Giuseppe Verdi vs Richard Wagner. It’s one of those weird fault lines, like the Beatles vs the Rolling Stones, or Dragon Quest vs Final Fantasy where you can only really like one side, because these cultural artifacts somehow correspond to psycho-aesthetic archetypes that we all are subconsciously categorized by. Or something like that.
Yours truly is a Wagnerite. It’s not that I don’t enjoy Verdi – Falstaff is a fine opera. It’s just that he’s never had the sort of sway that Wagner has had over me ever since I bought a recording of Das Rheingold as a teenager. Sure, there were times when I tried to disown this side of me, but like my interest in cartoons and video games, it has continually managed to resurface.
Wagner, like prog rock, seems to be a skeleton in the closet, or at least a guilty pleasure for many people. Musically, the charges are similar: both are accused of producing pretentious, bloated and bombastic spectacles. But in Wagner’s case, you also have to deal with his notorious antisemitism (not to mention his popularity amongst some of the Nazi regime0. And both Friedrich Nietzsche and critics of a more Judeo-Christian have found in his operas an example of post-Christian nihilism and decadence.
Well, you can find post-Christian nihilism in the Stones and Beatles as well, but they’ve never produced anything like Tristan und Isolde.
Thanks to a thoughtful Christmas present, I was able to attend a performance of Die Walkure this weekend. I’m not good as an opera critic, but I had a good time. The lady playing Brunhilde owned the evening, as far as I’m concerned.
For those not in the know, Die Walkure constitutes the second part of Wagner’s epic tetralogy, The Ring of the Nibelung. The story tells a generational tragedy that draws heavily on Norse mythology, heavily refracted through Wagner’s modern romanticism.
Icelanders will soon be able to publicly worship at a shrine to Thor, Odin and Frigg with construction starting this month on the island’s first major temple to the Norse gods since the Viking age.
Worship of the gods in Scandinavia gave way to Christianity around 1,000 years ago but a modern version of Norse paganism has been gaining popularity in Iceland.
“I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet,” said Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, high priest of Ásatrúarfélagið, an association that promotes faith in the Norse gods.
“We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.”
Like Dreher, I tend to see this stuff as at best an (admittedly silly) step up from atheistic materialism. And, as he says, the “poetic metaphors” schtick will render it pretty ineffectual. Indeed it evinces a complete misunderstanding of the nature of these myths. I think Gene Wolfe nailed it in his essay, “Kipling’s Influence”:
….In allegory, we say, “What if a giant were despair?” Then we have the giant wrestle our hero, and so on. It has always seemed an obvious idea to me and a rather stupid one, since a giant is much more interesting than despair. Furthermore this obvious and rather stupid idea blinds many of those same people to the true nature of classical myth. They discover, for example, that Eros “is” eroticism, and when they have congratulated one another on that brilliant discovery for twenty years and more, they also discover that Eros doesn’t always behave as they “know” he should (in being Aphrodite’s son instead of her father, for example) and solemnly inform us that the mythmakers of the classical age lacked their own insight.
But what Kipling (and the ancients) really said was much more interesting: “What if love were a woman?”
Part of what makes Wagner’s Ring work so well is how he takes a novelist’s interest in the psychological lives of his gods, making them into individuals (and so paving the way for more pomo mythical fare like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics). Wotan is Wotan – a far cry from the Odin once actually worshiped, but certainly not an allegory either.
Still, when you get right down to it, Wagnerian opera is also kind of silly. And expensive, too.