Monday, September 12, 2011

Man and Superman

Joan of Arc

I just saw Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungs at the Finnish National Opera. That's four operas totaling nearly nineteen hours, one every other day for a week. I had seen all of the individual operas before, some live, some on TV, but never in a row, as a single, coherent cycle. It was a bit overwhelming. On Thursday, between Die Walküre and Siegfried, I tottered home from work around six and crashed straight to bed. Missed my regular Thursday zazen, and Sunday's zazenkai too.

Boy howdy was it worth the effort. There really is nothing quite like the Ring. Wagner is utterly uncompromising. Doesn't apologize. Doesn't talk down to you. Doesn't court you. Doesn't try to entertain, amuse, or edify. He is utterly free of sentimentality or conceit. He just grabs you, sits you down, and throws you in the middle of a storm of art, music, philosophy, verse, and stagecraft, and then lets you make of it what you will.

Which is kind of ironic, since by all accounts in real life he was a real bastard. Never forgot, or forgave, a slight, and held a grudge like the worst of his villains.

The main hero of the cycle is Siegfried, even though he only first appears in the third opera of the cycle. The first two, Rheingold and Die Walküre, are his origin story. Siegfried is Wagner's representation of the Nietzschean Superman. Not the guy in tights and a cape, mind, but Nietzsche's idea of what a perfect human would be like.

Siegfried is joyous. He is free. He is unhesitating, guiltless, and guileless. He does not understand fear, doubt, guilt, or shame, and is the only one immune to the curse of Alberich's Ring, since he doesn't desire worldly power either. He joyously reforges his father's sword, slays a dragon, kills his scheming foster father, awakens, wins, and loves Brünnhilde. Then he equally joyously, guiltlessly, and guilelessly disguises himself as someone else and rapes her.

All the villain of the piece, Hagen, needs to manipulate Siegfried into doing that is a magic potion that makes him forget he ever met her, and to fall in love with someone else. The rest happens by itself. Siegfried wants something and reaches for it. It doesn't even occur to him to consider the consequences for others.

Nietzsche really liked the Ring, I hear.

Twilight of the Gods was not Wagner's final work. That would be Parsifal. Nietzsche hated that one.

I saw Parsifal last year in Dresden, and wrote up a piece about it. According to one Paul Schofield, Parsifal is actually a reborn Siegfried. I still think his take on Parsifal as a straightforward Buddhist morality tale isn't quite right, but I think I'm going to have to give him Parsifal as Siegfried, on a thematic if not literal level at least.

The Ring is a tale of growth and development. All of its main characters change through the cycle. Wotan goes from the embodiment of Will to grimly sitting on his throne in Valhalla, waiting for the End he welcomes; Brünnhilde is transformed from an angel of death into a passionate human woman; the Rhinemaidens from playful nixies to desperate, fading seducers, to embodiments of cosmic justice. Even Alberich goes from a horny old goat to a broken old man, by way of Dark Lord of Nibelheim.

All except one. All except Siegfried. He alone is unchanging, unchanged, and complete, from the moment he first strides on stage to complain about Mime's cooking, to his last gasp as he lies mortally wounded by Hagen's spear.

Nietzsche may have felt that Wagner betrayed his ideas by making Parsifal the hero enlightened by compassion. However, I think Wagner already refuted Nietzsche's Übermensch in Twilight of the Gods. How could the perfect man, the embodiment of Reinmenschlichkeit, "pure humanity," so lightly and easily commit the horrendous crime that is the rape of Brünnhilde? If that is not a reductio ad absurdum of Nietzschean morality, I don't know what is, whether Wagner intended it that way at the time or not.

Perhaps it is this very dissonance that pushed Wagner beyond Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, to write Parsifal. Because there Schofield is right: when Parsifal first walks on in his opera, he is Siegfried. Not merely someone like him. The same. He is instantly recognizable, in his freedom, his sincerity, his joy, his unhesitating way of reaching for whatever he wants, his complete lack of concern for others.

But Parsifal does not stop there. He changes and grows. Siegfried never knew fear, or guilt, or shame. Parsifal learned them, went through them and beyond them, and became fully human in the process. Parsifal of the second and third acts would not have fallen for Hagen's scheme, however strong the magic potion. He could not have raped one woman to win another, however fiercely he loved her.

Nietzsche's Übermensch as personified by Siegfried is really no better—or worse—than a young child, or a cat perhaps. A paragon of pure humanity he is not. It is not enough to be joyful, free, guiltless, and guileless, to love simply, purely, and fiercely. Wagner might not have consciously realized this when he wrote Twilight of the Gods, but the moral truth of the Ring expresses it nonetheless.

It has some pretty damn good music, too.

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciate these thoughts, some disputable though. Written in a real Siegfried spirit, not fearing any othodoxies.

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