactly whose side we are on from beginning to end. We yearn simplistically for a neat resolution of the plot, for good to defeat evil – and that is exactly what happens. But after a moment’s satisfaction, the experience recedes into emptiness, so much so that you begin to resent the candy that was dangled in front of you for the two preceding hours even though you ended up eating it.

The experience of Act III of Die Walküre that evening was as far removed from Hollywood shallowness as I am capable of imagining. Through the combination of music and drama, I had understood the complexity and, above all, the truthfulness of two characters locked in a disagreement that could not be resolved. The experience was qualitatively different from anything I’d known from watching a stage play or reading a novel. Even more revealingly, I was sure that I couldn’t fully explain it in words.

And that is why, I suspect, we are still listening to Wagner 200 years after his birth, why we continue to be drawn in, often with reservations, sometimes more completely and authentically.

Ed Smith is a columnist for the New Statesman and the author of “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

Picture: Bridgeman Images
Show Hide image

The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

***

The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

***

The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue