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Why He Changed His Mind

Wagner, however, was not the man to allow his grip of a great
philosophic theme to slacken even in twenty-five years if the
theme still held good as a theory of actual life. If the history
of Germany from 1849 to 1876 had been the history of Siegfried
and Wotan transposed into the key of actual life Night Falls On
The Gods would have been the logical consummation of Das
Rheingold and The Valkyrie instead of the operatic anachronism it
actually is.

But, as a matter of fact, Siegfried did not succeed and Bismarck
did. Roeckel was a prisoner whose imprisonment made no difference;
Bakoonin broke up, not Walhall, but the International, which
ended in an undignified quarrel between him and Karl Marx. The
Siegfrieds of 1848 were hopeless political failures, whereas the
Wotans and Alberics and Lows were conspicuous political
successes. Even the Mimes held their own as against Siegfried.
With the single exception of Ferdinand Lassalle, there was no
revolutionary leader who was not an obvious impossibilist in
practical politics; and Lassalle got himself killed in a romantic
and quite indefensible duel after wrecking his health in a
titanic oratorical campaign which convinced him that the great
majority of the working classes were not ready to join him, and
that the minority who were ready did not understand him. The
International, founded in 1861 by Karl Marx in London, and
mistaken for several years by nervous newspapers for a red
spectre, was really only a turnip ghost. It achieved some
beginnings of International Trade Unionism by inducing English
workmen to send money to support strikes on the continent, and
recalling English workers who had been taken across the North Sea
to defeat such strikes; but on its revolutionary socialistic side
it was a romantic figment. The suppression of the Paris Commune,
one of the most tragic examples in history of the pitilessness
with which capable practical administrators and soldiers are
forced by the pressure of facts to destroy romantic amateurs and
theatrical dreamers, made an end of melodramatic Socialism. It
was as easy for Marx to hold up Thiers as the most execrable of
living scoundrels and to put upon Gallifet the brand that still
makes him impossible in French politics as it was for Victor Hugo
to bombard Napoleon III from his paper battery in Jersey. It was
also easy to hold up Felix Pyat and Delescluze as men of much
loftier ideals than Thiers and Gallifet; but the one fact that
could not be denied was that when it came to actual shooting, it
was Gallifet who got Delescluze shot and not Delescluze who got
Gallifet shot, and that when it came to administering the affairs
of France, Thiers could in one way or another get it done, whilst
Pyat could neither do it nor stop talking and allow somebody else
to do it. True, the penalty of following Thiers was to be
exploited by the landlord and capitalist; but then the penalty of
following Pyat was to get shot like a mad dog, or at best get
sent to New Caledonia, quite unnecessarily and uselessly.

To put it in terms of Wagner's allegory, Alberic had got the ring
back again and was marrying into the best Walhall families with
it. He had thought better of his old threat to dethrone Wotan and
Loki. He had found that Nibelheim was a very gloomy place and
that if he wanted to live handsomely and safely, he must not only
allow Wotan and Loki to organize society for him, but pay them
very handsomely for doing it. He wanted splendor, military glory,
loyalty, enthusiasm, and patriotism; and his greed and gluttony
were wholly unable to create them, whereas Wotan and Loki carried
them all to a triumphant climax in Germany in 1871, when Wagner
himself celebrated the event with his Kaisermarsch, which sounded
much more convincing than the Marseillaise or the Carmagnole.

How, after the Kaisermarsch, could Wagner go back to his
idealization of Siegfried in 1853? How could he believe seriously
in Siegfried slaying the dragon and charging through the mountain
fire, when the immediate foreground was occupied by the Hotel de
Ville with Felix Pyat endlessly discussing the principles of
Socialism whilst the shells of Thiers were already battering the
Arc de Triomphe, and ripping up the pavement of the Champs
Elysees? Is it not clear that things had taken an altogether
unexpected turn--that although the Ring may, like the famous
Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels, be an inspired guest
at the historic laws and predestined end of our
capitalistic-theocratic epoch, yet Wagner, like Marx, was too
inexperienced in technical government and administration and too
melodramatic in his hero-contra-villain conception of the class
struggle, to foresee the actual process by which his
generalization would work out, or the part to be played in it
by the classes involved?

Let us go back for a moment to the point at which the Niblung
legend first becomes irreconcilable with Wagner's allegory.
Fafnir in the allegory becomes a capitalist; but Fafnir in the
legend is a mere hoarder. His gold does not bring him in any
revenue. It does not even support him: he has to go out and
forage for food and drink. In fact, he is on the way to his
drinking-pool when Siegfried kills him. And Siegfried himself has
no more use for gold than Fafnir: the only difference between
them in this respect is that Siegfried does not waste his time in
watching a barren treasure that is no use to him, whereas Fafnir
sacrifices his humanity and his life merely to prevent anybody
else getting it. This contrast is true to human nature; but it
shunts The Ring drama off the economic lines of the allegory. In
real life, Fafnir is not a miser: he seeks dividends, comfortable
life, and admission to the circles of Wotan and Loki. His only
means of procuring these is to restore the gold to Alberic in
exchange for scrip in Alberic's enterprises. Thus fortified with
capital, Alberic exploits his fellow dwarfs as before, and also
exploits Fafair's fellow giants who have no capital. What is
more, the toil, forethought and self-control which the
exploitation involves, and the self-respect and social esteem
which its success wins, effect an improvement in Alberic's own
character which neither Marx nor Wagner appear to have foreseen.
He discovers that to be a dull, greedy, narrow-minded
money-grubber is not the way to make money on a large scale; for
though greed may suffice to turn tens into hundreds and even
hundreds into thousands, to turn thousands into hundreds of
thousands requires magnanimity and a will to power rather than
to pelf. And to turn thousands into millions, Alberic must make
himself an earthly providence for masses of workmen: he must
create towns and govern markets. In the meantime, Fafair,
wallowing in dividends which he has done nothing to earn, may
rot, intellectually and morally, from mere disuse of his energies
and lack of incentive to excel; but the more imbecile he becomes,
the more dependent he is upon Alberic, and the more the
responsibility of keeping the world-machine in working order
falls upon Alberic. Consequently, though Alberic in Also may have
been merely the vulgar Manchester Factory-owner portrayed by
Engels, in 1876 he was well on the way towards becoming Krupp
of Essen or Carnegie of Homestead.

Now, without exaggerating the virtues of these gentlemen, it will
be conceded by everybody except perhaps those veteran German
Social-Democrats who have made a cult of obsolescence under the
name of Marxism, that the modern entrepreneur is not to be
displaced and dismissed so lightly as Alberic is dismissed in The
Ring. They are really the masters of the whole situation. Wotan
is hardly less dependent on them than Fafnir; the War-Lord visits
their work, acclaims them in stirring speeches, and casts down
their enemies; whilst Loki makes commercial treaties for them and
subjects all his diplomacy to their approval.

The end cannot come until Siegfried learns Alberic's trade and
shoulders Alberic's burden. Not having as yet done so, he is
still completely mastered by Alberic. He does not even rebel
against him except when he is too stupid and ignorant, or too
romantically impracticable, to see that Alberic's work, like
Wotan's work and Loki's work, is necessary work, and that
therefore Alberic can never be superseded by a warrior, but only
by a capable man of business who is prepared to continue his work
without a day's intermission. Even though the proletarians of all
lands were to become "class conscious," and obey the call of Marx
by uniting to carry the Class struggle to a proletarian victory
in which all capital should become common property, and all
Monarchs, Millionaires, Landlords and Capitalists become common
citizens, the triumphant proletarians would have either to starve
in Anarchy the next day or else do the political and industrial
work which is now being done tant bien que mal by our Romanoffs,
our Hohenzollerns, our Krupps, Carnegies, Levers, Pierpont
Morgans, and their political retinues. And in the meantime these
magnates must defend their power and property with all their
might against the revolutionary forces until these forces become
positive, executive, administrative forces, instead of the
conspiracies of protesting, moralizing, virtuously indignant
amateurs who mistook Marx for a man of affairs and Thiers for a
stage villain. But all this represents a development of which one
gathers no forecast from Wagner or Marx. Both of them prophesied
the end of our epoch, and, so far as one can guess, prophesied it
rightly. They also brought its industrial history up to the year
1848 far more penetratingly than the academic historians of their
time. But they broke off there and left a void between 1848 and
the end, in which we, who have to live in that period, get no
guidance from them. The Marxists wandered for years in this void,
striving, with fanatical superstition, to suppress the
Revisionists who, facing the fact that the Social-Democratic
party was lost, were trying to find the path by the light of
contemporary history instead of vainly consulting the oracle in
the pages of Das Kapital. Marx himself was too simpleminded a
recluse and too full of the validity of his remoter
generalizations, and the way in which the rapid integration of
capital in Trusts and Kartels was confirming them, to be
conscious of the void himself.

Wagner, on the other hand, was comparatively a practical man.
It is possible to learn more of the world by producing a single
opera, or even conducting a single orchestral rehearsal, than by
ten years reading in the Library of the British Museum. Wagner
must have learnt between Das Rheingold and the Kaisermarsch that
there are yet several dramas to be interpolated in The Ring after
The Valkyries before the allegory can tell the whole story, and
that the first of these interpolated dramas will be much more
like a revised Rienzi than like Siegfried. If anyone doubts the
extent to which Wagner's eyes had been opened to the
administrative-childishness and romantic conceit of the heroes of
the revolutionary generation that served its apprenticeship on
the barricades of 1848-9, and perished on those of 1870 under
Thiers' mitrailleuses, let him read Eine Kapitulation, that
scandalous burlesque in which the poet and composer of Siegfried,
with the levity of a schoolboy, mocked the French republicans who
were doing in 1871 what he himself was exiled for doing in 1849.
He had set the enthusiasm of the Dresden Revolution to his own
greatest music; but he set the enthusiasm of twenty years later
in derision to the music of Rossini. There is no mistaking the
tune he meant to suggest by his doggerel of Republik, Republik,
Republik-lik-lik. The Overture to William Tell is there as
plainly as if it were noted down in full score.

In the case of such a man as Wagner, you cannot explain this
volte-face as mere jingoism produced by Germany's overwhelming
victory in the Franco-Prussian War, nor as personal spite against
the Parisians for the Tannhauser fiasco. Wagner had more cause
for personal spite against his own countrymen than he ever had
against the French. No doubt his outburst gratified the pettier
feelings which great men have in common with small ones; but he
was not a man to indulge in such gratifications, or indeed to
feel them as gratifications, if he had not arrived at a profound
philosophical contempt for the inadequacy of the men who were
trying to wield Nothung, and who had done less work for Wagner's
own art than a single German King and he, too, only a mad one.
Wagner had by that time done too much himself not to know that
the world is ruled by deeds, not by good intentions, and that
one efficient sinner is worth ten futile saints and martyrs.

I need not elaborate the point further in these pages. Like all
men of genius, Wagner had exceptional sincerity, exceptional
respect for facts, exceptional freedom from the hypnotic
influence of sensational popular movements, exceptional sense of
the realities of political power as distinguished from the
presences and idolatries behind which the real masters of modern
States pull their wires and train their guns. When he scored
Night Falls On The Gods, he had accepted the failure of Siegfried
and the triumph of the Wotan-Loki-Alberic-trinity as a fact. He
had given up dreaming of heroes, heroines, and final solutions,
and had conceived a new protagonist in Parsifal, whom he
announced, not as a hero, but as a fool; who was armed, not with
a sword which cut irresistibly, but with a spear which he held
only on condition that he did not use it; and who instead of
exulting in the slaughter of a dragon was frightfully ashamed of
having shot a swan. The change in the conception of the Deliverer
could hardly be more complete. It reflects the change which took
place in Wagner's mind between the composition of The Rhine Gold
and Night Falls On The Gods; and it explains why he dropped The
Ring allegory and fell back on the status quo ante by

If you ask why he did not throw Siegfried into the waste paper
basket and rewrite The Ring from The Valkyries onwards, one must
reply that the time had not come for such a feat. Neither Wagner
nor anyone else then living knew enough to achieve it. Besides,
what he had already done had reached the omit of even his immense
energy and perseverance and so he did the best he could with the
unfinished and for ever unfinishable work, rounding it off with
an opera much as Rossini rounded off some of his religious
compositions with a galop. Only, Rossini on such occasions wrote
in his score "Excusez du pen," but Wagner left us to find out the
change for ourselves, perhaps to test how far we had really
followed his meaning.

George Bernard Shaw