Theodor W. Adorno, “Wagner’s Relevance For Today”

If in Hegel history meant progress in the consciousness of freedom, then in Wagner, who sided with Hegel’s antipode, Schopenhauer, the Ring, was a phenomenology of the spirit as fate.  Consequently his work lacks the element of freedom, of openness, that constitutes drama.  From Senta’s ballad to the great narrative of Gurnemanz, the work is therefore interlarded with reports and ballads, sometimes in the manner of the great lieder art of the earlier nineteenth century. . . .

In Wagner unceasing change – both as asset and a liability – ends in constant sameness. – Theodor W. Adorno, “Wagner’s Relevance for Today,” in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music, p.597

Richard Wagner.  For those who know anything about 20th century history, it is a name freighted with baggage of the most horrific kind.  This is no accident, either,  It wasn’t just that Hitler was a personal fan of Wagner’s work.  Within the works themselves, as Adorno himself makes clear at the outset, lay the very foundations of what would become National Socialism in Germany.  And even with the Second World War ended and both Nazism and Wagner covered in the blood of millions, Adorno warns, “As the National Socialism potential continues to smolder with the German reality, now as then, so is it still present in Wagner.”(p.585)

And yet . . .

And yet, it is not enough, as Adorno insists, to dismiss either Wagner or his work so quickly.  There is both progressive and regressive tendencies within Wagner; how they work together, how they fit together is the task of the analyst.  Precisely because the violence of Wagner’s art and the violence of the Third Reich continue to be live possibilities – even the most horrid taboo, once transcended, can never be put back in place – we must remember, as Adorno also says, “[Wagner’s] music shudders with the unrelieved violence that lives on today in the world order.”  Adorno continues further down:

In these thoroughly modern works, prehistory persists as modernity itself.  This splinters the facade of the bourgeois surface, and through the cracks there shines enough of what has only now become fully evolved and recognizable to suffice as proof of Wagner’s relevance for today.(p.589)

Through the creation of myth through music, the appearance and reappearance of character motifs, and the full cycle of the of the Ring, Wagner aims at a totality that is simultaneously fully modern – Hegelian, even – while simultaneously dismissing modernity, replaying it as myth.  Yet this contradiction, expressed in the extremes of Wagner’s music, has too often been acquainted with both musical and political barbarism.  Adorno disagrees:

Barbarism can no more be equated with loudness, in his music, than the representation of myth can be equated with the direct expression of barbarism.  Barbarism ceases to be barbaric through its reflection in great art; it becomes distanced, is even, if you will, criticized.  Where Wagner goes to the extreme, it has a precise function: the objectification of the chaotic, undomesticated element that his works confront unreservedly.  The violence of Wagnerian sound, where it occurs, is the violence of its content. (p.595)

In seeking to demonstrate Wagner’s relevance, Adorno takes all those elements – myth, anti-Semitism, the extremes present in character, music, and story – and reclaims them for our post-WWII age, thoroughly modern, speaking the language of a violence barely held in check by the threat of mass destruction through nuclear exchange.  While Adorno treats the ending of Wagner’s cycle as disappointing – one expects something grand, but instead experiences little more than the world fizzling to an end – he insists this is all part of Wagner’s larger purpose.  Just as Hegel never presented “Absolute Knowledge” at the end of his Phenomenology of Spirit, neither does Wagner present the end of the world as we would expect it:

Absolute knowledge proves to be little more than a kind of recapitulation of [Hegel’s] foregoing book; the quintessence of that motion of the Spirit in which it purportedly came to itself without the absolute itself ever having been expressed, since, if one follows Hegel, the latter was, in fact, never capable of being expressed as a result.  In short, musically speaking, it is a reprise, with the element of disappointment that characterizes all reprises.  So, too, in Gotterdamerung.  The absolute, redemption from myth, even when it takes the form of catastrophe, is possible only as a reprise.  Myth is catastrophe in permanence.  What does away with it bring it to fulfillment, and death, which is the end of the bad infinite, is at the same time absolute regression. (pp.598-599)

Wagner’s relevance, then, lies precisely in what so many overlook as weakness: it is the very circular nature of the myth cycle – right down to the name Ring – that should remind us that no matter how bloodstained, no matter how violent, no matter how passe Wagner is claimed to be, either politically or musically, that which is both best and worst in Wagner – which can never be separated from one another – are always live options.  Wagner provides both a blueprint and an aesthetic for both the most heroic and most despicable in human life.  For that very reason, he continues to be relevant