Wednesday, March 16, 2011

REVIEW: G.B. Shaw's The Perfect Wagnerite

 [As this blog goes on, I'm going to be reviewing interesting books from time to time, as I read or think of them. These aren't usually great classics, but are probably going to be weird, out-of-the-way things that I find interesting or are especially relevant]

"I hide behind your sun.
You are the champion...
So you can take me to the Dragon's Lair,
or you can take me to Rapunzel's Windowsill,
but either way it is time
for a bigger kind of kill."
--Sunset Rubdown, "Dragon's Lair"

I have a prickly relationship, at best, with Richard Wagner. I love classical music and its history--Dmitri Shostakovich will always be one of my personal heroes--but Wagner is a very, very difficult man to like. It's not just the sexism (which Mahler had in spades) or the racism (didn't I just too a post on Eliot?) or the egotism (one of the best art exhibits I've ever been in was 11 rooms of Gaugin) or how bombastic and over-the-top his art was (I have been listening to a ton of death metal lately). It's a weird combination of all of the above, combined with the stain left by the Nazi Party co-opting his work and a general resistance I have towards opera. I recognize that the man was a musical genius (if more than a little horrible), but for some reason it just never quite clicks with me.
Also, I play football in a tux. Like a gentleman.
That said, George Bernard Shaw was an Irishman, an ardent Socialist, and a man who detested organized religion, so the fact that he wrote a book on Wagner's Ring Cycle (and that the cover was an Aubrey Beardsley painting, who I adore) was enough for me to pick it up used. And let me tell you, it's worth getting just for the last line of the introduction, written in 1922, which eerily predicts what would happen to Wagner's legacy:

"The Ring ends with everybody dead except three mermaids; and though [the Great War] went far enough in that conclusive direction to suggest that the next war may possibly kill even the mermaids with 'depth charges,' the curtain is not yet down on our drama, and we have to carry on as best we can. If we succeed, this book may have to pass into yet another edition: if not, the world itself will have to be reedited."

Yes. Yes, that is a monocle.
The Perfect Wagnerite is a pretty stirring assertion of Wagner's genius, and, even if (unlike me) you don't care or don't need convincing, it's a damned entertaining read. One of the reasons I wanted to review it here is the fact that Shaw does throughout the book essentially what I try and do with this blog: he approaches a work of the canon (which, in his day, was a fairly controversial work with a great deal of detractors), and tries to explain not only why it's great but why it's not just relevant to society, but a work of incredible rebellion and anti-authority sentiments. Essentially, the book is an incredibly clever Marxist telling you what he thinks about a story drawn from classical mythology. And that kicks ass.

On the magic helmet of the villain Alberic--a gold-miner Shaw holds up as the epitome of selfish accumulation of wealth--which allows him to become invisible and change his form, Shaw writes: "This helmet is a very common article in our streets, where it generally takes the form of a tall hat. It makes a man invisible as a shareholder, and changes him into various shapes, such as a pious Christian, a subscriber to hospitals, a benefactor of the poor...and what not, when he is really a pitiful parasite on the commonwealth, consuming a great deal, and producing nothing, and doing nothing... ."

"Wallets are a tool for the accumulation of wealth, but if I had one it
would say Bad Motherfucker on it."
In particular, he envisions the cycle's protagonist Sigfried, raised in the woods with no human contact, as the first Hero and, as a vital part of his heroism, his lack of a societal moral compass or any respect for authority or danger. He draws several parallels between Sigfried and Wagner's friend, the Russian Collective Anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (who he calls Michael Bakoonin, because...I don't know, I think people before like 1950 just assumed Russians were retarded and didn't know how to spell their own names). As a Hero, Shaw argues, Sigfried's great triumph--which Odin fathered him for--isn't his defeat of the evil dwarf, but the unintended consequence: the destruction of the Gods. Shaw sees the destructiveness, brutality, and amorality of Wagner's world as something beautiful: a world of useless authority and horded wealth destroying itself.
Critical opinions do vary, however.
I'm not sure I buy into all his optimism (this might be a good time to mention that Shaw was still a sexist, anti-semite, supporter of Stalin and a eugenicist, because you know...actually, 19th century aside, not much of an excuse for that). But it's still a really well-written book that has a lot--a lot--of incredibly passionate and smart speeches about human nature and why we all should get around to killing the rich. In between all that juicy stuff, it's a great artist getting really excited about another one, and retelling his story in an accessible and illuminating way. So if you've got an afternoon (it's pretty short) and want to see just how a 19th-century opera is a condemnation of capitalism, I'd definitely suggest finding a copy.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. Am heading toward the 4th &
    Final opera of the Ring tomorrow night on Channel
    13 (Great Performances - Channel 13 NYC) - the
    ring has always seemed a clear cut parable for
    US capitalism, now in 2012 more accurately than
    ever - except that the US appears not to have any
    Wotan type class left, just dregs. Love that you
    love Shostakovich - he took the reins from Mahler
    in my opinion in the line from Beethoven and Bruckner (my fav along with Dmitri) - I manage to
    squeze Sibelius into and on this list, just for
    the wondurous sound and emotional scope of his
    music. Oh, I love Beethoven, the granddaddy of
    heart! Bill