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The Case of Wagner

A week ago today, Marc Bonnant, Alain Carré, and I presented the final installment of "The Case of Wagner," the four-part mock trial that we began at the Grand Theater in Geneva in November 2013.

The question before us was one already posed by Thomas Mann, Jacob Katz, Theodor Adorno, and many others: What link might there be, and of what nature, between the accused, Richard Wagner, and the global disaster known as Nazism?

Bonnant rejected -- as it was his role to do, but he played it with singular virtuosity! -- the reductio ad Hitlerum that we know, from Leo Strauss, always operates as an excuse not to hear, not to read, to clip the wings of giants.

For my part, I relied on choice morsels from the great Wagnerian oeuvre, and on some of Wagner's essays (such as "Judaism in Music"), that Pierre-André Taguieff gave their proper due in the overall corpus of a musician who also saw himself (and with almost equal ambition) as a polemicist, as an intellectual, and as the creator of a vision of the world and of a philosophy worthy of Fichte or Herder -- I relied on those sources, as I say, to develop a three-point argument that, above and beyond the mock trial itself, I find, regretfully, to be quite plausible.

First, Hitler's own account of his adolescent emotions upon seeing Rienzi and Lohengrin in the town of Linz, where he was living in a boarding house, and his much later statement (recounted elsewhere) that he had never had a more noble master than the prophet of German greatness. "It was on Parsifal," he wrote, "that I built my religion." These, plus Hermann Rauschning's statement in Hitler Speaks that "anyone wishing to understand national-socialist Germany must know Wagner."

Second, the way in which Bayreuth, which was the Wagnerian church -- or, more exactly, the body of its appointed priests, cloned from the master to carry on after his death to defend and promulgage the articles of the true faith -- was operated during the building and then the triumph of Hitlerian ideology: Siegfried, the son, opining after the failed putsch of November 9, 1923, that "Hitler is a superb man, he needs to go all the way"; Winifred, the daughter-in-law, supplying Hitler with paper so that, from his cell in Landsberg prison, he could write Mein Kampf, his playbook; Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the son-in-law, who did not beat around the bush and saw in this agitator without an army "someone sent by God"; and the Bayreuther Blätter, the official Bayreuth festival guides, and all of the official literature of Wagnerianism, which, right to the very end, styled Wagner as the "guide toward national socialism."

Third, everything in Richard Wagner's huge mass of public writings from his Bakunin period onward -- which, I repeat, he insisted should not be considered as lesser than the The Mastersingers of Nuremberg or Lohengrin -- that fed the voracious Hitlerian machine: Was Wagner not, as Léon Poliakov saw him, the first modern anti-Semite, that is, the first to entwine the three or four strands of the anti-Semitisms of his time: Christian, atheist, social (even socialist), and racist? Was he not one of the very first, if not the first, to have toyed, in dinner conversation reported by Wagner's wife, Cosima, and Carl Friedrich Glasenapp, with the idea of becoming a "plenipotentiary of annihilation," with putting himself in charge of what he called "the great solution" for Jewish conductors or musicians resistant to baptism or otherwise incurable, with the idea of regenerating the German body by eliminating its Jewish parts or, better, with the powerful idea (powerful because it could be sold to German and European masses clamoring for a "positive" version of the old hate, of complete elimination consistent with the holy task of healing the Aryan blood and soul? Where could the Hitlerites find this better formulated than in Wagner's "Heroism and Christianity," the late text that Wagner told Cosima was his very best, a scholarly variation on the suffering of Amfortas, the blood-poisoned king, who waited for a redemption that could come only from the hands of a post-Christian hero holding the sword of Parsifal?

Of course I do not believe that Wagner can be reduced to this alone.

I am not imagining Hitler climbing out of Wagner's tomb as in the famous scene from Syberberg's 1977 film.

And I certainly do not believe that the criminal tendencies of Wagner or his followers can or should serve as an alibi for philistines of the ilk who have already cited Heidegger's Nazism as a reason not to have to do the work involved in plumbing his thought and who would like nothing better than to find a good excuse to avoid a head-on confrontation with one of the greatest musicians of all time.

But that there is in Wagnerianism a black hole, that soundings must be made of that hole, and that the fearsome, cloaked connivance of Wagnerianism with the horror of a century of which Wagner himself knew nothing, but of which he was, in many ways, the herald (so much so that it is not possible, after Auschwitz, to hear Wagner as one did before) -- that much seems clear.

The 2014 Bayreuth Festival opens on July 25. I have not said my last word on this subject.

Translated by Steven Kennedy

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