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Siegfried as Protestant

The philosophically fertile element in the original project of
Siegfried's Death was the conception of Siegfried himself as a
type of the healthy man raised to perfect confidence in his own
impulses by an intense and joyous vitality which is above fear,
sickliness of conscience, malice, and the makeshifts and moral
crutches of law and order which accompany them. Such a character
appears extraordinarily fascinating and exhilarating to our
guilty and conscience-ridden generations, however little they may
understand him. The world has always delighted in the man who is
delivered from conscience. From Punch and Don Juan down to Robert
Macaire, Jeremy Diddler and the pantomime clown, he has always
drawn large audiences; but hitherto he has been decorously given
to the devil at the end. Indeed eternal punishment is sometimes
deemed too high a compliment to his nature. When the late Lord
Lytton, in his Strange Story, introduced a character personifying
the joyousness of intense vitality, he felt bound to deny him the
immortal soul which was at that time conceded even to the
humblest characters in fiction, and to accept mischievousness,
cruelty, and utter incapacity for sympathy as the inevitable
consequence of his magnificent bodily and mental health.

In short, though men felt all the charm of abounding life and
abandonment to its impulses, they dared not, in their deep
self-mistrust, conceive it otherwise than as a force making for
evil--one which must lead to universal ruin unless checked and
literally mortified by self-renunciation in obedience to
superhuman guidance, or at least to some reasoned system of
morals. When it became apparent to the cleverest of them that
no such superhuman guidance existed, and that their secularist
systems had all the fictitiousness of "revelation" without its
poetry, there was no escaping the conclusion that all the good
that man had done must be put down to his arbitrary will as well
as all the evil he had done; and it was also obvious that if
progress were a reality, his beneficent impulses must be gaining
on his destructive ones. It was under the influence of these
ideas that we began to hear about the joy of life where we had
formerly heard about the grace of God or the Age of Reason, and
that the boldest spirits began to raise the question whether
churches and laws and the like were not doing a great deal more
harm than good by their action in limiting the freedom of the
human will. Four hundred years ago, when belief in God and in
revelation was general throughout Europe, a similar wave of
thought led the strongest-hearted peoples to affirm that every
man's private judgment was a more trustworthy interpreter of God
and revelation than the Church. This was called Protestantism;
and though the Protestants were not strong enough for their
creed, and soon set up a Church of their own, yet the movement,
on the whole, has justified the direction it took. Nowadays the
supernatural element in Protestantism has perished; and if every
man's private judgment is still to be justified as the most
trustworthy interpreter of the will of Humanity (which is not a
more extreme proposition than the old one about the will of God)
Protestantism must take a fresh step in advance, and become
Anarchism. Which it has accordingly done, Anarchism being one
of the notable new creeds of the eighteenth and nineteenth

The weak place which experience finds out in the Anarchist theory
is its reliance on the progress already achieved by "Man." There
is no such thing as Man in the world: what we have to deal with
is a multitude of men, some of them great rascals, some of them
greet statesmen, others both, with a vast majority capable of
managing their personal affairs, but not of comprehending social
organization, or grappling with the problems created by their
association in enormous numbers. If "Man" means this majority,
then "Man" has made no progress: he has, on the contrary,
resisted it. He will not even pay the cost of existing
institutions: the requisite money has to be filched from him by
"indirect taxation." Such people, like Wagner's giants; must be
governed by laws; and their assent to such government must be
secured by deliberately filling them with prejudices and
practicing on their imaginations by pageantry and artificial
eminences and dignities. The government is of course established
by the few who are capable of government, though its mechanism
once complete, it may be, and generally is, carried on
unintelligently by people who are incapable of it the capable
people repairing it from time to time when it gets too far behind
the continuous advance or decay of civilization. All these
capable people are thus in the position of Wotan, forced to
maintain as sacred, and themselves submit to, laws which they
privately know to be obsolescent makeshifts, and to affect the
deepest veneration for creeds and ideals which they ridicule
among themselves with cynical scepticism. No individual Siegfried
can rescue them from this bondage and hypocrisy; in fact, the
individual Siegfried has come often enough, only to find himself
confronted with the alternative of governing those who are not
Siegfrieds or risking destruction at their hands. And this
dilemma will persist until Wotan's inspiration comes to our
governors, and they see that their business is not the devising
of laws and institutions to prop up the weaknesses of mobs and
secure the survival of the unfittest, but the breeding of men
whose wills and intelligences may be depended on to produce
spontaneously the social well-being our clumsy laws now aim at and
miss. 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. In short, it is
necessary to breed a race of men in whom the life-giving impulses
predominate, before the New Protestantism becomes politically

*The necessity for breeding the governing class from a selected
stock has always been recognized by Aristocrats, however
erroneous their methods of selection. We have changed our system
from Aristocracy to Democracy without considering that we were at
the same time changing, as regards our governing class, from
Selection to Promiscuity. Those who have taken a practical part
in modern politics best know how farcical the result is.

The most inevitable dramatic conception, then, of the nineteenth
century, is that of a perfectly naive hero upsetting religion,
law and order in all directions, and establishing in their place
the unfettered action of Humanity doing exactly what it likes,
and producing order instead of confusion thereby because it likes
to do what is necessary for the good of the race. This
conception, already incipient in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations,
was certain at last to reach some great artist, and be embodied
by him in a masterpiece. It was also certain that if that master
happened to be a German, he should take delight in describing his
hero as the Freewiller of Necessity, thereby beyond measure
exasperating Englishmen with a congenital incapacity for


Unfortunately, human enlightenment does not progress by nicer
and nicer adjustments, but by violent corrective reactions which
invariably send us clean over our saddle and would bring us to
the ground on the other side if the next reaction did not send
us back again with equally excessive zeal. Ecclesiasticism and
Constitutionalism send us one way, Protestantism and Anarchism
the other; Order rescues us from confusion and lands us in
Tyranny; Liberty then saves the situation and is presently found
to be as great a nuisance as Despotism. A scientifically balanced
application of these forces, theoretically possible, is
practically incompatible with human passion. Besides, we have
the same weakness in morals as in medicine: we cannot be cured
of running after panaceas, or, as they are called in the sphere
of morals, ideals. One generation sets up duty, renunciation,
self-sacrifice as a panacea. The next generation, especially the
women, wake up at the age of forty or thereabouts to the fact
that their lives have been wasted in the worship of this ideal,
and, what is still more aggravating, that the elders who imposed
it on them did so in a fit of satiety with their own experiments
in the other direction. Then that defrauded generation foams at
the mouth at the very mention of duty, and sets up the
alternative panacea of love, their deprivation of which seems to
them to have been the most cruel and mischievous feature of their
slavery to duty. It is useless to warn them that this reaction,
if prescribed as a panacea, will prove as great a failure as all
the other reactions have done; for they do not recognize its
identity with any reaction that ever occurred before. Take for
instance the hackneyed historic example of the austerity of the
Commonwealth being followed by the licence of the Restoration.
You cannot persuade any moral enthusiast to accept this as a pure
oscillation from action to reaction. If he is a Puritan he looks
upon the Restoration as a national disaster: if he is an artist
he regards it as the salvation of the country from gloom, devil
worship and starvation of the affections. The Puritan is ready
to try the Commonwealth again with a few modern improvements:
the Amateur is equally ready to try the Restoration with modern
enlightenments. And so for the present we must be content to
proceed by reactions, hoping that each will establish some
permanently practical and beneficial reform or moral habit that
will survive the correction of its excesses by the next reaction.


We can now see how a single drama in which Wotan does not appear,
and of which Siegfried is the hero, expanded itself into a great
fourfold drama of which Wotan is the hero. You cannot dramatize a
reaction by personifying the reacting force only, any more than
Archimedes could lift the world without a fulcrum for his lever.
You must also personify the established power against which the
new force is reacting; and in the conflict between them you get
your drama, conflict being the essential ingredient in all drama.
Siegfried, as the hero of Die Gotterdammerung, is only the primo
tenore robusto of an opera book, deferring his death, after he
has been stabbed in the last act, to sing rapturous love strains
to the heroine exactly like Edgardo in Donizetti's Lucia. In
order to make him intelligible in the wider significance which
his joyous, fearless, conscienceless heroism soon assumed in
Wagner's imagination, it was necessary to provide him with a much
vaster dramatic antagonist than the operatic villain Hagen. Hence
Wagner had to create Wotan as the anvil for Siegfried's hammer;
and since there was no room for Wotan in the original opera book,
Wagner had to work back to a preliminary drama reaching primarily
to the very beginnings of human society. And since, on this
world-embracing scale, it was clear that Siegfried must come into
conflict with many baser and stupider forces than those lofty
ones of supernatural religion and political constitutionalism
typified by Wotan and his wife Fricka, these minor antagonists
had to be dramatized also in the persons of Alberic, Mime,
Fafnir, Loki, and the rest. None of these appear in Night Falls
On The Gods save Alberic, whose weird dream-colloquy with Hagen,
effective as it is, is as purely theatrical as the scene of the
Ghost in Hamlet, or the statue in Don Giovanni. Cut the
conference of the Norns and the visit of Valtrauta to Brynhild
out of Night Falls On The Gods, and the drama remains coherent
and complete without them. Retain them, and the play becomes
connected by conversational references with the three music
dramas; but the connection establishes no philosophic coherence,
no real identity between the operatic Brynhild of the Gibichung
episode (presently to be related) and the daughter of Wotan and
the First Mother.


We shall now find that at the point where The Ring changes from
music drama into opera, it also ceases to be philosophic, and
becomes didactic. The philosophic part is a dramatic symbol of
the world as Wagner observed it. In the didactic part the
philosophy degenerates into the prescription of a romantic
nostrum for all human ills. Wagner, only mortal after all,
succumbed to the panacea mania when his philosophy was exhausted,
like any of the rest of us.

The panacea is by no means an original one. Wagner was
anticipated in the year 1819 by a young country gentleman from
Sussex named Shelley, in a work of extraordinary artistic power
and splendor. Prometheus Unbound is an English attempt at a Ring;
and when it is taken into account that the author was only 27
whereas Wagner was 40 when he completed the poem of The Ring, our
vulgar patriotism may find an envious satisfaction in insisting
upon the comparison. Both works set forth the same conflict
between humanity and its gods and governments, issuing in the
redemption of man from their tyranny by the growth of his will
into perfect strength and self-confidence; and both finish by a
lapse into panacea-mongering didacticism by the holding up of
Love as the remedy for all evils and the solvent of all social

The differences between Prometheus Unbound and The Ring are as
interesting as the likenesses. Shelley, caught in the pugnacity
of his youth and the first impetuosity of his prodigious artistic
power by the first fierce attack of the New Reformation, gave no
quarter to the antagonist of his hero. His Wotan, whom he calls
Jupiter, is the almighty fiend into whom the Englishman's God had
degenerated during two centuries of ignorant Bible worship and
shameless commercialism. He is Alberic, Fafnir Loki and the
ambitious side of Wotan all rolled into one melodramatic demon
who is finally torn from his throne and hurled shrieking into the
abyss by a spirit representing that conception of Eternal Law
which has been replaced since by the conception of Evolution.
Wagner, an older, more experienced man than the Shelley of 1819,
understood Wotan and pardoned him, separating him tenderly from
all the compromising alliances to which Shelley fiercely held
him; making the truth and heroism which overthrow him the
children of his inmost heart; and representing him as finally
acquiescing in and working for his own supersession and
annihilation. Shelley, in his later works, is seen progressing
towards the same tolerance, justice, and humility of spirit, as
he advanced towards the middle age he never reached. But there is
no progress from Shelley to Wagner as regards the panacea, except
that in Wagner there is a certain shadow of night and death come
on it: nay, even a clear opinion that the supreme good of love is
that it so completely satisfies the desire for life, that after
it the Will to Live ceases to trouble us, and we are at last
content to achieve the highest happiness of death.

This reduction of the panacea to absurdity was not forced upon
Shelley, because the love which acts as a universal solvent in
his Prometheus Unbound is a sentiment of affectionate benevolence
which has nothing to do with sexual passion. It might, and in
fact does exist in the absence of any sexual interest whatever.
The words mercy and kindness connote it less ambiguously than the
word love. But Wagner sought always for some point of contact
between his ideas and the physical senses, so that people might
not only think or imagine them in the eighteenth century fashion,
but see them on the stage, hear them from the orchestra, and feel
them through the infection of passionate emotion. Dr. Johnson
kicking the stone to confute Berkeley is not more bent on
common-sense concreteness than Wagner: on all occasions he
insists on the need for sensuous apprehension to give reality to
abstract comprehension, maintaining, in fact, that reality has no
other meaning. Now he could apply this process to poetic love
only by following it back to its alleged origin in sexual
passion, the emotional phenomena of which he has expressed in
music with a frankness and forcible naturalism which would
possibly have scandalized Shelley. The love duet in the first act
of The Valkyries is brought to a point at which the conventions
of our society demand the precipitate fall of the curtain; whilst
the prelude to Tristan and Isolde is such an astonishingly
intense and faithful translation into music of the emotions which
accompany the union of a pair of lovers, that it is questionable
whether the great popularity of this piece at our orchestral
concerts really means that our audiences are entirely catholic
in their respect for life in all its beneficently creative
functions, or whether they simply enjoy the music without
understanding it.

But however offensive and inhuman may be the superstition which
brands such exaltations of natural passion as shameful and
indecorous, there is at least as much common sense in disparaging
love as in setting it up as a panacea. Even the mercy and
lovingkindness of Shelley do not hold good as a universal law of
conduct: Shelley himself makes extremely short work of Jupiter,
just as Siegfried does of Fafnir, Mime, and Wotan; and the fact
that Prometheus is saved from doing the destructive part of his
work by the intervention of that very nebulous personification of
Eternity called Demogorgon, does not in the least save the
situation, because, flatly, there is no such person as
Demogorgon, and if Prometheus does not pull down Jupiter himself,
no one else will. It would be exasperating, if it were not so
funny, to see these poets leading their heroes through blood and
destruction to the conclusion that, as Browning's David puts it
(David of all people!), "All's Love; yet all's Law."

Certainly it is clear enough that such love as that implied by
Siegfried's first taste of fear as he cuts through the mailed
coat of the sleeping figure on the mountain, and discovers that
it is a woman; by her fierce revolt against being touched by him
when his terror gives way to ardor; by his manly transports of
victory; and by the womanly mixture of rapture and horror with
which she abandons herself to the passion which has seized on
them both, is an experience which it is much better, like the
vast majority of us, never to have passed through, than to allow
it to play more than a recreative holiday part in our lives. It
did not play a very large part in Wagner's own laborious life,
and does not occupy more than two scenes of The Ring. Tristan and
Isolde, wholly devoted to it, is a poem of destruction and death.
The Mastersingers, a work full of health, fun and happiness,
contains not a single bar of love music that can be described as
passionate: the hero of it is a widower who cobbles shoes, writes
verses, and contents himself with looking on at the
sweetheartings of his customers. Parsifal makes an end of it
altogether. The truth is that the love panacea in Night Falls On
The Gods and in the last act of Siegfried is a survival of the
first crude operatic conception of the story, modified by an
anticipation of Wagner's later, though not latest, conception of
love as the fulfiller of our Will to Live and consequently our
reconciler to night and death.


The only faith which any reasonable disciple can gain from The
Ring is not in love, but in life itself as a tireless power which
is continually driving onward and upward--not, please observe,
being beckoned or drawn by Das Ewig Weibliche or any other
external sentimentality, but growing from within, by its own
inexplicable energy, into ever higher and higher forms of
organization, the strengths and the needs of which are
continually superseding the institutions which were made to fit
our former requirements. When your Bakoonins call out for the
demolition of all these venerable institutions, there is no need
to fly into a panic and lock them up in prison whilst your
parliament is bit by bit doing exactly what they advised you to
do. When your Siegfrieds melt down the old weapons into new ones,
and with disrespectful words chop in twain the antiquated
constable's staves in the hands of their elders, the end of the
world is no nearer than it was before. If human nature, which
is the highest organization of life reached on this planet,
is really degenerating, then human society will decay; and no
panic-begotten penal measures can possibly save it: we must,
like Prometheus, set to work to make new men instead of vainly
torturing old ones. On the other hand, if the energy of life is
still carrying human nature to higher and higher levels, then the
more young people shock their elders and deride and discard their
pet institutions the better for the hopes of the world, since the
apparent growth of anarchy is only the measure of the rate of
improvement. History, as far as we are capable of history (which
is not saying much as yet), shows that all changes from crudity
of social organization to complexity, and from mechanical
agencies in government to living ones, seem anarchic at first
sight. No doubt it is natural to a snail to think that any
evolution which threatens to do away with shells will result in
general death from exposure. Nevertheless, the most elaborately
housed beings today are born not only without houses on their
backs but without even fur or feathers to clothe them.


One word of warning to those who may find themselves attracted
by Siegfried's Anarchism, or, if they prefer a term with more
respectable associations, his neo-Protestantism. Anarchism, as a
panacea, is just as hopeless as any other panacea, and will still
be so even if we breed a race of perfectly benevolent men. It is
true that in the sphere of thought, Anarchism is an inevitable
condition of progressive evolution. A nation without
Freethinkers--that is, without intellectual Anarchists--will
share the fate of China. It is also true that our criminal law,
based on a conception of crime and punishment which is nothing
but our vindictiveness and cruelty in a virtuous disguise, is an
unmitigated and abominable nuisance, bound to be beaten out of
us finally by the mere weight of our experience of its evil and
uselessness. But it will not be replaced by anarchy. Applied to
the industrial or political machinery of modern society, anarchy
must always reduce itself speedily to absurdity. Even the
modified form of anarchy on which modern civilization is based:
that is, the abandonment of industry, in the name of individual
liberty, to the upshot of competition for personal gain between
private capitalists, is a disastrous failure, and is, by the
mere necessities of the case, giving way to ordered Socialism.
For the economic rationale of this, I must refer disciples of
Siegfried to a tract from my hand published by the Fabian Society
and entitled The Impossibilities of Anarchism, which explains
why, owing to the physical constitution of our globe, society
cannot effectively organize the production of its food, clothes
and housing, nor distribute them fairly and economically on any
anarchic plan: nay, that without concerting our social action to
a much higher degree than we do at present we can never get rid
of the wasteful and iniquitous welter of a little riches and
a deal of poverty which current political humbug calls our
prosperity and civilization. Liberty is an excellent thing; but
it cannot begin until society has paid its daily debt to Nature
by first earning its living. There is no liberty before that
except the liberty to live at somebody else's expense, a liberty
much sought after nowadays, since it is the criterion of
gentility, but not wholesome from the point of view of the common


In returning now to the adventures of Siegfried there is little
more to be described except the finale of an opera. Siegfried,
having passed unharmed through the fire, wakes Brynhild and goes
through all the fancies and ecstasies of love at first sight in
a duet which ends with an apostrophe to "leuchtende Liebe,
lachender Tod!", which has been romantically translated into
"Love that illumines, laughing at Death," whereas it really
identifies enlightening love and laughing death as involving
each other so closely as to be usually one and the same thing.

George Bernard Shaw