Richard Wagner

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In the work of Slavoj Žižek

In his reading of Wagner, Žižek rejects the typical postmodern approach of historicism, which would claim that Wagner’s art was simply symptomatic of the German conditions of the time and an apologetic aestheticism that insists that music be enjoyed on its own terms. Instead, he seeks to decontextualize his works, a process he identifies as originally being taken up by Nietzsche, in his cri- tique of Wagner. Even more than with his analyses of film, the reader approaching Žižek’s writing on Wagner is confronted with intricate plot details, alternative scenarios and references to specific productions or hypothetical future produc- tions. The overarching goal of his psychoanalytical reading is not to locate or define the beautiful in Wagner’s music or to situate him in historical context. Rather, it comes from the conviction that Wagner’s own works undermine his explicit ideological project.

The critique of Wagner begins with a consideration of which dimension of his works should be considered. Music, libretti and staging are all important components of opera. What will be analysed? What will be the basis of critique? In his earlier writings, the music itself is taken as primary. Reading Rousseau through Lacan, Žižek finds that it renders the “true heart of the subject” (“Why is Wagner Worth Saving?”: 18). One of Wagner’s most important contributions to music is the leitmotif. In Living in the End Times, Žižek criticizes Adorno by describing his writing in terms of the Wagnernian leitmotif. Adorno wrote extensively on Wagner’s use of leitmotif and claimed that it marked a kind of beginning for the commodification of music. Žižek describes Adorno’s own writing on leitmotif as being a form of self-criticism and that Adorno’s writ- ing suffers from the use of rhetorical leitmotifs. Instead of merely claiming that Wagner’s leitmotif is a kitschy precursor for film scores, Žižek claims that what- ever kitchiness resides in the leitmotif Wagner created a proper artistic form out of what was simply excessive in previous composers’ works (“Brunhilde’s Act”: 16).

However important Wagner’s music may be, Žižek has spent the most time writing about the various elements of opera that are distinct from the music itself – libretti and staging. Žižek has described his approach in the same terms that Freud approached dreams – by treating the emotion- ridden music as edifice and looking for the truer meaning. Žižek takes the words and staging of Wagner’s operas seriously:

One should turn around the standard notion of the primacy of music in opera, the idea that words (libretto) and stage action are just a pretext for the true focus, the music itself, so that the truth is on the side of music, and it is the music which delivers the true emotional stance ... It is absolutely crucial to bear in mind what goes on on stage, to listen to the words also. (Brunhilde’s Act”: 11)

Wagner’s works are a reoccurring theme in Žižek’s works, beginning with The Sublime Object of Ideology. Beginning with his critique of Parsifal, Žižek introduces Wagner in order to explain a psychoanalytical concept, the symptom. In his reading of Parsifal, Amfortas’s wound, which is not only killing him, but also paradoxically keeping him alive, symbolizes the mechanics of the Lacanian symptom. The myth of the wound only healed by the spear that made it – die Wunde schliesst der Speer nur, der sie schlug (Wagner 1938: 470) – and Amfortas’s undead suffering state serve as a metaphor for elements of Žižek’s reading of both Lacanian psychoanalysis and the Hegelian dialectic. For Žižek, the wound represents the Hegelian Spirit:

Hegel says the same thing, although with the accent shifted in the oppo- site direction: Spirit is itself the wound it tried to heal; that is, the wound is self-inflicted. What is “Spirit” at its most elementary? It is the “wound” of nature: the subject is the immense – absolute – power of negativity, of introducing a gap or cut into the given and immediate substantial unity. (Brunhilde’s Act: 11)

And with the image of the spear from Parsifal, Žižek describes the Marxist notion that the situation causing alienation and class division in society also cre- ates the opportunity to end it. Žižek’s reading of Parsifal is heavily influenced by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s filmed version of the opera. The film differs greatly from the original staging, but one of the larger differences, which is often cited by Žižek, is the transforma- tion of Parsifal into a young woman at the end of the second act after rejecting Kundry’s advances. Žižek reads this transformation as opening a space for a post-patriarchal community or ceremony, effectively allowing the opera to be read from a feminist perspective. However, the influence of Syberberg’s film on Žižek’s reading of Parsifal is not a ringing endorsement:

The surprising fact is how similar these two versions are, in spite of their difference: Syberberg’s Parsifal is also over-filled with inconsistent symbols which lack any firm interpretive grid, there is too much of meaning which destroys all coherent meaning, so all that remains is the general impression that there is some deep unfathomable mythic meaning. (“Brunhilde’s Act”: 3)

In Opera’s Second Death, Žižek makes an exceedingly bold claim about Wagner’s works: “What if Tristan and Parsifal simply and effectively are (from a certain standpoint at least) the two single greatest works of art in the history of humankind?” (OSD: 104). Žižek views Tristan as the “zero-level work, as the per- fect, ultimate, formulation of a certain philosophico-musical vision” (OSD: 105). This philosophico-musical vision is termed by Žižek the Wagnerian Sublime, and it is represented by the “höchste Lust” (Wagner 1938: 347) of Tristan’s Liebestod – the annihilation of the couple into the Hegelian “Night of the World”. Although just as with Parsifal, Žižek finds the clearest expression of the true reading of the opera in a production that takes liberty with the staging. Jean-Pierre Ponelle’s version of Tristan portrays the finale as Tristan’s delirious vision, with Isolde not sacrificing herself, but simply returning to her husband. Tristan looks out towards the audience, with Isolde glittering in the background, representing only a masculine fantasy. Žižek divides the six operas after Rienzi into two triads: Tristan-Meistersinger- Parsifal and Flying Dutchman-Tannhäuser-Lohengrin – with each one of the different triads rendering some variation on the “obscure sexual death drive; marriage; asexual compassion” (“Brunhilde’s Act”: 19). Following Žižek, Wagner’s Ring represents an exception, with a possible way out:

The finale of the Twilight is thus Wagner’s critical rejection of the three options staged in his three non-Ring late operas: the suicidal abyss of Tristan, the resigned acceptance of marriage of Meistersinger, the psy- chotic rejection of love in Parsifal. True love arises only when one accepts the failure of the intense sexual relationship posited as the direct focus of the lovers’ lives, and returns from this abyss to the hard work of our daily lives. It is only against the background of this failure that a love appears which says “Yes” to all passing but no less sublime human achievements. (“Brunhilde’s Act”: 30)

Žižek characterizes the finale of Twilight as Brunhilde’s act. Brunhilde chooses freely to sacrifice herself. In her self-immolation she does not merely sacrifice herself, but “sacrifice is thus subjectivized, reflected-unto-itself: Brunhilde does not only sacrifice the ring, the token of her love; she sacrifices herself as object” (“Brunhilde’s Act”: 23). Just as Amfortas’s wound represented Žižek’s conception of the Lacanian symbol, Brunhilde’s immolation represents a Žižekian act, one of the centrepieces of his political theories.

Žižek, along with Alain Badiou, recognizes something in Wagner’s works that is worth examining in new ways that diverge from the standard postmodern criti- cisms. For Žižek, “the battle for Wagner is not over: today, after the exhaustion of the critical-historicist and aestheticist paradigms, it is entering its decisive phase” (“Brunhilde”s Act”: 3). Žižek’s critique of Wagner points the way forwards.


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