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Wagner's Own Explanation

And now, having given my explanation of The Ring, can I give
Wagner's explanation of it? If I could (and I can) I should not
by any means accept it as conclusive. Nearly half a century has
passed smce the tetralogy was written; and in that time the
purposes of many half instinctive acts of genius have become
clearer to the common man than they were to the doers. Some years
ago, in the course of an explanation of Ibsen's plays, I pointed
out that it was by no means certain or even likely that Ibsen was
as definitely conscious of his thesis as I. All the stupid
people, and some critics who, though not stupid, had not
themselves written what the Germans call "tendency" works, saw
nothing in this but a fantastic affectation of the extravagant
self-conceit of knowing more about Ibsen than Ibsen himself.
Fortunately, in taking exactly the same position now with regard
to Wagner, I can claim his own authority to support me. "How," he
wrote to Roeckel on the 23rd. August 1856, "can an artist expect
that what he has felt intuitively should be perfectly realized by
others, seeing that he himself feels in the presence of his work,
if it is true Art, that he is confronted by a riddle, about which
he, too, might have illusions, just as another might?"

The truth is, we are apt to deify men of genius, exactly as we
deify the creative force of the universe, by attributing to
logical design what is the result of blind instinct. What Wagner
meant by "true Art" is the operation of the artist's instinct,
which is just as blind as any other instinct. Mozart, asked for
an explanation of his works, said frankly "How do I know?"
Wagner, being a philosopher and critic as well as a composer, was
always looking for moral explanations of what he had created and
he hit on several very striking ones, all different. In the same
way one can conceive Henry the Eighth speculating very
brilliantly about the circulation of his own blood without
getting as near the truth as Harvey did long after his death.

None the less, Wagner's own explanations are of exceptional
interest. To begin with, there is a considerable portion of The
Ring, especially the portraiture of our capitalistic industrial
system from the socialist's point of new in the slavery of the
Niblungs and the tyranny of Alberic, which is unmistakable, as it
dramatizes that portion of human activity which lies well within
the territory covered by our intellectual consciousness. All this
is concrete Home Office business, so to speak: its meaning was as
clear to Wagner as it is to us. Not so that part of the work
which deals with the destiny of Wotan. And here, as it happened,
Wagner's recollection of what he had been driving at was
completely upset by his discovery, soon after the completion of
The Ring poem, of Schopenhaur's famous treatise "The World as
Will and Representation." So obsessed did he become with this
masterpiece of philosophic art that he declared that it contained
the intellectual demonstration of the conflict of human forces
which he himself had demonstrated artistically in his great poem.
"I must confess," he writes to Roeckel, "to having arrived at a
clear understanding of my own works of art through the help of
another, who has provided me with the reasoned conceptions
corresponding to my intuitive principles."

Schopenhaur, however, had done nothing of the sort. Wagner's
determination to prove that he had been a Schopenhaurite all
along without knowing it only shows how completely the
fascination of the great treatise on The Will had run away with
his memory. It is easy to see how this happened. Wagner says of
himself that "seldom has there taken place in the soul of one and
the same man so profound a division and estrangement between the
intuitive or impulsive part of his nature and his consciously or
reasonably formed ideas." And since Schopenhaur's great
contribution to modern thought was to educate us into clear
consciousness of this distinction--a distinction familiar, in a
fanciful way, to the Ages of Faith and Art before the Renascence,
but afterwards swamped in the Rationalism of that movement--it
was inevitable that Wagner should jump at Schopenhaur's
metaphysiology (I use a word less likely to be mistaken than
metaphysics) as the very thing for him. But metaphysiology is one
thing, political philosophy another. The political philosophy of
Siegfried is exactly contrary to the political philosphy of
Schopenhaur, although the same clear metaphysiological
distinction between the instinctive part of man (his Will) and
his reasoning faculty (dramatized in The Ring as Loki) is
insisted on in both. The difference is that to Schopenhaur the
Will is the universal tormentor of man, the author of that great
evil, Life; whilst reason is the divine gift that is finally to
overcome this life-creating will and lead, through its
aboegation, to cessation and peace, annihilation and Nirvana.
This is the doctrine of Pessimism. Now Wagner was, when he wrote
The Ring, a most sanguine revolutionary Meliorist, contemptuous
of the reasoning faculty, which he typified in the shifty,
unreal, delusive Loki, and full of faith in the life-giving Will,
which he typified in the glorious Siegfried. Not until he read
Schopenhaur did he become bent on proving that he had always been
a Pessimist at heart, and that Loki was the most sensible and
worthy adviser of Wotan in The Rhine Gold.

Sometimes he faces the change in his opinions frankly enough.
"My Niblung drama," he writes to Roeckel, "had taken form at a
time when I had built up with my reason an optimistic world on
Hellenic principles, believing that nothing was necessary for
the realization of such a world but that men should wish it.
I ingeniously set aside-the problem why they did not wish it.
I remember that it was with this definite creative purpose that
I conceived the personality of Siegfried, with the intention of
representing an existence free from pain." But he appeals to his
earlier works to show that behind all these artificial optimistic
ideas there was always with him an intuition of "the sublime
tragedy of renunciation, the negation of the will." In trying to
explain this, he s full of ideas philosophically, and full of the
most amusing contradictions personally. Optimism, as an
accidental excursion into the barren paths of reason on his own
part, he calls "Hellenic." In others he denounces it as rank
Judaism, the Jew having at that time become for him the whipping
boy for all modern humamty. In a letter from London he expounds
Schopenhaur to Roeckel with enthusiasm, preaching the
renunciation of the Will to Live as the redemption from all error
and vain pursuits: in the next letter he resumes the subject with
unabated interest, and finishes by mentioning that on leaving
London he went to Geneva and underwent "a most beneficial course
of hydropathy." Seven months before this he had written as
follows: "Believe me, I too was once possessed by the idea of a
country life. In order to become a radically healthy human being,
I went two years ago to a Hydropathic Establishment, prepared to
give up Art and everything if I could once more become a child
of Nature. But, my good friend, I was obliged to laugh at my own
naivete when I found myself almost going mad. None of us will
reach the promised land: we shall all die in the wilderness.
Intellect is, as some one has said, a sort of disease: it is

Roeckel knew his man of old, and evidently pressed him for
explanations of the inconsistencies of The Ring with Night Falls
On The Gods. Wagner defended himself with unfailing cleverness
and occasional petulances, ranging from such pleas as "I believe
a true instinct has kept me from a too great definiteness; for
it has been borne in on me that an absolute disclosure of the
intention disturbs true insight," to a volley of explanations
and commentaries on the explanations. He gets excited and annoyed
because Roeckel will not admire the Brynhild of Night Falls On
The Gods; re-invents the Tarnhelm scene; and finally, the case
being desperate, exclaims, "It is wrong of you to challenge me
to explain it in words: you must feel that something is being
enacted that is not to be expressed in mere words."


Sometimes he gets very far away from Pessimism indeed, and
recommends Roeckel to solace his captivity, not by conquering the
will to live at liberty, but by "the inspiring influences of the
Beautiful." The next moment he throws over even Art for Life.
"Where life ends," he says, very wittily, "Art begins. In youth
we turn to Art, we know not why; and only when we have gone
through with Art and come out on the other side, we learn to our
cost that we have missed Life itself." His only comfort is that
he is beloved. And on the subject of love he lets himself loose
in a manner that would have roused the bitterest scorn in
Schopenhaur, though, as we have seen (Love Panacea), it is highly
characteristic of Wagner. "Love in its most perfect reality," he
says, "is only possible between the sexes: it is only as man and
woman that human beings can truly love. Every other manifestation
of love can be traced back to that one absorbingly real feeling,
of which all other affections are but an emanation, a connection,
or an imitation. It is an error to look on this as only one of
the forms in which love is revealed, as if there were other forms
coequal with it, or even superior to it. He who after the manner
of metaphysicians prefers UNREALITY to REALITY, and derives the
concrete from the abstract--in short, puts the word before the
fact--may be right in esteeming the idea of love as higher than
the expression of love, and may affirm that actual love made
manifest in feeling is nothing but the outward and visible sign
of a pre-existent, non-sensuous, abstract love; and he will do
well to despise that sensuous function in general. In any case it
were safe to bet that such a man had never loved or been loved as
human beings can love, or he would have understood that in
despising this feeling, what he condemned was its sensual
expression, the outcome of man's animal nature, and not true
human love. The highest satisfaction and expression of the
individual is only to be found in his complete absorption, and
that is only possible through love. Now a human being is both MAN
and WOMAN: it is only when these two are united that the real
human being exists; and thus it is only by love that man and
woman attain to the full measure of humanity. But when nowadays
we talk of a human being, such heartless blockheads are we that
quite involuntarily we only think of man. It is only in the union
of man and woman by love (sensuous and supersensuous) that the
human being exists; and as the human being cannot rise to the
conception of anything higher than his own existence--his own
being--so the transcendent act of his life is this consummation
of his humanity through love."

It is clear after this utterance from the would-be
Schopenhaurian, that Wagner's explanations of his works for the
most part explain nothing but the mood in which he happened to be
on the day he advanced them, or the train of thought suggested to
his very susceptible imagination and active mind by the points
raised by his questioner. Especially in his private letters,
where his outpourings are modified by his dramatic consciousness
of the personality of his correspondent, do we find him taking
all manner of positions, and putting forward all sorts of cases
which must be taken as clever and suggestive special pleadings,
and not as serious and permanent expositions of his works. These
works must speak for themselves: if The Ring says one thing, and
a letter written afterwards says that it said something else, The
Ring must be taken to confute the letter just as conclusively as
if the two had been written by different hands. However, nobody
fairly well acquainted with Wagner's utterances as a whole will
find any unaccountable contradictions in them. As in all men of
his type, our manifold nature was so marked in him that he was
like several different men rolled into one. When he had exhausted
himself in the character of the most pugnacious, aggressive, and
sanguine of reformers, he rested himself as a Pessimist and
Ninanist. In The Ring the quietism of Brynhild's "Rest, rest,
thou God" is sublime in its deep conviction; but you have only to
turn back the pages to find the irrepressible bustle of Siegfried
and the revelry of the clansmen expressed with equal zest. Wagner
was not a Schopenhaurite every day in the week, nor even a
Wagnerite. His mind changes as often as his mood. On Monday
nothing will ever induce him to return to quilldriving: on
Tuesday he begins a new pamphlet. On Wednesday he is impatient of
the misapprehensions of people who cannot see how impossible it
is for him to preside as a conductor over platform performances
of fragments of his works, which can only be understood when
presented strictly according to his intention on the stage: on
Thursday he gets up a concert of Wagnerian selections, and when
it is over writes to his friends describing how profoundly both
bandsmen and audience were impressed. On Friday he exults in the
self-assertion of Siegfried's will against all moral ordinances,
and is full of a revolutionary sense of "the universal law of
change and renewal": on Saturday he has an attack of holiness,
and asks, "Can you conceive a moral action of which the root idea
is not renunciation?" In short, Wagner can be quoted against
himself almost without limit, much as Beethoven's adagios could
be quoted against his scherzos if a dispute arose between two
fools as to whether he was a melancholy man or a merry one.

George Bernard Shaw