Magazine article The Spectator

'The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung', by Roger Scruton - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung', by Roger Scruton - Review

Article excerpt

The political trigger for the Ring was the 1849 Dresden uprising, when the young freedom fighter Richard Wagner financed the hand grenades and debated ethics with his co-revolutionary Bakunin. According to Bernard Shaw, the Russian stood model for Siegfried, the Ring 's hero who would overthrow the old order and install a new realm of personal and political freedom.

God was dying; nationalism killing Goethe's enlightened neo-Hellenism. For Wagner, loss of faith in the divine and the divinely remote ancient Greeks demanded another route to meaning. He found it in pre-Christian Germanic texts, using them to shape the new cosmology of the post-Christian world. The result is his epic poem, The Ring of the Nibelung , which he chopped into four operas (16 hours of music), telling the story of civilisation from primeval soup to the Industrial Revolution through the symbolic hero Siegfried, who battles a dwarf, a dragon, a god and a woman to achieve freedom and non-religious but nevertheless uplifting redemption.

Like much 19th-century nationalist stuff (Rider Haggard, say), vivid depiction of heroic blond beasts in action is unappealing. We're further offended by Hitler's gleeful appropriation. But hindsight's a tad unfair, as the accomplished equestrian Scruton demonstrates by a brilliant gallop through the religious, musical, historical and philosophical context.

The Ring took 26 years to complete, during which Wagner changed from Schopenhauerian atheist to mystically besotted husband of the hyper-religious Cosima; from anti-capitalist utopian to artist-prince financed by a mad king with a poor human rights record (Ludwig II of Bavaria) and an appetite for gold and power that was, like most of his Ring characters, insatiable. Three kings and the Kaiser attended the premiere, to Wagner's great satisfaction.

Throughout these changes in his outlook and circumstances, Wagner kept hammering on at his blockbuster allegory of the downfall of civilisation brought about by the moral evil of 19th-century capitalism and the material evil of industrialisation poisoning and polluting the natural world, symbolised by the delicious Rhine Maidens. How did Eden lead to the factory? What could follow after? It could only end in 'the destruction of all that is'. However, all was not gloom. Like Nietzsche, Wagner saw in the death of the old gods both unparalleled catastrophe and unparalleled opportunity to build a better society through the Übermensch , the man brave enough to jettison the old values. …

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