Wagner’s Romantic Dilemma
As I approach a score short of being a Centenarian, I am appalled by my minimal contributions to our society and culture. I have associated with social lions and colossal scholars, but in comparison with them, I have produced little of consequence. My “adventures” in the service of Martin Luther King, Junior, seem to have been erased by the resurgent ignorance and prejudice that like the hydra, grows new heads for each one that is lopped off. As a young pup working as a research assistant for Marshall McLuhan, my contributions were trivial, and sadly, now, no one remembers or understands what this genius predicted and explained about our new present—a media-driven culture that to many of us seems to be spiraling out of control, tied as we are to the cold medium of print.
When I met Morse Peckham in the mid1950s, he was still defending his 1951 PMLA article “Towards a Theory of Romanticism.” Threading together the concepts of Kant, Schopenhauer, Fichte, and Schelling in and through the observations of A.O. Lovejoy and Rene Wellek, Peckham produced a work that clarified and crystalized my own meager understanding of what attracted me to the nineteenth century. As a novice in the academic world at the time, I suspect my opinions influenced the great man very little as his crew attempted to answer the criticism of delivering a “schizoid” theory that split the movement in half. Since I had already adopted the concept of “sacrifice” and was intoxicated by the ideas of Schopenhauer, I had no problem with “positive” and “negative” Romanticism—the difference being that the positive Romantics accepted killing off the Ego to serve the greater good while the selfish negative Romantics worshipped their ego and glorified in it (the Byronic Hero). Peckham, over his lifetime, wrote three more attempts to clarify his ideas and answer the attacks.
I have written elsewhere about the ideas in the air during the nineteenth century (which linger into the present) and the role of sacrifice as a means of understanding Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and, of course, Wagner, among others. One of the chief critics of the literature of sacrifice was the Italian critic Mario Praz. He described the culture after Carlyle as Beidermeier—lacking greatness. He was both right and wrong. Wrong because he allowed his heroic prejudice to cloud his view of the merits of sacrifice. He was right because—as I should have helped Peckham to take off the blindfold of his theory—sacrifice often subverts the heroic. What we overlooked or did not take into account was the Pauline Christianity that mixed with Hindu and Buddhist concepts to eliminate the Classical heroic values. The Greeks, the Romans, even the Pagan Anglo-Saxons told of “larger-than-life” heroes, whose strength, cunning, and intelligence won them victories that brought them glory, wealth, and power. Beowulf’s death is not a sacrifice. It is a last battle for glory. Wiglaf does not sacrifice himself for Beowulf; he fights, as it turns out, to inherit Beowulf’s power. The gold that two win for killing the dragon does not go to the good of the people; rather, it is sealed up in Beowulf’s tomb. The story would have ended very differently if written after Carlyle.
This brings us to the dilemma faced by Richard Wagner. The composer breathed in the air of the nineteenth century. He came to the same concepts Schopenhauer delivered. In work after work, we see heroes and heroines sacrifice themselves for the salvation of others—Senta for the Dutchman, Elizabeth for Tannhauser, Sachs for Eva. Yet, from early in Wagner's career, the idea of Siegfried’s Tod preyed upon him. Obviously, he was enraptured by the notion of a hero, but as he developed his ideas for the opera, he kept running into roadblocks. In the end, Wagner had to write four operas (I know—three plus a prologue) to have Siegfried’s Tod make sense—the whole story had to be told. In the end, the Ring becomes a story of sacrifice, but it is not Wagner’s chosen hero who makes the sacrifice. Sadly, Siegfried is sacrificed.
In fact, only in the opera Siegfried does the hero fit the classic definition, doing the heroic acts of freeing himself, defeating the dragon to win the Ring and Tarnhelm, overcoming the god, and waking the sleeping beauty. In short, Wagner does write an opera about a hero, but it is not the opera he originally thought he was writing. When he does write that opera, the hero becomes the victim. He does not sacrifice himself, but he is the sacrifice as Wotan allows his grandson to die so that the Ring is free and his daughter to sacrifice herself to return the Ring to the Rhine. Wotan through the Cycle is the Perfect Peckham Postive Romantic as in the beginning he seeks in his ego to take the Ring only to discover that he has broken the codes that he himself established, and so he kills off his ego allowing the string of fate to play out as he sacrifices himself and all he hoped for to allow the world a rebirth. Clearly Wagner could not escape his age, and his attempt to write of a hero was his dilemma.