On aesthetic seduction, politics, and violence

This week I have been watching Siegfried by Wagner, in preparation for my annual Wagner music history lecture. In several of his operas Wagner created characters that are overtly anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews that overlap with the patterns of Nazi anti-Jew propaganda, for instance the dwarf Mime, who has a main role in Siegfried (people have argued that these actually aren’t really anti-Semitic, but I just don’t buy it). Wagner’s anti-Semitism is a well-known and undisputed fact, but different people place more or less emphasis on it. Because I find the philosophical ideas behind the way Wagner wrote music so interesting and beautiful, I de-emphasize his xenophobia in the classroom. In my typical Wagner class, I focus on the final act of Die Walküre, which in terms of literature, music, and philosophy is incredible. Sometimes the night after I teach that class I can’t sleep because the music is stuck in my head! In the face of such a personally powerful experience of Wagner’s music, it is difficult for me to seriously consider Wagner as someone who may have contributed to the racist atrocities committed in Europe and the U.S. starting in the early 20th century. It’s easy to say that Wagner died in the 1880s before all of that anti-Jew talk began to have tangible negative effects, so we can’t really say whether he bears any responsibility, and that no one who goes to see Wagner today conflates Mime with Jewish people.

As I watched Siegfried this week, though, I was at the same time watching a troubling series of xenophobic hate speech and hate crimes in my home country, the United States. This situation has led some Americans to start discussing the nature of xenophobic speech. For example, should people spreading lies about certain types of people and even calling for their persecution be allowed to speak freely in the public sphere? White nationalists have been given some nasty welcomes at American universities recently; how should we evaluate violent discourse—and even physical violence—as a reaction to white nationalist discourse? Some people say that no matter the qualities of someone’s ideas, they must be debated calmly and logically in the public sphere. That is the only ethical and rhetorically valid option for handling hate speech. Clearly, though, there are other people who think that white nationalists are extreme and must be dealt with through concordantly strong communicative acts (“You say immigrants get out of our country, we say get out of our university!”).

A few years ago, when some very public figures in American politics and media started making shockingly public xenophobic statements (things like immigrants commit a lot of crimes or conspiracy theories about the ill intentions of Muslim Americans), it wasn’t so clear what to do. There was unease, sure, but this is a country whose society and economy were built on racist ideas (slavery and all that flowed from it) and cannot easily leave that heritage behind. We can all joke about racist things some of our family members or neighbors say—but it’s just the way they are, right? Xenophobic and racist discourse broke into mainstream politics and media a few years ago…but maybe it’s just your grandfather with a microphone? It’s just the way some people are, but only a few, and the rest of us know that what they’re saying is factually incorrect and morally disgusting? Then it’s 2017 and U.S. Representatives are proudly declaring their support of cultural purity, Jewish cemeteries and cultural centers are being terrorized, mosques are being vandalized like never before, and repeatedly Indian immigrants are being attacked by people who think they are doing America the favor of getting rid of “Arabs”. Maybe we can’t clearly say that hate crimes are on the rise, but aren’t there at least too many of them happening lately? Maybe there was a point at which the violent discourse transformed into violent acts? Could we have seen it coming?

Enter Wagner, incredible composer and Jew-despiser. This part is important, because it’s when my job gains some rare concrete urgency. It’s easy as a musicologist to focus so much on analyzing the meaning and function of other people’s music that you forget to do it for yourself, about your own music and the situations involving music at the present moment. Adrian Mourby  has made a good analysis of differing points of view on how to evaluate Wagner’s art in line of his nasty views, but I think he fails to consider two important things: Wagner’s public power and opera’s power. Wagner was not just a guy who drew some Jewish caricatures on a napkin at home or wrote a diary entry blaming the Jews for the decaying of society. Wagner intended his literary and musical discourse about Jews to be public, having his operas performed, and his essays and librettos published. Then after his death, as Wagnerism really picked up in multiple countries, his ideas became incredibly public.

Mourby focuses on an essay that Wagner wrote as the worst evidence against him, but to me the stereotyped characters in his operas and the villain roles they play within the drama are much worse because the opera medium is such a powerful one. There are stories about how Wagner’s music, in particular, drove late-19th-century audiences into highly emotional states, and as I shared earlier, I find it to be very moving as well. A xenophobic message can gain real traction when shared in such an emotionally powerful, multi-sensory form, which creates such a memorable experience that can be etched in the mind (people were declaring themselves “Wagnerians” in some periods). In Siegfried, for example, Mime is a villain, a member of a dwarf race that seems corrupt in their essence, controlled by a desire for wealth and power but physically and spiritually deficient. He tries to keep the hero, Siegfried, from realizing his destiny by tricking him. All aspects of the opera’s form that relate to Mime, even the way Mime’s melodies sound and the stage directions to the person playing his part, are ugly. At least for earlier audiences, I think a suggestion of Jewishness would have also been evident. For a few hours the spectator sees the ugliness of Mime and his clear contrast to other, nobler characters like Wotan and Siegfried, of the favored race of the gods. And it’s not so easy for people to forget what they’ve seen.

Ok, someone might say, you’re making a hypothetical argument about a serious claim. We can’t know if watching Siegfried has driven someone to vandalize a Jewish cemetery. Yes, absolutely, so let’s shift the perspective from music as a singular cause of something else or not and instead to music as a tool people can use to do things with, and to music as unavoidably interconnected with other cultural forms. Shortly after Wagner’s death, a circle of anti-Jewish German nationalist intellectuals began to congregate around Wagner’s operas. This so-called “Bayreuth Circle” included active participation of Cosima Wagner, who had become quite anti-Semitic herself, and her son-in-law the extreme racist Stewart Chamberlain. The group then drew in Winifred Williams, and after Cosima’s health declined in the 1920s they became associated with the young Hitler. So, while it is not as though Hitler wrote Mein Kampf as he listened to Siegfried, it is true that over a long period a group of people who would have much to do with the rise of Nazism were frequently coming together around a shared love of Wagner and his music. They used his music as what Tia DeNora (2003, p. 125) has called a musical “anchoring practice” for their political work.

Some people say that because there is no evidence that Hitler read much of Wagner’s writings, the composer cannot be implicated in what he did. Again, this is missing the powerful nature of music, I think, as a form that can be used to communicate ideas and structure people’s ideas about themselves and the world. Hitler was devoted to Wagner’s music and to an idea that he could become in politics something like the ideal German hero that Wagner had become in the realm of composition. He kept several original Wagner musical scores in his war bunker and he would have Wagner excerpts played at Nazi political rallies. Wagner was played at Dachau concentration camp to “re-educate” prisoners. So, people used Wagner’s music to do some very bad things and, furthermore, they had a line of personal connections to Wagner leading back through Cosima Wagner that engendered a transmission and development of anti-Semitic ideology. In both Hitler and Cosima Wagner we see people who became devoted to xenophobic ideology and to Wagner’s music, and through the way they organized their life activities linked the two in a relationship. That Hitler used Wagner’s music as a tool for constructing his own subjectivity and his powerful medium of public discourse seems clear, and I think that is a problem that needs to be recognized and dealt with. In Israel the solution has been to ban Wagner—something like the violent protestors who recently said, emphatically, “no!” to Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray. I can respect this answer.

What will I do in my class tomorrow? That is the question I have been asking myself as I wrote out this blog post. It seems that I must seriously discuss the general stereotypical aspects of characters like Mime, how they are represented in musical sound, and their function and meaning within the entire drama. Not saying anything seems like someone shrugging their shoulders at Blackface or Zwarte Piet. I am going to see which clips I can find of different stagings of the anti-Semitic characters. This Danish version is probably what I’ll use in class tomorrow instead of my usual traditionally-staged Metropolitan Opera version. The blog post also casts my thoughts about the captivating beauty of Wagner’s music (specifically at the end of Die Walküre) in a new light. Along with making a portrait of sublime beauty that connects with the lofty metaphysical aims of Romantic philosophy, I need to mention the dark side of beauty. Beauty can be influential. The aesthetic power of captivating mediums like music, social media, or campaign rallies can be directed towards discursive power, decorating an idea that in its naked form someone would be less likely to accept or take up. I find Wagner to be beautiful and it’s unsettling to admit that so did that archenemy of the good, Hitler, even though the music decorates very different ideas for me versus him.

The point of this discussion is not to label people who like Wagner as racists. I doubt many people use Wagner’s operas to sustain xenophobic ideologies today—there are other cultural forms serving that purpose like White Power Music. Instead, bringing up anti-Semitic issues in Wagner serves as exemplary history in several ways. Generally, this is a good example of the power of aesthetic culture like music, television, or the visual arts to be used in politics and violence. It also forces us to take seriously the notion that a pure artwork doesn’t exist; art is not a timeless, neutral object of beauty, but a complex phenomenon centered around an art object that people cause to accumulate layers of meaning as it passes through different eras. What happened with Wagner also warns us, perhaps, about our present moment, to take seriously the potential damage someone can do if they are blaming certain minority groups in a society or hatefully stereotyping them and they gain a public following—especially people who don’t seem so insidious or who still make a few good points. Brave people have been calling out the lies and the destructive hate and we need to keep doing it. We hope that people who say horrible things don’t really mean it. But in the 1920s German newspapers started publishing pages devoted to Jewish crime and we find ourselves at a similar point in the U.S., and we can’t assume that it will lead nowhere.

It disappoints me to have to say such things in my Wagner lecture, because I prefer to celebrate certain ideas about the world and certain musical sounds that I enjoy, period. I’ll have to cut out some of the things I love talking about to pollute the sanctity of the temple with unpleasant ideas about racism and Nazis. The option to just carry on in my music-lover’s bubble is unacceptable, though, because it would mean failing to take seriously the role that musicologists can play in society, as specialists in analyzing cultural forms in a time when spectacular cultural forms are once again exerting a breathtaking effect on collective life.