In 1936, W.E.B. Du Bois traveled to Nazi Germany to see Richard Wagner’s operas at Bayreuth. “I can dine where I please and have the headwaiter bid me welcome,” unlike in America, Du Bois noted, but he also remarked that the Nazi treatment of Jews “surpasse[d] in vindictive cruelty and public insult anything I have ever seen, and I have seen much.” A confirmed Wagnerite, Du Bois wrote a short story about a young African American man galvanized by Lohengrin. About to be lynched, the man “softly hum[s]” Wagner’s bridal music. Du Bois fell in love with another Black Wagnerite, Shirley Graham, a composer and music teacher who exulted in the chance “to lead young, hungry Negroes to Wagner!”
Du Bois’ story is one of many in Alex Ross’ Wagnerism, a near-encyclopedic survey of what seems to be every writer, artist, or public figure who has ever fallen in love with Wagner’s music. Wagnerism is old-fashioned intellectual history, its 700-plus pages more than the average reader will want. But it is packed with striking vignettes, and Ross persuades us that the cult of Wagner was one of the keys to an epoch. One could probably tell the story of the 20th century through the diverse spectrum of Wagner’s followers, and Ross comes close to doing it.
Hearing one’s first Wagner opera is often a conversion experience, giving rise to sleepless nights, a racing heartbeat and intimations of future greatness. “Being overpowered by Wagner, one overpowers him oneself, and pulls him in whatever direction one wishes,” Ross remarked in a recent talk at the New York Institute for the Humanities. (Of course, some members of Wagner’s audience merely fall asleep.)
Wagner has appealed to satanists, Nazis, white supremacists, and other unsavory types, but also to feminists, gay men and lesbians, Jews and African Americans. The most notorious Wagnerian was, of course, Adolf Hitler, a genuine devotee who liked to discuss nuances of tempo and vocal inflection in Wagner’s operas. Hitler tried to make Wagner’s music central to the Third Reich, without much success, Ross points out; the average Nazi preferred American jazz.
Wagner has always been a polarizing figure, both ardently worshipped and hated, sometimes by the same people (exhibit A: Friedrich Nietzsche). Even the most devoted listeners may have the nagging sense that in a Wagner opera the sublime can tip over into overkill. But the familiar claim that Wagner produced grandiose kitsch misses the mark. Yes, the Ring is the first superhero comic book, but it has both subtlety and bravado. Wagner is a supreme ironist, showing with the deft flick of a leitmotif how the triumphant tones of Walhalla are also bitterly ironic, or how Brünnhilde’s adamant idealism wrecks the people she loves.
Wagner remade musical form. Instead of producing variations, he spins forth the weblike permutations of a phrase. In Tristan and Isolde, the phrase unfolds for five hours, the length of the opera, before stretching out into godlike consummation. Tristan is Wagner at his highest and deepest. Nietzsche in Ecce Homo spoke of the opera’s “sweet and eerie infinity,” and “the fifty worlds of alien ecstasies for which none but [Wagner] had wings.”
No one knew Wagner’s ambivalent artistry better than Nietzsche. The 20-something philosopher rapturously attached himself to Wagner, visiting Wagner and his wife, Cosima, frequently at their villa in Tribschen, Switzerland. Later on, after his break with the composer, Nietzsche illuminated Wagner’s genius in a way he never could when he was a loyal acolyte. “No one can approach him in the colors of late autumn, in the indescribably touching joy of a last, a very last, and all too short gladness,” Nietzsche wrote about his onetime idol. “He has the modest glance of concealed suffering, of understanding without comfort, of leave-taking without word or sign ... and many a thing was introduced into art for the first time by him,” Nietzsche continues, “the cynical revolts, for instance, of which only the greatest sufferer is capable.”
Wagner was a great psychologist, as Nietzsche sensed, most of all when he depicts discontented sufferers. Unfortunately, Ross doesn’t say much about Wagner’s characters beyond the obvious: His heroines are miracles of feistiness, his heroes often thwarted misfits. He also spends little time on the details of Wagner’s music, though he has done this superbly elsewhere. Instead Ross has written a work of cultural history, showing how Wagner has been a flashpoint for arguments about decadence, nationalism, sexual revolution, and fascism.
And anti-Semitism, of course. In 1850 Wagner wrote a repulsive anti-Semitic tract titled Jewishness in Music, and Jew-hatred peppered his conversations with his wife, Cosima. After a disastrous theater fire killed 400 Jews in Vienna, Wagner joked that all Jews ought to be burned. He complained that at a performance of Tristan he saw “nothing but hooked noses, and those accents.” And so on, endlessly. Yet several of Wagner’s closest collaborators were Jewish, including the conductors Angelo Neumann and Hermann Levi, a rabbi’s son who kept kosher.
Ross discusses a long line of Jewish Wagnerites, including Theodor Herzl and the great Yiddish theater star Boris Tomashefsky, who presented a version of Parsifal—yes, in Yiddish—on the Bowery in 1903. Lately there is Larry David, who in one Curb Your Enthusiasm episode is caught whistling the Siegfried Idyll and charged by a passerby with being a self-loathing Jew.
Ross can’t resist telling us about odd Wagnerian cases, and none is more troubling than Otto Weininger, the Jewish Wagnerite whose book Sex and Character is full of what Ross aptly calls “malignant gibberish” but also weirdly acute insight. A bitter misogynist given to Jewish and homosexual self-hatred, Weininger killed himself at age 23.
Eventually, Ross’ parade of nutty Wagnerites starts to wear down the reader. He has read a small mountain of Wagnerian fan fiction, and gives samples like this one:
Gertrude Atherton’s Tower of Ivory, published in 1910, describes the rise and fall of Margarethe Styr, who leads a life of prostitution before reinventing herself as a Wagner soprano. Styr has a doomed affair with a feckless young British diplomat, who, it is clear, has gay longings. Rather than face a life without her beloved, she arranges that her immolation at the end of a performance of Götterdämmerung be done with real fire.
A little of this goes a long way. Gender-bending potboilers that riff on Wagner score points for “independent minded female characters” or gay-friendly themes, Ross insists, in spite of their jump-the-shark plots. Ross’ politically correct leanings also appear in Wikipedia-style boilerplate ads for theorists like the Mao-loving anti-Zionist Alain Badiou. ”Retaining a strong political commitment amid postmodern doubt, Badiou believes in the enduring possibility of revolutionary change,” Ross tells us. Who can doubt that “strong political commitment” and a devotion to “the enduring possibility of revolutionary change” are enough to kosher Wagnerian affection for the Cultural Revolution and Jew-hatred?
Perhaps one can rely on Wagner as a life coach without becoming a total cuckoo bird, but it’s not easy. Luckily, Ross, unlike the fanatic cultists he likes to describe, does not go all the way down the Wagnerian rabbit hole: His own Wagnerism remains personal rather than political. In a movingly reticent autobiographical postlude, he describes key moments when he saw his life through Wagner’s operas. “Embarrassingly, I associate early experiences of the Ring with the ups and downs of various crushes and love affairs,” he writes. A boyfriend breaks up with Ross after a performance of Die Walküre, like Wotan sealing Brünnhilde in her ring of fire. We are back to Nietzsche’s insight that Wagner was a nonpareil scene painter of “secret misery.”
Like any true Wagnerite, though, Ross sees traces of his flawed hero everywhere. From a scholarly and critical perspective this presents a problem. Too often, Ross’ discovery of the Wagnerian clues scattered in later writers, painters, architects, and film directors is merely ingenious, and even crankish. While Ross’ Wagnerian reading of Lawrence’s Women in Love convinces, his attempts to rope James Joyce and Virginia Woolf into the Wagner cult seem off balance. Neither writer wanted anything to do with Wagner’s doom-eager, mythic pessimism, his ardent thrusting gaiety, or his exalted grasp of the love-death motif. One of Ross’ weakest moments is when he suggests that Joyce’s Leopold Bloom resembles Gurnemanz in Parsifal. No one familiar with both works will find this comparison persuasive.
Another instance of overreach is Ross’ chapter on Willa Cather. Though Cather was steeped in Wagner’s music, the tone of her novels is far distant from the operas. Her epiphanies in mesa country are pure American, her bare stark sublimity a salute to the open land. Ross says, unpersuasively, that “archetypes of Tristan, Isolde, Siegfried and Brünnhilde anchor a number of her characters.” For all her yearning, however, Cather is a pragmatist at heart, opposed to sorcery and heavy perfume. Nowhere does she recognize, much less endorse, the relentless will to self-destruction, revenge or cathartic love that powers Wagner’s world.
The final line of Wagner’s Jewishness in Music forecasts the Jews’ “Untergang” (dissolution, downfall). Like Wotan brooding on “das Ende,” Wagner both wished for and feared conclusions. Perhaps Wagner’s operas seem like they might never end because Wagner remains unsure whether ending is victory, surrender or both at once. In Act 3 of Siegfried, which Adorno considered the summit of Wagner’s art, Wotan boasts that Brünnhilde will perform an “erlösende Weltenthat,” a deed to liberate and redeem the world. But in fact her love can express itself only in death, joyous and resolved. The Ring concludes with what might be the greatest high in Wagner, the burning of Walhalla and the throwing of the ring back into the Rhine. It is all superbly ethereal, but it’s permanently unclear what this ending means.
In his last opera, Parsifal, Wagner goes beyond the Ring’s desire for cosmic reconciliation. He aims higher, at resurrection. Wagner’s final work presents a perfect lockdown drama, with the paralyzed society of the Grail knights revived by Parsifal’s innocent heroism. Wagner celebrates Parsifal’s fairy-tale chastity, which Nietzsche found laughable, knowing that the composer was not immune to extramarital lust.
Hypnotic Parsifal is Wagner’s forever opera, stable as the solar system. It ends with a fantasy of consummation, as if Wagner’s music could redeem the world. Yet an aura of magic spell clings to this ending, rather than the true immanence of religious ritual. The opera praises compassion, a value caressed by the music rather than put to use: When Kundry falls dead at Parsifal’s feet, she is ignored by the quasi-savior and the Grail knights. The work is finally less about compassion than Kundry’s struggle with desire. Many Wagner listeners gravitate toward inwardly torn figures like Kundry, and darker ones too, like the Ring’s Hagen, who is gloriously sinister, his evil a striding nobility.
Wagner has always taken total possession of his audience, replacing everyday pains and pleasures with a new, higher bliss. Ross hints that Wagner’s realer-than-real art predicted the cinema, the last known place where we can safely remake our existence. Like the movies, his operas work magic. Wagner’s music feels like it changes the soul, and the world as well. But what it means for life to become Wagnerian is, as Ross shows, a personal matter, like all true passions.
David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.