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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

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The Brexit odd squad

The Brexiters are resilient and have the support of some unlikely foreign allies. Can they really topple the political establishment and lead Britain out of the European Union?

Look at the troops arrayed on the Leave and the Remain sides in the June referendum and you might think that our continued membership of the European Union is assured. On the side of staying in the EU are Britain’s four living prime ministers, the International Monetary Fund, the Treasury, most members of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, the Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry, the governor of the Bank of England, the head of the NHS, Britain’s three largest trade unions and the US president. Leave has Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the contested ghost of Margaret Thatcher.

Yet few expect the final result of Britain’s In/Out referendum to be as asymmetric as that roll-call would suggest. At the top of the pro-EU campaign Britain Stronger in Europe, there is no doubt: it could lose.

So what – and who – is responsible for the unlikely appeal of Brexit’s “odd squad”? And how do they work together when their side is so fractious and its big personalities seem so uninterested in teamwork?

The story begins on the morning of 20 February, when David Cameron summoned his cabinet to announce the results of his EU renegotiation and ask his ministers to support Britain’s continued membership of the Union. Those who did left by the front door; the six dissidents were asked to leave by the tradesman’s entrance.

Nipping out the back were the full cabinet members Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale, plus the employment minister, Priti Patel, who has the right to attend cabinet meetings. They soon reconvened at Vote Leave’s headquarters, a nondescript tower block in Westminster, where they posed with a giant sign bearing the campaign’s slogan “Vote Leave, take control” – a sight more reminiscent of a group of local councillors vowing to protect a bus lane than the upper reaches of the British political class.

Then again, the cabinet Leavers are not, on the whole, an impressive bunch. Villiers and Grayling were among the casualties of the formation of the coalition government in 2010, moving from their briefs to make way for Lib Dems, and both had to be content with junior posts until the 2012 reshuffle. Since then, Villiers has been a competent if uninspiring operator in Northern Ireland. Grayling was widely held to be a failure at the Ministry of Justice and now serves as Leader of the House of Commons, historically the antechamber between full cabinet rank and the wilderness.

As for Whittingdale, he is that rare creature in Whitehall: a secretary of state for culture, media and sport who does not regard the post as a stepping stone to bigger things. As the recent white paper on the future of the BBC showed, the golden thread of his thinking is scepticism: towards the EU, the BBC and regulation of the press. He was Margaret Thatcher’s last political secretary in Downing Street and, after becoming an MP in the 1992 election, he set up meetings between the former prime minister and his fellow new boys from the 1992 intake – meetings that John Major blamed for fanning the flames of Eurosceptic rebellion in the dog days of his premiership.

Priti Patel also has impeccable Eurosceptic credentials. She cut her teeth as a press officer to the Referendum Party, set up in a doomed attempt to secure an In/Out referendum in 1997. Following William Hague’s election as Tory leader and the adoption of complete hostility towards the single currency, she joined the Conservative Party, becoming an MP in 2010.

She is best known for contributing to Britannia Unchained, a series of essays by Patel and four of her fellow 2010-ers (including Dominic Raab, widely expected to run for the Tory leadership next time). The book was intended to provide the intellectual ballast for a revivified Thatcherism, though the only part that attracted headlines was the claim that British workers were “among the worst idlers in the world”.

This dubious crew of ministerial heavyweights has grown marginally more likeable since Duncan Smith’s resignation as work and pensions secretary. Yet it is not his six-year tenure as a minister but his two-year stint as Tory leader that has left the biggest mark on the Brexit debate, with his former hires among the loudest advocates for a Leave vote – including the founding editor of ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie, now at Gove’s old newspaper the Times. (In the unhappiest periods of Cameron’s first term, when the Prime Minister was frequently criticised by Montgomerie in that newspaper, Cameroons would mutter about the irony that one of their sharpest critics had served as chief of staff to the least successful leader of the Conservative Party in its history.)

As for Michael Gove, though he is loved by lobby journalists, he remains a hate figure in the country at large and particularly among teachers, as a result of his belligerent tactics during his time as secretary of state for education.

***

The last of the senior Brexit-supporting Tories didn’t leave through the back door that morning because he hadn’t yet declared his position. That came the next day, in a media scrum outside his home in Islington, north London.

The former mayor of London Boris Johnson is still Britain’s most popular politician, surviving crises and scandals that would have left others dead in the water. He is also the only politician whom the Remain campaign truly fears. But Johnson is not a wholly congenial presence among Britain’s Brexiters. Although he is a far more adept planner than his dishevelled appearance – or his paper-thin record at City Hall – would suggest, he can be difficult to manage. His  weekly Telegraph column has largely been turned to cheerleading for Brexit but Vote Leave’s biggest gun doesn’t always point in the direction its chief strategists would like.

During Barack Obama’s visit to the UK in April, Johnson became embroiled in a war of words in which he suggested that the president had an ancestral dislike of Britain because of his “part-Kenyan” heritage. Having made this racially charged argument in the Sun, he extended the story needlessly by giving a similarly robust interview to the Daily Mail, much to the frustration of staffers at Vote Leave.

So there you have it. An unpopular firebrand, an unsuccessful former Tory leader, four relative nonentities and a blond bombshell who is considered clever but uncontrollable. It is less a huddle of Big Beasts than a grotesque menagerie – and these are among the sensible, mainstream voices on the Leave side. The other politicians who can get on to the Sunday shows to talk Brexit include Nigel Farage, who is adored by the four million people in Britain who voted Ukip in last year’s general election – and hated by the remaining 42 million. Yet he is a national treasure compared to George Galloway, formerly of Labour, who secured just 37,000 votes in the mayoral election. An unkind observer might say that none of the Brexit-backing politicians can stop traffic: half of them because they are unknown and the other half because most people would quite like to run them over.

There are also few compelling figures from business, sport, entertainment and science backing Brexit. Ian Botham is a rare celebrity Outer. “Cricket is a game where you achieve the greatest success when you are confident in your own ability to go out and stand proud,” he wrote in the Sunday Times. “Britain has that spirit.” In April, a slew of acts withdrew from a gig in Birmingham after finding out that it was organised by Leave.EU. Only Phats & Small, whose last hit was in 1999, refused to pull out.

Then there’s the infighting. To give just one example of the ongoing civil war, Vote Leave – the officially recognised campaign group for Brexit – believes Farage is so toxic to its cause that it regards his invitation to appear in a TV discussion alongside Cameron as an establishment stitch-up. “ITV has effectively joined the official In campaign,” said a Vote Leave statement to journalists on 11 May, written by Dominic Cummings, the campaign’s director. “There will be consequences for its future – the people in No 10 won’t be there for long.”

***

In the light of all this, why are the pro-Europeans so worried? Many feel that the current campaign is beginning to remind them of a nightmare year: 2011, when Britain voted decisively to reject electoral reform by moving from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote (AV). Around the time of the 2010 general election, polls had shown that Britain was in favour of the change by a 27-point margin. But on 5 May 2011, more than two-thirds of voters said No to AV, which ended up more than 35 points ahead.

What undid the Alternative Vote was a ruthlessly effective campaign against it – one that was almost completely fact-free. No2AV focused relentlessly on the cost of a new voting system; poster after poster made reference to its illusory price tag of £250m. “He needs bulletproof vests,” intoned one illustrated with a picture of a soldier, “NOT an alternative voting system.” Another came with a picture of a baby: “She needs a new cardiac facility, NOT an alternative voting system.”

As one veteran of the pro-AV campaign recalled recently: “It was impossible to fight. How do you repudiate it without repeating it? We never found a way.”

That appeal to economic interests was so powerful that Vote Leave has come up with a similarly memorable figure: the £350m weekly cost of Britain’s EU membership. This has been debunked by fact-checkers such as Full Fact, which estimates that the UK pays roughly £9.8bn a year once money back is taken into account. Regardless, Vote Leave keeps quoting the figure – and no wonder, because the chief executive of Vote Leave is also the architect of No2AV’s crushing victory: a 38-year-old LSE graduate called Matthew Elliott.

Despite Vote Leave’s anti-politics flavour, Elliott is a Westminster insider and well connected in the wonk world. He is the founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the most high-profile of a close network of think tanks that are a proving ground for a rising generation of right-wingers. The Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute together form what one alumnus jokingly calls a “Sorbonne for neoliberals”.

Much of Vote Leave’s staff is drawn from another Elliott creation: Business for Britain. The group was set up ostensibly to lobby for David Cameron to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU but was in reality designed as a Leave campaign in utero. Accordingly, many of its early recruits have ended up moving across.

Elliott is regarded as having a keen eye for talent and for being generous with his time. At each organisation where he has worked, he has taken care to bring on promising protégés. Alumni of the Elliott school include Susie Squire, who spent two years at the heart of Cameron’s administration as press secretary; Nick Pickles, head of UK public policy at Twitter; and Dylan Sharpe, the combative head of public relations at the Sun. Most of his favourite employees have three things in common: libertarian politics, a cut-throat instinct and loyalty to him personally. Those who have worked for Elliott largely speak highly of him.

The same cannot be said for the second leading player in Vote Leave who has the Remain side worried: Gove’s former henchman Dominic Cummings. David Laws – who, as a junior minister, worked closely with Cummings when he was at Gove’s Department for Education – describes him as a “grade-A political Rottweiler”. “As well as being bright,” Laws writes in his memoirs, “Dom Cummings was also blunt, rude, impatient and tactless.” According to friends of both, without Cummings’s encouragement, Gove would have been a mostly silent presence in the Leave campaign because of his close friendship with Cameron.

The former special adviser’s commitment to anti-Europeanism is a long-held one – his first job in politics was at Britain for Sterling, which lobbied against Britain joining the European single currency in the 1990s. Thereafter, he worked for Iain Duncan Smith during his brief and unhappy leadership. A former staffer from that time remembers him as an “abrasive presence”.

After Duncan Smith’s removal as Tory leader, Cummings retreated to his native Durham, where he helped to engineer victory for the No side in the referendum on whether to give the north-east its own devolved assembly. It was the tactics used in that referendum – an endless focus on costs, coupled with personal attacks on the credentials of the Yes side – which were taken on and extended by Elliott during the AV contest. Those tactics are once again on display in this referendum.

That partly explains why, on the Remain side, Cummings is respected and feared in equal measure. Yet his confrontational approach often proves his undoing: for instance, he understood the importance of giving a cross-party sheen to Vote Leave (not least to secure the official campaign designation), yet his conduct led to the departure of the Eurosceptic Labour MP Kate Hoey. “We live in a world where people get things by being nice to each other,” reflects a former colleague of Cummings, “and Dom doesn’t really work like that.”

Hoey’s walkout set the ball rolling on another, less dramatic exit: John Mills, Labour’s largest private individual donor and a Brexiter of many years’ standing. He feared the Vote Leave brand had become irrevocably Conservative. (Unlike Hoey, Mills remains on speaking terms with Vote Leave.)

Friends say that, for Elliott, who has been “planning this [campaign] for some time”, Cummings’s disposition is a price worth paying for his tactical nous. It was Cummings who was the architect of Vote Leave’s two-pronged strategy: claiming that the money we now pay to the EU could go towards the NHS, and suggesting that Brexit will allow us to cut immigration by “regaining control of our borders”.

The perceived cut-through of the latter message with older Labour voters was behind Vote Leave’s big tactical gamble. On 8 May, an official statement by the campaign declared that leaving the EU would also entail leaving the single market.

That decision is unlikely to find favour with big businesses that rely on international trade but it does allow Vote Leave to make strong and unambiguous claims about cutting immigration. If we are outside the European Union but inside the single market (as Norway is), we would have to accept free movement of labour. If we leave the single market, however, we could introduce a points-based entry system, or even finally achieve Cameron’s otherwise impossible cap on net migration.

Upset business but win over small-C conservative voters: it’s a big risk for the Brexiters to take. It represents a throw of the dice by Cummings, who sidelined Nigel Farage precisely in order to minimise the campaign’s focus on immigration. But with the vote scheduled to take place on 23 June and a repeat of last year’s refugee crisis in the Mediterranean looming, security and borders are likely to be at the forefront of voters’ minds. For all that those on the Brexit side have denounced Cameron for running a repeat of “Project Fear”, they know that they have to make change less terrifying than maintaining the status quo.

***

In their quest to take Britain out of the EU, the Brexiters have a simple, if high-stakes, strategy. They want to appear to be the underdogs (hence their repeated complaints about the government’s £9m pro-EU leaflet) and as a scrappier, grass-roots campaign taking on the might of the establishment. Naturally, this image doesn’t reflect an unvarnished truth: the press has been largely onside and senior editors and columnists are very willing to take Vote Leave’s calls.

There is also no concern about keeping the lights on. Arron Banks, the insurance magnate who bankrolled Ukip at the 2015 general election, might have refused to fund Vote Leave after it triumphed over his favoured vehicle, Leave.EU – he has called Matthew Elliott “Lord Elliott of Loserville” and threatened to sue the Electoral Commission for naming Vote Leave the official voice of Brexit – but insiders say that the campaign’s financial position is nothing to worry about.

If Vote Leave wins, it will have scored an extraordinary victory – and, it should be noted, defied the hopes of most of our allies in the rest of the world. The politicians backing Britain’s continued membership of the EU include not just Barack Obama but his likely successor, Hillary Clinton, as well as the prime ministers of Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

There is a vanishingly small number of international politicians who back Brexit. Like the inner core of Vote Leave, they are overwhelmingly drawn from the right-wing fringe – US Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and the French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, who, unhappily for the Brexiters, is expected to visit Britain to support their case.

The only foreign leader who seriously supports a British Leave vote in June is a man praised by Nigel Farage and whose country Dominic Cummings spent several years working in: Vladimir Putin, who, as far as British voters are concerned, is even more toxic than Farage, Galloway or Gove.

When Britain’s odd squad looks abroad for allies, its options are few – but this ragtag collective is far from beaten. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad