Posts Tagged ‘George Bernard Shaw’

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.

Ring resources

March 8, 2010

Those who have been following my “Great moments in opera” posts recently will know that I have been working my way through Wagner’s operas, and might have guessed where I was heading: the Ring cycle.  Yes, it’s true.  Over the next month or so, I hope to listen to the entire cycle again.  I have only heard it once before, and that was now over five years ago, so the time seems ripe to revisit it.

The Ring is so big and convoluted, and so musically complex, that I am fortifying myself with a number of canes and crutches to help me through.  So far I have assembled the following:

I know that huge barrels of ink have been spilled over these operas, and it is a fool’s errand to try to read too much of it.  If anyone knows, however, of a particularly good book on the topic, I ‘d be interested to hear about it in the comments.  Thanks.

Chesterton on Chesterton

February 9, 2010

G.K. Chesterton: A Criticism (1908)
Anonymous [Cecil Chesterton] (Inkling Books, 2007)
179 p.  First reading.

To publish a critique of the thought and writings of G.K. Chesterton in 1908 might have seemed a little overhasty. At that early date only a few works of stature had appeared, with Heretics, The Man who was Thursday, and The Napoleon of Notting Hill preeminent among them.  This, one might think, was rather early and slender evidence on which to hang a character study.  Under normal circumstances that would be a sound conclusion, but these were not normal circumstances: the author of this anonymous study was none other than Chesterton’s own brother Cecil, who knew the man as well or better than anyone.  It is therefore a very interesting book, with good insight into Chesterton’s body of work — including the part that had not yet been written.

The key to understanding Chesterton, says Cecil, is to understand that he is a fighter and a romantic.  In everything he writes he has some opponent in mind whom he is seeking to persuade with his arguments and charm with his wit; he rarely writes simply to explain or describe; in everything he is a knight, riding out to meet the challenger with his own private trumpets sounding and banners flying.  This amiable combativeness suited him well, for he was temperamentally and intellectually inclined to defend causes which were, in his own time as much as in ours, lost, or at least losing:  he was an anti-imperialist, in the sense of being an unabashed nationalist; he loved Catholicism and defended it for many years before himself becoming a Catholic; and he was in revolt against the marching forces of modernity.

Cecil attributes his spirited opposition to modernity to several factors.  There was, first, his love of tradition, which naturally disposed him to reject habits of thought that held tradition in contempt.  He was also opposed to the scepticism that he saw as both tending to obstruct clear thought and as serving to loosen the influence of the past on the present.  And he disbelieved the theory of progress from which “progressives” derived their own name and that of their favoured causes; revolutions, which appealed to Chesterton’s romantic spirit, were in his mind not properly intended to create a new utopia, but rather to help the world return to a sanity which it was always threatening to forsake; revolutions were properly restorative, not radical.

All of this is familiar territory to those who have spent time with Chesterton.  More surprising, to me at least, were the literary influences which Cecil names as having had an early formative influence on Chesterton.  Decisive, in Cecil’s mind, was Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “He embraced passionately the three great articles of Whitman’s faith, the ultimate goodness of all things implying the acceptance of the basest and meanest no less than the noblest in life, the equality and solidarity of men, and the redemption of the world by comradeship.” Chesterton’s early poetry collection The Wild Knight was especially under the sway of Whitman.  I had not suspected the connection (and now I suppose I am obliged to dig out my copy of Whitman’s poem and actually read it).  Second in importance, though more obviously, was Stevenson, from whom he learned that fighting can be noble and romantic, “but only if you fight against odds”.

Cecil has some insightful remarks to make about Chesterton’s fiction.  He was “a born story-teller, but not a born novelist”.  It is an astute observation.  Chesterton never had the talent for characterization and close observation that are the novelist’s art.  His fiction was largely a draping of narrative garb over a bony conceptual skeleton.  “Mr. Chesterton’s intellect sees ideas more clearly than persons, yet his temperament leads him to think about ideas as romantically as romanticists think about persons.  He wants to give every idea a feather and a sword, and a trumpet to blow and a good ringing voice to speak.”  His best work (to the time at which he was writing) Cecil judged to be The Napoleon of Notting Hill (“because Wayne and Auberon are the two lobes of Mr. Chesterton’s brain”), and, on the non-fiction side, his literary study Charles Dickens (“because Dickens is the author whose way of looking at life was most like his own”).  Cecil remarks that Chesterton’s talents might be better served in another genre: the musical comedy!  It is an inspired idea, and it is a pity that Chesterton never took up his brother’s suggestion.

It may well be, however, that Chesterton did take another suggestion from this book.  In his discussion of Chesterton’s literary prospects, Cecil proposes that his talents might be well served by a character who is “a sort of transcendental Sherlock Holmes, who probes mysteries, not by attention to facts and clues, but by understanding the spiritual atmosphere”.  This, of course, is a fine description of Father Brown, three years before the first Father Brown stories appeared in print.

In his closing pages, Cecil makes a comparison that has frequently occurred to me, but which I cannot recall having seen in print before.  He marks a similarity between Chesterton and Dr. Johnson, who was “regarded in his own time as a classic and in ours as a contemporary”.  There is something very apt about the phrase when applied to Chesterton; he was in his own time an oddity in many ways, yet today he is, if not exactly a contemporary, then at least someone who continues to provoke and fascinate, long after he might have been expected to go gentle into that good night.

For someone with a more than passing interest in Chesterton, this is a very worthwhile book.  Though based, by the nature of the case, on relatively little direct literary evidence, the book makes more than its fair share of shrewd comments about Chesterton’s character and style (some of which are appended below). This edition of the book, published by Inkling Books to mark the centenary of the original publication, is supplemented by an interesting set of essays by, among others, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Chesterton himself.  They include the essay in which Wells asked that, instead of simply criticizing others (as he had done in Heretics), Chesterton ought to state his own positive positions, a challenge that provoked Chesterton to write his wonderful book Orthodoxy.  The essay by Shaw invokes (for the first time in print?) the Chesterbelloc, that amiably pugnacious double-humped creature of legend. These essays make nice addenda to the main text. There are some odd variations in the weight of the book’s font, which I found a bit distracting, but basically the edition is very nicely done, and it is good to have this study back in print.

[Chestertonian paradox]
The typical Chestertonian paradox consists not in the inversion of a proverb, but in the deliberate presentation of some unusual and unpopular thesis with all its provocative features displayed, with all the consequences which are likely to startle or anger opponents insisted on to the point of wild exaggeration.

[Farce in Chesterton]
There is nothing more characteristic of G.K.C. than that he becomes farcical in proportion as he becomes serious.

[Chesterton as a writer]
To summarize Mr. Chesterton’s position as a writer we may say that, while he lacks the careful workmanship, the regard for true proportion, the sensitive aesthetic conscience which would make him a great artist, he has enough artistry for the work he wants to do, and a little to spare, and this is backed by so prodigious a stock of vital energy, by so much humour, imagination, pugnacity, and sense of romance, that one forgets the slips and defects in the great mass of achievement.  Probably, to Chesterton, at any rate, that achievement would be impossible without those defects.

[Quantity and quality]
Mr. Chesterton’s extraordinary versatility and copiousness of output is beyond question a danger to his permanent position in literature, if he cares to have one.  It is true that, considering the amount he writes, his level of work is remarkably high.  But, unless he controls his effervescent desire to write everything that comes into his head, he will never write the best that he might have written.