Margaret Strother Shalev
Wagner in Israel, p.2

The issues in the case "Israel vs. Wagner" are unclear. Is the problem Wagner's anti-Semitism in itself, or is it the posthumous co-opting of Wagner's music by the Nazis? Or is it specifically the association of Wagner's music with the death camps, where it provided the literal soundtrack for genocide? If it is the last, is the ban meant to protect feelings, in which case it should end after the death of the last living witness whose family was marched into the gas chambers to the strains of "Siegfried's Rhine Journey"? Or does the ban suggest that the music itself has been tainted by its use in such a horrific context?

Nor is the ban purely about the Holocaust. Right-wing voices, who generally favor the ban, argue that Wagner, like Arafat, is the voice of genocide. Leftists, who generally oppose the ban, liken it to the Occupation and the domination of parts of Israeli society by the Rabbinate.

Wagner's tangled history

Richard Wagner grew up in the early 1800s, in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Leipzig, the son of a seamstress (some say she was a dancer), Johanna Wagner, herself the daughter of tradesmen (or, some say, the illegitimate daughter of the prince of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach). Wagner himself acknowledged that his father was probably not his mother's husband, but that he was more likely the illegitimate son of an impoverished actor, Ludwig Geyer. That Geyer may have been a Jew was a rumor that was circulated throughout Wagner's lifetime, most famously by Nietzsche in his anti-Wagner diatribe, Der Fall Wagner (1888). But whatever his fears of his putative father's Jewish background, Wagner never disavowed him, and even proudly adopted the vulture (in German, "geyer") as his family crest. Still, it has often been suggested that Wagner's hostile identification with Jews may have been related to his own genealogy.

In the 1848 European revolutions, the 35-year-old Wagner threw away a promising but dreary career as a court musician to run after the rebels, and after the failed Dresden uprising, Wagner was exiled from Germany. From his refuge in Switzerland, he ground out radical essays on aesthetics and politics, including his first racial battle cry, the 1850 essay "Judenthum in Musik." "Judenthum" was, and still is, a shocking polemic, which made the claim (later picked up by T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound) that Jews have no real creativity, no feel for "our" music, merely a talent for mimicry. It's an argument with many contemporary echoes - similar language was heard when Asian classical musicians first began to appear on the classical music scene, and the "blood" argument reappears, oddly, in post-Colonial critical theory, which often criticizes the use ("appropriation") by Europeans of non-European cultural tropes as "colonialist," as if there were something blood-related in a given cultural form.

Wagner was a terrific publicist. He used essays on aesthetics and politics as a sort of advance publicity for his operas, and published his first version of the "Ring Cycle" libretto as an epic poem in 1853, before he had even begun writing the music. The Ring Cycle operas were anticipated for so many years that his enemies publicly doubted that they even existed. When the first complete Ring Cycle was finally performed in 1876, it shook Europe like an earthquake. Not only had Wagner pulled it off, he'd created something utterly unique, an entire alternate world, tapping deep into the prevailing currents of late-19th century European thought -- collective memory, race and identity, socialism, the impotence of God, sex. On gaining the crown, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, stricken since adolescence with Wagner Frenzy, seized the first opportunity to reach out to his idol, enthroning him for life in a luxurious mansion with a grand theater of his own design, in the now-single-industry town of Bayreuth. Performances of Wagner operas were life-changing events for figures as diverse as the American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder (who painted Wagnerian themes after witnessing a performance of the Ring Cycle in New York in the 1880s), Theodor Herzl, and, of course, Hitler.

Wagner's notorious philosophical essays were an integral part of his aesthetic program. He saw his works as launching a new form of German culture, which combined theories of Greek drama with retrogressive fantasies about the lost purity of medieval German town life: the Gesamtkunstwerk - the Total Work of Art. Not a multi-sensory or Virtual Reality experience, Gesamtkunstwerk was to be a revival of what Wagner believed had been the Greek way of Drama. Music, poetry and dance -- the highest arts -- would be reunited in a single, group production, giving voice to an authentic culture that grows out of das Volk itself. Opera, he felt, offered the best opportunity for that revival, and since opera was his field, he felt himself uniquely qualified to lead this cultural rebirth. In fact, as the heir to the revolutionary philosophy of the early 19th century, Wagner felt uniquely qualified to spearhead the regeneration of the German nation as a whole.

As his views percolated, and as his fame earned him hordes of worshipful acolytes, Wagner's views on race and German-ness grew more strident. With the late essays, particularly "Heldenthum und Christenthum" and "Know Thyself" (1881), it becomes difficult to claim, as some of today's Wagner proponents do, that Wagner was just another 19th century parlor anti-Semite, like Degas or Chopin. Wagner scoffs at the absurdity of bestowing "full right upon the Jews to regard themselves in all conceivable respects as Germans-much as a blanket authorized the blacks in Mexico to hold themselves for whites." He bemoans "the enormous disadvantage at which the German race (if so we still may call it) appears to stand against the Jewish" one, and hopes that self-awakening of the German nation will lead to a time when "there ... be no longer-any Jews." These ideas are not isolated quotes; they are squarely within the essence of Wagner's late work, with its concerns of blood purity and the mythic German race.

Consequently, it is incorrect to claim that it is only the use the Nazis made of Wagner that is problematic for the Jewish state. This was part of the Barenboim controversy, since the composer has gone on record as saying that "the issue is not that Wagner was an anti-Semite, but rather the associations that the Nazis managed to instill."* Edward Said, neither a Zionist nor a critic oblivious to the political consequences of art, insisted that "for a mature mind it should be possible to hold together in one's mind two contradictory facts, that Wagner was a great artist, and second, that Wagner was a disgusting human being."

Wagner was not considered a disgusting human being by many of his contemporaries. On the contrary, he was idolized as much as a man as he was as an artist, the symbol of the self-created genius. Ironically, Wagner personally was dwarf-like in stature, dressed in antiquated fashions of silks and velvets (he was often ridiculed as a cross-dresser), forever running from creditors and stealing other men's wives, throwing grand dinner parties; he could also clown, shimmying up trees and walking on his hands. Wagner the Man was his own best publicity, inseparable in his own time from Wagner the Artwork, and it is as a man that he remains Israel's problem today.

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* San Francisco Chronicle, January 10, 2001

May 2004

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Wagner in Israel
Margaret Strother

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