A Nordic post

whats opera

Very Nordic

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.

Meanwhile, by way of Dreher, I am informed that some Icelanders are bringing back Norse mythology in a different fashion:

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.

About Josh W

A Catholic. Likes to write stuff and draw pictures.
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4 Responses to A Nordic post

  1. I’m not a fan of opera, but seeing the Nibelungenlied played out on stage does sound like fun.

    I can’t understand these modern pagans. They know that they are worshiping false gods, but do it anyway to gain a sense of culture. Plenty of people like myself also enjoy Norse mythology, but that does not mean I need to worship a fiction in order to enjoy the myths! Why don’t more people really study Christianity instead of dismissing it because of the influence of popular culture? It is frustrating. I am reminded of Psalm 4: “O sons of men, how long will you be dull of heart? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies?” Oh, well. Such is the culture we live in!

    I’ll have to look up that essay by Gene Wolfe. Are there any published collections of his essays out there?

    • Josh W says:

      Wagnerian opera requires stamina; I even noticed a couple of patrons downing energy drinks before the performance. I’d imagine they’d be quite the endurance trial for non-opera folk.

      My best guess, w/regard to the modern pagan folk is that most people desire some kind of spirituality in their lives, but don’t want one that will take them outside their comfort zones. Fictional gods can’t really expect anything of you.

      The Wolfe essay can be found in Castle of Days, which has his short story collection, “Book of Days,” “The Castle of the Otter” (on the making of the Book of the New Sun) and other miscellaneous writings.

      • You know, I have listened to a particular pagan express exactly the same opinion about paganism. Worshiping something less than oneself just seems very foreign to my experience.

        Thanks for pointing me to the book! I’ll have to take a look at that, and get on with the Book of the New Sun series for that matter.

  2. jubilare says:

    “My best guess, w/regard to the modern pagan folk is that most people desire some kind of spirituality in their lives, but don’t want one that will take them outside their comfort zones. Fictional gods can’t really expect anything of you.” It seems likely, at least as regards “pagans” who are trying to use myths they do not believe to spiritualize atheism. I know at least one pagan who is more honest than that. She chooses to form her connection with nature, and as far as I know, doesn’t venerate any gods.

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