Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Wagner's Religion and Anti-Semitism: Part III

Expressions of Wagner's Anti-Semitism

Wagner could not accept that God would send his only begotten son into the world in the form of a Jew, and he viewed the Christian religion as illegitimate, based as it was on Hebrew scripture and the understanding that Jesus was Jewish. He loathed Catholicism for its dependence on flashy ceremony and ritual and the apparently ignorant way in which it had incorporated millennia of pagan tradition and passed it off as Christianity. But he was no real fan of Protestantism, either, based largely as it was on the Calvinist idea that through faith and good works God rewards us materially here on earth.

In addition to rejecting the notion of a Jewish Christ, Wagner had a few other very strange ideas.

The belief in an ultimate oneness of being that he adopted from his Schopenhauer-tainted Buddhism led him to become an early animal rights activist, of sorts.

For example, he became a vegetarian, something one might well imagine was regarded as particularly eccentric in 19th century Germany. He forced his dietary restrictions on his family and his frequent guests. Similarly, he started a grass-roots campaign against vivisection, the practice of dissecting live animals in order to observe the physical function of various organs.

However sincere his concern for the suffering of animals was, Wagner took these quasi-Buddhist ideas one step further. He believed that mankind was originally vegetarian, and had adopted the practice of eating meat when they first came in contact with the Israelites, who were cannibals (or so Wagner insisted). In order to integrate themselves into society, the Jews gave up on eating men and switched to animals, a habit which found its way into general society. His main objection to vivisection was that he perceived the scientific and medical industries to be dominated by Jews, and that it was a direct result of the unfeelingness of Jews which derived from their not being a part of that eternal oneness that engendered compassion in each of us.

Some of his contemporary anti-Semites thought that inter-marriage was the best solution to the problem, but Wagner called Jewish blood "corrosive." Despite his distaste for Christianity and its rituals, he believed that Jews should be baptized in order to assimilate. Wagner's wife Cosima records in her diary on May 6, 1880, that a letter from the conductor he chose to lead the premiere of his final opera caused him to remark, "I cannot allow him to conduct Parsifal unbaptized, but I shall baptize [him] and we shall all take communion together." (Incidentally, Levi conducted the premiere without getting baptized.)

On November 1, 1876, she wrote, "In the evening we are visited by Dr. Rée, whose cold and precise character does not appeal to us; on closer inspection we come to the conclusion that he must be an Israelite."

Cosima, the daughter of composer Franz Liszt, bore Wagner two illegitimate children while she was married to his friend Hans von Bülow. Her diaries contain fascinating accounts of Wagner's frequent off-handed and outrageous anti-Jewish comments (with which she wholeheartedly concurs), but also long passages on her husband's musings over the meanings of his work. It is emphatically clear that whatever his prejudices and however much they dominated his social life, they did not inspire his dramatic compositions.

Genius and madness are closely related, and there is every reason to believe that in Wagner's case, his peculiar variety of madness facilitated his unique genius. Only someone with Wagner's degree of megalomania could conceive of and spend three entire decades of their lives creating a saga comprised of four epic operas to be performed in the space of a week whose principle theme was rooted in the philosophical idea of negation of the will as path to ultimate redemption. Not only that, he self-produced the first performances of the cycle and even built his own theater (still in use as the home of the Bayreuther Festspiele) for the event, personally choosing the cast, supervising the rehearsals and even, to the extent his ability allowed, designing the sets and costumes. All of this while he was writing numerous essays and articles on an astounding variety of subjects; the present edition of his published writings runs to sixteen volumes, not including his personal letters.

Wagner the man is as fascinating and complex as the works he produced. His racism was an important component and expression of his personality, but it's not the whole story. If you look to the operas, you will see that it's not even in the story.

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