Shaw: The Perfect Wagnerite

May 18, 2010

The Perfect Wagnerite (1898)
A Commentary on the Niblung’s Ring
George Bernard Shaw (Dover, 1967)
156 p.  First reading.

On one level, this little book is a basic introduction to the story-line and the music of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.  It was written in the days before sound recording, when one would have had to go to an opera house, and maybe even all the way to Bavaria and Bayreuth, in order to hear the music.  Under those circumstances, and when “surtitles” were unknown, English-speaking Wagnerites would likely have been grateful for an elegantly written synopsis of each of the four music-dramas, and Shaw provides it.  The book also includes chapters, mercifully non-technical, on the music of Der Ring, on the leitmotif technique, on Wagnerian singing, and on the Bayreuth theatre which Wagner had built to house his epic drama.

On another level, The Perfect Wagnerite is an examination of (and an evangel for) the philosophical and political program which Der Ring allegorically enacts.  It is possible, says Shaw, to take these dramas simply as dramas, resting content with the literal meaning, but those who do so are very inferior persons:

It is generally understood, however, that there is an inner ring of superior persons to whom the whole work has a most urgent and searching philosophic and social significance.  I profess to be such a superior person. . .

I admit that I am not sure whether he is entirely sincere in these self-regarding assessments, but even, and maybe especially, if he is, this is quite amusing.  Imagine someone who thought that unfolding the allegorical significance of magical swords, sky castles, dwarves, and talking animals was an activity especially indicative of superiority!  Evidently neither Wagner nor Shaw anticipated the tastes of their ideological descendents.  But I digress.

The political allegory which runs hidden, like a thread of Rhine gold, through the fabric of the Ring, is one of revolution: “the gods”, by which, Shaw argues, are meant the ancient powers of Church and State, are to be overthrown and cast down, and in their place will arise the new man, represented by Siegfried, who is to replace power with love and redeem the world through his intense vitality and greatness of spirit.  Oddly enough, Wagner implies that the gods themselves bring this about (as Wotan is himself grandfather to Siegfried) because they realize that their reign is exhausted and must yield to the inexorable progress of history, or something.

This interpretation of the allegory sits uncomfortably with the plot of Götterdämmerung, in which Siegfried dies rather ignominiously, to be survived by the inglorious Gibichengs and the repulsive Nibelungs. What happened to the hero? Shaw says that Wagner was disillusioned by the failure of the revolutions of 1848 that had inspired the Ring in the first place, and that he wrote his disappointment into the story, revising the original ending to portray the sad end to which his revolutionary hopes had come.

The unveiling of this revolutionary subtext is hinted at in Shaw’s plot synopses, which are also generously sprinkled with insults aimed at inferior persons who fail to apprehend and approve the glorious theme, but it is concentrated in two very interesting essays: “Wagner as Revolutionist” and “Siegfried as Protestant”.  The former is principally devoted to elaborating the interpretation that I have already outlined.  The latter argues that Siegfried represents the spirit of Protestantism, which Shaw sees as the historical stepping-stone between supernatural religion and secular liberalism, overthrowing authority in favour of the freedom of the individual will.  (In fact, he argues that although a kind of anarchic liberalism is the true logical telos of Protestantism, the historically-workable form which liberalism will actually take is socialism.)  I have seen this general assessment of Protestantism offered from Catholic critics, but it is interesting, to say the least, to see it argued from the secular side as well.  Sincere Protestants are understandably chagrined to find themselves cast in such a role, but, having made their bed, I suppose they must lie in it.

Implicit in the allegory of the Ring is the recognition that, though the gods be overthrown, not every man will be thereby possessed of heroic attributes.  Siegfried is but one man, and the world still crawls with Nibelungs and shudders with the march of oafish giants.  The presence of this riff-raff is an ongoing irritant to those who await the triumph of the new man.  It is evidently an irritant to Shaw, who is not satisfied that such men should steer clear of the opera house.  In “Siegfried as Protestant” he writes:

The majority of men at present in Europe have no business to be alive; and no serious progress will be made until we address ourselves earnestly and scientifically to the task of producing trustworthy human material for society.

We can hardly read such words without a shudder and a chill at what they portended. It is all very well to say that Shaw could not have foreseen the manner in which those who had “no business to be alive” would, in fact, be deprived of life, “earnestly and scientifically”, on a vast scale.  The truth is that the thought he expresses was odious then (and Chesterton, let us remember, said so to Shaw’s face on more than one occasion) just as it is odious now. It is also well to remember that such sentiments were considered “progressive” at the time, openly professed by self-consciously superior persons. If historical examples like this do not innoculate one against reflexive admiration for intellectual elites, then I don’t know what will.

There remains the question of just how tainted the Ring cycle is by these unsavoury associations.  Hitler famously said that Wagner held the key to understanding the Nazis, and though I do not know precisely what part of Wagner’s work he had in mind, it is at least plausible that it was the Ring, for the reasons we have outlined. On consideration I am inclined to absolve Wagner.  It is possible, as Shaw shows, to read into the Ring an ugly and, as it turned out, horrifying and bloody imperative to secure the triumph of the new and glorious mankind by the eradication of the old and inglorious, but the possibility is nowhere, to my knowledge, proposed or even suggested by the Ring itself.  In any case, Wagner’s prophecy was disappointed during his own lifetime and even written into the Ring, which effectively tarnishes the ideal he had originally set forth. This hope, he seems to be saying, ended, and ended badly.  To me this does not feel like a summons to action.  Not to worry, however: for those of us who harbour an allegiance to “the gods” there remain plenty of reasons to object to the Ring without needing to drag the Nazis into it.

In the end, I admit that I am most content to take the story of the Ring in its literal sense, leaving the allegorical sense aside.  This makes me, I know, an inferior person, but so be it.  I am, and not only in this respect, a very imperfect Wagnerite.

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