Monday, 29 November 2010

Wider Reading | Why Everyone's Talking About Wagner

He seems to be everywhere at the moment. Facebook updates from excited people saying how much they love Wagner or how much they hate Wagner; how fond they are of his music or how untalented he is. Groups devoted to him and so on.

I must say, I’m delighted; but also astonished. For why should the nationalistic German composer have suddenly found such an audience for his work? And why, particularly, amongst the young?

This man came up when I Googled 'Wagner'. But it's ok; I don't think he's the sort of person anyone in their right mind would give a shit about.

Part of me would like to think that it’s simply a new generation accepting the great artist for his music – finally, now that enough time has passed, being able to appreciate his work in spite of his appalling anti-semitic views. But I’m afraid I really don’t think that’s the case. Rather, the current media obsession with Wagner is a clear reflection of the current political climate and, in particular, the cracks that are showing in the notion of idealistic patriotism, the collapse of the grandeur and ‘highness’ of thought that exists in the composer’s work – the realisation that all politicians are, in their own way, Alberichs.

I’m referring, of course, to the latest glut of Wikileaks leaks. When I saw the self-righteous, belligerent responses from American politicians, claiming that exposing their illegal activities in the UN counted as a “terrorist attack” or an act of war, I was instantly reminded – and who wouldn’t be? – of Wagner’s assertion, in ‘Religion and Art’, that

“From its first faint glimmerings, History shews Man's constant progress as a beast of prey. As such he conquers every land, subdues the fruit-fed races, founds mighty realms by subjugating other subjugators, forms states and sets up civilisations, to enjoy his prey at rest.”

Many commentators have argued that these new leaks tell us little that we weren’t already aware of; the Russian government has links to organised crime, Saudi Arabia is troubled by Iran, Prince Andrew is mouthy and has a pretty good idea how a bribe works. True, but that isn’t the point – the monstrous, previously comfortably settled political Man Wagner speaks of has got a bit of a nasty jolt; it’s become entirely plausible that the Internet may give birth to virtual powers that can affect ‘real’ world powers, even be able to hold them accountable for their actions through public opinion. The significance of that shouldn’t be understated. When Hillary Clinton says that the leaks upset the fabric of responsible government, she really means that they upset the veneer of responsible government.

Now this is Wagner.

It is revealing that some of the US politicians chose to view Wikileaks as if it were a country in its own right. It’s equally revealing that Silvio Berlusconi is said to have laughed at the revelations about him; this is a man, after all, who’s had his disease-ridden underbelly exposed times beyond counting, and who hasn’t been toppled yet. He knows that scandals are easier to ride out when they’re made into a joke; the Americans, however, do not seem to share his sense of humour. I can’t help but be reminded of Sarah Palin, just last week, complaining about Michelle Obama as someone who didn’t love her country unconditionally – saying, in so many words, that a US citizen should love the US no matter what the US does.

Alberich, we may recall, is able to do great harm in the Ring Cycle once he is invisible – once nobody is capable of passing judgement on him. He also, notably, responds to his mockery at the hands of the Ringmaidens by falling into a terrible rage and trying to attack them. It doesn’t end well for him. And the gods don’t come out of the whole thing too well, either, their divinity shattered; their lust for power revealed to all.

Let Wagner, then, become the symbol of anti-patriotism; of conditional love for one’s country dependent upon the actions of one’s country. Of freedom of speech, regardless of ‘national interest’. When we hear ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, let’s see those helicopters once again. And let’s be glad that, in such a critical political time, our young people are obsessing about a man named Wagner.


  1. This is the most ingeniously ironic troll article ever.

  2. Great stuff from Sarah Palin.

    Clearly she's not familiar with the Patriot's paradox, viz: "my country, right or wrong," which is infamous, or "my country is always right", which is imbecile...